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After lung cancer treatment ends, you will face a whole new world. Whether you are creating a survivorship plan or an end-of-life plan, nothing will be as it was before diagnosis. You will confront new fears, new opportunities to help others, and new social and physical situations.

Let us help you refocus your hope on where you are today and boldly face this new phase.

More resources for Lung Cancer What’s Next from Patient Empowerment Network.

Fertility Preservation in People with Cancer

This podcast was originally published by Cornell Weill Cancer Cast, on March 22, 2019, here.

The Empowered Lung Cancer Thriver and Expert Chat

The Empowered Lung Cancer Thriver and Expert Chat from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.


Transcript:

Laura Levaas:

Hello, and welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network program, the empowered cancer survivor and expert chats. I’m your host, Laura Levaas, the lung cancer community manager for Patient Power, and a two-year survivor and thriver of lung cancer. This program is produced by Patient Power. We thank Celgene Corporation, Novartis, and Pfizer for their financial contributions to this program. They don’t have editorial control, but we do really appreciate them helping us make this program happen.

So, our guest today is Dr. Ross Camidge, the Director of Thoracic Oncology at the University of Colorado here in Denver. He’s also one of the top doctors in the U.S. for the very type of lung cancer that I have. It’s a rare mutation called ALK positive. And hopefully he can talk about that a little bit more later.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

We can talk about that until the cows come home.

Laura Levaas:

That’s good. Well, I’m excited to be interviewing somebody who is in the same town as me. So, you’re right down the road.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah, and we’re doing it virtually. Isn’t that crazy?

Laura Levaas:

It is crazy. So, we’re both in Denver, but we’re both online. So, I hope you’re having a good day. And thank you for joining us. So, can you estimate how many lung cancer patients you’ve worked with during your career?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

More than 1,000, I would have thought. So, I tend to see about 30 people a week, of whom about two or three of them are new each week. And then you can do the math. And then I’ve been here…it’ll be 15 years in October. So, someone really clever with a calculator can do that calculation, but it’s several thousand.

Laura Levaas:

That’s a lot.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yep.

Laura Levaas:

Is there a case that stands out to you in your career? Maybe somebody who beat the odds of their prognosis, or somebody that had a very interesting or unusual case?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Well, you know, it’s funny. I mean, there are lots of people who I’ve looked after who’ve inspired me in different ways. But the ones that I keep thinking about the young patients who were diagnosed before we knew about all these molecular sub-types of lung cancer.

And I remember one young guy. He was 21 years old. He was really into skateboarding and art. And his parents were busy getting a divorce at the time. And it was a total disaster to have a diagnosis of lung cancer, and he’s stuck in the middle. And his disease was incredibly aggressive, and he didn’t survive very long. And somewhere in me, it’s like, well, he must have had something. He must have had ALK; he must have had ROS1.

And these things weren’t even described at the time. And part of life is about timing. So, nobody wants to have lung cancer. But it’s a much better time to have lung cancer now than it was last year, and certainly last decade.

Laura Levaas:

Right. So, there is hope for people who are diagnosed now?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Well, I mean, I think that the best example of that is, people who now have Stage 4 lung cancer, the questions they have to ask are, “Shall I go for promotion in my job? Shall I go on this fun vacation? Am I gonna marry this person?” The same things that we all struggle with before a diagnosis of lung cancer. Because there used to come a time when you got a diagnosis of lung cancer, and the same conversation at least that the doctor was concerned was, “You’re about to drop down dead.” We phrased it differently, but you get the drift.

And now, those are completely separated by an unspecified amount of time, in the same way that we’re born and we die at some point in the future, and we don’t quite know when that’s gonna be. And so, we don’t have the two things – “Hi! Mrs. Jones! You’ve got a bouncing boy and they’re about to drop down dead.” Now, they’re separated by life. And we are gradually increasing the distance between those two events.

Laura Levaas:

I think that’s amazing. And this is a good segue, actually, for me to tell a little bit about my story. I don’t wanna get too far into the weeds. But my story, I think it was unique because I had a threemonth prognosis, basically, by the time they got a hold of me. I’d been misdiagnosed for about a year, which is pretty common, I think, with –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah.

Laura Levaas:

– lung cancer. You know, allergy symptoms, some migraine symptoms. And mine was actually caught, oddly enough, during a breast cancer screening. Because my mother is a breast cancer survivor, and she was diagnosed very young. So, my doctors have always been really proactive about that. But my original prognosis was three months. And that’s before they knew that I was ALK positive. So –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

So, who told you that you had three months?

Laura Levaas:

It was –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

That’s what drives me crazy, some well-meaning person in the emergency room.

Laura Levaas:

Yes. And I think it’s because when they discovered what I had, I had 50 brain mets and 50 spine mets, and my brain was swelling. And they were telling my family, “We’ve gotta get her into whole-brain radiation right away.”

We found out about two weeks later that I was ALK positive. So, they stopped the radiation, and I went right into taking Alectinib, which is a newer drug. And it was approved by the FDA I think about three months after I started taking it as first line for ALK.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

It’s all about timing.

Laura Levaas:

And then it stopped – yeah. Yeah. So, it’s kind of – I feel a bit like a champion. Because they said, “Well, you have three months.” And that can be a real bummer. And it’s a real shock to friends and family and my boyfriend at the time, who’s no longer. But here I am, 26 months later. And I feel great. And nobody ever thinks that I’m sick. They’re always shocked to find out that I have lung cancer. So –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

I think you’ve done great. And you’re still doing great.

Laura Levaas:

Thank you. And let me explain to our audience how I met you. One of the things that helped me have a positive outlook on being diagnosed with lung cancer is, No. 1, because I have this mutation, there was a targeted therapy available to me. And so, within six months, all of the cancer ground to a halt.

And I was basically able to resume most of my normal activities. I could drive again. I could go out to eat. I could do some normal things. But a friend of mine told me that there was a Facebook group for my specific type of cancer. And it was so valuable, and it helped me sort of like find my people. I refer to them affectionately as mutants because we’re all mutants together. But we share information. And they told me about your second opinion program, which I hope is okay to talk about on –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Sure.

Laura Levaas:

– this program. But that’s how I found out about you. And you’re now my oncologist. And I’m in a Phase 2 clinical trial for a drug that’s new to me. And I’m very excited about that.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

You haven’t started it yet, have you?

Laura Levaas:

I have. I started it last week.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Oh, you started last week, didn’t you?

Laura Levaas:

I did. I did. The first couple days, I felt weird. But now, I feel great. So, for those –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah, that’s fantastic.

Laura Levaas:

– that are watching, just know I do think having a positive attitude will help you through those really tough times when you’re feeling low. Reach out to your sub-group. Reach out to the people who have what you have. Because they’ve been walking that path, and they can help you.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

I mean, I think that one of the things is – I mean, it’s the same like when doctors talk to doctors. You can do the shorthand. You don’t have to explain what you’ve got and what it means. You don’t have to explain to me that you weren’t a smoker. You can just sort of jump in and say, look, this is the stuff that’s happening with me. And they understand.

Laura Levaas:

Absolutely. Absolutely. So, I am going to ask you a couple of quick questions. And then we got a lot of audience questions for you. So, I hope you’re ready.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yep. Bring it on.

Laura Levaas:

Lots of really good questions. So, before we transition into those, I wanted to ask whether you have noticed a mindset shift? You mentioned right at the beginning that this is the best time to be diagnosed with lung cancer because there are options. But are you noticing a mind shift in your patients?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah, I mean, I think there is. I mean, I think lung cancer has gone from being – or let me rephrase that. Certain sub-groups of lung cancer has gone from being this kind of embarrassing thing, that you were sort of hidden in a closet, and nobody knew a lung cancer survivor because they didn’t exist – to now, I can show a room full of people and you can’t pick out who’s the lung cancer patient and who’s their significant other in the picture because everybody looks the same. And that, to me, is huge success.

So, I mean, one of the things we did last year – and I may have shown you the picture that we have up in the clinic – is we actually had a survivors’ celebration.

Laura Levaas:

Awesome.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

And to get your invite, you had to be at least five years out from your diagnosis. And we invited 400 people. Now, to be honest, we messed up the timing, and we sent the invites out about two weeks late. But we still had about 100 people turn up –

Laura Levaas:

That’s great.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

– which was pretty awesome. And we took a big picture. And it’s framed and sitting up in the clinic, for the simple reason that when you’re first diagnosed, you know these people exist, but you don’t believe they’re real. And I wanted to be able to come outside and say, “See that guy there? Well, he’s 10 years out. And look, he still looks fine, and he’s leading a normal life.”

So, I don’t mean everybody’s gonna do that. But it’s gone from being this fantasy – I might win the lottery – to, well, I might graduate from high school. I mean, it becomes a much more realizable dream.

Laura Levaas:

Right. Well, what questions do you think patients should be asking when they’re first diagnosed? They go to the doctor. They’re like, “You have lung cancer.” What should a patient ask?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Well, some of the basics are, what’s the stage of the cancer? How far has it spread around the body? So, usually, at least in the USA, people are getting a PET scan and an MRI of their brain.That’s the kind of standard bread and butter. I mean, 10 year ago, probably the most common thing I would encounter in the second opinion is somebody who wouldn’t have scanned the brain. They were waiting until someone had symptoms before they scanned it, which was like, well, you’ve lost a few neurons by then.

Now, probably the big thing is, have they done molecular testing? And I think the education has been, that’s not a uniform box. If you find something, that’s great. But if somebody says, “Well, you don’t have a mutation,” the next question is, “Well, what have you looked for?” Because if you haven’t looked for A, B, and C, you don’t know that that’s not there. So, the things that we test for have become more expansive.

And then the last one – and it’s hard not to say this without sounding like a complete jerk, but I’m going to do it anyway – is that the disease has become super complex and super specialized. And you don’t have to have all of your treatment with a thoracic specialist, but you should have a relatively early appointment with a thoracic specialist to just check that you’re on the right path.

Laura Levaas:

Good. That’s –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Those are the three things.

Laura Levaas:

Okay. Those are really, really good things to ask. I wanted to ask also how long you’ve been involved in lung cancer clinical trials in the development of new medicines?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Well, I’ve been here, as I said, nearly 15 years. I trained before that amongst other places in Edinburg, in Scotland, which is where I did most of my training. And that’s where I first encountered lung cancer patients. And it was actually probably the very first – so, you were taken round to different centers in your training. And I landed in lung cancer. And I really liked the patients. And I kind of felt that they were … they were very undemanding. Often, many of them had smoked, and they were kind of feeling a little embarrassed. And so, they made you want to step towards them because they were kind of stepping away from you. And I also felt that it was kind of poised for a breakthrough. So, that was kind of how I got involved.

And then since I’ve been here, when I first arrived in Colorado, it was pretty well known for lung cancer. But it had not a huge clinical program. I think when I arrived, they put nine patients a year on clinical trials. And within a few years, we were putting more than 100 on. So, I really helped to build that. And then with my colleagues here, we’ve been able to build the program.

Laura Levaas:

What’s the best advice you can give someone who is newly diagnosed with cancer?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Well, the first thing is, for those of you who’ve seen The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the first thing is, don’t panic.

Laura Levaas:

That’s good advice. That’s good advice.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

The thing is, what you do is, you get diagnosed. And there’s a period of time where the room – you just can’t hear anything, and you feel distant from it. And what you’ve gotta do is, you – absolutely, you can wallow in self-pity for a period of time. And then you have to get up and move on. And that’s when you say, okay, this is a problem like anything else in life. And I will figure out the best of all possible solutions.

Laura Levaas:

Absolutely. Conversely, Terry wanted to know, what is the biggest mistake patients make in decisionmaking about treatment?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Well, listening to people who say you only have three months to live.

Laura Levaas:

Yeah. That’s not good.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah. I don’t know what – I think perhaps believing that everything you see about cancer on the TV – which is everyone who’s bald and throwing up – must automatically apply to you. Or that that person down the street who died from a brain tumor automatically applies to you. I mean, so, cancer isn’t cancer. There are different diseases. And until you can find out, like you said, your peer group, you don’t know what the truth will be for you. And then you’re still gonna make your own rules up anyway.

Laura Levaas:

That’s true. That’s true. And I was thinking the other day, my needs when I was first diagnosed are very different than what they are now a few years later. Because in the beginning, I didn’t have coping skills. And I just didn’t know what to do. But you do develop them over time. And I remember a woman telling me, “Oh, you’ll figure it out.” And that made me really mad. But I see the wisdom –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah.

Laura Levaas:

Yeah. I see the wisdom in that now because you do figure it out over time.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

But how did you figure it out? How did you develop those coping skills? … Am I allowed to ask you questions?

Laura Levaas:

Oh, absolutely! Yeah, I think it was helpful, oddly enough, that I wasn’t allowed to drive and that I was in such a bad state. Because it allowed me to sort of withdraw from society for a while, withdraw from my work, withdraw from relationship drama. Because I ultimately ended up breaking up with my partner because he wasn’t capable of handling what I was going through, and he wasn’t supportive. So, all of the things that were familiar to me, like my job, my apartment, I retreated from all of that. And at the time, it sucked. But now, I’m like, that allowed me to have a perspective that was removed from everything. And I just –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

How old was your son at the time when you were diagnosed?

Laura Levaas:

Four.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

So, I mean, there’s an element of where you can withdraw from society, but you’ve got a 4-year-old.

Laura Levaas:

That’s right.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

So, how do you deal with that?

Laura Levaas:

Yeah. Well, I ended up moving in with my sister. Because at that time, I couldn’t drive, and I couldn’t take care of myself. So, I did rely really heavily on her. And their daughter is the same age as my son. So, they were going to school together. I relied very heavily on them, and I’m so thankful for that because that allowed me to just rest and heal. Because in the beginning – not to get too far in the weeds – but I couldn’t watch TV. I couldn’t be on my phone. I couldn’t be on the computer. Just no attention span whatsoever because of whole brain, I think. So, retreating from everything actually was good for me. And I’m also kind of a loner. So, I liked it, being alone too, oddly enough.

Good question.

I have another question from Christine C. She says, how long do you think it will take until lung cancer will be a chronically managed disease?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Well, I think for some people, it already is. So, I now have 10-year Stage 4 survivors who are still alive and still thriving, to use your word. So, for those people, it’s a reality. And I don’t know – as I said, people will make their own rules – I don’t know how long they will go. I mean, I honestly do not know how long I can control their disease. You just have to stay alive and in the game and hope that breakthroughs will happen.

Now, then the challenge is, okay, “Well, what about me? I don’t have ALK. I don’t have – whatever.” And you go, okay, well, so, everyone – we have to try and replicate the success of the ALK positive population with all of the other sub-types of lung cancer or the ones that don’t even have a label yet. And so, there’s plenty of work to do.

Laura Levaas:

Definitely. Leslie wants to know, what do you see in the near future for treatment of lung cancer? And she lists a couple of things like a fourth generation TKI, immunotherapy – a couple of things that I don’t even know what they are, SHP2, Protex, anything else?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah. I don’t know what Protex is, but I know what SHP2 is. So, first of all, so, the concept of the fourth generation TKI, I mean, I assume that’s because we have a third generation TKI and therefore, the next one must be called the fourth generation. So, I don’t know that the generations of TKI is going to be the immediate solution.

If I had to say what I think the future is gonna hold, there’s a couple of things. So, one is I think we can – and we’ll use ALK as an example. But really, ALK is this model system that everybody else with lung cancer might like to replicate. So, we’re really good at developing drugs that are great at suppressing one particular pathway that is driving some people’s cancer.

But the cancer still grows eventually. Usually now, with some of the drugs – like the one you’re on and the third-generation drug – is that they’re not growing because they’re turning back on the same pathway. What they’re doing is, they’re growing through some other pathway coming up. So, finding these other pathways, these so-called second drivers, is going to lead to rational combinations of drugs. That’s one way.

