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Empowered Patient and Care Partner Ask the Expert: Addressing COVID-19 Concerns

Empowered Patient and Care Partner Ask the Expert: Addressing COVID-19 Concerns from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

With COVID-19 infection and vaccine concerns, what are the key points for cancer patients and care partners to know? Expert Dr. Shaji Kumar from Mayo Clinic shares valuable information about protective measures against COVID-19 infection, vaccine side effects and effectiveness, working toward herd immunity, and cancer research benefits that have emerged from the pandemic. 

See More From the Best Care No Matter Where You Live Program

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How Can Cancer Patients Protect Themselves During COVID-19


Transcript:

Mary Leer:

My name is Mary Leer. I’m the Breast Cancer Network Manager.

Jeff Bushnell:

And I’m Jeff Bushnell, the MPN Network Manager at the Patient Empowerment Network. I’m a caregiver.

Dr. Shaji Kumar: I

’m Shaji Kumar, a hematologist at Mayo Clinic.

Mary Leer:

Jeff and I are proud to be part of a strong team of compassionate volunteers, helping health communities adapt to the realities of living with a serious illness, living with cancer during a pandemic certainly presents another layer of challenges. So, Jeff and I will drill down to ask the important questions from the community. For this production, Empowered Patient and Care Partner Ask the Expert, we are very lucky to be joined by noted expert, Dr. Shaji Kumar, a consultant in the division of hematology at Mayo Clinic. Thank you for taking the time to join us, Dr. Kumar.

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Thank you for having me, Mary.

Mary Leer:

Let’s start with the top of mind questions for so many of us right now, what should every patient and care partner facing a cancer diagnosis know during the pandemic?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

I think it’s a challenging time for everyone, and it’s obviously more challenging for patients dealing with cancer at the same time, thankfully, we have a vaccine at hand that will certainly make the situation a lot better, but I think from a cancer standpoint, I think what we need to keep in mind all the precautions we talk about in terms  of social distancing, masking, hand washing and all those measures apply equally to everyone, even more so to patients with cancer. And the reason why we say that it’s even more important for several reasons, one, and we continue to learn more about the pandemic and its impact on cancer, one thing that has become clear is that patients with underlying conditions including cancer are to other folks were more affected by the infection, more likely to have more severe interactions and poorer outcomes. Now, patients with cancer appear to be at a higher risk of getting the infection and then they get the infection having a more serious disease. Now, it’s hard to know how much of this is also related to the fact that patients with cancer often have to go into the hospital or the clinic, and hence are more likely to get exposed to the infection than someone who is able to just stay at home.

So that’s one thing. And second, we know that the ongoing treatment for cancer definitely suppresses the immune system, and hence places people at a higher risk of the infection itself. Now, even patients who have their past history of cancer, this appears to be some increased risk, even though this is a little bit, unclear how much more it impacts those individuals. But I think the bottom line is keep the awareness that you might be at a higher risk of getting the infection, more serious infection, and the need to take those precautionary measures in a more strict fashion, and getting the vaccination when you can get it is all things that one needs to keep in mind.

Jeff Bushnell:

Well, that’s wonderful, Dr. Kumar, you mentioned the vaccinations, I am a strong proponent of that, I happen to have been involved in the Moderna vaccine trial, which is and still enrolled, they’re doing the follow-up. I guess they’re checking the last time I was in last week, they took 8 vials of blood, I think they’re checking to see whether I have the antibodies and how long it will last, but I was very happy with the way it was conducted, they were very forthcoming with information.

It was very interesting. And out here in San Diego, where I am, we have done pretty well as a county in vaccinating people and Summer got the vaccine as well with myelofibrosis and she feels a lot better. But for cancer patients who have tested positive for COVID, are there notable consistencies amongst that group of people, and have we learned anything from those patients yet about maybe their chances of getting it more, or their reaction to it? That kind of thing.

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

We know that there’s a wide spectrum of reaction to the vaccine. The majority of the people would not notice any symptoms related to that except for some pain at the injection site.  Not there are some folks, number of people who might have more or just myalgia, muscle pains, just feeling fatigue, some low-grade fevers, just feeling blah for 24-48 hours, and it seems to be not too uncommon. The reactions to the vaccine in terms of the side effects or the symptoms, there doesn’t appear to be much of a difference between cancer patients and normal individuals. Now, in terms of the efficacy of vaccination, you just mentioned Jeff, about you being checked for the antibodies, obviously, that is something that we hope will happen to all individuals who get the vaccine, but we know that is not going to be the case, there’s going to be a wide variation in terms of how strong an immune response one might develop against vaccines. Now We know from, not necessarily the COVID vaccine, but the vaccinations that have been used in the past, whether it be flu vaccines or pneumococcal vaccines, that we all get patients with cancer or patients going through treatment for cancer that can suppress the immune system, tend to have a lower response. But again, that varies quite widely from patient to patient now, there are some vaccines where we can clearly look at the antibody response and say, “Oh, this is not adequate, and we need to maybe give an extra shot.”

We just don’t have that information for COVID vaccines yet. So the way I would look at it is, even though the response to the back in a given person might be less than what we eventually would identify to be optimal, it’s likely to be better than not having to see the vaccine, so I would encourage obviously, everybody to get the vaccine. Now, what about someone who has already had an infection, what would be the response? Should we vaccinate those people? We certainly should. Again, we don’t know the immunity from a natural infection, how long would that last? That is still something that is unknown, and the vaccination dose is likely to make the responses more relevant and more durable, so I would recommend the vaccines for everyone. We don’t think one vaccine is any different from another in terms of your underlying cancer or lack thereof. So in terms of assessing for the antibodies, there is no clear guideline in terms of what one should anticipate from  the vaccine, so there is really no way to say, check the antibody, and they can go ahead and get one more dose or you’re fully vaccinated. So I think the bottom line is, get the vaccine, you don’t need to necessarily test for a response, and then we continue with the usual measures for prevention.

Jeff Bushnell:

And so what would you tell the… I guess that’s pretty much the answer to the next question I had. What would you tell the patients who are in active treatment and who planned to get the vaccine just continue as normal after they get it, with all the appropriate precautions?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, no, I think there’s one other important aspect, Jeff, to that question you just raised, which is, what is the right timing to get vaccinated, the vaccine, and that is a question that often comes up. So patients who are not getting active treatment, there is obviously no concern whenever the name comes up, go ahead and get the vaccine. And the second is what if someone is actually getting active treatment for their cancer, is there any role in terms of trying to find the vaccination, with respect to the doses of the medications and for most of the treatment we are using for cancer, there are no clear guidelines in terms of the when they can get the vaccine, that having several guidelines that have been put out by different organizations. The bottom line is, if there is an ability to space out or give sometime between the vaccine and the dose of the medication, do that, don’t modify your treatments, just so that you can get the cross at a particular time. The only place where we would recommend specific guidelines within the context of somebody who may have had a bone marrow transplant or had some other kind of cellular therapies, in those contexts, we often recommend that you wait for a couple of months after the stem cell transplant, before we get the vaccines. But for all the other treatments that we are getting right now, we want to just within the schedule of the treatment that’s already on going, try and get the vaccine in between two doses.

Mary Leer:

For those who have been vaccinated and are living with cancer, you spoke to that in great depth, but I’m also wondering about people that are perhaps in post-treatment and let’s look at social distancing measures or other restrictions, are those different for patients versus the general population?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

No, I think the proportions are the same, I think the social distancing and the masking should continue to be observed the same way, and I think the only other word of caution I think may be particularly relevant for the cancer patients would be, again, trying to avoid again those kind of being outdoors and larger groups of people, even if when you maintain the social distancing, try and not do that. The outdoors are probably a little better than smaller indoor gatherings, and it’s mostly the common sense proportions, and I think the cancer patients are probably more tuned to this because they have been following some of those things even before the COVID came on and post-vaccination, I would recommend that these steps don’t change at all, partly because we gain for a given person, we don’t know how robust the immune response that those patients have after the vaccination and the lack of good testing to say that, okay, now you’re fully vaccinated, your response is great, you don’t need to worry about getting infected.

Mary Leer:

Wow, thank you so much. That’s so helpful. I’m going to shift to vaccine hesitancy. This is an important topic for many. Drug development takes years, sometimes decades. Can you speak to those who might be hesitant about the speed of vaccine development around COVID. I’ve heard this often from other people saying, “Well, they develop this so quickly, how can we trust it?”

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, no, I think those concerns are quite valid, I think vaccines have always been a very controversial topic and not just COVID vaccination but even for childhood vaccinations. There have been long-standing concerns that some of those vaccinations may be responsible for some of the issues that we see in the children and even in the late adulthood. I think what we really want to get across is, again, taking that question apart, and there are multiple different aspects to it, one is the whole concept of how we created the vaccine so quickly, we kept telling everyone from the time that it started that it takes five to 10 years to develop a good vaccine, and now we have something in a year, so obviously that raises concerns amongst people. I think it’s just a testament to how far technology has come. In the past, we had to isolate the protein and use that protein to develop the immune response, and what has been really unique about the COVID situation has been the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, both of which uses a new technology called the mRNA-based technology. And this is something that has been developed over the past decade to decade-and-a-half, and I would say this is a platform that was perfect, just waiting for the right opportunity to come along.

And the COVID situation really presented that. And even though it was the speed with which this was developed, is just because the technology has come along so much and we can actually do that, and the second is how fast the clinical trials have been done, and I think that speaks to, again, the infrastructure that they have been developed over the years to rapidly develop and implement a clinical trial. So the clinical trials, both Pfizer and Moderna trials had 40 to 50,000 people enrolled in a quick phase and the community transmission that was happening at a very high rate. We could get these trials done in a very rapid manner, so the patients or the people who enrolled in this clinical trial the fact that they were not getting infected could be determined in a much, much faster fashion than what you would have done in the past with any of the other vaccines. So I think the technology is robust. The [COVID]  trials are very well-conducted and the end point in terms of efficacy has been very well-determined or very accurately determined.  And given the size of these trials and the number of people who have been a goal, I think we can feel fairly confident that the risk associated with this vaccine is pretty low, so you can argue that one of the risk of a particular side effect is only 1 in 80,000. So maybe to the 40,000 people enroll in the trial, they may not have adequate numbers of that and that was certainly a concern when they started vaccinating. And we just know a couple of days ago, there was a publication that looked at almost like 63 million vaccination doses that have been given, and overall the risk of vaccine related side effects have been very, very minimal.

So I think that should also boost our confidence.

But on the other hand, we all heard about what would happen with some of those vaccines and the blood clots, and I think that even though…yes, it is, as it is a risk. It is a very, very small risk. And the fact that you were able to identify them right away again, I think tells us that should there be rare side effects, you’re going to find it, and we are going to figure out the mechanics of why those side effects happen. And we’re going to figure out how to avoid those things.

So, I think the information flow is so fast and all the data related to vaccines and the side effects are being captured in a real-time fashion that we would be… You’d immediately be of avail of side effects should that happen.

Mary Leer:

Wow, that’s so reassuring. Thank you.

