The Foundation for Women’s Cancer (FWC) offers a comprehensive set of free educational courses designed to support patients and caregivers that answers the question, “What do I need to know?” for a cancer journey. From the basics of “what is cancer?” to understanding treatments, clinical trials and how genetics play a role, to lifestyle discussions on sexual health and nutrition, these courses meet you where you are to answer the questions you might have. Available in a variety of self-study and live webinar formats, these courses are available for you when you need them. Additional downloadable resources are a part of each course.
What steps could help you and your doctor decide on the best treatment path for your specific cancer? This animated video explains how identification of unique features of a specific cancer through biomarker testing could impact prognosis, treatment decisions and enable patients to get the best, most personalized cancer care.
If you are viewing this from outside of the US, please be aware that availability of personalized care and therapy may differ in each country. Please consult with your local healthcare provider for more information.
Hi! I’m Dr. Jones and I’m an oncologist and researcher. I specialize in the care and treatment of patients with cancer.
Today we’re going to talk about the steps to accessing personalized care and the best therapy for YOUR specific cancer. And that begins with something called biomarker testing.
Before we start, I want to remind you that this video is intended to help educate cancer patients and their loved ones and shouldn’t be a replacement for advice from your doctor.
Let’s start with the basics–just like no two fingerprints are exactly alike, no two patients’ cancers are exactly the same. For instance, let’s meet Louis and another patient of mine, Ben. They both have the same type of cancer and were diagnosed around the same time–but when looked at up close, their cancers look very different. And, therefore, should be treated differently.
We can look more closely at the cancer type using biomarker testing, which checks for specific gene mutations, proteins, chromosomal abnormalities and/or other molecular changes that are unique to an individual’s disease.
Sometimes called molecular testing or genomic testing, biomarker testing can be administered in a number of ways, such as via a blood test or biopsy. The way testing is administered will depend on YOUR specific situation.
The results could help your healthcare team understand how your cancer may behave and to help plan treatment. And, it may indicate whether targeted therapy might be right for you. When deciding whether biomarker testing is necessary, your doctor will also take into consideration the stage of your cancer at diagnosis.
Right! My biomarker testing results showed that I had a specific gene mutation and that my cancer may respond well to targeted therapy.
Dr. Jones, Can you explain how targeted therapy is different than chemo?
Great question! Over the past several years, research has advanced quickly in developing targeted therapies, which has led to more effective options and better outcomes for patients.
Chemotherapy is still an important tool for cancer treatment, and it works by affecting a cancer cell’s ability to divide and grow. And, since cancer cells typically grow faster than normal cells, chemotherapy is more likely to kill cancer cells.
Targeted therapy, on the other hand, works by blocking specific mutations and preventing cancer cells from growing and dividing.
These newer therapies are currently being used to treat many blood cancers as well as solid tumor cancers. As you consider treatments, it’s important to have all of the information about your diagnosis, including biomarker testing results, so that you can discuss your treatment options and goals WITH your healthcare team.
Exactly–Dr. Jones made me feel that I had a voice in my treatment decision. We discussed things like potential side effects, what the course of treatment looks like and how it may affect my lifestyle.
When meeting with your healthcare team, insist that all of your questions are answered. Remember, this is YOUR life and it’s important that you feel comfortable and included when making care decisions.
And, if you don’t feel your voice is being heard, it may be time to consider a second—or third—opinion from a doctor who specializes in the type of cancer you have.
So how can you use this information to access personalized treatment?
First, remember, no two cancers are the same. What might be right for someone else’s cancer may not work for you.
Next! Be sure to ask if biomarker testing is appropriate for your diagnosis. Then, discuss all test results with your provider before making a treatment decision. And ask whether testing will need to be repeated over time to identify additional biomarkers.
Your treatment choice should be a shared decision with your healthcare team. Discuss what your options and treatment goals are with your doctor.
And, last, but not least, it’s important to inquire about whether a targeted therapy, or a clinical trial, might be appropriate for you. Clinical trials may provide access to promising new treatments.
All great points, Dr. Jones! We hope you can put this information to work for you. Visit powerfulpatients.org to learn more tips for advocating for yourself.