The other thing which is kind of the elephant in the room is, well we have these drugs. You have these fantastic responses on the scans. But if you stop the drug, the cancer starts to grow. And if you go back on the drug a week later, it’ll shrink down. So, you clearly haven’t killed all of the cells which are even sensitive to that drug. So, until we can address why we can’t get 100 percent cell kill – that’s a technical term – we’re never gonna deal with the elephant in the room, which is, why can’t we actually cure people?

And that’s a very different situation from, why does the cancer grow three years later? The question is, why, when you walk through the door and you have a great response on the scan, if you had a magic microscope, why is there still one in 1,000 cells left? And that to me is actually the horizon we need to look for.

Laura Levaas:

Okay. Okay. That’s a great answer. A few more questions. Will R. wants to know about a lung cancer vaccine.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Well, so, you could view that in a couple ways. So, if you think about how we use vaccines, we use them when we don’t have a disease to prevent us from getting that disease. We don’t really use a vaccine when we’ve already got the disease. So, if you’ve got chicken pox, I don’t vaccinate you for chicken pox. I treat the chicken pox. And so, lots of people are trying to develop vaccines, but they’re giving them in the wrong way. They’re giving them to somebody with an established lung cancer, and then they’re surprised that it doesn’t work. But that’s not what vaccines do.

The question is, could we find a way of saying, well, these are the people who are at highest risk for lung cancer, and give them something before they have lung cancer to reduce their risk? And the answer is, maybe. But if you can imagine, that’s a really difficult study to do. It would take years and years and years.

I’ve just come back from something called the World Conference on Lung Cancer, which was in Barcelona – tough life – but the biggest breakthrough there wasn’t about treatment. It was about a study that was actually done in Scotland about screening people. So, we’re pretty familiar with, if you smoke this much, you meet a certain criteria, and you go get a CT scan. But that’s no good if you’re not a smoker. You don’t meet those criteria.

So, they still have to look at a blood test. And they can show that that particular blood test, it wasn’t definitive. It wasn’t, you’re gonna get cancer or not. But it bumped up your risk if you are positive on the blood test to then make that screening even more effective.

Laura Levaas:

That’s awesome.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

And they had some evidence – loose evidence – that it might even work in never smokers. And I think that’s what will come in the future too. And then what if you identify this high-risk group? I’m getting all excited now – all that higher-risk group? Maybe then say, okay, well, why are they at higher risk? Is that the group we give a vaccine to?

Laura Levaas:

Right. And then how would you identify a non-smoker, high-risk group? Can you?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah, well, so, it’s a work in progress. So, one of the things that they’re starting to do is find some of the mutations which are driving people’s cancer in the blood. Okay? So, the problem is that the sensitivity of the test isn’t very good. So, you can find it when somebody has lots of cancer in their body. But to get the screening, you want to find it when there’s one little ditzel in your lung. So, you have to really turn up the sensitivity.

And I think that’s where the field is kinda going. So, they would know that if they found ALK in your blood, if they made a super sensitive test, that that would be wrong. Shouldn’t be there. And therefore, they would say, you should go get a CT scan. And so, the sensible thing would be, develop a cocktail of tests for every one of the things that drive lung cancer and say, if we find it, that’s bad news. Go get a CT scan.

Laura Levaas:

I like that. A cocktail of tests. Good. Well, hopefully, that will be soon. Two more questions. This is a really great question, actually, from Gail O. Is there a resource for local oncologists to reach out to for information and collaboration about lung cancer? Because as I’m sure you know, some of these smaller centers, maybe those physicians aren’t seeing lung cancer patients. So, they – I don’t wanna say they don’t know what to do, but maybe a patient is not getting the appropriate treatment protocol.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

I mean, that’s a really good question. So, it depends on where you are in the world. So, there are guidelines that NCCN, National Comprehensive Cancer Network – which is a common guideline used in the USA – is updated every few months. And that’s a common thing that a private practitioner could look at. And yet, it’s astonishing how many people sort of still don’t follow that. That’s a guideline. And the trouble with guidelines is, they don’t describe every possible scenario. In terms of how do you –? This may come as a huge surprise to you, but doctors have egos.

Laura Levaas:

No!

Dr. Ross Camidge:

No! So, how do you convince a person who may be a very good general oncologist that they don’t know everything? And that’s really hard. So, it’s not that we don’t necessarily have the resource. But we have to have people feel comfortable, if you like, asking for help. And I think that may be the biggest challenge.

I mean, I’ll give you an example. So, here we are in Colorado. There are probably several hundred medical oncologists in the state, of whom a handful ever send us patients for clinical trials. And you go, well, they must all see lung cancer. Lung cancer’s common. So, why do only some of them send people for clinical trials? Either they’re sending them somewhere else – and that’s okay – or they’re just not asking for help. And that is a huge tragedy if that’s happening.

Laura Levaas:

Yeah. So, is there a resource for local oncologists, like –?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Do you want me to actually answer the question?

Laura Levaas:

If it’s possible. It’s a big question.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

No. I mean, not in a – I mean, there are lots of separate resources. So, all oncologists are subject to CME, continuing medical education. There are videos they can watch. There are updates of all these conferences. But they have to want to do it. Nobody is getting down and forcing them to do it.

Laura Levaas:

Right. And I think that’s where an empowered patient comes in. An empowered patient will seek out the care that they’re looking for.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

Yeah. I mean, I do lots of second opinions. And for many of my patients, they’re around the world and around the country. And sometimes, their oncologist I form a very close relationship with because we both feel like we’re looking after the same person. And you almost feel like you’re kind of a co-parent. And that’s great because they don’t feel threatened by me, and I don’t feel threatened by them, and we can work together. “Well, this has happened. This is what the scan shows. What do you think? And I’ll do this.” And others don’t. But that’s how it can work well.

Laura Levaas:

Okay. Last question. This person’s name is Parentin B. I’ve never heard that name before. It’s very interesting. Are there recommendations about what patients can do themselves, like supplements, diet, exercise, etc., that could be helpful? And I know when I was first diagnosed, that was one of my first questions. Because my physician said, “Well, eat healthy.” And I was like, “Well, what does that mean?”

Dr. Ross Camidge:

What does that mean? Yeah.

Laura Levaas:

So, I think there’s a glut of, should we do Keto? Should we do Paleo? Should we go vegan? Vegetarian?

Dr. Ross Camidge:

I think one of the things is, what this is actually telling us is that when we’re diagnosed, we want to be part of the solution ourselves. We don’t want to be passive and have people do things to us. And I think the physicians who go, “Well, no. Nah,” I mean, they’re missing out on that need to take some aspect of control of our lives.

And so, some of it, you can channel that energy into becoming empowered and educating yourself about it. Not to the point that you’re obsessed about it, but I mean so that you’re, again – occasionally, I get patients who come in, and you go, “So, what treatment are you on?” And they go, “I don’t know.” And you go, “Well, you’re hardly taking control if you wanna change your diet, yet you can’t be bothered to learn the name of your chemotherapy. That’s not empowerment.”

I think diet is something we can all control in our lives. It can also make you – a diagnosis of cancer makes you vulnerable to anyone who wants to sell you any kind of quack theory. I think most people, at least our cancer dietitians here, would say, you bump up the fresh fruit and vegetables. You don’t have to become a juicer. But fresh fruit and vegetables generally make you feel better. They keep your bowels moving more, which sometimes, some of the treatments can interfere with that. You don’t have to feel guilty if you have a candy bar. But if you minimize the amount of highly processed food you have and the amount of sweets, that’s fine. It’s like anything else. You can have cheat dates. Don’t feel bad about it.

But all of that is kind of subjective. There’s people who are gonna tell you, you have to have cottage cheese and flax seed oil or the Gerson diet and have coffee enemas. I prefer my coffee this way, but –

Laura Levaas:

Me too.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

And there are always testimonials about these things, but there’s very little hard evidence that it actually makes a difference. The one exception is exercise. Actually, there’s quite a lot of data that being a healthy weight – so, not overweight, and just being active. It doesn’t mean you have to sign up for a triathlon, but just going for a walk every day or doing something actually makes people feel better, makes them cope with the treatment better. And there’s even some data that actually survival is improved. So, that’s definitely something that people can do.

Laura Levaas:

Well, those are all really good things. And I appreciate these questions. Many of them came from the ALK positive Facebook group that really helped me cope through some of my tough times. And there are some really smart folks in there, way smarter than me. Probably not as smart as you. But they –

Dr. Ross Camidge:

No! Way smarter than me! They’re all like nuclear physicists and things.

Laura Levaas:

I’m really amazed at the amount of specialized information that I’ve been able to find in these support groups. So, kind of winding up. Thank you, Dr. Camidge, for joining us today for – it’s a new program, actually, from the Patient Empowerment Network, but it’s produced by Patient Power. And again, we want to thank Celgene Corporation, Novartis, and Pfizer for their support, even though they don’t have editorial control. We’re kinda driving the bus. And we’re really grateful that you could join us today and answer all of these pressing questions.

Dr. Ross Camidge:

My pleasure.

Laura Levaas:

Thanks. We’ll catch you next time. And everybody, thanks for watching. Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

After Cancer, Ambushed By Depression

At some stage in all our lives there comes a time when feelings of sadness, grief or loneliness gets us down. It is part of being human. And after all, what’s more human than feeling down after such a life-changing and stressful event like cancer? Most of the time, we bounce back; but what happens when the blues stick around and start to interfere with our work, our relationships and our enjoyment of life?

Dana Jennings, whose writings in the New York Times about his treatment for prostate cancer, so eloquently captured the mix of feelings which cancer survivors face after treatment ends, wrote that while he was “buoyed by a kind of illness-induced adrenaline” during treatment, once treatment ended, he found himself “ambushed by depression.”

Jennings’ words will have a familiar ring to many of us who have struggled with that unexpected feeling of depression and loneliness that creeps up on us after treatment is finished. For some survivors, depression kicks in shortly after diagnosis or at some stage during treatment; for others it may ambush them weeks, months or even years after treatment ends.

What Causes Depression?

Depression is a word that means different things to each of us; people use it to describe anything from a low mood to a feeling of hopelessness.  However, there is a vast difference between clinical depression and sadness. Sadness is a part of being human; it comes and goes as a natural reaction to painful circumstances, but it passes with time. Depression goes beyond sadness about a cancer diagnosis or concern about the future.

In its mildest form, depression doesn’t stop you leading your normal life, but it does make things harder to do and seem less worthwhile. At its most severe, the symptoms of clinical depression are serious enough to interfere with work, social life, family life, or physical health.

Incidence of Depression in Cancer Survivors

Research shows that cancer survivors are more likely than their healthy peers to suffer psychological distress, such as anxiety and depression, even a decade after treatment ends. Although estimates of the frequency of depression in cancer patients vary, there is broad agreement that patients who face a disruptive life   event like cancer have an increased risk of depression that can persist for many years.  While most people will understand that dealing with a chronic illness like cancer causes depression, not everyone understands that depression can go on for many months (and even years) after cancer treatment has ended.

The Challenge of Identifying Depression in Cancer Patients

Some research has indicated that depression has been underdiagnosed and undertreated in cancer patients.  This may result from several factors, including patients’ reluctance to report depression, physician uncertainty about how best to manage it, and the belief that depression is a normal part of having cancer.

Several of the characteristics of major depression listed below– like fatigue, cognitive impairment, poor sleep, and change of appetite or weight loss—are hard to distinguish from the common side effects of cancer treatment. This makes it harder to tease apart the psychological burden of cancer, the effects of treatment, and the biochemical effects of the disease.

Are You At Risk of Depression?

Depression can occur through a combination of factors, with some of us being more prone to depression than others.  Factors such as a history of depression, a history of alcohol or substance abuse, and a lack of social support can increase the risk of depression in both the general population and among cancer patients.

Even if a person is not in a high-risk category, a diagnosis of cancer is associated with a higher rate of depression, no matter the stage or outcome of the disease.

Distress over a cancer diagnosis is not the same thing as clinical depression – it is important to recognize the signs and get treatment. The first step is to identify if you are experiencing symptoms of depression.

Try answering the following two questions.

Have you, for more than two weeks (1) felt sad, down or miserable most of the time? (2) Lost interest or pleasure in most of your usual activities?

If you answered ‘YES’ to either of these questions, you may have depression (see the symptom checklist below). If you did not answer ‘YES’ to either of these questions, it is unlikely that you have a depressive illness.

Depression Checklist*

(Tick each of the symptoms that apply to you)

  • Trouble sleeping with early waking, sleeping too much, or not being able to sleep
  • On-going sad or “empty” mood for most of the day
  • Finding it hard to concentrate or make decisions
  • Feeling restless and agitated, irritable or impatient
  • Extreme tiredness and lethargy
  • Feeling emotionally empty or numb
  • Not eating properly; losing or putting on weight
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the time
  • Crying a lot
  • Losing interest in your sex life
  • Preoccupied with negative thoughts
  • Distancing yourself from others
  • Feeling pessimistic about the future
  • Anger, irritability, and impatience

Add up the number of ticks for your total score: _______

What does your score mean?

  • 4 or less: You are unlikely to be experiencing a depressive illness
  • 5 or more: It is likely that you may be experiencing a depressive illness.

NB This list is not a replacement for medical advice. If you’re concerned that you or someone you know may have symptoms of depression, it’s best to speak to your doctor.

Depression – The Way Forward

It’s common to experience a range of emotions and symptoms after a cancer diagnosis, including feelings of stress, sadness and anger. However, some people experience intense feelings of hopelessness for weeks, months, or even years after diagnosis. If you continue to experience emotional distress from your cancer, it’s very important to know that help is available, and to get the help you need.

The first step on the path to recovery is to accept your depression as a normal reaction to what you have been through –don’t try to fight it, bury it or feel ashamed that it is there.  Think of your depression as just another symptom of cancer. If you were in physical pain, you would seek help, and it’s the same for depression.  There are many people willing to help you but the first step is to let someone know how you are feeling. Finding the courage to talk to just one person, whether that’s a loved one, primary care physician, or specialist nurse will often be the first step towards healing.

The psychological effects of cancer are only beginning to be studied and understood. In time, doctors will not only treat the body to kill the cancer, but will treat the mind which suffers the consequences of the disease long after the body has healed. When you’re depressed it can feel like you are barely existing. By obtaining the correct medical intervention and learning better coping skills, however, you can not only live with depression, but live well.

A Note on Helping a Loved One with Depression

Perhaps you are reading this because you’re concerned about a loved one who might have depression.   You may be wondering how you can help. For people who have never experienced the devastating depths of major clinical depression, it may be difficult to understand what your loved one is going through. Depressed people find it hard to ask for help, so let your friend or family member know that you care, you believe in them and that you’re there for them.

The best thing you can is to listen. Don’t offer preachy platitudes about things never being as bad as you think, or suggesting the person snap out of the depression. Our culture doesn’t encourage people to talk about their emotional pain. We’re taught to suppress our feelings, not to show weakness, to get over things quickly. Most people, when they feel upset, benefit greatly by talking to someone who listens with empathy and without judgment. Most of the time the person who is depressed is not looking for advice, but just knowing that someone cares enough to listen deeply can make all the difference.


*References: American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 4th ed (DSM-IV). Washington, DC: APA, 1994; and, International classification of diseases and related health problems, 10th revision. Geneva, World Health Organisation, 1992-1994.

Helping Seniors With Long Term Recovery: Tips For Carers To Make The Process Easier

Every year over 525,000 Americans experiences their first heart attack while around 795,000 people experience strokes. Of that number, 75 percent of them are aged 65 and over. Recovering from medical conditions such as these can be a long road for older people. As we age, so does our bodies and immune system and recovery can take a longer time. The process of healing and returning to optimal health can be a stressful and trying time for both seniors and their caregivers, whether they are patients that are newly diagnosed or living with it for years. By implementing simple changes, you can ensure the process is a smooth and easy one for either yourself or a loved one.