Jeff Bushnell:

Another question kind of along the same lines, doctor is the last few days, especially, it’s Vaccine hesitancy has really become sort of the issue to the potential of achieving herd immunity, and how can everybody in the medical community, you guys are facing those stuff in a different way, but the average person, how can we help overcome hesitancy and increase the people’s trust in the vaccine, and also increase the equitable distribution amongst all populations? Some populations are hesitant to take it, others have distance problems for being able to get it. What can we do to sort of push ourselves over the hill to get to that herd immunity?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, no, You bring up a very important point, and I hope we are in a much better place than many parts of the world right now because we have one of the few countries where a significant proportion of the people have been vaccinated, but we are not quite at the point where we can claim herd immunity, I think we still need to continue to pursue this, and I think the ideal goal is to get everyone who’s eligible to get a vaccine vaccinated. Now, you bring up some of the very important points, because even though vaccine hesitancy is a real problem, the underlying reason behind this is manifold, and the only way to tackle that is we have a multi-front approach that will take into account what is the reason behind it.

So for the people where it’s hard to get to populations which can live in far from the areas, it may be more the ability to use those vaccines, which does need the complicated storage, for example, the J&J vaccine. You only need one dose. It’s easy to store. So that may be one of the approaches to be taken. And people who believe that this is a vaccine is going to create side effects, or it’s part of some grand scheme to introduce a variety of things. I think it’s a person of education, and I think they really need to tell them what can happen with. Not really just to them, but the fact that if you continue to allow these infections to proceed on stuff, there are going to be increasing numbers of mutations, and that in turn is going to make the pandemic much more difficult to control in the long run. So it’s totally an individual benefit, but it’s on to the society’s benefit to have everyone be vaccinated. And then definitely, I think knowing that should anything unto it happen, there’s going to be medical care that’s going to be available to these individuals, and I think that’s also an important point, so who are near and dear to them is going to be the key thing.

Mary Leer:

Here’s a question many cancer patients are unclear about if antibodies are present or if I have tested positive before, there’s a wondering, “Should I still get the vaccine?”

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, I know the recommendation right now is to go ahead and get the vaccine, partly because we don’t know the natural immunity from the infection, how long does it last. So it seems like the antibodies can start to wane off the infection. And again, we don’t have a lot of data on it, but it looks 3 to 6 months, it might start waning at least to the level that they can detect. Now, whether that is sufficient or even the undetectable levels is protective against a future infection, we don’t know. There have been some reports of people getting a second infection even though they have been infected before again, scattered reports, we don’t know how widespread that phenomenon is going to be, so given all these, I think the current recommendation would be to go ahead and get vaccinated. We generally tell people to wait for two to three months after the infection to go ahead with the vaccination.

Mary Leer:

Alright, thank you

Jeff Bushnell:

Should people… Is the idea of pre-screening, especially for cancer patients, maybe who may be at risk, I guess, to see whether they have antibodies or whatever, be an effective thing to decide which vaccine they should get? or I know, as I say, I was in the trial and they were very forthcoming to the participants with what the numbers were, and I was flabbergasted at how effective the vaccine was, it was just amazing to me, and that kind of information that I guess is not available publicly maybe it should be. Does it help to decide which vaccine you get? All I hear on the TV is get the first one you can. What are your thoughts on that?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Yeah, no, I completely agree with you. I think even those numbers may mean… You look at the Moderna and the Pfizer trials, and they said, now over 90 percent effective. Look at the AstraZeneca trials, you know, it’s like they recorded 70 to 80, 85 percent, and the J&J about 80 to 90 percent effective. Do these numbers mean much? It’s really hard to know, I think, partly because they have been tested in, again, different countries, different times, as the virus was continually changing its characteristics. So it does it mean… So one could argue that maybe the vaccines that were tested later on when this will be some of the mutants were already there might be more effective, but we don’t know.

I think at the end of the day, 80 versus 90 is not something we would decide a vaccine on. The fact that, yes, if something was only 10 percent effective versus 90 percent, it’s a probably different story. So based on the numbers we have seen, I would say whatever you can get to first, if you don’t want to get jabbed twice, maybe you go with something that goes, it’s only one dose, but that may be the only distinguishing factor here, but nevertheless, I think we have to just get the vaccination, the first vaccine that we can get our hands on.

Mary Leer:

So let’s hope there is some good that comes from the bad. Are there any noticeable trends born out of the pandemic that will be or could be a benefit to the future of cancer care or research?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Mary, That’s a very important question, and I think we always learn from adversity, and I think this is going to be no different. I think, especially when the pandemic hit back in the spring of last year, we all had to think fast on our feet to figure out how best to continue to tell about the best care for the cancer patients without compromising the care in any way. And we knew that bringing the patients back into the clinic at the same rate we did before the pandemic would expose them to significant risk for infection, so how do we continue with treatment? There have been very different things people have tried…one of them is to try and get the medications to patients at home. If they are on IV medications, they can be changed to something that’s comparable that can be given by mouth. We already did that for some patients. For some patients who used to come to the clinic very often, so we figure out is there a way for them to get some of those testing done in a clinic much closer to home, so they can avoid the travel, they can avoid being in a bigger city, they can avoid being in a bigger institution, again, reducing the risk of exposure, and then you look at those numbers and then decide on the next course of treatment. We converted many of the clinic visits to video visits. Nothing is as good as having the patient right in front of you, but this is the best we could do under the circumstances.

And I think that helped. So I think the clinical trials was a big problem because in many of those trials were done in a very rigid fashion with very little variability allowed within the protocols. And everybody loosened from the clinical trial sponsors, the pharmaceutical companies, the institutional review board, the investigators to try and build flexibility into those clinical trial structures to allow patients to continue to be on those trials, many of which are important and both helping. So what does that mean for the future? I think the video visits are here to stay, I think we will continue to utilize that and bring patients back to the clinic only when it’s absolutely needed. I think the clinical trials will have in-built flexibility so that patients can enroll on clinical trials remotely, they can potentially be given some of those medications at home, maybe it would be something where we would check into the patients on a regular basis to make sure things are proceeding in the right way. I think there are increasingly technologies that will allow the patients to communicate in real time with the care team and also provide many of the data that we need through iPads or iPhones, Apple watches, whatever we end up using.

So that is that I think that technology will rapidly take off in the next few years, I think. So I think a lot of the care of the patients with cancer in general, and particularly cancer patients, I think is going to look very different five years from now, because of all these things that we have always thought of and we thought, “Yeah it will take time to implement, it’s difficult.” Now we figure it out in a year. We can do a lot of those things.

Mary Leer:

Yeah, thank you.

Jeff Bushnell:

For the final question, you’ve given tremendous information here, Dr. Kumar w What’s the final takeaway for the average cancer patient and caregiver, how to get through this? What’s your bottom line for us all?

Dr. Shaji Kumar:

Bottomline is, I think Your cancer treatment comes first, let’s not compromise on it, let us do it as safe as we can by observing all the instructions in terms of social distancing, masking, avoiding gatherings, getting vaccinated, and make sure you keep connected with your care team. You don’t have to be in the clinic to do that. There’s a variety of different tools, I think every hospital has options to either through their medical records to message their care team, or set up video visits and so forth.

So we want to be in a state where it was before the pandemic in terms of your communications, but use the technology, so we can decrease the risk of exposure without compromising the quality of care.

Mary Leer:

Alright, well, thank you so much, Dr. Kumar, that you have just given us such valuable information, and I want to thank Jeff as well, and the Patient Empowerment Network for putting this together.

Jeff Bushnell:

Thank you, Dr. Kumar, appreciate it.

Dr. Kumar:

Thank you, Jeff.

How an AML Survivor’s Resilience Saved Her Life

How an AML Survivor’s Resilience Saved Her Life from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML) patient Sasha’s symptoms were dismissed multiple times before her diagnosis. Watch as she shares the story of her cancer journey from diagnosis through treatment as a BIPOC patient – and her advice to other patients to receive equitable and optimal care.

Transcript:

My name is Sasha. I live in Brawley, California. In 2017, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). When I first noticed signs and symptoms, I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but I knew I didn’t feel like myself. I was really tired, fatigued, and getting random little bruises everywhere.

I went to my local hospital three separate times, and each time they didn’t take my concerns seriously. I’d sit in a room for hours until someone finally walked by, and I’d ask to see an expert. Staff members assumed I had already been discharged without even know what my “diagnosis” was.

When I was finally seen, they ran a few tests and sent me home saying it was just anemia or a blood disorder and if I took whatever medication they prescribed, I’d be okay. I felt very ignored. As a plus size woman of color, I’ve been told all my life from medical professionals, no matter what my issue was, if I just lost weight, I’d be fine. There were even moments when the staff assumed I didn’t know English and rudely commented behind office doors. Ironically, they thought I couldn’t understand when English is actually my first language. I knew there had to be a better explanation, but I let the medical staff push my concerns aside.

Finally, after a battery of tests, I remember the doctor walking in the room. He was acting very sad and very concerned. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m really sorry to tell you, but you have leukemia.” The day of my diagnosis, I started chemotherapy and began experiencing several side effects. One of the hardest things after being diagnosed was losing my hair. Not seeing my family was equally difficult, because my parents didn’t have the gas money or transportation.

After the full week of chemo, we had to wait for results to see if the leukemia cells were gone. It was mostly a waiting game. Finally, they told me the chemotherapy worked and that the leukemia cells were gone. But in order for them to stay gone, I would need to move forward with the bone marrow transplant.

Fortunately, the results came a few months later indicating the transplant was working. I am happy to report I’m cancer-free, but the road has not been easy. If there’s one thing I learned from my situation, it’s always trust your gut. If anyone knows your body, it’s you. My advice to other AML patients:

  • Trust your gut and listen to your body. If you feel something is wrong, fight for yourself
  • Get yourself a good healthcare team who will also fight for you and your needs
  • Make friends and talk to others in the cancer community
  • Mental health is just as important as physical health. It’s okay to talk to someone professional and ask for help

Remember, you are in control of your journey and your future. These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.

Love is Not an Ember Going Out: Parenting with Metastatic Cancer

When cancer is malignant, fluid can build up around the lung and heart, or inside the abdomen. One to ten liters can accumulate which can make it hard for organs to function. The diaphragm, lungs, heart, pleural spaces get annoyed, irritated, and inflamed. Sometimes they are stretched and expanded to make room while other times the same fluid compresses and causes restriction. The discomfort which might be termed as ascites, pleural effusion, or pericardial effusion can go from quite minor and needing monitoring, to incapacitating (i.e. stabbing pains) and dangerous. Luckily, there are medical procedures that can drain the fluid and alleviate the strain.

But what can one do about the stress, angst, and worry that fills a parent patient’s heart? What do we do when flooded by fear? How do we keep questions about our disease and mortality manageable to appreciate the time we have? How do we navigate a life-threatening diagnosis, disease, and brutal treatments while also remaining a rock for our children? For many of us with advanced cancers, helping our children face a possible future without us is the hardest part of a cancer diagnosis.

“I’m so out of my depth,” I’d said to Paula Rauch, the founder of the Parenting at Challenging Times (PACT) program at Mass General Hospital in Boston where I get cancer care.

I’d shared that both my daughter and I were struggling with my ovarian cancer recurrence because it not only means I must do more chemotherapy but that the treatment is palliative as I can’t be cured. My daughter is a senior in high school. Though she’s not a baby, toddler, or young child – and each age and stage comes with particular challenges, it’s not easy for any child to face adulthood knowing a parent may be gone.

And it’s not easy to be the parent either!

“It’s going to take a mosaic to step in for you,” Paula said. She knows because she has talked with hundreds if not thousands of parents in my situation. She has just the experience and perspective I need and I hope her words help you as much as they are helping me.