Thanks for joining us today.
This program is supported by Blueprint Medicines, and through generous donations from people like you.
Alexis Chase, PhD
“To be empowered you have to be open, to want to do it, and to accept where you are.” – Dr. Alexis Chase, An MPN Empowered Patient
Dr. Alexis Chase has had a pretty interesting life, but she doesn’t think that makes her unique. She says she thinks all women have interesting lives. Born congenitally blind in her right eye she was given the name Alexis Elizabeth Lucia Chase. “I’m very proud of my name,” she says explaining the origin. Alexis was the name of a doll her mother had as a girl, and it means protector of mankind. Elizabeth is a family name, and Lucia represents Saint Lucia, the patron saint of the blind. Her mother was a nurse and her father, who was the first to recognize she had a vision issue, had a degree in biology. She was very close with her parents who instilled in her a strong foundation in her Roman Catholic faith. While she was born in Connecticut, she spent most of her adult life in Georgia as a divorced mother who built a successful 27-year career in the prison corrections system. She worked her way up to warden and earned two PhDs, one in religious counseling and one in criminal justice and corrections. After her retirement she became an international advocate and consultant of gender and women’s rights issues that include vocational training, post-incarceration reintegration, and female prisoners with children. She has travelled as far as Afghanistan in her advocacy work, and she is also the proud nana to a cat named Nathan Edgar Chase. She’s done a lot, and much of what she’s accomplished, she’s done while living with cancer.
The first time she was diagnosed with cancer was in 1976. She was in the first trimester of a high-risk pregnancy when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her doctors thought it would be best to terminate the pregnancy, but she refused. She was determined to have the baby, her daughter, and as soon as she was born, Dr. Chase began treatment for her cancer, opting for an experimental drug that she says saved her life.
At the time, her parents, her desire to live for her daughter, and her strong faith gave her the support she needed. “They were right there with me,” she says of her parents who she is grateful to for her faith. “It’s my great equalizer. My rope of hope,” she says and adds that she can pull on her faith anytime and in any place. “You’ve got to believe in something greater than yourself because definitely we’re not it,” she says.
She’s had no recurrence of the ovarian cancer, but in 1996, during a regular wellness checkup, she was diagnosed with myeloproliferative neoplasms (MPNs), a group of blood cancers that affect the function of bone marrow and can cause a number of complications. In Dr. Chase’s case her MPNs includes iron deficiency, anemia, diseases of the blood and blood forming organs, and hypothyroidism. MPNs are chronic conditions that can transform into another blood cancer and can affect people at any age but are more common in older adults. MPNs are also progressive. Dr. Chase had no symptoms for the first four years after her diagnosis, and wondered if she’d been misdiagnosed, but in 2000 she says she just started to feel like something wasn’t right and that’s when her blood counts started to change. She began taking medication, but in 2020 it stopped working and her cancer team worked to find other medications and therapies to treat her.
MPNs are rare and she doesn’t know anyone else with the same diagnosis, but she says she has an incredible support network through her daughter, her friends that are like family, her church, and her cancer team. “They take great care of me,” she says, but she also takes great care of herself. In fact, she’s very meticulous about taking care of herself. She carefully takes her medications, and she makes herself a priority. She focuses a lot on her mental health and she stresses the importance of mental health for all cancer patients. She says she finds three ways to laugh at herself every day and she chooses six words every day that represent how she’s doing and to help her feel empowered. A recent example, “I feel surrounded by grace today”. Also, part of her self-care is taking the time to listen to calming and soothing sounds and inspirational messages and quotes.
She says it’s a blessing to have the cancer she has because she is able to handle it and it makes her take time to smell the roses. She’s handled it so well that during her career as a prison warden she never let on that she was sick. She managed to schedule her appointments around her work so no one would know. She didn’t want her illness to affect her career.
