Empowered! Podcast: Meet Andrea Conners

Today, we’re extremely proud to introduce our first-ever Empowered! podcast. Empowered! will bring you conversations around topics that are important to patients and care partners.

For our first episode, we meet Andrea Conners. Andrea is Patient Empowerment Network’s Executive Director. Andrea shares a little bit about herself, about PEN, and her inspiration in getting involved.


Diana’s Story: How Connecting with Another Head and Neck Cancer Patient Saved My Life

Diana’s Story: How Connecting with Another Head and Neck Cancer Patient Saved My Life from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

After Diana’s cancer diagnosis, she was told that she had only months to live. But, after meeting fellow head and neck cancer patient Sajjad Iqbal online, Diana’s path changed dramatically and she is now cancer-free. Hear their inspiring story about the power of connecting with other patients.


Transcript:

Sajjad:                        

My name is Sajjad Iqbal. I am a physician and also a cancer patient. I have the honor of serving on the board of Patient Empowerment Network.

Diana:                         

I’m Diana Craig from Auckland, New Zealand.

Sajjad:                        

I was diagnosed with a gland cancer, which is a salivary gland, on the left side of the face. The actual histology was a salivary duct carcinoma. It was diagnosed in February of 2002.

Diana:                         

In January of 2018. I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma HPV 16 on my tonsil and soft palate.

Sajjad:                        

I do a lot of counseling for the cancer patients and mentoring and advocating and all that. And as a part of that, I have joined a head and neck cancer support group, which is based in New Zealand. It’s on Facebook. And there are some great people there who advise together cancer patients. Diana posted a cry for help back in May of this year, May of 2019, where she was just given the news that her cancer had recurred in her lungs and near her trachea. And her oncologist gave her a very grim prognosis and he thought that the medication had a very small chance of success.  

And he told Diana she had a few months to two years to live. Diana was devastated. She posted on that Facebook group, and I reached out to her to introduce myself, to tell her how I have managed my own cancer, and I told her that I could try to help her if she would be willing to share the information with me.

Diana:                         

Initially, I hadn’t heard of him before.

And I felt I needed to do some research, and I was told by everybody what a good guy he is, and to absolutely go down that road. So, I happily gave my information and certainly after the first conversation or interaction with him, I knew I was in good hands. Very much so. It was, to me, I used to call him my angel, my guardian angel, because I really felt safe and informed and encouraged. And his mantrais hope and determination and that is such a valid mantra when you go through cancer.

And it’s something that I said to myself oftentimes because it was so poignant, and it’s everything that you have to be and do to empower yourself and to be proactive, to find the best possible outcome for yourself.

Sajjad:                        

You know, as you know, I have written a book about my amazing cancer journey. The book is called Swimming Upstream. And a lot of other people have found it very inspirational. So, my story was not a whole lot different from Diana in this respect: that I was given a very grim prognosis back in 2002.

I was told that I had less than 30% chance of surviving for two years and I was also told that there was no five-year survivors with this cancer. And I made it my goal to beat the odds. And I used to say that in that case, I’ll be among the 30% and if no one has survived five years, well, I’ll be the first one. So, the hope and determination that Diana just mentioned, that’s my motto. Hope and determination. And I tried to instill that in Diana.

Diana: 

It certainly empowered me or put me in the right direction as to, I mean, I like to be moving, I like to be able to fight the fight if I know where to fight to. And also, know what questions to ask. I mean, when you’re in that situation, you are told how it is. And you don’t know what you don’t know. And unless you’ve been informed by somebody else or do the research yourself, and even then, that’s pretty dubious, because you stumble across information that you don’t want to know, and a lot of it’s scare tactics. But with his knowledge, with his background, with his first-hand experience of going through what we have gone through, gave me the confidence to do everything that he said.

Sajjad:                        

And I always recommend to my friends, other patients, that going to your oncologist about the cancer treatment is so much different than going to a doctor for your blood pressure or your bronchitis or so on.