Back Story

My daughter was 16 when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Though the odds were slim that I could be cured (about 15%) I was hopeful. I was in my early 50’s and except for cancer was quite healthy. I’d never been admitted for an overnight stay at a hospital and took my good health for granted.

My first focus was on getting cured and putting the business of cancer behind me. I tried to protect my daughter from details about my disease, treatment, or prognosis so she could have a normal-ish high school experience.

Sometimes I was scared and shocked. Sometimes I was also activated, motivated, and determined to fight. Sometimes, I tried to speed up my parenting. I tried to force my daughter up as quickly as possible – just in case I didn’t make it. I rushed her into adult readiness so she would know how to drive, cook, budget, bank, work, and reach out to other adults in her world besides me.

I tried tough love parenting as if I were a gardener trying to weed, compost, till the soil, and make a flower blossom as quickly as possible knowing we might not have all the seasons of life we’d counted on. I couldn’t afford the patient and organic approach. I couldn’t wait for the way seeds take root, explore the soil underground, and find a dark and safe place to gather nutrients before pushing out into the world. I tried to quicken, speed up, and hasten her childhood and turn it into adulthood and fast.

While my intention to push her hard and fast towards independence was understandable, it was abrupt and sudden, and a huge departure from the attachment style parenting I’d always practiced. I regret how little I communicated about why I was pulling away and pushing her so hard to gain mastery with practical adult tasks and skills.

My oncologist noted, denial is a real defense mechanism and remains strong for patients and families. However, he warned, it’s common for recurrence to cause more distress than the original diagnosis because it means that there is no longer any hope of being cured.

For the rest of my days, I will be a metastatic mama and my parenting and priorities have changed. I must actively consider how to parent in a way that prepares my daughter for my possible decline and death.

Who the heck knows how to do this? Not me. I don’t. And while my daughter is a young adult, she is still a teenager, and figuring out if, when, and how much to share and not to share is hard.

I don’t know what I’m doing or how to do this,” I told Paula, confessing that I had already made mistakes.

“Talking is key,” Paula told me and that doesn’t just mean talking with professionals, she said because therapy isn’t “everyone’s cup of tea.” In fact, she said, when parents push kids into therapy the kids sometimes think it means ‘you can’t talk to me’ or ‘I’m not comfortable with that and need you to take it to someone else.’” The goal, Paula said, is to make sure our kids have support, from us, or from other people in her world that she already trusts, or it a new form of support as new situations arise.

She also shared the following gems.

  • “Can you support her in gaining a skill set of who to talk to about important things – and it doesn’t have to be with the tagline of – because I’m going to die.”
  • “Can you share, as a parenting value, that taking time to pause and get perspective, with other adults, is normal, helpful, etc?”

“When I’m talking with people with a shortened timeline,” Paula said, “it’s helpful to think about a living legacy and people who know you well she can connect to in the future. It’s hard to make a checklist of things to say and do. It’s hard to figure out how to preload, for life. Some parents are like a hallmark special will write a bday card for every future year or future event, and while it’s well-intentioned it can be mis-attuned – because if you’re writing now it is to a future her at another age and maturity.”

  • “Can you support her in figuring out who to problem solve?”
  • “Can you help her find people in sync with your values?”
  • “Can you help her be more confident in her connections and her ability to survive challenging things?”

“Most parenting is on-the-job training,” she reminded me, “and it’s fine to say, as you have, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ Show her how you are reaching out to other people, get support, and do perspective-taking of your own.”

  • “Share with her, ‘I may talk to a therapist,” and ask her who are the people she looks for guidance.
  • Tell her, “I asked so and so about this. I love this person’s advice.”
  • Leave her with the message that it would never be disloyal to you if she attaches to others,” and support and encourage her connections and relationships.

“I literally encourage people to have a list of people your daughter can turn to for a coffee or a meal,” Paula said, if she has questions and to make sure those people do not “turn you into a saint” but to give her a sense of things she can learn about the real you, new things she can continue to learn as relevant to whatever stage she is living.”

She helped me anticipate strategies that can support my daughter throughout her adulthood and understand that bereavement can be a lifelong process. She helped me to normalize grief without minimizing the loss of a parent.

“It can be frightening for children, and really anyone, to bear the existential sense that the person that’s watched me grow up, who has known me my whole life and always been there – might be gone. It’s a gravitational pulling-off axis” She shared what we all know – losing a parent is hard. However, she helped me reframe thoughts of my death.

“Try to think of your life and death – not as an ember going cold,” she said, but as an active and continual process which includes new relationships, learning, and insights, and which can keep the mother-daughter connection alive even if I die.

I’d never considered that before and it comforted me deeply because I know Paula has had far more experience supporting families through grief than I have. Even though I have loved ones I still think of, love, talk to, and feel loved by – who have passed – I forgot that love can be timeless, active, and present beyond life. I had focused on making new memories and preparing my daughter for loss and death, failing to consider the ways I could support and nurture our mother-daughter connection and her relationship with others in the future.

Paula’s words made the bones that had gone cold feel warm again. Her sentences served as blankets removing the chill and ache that nothing else had touched. Her perspective stopped my shallow breaths and made space inside so I could feel expansive again. After our discussion, I felt alive again as a mother. I was reminded of my own instincts and knowing, always available to me like water from a faucet if I just reach out to turn the tap on. Paula helped me to realize I can parent with presence amidst uncertainty and count on my loved ones to step in for me, in the future, if necessary.

“I started this organization more than 25 years ago and many of the kids I worked with are now grown,” Paula told me. “They have told me what is or isn’t helpful. Kids will often take adults up on chances to get new bits of info. and to flesh out a fuller piece of who that parent was through the age they are at. Tell your loved ones not to expect your daughter to be different than she is. She may respond more to an invitation to SO something, rather than talk or talking heavy. Remind adults that for most kids, and some adults, saying, “let me know I can be helpful,” is unlikely to be helpful. Take action instead.”

This advice immediately made sense to me. I realized the ways I had failed to support others in my own life who had grieved by offering platitudes and general statements rather than being more active and supportive. Paula wasn’t trying to shame me; she was just informing me what helps most.

“Make a plan. Issue an invitation – those are more useful,” she told me and encouraged me to share the information with others as well.

“Most people are reticent to follow-up or ask for something in response, to ‘let me know how I can help.’ For many, it is easier to connect while doing something –

  • Driving in car
  • Doing dishes
  • Doing other activities
  • Sharing events

“If it’s all about talking, it might not appeal to kids as that is not everyone’s cup of tea,” Paula said.

“You can also let adult loved ones know to let you know, and keep you in the loop if they feel she is struggling,” she told me, and while it’s important not to “intrude on her privacy you can let others know – if it seems she doesn’t want to trouble me – please trouble me,” she suggested by letting them know, “You want to know.”

She was aware of how much has changed as a result of the COVID pandemic. “So much of the other structures (in life) are gone,” Paula said, “but more family time is one benefit for some.”

She suggested I focus on what is coming next for my daughter and that is getting ready for college. “The transition to college is a big deal,” she said, and asked, “Are there ways to still process it together? What does she want for her dorm room? Imagine with her – what would she like/not like and join her in this fun and planning now.”

She reminded me that it’s impossible to plan for every possible life event, and that trying to do so can be misattuned, but that attending to what is near and soon is doable. “In this way, you are PRE-LOADING a shared experience so if your health is not robust enough to walk around the Charles River, for example, in the future she can remember stuff together that you both did and you can, even if not feeling/doing well, share photos and texts of that time,” she explained.

She told me I didn’t have to try to pre-plan everything, make videos, or buy gifts for all future life events, but instead make sure that the connections I have with loved ones continue for my daughter so that even if I die our relationship, though changed, can stay present and continue.

She also shared some of the lessons she learned over the years. “One last warning depending on how things unfold is that many people get into space where they think and say ‘ it’s not fair that my kid has to go through things,” or “This isn’t fair,’ Paula explained. “Try not to do that and instead try to talk about how many things she has thrived through. Not that it wouldn’t be hard – but convey that you have a lot of confidence in her and how she copes,” she told me.

“One of the things is not uncommon with families is a parent dies, the surviving parent gets controlling or tries to protect the adult child from more pain. Instead remind her, “I hope you get x,y, z – but even if you don’t it’s not the hardest thing you have been through and I have confidence in you,” she told me. “Remember to remind her of her amazing strength and that hard things are not just trauma but that, “really hard changes can result in beautiful things.”

Impact of the PACT Interaction

This one conversation helped me shift my focus from trying to plan for every possible thing that could happen and instead to focus on skills, support, and strengths that my daughter already has. It helped me to hold on to and trust that my daughter is a person who is strong, skilled, capable, competent and that I can even imagine her as o.k., well, and getting her needs met in the future and also helping her find ways to stay connected to me – her mother – even after I am gone. It helped me encourage her to find people and love and nurture and care in multiple forms, to hope and expect for that for her, but also to stop pushing her from the nest and instead to connect and parent with all my heart for as long as we have together.

My soul has been deeply soothed. Even if I decline, get sick, and die, it is possible to imagine a future where my daughter not only experiences pain, grief, and loss but one in which she will happy, well, and whole.

I can encourage and convey confidence while staying connected, and I can help others who love me know how best to love my daughter no matter what happens to me. This is advice that is valuable for all parents not only those of us with life-threatening illnesses.

More about the PACT Program

PACT stands for the Parenting at a Challenging Time program founded and directed by Dr. Paula K. Rauch to offer support to cancer patients who are parents of children who are twenty-fours old or younger. It is “build on the belief that parents are experts on the strengths and needs of their children.” The support is free to all parents treated at Mass General Hospital in Boston. PACT is made up of a five-person team providing parent-driven psycho-educational support.

The PACT parent guidance consultation model is to help parents to support children’s adjustment to different stages of a parent’s medical diagnosis, treatment, illness, recurrence, and when necessary, to prepare children for a parent’s anticipated death.

As Paul said to me, “We have the belief that confusion is the enemy of coping and that having someone quickly accessible at the time you need it is better than every Tuesday. at 2 p.m.” is what parents need. In addition, all of the support is free. Parents need not be diagnosed, labeled, or billed. Paula shared that when She said that when a parent makes contact, a PACT program clinician remains available and responsive if and when things come up.

To contact the Mass General Hospital Cancer Center’s Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program in Boston, MA, and directed by Dr. Paula Rauch:

To contact the Pappas PACT program, available for parents who are being treated at the Mass General Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley, in Newton, MA and directed by Dr. Jennifer Koch, M.D.:


Note: While the PACT program is only available at these two Mass General Hospitals hospitals, the PACT website is available for parents treated anywhere, and has some helpful resources. In addition, the PACT program founder, Dr. Paula Kasch, has a book entitled, Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick.

Patient Profile: Jeff’s Diagnosis of Parotid Cancer

On April 27, 2020, I received an email plea for help from Debra after she had read my book. Deb’s husband, Jeff, was struggling with a very malignant form of parotid cancer called Acinic Cell Carcinoma that, despite surgery and radiation, had spread to his chest and spine. Worse yet, there were no clear treatment choices available. Over the next 11 months, Deb & I have maintained an almost constant contact via emails and telephone chats. It has been my honor & privilege to get to know Deb. I am most impressed by her innate intelligence, rock solid determination and steadfast perseverance. Jeff is alive today primarily due to Debra’s tireless efforts to find a solution. 