Always an empowered patient, she’s been known to walk out of a doctor’s office when a situation doesn’t feel right. “It’s important for people to feel like they are being heard and more importantly that they are being listened to.” She says “It’s also important to know what’s going on with your care. You know your body better than anybody.” Dr. Chase likes the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) because of the resources it provides to help others feel empowered in their own care. “I found PEN and love that I can access it anytime,” she says. She feels it’s important for patients to take charge of their own care plans. “To be empowered you have to be open, to want to do it, and to accept where you are,” she says. Her recommendation to other patients is to read, and comprehend, everything they can about their illness. “If you don’t understand it, you need to have someone explain it to you,” she says and also recommends keeping a journal. “We have to have something tangible. We can’t remember everything.”
While she continues to accomplish a great deal while living with cancer, it’s not always easy. “The chronic cancer fatigue, it will get me. I fight it because I feel like once I give in it would overtake me,” she says. She does experience shortness of breath and plans her days around her energy level. “It slows me down, but I don’t let it stop me. I push myself because I know the next day or the next day I won’t be able to.” Along with continuing her consulting and advocacy work, Dr. Chase loves to travel and hopes to go to Turkey to see the Virgin Mary’s house. “You never know what God has laid out for you,” she says. “I’m still here. I’ve been symptomatic for 20 years and I’m still here.”
Read more patient stories here.
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.
What are some of the barriers to clinical trial participation? What is a virtual clinical trial? Should my doctor be speaking to me about my clinical trial options? Dana Dornsife, founder of Lazarex Cancer Foundation, speaks to the key barriers in trials and how COVID-19 has really opened the door for a lot of opportunity to engage with patients around clinical trials.
Barriers to Clinical Trial Participation
What is a Virtual Clinical Trial?
COVID and Clinical Trials
From PEN-Powered Activity Guide V, beloved medical oncologist Dr. Bora Lim of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center walks us through what a clinical trial is, the phase of how drugs get approved, and how the pandemic crisis has amplified the criticality of clinical trials.
What is a Clinical Trial?
How Do Drugs Get Approved?
Will Pandemic Transform Future of Clinical Trials?
Clinical Trials as an Empowerment Tool
There are two ways to fight cancer, both of which are equally as important. The first is physical and the second mental. Journaling might not be able to help with the physical symptoms, but easing the mind can truly help in such situations.
By providing a safe place to store your thoughts and experiences, you will be able to find a great source of power. If you have never thought about journaling before, this might be the perfect time for you to give it a try. Here are some important reasons why this might be a very great decision.
1. Keeping track of all important moments
Some people believe that battling cancer is only filled with negative moments and experiences. While that is true to a big extent, there can be plenty of memorable moments that you might want to keep track of. The beginning of your treatments is a moment that you can write about and think about when this situation is over.
Other important moments might include family gatherings, important presents you might receive, very bad and very good days that stand out in your treatment course. Just because a day way difficult doesn’t mean it should be considered bad. At the end of this difficult journey, you will be able to look back at everything you wrote and remember the good and bad times.
2. Helping ease certain symptoms
Another great reason why journaling can truly help cancer patients during their treatments is because of symptom management. Research has actually shown that journaling can help with combating symptoms and dealing with the physical size of things.
Writing about how you feel and what you are going through can help you sleep better and feel more energetic. Getting plenty of rest will allow you to feel less nauseous, be in a better mood and battle everything with a stronger will. The more you face your symptoms, the stronger you will feel through your treatment.
3. Fighting against the stress
The stress that can be caused by such a difficult diagnosis is great and can truly affect your mood and outlook on life. Being under stress can make you feel tired, mess up your sleeping schedule and make you feel more negative about everything. This is not ideal for any situation you are in in your life and there are ways to overcome it.
Journaling can provide you with a safe space to write everything you have in your mind. During your treatments, you will possibly want to appear strong in front of your family and you might not want to share everything you feel. You can write all your thoughts in your journal and let everything out. This way you will be able to handle everything you face and feel a lot less stressed.
4. Reminding yourself of things you love
When dealing with any hardship in life, it is important to keep thinking of things that bring you joy. Journaling has helped me create a notebook full of memories, which I can go through any time I need some positivity in my life. You don’t only have to put words into it but anything and everything that makes you think of memories and people you hold dear.