Arrange For Help Sooner Rather Than Later – Both Personal And Infrastructural

The days immediately after medical events such as strokes, cardiac episodes, and even falls can find older Americans feeling frail and with limited movement. Small adjustments to both their living environment and making help available can help them in those initial times. Standard additions such as the placement of bath rails and reorganization of items to a more accessible level can help them maintain some level of independence and prevent further harm. Slips and falls are one of the most commonly reported incidents amongst seniors in America. Around1 in 4 older Americans experience falls each year and in those times where they are in long term recovery, these chances increase sizably.

In addition to making your home accessible, be sure to plan with other family members or carers a timetable to be present and help, particularly in the early days after being released from the hospital or care facilities. This is also the point where you will need to consider whether you can provide the level of long term care that person may need and do so comfortably at home.

Weigh Their Rehabilitation Options- Care Facilities Vs Recovering At Home

Speaking of providing long term care, considering the best rehabilitation option is one of the most important decisions in the recovery process of an older loved one. While most of us prefer to age at home, in a place surrounded by family and comfort there are cases where care facilities may prove to be better medically and financially. Some stroke patients can suffer long term loss of their motor skills and require round the clock care and physical rehabilitation. This can prove to be along, tough road and requires much commitment from both the caregivers and the patient. One of the most cited reasons for families not choosing assisted living is its costs. Take the time to inquire whether their state health insurance covers senior facilities and the extent of its coverage. Only then can you align your budgetary reach and make a decision on what you can afford.

Don’t Forget Their Mental Health

Our physical and mental health are strongly linked; a decline in one can impact the other. In long term recovery for seniors, this is particularly prevalent. Approximately 15 percent of adults 60 and older deal with mental illness including clinical depression. According to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, 1-5 percent of the senior population are affected by depression. This can be further broken down into 13.5 percent of those that require home healthcare and 11.5 percent of those in hospitals. In addition, certain illnesses can trigger or worsen these symptoms including dementia, strokes and multiple sclerosis.

For those recovering, this can stem from long hospital stays or even PTSD from the actual event such as a stroke or fall. In long term recovery, there can also be a loss of motivation and sometimes, poor mental health can be influenced by a drastic change in their lifestyle such as regularly being active outdoors. It is important that we pay attention to both mental and physical recovery as they interrelate with each other. Think of ways to keep your older loved ones recovering (or in some cases, yourself) motivated. Account for small progress and celebrate them as targets. In addition, speaking to a professional or even confiding in a family member can be beneficial to them getting their thoughts out. While the way life may look may have changed, its new routine does not necessarily have to be viewed through a bad light. Establishing hobbies and a strong support network for senior citizens can prove invaluable during this time.

Words Matter: Why Cancer Isn’t a Game of Winners or Losers

Are you “battling” cancer? Do you know someone who has “lost their fight” with the disease and died?

It seems whenever we hear a story about someone with cancer, war metaphors are never far behind.  Cancer battles must invariably be bravely fought, won, or lost.  Using this metaphor implies that if a patient fights hard enough and/or long enough, he or she will be able to “win the war.” The trouble with using this particular kind of metaphor to describe cancer is it puts the burden of healing on patients by turning them into winners and losers.  As breast cancer blogger, Nancy Stordahl, writes in What Does Beating Cancer Mean Anyway? ”Struggling to live up to some gold standard of what beating cancer means, adds to the already exhausting burden. We need to stop patronizing and judging cancer patients based on misguided battle talk analogies. Cancer isn’t an opponent in some war game you can stomp out by mindset or determination.”

Besides, the battle metaphor takes no account of the sheer randomness of the disease. Using a statistical model that measures the proportion of cancer risk, across many tissue types, scientists from the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center published a study in 2015 which concluded that two-thirds of the variation in adult cancer risk across tissues can be explained primarily by “bad luck.” In other words, a major contributing factor to cancer is in fact beyond anyone’s control. For the most part, we don’t know why one person is alive 10 years after the diagnosis of advanced cancer, whereas another dies within months.

By this reasoning, no amount of fighting or battling cancer can affect its outcome.  Commenting on the study, the researchers said, “Many people have found relief in this research. Cancer has a long history of stigmatization. Patients and family members frequently blame themselves, believing there was something they could have done to prevent their or their family member’s cancer. We have heard from many of these families and are pleased that our analysis could bring comfort and even lift the burden of guilt in those who have suffered the physical and emotional consequences of cancer.”

Cancer is a disease; not a military campaign

Cancer is a disease; not a military campaign. In the words of patient and caregiver Jana Buhlman, “it’s a disease that people manage.”  Cancer is a complex disease. Yet there still exists a prevailing attitude to cancer which treats survival as though it were somehow an act of will.  You’ve got to be strong, remain positive and be courageous to overcome the disease.  Clodagh Loughrey, who was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago, explains, “I was absolutely petrified at the time, the opposite of strong or courageous, and to be also made to feel guilty for being scared by well-meaning exhortations to be ‘be positive’….people mean well and I didn’t want to sound ungrateful for the support as it is far worse (and easier for them) to avoid people with cancer, and some people did.”

What other diseases or condition do we say this about? “Do we fight a heart attack or a stroke? Are we told in any other illness to “keep fighting”? asks Jo Taylor, Founder of After Breast Cancer Diagnosis.   The fact is cancer doesn’t care how courageous or positive you are. Patients are in remission because treatment eliminated every cancer cell from their bodies, not because the patient fought courageously or was endlessly positive.  As a patient who is currently NED (i.e. no evidence of disease) I didn’t fight any harder than anyone else with this disease. I haven’t “beaten” cancer. I don’t know for sure that cancer will not come back again.

Cancer isn’t a game of winners and losers

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read about patients who are in remission from cancer, having “won their fight” against the disease. Journalists in particular seem incapable of writing about a person who has died from cancer without resorting to the “lost fight” cliché.  Julia Barnickle, who is living with metastatic breast cancer, points out that while she doesn’t like the term personally, “I have no problem with cancer patients using fighting talk. However, I do object to the media using it, especially in the situation where someone is said to have “lost their battle with cancer.” It’s simply a hackneyed way of grabbing attention.”

Does this imply that patients in remission have somehow done more than those who aren’t in remission?  Or that cancer progression or death from cancer is somehow an indication of failure – of not having had the ability to fight and defeat the enemy?  “It seems,” in the words of breast cancer blogger Maureen Kenny, “if you’ve got cancer you’re almost always seen as battling or fighting it, more often than not bravely. We never hear of anyone dying of the disease after a lacklustre, take or it or leave it, weak-willed tussle.”

Cancer shouldn’t be reduced in this way to a game of winners and losers.  Commenting at the time of the death of film critic Roger Ebert, Michael Wosnick, wrote: “The use of the word, “lose” is like a zero-sum game to me: if someone or something loses then that means that someone or something else wins. You can’t have a loser if you don’t have a winner. We should not so easily give cancer that kind of power over us.”

If someone has lifelong hypertension and dies from a heart attack, do we say in the obituary that they lost their battle with high blood pressure? Then why do so many deaths from cancer get reported this way? While it’s not quite “blaming the victim”, it does have an implicit element of somehow placing the ultimate responsibility for having died in the hands of the deceased.

When words blame

Oncologist, Dr Don Dizon, tells a story about taking care of a young patient with ovarian cancer during his first year as an attending physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. The patient had just relapsed from first-line treatment and in his discussion with her about the next steps, Dr. Dizon explains that, “despite the failure of first-line treatment, there are many more options for you.”

The doctor was stunned by the patient’s tearful reaction to his words: “You make it sound like this was my fault, like I did something wrong!” she said. “I’m sorry I failed chemotherapy, if that’s what you think, and I’m sorry I disappointed you.”

It’s a lesson Dr. Dizon has never forgotten, as he describes in his own words: “It was never my intention to place ‘blame’ on something so devastating as a cancer recurrence, and I certainly did not mean to imply that she had failed. These many years later, I still consider this encounter a watershed moment in my career as an oncologist.”

The “battle with cancer” may be “only a metaphor” but it stands for a quite destructive attitude that, to the extent it influences doctors as well, distorts the treatment of cancer too.  In a JAMA Oncology article, the authors discuss how “the continuous urge to win the battle extends to oncologists, who actively treat patients for too long. The fact is that 8% of patients receive chemotherapy within 2 weeks of dying of cancer, and 62% within 2 months. Late chemotherapy is associated with decreased use of hospice, greater use of emergency interventions (including resuscitation), and increased risk of dying in an intensive care unit vs at home. This all clearly reflects our society’s need to battle until the end.”

Embracing a fighting spirit can work for some patients

This isn’t to deny that some cancer patients embrace a fighting spirit as a way that helps them feel more in control.  Cancer survivor, nurse and educator, Beth Thompson describes how “identifying as a shorn ‘warrior’ psyched me up for and pushed me through treatment.”  Sara Turle, a 9-year survivor of cancer, also found resonance in the metaphor. “For me I was never battling cancer: it’s a disease, but I was definitely battling how I managed diagnosis and particularly getting through the side effects of treatments,” she explains. “It helped me to look at each stage and at times each day and even hour, at worst points, with a view of getting through, surviving and celebrating with just a simple acknowledgement. It truly helped me feeling that achievement and it helped with knowing that I was going to have to face it again.”

Professor Elena Semino and her colleagues have been studying the use of metaphors in the way we talk about cancer since 2012. As part of their research they have analysed 1.5 million words taken from interviews and online forum discussions involving cancer patients, family carers and health professionals. The team found that the type of metaphors people chose to use when describing their cancer reflected and affected how they viewed and experienced their illness. “For some patients, some of the time, the idea of being engaged in a fight is motivating,” explained Sermino. “Some people say with pride that “I’m such a fighter”, and they find a sense of meaning and purpose and identity in that. The study showed that we are all different, and different metaphors work for different people, and at different times.”

I agree. I’m not criticizing individuals who draw strength from calling themselves fighters.  Everyone is entitled to use whatever language they want to describe their own experiences. As Sara says, “My belief is that the right language is what is right for the individual person and I would hate to think that people who do find this language helps, feel that they can’t openly use for fear of what others may think. Whatever language gets you through is the right language for me. I am very mindful of when speaking to people now to be sensitive to the language they are happy with and these discussions of differing views have helped me with this.”  Beth agrees and asks, “Can we educate while still leaving room for what works for the individual experience of cancer?”

Wrapping Up

If you believe, as many patients do, that the words we use to describe cancer matter, how then should we begin to conceptualize it? Stephanie Sliekers asks a similar question in this HuffPost article, “If cancer really is the ‘enemy’, what’s the best way to beat it?” Her answer? “By studying and understanding it as it is, a disease borne out of human blood, tissues and genes, a disease that lives within us whether it is treatable or fatal.”

Perhaps, rather than speaking of cancer in militaristic terms, it’s better to communicate that we are “living with cancer” for as long and as well as we can. And when a person dies, let’s not say he/she has lost anything, but rather that person has died after living with cancer for a period of time.

Words matter a great deal in life, death, and everything that comes in-between. To quote Dr Dizon “Words are powerful and despite our best intentions, can hurt—this is true in life, and it is true in oncology.”

5 Ways to Have a Productive Day with a Chronic Illness

“Having a productive day is very subjective; what is productive for one person is not for another”.

Some days, I find waking up, washing and eating productive. Others assess,  I am being productive when I  do University work.  What I have noticed though – is we all have tasks that need to be completed and this can send us into panic mode. The vicious cycle, of where to start and where to finish has a ripple effect – like a child who got denied candy at the fun fair.

If you are someone sat there reading this with a chronic illness, I am sure you have an inkling of the cycle I am talking about. If you don’t well… I sit here, in envy.  What I am going to call the ‘ torrential storm cycle’ makes you question which direction to go in first.   Anxiety and stress are no strangers, crawling around your body, taking its toll , physically and mentally.  This post is designed to stop you in your tracks, so you aren’t continuously interrogating yourself about ability and self-worth.

“I spend 90% of my time in bed, but a chronic illness does not mean accomplishing your goals are not possible”.

Achieving those goals may just take comprise, planning and longer than you anticipated.


5 Ways to have a Productive Day with a Chronic Illness

1. Evaluate tasks ft. the spoon theory

If you haven’t heard of Christine Miserandino’s Spoon theory , it is a great place to start to help you have a productive day.  The theory in a nutshell, is that anyone who is chronically ill has 12 spoons each day (each one resembling energy) and spoons are exchanged for tasks.  The amount of spoons exchanged will depend on factors such as the length of the task and how strenuous. The point here, is spoon must be used wisely so you don’t burn out. By ordering tasks by importance you can identify what needs to be done on what day and start to put a plan in motion.

spoon-theory-e1510325926400.jpg

In reality, you may find executing a plan is not always possible. However, the spoon theory gives you a general consensus of how much you can get done in a day.

You may find – once you start having a productive day you are at the opposite end of the spectrum. At Uni, I get told a theory is just that a theory. I am taught to challenge theorists view. So it may not be a surprise to hear I wasn’t a firm believer of the Spoon theory at first.  I was so productive one day I felt on top of the world. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had completed an exam, handed in an assignment, found a job, booked a flight, travelled home from Uni and packed for a holiday and cuddled my little bunny.

Shortly, after this semester came to a close – I realised I used the reserve of spoons for months. I had to fly home 3 weeks early from working abroad, quit the job I found and was  behind in every subject at Uni. Barely, attending lectures and hospital appointments.  What I am trying to emphasise, is pushing yourself one day really can have a detrimental effect on your health.

“You need to work out what is realistic to get done in a day for YOU”.

 Which takes me to by next point…


 2. Break down tasks

 Breaking down tasks makes things more manageable.  Something,  I am training myself in like a disobedient dog. I am one of those people who seeks to think holistically to even do a task.  However, breaking down tasks can relieve stress, because you know you are achieving something – which has got to be better than nothing, right?

goal

I have found people have been more understanding about my illness when they can see that I am trying rather than wallowing in self-pity.  The amount you need to break-down a task will depend on its complexity. It may be a case of trial and error, but you know your body better than anyone in time you will have this down to a tee.

If it’s something academic, you could try and break things down with titles and research areas and tie the ideas together later.  You may not get the best grades you are used to due to time constraints.  However, at least you will pass and can try and work harder when you are feeling a bit brighter on future work. If the task is practical, like cooking, you could do prep at a certain time and then cook later in the day.  Or if you’re a little bit cheeky – ask someone to help you to make the task manageable.


3. Follow your Body Clock

Most people would say, sort out your body clock first and foremost. It may work, but it is something I have been trying to do for over 10 years. My body just likes to be up during the night. The fatigue and pain is more manageable after I have digested by one meal per day.

“To have a productive day you must follow your natural body clock”.

You don’t want to set yourself up for failure by taking a U-turn and trying to achieve tasks when your energy levels and pain threshold is low.

body clock

“Remember you can always move tasks to another day as long as you’re motivated to accomplish them”.


4. Relax… just not too much

Whether you have a chronic illness or not, everyone should take time to wind down.  If you’re fortunate enough TAKE a bath, or go and visit someone who does! Watch a comedy, listen to music or sit in silence, do what works for YOU. I am not saying you are not going to wake up still feeling fatigued because you probably will BUT subconsciously your body and mind is still getting a valuable break and you get a hint of happiness.  I find relaxing whilst doing a task slowly usually gives me the right balance. However, this may not work for everyone.

“Just remember, don’t relax too much or you won’t get anything done”.

bath.jpg


5. Relieve stress with a pet

Patting pets are proven to having a calming effect on humans (Rodriguez2012), which may help you to think more clearly and be more productive! It is ideal if you own a pet and go and give them love when you are stressed and they are in a good mood. If your pet is moody, trust me try hugging your friends’ pet or the other four tips AND come back to this one later.  When my pets are hungry they treats me like food and it makes me feel rejected and has the opposite effect.  If you cannot keep an animal, I suggest you look out for the nearest dog on your walks or go visit an animal shelter. That way you can have your rare day out, killing two birds with one stone.