On my request, Deb has penned this story of Jeff’s illness. I sincerely hope that it will inspire other patients and caregivers to become more empowered. Remember, Knowledge is Your Superpower.  Sajjad Iqbal, M.D.


 My husband, Jeff, was diagnosed with high-grade acinic cell cancer of the parotid gland in February of 2018 at the age of 65. He was a very young, healthy 65, who rarely saw a doctor and needed no regular medications. For 37 years he was a teacher and coach at a small school in Iowa. We have now been married for 47 years, have three children and three grandchildren. Jeff retired early from teaching when he was 61, but continued coaching for several more years. He also did small construction jobs with our son. We spent a lot of time traveling by car throughout the United States. It was a shock to both of us to hear that Jeff had this disease since he seemed to be so healthy. 

Several years before Jeff was diagnosed, he mentioned a small lump behind his ear. During a brief physical he had, he asked his doctor about it and was told to keep an eye on it and, if it got bigger, to see a doctor. In January of 2018, he noticed it was getting bigger so he saw the doctor. He was told he needed to get a biopsy but it was probably just a blocked salivary gland. As soon as I heard that, I figured it was cancer as Jeff’s mother had been diagnosed with salivary gland cancer many years before. Hers was a slow growing adenoid cystic cancer that was treated with surgery only. He had his biopsy done at a local hospital and when they said it was cancer, we had them make him an appointment at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota which is only a couple of hours from our home. 

He had further testing done at Mayo which also showed a lesion at the top of his spine. In March of 2018, he had two separate surgeries to remove the tumors. Cancer was also found in 9 of 21 lymph nodes. He came through the surgeries with no problems. Soon after, he received six weeks of radiation on both of those spots. This was much tougher on him than the surgeries. His neck was badly burned, nausea, no appetite, etc. He made it through and slowly got back to feeling normal. At that time, we were told that chemo wouldn’t help him so he never received any. Three months later, a scan showed a nodule on his chest wall. They did a biopsy and found it to be the same type of cancer. He had a cyroablation on that spot.

Two months later, we found out that the cyroablation had not worked, the spot was bigger and there were several spots on bone. He had Foundation One testing done on his tumor and it showed very few mutations. There was only one mutation, RET, that had a possible treatment at that time. There was a clinical trial at Mayo for a targeted drug for that mutation and they were able to get him in. He started on that in February of 2019. He experienced no side effects and the chest wall tumor stayed about the same the entire time he was on the trial. Unfortunately, though, it was not stopping the bone mets. He had radiation three days in a row on a couple of them when they started causing him pain. Because it was not stopping the bone mets, he discontinued the trial. His oncologist told us that he didn’t know of any clinical trials at that time that would help him. The only thing he had to offer was chemo and possibly Keytruda but he was doubtful they would help very much. Needless to say, this left us feeling lost as to what to do next. 

The Mayo oncologist had told us that, in his opinion, clinical trials were the best way to go as you could get the newest treatments and you would be closely monitored. That is what I decided to look for first. Luckily, since Jeff was first diagnosed, I had been doing research on his cancer and possible treatments. There wasn’t a lot as it is a rare cancer. I have no medical background but was determined to figure things out as much as I could and find something that might be able to help. I found three clinical trials that I thought might work for Jeff. These trials did not exist when Jeff was first diagnosed. I sent them to his Mayo oncologist who had told me that he would be willing to look over a clinical trial if I found one. He agreed that the one I was most interested in looked like a good possibility and one of the trial locations was Iowa City which is about 3 hours from us. This is a trial that focuses on the genetic makeup of the cancer instead of the type of cancer. One of the mutations that Jeff has is FANCA and this trial was the first one I found where FANCA was one of the mutations they were looking for. Also, Jeff’s mother, who also had salivary gland cancer, is a carrier of the FANCA gene. There is no known relationship between the FANCA gene and salivary gland cancer but I feel there must be a connection. It is a rare cancer and to have a mother and son have it must be extremely rare. Our children have been tested for this gene and we discovered that our son is also a carrier. 

It was in February of 2020 when we went to Iowa City to try to get Jeff into the trial. We found out that they had changed the requirements for the trial and now you had to have had chemo in order to be accepted. The doctor started Jeff on the oral chemo drug, Xeloda, and told us that if anything grew, he would stop the chemo and try to get him in the trial. Jeff was also having some rib and back pain and that was treated with five days of radiation therapy. Following those treatments, he had some heartburn issues for a couple of weeks after which it slowly resolved.

At first, the chemo wasn’t too bad. Soon though, there were many nasty side effects; peeling palms and bottoms of feet, nausea, no appetite, etc. He did not feel up to doing much and spent a lot of time sitting or lying down. He was on this about five months and decided to stop due to the side effects. He was having some back pain during his chemo and was prescribed a narcotic pain reliever. It helped the pain some, but caused constipation, so he had to take more medication for that. He told the doctors he did not like taking the narcotic drug and wanted to find another alternative. They tried one drug and the first night he took it he ended up fainting and having make a trip to the hospital. Needless to say, we stopped that drug right away! They said he was having nerve pain from his spine but were not able to find the exact source. He ended up having a vertebroplasty on his spine as they thought it might help his pain.

Unfortunately, it didn’t help the pain and he also started having a weird feeling of a tight band around his abdomen. We made a trip back to the Mayo Clinic to see a pain specialist there. He thought Jeff might be helped with a nerve block on either side of his spine. He had this done and, not only did it not help, it made the band feeling we were trying to get rid of feel even tighter! This was very disheartening as we really thought it would help. Iowa City had started him on Gabapentin for his nerve pain and had been slowly increasing the dosage. He was also started on a low dose of Lexapro and, between those two drugs, he started to feel less pain in his back. The “band” feeling is still there, but not as bad as it once was. He was finally able to get into the clinical trial in August of 2020. The drug he is on now is a parp inhibitor that targets the FANCA pathway. He has been on this drug for about seven months now with almost no side effects. The targeted tumor has shrunk quite a bit and the bone mets have stayed the same. Unfortunately, on his last scans, there was a new spot on his liver. He was allowed to stay in the trial as it is working on his targeted tumor and he is scheduled soon for microwave ablation on his liver. 

When one treatment stops working, I always look for a new clinical trial first.

It is hard, however, as so many of the trials are for certain types of cancer. Even though you discover (from the mutations) that a certain drug may help your cancer, you can only be in that trial if you have a certain type of cancer. I hope in the future there are many more trials based on the genetic makeup of the cancer rather than the type of cancer. The other problem is that the majority of trials are held at larger hospitals that are just too far away to go back and forth as often as needed. It would be great if there were a way to have some of the treatments done at a larger hospital in your own state. Also, if you have a rare cancer, it is much harder to find clinical trials. 

I have a library background and have always relied on books and articles to find information about various topics. Now that the internet is available that has been my most important tool at this time. Also, websites like PEN, providing patient’s stories, healthy recipes and classes are very helpful. These types of sites have really helped me feel not so alone and have given me much more hope than I have ever received from any oncologist. It is also over the internet that I connected with Dr. Sajjad Iqbal after reading his book “Swimming Upstream.” He has been very generous with his time and willing to give suggestions and advice as he has a cancer similar to Jeff’s. It has been a great comfort to me to be able to e-mail him to get his opinion on something or ask a question. He has also helped me feel more hopeful than anyone else I have talked to – not only by his words but by his courageous example. 

When Jeff was first diagnosed, he was still coaching track. The entire track team wanted to have a benefit for him and sold t-shirts and wristbands, and had a meal and dodge ball tournament to raise money for him. Jeff is a very popular guy in this rural school district and I know it meant a lot that his team did this for him. We have support from our family and friends and feel that we have people we can call if we need something. The pandemic has kept us from getting together with people as often as we would like but we are looking forward to that in the future. 

We know that there is a good chance that Jeff’s cancer may never be cured. If that is true, I would like the next best thing – for him to live as long as possible, as well as possible with the cancer. We have had three very good years living with it and working around his medical appointments. I will do everything I can to help him have more of those years. 

Jeff has handled this whole situation very well from the beginning. He is a pretty laid-back person who takes things as they come and isn’t much of a worrier. He has kind of set an example for me just by taking things as they come. I feel his job is to fight the cancer and my job is to help him fight the cancer. Our lives are pretty much the same as they were before he was diagnosed – only with a lot more doctor appointments! 

Dying Ain’t Dead

“Can I toss these?” my guy said grabbing the vase of wilting daffodils.

“No,” I shouted. “Please, no. I’m trying to find the beauty in dying,” I said.

I’ve been taking pictures of these flowers since I got them. First, they were tight and closed, then blaring yellow in open-hearted pride, and then, slowly they began to brown and shrivel up. But they are still alive, like me, and that is worthy of notice and celebration.

I’m not ready to add them to the compost bin, not ready to empty the water around their green stems. I can still see the beauty they are as what they were fade. Yes, it’s true, they are not as bright or healthy as they were. But on the planet still and with some life left in them yet, they are. Can I pause to appreciate this not only in myself but in others?

I’ve had a few shit-my-pants scared kinds of nights. It’s not just that recurrence means I can’t be cured, the crap news no one wants but that most of us with ovarian cancer will indeed get. I’ve mostly wrapped my heart and brain around that. I’ve grieved and mourned the old woman I am unlikely to become. I’ve realized there’s no guarantee I’ll be around for graduations, weddings, births, and even the death of others.

“The chances are 50/50 you will be alive in three years,” my oncologist said when pressing me on doing more chemo and maintenance therapies.

“But how much of that time is dying?” I asked, somewhat dismissively.

“None of it if you are alive,” he said. And here, it is important to share that my oncologist is both doctor and minister and though I’m not religious, it is one of the things I love most about him, that and his kindness and responsiveness. Once, when I was fretting, he said, “Never worry alone.” I love a doctor who invites you to share your worries and concerns, and who means it as well. I also have his cell phone and email and he texts me almost immediately after scans. This is invaluable and generous and rare, from what I have heard.

But, in the last few months, I’ve had trouble breathing, exercising, and exerting on any level. I spent a day in the ER ruling out a pulmonary embolism, getting cardiac work-ups, follow-ups, and a specialist appointment to see if I have a right atrial enlargement. The thing about cancer is that it’s not even the cancer that causes most of the problems, but the cancer treatments including chemo, immunotherapy, maintenance drugs as well as all of those in combination. And that’s after surgery, for most, and for some it also means radiation treatment.

The longer I live with cancer, the more often I go to the doctor’s office. I kept saying, “It feels like I’m on chemo but I’m not on chemo,” as though this should be a red flag, an alarm, and mean something significant. It didn’t.

And then, the breathing got even worse, and there was pain that made it hard to sleep, stand, walk, workout, or be. Sometimes the pain was heavy, like a hardness in my chest, or like a weighted blanket on my back. Other times, when I sneezed or hiccupped or breathed in deep it was more like a shooting pain beneath the ribs in my back and was like a bad back where the times you find comfort are far outnumbered by the hours when everything hurts.

Sure enough, there was fluid in my right pleural space beneath my lung. My back got “tapped” like a keg, and it looked like a pitcher of beer was drained from me. Immediately, I felt better – not so much in terms of pain relief but in energy, ability to walk stairs, stand upright for hours, and clean the house. I felt sort of like myself and it made me realize how bad it had actually got. It happened slowly and I thought I was just lazy and out of shape.

I wanted the fluid in my lung to be from the Moderna shot or even maybe a past case of COVID, but the most likely thing, malignant cells and cancer as the cause were indeed what it turned out to be.