This is an area where we need to be fully prepared. We need to go in and have a dialogue with our doctors who are treating our cancer and this is a matter of life and death. Literally, life and death. So, there is no room for just sitting there passively and just listening to everything and agreeing to everything. We must ask a lot of questions to our doctor. They should be, not only willing to answer our questions, but they should be welcoming our questions. So, if a doctor does not welcome your questions, does not give you plenty of time, does not explain everything that he or she wants to do, then that’s not the right doctor for you. And you’ve got to move on, and quickly.

Diana:                         

Where would I be without meeting Sajjad? I would have no hair at this point. I would be in the middle of chemo and probably K-truda. I don’t believe that I would have such a radical improvement so quickly. Because mine had gone after three infusions, which is nine weeks. So, I floundered the first time because I felt like I needed the help and I couldn’t get any. And the last time, I felt so much more in control, and anybody would think I’m a control freak. And let me tell you, I’m not. At all.

And also, being on my own, as well, I didn’t have a partner there to talk to. It was heaven-sent. And I said to him, “If I come out okay, I’m going to come and see you.” And here I am. Coming to see you. Because it meant so much to me. It really meant so much to me. It really did.

Sajjad:

Yes, it did.

The medical science is moving at an astonishing pace to find new medicine, new modalities, to treat cancer. We cannot be  – the patient must not get bogged down in the statistics of, oh you have this percent chance of survival, or this percent chance of death. Because those numbers don’t mean anything anymore. They’re old numbers. And to fight the cancer, we need our immune system to be involved in the fight.

If we get depressed, if we lose all the hope, the immune system shuts itself down, and that helps the cancer. So, number one thing is to always have hope. Always remain optimistic. And number two is determination. You determine that you are going to fight this and you are going to survive. And then, having those two tools at your disposal, become the empowered patient. Learn as much as you can about your cancer. Talk to other people, go to the support groups. And, again, let me plug Patient Empowerment Network. Go to our website, learn about the cancer. Then go to your doctor and question them and find out how you can improve your treatment. And that’s the way you fight cancer.

Just Diagnosed With Head and Neck Cancer: Answers from an Expert

This was originally published by Cancer.Net on April 12, 2018 here.

Dr. Kathryn Gold is a medical oncologist specializing in the treatment of head and neck cancer and lung cancer at the University of California San Diego Moores Cancer Center. She is also a clinical investigator, with research focusing on development of new ways to treat cancer.

What is head and neck cancer?

Head and neck cancers often start in the moist surfaces that line the mouth, throat, and nose. Most of these cancers are a type called squamous cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma begins in the flat squamous cells that make up the thin layer of tissue on the surface of the structures in the head and neck. Other rare cancers can develop in the salivary glands or the skin of the head and neck area. This post will mainly cover squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck.

What causes head and neck cancers?

Drinking alcohol and using tobacco increase the risk of head and neck cancer. Any type of tobacco use—cigarettes, pipes, chewing tobacco, and cigars—can increase the risk of head and neck cancer. Also, the risk of head and neck cancer increases as people get older. Most head and neck cancers occur in people older than 45. They are more common in men than in women.

Some head and neck cancers are related to the human papillomavirus (HPV). This is the same virus that can cause cervical cancer and other types of cancer. In general, head and neck tumors caused by HPV have a better prognosis than tumors not caused by HPV. Prognosis is the chance of recovery.

The most important thing a person can do to reduce their risk of head and neck cancer is to stop using all tobacco products. Avoiding drinking lots of alcohol also reduces risk. Vaccines against HPV can prevent the strains of HPV that cause some head and neck cancers. The HPV vaccine is most effective when it is given before any exposure to HPV. Vaccination is currently recommended for many children, adolescents, and young adults. Good dental hygiene may also reduce the risk of head and neck cancers.

What are the symptoms of head and neck cancer?

Symptoms of head and neck cancer can include:

  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Sore throat
  • Changes in voice
  • A sore that does not heal
  • A lump in the neck

Other, less serious conditions may also cause these symptoms. That’s why it is important to discuss any new symptoms with your doctor.

How are head and neck cancers diagnosed and staged?

If the doctor suspects you may have head and neck cancer, the first step is to have a detailed physical exam focused on the head and neck area. However, a diagnosis of head and neck cancer can only be confirmed with an examination of a tissue sample under a microscope. This tissue sample is removed during a procedure called a biopsy.