In your journal you can keep stickers, receipts, drawings and cards from loved ones. Then you can write how receiving these things made you felt. When the days get difficult and you are struggling, open your journal again. Read through everything nice you have collected and it can help you remember all the reasons why this difficult process is worth it.
5. Seeing all the progress you have made
Last but not least, another important reason why journaling is so helpful during cancer treatment is that it can help keep track of your progress. There are going to be many days that will be hard and many that will be good and filled with hope. In order to be able to go through both, it is important that you keep track of everything new that happens in your journey.
The good days will help you remember that things will get better. The difficult days will allow you to live in the moment and work on staying positive. Journaling this experience can also help your family better understand what goes on in your head and how they can help. After you have successfully put this difficult period of your life behind, you can even share your story with other patients through your journal.
Battling cancer every way possible
Journaling is a creative and fun activity that can help you deal with certain symptoms and negative thoughts during your treatment. Even if you have little experience with writing, journaling gives you the chance to get creative. You don’t need any special skills in order to journal. You just need a notebook, some fun colors and a few thoughts in your head.
Through writing about your experiences, you will be able to express how you feel and let everything run its course. This treatment course might be tough, but writing everything down will help you see just how much progress you are making. This can truly help you feel stronger mentally and physically and overcome this situation like a true warrior!
Bridgette Hernandez is a professional writer and editor for Subjecto. She loves helping her audience find
new ways to incorporate writing into their daily lives in order for them to overcome many different
difficulties. This is why she often teams up with different platforms to help spread this exact message. In
her spare time, Bridgette loves to read and spend time in nature.
Getting a cancer diagnosis can easily be the most terrifying, heart-wrenching experiences one has in their lifetime. Everything from different treatment options (if you’re lucky), to financing, and maintaining quality of life suddenly are in full force front and center. It can be hard to know who to turn to if you’re not directed to a support group (of which there are many), and especially how to tell loved ones and co-workers. The choice is yours, of course, in whom you wish to tell and when – there is no right or wrong answer. (However, I and many others have found that having a caregiver to help manage appointments, billing, etc. can help).
Should you choose to tell others, here are some tips that I have read and/or heard from other cancer patients/survivors as well as some I have found personally helpful:
- It depends on the age – using simpler terms with younger kids (8 and under) may be more helpful, while older kids and teens can understand more detail. For example, saying that you’re sick and you’re getting the best care from a team of doctors who really want to help you get better
- According to the American Cancer Society, children need to know the basics, including:
- The name of the cancer
- The specific body part(s) of where it is
- How it’ll be treated
- How their own lives will be affected
- Think of a list of questions ahead of time that you think they may ask and jot down answers, such as how the cancer happened (that it’s not anyone’s fault), if it’s contagious, and/or if it’ll be fatal
- Make sure that they know you are open to talking about it at any time. You can also perform check-ins with each other to monitor feelings
Family and friends:
- Select a group of people, including immediate family and close friends
- Divulge information only you feel comfortable sharing. Maybe it’s the basics, as mentioned above, or more detailed information
- Prepare for different reactions, including sadness, anger, frustration, depression, anxiety, compassion, and support
- Also prepare for people to not feel comfortable and feel as if they’re helpless. A cancer diagnosis is a heavy weight to bear, and not everyone will feel like the have the capacity to help as much as they want to
- As the patient, tell them how you’re looking for support (ex. what are your needs during this time, including physical, emotional, mental). Guiding members of your support system to get your needs met may help them feel more at ease and able to help
- Telling a supervisor/manager may be one of the hardest tasks for fear of discrimination
- However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers employers with 15 ore more employees, prohibits discrimination based on:
- Actual disability
- A perceived history of disability
- A misperception of current disability
- History of disability
- The ADA also:
- Protects eligible cancer survivors from discrimination in the workplace
- Requires eligible employers to make “reasonable accommodations” to allow employees to function properly on the job
- Ensure that employers must treat all employees equally
- The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) also gives you the right to take time off due to illness without losing your job
- However, an employee must have worked for his or her employer for at least 12 months, including at least 1,250 hours during the most recent 12 months in order to qualify. The law applies to workers at all government agencies and schools nationwide as well as those at private companies with 50 or more employees within a 75-mile radius
- The Federal Rehabilitation Act prohibits employers from discriminating against employees because they have cancer
- However, this act applies only to employees of the federal government, as well as private and public employers who receive public funds
- However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which covers employers with 15 ore more employees, prohibits discrimination based on:
Carly Flumer is a young woman who was diagnosed with stage I papillary thyroid cancer at the age of 27. She recently received her Master’s degree from Boston University in Health Communication and received her Bachelor’s from George Mason University in Health Administration and Policy. While being diagnosed with the “C” word at such a young age was a surprise, as it would be to anyone, she found strength, support, and inspiration in sharing her cancer journey on social media. As a result of her health outcome, she looks to advocate for other cancer patients through education, research, and health literacy.