Even when I think I’ve sort of realized I might not get to 58 or 60, then it occurs to me that I might not even make it to my next birthday. “Whew,” my oncologist texted when I told him that the pulmonary embolism the PA said meant would require immediate blood thinners and hospitalization, was actually not a pulmonary embolism but a pleural effusion.

How does a mistake like that happen? Is it just from a quick glance of someone in a hurry? Pulmonary embolism and pleural effusion sort of look and sound alike and if you aren’t used to treating cancer patients maybe seem more similar than different.

I don’t know I only know that it’s terrifying to Google pleural effusion and cancer and so I’m not even going to Google pulmonary embolism and cancer. I’ll trust my oncologist’s “whew” and try to think of this as better than it could have been otherwise news.

But, when my oncologist called me about a week later with the cytology and said it was positive, I said, “not as in good news, but positive for cancer, right?”

“Yes,” he said, “Positive for cancer so negative news.”

“Got it,” I said.

“The lymph node growth is small,” he said, “but the recurrence is real.”

Somehow I still feel optimistic. I don’t know if I’m in denial, if it’s all my loved ones lathering me with prayers, calls, and kindness or a bit of both. I am exploring low-dose chemotherapy combined with off-label drugs. I’m not so keen on clinical trials as I used to be given that I wasn’t able to be unblinded when I had cardiac, lung, and even Moderna vaccine related questions about it and when I was (or was not) on PARPs or immuno or both or just placebo.

All I know for sure is that dying is not dead, though I was irritated when my oncologist first said this. I am alive. I am living. This is the way my life is right now and maybe it gets better and maybe it gets worse. I don’t know that yet. And neither, really, does anyone!

“I’ve lived with someone with ovarian cancer,” I told my oncologist, “And dying isn’t the same as living – and can include a lot of misery as well as closeness and intimacy.”

He may treat hundreds and thousands with ovarian cancer but I have the disease and loved and lived with my Nana when she did. I can’t help but think of what those who love me will go through if I get worse, and worse, and worse, and worse. Is there any way we can all see this as life and living? I don’t want to waste my time worrying about death which will come for each and every one of us. But sometimes I do.

I’m trying to savor all forms of beauty and life, including honoring and acknowledging the shifts, changes, and even the breaking and withering. That too is part of life and is why I am glad my oncologist sometimes talks like a minister. Sometimes it takes me a minute or even months to hear and listen and trust and believe him.

Today, I walk the beach with loved ones and furry companions. Today, the sun is shining. Today, I have no horrible or distracting pain. Today, I am aware and awake and have had an exceptionally good week.

Today, I love these daffodils. Today, I can see they are not yet dead while also knowing they are dying. Dying is a also a kind of living and one I’m learning how to appreciate. And if I get more days and times, if my bloom and color returns, I will appreciate it even more. If it doesn’t, that too is a way of life and one we should all learn to notice, accept, and even embrace. We all know, “No one gets out of here alive,” but how many really integrate that knowledge into our way of living? I didn’t. And I hope you don’t have to get cancer to do so.

See below. The same flowers. Two types of beauty.

 

Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor: Taking Control of Your Quality of Life

Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor: Taking Control of Your Quality of Life from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Stage IV metastatic breast cancer survivor Lesley shares her story of taking control of her care. After her oncologist chose aggressive treatment that would include 8 rounds of chemo, bi-lateral mastectomy, and radiation, she experienced a severe emotional toll along with extreme nausea, fatigue, bone aches, low blood counts, neutropenia, gasping for breath, and then sepsis. After receiving an emotional response when asking for a second opinion, Lesley was able to get an appointment with another oncologist, took control of her own life, and decided to stop treatment until she achieved her goal of climbing Mt. Whitney. And after summiting the mountain, she chose a new treatment with her oncologist based on side effects and quality of life.

Lesley’s advice,

“We have this one life, let’s live it to the best of our ability. These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.”

See More From the Best Care No Matter Where You Live Program


Transcript:

My name is Lesley. I live in the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon.  In 2013, I was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic breast cancer.

During a monthly self-check, I noticed a lump in my right breast. I went to the primary care doctor who swiftly ordered a mammogram, ultrasound and a biopsy. Shortly after I met with an oncologist and to my surprise, I was immediately provided with a treatment plan of: 8  rounds of chemo, a bi-lateral mastectomy and radiation.

The side effects of initial treatment literally knocked me off my feet. I was plagued by extreme nausea, fatigue, bone aches, and low blood counts which resulted in daily shots for neutropenia. I would wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. 

A few weeks  into treatment, I was admitted into the hospital with sepsis. The port-a-cath site was infected and my family and I specifically asked for it to be removed. However, my care team was exclusively focused on saving the port-a-cath because of  future chemo treatments I would need.

The side effects snowballed which really scared my family. I recall my husband yelling and asking why someone wasn’t doing anything to help me. My situation was dire and we felt no one was listening to the emotional toll of the treatment. Rashes as well as swelling, engulfed my body,  and I felt at this point, it was not the cancer that was killing me, it was the treatment plan that the doctors set forth, and my body was rejecting anything and everything put into it, and yet again, the oncologist wanted me to start another round of chemo. 

I knew that things had to change. I soon took matters into my own hands. I told my oncologist that I would not go back onto chemo, however, I pushed for additional treatment options. When I told her I was going to get a second opinion, she was upset with me and asked me to meet with her colleague.  I told her I would not meet with another oncologist from the same practice.  

I was referred to an orthopedic surgeon who was doing my bone biopsy and within one hour of meeting me and hearing my story, he suggested a second opinion doctor. He picked up his cellphone, called her right from the examining room and within a matter of time had already set up an appointment for me.  I later had a successful breast sparing lumpectomy instead of a mastectomy.  My new care team was extremely thorough,  but also respectful of me and the quality of life I desired. 

With a grip on my treatment path, I decided to start taking my life back and I began hiking. My goal for the year was to train for 8 months and summit Mt. Whitney. I met with my oncologist and told her I wanted to stop treatment until after my big climb. We did stop treatment and shortly after, I summited Mt. Whitney. 

Several weeks later, I met with my oncologist and  started another regimen, of which I chose as well with guidance from my oncologist. I progressed in 2018, again I also decided which treatment option I wanted to do, based on my quality of life, and the side effects I was willing to live with. 

 My advice to other metastatic breast cancer patients:

  • Find your voice, you have one
  • Take full control of your care at the outset
  • Feel empowered to question your care team at any point on your journey
  • Decide on the quality of life YOU want to have
  • Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion

Since my diagnosis, I’ve made it my mission to  advocate for my metastatic breast cancer community.  Patient advocacy is my full time job. I share my story to inspire and empower others to take control of one’s care.  

My best advice is to find and build a care team that sees you not as a number in a queue of patients,  but as the person whose life is represented in that medical file.  We have this one life, let’s live it to the best of our ability.

These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.

Patient Profile: Vanessa Steil

“PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate.” – Vanessa Steil, thyroid cancer survivor and patient advocate.

When Vanessa Steil recounts how she was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you can tell it is a story she has told many times. The dates, the terminology, and which doctor told her what and when are all precisely chronicled in her memory. Yet it took her reflecting on her story as a survivor to process just how crucial all of the details were. Now, she’s passionate and committed to helping others, and she has dedicated much of her time—and career— over the past eight years to doing just that.

It all started in March 2013 during a routine visit to the gynecologist. The doctor, who performed a neck check as part of the exam, felt a lump on the right side of Vanessa’s thyroid. “I was taken off guard by the whole thing,” she says. She tried to convince herself that the lump was nothing serious, but she followed the doctor’s advice for further testing, and a month later was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma: thyroid cancer. She was 26 years old. “My whole world changed with just three words. In an instant, I went from feeling like a normal person to having to absorb all this new medical jargon,” she says.

It was a difficult time for Vanessa. She was young, she didn’t know anyone else her age who had cancer, and she didn’t know anyone with thyroid cancer. While she had support from friends and family, at the end of the day she felt very much alone. As the weeks passed by and her mind raced on, she began to second-guess her diagnosis, question whether she should have surgery, and considered having another biopsy. “I had to work through the emotional aspects of my diagnosis, including coming to grips with the fact that I had thyroid cancer and the fear I felt about the outcome,” she explains. “You have to be in a positive place when you are going to have surgery.” Fortunately, her cancer was not overly aggressive, and she was able to delay the surgery until she felt more prepared.

By June 2013, she was ready for surgery and had a total thyroidectomy that included the removal of six lymph nodes, one of which was positive for cancer. The surgery was successful, and so far, she hasn’t required any radiation therapy, a common follow-up treatment post thyroid cancer. While in 2017 her antithyroglobulin levels, a marker that can be used to monitor a possible cancer recurrence in those with an autoimmune condition, went up and remained that way, she continues to be monitored. Her bloodwork and scans are done twice a year, and once a year she has a neck ultrasound; each time she experiences what survivors call “scanxiety” until she gets an all clear from the results.

When Vanessa was diagnosed, her endocrinologist gave her a key piece of advice that she didn’t completely understand at the time, but it stuck with her, and the meaning soon became clear. He told her, “Don’t turn this diagnosis into a research project.” As someone who is naturally curious and was eager to learn all she could about her disease, as soon as she was diagnosed, Vanessa took to “Dr. Google” looking for information and answers, but she wasn’t always finding helpful information. “While online, I was landing on horror stories,” she says, adding that while it is important to be knowledgeable about your disease, it is imperative to get accurate information and to be careful about choosing which sites or social media outlets to use as resources. “The Internet can be a scary rabbit hole, and it can cause unnecessary worry,” she says. “Finding a reputable site, like Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), that’s done a lot of the legwork for you and has comprehensive resources available is invaluable,” she says. Vanessa especially appreciates that PEN helps prepare patients for doctor visits by providing a list of questions to ask and offers relevant insight to caregivers, and survivors. “I was impressed with the PEN content, because it helps the patient from diagnosis to recovery,” she says. She also recommends sites that offer a sense of community where you can interact with other patients who have had similar experiences. “PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate,” she says. “You have to know your body and speak up for yourself. That’s where the community aspect comes in. As a survivor, I try to provide that sense of community for others.”

After her surgery, Vanessa found a creative outlet that allows her to provide support for others and helped her through her own recovery. She created a lifestyle and wellness blog, Living in Steil (pronounced style), where she shares her personal journey and favorite resources as well as beauty, food, fitness, and health and wellness information. She says she was inspired to start the blog in February 2014, while recovering from surgery and trying to put the pieces of her life back together. “You don’t often process the emotional aspects of cancer until later,” she says. “It’s been cathartic to blog about my experience and have the site resonate with so many other patients and survivors.”

Her work as a blogger has led to many more opportunities to share her story including being asked to participate in a book, Tough: Women who Survived Cancer by Marquina Iliev-Piselli and collaborations with other advocacy groups in the healthcare space. In addition to her blog, Vanessa is a health coach and Board Certified Patient Advocate who also works for a pancreatic cancer foundation where she manages public relations and social media. She credits her diagnosis with helping her find her career niche and a meaningful role that allows her to make a difference in the lives of patients every day.

As far as her cancer is concerned, technically she is in remission, but says she is vigilant about staying on top of her health. “I have never taken my survivor status for granted,” she says. She continues to be her own advocate and has found that sometimes means she needs to find new doctors. If they are not listening to her or are not open to communication, she knows it’s time to move on. “It’s important to find a doctor who takes your concerns to heart,” she says.