This blog was written by Morgan Shaw and originally posted on her blog, Brains & Bodies, here.

Notable News: Chemobrain

Sometimes the most notable information isn’t the latest research or current news story. Sometimes what is most notable is what is most pertinent to patients and survivors. So, this month when a survivor shared her struggle with “chemobrain”, it seemed like something worth looking into. Chemobrain, also called chemofog, is something cancer survivors have described for decades, says cancer.gov. For months, or sometimes years after treatment, survivors find that they struggle with their memory, paying attention, and processing information. Labeled chemobrain because so many of the survivors had chemotherapy, the actual cause isn’t completely known. For many years, patients who complained about chemobrain were dismissed, but now, the condition is widely acknowledged by the medical community. The cognitive issues can be associated with treatment of many types of cancer, but much of the research is focused on breast cancer survivors. Studies have shown that 17 percent to 75 percent of breast cancer survivors showed varying forms of chemo brain from six month to 20 years after treatment. Further research is being done to understand why some do and some don’t get chemobrain and what actually causes the cognitive issues. Chemobrain is for real; survivors who struggle with it, know that for sure. More information about chemobrain can be found here, and a top ten list of what survivors want you to know about chemobrain can be found here.

Chemobrain isn’t the only thing survivors need to consider after treatment. They need to stay healthy to lower their risk of recurrence or of getting another form of cancer. According to cdc.gov, follow-up care as ordered by your doctor is critical, but so is making healthy choices. Healthy choices include quitting smoking and/or avoiding second-hand smoke, limiting alcohol consumption, protecting your skin, eating fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, staying active, and getting a flu shot every year. More resources for healthy living after cancer can be found here.

Healthy living, research continues to show, is also critical in preventing cancer. Researchers have found a direct link between sugary drinks and the accelerated growth of tumors in colorectal cancer, reports medicalnewstoday.com. The research, done on mice, will need to be expanded before the findings can be applied to humans, but the research does suggest that consuming sugary drinks can reduce the time it takes for cancer to form. More about the study can be found here.

While you may not have been able to avoid it in the news, there is something else you might want to avoid in order to prevent cancer, reports komonews.com. A study shows that chemicals, found in the weed killer Roundup, increase the risk of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma by 41 percent. That makes the link between the weed killer and cancer stronger than was previously believed. The studies concerning Roundup and cancer continue, and more information can be found here.

There are some things about cancer that we may never understand, such as who will or won’t get chemobrain, but research continues to provide information about ways to prevent cancer, ways to live well after treatment, and ways to lower the risk of recurrence, and that is information that helps and empowers us all.

Everything You Need to Know About Dating with a Chronic Illness

If you live with a chronic illness like pulmonary fibrosis, diabetes or Crohn’s disease, your dating life is going to look a little different–and that’s okay. Being single and navigating the world of dating is challenging for everyone, but it can be especially difficult when your life comes with complications like needing to pack medication every time you leave home for more than a few hours.

Finding someone who shares your interests and who will support you through life’s ups and downs takes time, so be patient and have fun. Whether you choose dating sites, singles events, clubs or meetups, putting yourself out there will help you find that special person who will love you unconditionally–even on your worst days. If you are single with a chronic illness, follow these tips to make your dating journey a little easier.

Be Upfront About Your Illness

Deciding when to disclose your illness to a potential romantic connection is entirely up to you but consider telling them about it at the beginning of your interaction. It can be difficult to open up about something so personal to a stranger you don’t know and trust, but it can help you weed out people who aren’t worth your time. If someone isn’t going to accept all of you and love you the way you are, that person isn’t worth dating.

If you are anxious about discussing your illness with a date, why not use technology to your advantage? Tell them about it over an email, text message or phone call. People’s first reaction when they find out about your illness may be shock or discomfort, so allowing them time to unpack that information before you sit down for a date can help you both decide if moving forward is right. Plus, by the time you meet up, they’ll have had a chance to let it settle and come up with meaningful questions they have about your illness and how it affects your life. Being upfront is scary, but it’s an incredibly helpful dating tool.

Highlight Your Best Assets and Don’t Be a Victim

You’re going to be just as self-conscious on a first date as anyone, so practice the best piece of dating advice out there and play up your best assets! If your illness has caused some weight loss or weight gain, go shopping for an outfit that fits great and highlights your favorite body parts. Experiencing hair loss? Try a cool hat or an updo. Figure out what you love most about yourself and play up those areas while minimizing the things that make you feel self-conscious. Confidence looks hot on everyone.

People are going to follow your lead when it comes to your illness. The more relaxed you act about it, the better they will feel about it. If you are sad about it, they will feel sad about it. Lead by example and don’t walk around holding up a sign that says you’re a victim. You’ve got to love yourself before anyone else can love you–with or without a chronic illness.

Be Willing to Adapt

Things aren’t always going to go as planned, so adaptability is key to avoiding some of the frustrations of dating with a chronic illness. You might have just spent hours getting ready for a date and then realize you need a nap. That’s okay. Sometimes your significant other may want to do something your body won’t let you do. It’s going to be frustrating at first, even embarrassing. But once you and your partner learn that plans will sometimes change, you’ll see that it doesn’t need to affect your relationship negatively.

If you have dietary restrictions, consider alternatives to the dinner date. We tend to have it hard-wired into our brains how a date should look, but quality time can be spent in many ways. Do something outside, enjoy the arts, see a movie and pack your snacks from home. Who cares if your dating life looks a little different than it does in cheesy romantic comedies? Life happens and the more willing you are to adapt, the better you can love and be loved.

Don’t Overdo it and Laugh it Off if You Do

Adventure sports or extreme roller coasters might not be the best first date ideas if you live with a chronic illness. Don’t pretend like something is fine if it’s not. If you have a migraine, you’re not going to have fun at a rock concert, and if you are miserable, your date isn’t going to have fun either. It’s better to be upfront about how you are feeling and what you can do than try to tough it out and deal with the consequences later. Pretending isn’t fun and it’s not a good way to get to know someone.

When you do find yourself in a less-than-ideal situation, remember to laugh it off. You’re going to fall sometimes or need to sneak away to give yourself medication or treatment in an awkward way. Don’t take it too seriously. There are many circumstances you go through with a chronic illness that are silly and it’s best to laugh about them rather than make them a big deal.

 

Recognize When They Aren’t Worth Your Time

Some people just don’t have what it takes to handle someone’s health issue. Some people lack empathy or don’t have the willingness to nurture others. If someone is insensitive, rude, describes you as “difficult” or their lifestyle contradicts yours, you need to let them go. People who are worth your time and energy as a friend, let alone a potential romantic partner, will understand that you have good days and bad. They won’t ever fully understand what you go through, but they’ll want to try. They’ll be respectful, supportive and loving.

Remember You Are Worthy of Love

Don’t define yourself and your personality by your illness. You are a person, first and foremost, who happens to be sick. When you stop thinking of yourself as an illness, others will, too. You may have certain limits in life, but that doesn’t make you less worthy or capable of love. Not by a long shot.

 

Tips on Finding a New Job or Changing Career after Cancer Treatment

In this three-part series, I’ve been exploring different aspects of returning (or continuing) to work after a cancer diagnosis. So far I’ve tackled issues from preparing to return to work and handling your workload, to dealing with problems such as fatigue and concentration.  In the final part of this series, I’m turning my attention to finding a new job after cancer treatment has ended.

There are a number of reasons why you might be looking for a new job after cancer. Perhaps you crave a fresh start, somewhere where you’re not known as the co-worker with cancer.  Or perhaps you need more work flexibility – such as the option to work part-time –  but your current employer isn’t in a position to make the adjustments you need. Or maybe you want to change career, switching direction towards something more meaningful and fulfilling.

Whether you’re looking for a new job or considering a new career direction, this month’s article has plenty of practical advice to help you.

1. Get Clarity on Your Direction

A good place to start is by getting clear on your new goals, financial needs and current skills and abilities. Grab a pen and some paper and take some time thinking about your responses to the following questions.

  • What are my core skills and strengths? Am I using them to their fullest in my current (or previous) job? Which skills and interests from my previous jobs will transfer over to a new position or field?
  • What new insights or skills have I gained through cancer? Do I want to be able to use these in my job?
  • Have my career goals changed? Do I want to work in a similar job but with more work-life balance? Or do I want to try something new?
  • Do I have the required skills for a new career interest? Will I need to retrain? How will this impact me financially?
  • Do I have the stamina to take on something new? Do I need to consider the impact of any long term side-effects from treatment on my ability to work?

2. Update Your Resume

The next step is to get your resume in order.  If it’s been several years since you last applied for a job, you may need to take into account that resume writing has changed quite a bit in the past decade. For example, the chronologically based resume (listing job titles, companies and dates in chronological order), while still popular, is giving way to a more dynamic skills-based one.   This is good news if you want to work around a gap in your employment history.  For a skills-based resume, you will create a relevant summary of your skills, career accomplishments and career goals and position this directly below your name.  You should aim to provide an example of an area of accomplishment related to each specific skill.

Pro Tip: When it comes to including employment dates, don’t include months in the dates, only years. This helps narrow the work gaps.

3. Develop Your Network

Make a list of everyone you know who is currently working in your industry or the industry you’d like to be in. Take a strategic approach by setting achievable goals for the number of people you want to connect with every week. Reach out to them and tell them about your plans to find new work or change career direction. Ask them to keep you updated of any new job openings and leads. Hiring managers are more willing to consider you for an interview after a personal recommendation.

Pro Tip: When it comes to building your professional network there’s no better tool than LinkedIn. LinkedIn multiplies your existing personal and professional networks by making the connections of your connections available to you at the touch of a digital finger.

4. Optimize Your LinkedIn Profile

Your LinkedIn profile is the cornerstone of your professional brand online. While you may already have a profile on the platform, is it optimized for a job search?   LinkedIn profile optimization simply means that your LinkedIn profile is fully updated to maximize your visibility on the platform. Everything you do on LinkedIn begins with your profile. Yet many professionals still treat their LinkedIn profile as little more than a place to park their resume and promptly forget about it.

You won’t be effective at LinkedIn networking if your profile doesn’t entice people to get to know you. Here are some quick tips to optimize your profile (for a step-by-step guide with more detailed information, click here).

  • Make your first visual impression count by displaying a high-quality professional photo.
  • Adding a background image directly behind your photo will help brand your profile. Think of it as your professional billboard.
  • Create a strong professional headline. This is a critical step because your professional headline is not just highly visible on LinkedIn, it’s also searchable by Google.
  • Nurture your LinkedIn relationships through regular engagement. This is not about making large numbers of contacts; rather, it’s about making meaningful connections.
  • Join industry relevant groups. Job openings are often posted by recruiters in industry groups. You will find groups by clicking on Interests > Groups from your profile or searching keywords to identify groups with interests similar to yours.
  • Become an active and engaged user. When you log into LinkedIn, notice each time who shows up in your home feed. Most likely you will see the same few people. These individuals are getting more visibility because they are more active. If you make the commitment to become more active in your network, you will increase your visibility
  • Be strategic about when you’re active on LinkedIn. As a general rule, LinkedIn users are most active right before and after work (7–8 am and 5– 6 pm), as well as during lunch time.

Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to use social media to your advantage: if you know the hiring manager’s or recruiter’s name, add them on LinkedIn.

5. Mind Your Digital Footprint

Employers are increasingly carrying out social media checks on prospective employees. Anticipate this by googling yourself to see what turns up.  Here is where a professional profile on LinkedIn can be enormously helpful to present the best impression. Because of the way Google’s search algorithm works, an optimized LinkedIn profile will frequently show up in the first few places of a Google search for your name.

While LinkedIn is an asset, other forms of social media may harm your search for a new job. Sharing personal information about your treatment through a blog, Instagram, Twitter or Facebook is publicly searchable by potential employers.  Many of us turn to social media sites and blogs to keep our families and friends updated on our progress and to seek support during cancer treatment.  But when your focus returns to work, you may not want your employer or prospective employer to know of your cancer history.

Pro Tip: Take some proactive steps to protect your privacy online.  Set privacy settings on things like Facebook so that nothing can be seen by people who aren’t “friends” (including pages you are a fan of – an often forgotten detail). Delete what you can from your postings on Facebook and other media that talk about your cancer. Set up a Google Alert to monitor mentions for your name.

6. Handling the Job Interview

A job interview is stressful at the best of times, but when you’re anxious about handling the question of cancer, it’s doubly so. Sixty-one percent of cancer survivors looking for a job said they fear disclosing their cancer diagnosis will negatively affect their chances of getting hired.

Rehearsing what you plan on saying ahead of time greatly reduces any anxiety you may feel. The more prepared you are before the interview, the more relaxed and at ease you will appear during the interview. Draw up a list of potential questions and practice your answers.  Accentuate the positive. For now, put aside your worries about how to explain the gap in your resume and spend some time focusing on why you are the right person for the specific job that you are applying for. List at least ten great qualities and skills you have and ask friends and family to help you brainstorm more. Try to find a willing friend or family member who will role-play the interview with you.

Remember you don’t have to disclose your cancer history either on your application or during an interview. The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits employers from asking job applicants about a disability (this includes cancer) before offering them the job.  However, you may decide you want to be upfront about a work-related absence. If this is the case, you can deal with it by briefly explaining you had some time off work for a health (or family) related reason, but that’s behind you and you’re now looking forward to re-joining the workforce. Keep it simple, stick to one sentence or two and don’t be tempted to digress. Then switch the direction of the questioning back to your skills and qualifications for the job.

Pro Tip: Do your research before going into an interview. By showing off your knowledge of both the company and the industry, you are conveying to the interviewer that you are still up-to-date even if you have been absent from work for a period of time.

7. Considering a Career Change

Cancer changes your outlook on life.  Alongside an increased awareness of the preciousness of time, you may also have decreased tolerance for spending time on meaningless tasks. Many cancer survivors, my own self included, have felt a calling for more meaningful work after their treatment has ended.    I’d like to finish this back-to-work series by sharing the stories of three such people who have used their cancer experience as a way to help others and forged new careers in the process.

Jennifer Elliott was a pre-kindergarten to elementary school age music teacher before being diagnosed with bilateral synchronous breast cancer in 2014. Since her diagnosis, her focus has shifted to patient advocacy.  “My advocacy began when I realized that my access to industry trained people, thanks to where I live and who my friends are, was impacting my care in a positive way,” said Jennifer.   “That made me angry, because we should all have equal access to quality care.  I’m now applying to graduate degree programs in public policy because, as I’m advocating for breast cancer survivors I’ve learned that all the things I’m advocating for are impacted or dictated by policy and if I want to have the broadest impact I need some policy skills and training.”

Terri Coutee was focused on a life-long dream of completing a Master’s program in teacher leadership when she received news of her second breast cancer diagnosis. “The diagnosis was the catalyst to evaluate my professional career,” explained Terri.  “I had to focus on my treatment and major surgery over a period of seven months. This gave me time to re-evaluate, research, and refocus. I learned less than 25% of women and men were not being given their options for breast reconstruction after mastectomy. As a life-long educator, I realized I could educate those affected by breast cancer and learn from my experience. A blog about my successful breast reconstruction experience led to opening a non-profit Foundation to educate a global audience through social media, attending medical conferences, and making as many personal connections as I could to assist others through their own journey. The need is endless because we haven’t found a cure for breast cancer, yet. Until we do, I will continue to educate and provide resources for the very best medical care for others faced with mastectomy.”

At the age of 51, Chris Lewis wasn’t looking for a career change. “I was working for myself and was at the peak of my earning power,” he said. “Then a poor prognosis of incurable blood cancer and my life was turned upside down. I have since had many years of complex treatment meaning I could not return to employment of any description. As my survivorship moved from months to years I needed a purpose. My body was in bad shape but I still had a business mind.”