Building Resilience and Boosting Immunity
At a time when health is top of mind for everyone, despite the stressors, how can we ensure to emerge emotionally, physically and mentally resilient? Patient Empowerment Network Care Partner Manager, Sherea Cary sits down with distinguished guests, Sara Goldberger and Dr. Shivdev Rao to discuss building resilience and boosting immunity. Both experts define resilience, provide tips for boosting heart-lung health and provide useful tools for cultivating resilience.
Tips for Boosting Heart and Lung Health
Community Resources & Tools for Cultivating Resilience
Resiliency Checklist During the Time of COVID-19
Sara Goldberger, MSSW, LCSW-R, has been an oncology social worker for 30 years. Currently she is the Senior Director, Program for the Cancer Support Community Headquarters. She has also worked in hospitals and community NFP settings. She is a member of several Advisory Boards is a frequent presenter and author. As AOSW strives to continue to advance excellence in psychosocial oncology, Sara hopes to play a part in efforts to educate, advocate, develop resources, expand on research initiatives, and create networking opportunities so that AOSW can improve the care of people impacted by a cancer diagnosis.
In Five Simple Steps
These days, whether you’re spending more time there or you need a place to unwind after a long day, you need to feel like your home is your happy place. With the help of a few simple tips you can turn your home into your very own sanctuary.
1. Define your sanctuary
Think about where and when you feel the most comfortable and happy; then bring elements of that into your space. Whether you feel your best reading under a cozy blanket and low lighting, or painting in a sunlit room, consider your needs for the space. It doesn’t have to be complicated, says Professional Organizer Kristy Potgieter at KLP Organizing, LLC. Her philosophy is: simple is better.
2. Appeal to the senses
Sound, smell, and color can all evoke emotions. Play music that soothes you or makes you happy, use candles, oils, or incense to fill your space with your favorite scents, and paint your walls with neutral or calming colors. Even changing out your light bulbs can make a difference. Pink light bulbs give a warm, calm glow to your space.
3. Ditch the clutter
Clutter causes anxiety and stress so your best bet is to get rid of it. While clutter looks different to everyone, a good rule of thumb is to remove anything that doesn’t serve a purpose or make you happy. For the things you use on a regular basis, Potgieter recommends storing them in baskets and bins, which can be both decorative and functional. She also says keeping your kitchen counters clear is a simple way to make your home appear clutter-free.
4. Bring nature inside
You can place a vase of fresh-cut flowers on your table or bring in some house plants. If you don’t have a green thumb, a photo of the ocean, a wall painted green, a water fountain, some seashells, or a piece of wood are all okay ways to incorporate nature into your home. It can be as simple as opening a window and letting in the sunlight, which is a known mood booster.
5. Unplug from technology
You don’t have to ban technology altogether, but pick times, such as during meals and the hour before bed, to not use technology at all. Spend less time on social media platforms by deleting the apps on your phone and only using your computer to log onto those sites. You can also use the “do not disturb” settings on your devices to allow yourself some down time.
Whatever you do, remember Potgieter’s philosophy and keep it simple. Address the things that are most important to you and let the other stuff go. “The first thing I think of when making a home a sanctuary is really taking a look around and making sure all the things you see are things you love,” she says.
Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor who learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.