Through Vanessa’s own experience with cancer, she’s learned a lot about advocating for herself and others. Vanessa has experienced firsthand what works and what doesn’t, and she is grateful to be able to share her knowledge. “If I can bridge the gap for people with a cancer diagnosis and make it easier for them to get the resources they need, then that is rewarding for me,” she says. “I had a difficult diagnosis, but I learned from my challenges and now I can share that knowledge with others. I can’t think of a better way to pay it forward than that.”

Read more about Vanessa and follow along with her journey at www.livinginsteil.com or on social media at @livinginsteil.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part V

This completes a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. (Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV) In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story. In Part Five Lisa concludes her advice to newly diagnosed cancer patients through example by sharing her own experiences, connecting to readers, and offering hope for herself and others.


Share

Not in a million years did I think I’d post an open, raw account of my cancer experience. Not one to share personal trials, other than the occasional “it’s been a long week,” I still find it surprising that I yearn for an hour to post on a website dedicated to people sharing stories about health challenges.

My decision to share came quickly, as my kids were in middle and high school at the time of my diagnosis. My diagnosis, paired with the word “incurable,” frightened me and my family. Rather than questions directed at them, I chose to notify their schools and my close friends and family about my diagnosis, requesting that questions come to me. In exchange for our daughters maintaining a normal school routine, we decided to share details by posting to a secure website, to keep those close to us informed.

Choosing to unveil your journey is deeply personal. Besides a gratitude journal, I’ve never been one to document my activities, thoughts, feelings. While in Houston, Lance set up a CaringBridge site. Prior to the first journal entry, I methodically moved in and out of appointments, listening, and absorbing the words. I was shocked, scared, numb, and out of my body. It only took a few keystrokes before emotions were unleashed. Journaling and sharing allow time to reflect. Not all entries are shared publicly. It can be highly cathartic just to write. Share with your journal alone or share with others. Occasional sharing with others is both unifying and comforting, as friends and family find a common thread to tie your diagnosis with their experiences. Sharing provides connection, and leaves you feeling less alone.

The degree to which you share your trials, tribulations, and triumphs, and when, is up to you.

Connect

One of my favorite books is The Blue Zones, by Dan Buettner. Buettner first released an article in National Geographic, then published his book on the “blue zones.” I’m summarizing this in my own words, but the blue zones refer to geographic regions around the globe that have the highest percentage of centenarians, who also have a good quality of life in their later years. These locations include Loma Linda, Sardinia (good reason for a trip to Italy), Ikaria (reason to visit Greece, too), and several other locations. In his research, Buettner discovered that the culture in these areas integrate physical and social health as parts of everyday life. Things like unintentional exercise (like walking to the market or cleaning), eating native/local foods, and at the top of the list, strong social connections. It reminded me of my grandma who used to have “coffee hour,” more like 3 hours, with her neighbors each week. They loved their weekly gatherings, often bonding over their health ailments, as they aged. I believe that each of them had a better quality of life because of those regular visits.

Upon diagnosis, a friend sent an email that ended with, “Lean hard and lean often.” He wanted us to rely on our network to get through the challenge ahead. Depending on others is incredibly difficult for many people, including me. When a neighbor set up a meal calendar, I was overwhelmed with the response and felt guilty about the possibility of burdening others and their time. She explained it like this: do it for others; let us cook meals; to allow others to provide something to you alleviates their feelings of helplessness. I am so grateful I accepted. As the fatigue swept in, my ability to cook, let alone stand for more than 2 minutes, vanished. My family loved the meals, and we’ve since collected recipes and voted on our favorites (all meals were excellent) that we fix monthly. Though a note on the sign-up sheet advised the chefs to place meals by our front door, as not to disturb us, I anxiously waited by the door every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Swinging the door open and greeting our friends was the highlight of my day. My energy lasted about 5 minutes, on a good day, but it felt so powerful and good to collapse on the couch after experiencing that connection.

Connection with others is important; however, connecting to anything can uplift: your animals (dogs, cats, birds, horses etc.,); your environment (sitting outside or gardening); your routine (sipping a warm cup of coffee in the morning or an evening walk); your faith/beliefs/thoughts. We are wired to connect. To belong, love, and be loved is on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology made up of a five-tier model of human needs. Connection is key to improved well-being, both physical and emotional. Who knows? You might conquer cancer and join the circle of Buettner’s centenarians. It’s worth the effort to connect.

Hope

While reading this same book, I was introduced to the concept of “ikigai.” (Icky-guy). Ikigai is a Japanese term that roughly means a person’s “reason for being.” As Buettner discusses in his books, TED talks, and articles, Ikigai is bigger than just something you want to do as a service; a person never feels obligated or forced into the purpose. It is something that gives value to a person’s life, as it gives life meaning. It is the reason you get up in the morning. When I began each of my cancer treatments, I wondered why I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and why I had to endure biopsies, radiation, surgery, chemo, and stem cell transplant (collection). Each new treatment comes with a renewed sense of fear and uncertainty.

Hope is often elusive, during a cancer battle. As a myeloma patient, the word “incurable” was the vacuum that sucked the hope from my spirit. Infusions were a part-time job, as I spent half a week in the chemo suite for six months. I appreciated the openness of the chemo suite, chairs side-by-side and few closed curtains. I loved going to chemo. It felt safe. It was in the chemo chair where I heard stories of both hopelessness (from failed chemo, metastasis, fear of pain, suffering, and death) and of hopefulness (seeing family, a chemo break, a provider sharing a new study showing dramatically improved outcomes, a new drug approval, good test results, a random stranger saying, “I believe,” and connecting with friends). Hope is found in comments from your care team, friends, family, and strangers. Hope is in your experiences (“manufactured hope” from steroids counts, too). Hope is in your faith, however that manifests in your life, and in the belief that something bigger than you can help you fight cancer. Relish moments of hope…of yours and of others. Write them down when you can and, on occasion, reread them.

Now that I’m further along in my cancer journey and in pseudo-remission, I contemplate: Why…what is the purpose of this? What am I supposed to do with everything I’m learning from this? How can I use this to do something productive or meaningful? I don’t know the purpose yet, but when Lance and I talk, we know there is something more to it. This search for purpose is what gives me hope, now. I know there is a purpose in this experience that we will figure out. My ikigai. Our ikigai. I hope we can do something good.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part IV

This is Part Four in a five-part (Read Part I, Part II, and Part III) series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story. In Part Four Lisa continues to share poignant and powerful advice based on her experiences one breath at a time.


Breathe

“You have cancer.” It takes your breath away, this phrase. Personally, the “limbo window,” from diagnosis to commencement of treatment was the most challenging. Uncertainty debilitates, terrifies, suffocates. One day at a time is too much to fathom. Take one breath at a time. Work up from there.

Feel

As I stood up from the exam room stool to leave, Dr. Mike handed me two papers. A prescription for anti-depressants and a prescription for anti-anxiety medications. “You’ll need these,” he said. I didn’t feel depressed or anxious, just numb and hollow. My only thought was whether or not I’d be around to see our daughters graduate. Given the prognosis and life expectancy for myeloma, that prospect seemed unlikely. No anger, no sadness. Just numb and breathless…again.

Shock was the first emotion. Each visit with a new provider, first the neurosurgeon, then the radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, stem cell oncologist, amped up the shock. The final cherry on top was the financial coordinator. The stem cell transplant price tag is $350,000 to $600,000.

A cancer diagnosis and accompanying uncertainty surrounding treatment, prognosis, and outcome, result in overwhelming waves of shock and fear. As the shock begins to wane, denial and questioning swiftly ride in, followed by anger, frustration, and sadness, in no particular order.

The grief cycle, usually reserved to describe feelings associated with losing a loved one, can also be applied to a cancer diagnosis. With a cancer diagnosis you lose your life routine as you knew it, and often lose hopes, dreams, and expectations. Cancer is terribly disruptive. Cancer patients feel shock, denial, anger, despair, depression, and acceptance, often sliding quickly from one feeling to another. There is no timeline for grief. Don’t feel obligated to create one. Just let yourself feel. No judgement, no time limits, no guilt, no apology. It’s okay to feel.

Live

I bought a self-serve ice cream machine in July. It’s a full-size, commercial grade machine on wheels and is parked in our garage. Not sure if it was the chemo or Covid isolation or the less-than-good news appointment I had that day that led me to pull the trigger on purchasing a used machine. Maybe it was the resulting desire to live every moment that cancer patients feel as we struggle with medication side effects, endless appointments, and the loss of life’s routine. Or the desire to deeply inhale every breath of life.

Anyway, the money spent on the machine was only a fraction of what we would have spent on a cancelled vacation. Once a week, we sanitized, set up, and filled the machine with vanilla and pineapple soft-serve mix (yes, it has a “twist” option, too). On our driveway, we could socially distance while enjoying ice cream with friends and neighbors. Ironically, chemo side effects seemed to lessen each time we started the process of setting up. I can’t wait for the weather to warm again.

When you’re feeling well, think of things that energize you. Past or present. Mine was memories of Dole Whip at Disneyland. It can be anything. Watching movies, sitting on a beach towel with a picnic, watching kids run around the neighborhood, going for a walk, writing, the ocean…the list is endless. Identify at least one activity that you can do and make it happen even if it requires soliciting the help of others and making some adaptations.

Live. As often and as big as you can.


Read Part V of Lisa’s story here.

 

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part III

This is Part Three of a five-part series (Read Part 1 and Part 2) from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part Three Lisa uses her experiences to provide valuable advice about becoming an empowered patient through a willingness to learn and be open.


It’s true, knowledge is power. And it is empowering. There are so many ways to learn about your cancer, which allows you to feel that you have some control over your diagnosis. Learning from others is a great way to start, as we did with “R”, a stranger we met on an elevator at our local cancer center.

We met R a couple days after diagnosis. She was maybe five feet tall, give or take a couple inches…probably take. The elevator carried us one floor, from the main floor to the basement (I understand that radiation areas are better shielded in the basement, but it’s an awful locale for an oncologist’s office…dark, depressing, and deathly). This 20-second ride changed our lives, and quite possibly the length of mine.

My husband and I were obviously exhausted. Trying to determine the order of treatments (radiation, surgery, chemo, stem cell transplant) had us feeling like ping pong balls, bouncing back and forth, all the while worrying that my spine and spinal cord could fail at any moment. We wanted someone to tell us what to do. Information overload and miscommunications among providers left us too tired to think. We’d been mulling the idea of going to MD Anderson, but that task seemed much too daunting; not to mention that leaving our kids for a week (which morphed into a month) worried me. They were afraid, too; I needed to comfort them.

This random stranger, R, thanked us for holding the door. As the elevator door sealed shut, R gave us a stern look, “Which of you is getting zapped today?” Maybe this petite but fiery woman had some words of wisdom. Clearly, she had been going through something herself, as a large, patchy scar was evident on her neck. I explained that neither of us was going for radiation, just a radiation consult for me. Our quick elevator conversation extended for several minutes after we deboarded the elevator. She did have something to share: her story, and her words of wisdom. “Go,” she said…no, she demanded…we go to Houston for an expert consult. It was absolutely, the best decision we made during this entire journey. We were open to listening and learning as a result of desperation.