Unhappy at the poor resources and help for people living with cancer, Chris took to the Internet to voice his displeasure, leading to him running his own successful website Chris’s Cancer Community.  “This led to me becoming a global expert speaker and writer”, said Chris. “I am self-taught in social media and an award winning writer. As a patient advocate I speak at many high profile conferences. Cancer has taken a lot from me, but has shown me a new way of life I would never have experienced. The big bonus is the incredible people I get to meet and talk to daily. It seems even at my age I have found a new career!”

 

Returning To Work During or After Cancer Treatment: Part 2

This is the second part of a three-part series which deals with common concerns on returning to work after a cancer diagnosis.

In Part 1 of this series, I shared some tips with you on how to prepare for your re-entry into the workplace. In this article we will look at practical ways to handle issues such as fatigue and concentration, managing your workload, and dealing with stress.

Let’s start with some tips on coping with fatigue as it’s probably the biggest challenge you will face, regardless of whether you are working during treatment or returning to work after treatment has ended.

Coping With Cancer-Related Fatigue

Cancer-related fatigue (CRF) is increasingly recognized as one of the most common and distressing side effects of cancer and its treatments. It has been estimated that from one quarter to nearly all cancer patients experience CRF during and after treatment.  Although things generally improves after therapy is completed, some level of fatigue may persist for months, or even years, following treatment.

Commenting on the impact of CRF on her own work, Kate Bowles, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2013, says, “The main advice I give is that chemo related fatigue is real and lasting. And also that your priorities change, often in very empowering ways. I am very calm in my job, because I really know now that it’s just a job.”

A lot of cancer patients don’t report fatigue to their doctors because they think that nothing can be done for it. In fact, there are things that can be done to alleviate the debilitating effects of CRF.  If left untreated, fatigue may lead to depression and profoundly diminish your quality of life, so it’s important that you speak to your doctor if fatigue is an issue for you. Before you can address CRF specifically, your doctor needs to determine if there are any underlying medical issues which may be contributing to your fatigue.

Making some adjustments to your everyday routines can also help you cope with CRF.

Here are three ways to do this.

1. Make deposits in your ‘energy bank’

You may find it helpful to think of your energy reserves as your ‘energy bank’. Whenever you do an activity you make a withdrawal. And when you rest you make a deposit. It’s important to balance withdrawals with deposits. If you keep doing too much whenever you feel like you have energy, you’ll run out completely and not have any reserves left for the things that are important.

2. Plan your day

Planning is key when you have fatigue. Write a ‘To Do’ list each evening so you can prioritize the things you need to do at work the next day.

3. Do some regular light exercise

Try to get out in the fresh air for a walk at lunchtime.  Although exercising may be the last thing you feel like doing when you’re tired, if you don’t exercise, you’re more likely to experience fatigue.

I also recommend you download a free app called Untire, which contains a program that will help you track and improve your energy levels. The app uses theories and techniques from scientifically proven cognitive behavior therapy, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, positive psychology and physical exercise interventions.

Time Management 

Managing your time at work is all about learning to work smarter, not harder.  It’s not about packing more tasks into your day, but about streamlining how you go about your work and prioritizing key tasks.

Here are seven tips to develop better time management skills.

1. Track your time and eliminate the non-essential

First things first. If you’re going to manage your time better, you need to figure out where you spend your time. Use a tool like RescueTime to track your activities for a week. This will help you determine how much you can realistically accomplish in a day, identify the time of day when you are most productive, and uncover daily timesucks, such as reading emails (unsubscribe from those e-mail lists you no longer need).  When we can clearly identify our daily time sinks and remove them, we become more focused and productive.

2. Do the most important thing first

Mark Twain once said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.” The point that Twain was making is that you should take care of your biggest and most-challenging tasks first thing in the morning.

Each day, identify the one or two tasks that are the most important to complete, and get started right away on them. If a task is too big to complete in one day, divide it into smaller tasks to be spread out over several days.  When you have accomplished a task, mark it off your list with a pen. This provides a psychological boost as it gives you visual confirmation that you are getting somewhere.

3. Batch related tasks

Batching refers to the process of using blocks of time for specific repetitive tasks. Different tasks demand different types of thinking, so save yourself time and mental energy by focusing on one type of task before moving on to the next.

4. Focus on one task at a time

Finding it hard to concentrate is a common effect of having had cancer. To combat this, focus on one task at a time instead of multi-tasking.  Research tells us it can take up to 30 minutes to return your attention to whatever you were doing before an interruption. Put your phone away, close your email applications and any unnecessary browser windows on your computer. Concentrate fully on the one task you need to complete.

5. Take regular breaks

Allow yourself down-time between tasks.  Break for lunch and take additional short breaks throughout the day. Maintain your energy reserves with nutritious snack breaks. Pack nuts, fresh fruits and veggies, hummus, or low-fat cheese to take to work with you.

6. Set time limits for tasks

Give yourself a certain time by which you will complete a task. For instance, reading and answering email can consume your whole day if you let it. Instead, set a limit of one hour a day for this task and stick to it. The easiest way to do this is to assign a solid block of time to this task rather than answering email on demand.

7. Let go of perfectionism

Stop trying to be perfect. When you’re a perfectionist, nothing will ever be good enough. That means you’ll stick with a task long past the deadline. You’ll say yes to too many things and take on too much in an effort to prove to yourself, and others, that nothing has changed since your cancer diagnosis.

Sometimes you need to realize that good enough is sufficient and when you reach that point, then simply stop. This is not an excuse to do a poor job, but it is intended to give you permission to do a good job and then leave it there. Don’t waste precious energy and time polishing and perfecting something past that point.

Managing Stress

It’s normal to feel some stress on returning to work, so it makes sense to plan ahead for how to deal with stressful situations. Here are some tips to help you.

1. Identify your body’s stress response

How we experience stress is individual to each of us. Learning to tune into what happens in your body when you perceive a stressful situation is the first step in understanding your own individual stress response. Does your jaw clench? Is your breath shallow? Are your muscles tense? When you become more aware of your physical response to stress, it will help regulate the tension when it does occur.

2. Slow down and pay attention to your breathing

When stress hits, everything speeds up. Our thoughts race, our heart pounds and our breathing increases. This can make it difficult to think rationally. Consciously slow down your breathing. When we are stressed we tend to breathe more shallowly.  When you feel stressed, practice taking some slow deep abdominal breaths.  Deep abdominal breathing slows the heart down, lowers blood pressure and helps us feel calmer.

3. Come back to your senses

One of the best ways to stop getting lost in your thoughts is to come to your senses and ground yourself in the present moment. A simple exercise is to notice five things around you. Practice this periodically throughout the day, especially at those times you find yourself getting caught up in your thoughts and feelings.

  • Look around and notice five things that you can see;
  • Listen carefully and notice five things that you can hear;
  • Notice five things that you can feel in contact with your body (for example, your feet upon the floor, your back against the chair);
  • Finally, do all of the above simultaneously.

4. Take Some Exercise

Physical activity is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce stress and anxiety – providing a natural outlet for your body when you are exposed to too much adrenaline.

Research has shown that there are many benefits to exercise. Not only does it help reduce the symptoms of fatigue, exercise encourages your body to release endorphins – often called ‘feel good hormones’. When released, endorphins can lift your mood and sense of well-being.

Go for a walk, head to the gym or find a lunch-time yoga class. Throughout the day take short breaks to stretch or do simple exercises at your desk.

Wrapping Up

Handling your re-entry to the workplace after a cancer diagnosis is all about organizing your time better, prioritizing your workload, establishing boundaries and becoming more comfortable with saying no to unreasonable demands.

Above all, it’s about making your health your top priority. Get adequate sleep, eat healthily, take some exercise and incorporate stress-management techniques into your daily routines.

I know from personal experience it isn’t always quite as straightforward as I have laid things out here. There will be many ups and downs. Deborah Bowman, a Professor of Medical Ethics, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2017, urges self-kindness and patience. “Don’t be afraid to say if it becomes unexpectedly (or expectedly!) difficult,” she says,  “be kind to yourself and allow others to be kind to you too. Accept it may be up and down rather than a straightforward trajectory. Celebrate your good moments and forgive yourself the harder moments.”


Next month in Part 3 of this Returning To Work series, we will take a look at the opportunities and challenges of finding a new job after cancer.  Until then, if you have any tips to share with readers about how you coped on returning to work, please share them in the comments below.

How Can Lung Cancer Patients Stay Involved in Research to Innovate New Treatments?

Living Well With Lung Cancer

Downloadable Program Guide

Noted lung cancer experts, Dr. Lecia Sequist, Marisa Wittebort, a lung cancer advocate with a very rare mutation, ROS1, and lung cancer advocate, Janet Freeman Daily joined this program to provide an expert perspective on the impact of patient involvement in research and how both lung cancer patients and care partners can contribute to bringing new medicines to the market.


Transcript:

Andrew Schorr:
And greetings from Carlsbad, California, near San Diego. I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. Welcome to this Patient Empowerment Network program. I’m so excited. It’s where we can learn how can lung cancer patients stay involved in research and innovate new treatments to benefit the lung cancer community.
Let’s meet our guests. First of all, we wanted to have Marisa Wittebort, who is a ROS1 lung cancer patient, but unfortunately Marisa is having a medical procedure and so she couldn’t be with us. But joining us from New York City is her sister, Jess, who’s been with her every step of the way. Jess, thank you so much for joining us. And, first of all, how is your sister doing?

Jessica Wittebort:
Yes, she’s doing good. Thanks so much, Andrew for having me join today. Marisa’s good. She has another pesky effusion that needs more attention today, so I’m joining you, but thank you very much.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. Well, all our best to Marisa.

Jessica Wittebort:
Yeah, I appreciate that.

Andrew Schorr:
You know, the role of a care partner such as yourself, a sister, a spouse, and other family members is so critical. Okay.
Let’s also meet someone else who has been living with lung cancer personally and that is our old friend–she’s not old, though–Janet Freeman-Daily who joins us from Seattle. Janet also happens to have the ROS1 mutation like Marisa, and she is so active in going to medical conferences all around the world. Janet, thanks for being with us.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
Thanks for inviting me, Andrew.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. And, Janet, you–how many conferences have you spoken to that are medical conferences, but you’re a patient who gets up and says, here’s our perspective? How many?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
I think it’s five or six at this point.

Andrew Schorr:
I bet. And we’re going to get–we’re going to talk more about the importance of that. So you’re one side of the coin, as is Marisa, and then we have a leading cancer researcher joining us from Mass General in Boston devoted to people with lung cancer. That’s Lecia Sequist. Dr. Sequist, thanks so much for being with us.

Dr. Sequist:
Thank you for having me. This is really a treat.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. So you’ve been at medical conferences where you’ve heard people like Janet speak. Does that inspire you when you are actually at what would otherwise be just thousands of cancer specialists, but the patient perspective is put right front and center?

Dr. Sequist:
It’s very inspiring, as I’m sure we’ll talk about. It was especially palpable this year at the World Lung Cancer Conference in Toronto just about five or six weeks ago. Janet was there. There were so many lung cancer advocates there, and this is a conference that’s focused only on lung cancer, and it was really exciting.
But I would say Janet and I have been running into each other at the hallways of medical conferences for many years, and it is always really interesting to get the patient perspective about a big result that was just presented maybe an hour earlier. And I love running into people at meetings and talking to them about it. It really helps inform our research.

Andrew Schorr:
That’s what I was going to ask–go ahead, Janet.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
It’s also very nice to run into a doctor after a presentation and say, what did they just say?

Andrew Schorr:
Right. Right. So do you, Dr. Sequist besides inspiring you, and then there are people in labs who don’t even–you see patients, but there are other people who are only in labs, do you feel that this communication with people who are living it can actually help get information, promote collaboration and accelerate us towards what we hope will be cures?

Dr. Sequist:
Oh, absolutely. It’s a really vital two-way communication road. I think having patient advocates learn more about the research process, both the pros and cons about went research process, and see what all is involved and what hurdles we have to deal with all the time as researchers can be really helpful. We need their help advocating to get rid of some hurdles and the obstacles in our way.
And there is nothing more informative than finding out what really is important to patients, especially when you’re developing a new treatment, hearing from them about what they value, what they–you know, someone who is not living with it may think that a certain side effect is a big deal, yet someone who is taking the medicine will say, you know, actually that’s–I can deal with that if it’s going to help me live longer. And finding out where that balance lies is really important and not something you can just guess if you’re not in the shoes of a patient.

Andrew Schorr:
So, Marisa, you’ve been every step of the way with your–rather, excuse me, Jessica.

Jessica Wittebort:
I’m channeling her, it’s fine. I’m channeling her.

Andrew Schorr:
All right. You’ve been with Marisa every step of the way, and unfortunately she was diagnosed in 2015 at what, age–

Jessica Wittebort:
She just turned 30, yeah.

Andrew Schorr:
She just turned 30. You’re her big sister. From the family perspective what do you hope, with closer collaboration with researchers, practitioners like Dr. Sequist, what do you hope?

Jessica Wittebort:
Well, gosh, I think we’re really just hoping to expedite research, and we want to be part of that journey. You know, I think when Marisa goes in to see her oncologist and he gives her a high five because she’s doing well, you know at a granular level that that relationship and that everybody is pushing for the same thing.
I think a little bit that gets lost in translation sometimes when you can get swallowed by the information that comes out of a conference if you’re not carefully, right, so learning how to translate that information into something tangible and consumable and being able to respond back to your healthcare professionals I think is just that bridge that’s essential to moving things forward.

Andrew Schorr:
And you’ve been to some conferences. I saw you at the Biden Cancer Summit, which had a lot of patients and patient advocates there, but I think you’ve been to–where did you go? To Austria or someplace?

Jessica Wittebort:
Yeah, I went to World Lung in Austria, to meet Janet, frankly. No, I mean, to see some incredible work in progress and some incredible work, and it’s a tremendous amount of content. I probably understood, you know, 5 percent of it, but at least it got me there starting to understand what the language was, starting to understand what the potential impact of clinical trials are, starting to feel just a tremendous amount of hope that lives through science, and to see my colleagues. You know, Janet is pretty much family, so I think these conferences, it’s incredible when patients not only part–you know, really participating, I think that’s a big deal.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
It was also really great for the–there were several ROS1ders there, people who had ROS1 cancer dealing with it at the end of conference, and we got to go up en masse and talk to the researchers about what they were doing, which was educational for us, and I think most of them felt fairly enthused about it too.

Andrew Schorr:
Janet, you’ve spoken at some of these congresses. What do you want to say to that clinical and research audience? What are you trying to bring forward to them as somebody living now, what, four or five years with stage IV lung cancer?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
I was diagnosed seven and a half years ago.

Andrew Schorr:
Seven and a half years ago. So, thanks god, treatment, and you’ve been in a trial for a long time, has just been remarkable for you, life-extending. What’s the message you bring when you speak?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
Well, it depends on the setting that I’m in and what I’ve been asked to speak about. It’s been different topics. Once I’ve talked about value in cancer care and the cost of cancer drugs. Once I’ve talked about the research that the patients with ROS1 were doing. I’ve also talked about the importance of goals of care discussions with the doctors to talk about what our treatment options are and what our chances are of them being effective so we could make our own choices about treatment rather than having the doctor decide what we’re going to do.
There’s a lot of different topics out there that patients can share their background and perspectives on. I think one of my more favorite things is running into Dr. (?) Jean Kooey who created the drug that I’m on and that Marisa started with and that Marisa then took next. She’s the lead chemist on those designs, and we ran into her at the poster session at ASCO and she got to meet the patients that her drug (?) Inaudible, which was a really big deal for her. And we’re all kind of awe struck, fan girl, oh, my god.