Imaging studies, such as computed tomography (CT) or positron emission tomography (PET) scans, are often used to determine the extent of disease, called the stage. Knowing the stage of the cancer helps the health care team make decisions about the treatment plan. Most head and neck cancers are staged using the TNM staging system:

  • T stands for primary Tumor: Where the tumor is, whether it invades other structures, and how large it is. T stage ranges from T0 to T4, with the higher numbers representing larger, more invasive tumors.
  • N stands for lymph Nodes: Whether or not there are any lymph nodes involved, how many nodes are involved and how large they are, and whether lymph nodes on 1 or both sides of the neck are involved. N stage goes from N0 to N3, with N0 meaning no lymph nodes are involved and higher numbers representing more extensive disease in the lymph nodes.
  • M stands for Metastasis: Whether or not the cancer has spread anywhere outside the head and neck area. M0 means that there are no signs that cancer has spread. M1 means that cancer has spread elsewhere.

The parts of the TNM system are combined into a single stage group used to describe the cancer.

How are head and neck cancers treated?

Surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy can be used to treat head and neck cancer. Often, many types of treatments are used together, for example, surgery followed by radiation therapy or radiation therapy combined with chemotherapy. Management of head and neck cancer usually requires a team of doctors and other medical professionals, including nutritionists/dietitians and speech language pathologists.

What are the side effects of head and neck cancer treatment?

Different treatments for head and neck cancer cause different side effects. If radiation therapy is recommended, common side effects often include fatigue, weight loss, and pain with swallowing. Side effects of chemotherapy can include nausea, low blood counts, and changes in taste. Some of these side effects, like nausea, tend to go away relatively quickly when treatment ends. Other side effects, like fatigue and discomfort with swallowing, can take longer to improve. Some side effects may be permanent.

It is important to have an experienced medical team managing the treatment of head and neck cancer. Many medical professionals, including nutritionists/dietitians, speech language pathologists, dentists, and dental hygienists, play a critical role in managing short-term and long-term treatment side effects. Counselors and support groups can be helpful as well. Rehabilitation will be a key part of the recovery process.RELATED RESOURCES:

Overview: Head & Neck Cancer

Head and Neck Surgeon, Dr. Namou Kim provides and important overview of what to expect with Head and Neck Cancer. (12:22)

Overall Health and Mindfulness Improves Treatment Response: An Expert Explains

Overall Health and Mindfulness Improves Treatment Response: An Expert Explains from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Sangmin Lee shares the benefits of meditation and yoga and explains how mindfulness can affect your overall health.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

How about this one? A positive attitude and mindfulness can improve treatment response.

Dr. Lee:

Absolutely. Absolutely. Treatment for leukemia can be tough. Some of the treatment involves intense chemotherapy. Treatment for leukemia can involve stem cell transplant. And a key important aspect of treatment is being healthy and being optimistic about treatment, because a lot of treatment can have side effects, and side effects can be not as apparent if you are physically more active, and in a good state. So, I think that having a positive outlook is very, very important.

Patricia:

Quality of life issues are difficult for some people. How do you talk with your patients about their quality of life, and staying healthy during their treatment?

Dr. Lee:

So, quality of life is absolutely important. I mean, the whole point of treating leukemia and any other treatment is not only to address the leukemia, but also have good quality of life. So, when discussing treatment options, you always have to balance the quality of life and side effects versus potential benefits. So, that’s always on our mind when discussing potential treatment options, and how it impacts the quality of life. Throughout the treatment process, we always tell our patients that being active, and having a good quality of life, and having good nutrition, is absolutely important, because that’s a key aspect of treatment for leukemia.

Patricia:

What about meditation and yoga for coping with anxiety around cancer diagnosis and treatment? Mindfulness.

Dr. Lee:

Absolutely, absolutely. Those can help. Especially having leukemia, it’s very life-changing, so a typical way that patients are diagnosed with acute leukemia is patients live a normal life, and then they develop, all of a sudden, abnormalities. And they’re diagnosed with acute leukemia, and it can be very sudden. And it can be very difficult. So, that can understandably make patients have anxiety, and other issues.

And I believe that meditation, and yoga, and other exercises can absolutely help cope with this.