I am a researcher, and once I was under the influence of powerful steroids, I researched myeloma all night long (thank you, dexamethasone). Support groups for cancer patient and caregivers provide not only support, but educational opportunities. We’ve made lifelong friendships with our local myeloma support group and have found that it’s more a social hour than a support hour.

Learn from the entire care team. Oncologists are the cancer care “quarterbacks,” but the chemo nurses see much more of the side effects, standard and atypical, to know when to be concerned. Pharmacists are more likely to understand your bowels and digestive issues. Upon starting infusions, the oncology pharmacist introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Greg the pharmacist. I talk to people about drugs and poop. We talk openly and freely about poop. Let’s make that normal right now. How is pooping currently?”


Read Part IV of Lisa’s story here.

 

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part II

This is Part Two in a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield (read Part I of Lisa’s story here). In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) as a resource, and she uses her experience to offer her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part Two Lisa emphasizes the importance of being an informed patient and discusses how she values the power of PEN.


Education is critical to anyone diagnosed with cancer. A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming; it’s okay to ask for help. Having an advocate, whether it’s the patient or another person, can change everything from treatments to outcome. As an example, we quickly learned that our local oncology community does not include a myeloma specialist. Seek an expert opinion. For myeloma, hematologists are well-qualified, but a myeloma specialist is top-notch. We researched, asked around, and discovered several centers with myeloma departments. Fortunately, we scheduled quickly and summoned the resources to travel. Like us, many patients do not live near a specialty center for their type of cancer. Financial resources, and logistical resources, such as finding care for children, pets, house, etc., can be daunting to consider. Friends and family want to help. Accept the help. Educating yourself, or having another conduct research on your behalf, can change your prognosis and outcome…and your outlook. It changed mine. My overall survival (a.k.a. lifespan) potentially increased from two to four years to eight to ten years, based on access to newer treatments and information from my myeloma specialist. Education empowers and boosts hope.

Cancer is hard. Treatment can be harder. Understanding your treatments and their accompanying side effects is critical. Living with pesky, sometimes debilitating, side effects is a significant burden to carry.

In addition to asking questions of your provider, consider participating in a support/education group that includes members with your same or a similar diagnosis. We belong to a local myeloma group and meet monthly with others battling myeloma and their family members. Relief from severe, drug-induced muscle spasms is the result of after-meeting conversations with a fellow “myeloman.” I’ve learned as much from them as I have from my care team. And we’ve made lifelong friends.

Lastly, take advantage of steroid-induced insomnia and spend sleepless nights perusing the internet, but be thoughtful with your sources. Forums, blogs, articles, clinical trials, medical journals, and testimonials are at your fingertips. I enjoyed searching clinical trials and peer-reviewed medical journal articles while on high-dose steroids, in the wee hours of the morning. Now, I prefer bedtime reading of blogs and patient forums, particularly those with inspirational accounts in the midst of adversity. The supply seems endless, from general cancer topics to specific.

Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) and other cancer-related websites have helped me achieve a better outcome by publishing information specific to my diagnosis. The articles provide basic information for the newly diagnosed and identify a methodical approach to dealing with myeloma, including how to access treatment and important information regarding treatment decisions. The staging of myeloma includes “risk categories” for different genetic mutations. Prior to treatment at MD Anderson, my risk category had not been addressed, and I only knew to ask about it from a cancer website. Identifying the risk category is important when determining the appropriate chemo regimen. My regimen changed once my risk category was assigned, and I believe that my good outcome (remission) is a result of having this knowledge and addressing it with my specialist.

PEN also publishes patient testimonials. I find these stories inspiring and comforting. I’ve also identified, with my doctor in Houston, new drugs to try at relapse (myeloma patients anticipate relapse and often work with the specialist to determine the next round of chemo) from patient stories. Knowing we are not alone and having a common bond, eases stress and fear. Alleviating some of the negative emotion surrounding diagnosis helps with overall well-being, and hopefully improves outcome.


Read Part III of Lisa’s story here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part I

This begins a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story.


April 30, 2018

Two hours after the MRI, my doctor, having received a call from the radiologist: “Lisa, it’s Mike. I just received the results from your MRI.” This didn’t sound good. “You have a tumor on your spine. These types of tumors are almost always malignant,” he said. “In fact, I’m just going to say, it’s a malignancy. Can you and Lance come and see me first thing in the morning?” My world stopped.

Backing up a couple of years, I’d been battling a variety of aches and pains. Usually brushing them off and attributing them to aging, improper body mechanics, being out of shape, and garden-variety stress from the busy-ness of life, I got along okay. Until I couldn’t. The year prior to diagnosis, I had suffered from a frozen shoulder on my left side, then right. I maxed out my physical therapy sessions in an attempt to alleviate a weird hip pain that occasionally felt better after PT, but progressively worsened over time. Walking and attempting daily tasks (like crawling into bed) resulted in significant pain. I was not thriving.

Back to d(iagnosis)-day, 2018, we met with Dr. Mike and continued the week with a dizzying schedule of appointments, phone consults, procedures, tests, and communications with various other medical personnel.

I had a plasmacytoma (tumor) that had “eaten away” at my spine at the T-12 level. My diagnosis: multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma, myeloma for short, is a blood cancer, originating in the bone marrow. The first radiation oncologist we saw described myeloma as a “liquid” cancer. I thought it was an odd explanation. I later learned that “liquid” is in contrast to a “solid” cancer, such as breast cancer or colon cancer, which typically involve masses or tumors. This didn’t matter much, other than the notion that I had both a liquid and solid aspect of myeloma. My treatment required managing the plasmacytoma (solid) and the actual cancer in the bone marrow (liquid). Myeloma develops in the plasma cells of the bone marrow, the soft, spongy center of the bone. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell and are important for producing antibodies to maintain the immune system. In myeloma, for reasons yet determined, the healthy plasma cells turn into malignant cells (myeloma cells). These myeloma cells replicate and “crowd out” the good cells. This transformation results in fewer “good” antibodies, which is why many myeloma patients complain of frequent infections prior to their myeloma diagnosis.

Myeloma is incurable.

I live in Boise, Idaho. A nice, small city with good, reliable health care but no myeloma specialists. The best decision we made regarding my diagnosis was to seek a second, expert opinion. Two weeks after that dreadful call, we were at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

My myeloma diagnosis was confirmed with a bone marrow biopsy. For anyone with myeloma, you might be curious to know that I was diagnosed with monosomy 13 and translocation (11;14). These are genetic mutations found on the myeloma cells. I have Kappa Lightchain Myeloma.

The most pressing issue was the plasmacytoma, as the location and growth had compromised my spine. My doctors indicated the cancer was secondary to the spinal cord compression. It didn’t feel secondary to me, as they described “scattered lesions”, or holes, throughout my skeleton, including my skull. I wanted to know about the cancer more than the spine damage. The team at MD Anderson worked closely, one specialist often conferring with another, as I sat in the room listening to their conversations. It was quickly decided that I would begin radiation immediately. Radiation served to shrink the tumor and destroy malignant cells. Radiation was a bit difficult, as the tumor and surrounding area became inflamed and swelled, creating significant pain, but that was short-lived, lasting eight days. On the last day of radiation, I was wheeled into surgery for spine stabilization. The partial vertebra was not removed, as this was deemed too risky. The procedure did stabilize my spine and prevented further collapse and spinal cord injury. After five days in the hospital and a couple nights at a nearby hotel, we flew home.

My medical oncologist in Houston devised a “chemo cocktail,” which included a drug only accessible to specialists. For six months, I went to our local hospital every Wednesday and Thursday to have this cocktail administered intravenously. I have great memories of those six months. Truthfully. Meeting people each day, seeing the weekly “regulars,” and spending several hours with my girlfriends is one of the most memorable periods of my life. Funny how the mind works. Those moments are deeply embedded and overpower memories of the lousy side effects.

Standard of care for myeloma patients is chemo, followed by an autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT). Transplant is not a cure for myeloma, but research has shown that it can lead to a longer remission if it “takes.” Due to multiple factors, I chose to have my stem cells harvested and stored, rather than harvested and transplanted. Once the six months of chemo was complete, we traveled to Seattle for three weeks for re-staging and stem cell harvest. My stem cells are securely frozen and ready for future use.

Bilateral bone marrow biopsies (one in each hip bone) confirmed that I had an excellent response to chemo, and I’ve graduated to maintenance chemo. Thankfully, my current cancer drugs are oral, so I only report to the cancer center once a month for labs and an oncologist visit. Because there is no cure for myeloma, I’ll be on these drugs forever. They’re not fun, but they’re tolerable. They keep my myeloma numbers down so my body doesn’t have to fight so hard. My spine is healing and there is a possibility that some of the bone could grow back. My neurosurgeon recommended limiting activities to walking and swimming forever, but I’ve snuck in a few easy hikes with my family.

I’m hoping for a cure, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying life as it is. It’s really good.

Present Day

Until there is a cure, I’ll always have cancer. It’s a part of me and a part of my story. My biggest takeaway is that it’s a new life. It’s not a new normal. With daily reminders, such as pill-taking, side effects, and scars, nothing feels “normal.” It’s a new life. In addition to the daily reminders, I have deeper friendships and connections, I understand the importance of slowing down and not letting the “white noise” of life overwhelm me, and I feel so grateful for each new day. The greatest takeaway is that over time, the triumphs grow bigger than the scars; and this new life, though not without stress and suffering, would not be possible without cancer. It’s the best life I’ve ever had.


Read part II of Lisa’s story here.

Patient Profile: Ben’s Diagnosis of Oral Cancer

Ben has an amazing story. It’s a story of resilience, determination, hope, and perseverance. A story about gaining knowledge and actively participating in the treatment and care of his cancer. In short, this is the story of an Empowered Patient and how he fought for his own life.   

Ben is a 35-year-old single male from New Zealand. A highly intelligent, successful professional whose storybook perfect life came to a sudden jolt in October 2018 when he was diagnosed with cancer of the tongue. He underwent the surgery to remove most of his tongue, along with a dissection of the left side of the neck. A pathology result revealed a squamous cell carcinoma of the tongue. It also showed that 2 lymph nodes in the left side of his neck were positive for cancer. Per standard treatment protocol, Ben was given radiation therapy after the surgery without a concurrent chemotherapy. There is a growing evidence in the literature that, in such cases where the cancer had spread to the regional lymph nodes, post-surgery chemotherapy given concurrently with radiation therapy reduces the chance of the local recurrence of the disease.  The obvious drawback being that, while this dual attack may be tougher on the cancer, it is also tougher on the patient.  It is my hope that, someday, this standard protocol may change. However, as of right now, it still is the standard of treatment to give just radiation following surgery as it happened in Ben’s case. Unfortunately, it did not work so well.  

Hardly six months after completing this treatment, he had a recurrence of cancer in the left side of his neck in the area of those positive lymph nodes six months ago So, his cancer had come back.  A second surgery was done to remove the cancerous lymph nodes followed by another radiation treatment.  His first radiation treatment was given to both sides of his neck as it should’ve been. This time it was limited to the left side of the neck. This time, he did receive a chemo drug but for 2 doses only 

While he was recovering, Ben came across the story of Dianaas posted on PEN website. Ben happened to know Diana and thought that since Diana responded so well to Keytruda (Pembrolizumab), he would take Keytruda himself. He decided to pay for it out of his own pocket since it was not covered by the health plan. Keytruda is a wonderful medicine, but it’s not a magic pill or a cure-all and does not always work and did not in Ben’s case.  About 4 months after finishing the radiation treatment, poor Ben had another recurrence of the cancer, this time on the right side of the neck. Naturally, he was devastated because he thought that Keytruda had failed him.   