Andrew Schorr:
So, Dr. Sequist, does that make a difference? Because there are maybe many thousands of people working around the world on lung cancer now, some people only in labs, and never meet a patient like with a more rare mutation like ROS1. Does that make a difference when that connection can happen?

Dr. Sequist:
Oh, absolutely. I do think it’s really important for people who are working on the basic science aspects of cancer and in a laboratory, a little bit removed from the patients, to meet patients and survivors and see what their work is leading to. At Mass General we routinely have tours of our lab so that the people that work in the lab, not just the lead scientists but even the techs who are there for 10, 12 hours a day working hard for them to see how their work can really make a difference. And I know lots of other centers will do that as well.

Andrew Schorr:
So we’re getting into this age of personalized medicine, and I was in Boston a week or so ago and whether it’s out of MIT or your partners group in Boston, there’s all this computing power coming into play to try to understand what is our personal situation with a cancer and how do you develop or do you have medicines or trials that line up with that. And that’s been a real work of yours, right, is to try to look at the subsets of lung cancer. How are we doing in that? We talk about ROS1 and you have KRAS and ALK and EGFR and all these different types and then some types that haven’t been identified yet, right?

Dr. Sequist:
That’s right. I think if you take the long view and look at 10 or 15 years ago where the field of lung cancer was, it is a totally different landscape today. We have come so far in being able to personalize not only the clinical trials that are available for patients but then subsequently the approved treatments. And there’s been a lot of exciting advances in lung cancer that are a little bit less personalized lately, specifically immune therapy. That works with a bit of a broader brush, but the success in the personalized targeted therapy is unparalleled in other tumors types at the moment, and so I think everyone that works in lung cancer is really proud of how much the field has moved forward.

Andrew Schorr:
But you’re doing detective work, so some of these genes weren’t originally identified, and you have probably a lot more to go, so what’s going on now where for people where a gene wasn’t identified maybe you’ll have that? You’ll find out what the factors are or if somebody switches from one driver gene to another?

Dr. Sequist:
Yeah, there’s a lot of important things that go into that. One is being able to test each patient, and there are now several ways that you can test for the key mutations. The gold standard is still testing tumor biopsy, but liquid biopsies are also coming really into the forefront ready for prime time. Janet and I actually collaborated–well, Janet led the collaboration on an article that we wrote together about liquid biopsies and how it’s–and demystifying some of these things for patient audiences.
But looking at the tumor is important, and then actually important is getting patients to the right trials. You’re not going to be able to prove that something works if you can only find one patient with that mutation. You really have to reach all over the country and sometimes all over the world to find patients specifically for a situation. And that’s one area where patient advocacy groups have been extremely helpful helping bring patients together with the trials that fit their situation.

Andrew Schorr:
So tell me–go ahead. I was just going to–Janet, what’s the message then to people watching so that they can get the care or the testing or help involved to push research further? What do you want to say to people?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
Well, I think one of the valuable things that Lecia brought out is that we are developing or identifying new mutations all the time. When I was first diagnosed nobody knew about ROS1. It hadn’t even been published yet. And when I found out about it and I brought the article to my local doctors in the community setting they didn’t know how to test for it. And yet when I got tested and they found that I had ROS1 I have been on a drug now that I’m coming up to my six-year anniversary for my clinical trial, and I’m still no evidence of disease.
So what I would tell people is it’s really important to keep track of the research and to stay on top of the new developments. And so the patient communities are really good at that because you might find a new option that didn’t exist when you were first diagnosed.

Andrew Schorr:
And so that’s something that you, Jess, and your sister do all the time, right? And so you know you have this ROS1 version of lung cancer for your sister, you don’t know if something will change or other factors will come in, so you keep your ear to the ground very much and connect with the community.

Jessica Wittebort:
Absolutely. So tactically what do we do? We have our Google alerts always set to any medicines that we’ve heard about, any clinical trials that we’ve heard about, any researchers that are working in the space. For us, we have a ROS1 community online which is–we have a public one, and we also have a private one on Facebook where we’re able to just very openly bounce ideas around and talk about things we don’t understand and get those concepts in our heads.
And oftentimes those relationships lead to actually meeting off line. So most cities that Marisa or I visit for whatever reason, whether it’s going to see a doctor or going to an event, we get to meet somebody offline as well. So finding–keeping your ear to the ground, yes. We have great luxury of really–Marisa has a great team, so they will always drive that for her. But I think it’s also something that she is always very keen to share the information that she’s getting so that other people are privileged to have that information as well.

Andrew Schorr:
Go ahead.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
And a few key researchers like Dr. Sequist, Dr. Camidge, Dr. Shaw, at a few key universities are the experts in some of these driver oncogenes, and they’ve been very generous in their time in allowing us to e-mail them questions and say, gee, this question came up in the group, and we don’t have any experience with that. Could you give us an idea of what to do? So the researchers are key to this.

Andrew Schorr:
They are. And, Dr. Sequist, thank you for your devotion. I have a question for you, and that is most people though don’t get treatment at University of Colorado or Mass General or Dana-Farber or City of Hope or MD Anderson, and we could list a bunch of the leading institutions. Most people are told they have lung cancer, they’re at a community oncology practice, they’re terrified, and you’re leading change. You’re on the leading edge, all of you, in lung cancer, but that sometimes hasn’t quite–I don’t want to say trickle down, but you’re on the podium at World Lung or ASCO and you’re talking to a thousand doctors sitting there and we’re hoping that it gets to them, and a patient walks into their clinic, though and maybe some of this isn’t brought to bear.
What can the patient or the family member do so that this knowledge that’s emerging in lung cancer can be brought to bear at the community level? What’s the patient or the family member’s role today?

Dr. Sequist:
I think medicine is changing, and we are no longer in an era where any one doctor can know everything about medicine. I mean, we haven’t been in that era for a long time. And it’s very difficult to be a community oncology, a general oncologist today. There are so many new treatments and new genes and new strategies coming out for every type of cancer in rapid succession, so keeping up with all of lung cancer advancements plus all the other tumor types is quite a challenge.

That’s why I think that now more than ever as cancer gets so complicated it does work really well for patients to be able to connect with other patients and lung cancer specialists online, through activities like this, through many other educational activities that are available and advocacy groups because–just because a community oncologist has never heard of ROS1 I don’t think makes them a bad community oncologist, but hopefully the message is getting out to the community to partner with super sub-sub specialized academic centers if a mutation like this is found in a patient.
Andrew Schorr:
Okay. So, Janet, what do you tell people, what do you want to tell our viewers who were probably treated at least initially at a community center and they have no clue whether they have some subtype, rare or not, of be lung cancer and what to do about it? Janet, (?) Inaudible.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
If a person has lung cancer and it’s non-small cell lung cancer you should have gotten genomic testing at some point, and if you didn’t you need to ask your doctor about that. If your doctor is not familiar with it, and some of the general practitioners and community oncologists may not be as comfortable with it as other lung cancer specialists, then get a second opinion, preferably at a major academic cancer center.
If you want to learn more about this there are a large number of online patient groups where you can ask questions and get educated about this, or you can go to websites of some of the lung cancer advocacy organizations like LUNGevity, Lung Cancer Foundation of America. They have a good deal of information where you can start learning about things to get yourself educated on the topic. It’s–I still hear patients who are stage IV lung cancer, and their doctor sent them home on hospice without ever doing genomic testing. It’s really important that you make sure you get the tests that are in the standard of care.

Andrew Schorr:
So, Dr. Sequist, just back to you. This genomic testing is to see, is there an oncogene or cancer gene that’s driving your cancer that either an approved or maybe a clinical trial experimental medicine may target, right? Okay?

Dr. Sequist:
That’s correct. And, as Janet was saying, it’s vitally important for every patient that’s diagnosed to get tested at a minimum for the genes that correspond to FDA-approved medications, but there are several second-tier mutations that I believe everyone should be tested for because there are clinical trials that even if it’s not available at the community site where they first sought care hopefully it’s available someplace that’s not too terribly far from where they live.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. So I’m sure that Janet follows this and Jess of course, can the genes change? So, in other words, in lung cancer if Mrs. Jones is seen to have a KRAS mutation, just to pull one out, early on, does that always remain what’s driving her lung cancer, or might it change and there might be a need to test again?

Dr. Sequist:
I think we’re all experts in this, so we can everybody chime in as well. If the cancer truly has a driver oncogene what that means is that every single cancer cell in the tumor carries that genetic mark. Probably the very first cancer cell that came up in the body had it, and then every daughter cell that was created afterwards carries this mark. As patients–so typically these are EGFR, ALK, ROS, MET, RET. These are the ones that we have targets for, BRAF, targeted drugs.
Now, once a patient is on a targeted drug you can think of it like evolution, like survival of the fittest. So a drug is exerting pressure on the cancer, many cells are dying, but sometimes a cell will have a certain characteristic that allows it to live through the drug treatment, and then from there a resistant tumor can grow. And so second mutations or second pathways can become activated after patients have been treated with certain drugs. And the more drugs that people have been exposed to over time the more different subpopulations that might have varying signatures come up.
But you never lose that original mutation. It’s something that is always carried forward. It’s just what else piles on top of it across the different arms. I describe it as different arms of the family or cousins. Like this tumor is a cousin of that tumor because they do have some different characteristics but still that same core characteristic.

Andrew Schorr:
And you were saying about retesting?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
So some drugs we know that if they stop working there’s another drug that you can go to, but as we develop more and more drugs and EGFR, with which Dr. Sequist is very familiar, has more drugs than the rest of us. When patients take certain of those drugs second or third line they actually might develop a different mutation and will have to get retested to find out how to treat that. We’re right on the forefront of learning about how the genomics of cancer works, and we learn new things all the time.

Andrew Schorr:
So, Jess, you and your sister have sought out eminent specialists at major centers, but, as you said, not everybody goes there. What advice do you have to patients and family members, especially family members because sometimes the patient is so terrified just being led through care and the family member has to pick up the mantle? What would you say so that the loved one gets the best care?

Jessica Wittebort:
For us the most profound change has been to find a specialist at an academic institution. I think if you don’t–if you’re not able to do that, it is really important to find your patient group and start asking, what are they doing. What information can you get your head around? And keep your head above water because I really do believe there’s so much hope and there’s so much energy right now and momentum in this space that it’s important to just keep finding, keep looking for the information. And if you’re not getting the answers that you need or are too complicated figure out a way to not feel shy about asking again.

Andrew Schorr:
Amen. So you mentioned earlier, Janet, about getting tested, right?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
Yes.

Andrew Schorr:
So what if the test doesn’t identify anybody? Should they be forlorn? I’m going to ask Dr. Sequist, too. If one of these genes that we rattled off doesn’t show up or driver gene should they say, oh, my god I’m out of luck?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
No, not necessarily. Targeted therapies are easy to take in that you can take a pill once or twice a day, but they’re not the only new therapy that’s come out, and most of the patients who do not have a targeted treatment can take immunotherapy. That’s the new standard of care, and it works really well. I’ll let Dr. Sequist talk to that.

Andrew Schorr:
Let’s understand that, Dr. Sequist. So if somebody doesn’t have any of those genes but both of you have mentioned immunotherapy, how does that work and how does that help?

Dr. Sequist:
So one quick point before we get to immune therapy is that it’s really important if you are told that you don’t have any specific mutations that you make sure that the correct panel was done. Sometimes there are small panels that may miss important genes simply because they’re not part of the panel. So the test may be negative for everything that was assayed, but it may not rule out some of these rare mutations. Like Janet was saying, her mutation wasn’t even known about at that time she had the first testing done so she had to have repeat testing. And this is a very common story. So that’s what I wanted to say about testing.
But immune therapy is–really been a game changer in cancer in general including lung cancer, but this is the idea of trying to get someone’s own immune system so attack the cancer. Our bodies are supposed to do this. Our immune system is supposed to be on surveillance for cancer cells, treat them as foreign and destroy them, but obviously if a tumor grows to a point where you’re getting a diagnosis of cancer something has gone wrong in that process. Usually it is that that tumor is camouflaging itself in some way from the immune surveillance, and some of the new treatments that have been approved over the last couple of years in multiple types of cancer essentially rip off that camouflage, allow the immune system to see that the cancer is there as a foreign invader and start to attack it. In lung cancer this works best on the, as Janet was mentioning, the type of cancers that don’t have a driver mutation, the types of cancers that are more often associated with a history of smoking or exposure to some other carcinogens, and immune therapy has really changed the survival and the treatment options for a large population of lung cancer patients.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
And I just want to reiterate that it’s very important that you get genomic testing before you start immunotherapy because the data we have now indicates that immunotherapy usually does not work for those of us who have driving mutations.

Dr. Sequist:
And it may increase the toxicity of some of the targeted drugs, so not only may it not work but it might harm your chances of having a nice, long response like Janet and Marisa are having.

Andrew Schorr:
Hmm. This is complicated stuff. We talked about how difficult it is for the community oncologist who sees sort of all comers to keep up with this. Let’s just review some of the things that have come up recently at medical meetings that you’ve been at.
So first of all, Janet, from your perspective as a patient, you go to the World Lung meeting, you go to some of the other meetings, what do you think are the big deals for patients? Is it more genes being identified? Is it having immunotherapy work for more people? What are the big take-home messages we should review for people here?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
Well, you touched on two of them. One, there are more genes identified. I’m not sure I’ve got quite the right percentage, but at the moment I believe it’s about 70 percent of patients with non-small cell lung cancer have a driving mutation for which there’s an approved drug or a clinical trial. Is that right, Dr. Sequist? About?

Dr. Sequist:
I don’t know the exact number, but it’s got to be close to there.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
And then there’s immunotherapy, which not only works for some people who didn’t have treatment choices but in some cases continues to work after they stop taking the drug for a good period of time.
But I think one of the other big notes is it appears that immunotherapy may be working for small-cell lung cancer, which has not had a new treatment option in decades, so that is huge.
However, in addition to treatments I would say the next big thing, and it’s not too surprising I’m going to say this because this is what I talked at World Lung, but the fact that we have new patient groups forming around these driving oncogenes, we have enough patients who have been taking these targeted therapies enough, long enough and feeling good enough that they’re becoming active as advocates.
And they want to learn more about their disease, so we now have a group for ROS1 called the ROS1ders, for EGFR, EGFR resisters, for ALK, called ALK Positive, or RET, called the RET Renegades, and a separate group for a subset called Exon 20 group for insertions or Exon 20 of HER2 and EGFR.
And these patients groups are providing guidance to help patients find clinical trials, to help them understand their treatment, to deal with their side effects, to find experts, and we’re also funding research. So there are new research studies being funded by these patients, and the ROS1ders have actually created a study where we are making cancer models of our own rare cancer because researchers didn’t have anything to study, and now they have more cells. In fact, we’ve got, I think, four new cell lines in the past year and more in development.
And we also have three patients who have donated to creating mouse models of ROS1, and they hopefully will be useful for us. And they’ve already had two different publications on the subject. And without it some of the ROS1 research couldn’t be done, so we’re very excited about that.

Andrew Schorr:
Wow, just congratulations to all of you who are involved in this, and I know you’ve got a big smile on your face, Dr. Sequist. We used to have such a very short turn for most people with advanced lung cancer, and now, thank god, with research you’ve done and your peers around the world and in collaboration with patients we have people living much longer, like Marisa, who unfortunately couldn’t be with us today, but Janet and some others who are probably watching.
So that then gives you the opportunity to try to understand them and a lot of aspects of their care and their biology more than you ever could because people are living, right? So that chance for dialogue is really critical to understand how are we not just, yay, we have the medicines helping people live longer but what’s going on, right?