Resilience is our capacity to bounce back from the inevitable challenges of being alive. When challenges arise, our meandering minds can take us into various worrisome directions, leading to a host of negative emotional states and their subsequent adverse effects on our well-being.
Although we may not have control over the external factors in our lives or needless to say our genetic predispositions, we do have the capacity to cultivate inner psychological faculties that enable us to weather the storms of life with relative calm. For most of us, these internal resources are underdeveloped. They require intentional cultivation through the regular practice of actions that support their development. Among these inner resources are self-awareness, self-acceptance, and a secure inner base to fall back on.
What is Resilience?
Anchoring the Mind
Focusing the attention on the natural breathing process and body cultivates self-awareness and tends to have a calming effect on the mind. By doing so non-judgmentally, we accept the process as it is truly experienced. This is not an advocation of apathy towards our lives. To the contrary, by shining the light of awareness on our experience and accepting it as it truly is, we are given a clarity from which to make any necessary course corrections in our lives.
Awareness of Breath
Awareness of Body
A secure base is supported by continually returning our attention to our breath and body when distracted by the meandering nature of the mind. By regularly practicing the activities here offered you can enhance your capacity to bounce back and calmly weather the fluctuating trials of life.
Broderick Rodell has a PhD in chemical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University. His search for self-betterment led to his passion for mindfulness. He considers himself a dedicated student and practitioner of yoga including contemplation, meditation, breath work, and mindful movement. Broderick believes that through individual evolution we can all tap into greater possibilities within ourselves.
“There’s something to be said for not being a patient,” one of my doctors said.
“It feels so good,” I said during our telemedicine appointment, “to be away from the hospital for eight weeks in a row.” It’s the longest hospital break I’ve had since being diagnosed with cancer last summer. Before mid-March, I’d been to four to ten medical appointments every month. Being a cancer patient felt like a full or half time job. Because of the pandemic, I’m now treated by my oncology team from the comfort of my own home.
I don’t miss shuffling from room to room or floor to floor and sitting in waiting rooms for hours. I love not needing to ask for rides or take cabs or public transportation while my white counts are low. I don’t miss being poked, prodded, weighed, and measured or having my vital signs documented in hallways while removing my coat, wig, and shoes. I love not having to roll up sleeves for the vials of blood to be drawn or to pull down my pants so the doctor can put a stethoscope to my belly and bowels.
Because of the increased health risks at hospitals, new access to telemedicine, and flexibility around clinical trial protocols, I can see my oncologist, face to face, through Zoom. Questions can be answered ,via email, a text, or a phone call. Clinical trial drugs are overnighted to me.
I enjoy the time and money I’m saving and the convenience of getting all care from home. But I also miss the real-life hugs, handshakes, and high fives that used to come with seeing the clinical team in person.
Many cancer patients are losing jobs, homes, loved ones, and health insurance. For those newly diagnosed with cancer, surgery, scans, and treatments must be done all alone. Those in active treatment are often terrified of catching COVID-19 while immunocompromised. Others are afraid hospital visits will expose our family members to COVID.
It’s startling how much hospital protocols and procedures have changed. When I look back or think about what comes next, I worry. I hope the pictures and stories below capture what it’s like to be an oncology patient and how swift and severe the COVID-related changes over the last few months have been and continue to be.
From Person to Patient
My partner drove me to the hospital on the morning of my surgery. We checked in before 6a.m. and waited, with others, in the lobby.
Eventually, we were called up and walked, single file, through halls by someone escorting us to the pre-op area. Each one of us was assigned a bed (pictured) and a nurse (not pictured). The photo is of the pre-op area.
My partner got to visit me before surgery. He was there when the surgeon, nurses, fellows, and anesthesiology came to prepare me for surgery.
If surgery were scheduled today, my partner wouldn’t be able to stay with me.
The Shock of a Post-Op Diagnosis
This is me in post-op. My partner took this photo on his phone and was able to share it with my family and friends to let them know I made it through surgery. They were worried because it went hours longer than expected.