Patricia:

And there’s tons of resources for meditation and yoga out there, that are reliable.

Dr. Lee:

Yes. Yeah.

Patricia:

Yeah. Should patients regard yoga and meditation as part of their treatment, as part of their self-care, during this process?

Dr. Lee:

Absolutely, absolutely, if the patients are into meditation and yoga. Meditation is very harmless, and it can absolutely help in terms of guiding their mind through their treatment journey. Yoga is good if you’re physically able to do it. So, one caution is that, if you’re not someone who does yoga normally, then you should start off slow, and not push yourself as aggressively.

Does Cannabis Oil Have a Role in Cancer Treatment?

Does Cannabis Oil Have a Role in Cancer Treatment? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Is it just a trend or could cannabis oil truly have a role in cancer care and treatment? Dr. Sangmin Lee share his perspective.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

The use of cannabis oil is becoming prevalent. Does this have a role in cancer care and treatment?

Dr. Lee:

Absolutely. So, we use it for a lot of side effect management. So, cannabis can be helpful, in terms of appetite and nausea, for example. So, we often use it in conjunction to manage some of the side effects that patients can have throughout their treatment.

You should consult with your medical team, and of course, I should say that laws differ state by state, so it doesn’t apply to every state. But when it’s available, it can be a valuable addition.

Patricia:

Sure. Discuss that with your physician.

Sugar Feeds Cancer: Fact or Fiction?

Sugar Feeds Cancer: Fact or Fiction? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Does sugar feed cancer? Dr. Sangmin Lee addresses the rumored connection between sugar and cancer.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

Okay, a little more fact or fiction, here. This is what we’ve heard from patients who have AML about cures, okay? Sugar feeds cancer, and severely restricting my diet will treat my AML.

Dr. Lee:

That’s not proven so far. There are some laboratory studies, especially with keto diets, showing some promise, maybe. But then it hasn’t been proven in humans, yet. The most important thing about AML treatment is actually nutrition. As patients go through AML treatment, it’s very important to stay healthy, and part of that is nutrition.

So, starvation, in general, is not recommended, because nutrition is so important, in terms of being able to undergo the treatment, as well as treatment visits, and everything. So, we recommend that nutrition is very important.

Are Clinical Trial Participants Monitored More Closely?

Are Clinical Trial Participants Monitored More Closely? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Sangmin Lee discusses the monitoring of clinical trial participants and the measures taken for patient safety.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

How about this next one? I am monitored more closely in a clinical trial.

Dr. Lee:

In some cases, it’s true. Clinical trials do have certain monitoring visits, in terms of doctor’s visits, laboratory tests, and physical exams.

The purpose of that is to make sure that it is safe. So, the purpose of monitoring closely, in a lot of cases, is for the patient’s safety. We are testing drugs in a lot of clinical trials, for which the complete safety profile, as well as efficacy profile, is not known. So, the purpose of closer monitoring is to make sure whatever we’re doing is safe, and if there are any unexpected side effects, then it allows us to address the side effects, as well. So, it’s mainly for patients’ safety.

Will Clinical Trials Cost You? The Facts.

Will Clinical Trials Cost You? The Facts. from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Dr. Sangmin Lee reviews the financial impact associated with clinical trials, including a discussion of what expenses are covered for participants.

Dr. Sangmin Lee is a hematologist-oncologist specializing in blood disorders and blood cancers at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York Presbyterian Hospital. More about Dr. Lee here.

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Transcript:

Patricia:

All right, how about this one: I may have unexpected costs if I join a clinical trial.

Dr. Lee:

So, typically, that’s actually, usually not true, because how it works is that the clinical trial drugs, and that there may be extra procedures or visits associated with clinical trials.

And what usually happens is that the sponsor of the clinical trial provides the cost of the drug, intervention, and anything extra that are required for the clinical trial. So, in the end, the cost of participating in a clinical trial should not be any more than receiving standard care treatment.

In some rare cases, there may be stipends associated with the clinical trial, especially with travel. So, if you participate in a clinical trial, and you live far away, then you should ask to see if there is any stipends available, especially for travel.

Barby Ingle – What Advice Do You Have For Someone Who Is Newly Diagnosed?