Dr. Sequist:
Yeah. I think that’s right, and it gives us an opportunity to think more critically about how we can do things differently, whereas 10, 15 years ago we were just trying it to find a way to help people live beyond a year. That was the glass ceiling that we were trying to break. And now that we’ve come so far in lung cancer we can really start looking at some of these important questions about sequencing medications, combining medications. What does that do to quality of life? What are other things that affect patients being on clinical trials for years and years, having to go through the scans and the tests? Trying to make clinical trial more accessible to people because of eligibility criteria that are obsolete.
So these are some of the lessons I’ve learned from working with patients in various forums, and it’s really very satisfying for me for sure.

Andrew Schorr:
I know a lot of your work is in EGFR, and if I have it right maybe the incidence of, if that’s the right term, of EGFR, let’s say in the Asian community is higher. Is that right? And so I know the percentage of people in clinical trials is low, like 3 percent. We need more participation of people from different groups so that you can understand how these different mutations are active more or less in different groups, right, and how certain medicines come into play? That’s one of the collaborations we from all groups need to do with you, right?

Dr. Sequist:
Well, I think another–that’s absolutely right, and another really important role that patient advocates can play is to educate their peers about what clinical research involves. Many people in this country are just scared about clinical research. They don’t want to be considered as a lab rat, and they think that’s something maybe for at the very end of the line when you’ve exhausted all other options when in fact some of the most promising clinical trials these days are for the very first treatment that you may take as soon as you’re diagnosed. And having people be aware that clinical trials are not just a way to experiment on a patient but to really offer the patient cutting-edge treatment that they couldn’t get outside of a trial and work together to bring new treatments to approval, that message is critical to get out to the public.

Andrew Schorr:
Right. And can accelerate medicines getting to the goal line quicker, right? I mean, Janet, I know you–a lot of what, for the community living with lung cancer, like you don’t know how long your ROS1 medicine will work.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
That’s right. It won’t last forever. I will eventually have to try something else, and the drug that I take will probably be in a clinical trial. I think it’s important to know that especially for those of us with driving oncogenes but also for people with cancers that don’t have a good effective treatment option, clinical trials may be your best treatment option. Clinical trials provide hope. There’s no guarantee that they will work, but when you don’t have any other option that looks effective or that lasts a long time clinical trials can be very useful.

Andrew Schorr:
So, Jess, a lot of times a physician will say to a patient, well, I might have a clinical trial for you and the patient comes home to review a whole stack of (?) legalist documents to try and simple–and the family member says, oh, no. What would you say to family members too about this idea of clinical trials and supporting your loved one in maybe getting tomorrow’s medicine today?

Jessica Wittebort:
I think it’s really important again to find a group of people that are on a clinical trial so you can see how real it is, how okay it is, you know, sort beat down those major misunderstandings, you know. Fears that you’re going to be given a placebo and then you’re left to go or whatever the case is. I think we’re still getting in a place where (?) ct.gov or Cancer Commons are able to really very clearly articulate it. The research is there, the information is there, but I do find it still a bit daunting for people who probably are just freshly diagnosed to understand what it means, so I think–

Andrew Schorr:
Right. As Janet said, there are people who can help you with the lung cancer groups she’s rattled by, online groups. There are all sorts of people who can help you, so I want you to–I hope our viewers will take advantage of that.
So, Dr. Sequist, people–Jess just mentioned about people have this fear of getting a placebo. If you’re in a trial, people want to get the good stuff even though you’re not sure what the good stuff is or how good the good stuff could be, but are they taken care of no matter what?

Dr. Sequist:
Patients are absolutely taken care of no matter what. There are many different kinds of clinical trials. Some of them have one arm where everyone on the trial gets the same treatment. Some of them may have multiple arms, and there could be a randomization where a computer basically rolls the dice and tells you and your doctor which arm you’re going to be placed in and you don’t have a choice. But patients are informed about the design of the trial and the various treatments before they sign up. We’re still–scientifically, before something can become standard of care, we still need to compare it to the old standard of care. Luckily, in lung cancer there really aren’t too many spaces left where standard of care would be placebo, so most patients getting lung cancer clinical trials are treated with a standard chemotherapy or a standard targeted therapy or a standard immune therapy, and then the experimental arm might be a variation on that or something totally different.
But it’s really important, and if you do participate in a clinical trial the person who is talking to you about the participation and getting your consent will inform you of all those things. What are the options? What could you be treated with? What is the purpose of the trial? How will it help you as a participant? These are all really important things to understand before you jump in.

Andrew Schorr:
Here’s a question–oh, sorry. Please.

Jessica Wittebort:
I was just going to say that Marisa just signed a stack of papers in Boston this week for participating in the blood biopsy trial, and that’s maybe the fourth pile of paperwork I’ve seen her sign. And it was an incredible process of just her being able to ask any questions, the nurse practitioner sitting down with her answering, answering everything and anything and understanding what it meant. And, you know, it’s–I just think we probably need to figure out how to eliminate some of the fear and the mystery around that process.

Andrew Schorr:
We did a program the other day and the replay will be posted soon with Dr. Richard Schilsky who is the chief medical officer of ASCO, the big cancer organization, and they’re really working hard with industry and government to simplify the forms. And, for instance, for people where English is not their first language to make sure that things are explained to you in your language, whether you read or if there’s a translator there so that you fully understand.
Here’s a question we got in from Ed, Dr. Sequist. He says, I’ve been an active participant in a Phase 1 trial for nearly three years. What is the average length of time it takes for a clinical trial to get to FDA approval?

Dr. Sequist:
That can really vary. I don’t think there is a standard answer, but a lot of people ask me, okay, doc, I’m going on to this Phase 1 trial at what paint will I be graduated up to Phase 2 or Phase 3? And, you know, patients usually don’t switch from a Phase 1 trial to a Phase 2 or 3. The drug development may continue and–continue on its pathway towards FDA development, but patients usually stay in the same trial that they started on.
The record time in oncology for first patient dosed–interval between first patient dosed in a Phase 1 trial to FDA approval was probably for crizotinib, which is an ALK, ROS and MET inhibitor, where the time was, what, about three years, Janet?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
Inaudible.

Dr. Sequist:
But most drugs take a little longer than that. But when I was training the–what I was taught was that it usually takes 10 years for a drug to get from Phase 1 to approval. Thankfully, that is not the case anymore. Most drugs are getting there in three, four, five years.

Andrew Schorr:
Well, I think, as Dr. Schilsky said the other day, they’re really trying to work with the FDA, the NCI, industry to try to do it, but part of it–now, for instance, the government is looking for patient-reported outcomes. How do things affect the patient in their life? So again doesn’t that come into play, too, Janet, that we need to be–we need to be not just part of the trial but we need to be giving information to help with as decisions are made about whether a new drug is a big deal, right?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
Yeah. Patient-reported outcomes are just starting to be incorporated into clinical trials, and it will be great to have them more involved and for patients to be able to provide inputs that are important to them about how they feel on the drug and how it affects them so that we will have more information about side effects when a drug gets approved. But it’s still fairly early.
But I want to go back to one thing that Dr. Sequist said, that the FDA is trying to put programs in place that will help get drugs approved faster. So the clinical trial that I’m on has been going for seven years and will keep going even though the drug is already approved because the drug was approved under what they call accelerated approval based on a Phase 1, 2 trial. Usually the FDA used to require that you had to have a big Phase 3 trial with hundreds of people where you compare the drug against the current standard of care and get a positive result before you could get the drug approved.
But now they’re making drugs for small populations like ROS1 patients. We’re 1 percent of the non-small cell lung cancer population, and you’ll never get enough of us together in one place to do a Phase 3 trial. So the FDA has something in place that allows you to approve drugs based on the Phase 2 trial. Everybody in this Phase 2 trial knows they are taking crizotinib. There is no placebo. So there are–the clinical trials are evolving.

Andrew Schorr:
So, Dr. Sequist, let’s back up for a second. So we’ve had–we have these meetings that you all go to, World Lung meeting, which was in Toronto I think a few months ago. And you have the ASCO meeting and others you probably go to around the world. What do you think is a big deal now? And I know I’ve seen you on the podium at some of these meetings. What do you think is a big deal for patients if you take away from some of the key studies that have been–you’re releasing data on?

Dr. Sequist:
It’s been a huge year for lung cancer. I mean, the standard of care has changed in lung cancer in almost every little corner that you look in. A year ago or certainly two years ago most patients who were diagnosed would get chemotherapy as the first pass treatment. If you happened to have one of the driver mutations then you would try and get one of those treatments first.
Now the standard of care has completely changed. Most patients get immune therapy with or without chemotherapy. There are new approved drugs for ALK and for EGFR in the frontline setting. There’s a new standard of care for stage III lung cancer which we haven’t had in 30 years. There’s a new standard of care for small-cell lung cancer which we haven’t had in 30 years. There’s more evidence from this past year about screening for lung cancer with low-dose CT scans and how this is really effective at diagnosing people earlier and saving lives, potentially especially so in women, we learned at World Lung. So every corner of lung cancer that you can shine a light into there’s been advancements over the last one to two years. It’s really quite amazing.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
We’ve also had one liquid biopsy approved where they can use a blood test to determine whether you’re eligible to take a certain kind of drug. That just happened last year I think.

Andrew Schorr:
So, Jess, you listen to this as a family member. What hope do you take away from that for your sister? Jess, could you hear me okay?

Jessica Wittebort:
Yes, sorry. You’re breaking up a little bit, Andrew.

Andrew Schorr:
I said you hear what Janet and Dr. Sequist were just saying. What hope can you take away from this because you worry about your sister of the week?

Jessica Wittebort:
Every single day I worry about her. And she has to worry about me as well. I often wonder who the real carer is. But, frankly, it’s, you know, she was given a brutal diagnosis three years ago, and she’s kicking. You know what I mean? She’s kicking. She’s doing great. She’s doing yoga teacher training. You know, she has good days and bad days, and I just think there’s an incredible amount of hope.
So get your head in the game, get some information. Get yourself a plan, and you move forward. And if you don’t find the doctor, and it happens all the time, can’t find the doctor you can trust or you can get the right answers from, then you keep looking.

Andrew Schorr:
So here’s some questions that we’ve got in. And, again, if our viewers have a question just send it to questions@patientpower.info.

Kevin writes in for you, Dr. Sequist, for many cancer patients there’s a learning curve. What are your thoughts on how a patient might know when they’re ready to learn and what are the first-stop resources that might give them education they’re ready for? And, Janet, I’m sure you’re going to weigh in. How about the ready to learn? Because otherwise at the beginning you’re drinking–you’re terrified, and you’re drinking from a fire hose?

Dr. Sequist:
Yeah, that’s a great question and I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all. I mean, patients, it’s like all of us. They come with much different preferences about how they like to learn, about what they want to know, about whether they want to be the primary person learning things or they’re going to designate a family member to help them with this information.
Some people like to learn on the internet. That can be tricky because there’s a lot of bad information on the internet in addition to a lot of good information on the internet. Some people aren’t that into the internet, and they need to learn in-person or through meeting people or phone calls. Luckily, the lung cancer community has so many support systems and education systems that are out there.

Janet mentioned a few, LUNGevity and the American Cancer Society has some information on their website, but a lot of academic medical centers also have information on their websites about lung cancer and resources to connect you to learning more when you’re ready.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
So just to add to that, because there are a lot of wonderful, very educational resources on the internet the Lung Cancer Social Media group put together a reference page for vetted online resources. So if you go to lcsmchat.org under resources and look for what’s there you can find a list that includes links under various categories like for those who are newly diagnosed or looking at lung cancer screening or whatever. And on that list we’ve tried to pull a sample from all of the various pages we know of, all the various organizations that have good lung cancer information. So you can start there.

Andrew Schorr:
Dr. Sequist, I wanted to call out small-cell lung cancer, which I know is the minority of lung cancer. And Janet referred to immunotherapy there, and you talk about overall about hope. Where are we with small-cell now?

Dr. Sequist:
Well, there was a very exciting presentation in Toronto at the World Lung meeting and it got published in the premier journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, that same day that set a new standard for small-cell lung cancer, something that–it was actually really moving. The whole audience burst into applause and cheered essentially when this result came up because for most of us in the audience we had never witnessed an advance in small-cell lung cancer in the course of our career. So this advance is taking the standard chemotherapy for small-cell and adding immunotherapy to it, and patients had an improved survival when that happened.

Andrew Schorr:
Okay. So where do we go from here? Janet, you’re living with it. You wonder how long your medicine is going to work. You have one rare subtype. Other subtypes are being identified and then other people

where it hasn’t been identified yet. What do you want to say to people as far as just keeping on keeping on, if you will, and the importance of a dialogue with a doctor, a researcher in partnership?

Janet Freeman-Daily:
I think the only thing I would make sure everyone does, no matter whether you want to know all the details, whether you want to be involved in research is that it’s essential that you tell the doctor what is important to you. They can do all the rest of it if you need them to, but they can’t know whether it’s more important to you to try every last treatment no matter how lousy you feel, or whether you would rather make sure that if you can’t get out and walk in the woods then life isn’t worth living. They won’t know if you don’t tell them, so it’s important for you as a patient to start thinking about what matters to you in terms of your treatment.
Likely, you’ll be on more than one treatment at some point if you have metastatic lung cancer, and you need to know whether the side effects are acceptable to you. So even if you don’t want to do the research at least be able to tell the doctor what matters to you. I hope Dr. Sequist that you get some patients who do that.

Andrew Schorr:
So, Jess, so some people have trouble speaking up for themselves. I don’t think you’re sister is that way, but you go with her to a lot of treatments and visits. What would you say to family members to support their loved one, and if their loved one isn’t, isn’t feeling strong enough to speak up that the family member has permission to do that and that it makes a difference.

Jessica Wittebort:
Yeah, I think Marisa has her boyfriend, my dad, (?) Inaudible happy to hem and holler about the questions we have and the questions that she raised since the last time we saw the oncologist. But more recently she referred to us as the peanut gallery. I think she’s, you know, at the beginning of this diagnosis I was the one that reached out to the ROS1 group, and now she has a pleural effusion and she’s trying to figure out all the places that that pleural fluid should go to support research.
So I think that the journey will change. I hate that word, journey. I think the path changes as you go. You know that old when you come to a fork in the road, you can take the path or whatever it is, and I think you just have to figure out how to be flexible and flex with that journey. There was–one of the really nice pieces at the Biden Cancer Initiative, I’m terrible with names, the athlete was talking about, you know, everybody talks about diagnosis and the shoot for the cure, but it’s that middle, it’s that middle part that is so tenuous and you have to get really comfortable with the uncomfortable middle part.
So I think, gosh, it could be a strain and stress on your loved ones, and I think the communication is just one must of the exercise as you go, and if you can figure out how to lean into that as a carer, as a patient, as a loved one, then you’re probably ahead of the curve.

Andrew Schorr:
Thank you for that, and we wish your sister all the best, Marisa. My last question is for Janet and then Dr. Sequist. So it used to be the doctor was in the white coat, and the doctor said we’re going to do this, and you were scared, and you went down the hall to have a scan or this or a biopsy, whatever, you just did it. You’re just sort of literally the walking wounded, and you and your family were terrified. And whether you understood or not you sort of nodded your head, and that’s what would happen.

Dr. Sequist, do you welcome the change? Do you welcome the change that we’re sort of all in this

together? And I don’t mean just physicians but I mean researchers too, that this feeling that the patients, the family members, that together, we can solve things. Alone, it’s slower or more difficult?

Dr. Sequist:
Oh, yeah. It’s a very welcome change. I’ve gotten a lot of information and education as well as satisfaction from participating in the lung cancer social media group that Janet mentioned. It’s really great to be able to connect with people on Twitter who are researching lung cancer around the world or who are patients living with lung cancer around the world. And it’s a way to get lightning-fast updates about conferences, and everybody working together towards a common goal is a good feeling to be in that pack.