In the photo, I’m high as a kite and happy to be alive. I’ve just downed the iced coffee my partner snuck in (as planned and with permission from the nurse). In the photo, I am still in shock that my surgery was five hours long, it’s afternoon, and that cancer was found. I don’t yet know how serious my diagnosis will be. That will come twelve hours after surgery when the surgeon explains my cyst was actually a cantaloupe-sized cancerous tumor, aggressive, advanced, and usually chronic. Mercifully, my partner is with me as she explains that she had to do a total hysterectomy, removing ovaries, fallopian tubes, lymph nodes, and my omentum and lays out the timeline for chemotherapy.
My partner held my hand and crawled into my bed to hold me while I sobbed. But he provided far more than essential emotional support. He helped me stand and keep my balance, helped me get to my first trip to and from the restroom. He was there to advocate for me when I dozed off and to get the nurse when my call button went unanswered. He was the one who provided my loved ones with updates. He was the one who snuck my favorite health foods to help “wake up” my digestion enough to allow me to be discharged after one day.
It’s hard to imagine what that traumatic and challenging day would have been without him. I can’t imagine recovering from major surgery and receiving such devastating news alone but it’s what many diagnosed with cancer during COVID now endure.
At-Home Adjusting & Recovery:
Going home after surgery is comforting and scary. My right leg was giving out from under me because my obturator nerve “got heat” during my surgery. I had trouble standing in the shower or lifting my right leg onto the bed or into a car. I had extensive swelling and bruising on my right side and pelvic area and had a bit of a reaction to the bandage tape. I didn’t know what was normal. And after a phone call to the hospital, I was asked to come back in for a check-up.
Today, I’d either have had a telemedicine appointment or need to decide if an in-person visit with a medical professional is worth possible exposure to COVID. These are the types of decisions we are all facing but it’s especially scary when one is already vulnerable and fighting for life.
Early Treatment: Chemo Buddies are Not Optional
Getting chemotherapy infusions is time-consuming, scary, and intense. Everyone reacts differently to the many drugs given with chemotherapy (such as Benadryl, steroids, Pepcid, and anti nausea drugs). Everyone reacts differently to the chemotherapy, marked hazardous, that require the nurse to wear gloves, masks, and protective clothing to prevent contact in case of accidental spills. Some drugs make you sleepy, and parts of your body numb. Others make you feel amped, wired, and agitated.
Some cause nauseous, headaches, or allergic reactions, immediately and others not for days or weeks.
Having a chemo-buddy like Beth was a huge help. She was the one who asked for window seats in the infusion center, who made sure I got warm blankets. She massaged my feet and reminded me to listen to guided imagery. She sat with me in waiting rooms as we waited for my labs to come back to make sure my white and red blood counts weren’t too low, my liver counts not too high, and that the chemo was making my tumor marker scores go down.
She was the one who touched the elevator buttons for me, the one who walked me to the car and handed me off to my fiancé at the end of the day. She was the one who got me water, coffee, or snacks.
I felt safer whenever I had a chemo buddy with me and Beth would also take notes and make sure I didn’t skip any of my questions just because the oncologist seemed in a hurry.
Beth was not only a source of support but provided an extra pair of hands to plug in my iPhone, to hold my bags, food, or books. She was the person I could share tears, laughs, and heart to hearts with. She listened as I worried about my daughter, as I struggled to balance work and parenting.
She was there to support me as I talked endlessly about healthy eating, fasting, supplements, and complementary medicine. But the greatest comfort of all was knowing she would be there if passed out, fell, or had an allergic reaction to all the treatment drugs. At my last treatment, I was alone and Beth at home. It was hard.
In-Between Hospital Visits: Public Services & Personal Support
Social distancing during treatment is hard even for introverts like me who need a lot of alone time. When physically weak, short visits with loved ones who bring food, hugs, and gifts are life-affirming and life-changing.
Those who show up do so for cancer patients as well as our families. They help us to take care of our kids, partners, pets, plants, and housework. They help us manage as we face fear and loss, whether losing jobs or body parts, or hair and having few or no visits is hard. Today, barber shops where we might get our heads shaved are closed.
The wig shops and stores we go to for hats and head coverings are often closed.