As the president of the International Pain Foundation, a best-selling author, and chronic pain advocate, Barby Ingle shares her advice for the newly diagnosed. For all our A Conversation With… videos please click here.

Barby Ingle – What Advice Do You Have For Someone Who Is Newly Diagnosed? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Patient Profile: Kirk Beck

Patient Profile

Kirk Beck

Prostate and Head and Neck Cancer

What is significant to Kirk Beck is not that he’s had cancer. He delivers his story with minimal detail about his diagnosis, his treatment, and the subsequent life-threatening complications he endured as casually as he might tell you what he had for breakfast. It’s not until his wife Kelly joins the conversation that the full impact of Kirk’s medical history becomes clear.

“He wouldn’t have lived to be 50,” says Kelly of the first time Kirk was diagnosed with cancer. They weren’t married then, but it’s not lost on Kelly that their marriage never would have happened if he hadn’t survived. “It was caught very early and he was lucky,” she says. What’s lucky is that Kirk’s prostate cancer was detected at all. It was the mid-90s and he was 44, much too young to have a prostate screening in those days, but Kirk had a friend with the disease so during a routine physical he insisted, despite his doctor’s protest, that he get tested.

That test ultimately resulted in his diagnosis and a radical prostatectomy. Through the help of his brother, a physician, he sought treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital where the surgery was done using the “nerve-sparing” technique — which helped prevent side effects such as urinary incontinence and sexual dysfunction. The surgery was a success, the cancer hadn’t metastasized, and Kirk didn’t require chemotherapy or radiation. “I got operated on and came home,” he says and in the 20 plus years since he’s had no recurrence or side effects.

He did, however, get another cancer diagnosis. This time he had tonsil cancer in October 2005. Within days his tonsil became extremely swollen. He had surgery the next month, followed by chemotherapy and radiation which was accompanied by a drug designed to protect his salivary glands from the radiation. This time there were complications. By New Year’s Eve he was back in the hospital and then again, after his second round of chemo, at the end of January 2006. He had what he calls episodes of extreme pain. “It was excruciating. Unbearable,” he says.

What he had was a blood clot, portal vein thrombosis, which is a rare condition to which he had a very rare reaction, and his small intestine had begun to die. He was unable to digest food and was vomiting a lot. His body had created what is known as collateral veins which were enough to keep him alive, but not enough to prevent damage to his small intestine. The hospital told Kelly that there was nothing more they could do. He was too high risk for surgery, they said. She was advised to contact hospice care.

“If I had listened to them, he would be dead. I just knew deep down this wasn’t supposed to be happening this way,” says Kelly, who instead of calling hospice called Kirk’s brother, the doctor, and got Kirk back to Johns Hopkins where they were able to save his life.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple. Kirk required intensive and careful treatment of his clot, continued radiation for his cancer treatment, and surgery to remove the damaged area of his small intestine. The process was scary and daunting and full of unpleasant details, but that is not what Kirk chooses to focus on. “If you look at it properly, it’s a gift. Not a penalty. Not a punishment. It’s an opportunity to reconsider your perspective on life,” says Kirk.

“It was a great experience. It might be strange to say, but its what I believe. It’s not something I want to go through again, but it was priceless. It changed my entire life and made me a lot more appreciative.” That is what is significant to Kirk. Not having cancer twice. Not having a life-threatening blood clot, but the living that he has done and the opportunity that these experiences have given him to help others. “I’ve been able to share my story and offer help to others that I couldn’t have offered without the experience. People knew I was speaking the truth. There’s no fiction in it. I try to give people a real and truthful perspective and that is invaluable.”

Kelly has a similar take away. She says the experience afforded her a new perspective, but also made her a strong advocate for patient empowerment. “Don’t always accept what they say. Be an advocate,” she says. “If you have a bad feeling and you are not getting answers, go elsewhere. There are so many places you can go for information. Take advantage of every opportunity. Having a good, strong advocate will save your life.”

In addition to his two bouts with cancer, Kirk has had a number of pretty considerable medical issues over the course of his 67 years, but he’s never let any of it slow him down. “Everyone has their own journey and also their own destination,” says Kirk who believes that a positive attitude is crucial to recovery. “You just can’t allow yourself to be destroyed by these situations.”