And I would say to patients out there if you’re in a relationship with a provider where it feels more like what you were describing, Andrew, like that you’re just being told what to do and you’re not being listened to or you don’t have the ability to speak up or have your loved one speak up for you, you need to seek out a different oncologist. Because it’s too important.
It’s too important of a disease to be dealing with someone you don’t have a great relationship with. And I would define a great cancer patient/oncologist relationship is one where both people can feel free for express what’s on their mind and to listen to each other and just feel heard and feel part of the decision-making.

Andrew Schorr:
I just think has a tragedy if, as you say, the landscape is changing so much–we have a long way to go, but it is changing so much in welcome. What a shame if you or your loved one passes away because there wasn’t a certain test done or a wide enough panel testing and there was something either approved or in trials that could make a difference to extend life. What a tragedy.
So Janet, I’m going to leave the last sort of empowerment message to you, what you want to say to people so that that doesn’t happen.

Janet Freeman-Daily:
I think there’s been a lot of good comments in the entire presentation along those lines. I think there’s a lot of evidence to show that engaged patients with serious diseases live longer. That patients who become more educated about their disease when it’s on the cutting edge as lung cancer is right now, they have a much better chance of making sure that they’re getting the best care.
But I also want to point out one interesting thing that’s evolving as we get these more empowered patient groups. We actually had a doctor, a researcher approach us because he had heard that ROS1 patients supposedly didn’t have as many brain mets as outpatients did, and that didn’t seem right to him. So we actually worked with him and did a survey on our own patient group and were able to tell him, yeah, it’s a lot more common than people are giving it credit for, which stimulated a whole new path of research that’s changing the way that people think about the disease. And if we had not had that open communication between the patients and the researchers, if we hadn’t had the empowered patient groups that survey wouldn’t have happened. So I think this change in paradigm being patients learning about their disease and getting involved in patient groups is making a huge difference.

Andrew Schorr:
Well, Janet Freeman-Daily thank you for being with us once again. I hope we get to do this for years and years, Janet, and one day we can say cured. Wouldn’t that be great? And I’m so delighted to see you and for joining us.

And Jess Wittebort, thanks so much for being with us too. All the best to your sister Marisa with the procedures she has, and, as you say, she’s kicking it, and I hope that keeps happening.

And Dr. Lecia Sequist from Mass General, thank you for your devotion to patients and helping lead the way in research so that we can really everybody can get the personalized care they need.
I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.


Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or PEN. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Self-Care During Illness: 
Tips for Cancer Survivors

Self-care is essential for all of us; it’s something that allows you to take a mental health break while also making sure your body is in good shape. After a period of stress or anxiety, you need a little time to heal and get yourself back to a good place. This is especially true for cancer survivors, who battle stress, physical pain, anxiety, depression, and worry every day. Cancer comes in many different forms and affects the body and mind in different ways, meaning no two people will handle it the same way. What works for you when it comes to coping may not work for someone else, and vice versa.

Fortunately, there are many different ways you can learn to cope with your feelings and take a time-out. From daily exercise to learning to listen to your body’s cues, self-care involves a variety of activities for you to choose from. You may choose to practice self-care alone or with a close friend; you can do it from the comfort of your own home or at the gym. Whatever makes you feel good in a healthy way is classified as self-care.

Keep reading for some great tips on how to practice self-care as a cancer survivor.

Take Your Medication as Directed

Most cancer survivors need medication to help with pain, nausea, and other symptoms that will make daily life a little easier. Some take several different medications every day, and it’s imperative to keep track of these and make sure you’re taking them correctly. You might use an app on your phone to help you remember what time you need to take specific pills, or invest in a sorter that will keep all your medicines measured out for each day.

If you feel that the dosage on a medication isn’t right, talk to your doctor immediately rather than attempting to change the dosage yourself or discontinuing use. Because many of these can be habit-forming, using them correctly is important not just in maintaining your health, but because opioids can be highly addictive and can cause many more issues than they treat if used incorrectly.

If you’re concerned about using prescription medication like opioids to treat your pain and nausea, it’s worth talking to your doctor about the option of CBD. It’s a natural, non-narcotic and non-hallucinogenic treatment that provides relief for many of cancer’s most troubling side effects, such as muscle pain, nausea and anxiety. As with any treatment, be sure to consult your physician before giving it a try.

Eat Well

Sometimes, medication or chemotherapy can interfere with appetite, making it extra important to make sure you’re eating well when you are hungry. Try to eat small snacks throughout the day made up of whole, unprocessed foods, and remember to stay hydrated. Talk to your doctor about the best foods for your body’s needs, and consider hitting up the farmers market for fresh produce as often as you can.

Make Your Needs a Priority

Many individuals who are faced with a battle against cancer find that they are so focused on the people around them that they rarely take time out for their own needs. You may be worried about how your family will pay for treatment or how your illness is affecting your children. While these are valid concerns, one of the best ways to help ease your mind is to take a little time for yourself. Go for a short hike, sit down with a good book, or lie in bed and listen to your favorite music. Learning how to slow down and reset your mind isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary.

Try Something New

As long as you have the energy for it, now is the perfect time to try something new. Finding something that is enjoyable and allows you to shake off worry or anxiety for a while is a great way to take care of yourself. Whether you want to learn a new language or travel to a place you’ve never been, don’t put it off. Just make sure your health won’t be affected negatively, and talk to your doctor before making any major plans.

Taking care of yourself can be a big job, so remember that there are only so many things you can do in a day. You might try yoga and meditation during this time to learn how to practice mindfulness and focus on the present; this can help you cope with stress in the moment so that you can turn your mind to more important things.

Returning To Work After Cancer Treatment. Part 1: Preparing the Ground

This month’s article is the first in a three-part series which deals with common concerns on returning to work after a cancer diagnosis and offers practical solutions for helping with your re-entry into the workplace.

A diagnosis of cancer is a profound disruption in our lives, leaving no area untouched. Cancer impacts our family life, our relationships, and our careers.  If you have been absent from work, the decision to return often brings with it mixed emotions.  While you may welcome a return to normality, a steady income, the company of work colleagues and a sense of identity, you may also be feeling apprehensive about how you will cope.

Particularly if you are used to identifying closely with your job, a prolonged absence from work can be difficult. Even if you continue working during treatment, you may also experience some difficulties. You may be wondering how you will cope with your workload.  Will your co-workers treat you differently? How will your boss react to you? Will your promotional opportunities be affected?

Although the majority of those who return (or continue) to work after cancer adapt well, some will encounter difficulties. In Part 1 of this series, we will take a look at some practical ways to prepare for your re-integration back into the workplace.

When Do You Know It Is Time To Return To Work?

There is no one-size fits all answer to the question of when it’s time to return to work. It will depend on the type of treatment you received, your financial situation, your physical and emotional state and other personal factors.

Only you know whether it would be better for your psychological health to be at home, away from any professional stresses, or at work, where distractions may take your mind off other things.  Chris Lewis, founder of Chris’s Cancer Community, believes that “work can be a fantastic therapy, when dealing with life’s challenges. We feel valued, and of course, can provide an income for our family.”

On the other hand, perhaps you see cancer as an opportunity to re-evaluate your career. You may find that your work priorities have changed, or you feel unable to keep up with the demands of your previous work pace. Perhaps you want a new job which will allow you more flexibility to pursue other goals or you may want to explore working in a field which is more personally fulfilling (we will look at this in more detail in Part 3).

Preparing the Ground

Doing some groundwork before you return to work should help make re-entry more manageable.  Plan in advance how you will respond to questions from co-workers, deal with your boss’s expectations, and handle your workload. Here are some tips to help you.

1. Making adjustments and accommodations to your work environment

Your employer has a duty to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to your workplace and working practices. What is considered a ‘reasonable adjustment’ depends on factors such as the cost and practicality of making the adjustment, which is why it’s important to discuss things as soon as possible with your employer.    Some things to discuss include the possibility (at least temporarily) of a phased or gradual return to work, job-sharing, working from home or flexi –time.

A word of caution here. It is not unusual for part-time work to turn into a full time job. Set clear boundaries about what is achievable in the hours you have agreed to work.  If you are thinking about working from home, be aware that this can be quite isolating. Will you miss the camaraderie of the office?

Breast cancer blogger @lifeafterlola suggests that “A phased return is good, combining time back at work with work from home or a day off on, say, a Wednesday to break up the fatigue. The hardest thing to cope with,” she says,  is getting back up to pace with early mornings, late finishes and travel on top of work and social adjustment.” Julia, co-founder of breast cancer Twitter chat, #BCCWW offers a practical tip to reduce the stress of traveling to work.  “If it’s possible travel outside rush hour,” she advises.

Next, think about your physical environment at work. Revisit you work-station. Does it need to be redesigned or fitted with equipment such as back support or other devices to make you more comfortable?

The size of your company may affect how much accommodation to your needs you can expect to get. Larger organizations are in a better position to offer you more flexibility and support, but most employers will be understanding if you communicate your needs clearly with them. It may be helpful to have a letter from your doctor to document any accommodations required.

2. Getting up to speed with changes at work

Depending on how long you have been absent, you may find things have moved on since you were away from work. If this is the case, take some time to get up to speed with new systems and developments. This may include attending formal training sessions in advance of getting back to work, or having a colleague take some time to get you caught up again.  Julia explains how she struggled initially with her job which “involved reading lots of draft legislation, policy papers, etc.” and after speaking to her boss, did some refresher training to get up to speed again.

3. Updating your co-workers on your plans to return to work

Most of us have built up a carefully constructed professional persona and we work hard at protecting it by keeping a fairly strict line of demarcation between our personal and professional lives. It can be unsettling to find these lines have become blurred by your illness.

Not everyone knows the right thing to say or how best to offer support. Connecting with colleagues before you return to work can, in the words of Julia, “get a little of the first day nerves out of the way, especially  if you are feeling anxious about their reactions to your changed appearance.”

In general people will take their cue from you, so take the lead with colleagues. Talk them on the phone, send an email or arrange to meet for coffee or lunch. Reassure them that you are doing ok and that you still want to be a valued member of the team.  Decide in advance how much you are comfortable sharing.  If you are a naturally open person, then you can talk frankly with your work colleagues, letting them know what they can do to help you ease back into work. If you are more private, just tell everyone that you appreciate their asking, you are doing ok now and you are looking forward to getting back to normal.

4. Communicating with your manager

Most managers and bosses will support your transition back to work, but they may be unsure of how best to handle this. As Kate Bowles points out in this post: “The particular challenge of having oncology patients (which is what we still are) as staff under your management, as colleagues and as workplace friends, leaves everyone falling back on adhoc interpersonal skills.”

It can be difficult for managers and colleagues to know how to strike the right balance between giving you extra support and allowing you to carry on as normal.  As Julia points out “Your line manager isn’t a mind reader. Be honest about what you can/can’t do, offer solutions, about managing work and don’t just leave it to them.  It should be a two way process.”

For your part, you may have concerns about being perceived as a productive member of the team.  Open and honest communication is key here. Check in regularly with updates on how you are coping and to review your productivity.   If there are things that you are not ready to undertake initially, then be honest, and ask for help if you need it. Set clear boundaries that will allow you to say no to certain types of requests, such as staying late for non-essential projects.    “Learn to say I can’t ….YET,” advises Siobhan Freeney, founder of Being Dense, an organization which raises awareness of Breast Density and its associated links to breast cancer and screening.

A note on work discrimination. Legally, your cancer history can’t be used against you in the workplace. But it can be difficult to determine this, because discrimination can be subtle.   Know your rights. Look into whether you are protected by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act or your state’s Fair Employment Law.

5. Book a counseling session

If you are worried about how you will cope on your return to work, consider booking some sessions with a counsellor or cognitive behavioral therapist to build up your confidence and coping skills.  Some employers have an employee assistance program in place which allows you to speak in confidence to a trained professional about your concerns. Ask if this is available in your company.

Learning some stress management techniques in advance of your return will also help you cope better (we’ll look at this in more detail in Part 2).

6. Stock your freezer

When we’re tired, we tend to gravitate towards processed food which depletes our energy reserves further. Siobhan suggests you “stock up handy home cooked freezer meals in advance of returning to work to avoid being tempted to skip dinner when over-tired.”

The key to managing the stress of working after a cancer diagnosis is to prepare as much in advance of your return to the work place. Be prepared to be flexible in your planning approach. Cancer recovery is an ongoing process. There will be many ups and downs.  You may have to deal with late side-effects of treatment or side-effects related to medication. Be ready to adjust your work practices if and when you need to.

Next month, I will share more tips and practical advice on handling your work load, managing your time and dealing with issues such as fatigue and concentration once you return to work. Until then, if you have any tips to share with readers about how you prepared your own return to work, please share them in the comments below.

Nancy’s Lung Cancer Journey

No one is ever prepared to hear the words “You have cancer”. Even though (from asking for an x-ray that morphed into a CT scan) I knew there was a large tumor in the middle of my chest, I still wasn’t ready. And the pulmonologist was so kind in delivering the diagnosis. He went down the hall with the needle aspiration from my left clavicular lymph node and returned ½ hour later with a tri-fold paper towel on which he had drawn my lungs with the locations of the tumors – upper right lobe (T1), central lymph nodes of the mediastinal area (in total, about 2” x 5”), and one on the lymph node at my neck. And he said “You have small cell lung cancer (SCLC). There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that it is extremely aggressive. The good news is that it is extremely responsive to treatment. If you are deemed to be “limited stage” (there are only 2 stages for SCLC – I call them good and bad), you have a 30% chance of long-term survival – a normal life.” In mid-August, I thought I’d be dead by Christmas. I spent about 2 minutes on the internet – what I saw was enough to tell me not to look further.

Doctors matter. A lot. I was treated at an NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center by several exceptional doctors. What made them exceptional? Their listening and observational skills first and foremost, their dedication to staying current with research, and their caring. I was lucky – I didn’t have to search for them. These women – my primary care physician, my oncologist and my radiation oncologist kept me alive. They made me part of the 30%, even though my diagnosis said I was borderline extensive stage. It only took 5 months of chemotherapy (cisplatin and etoposide) and twice daily radiation during some of those 5 months, along with an episode of sepsis (broad-spectrum antibiotics, 2 blood transfusions, and a week in the hospital), to have me declared “No evidence of disease (NED)” by early December.

While my friends and family celebrated, I didn’t feel like celebrating. My life had been turned upside-down, I felt wrung-out and fatigued all the time, had lost so much weight that nothing fit, and had lost all my hair. And I knew that in January, I had to have 10 days of prophylactic whole brain radiation to kill any errant lung cancer cells (I was pretty sure it would make me stupid!) And that’s when my doctor prescribed an anti-depressant, which helped.

What did I do during this time – besides visit doctors and hospitals?  I walked – a lot. It was the easiest way for me to exercise, and my boxer was happy to help in that regard. I ate well – meaning lots of fruits and vegetables. And I meditated with guided CDs designed for cancer patients. And I kept up with my friends – often meeting one or more of them for lunch downtown. That not only passed the time but kept my spirits as up as they could be – a distraction if you will.

And when it was over, and I was deemed “cured”, I got angry. Angry that no one talked about the number one cancer killer. Through my doctor, I got in touch with the National Lung Cancer Partnership (now merged with the Lung Cancer Research Foundation), got involved in advocacy, and haven’t stopped. For me – it is healing to try to do something – anything – to prevent more people from going through what I went by raising awareness and research funding.

I have also learned that some treatments don’t let you forget that you had them. I had a CT scan every 90 days for the first 5 years after diagnosis. In the 4th year, they saw that my left ventricle was enlarged and referred me to cardiology for cardiomyopathy (heart failure). It was bad – so I went from surviving the #2 killer to facing the #1 killer! But with treatment from a cardiologist who specialized in heart failure from chemotherapy, I now have an implanted medical device, low-dose daily medication, and a nearly normal heart function. There’s also the foot neuropathy I’ve learned to live with (it’s not so bad) and some balance issues (likely from inner ear damage from cisplatin). But I’m alive!! Alive certainly beats the alternative.