We can’t go out to eat with loved ones, or do yoga on good days. We can’t have parties for our loved ones to create normalcy or new rituals. We can no longer go out in the public either. We can’t do things such as sitting alone writing in a journal and drinking a smoothie when swallowing food is too hard.
We can’t travel to remind ourselves there is still beauty and magic in the world and to enjoy our loved ones and lives as much as possible.
These are not all small things or luxuries in coping with the brutal effects of cancer treatment and chemotherapy. They can change the cancer and recovery experience and all that helps keep us strong.
We need others when we are sick. We might need help standing, walking, or eating. We might need rides, treatments, or blood or platelet transfusions. We might need help articulating symptoms and side effects. To have fewer in-person visits when so medically vulnerable can be anxiety-producing.
We also have less in-person celebrations with our clinical teams when we finish a line of chemotherapy or have a cancer-free scan. We no longer have informal pet therapy either with the cheerful and cuddly animals of friends, family, and neighbors.
I can’t imagine going to chemo alone, depleted, and with low white counts.
The increased risks, vulnerabilities, and lack of human company and tactile comforts feels indescribably epic.
Maintenance Treatment & Clinical Trials
My immunotherapy infusions (or placebo) have been put on hold for the past two cycles. I asked if I could remain in my clinical trial if I refused to come to the hospital for treatment until the risk of getting COVID is decreased. Luckily, I’ve been allowed to stay home. Clinical trial protocols, in general, are much more flexible as a result of the pandemic. My medication (or placebo pills) are mailed to me. Before March, in-person prescription filling was required and always took hours.
However, I’ve been weighing what I’ll do if I have to weigh virus-related risks against the possible benefits of clinical trial treatment. If I’m required to be treated at the hospital I may drop out of the trial. This is one of the many difficult decisions oncology patients often face but it’s made more complicated because of the coronavirus. .
Have Some Changes Been for the Good?
The losses, challenges, and changes are worrisome and real. That said, not all the COVID-related changes for oncology patients are bad. The whole world is wearing masks, staying home, socially distancing, and worrying about health, wellness, death, and dying.
Instead of being stared at when I wear a mask, I’m now in good company, because much of the world is doing the same. Many of us are consumed with health issues and worried about health, mortality, and immune functioning.
To be reminded, once again, that health and life aren’t guaranteed to anyone, that we are all facing mortality, and must appreciate every day we have, is strangely comforting. While I’m reminded of our collective vulnerability, to hear health concerns, risks, and challenges confronted as the world and nation’s collective concern is a reminder that none of us are being personally picked on for failing at being human, we are just, in the end, all excruciatingly fragile and mortal.
“I feel like I’ve been slow-dancing with death since last summer but now I feel less alone,” I told my friend Kathy. “It’s like others have joined you on the dance floor,” Kathy said. “Yes,” I said, which once again makes me feel like a person rather than a patient and there’s something to be said about not being a patient….
- The National Cancer Institute guide: Coronavirus: What People with Cancer Should Know.
- American College of Surgeons: (ACS) Guidelines for Triage and Management of Elective Cancer Surgery Cases During the Acute and Recovery Phases of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic
- Sample of patient visitation changes hospitals have implemented from Mass General Hospital.
- Telehealth at Dana Farber.
- Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Issues Guidance for Conducting Clinical Trials
When not recovering or coping with her recent ovarian cancer diagnosis, chemo brain, and the other treatment-related side effects, Christine “Cissy” White works as Community Manager of the Parenting with ACEs community on ACEs Connection and blogs at www.healwritenow.com. White has been published in The Boston Globe, Spirituality and Health, Ms. Magazine, The Mighty, To Write Love on Her Arms, Elephant Journal, the Center for Health Journalism, and ACEs Too High. She is the 2019 recipient of the Touching Trauma at Its Heart Award, given by the Attachment Trauma Network for her work advocating on behalf of families coping with traumatic stress from developmental trauma. White has led Parenting with ACEs, Parenting After Trauma, and Writing to Heal workshops and speaks passionately about the need for first-person perspectives and the power of lived expertise. Her survivor-led advocacy has been written about in The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and The Mighty.