 By this time, Ben and I had been talking about what he should do if the cancer were to came back again. Based upon the information derived from the literature, we felt that he had to have a full dose of chemotherapy concurrent with radiation, either without the surgery or following a surgery. Ben decided that he would like to have that lymph node removed and so the third surgery was performed.   

Following the surgery, Ben underwent a concurrent administration of radiation and chemotherapy. He received Cisplatin, which is a very effective chemotherapy drug in the form of 6 weekly doses while also receiving radiation 5 days a week for 6 weeks. Treatments were completed around March of 2020. 

 It has been about 10 months since, as of February 2021 and, as far as we know, Ben is still cancer-free. For him, this is the longest remission so far. He feels healthy, strong & energetic and is working full-time and enjoying his life. The only problem is that he is so scared of finding another setback that he refuses to go for a follow-up scan, that was due long time ago. I continue to work with Ben to convince him to have the scan done because if the cancer comes back, the sooner we find it, the better we can attack it. I emphasize that another recurrence, while quite unsettling, will not be the end of the road for him and that newer & better treatment options are being discovered all the time.   

Ben had to deal with a whole lot of other medical problems during the past couple of years. Problems that resulted from his cancer and/or his cancer treatments. He developed a great deal of difficulty with swallowing and speech after his tongue surgery, as expected. 

Following his second surgery, Ben developed a paralysis of his left vocal cord. He could hardly speak beyond whispersOur ability to produce voice is dependent upon the movement of the two vocal cords as they rhythmically move to midline to touch each other and then move apart.  When one vocal cord is paralyzed and cannot move to midline, a firm contact between the 2 cords cannot be established, thus an ineffective voice. 

Ben went to see an ear, nose, and throat doctor who injected a filler substance called Radiesseinto his paralyzed vocal cord. This is meant to thicken it so that the opposite & healthy vocal cord can make contact with the paralyzed one and produce sounds.   

That procedure was less than satisfactory for Ben. His doctor recommended a bigger procedure, a surgery, called Medialization of the Vocal Cord. This involves pushing the paralyzed vocal cord towards the midline by stuffing something behind it. The doctor explained to Ben that he was not sure if this surgical procedure would work any better than the temporary injection of a fillerLuckily, I was able to help Ben. I agreed with his doctor that this surgery may not give a satisfactory result.  I suggested that he should consider getting an additional surgical procedure, called Arytenoid Adduction.  I had been through something similar. The problem with Ben’s vocal cords was not just the paralysis of the left vocal cord, but that both vocal cords were situated at an angle. So, when the doctor fattened the paralyzed vocal cord, it still could not make a firm enough contact with the healthy cord. Arytenoid Adduction surgery straightens the angle of the vocal cords and, combined with the medialization procedure, restores the near normal voice. However, it seemed that Ben’s ENT doctor was not very familiar with this procedure 

So, while he was dealing with his other medical issues, Ben and I were working to find if there was a surgeon in New Zealand who would do the Arytenoid Adduction surgery. Finally, after Ben’s third surgery, when he seemed to be in remission, he decided to tackle the problem of his voice. He found the right surgeon and went for the surgery. It did not go well. 

A most unfortunate complication occurred while undergoing anesthesia and Ben stopped breathing. He had to be resuscitated and an opening was created in his trachea to enable him to breathe.  Obviously, the surgery was abandoned with the recommendation that it be attempted again after a few weeks or months. 

 Ben, being very smart personwondered if now would be the better time for the surgery while he still had the opening in his trachea to prevent a similar complication.  I wholeheartedly agreed with his reasoning and suggested that he present it to his doctors. So, he had the second surgery done within 10 days. There were no complications with his breathing this time because he already had an opening in his trachea. The surgery was successfully performed. The trachea opening was closed and Ben has a nice and clear voice now which he is very happy about.   

His bad luck did not stop though because somewhere along the way, he also developed a severe stomach issue called Gastric Dumping Syndrome due to a possible nerve damage during the neck surgery.   This condition causes nausea, bloated feeling, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Luckily, as it often happens in these cases, after some time, his stomach regained its function.   

As is often the case in cancer patients, Ben has suffered from periods of depression. He has handled it very well by seeking the professional help and taking antidepressant medicines. He has valiantly fought through all of his challenges with his intelligence, determination, knowledge, and persistence.  

I think that we all need to admire Ben’s tenacity and his never-ending hope. Recently, he has had genomic studies done on his cancer. Based on the result of those tests, we know that there are certain mutations of the cancer that can be targeted if and when it rears its’ ugly head again. We have options if needed. 

 So, this is the story of a truly empowered patient and how he has changed his prognosis and the course of his illness often as a result of his own initiative Not only by cooperating with his doctors, but becoming more knowledgeable about his illness and actively participating in his treatment decisions.  This activism as a patient has often led to a better treatment outcome.   

This is what Patient Empowerment Network is all about. Hope, determination and knowledgeRemember, the knowledge is your superpower.   


Disclaimer: Sajjad Iqbal, MD is a retired physician and rare cancer survivor who routinely supports, mentors and guides other patients through their perilous cancer journeys. Any opinions, suggestions, or advice provided is solely from Dr. Iqbal’s perspective as a well-informed and knowledgeable cancer patient, not as a physician. The patients must discuss their health with their own doctors and follow their advice.  

A New Phase: Bruce Jackson

Bruce Jackson is a multiple myeloma patient who recently found Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) as a resource for his cancer journey. This is the first of two-part series in which he shares his story from diagnosis to living his life with cancer.


“You can do nothing, or you can do something…maybe it is simply advocating for yourself or advocating on behalf of someone else.”

I guess I haven’t thought of my cancer experience as a story, and yet, that is exactly what it is: a story about a new phase in my life. I have multiple myeloma. More specifically, it is a t(4-14) translocation wherein the 4th and 14th chromosome pairs, instead of minding their own respective business, decided to share their genetic information, and that sharing process is at the basis of the disease. I don’t know if researchers yet know the cause of these translocations; some say that they result from a virus, but I know very little more than that. My 4-14 translocation is deemed a moderately aggressive cancer, but there are other much more aggressive translocations which are functionally a one-year death sentence.

I was diagnosed in May 2009. I was 53 at the time and am now 64. In my case, I was seeing my primary care physician (PCP) every six months for treatment of high cholesterol. She was treating me with a statin drug, and she insisted on doing blood work every six months. The blood work revealed an elevated total protein level, and my PCP suspected cancer, so she sent me to an oncologist who confirmed the diagnosis of smoldering myeloma.

I think there are a couple of points to be made here. One, because of the blood panels every six months, my cancer was caught early. Two, while a smoldering myeloma diagnosis may seem relatively benign, it is not. The question is, when does it morph into something else, into what does it morph, and what do you do in the meantime?

For me, this meant tracking the disease through occasional (every six months) to more frequent (every three months) blood tests to track my M protein value, which is a pretty highly correlated indicator of what is happening in the bone marrow. On a lesser frequency, I would have a bone marrow biopsy, just to see whether what was happening in my blood stream still continued to correlate with what was happening in my bone marrow. When my M protein value was around 0.8, I started to see an oncologist regarding what was initially diagnosed as monoclonal gammopathy of otherwise unspecified origin (MGUS). Then in October 2014, my oncologist was citing M protein values of 3.6, but with no other symptomatic phenomena to address, except that an MRI had shown some very small unidentifiable spots on a few of my ribs and on my sternum. The MRI report suggested that I have a re-do in six months, and that is what happened, except I was now in the hands of a myeloma specialist, and she suggested that we re-test using a CT Scan. The scan revealed growth in the spots, enough so that we were now using the term “lesions”, which was the tipping point to starting treatment.

I started my treatment program as a part of a Dana Farber Cancer Institute study, which required a prescribed regimen of Velkade (a subcutaneous injection), coupled with Revlimid (Thalidomide derivative and sister drug to Pomalyst), and Dexamethasone (a common oral steroid, which generates a synergistic effect that aids in combatting the cancer). In my first cycle, the treatment knocked my M protein value down to less than 1.0. However, in the second round, the treatment induced some unplanned side effects, all at the same time. I experienced blood clots in my lower legs, an obstruction in my digestive tract, pulmonary emboli in my lungs, a half-collapsed lung, a respiratory infection, and a massive headache. This earned me a 10-day stint in the hospital, a paranoid reaction to one of the drugs that I was given, and removal from the Dana Farber study.

Unfortunately, the respiratory infection would not go away, and only six weeks later, it was determined that I needed to have a procedure done, wherein the surgeon puts three holes through my rib cage and inside my pleural cavity with the goal of removing scar tissue from the surface of my right lung so that the medication could reach and eliminate the infection. The procedure earned me 12 more days in the hospital.

The good news is I made it through both events, and I am here to share about it!

It was determined that the Dana Farber dosage was too much for my system, so the solution was to cut the dosage back to about two thirds, and then administer more rounds. My rounds of chemo ultimately led to a stem cell transplant in September 2015. The stem cell transplant was a 21-day hospital stint (which is a typical duration), but as can happen, things didn’t automatically jump-start as expected. After my transplant, everything was jump-starting except my platelets. Fortunately, it seems there is always an alternate plan of attack, and the hematologists were able to prescribe a three-day dose of medication that on day three bumped my platelet count from two to four, and I was on my way. Plan B worked, and I’m glad we did not have to go to Plan C, because I don’t know if there was a Plan C. There were other hiccups along the way. I started having blood clots in my lower legs again, and developed pre-ventricular contractions (PVCs), which feel like a skipped beat, but are actually extra beats, and amount to an arrhythmia of the heart.

After my stem cell transplant, I was given a prognosis of four to eight years, and I was only in partial remission. Once sufficiently recuperated, I had to take Velkade as chemo maintenance. However, because of the subsequent neuropathy, and associated deep venous thrombosis (DVT) in my lower legs, the decision after about two years was to switch to Revlimid. However, the truth of the matter is, your M protein does not stop increasing with the chemo maintenance. It simply increases at a slower rate, and if the drug stops working, problems arise. In my case, the Revlimid worked for another two years, but then things started to happen in 2020.

When the medication stops working, the problems that arise are one of two things: either the rate at which the M protein increases starts to accelerate, or your immune system loses the ability to adequately recover during the seven-day rest period. Your neutrophil (white blood cells) count drops due to the chemo, but if the counts do not climb back up, that means you have to take more days to recover, lower the chemo dosage, or get a booster shot to bump your neutrophils. Any of these options would, of course, allow the cancer to progress at a faster rate. In my case, the neutrophils were dropping and my M protein was climbing, which in essence means the chemo drug was no longer effectively slowing the progression of the disease. It was time to switch to another treatment.

I was given the option to investigate my choices, but because of the myriad options available, that turned into a whole bunch of, “I don’t know”. I finally settled on Daratumumab, Pomalyst and Dexamethasone, with Dara being subcutaneously injected (like Velkade was). Pomalyst is an oral Thalidomide-based sister drug of Revlimid, and Dex is well, Dex. Given that I am only just starting a third post-transplant treatment, I think I am doing well, especially if you consider that I am mid-way through my 12th year post-diagnosis and I am more than five years post-transplant that had an original prognosis of four to eight years.

When you consider where I have been, five years is good so far. I have not had any bones break, my cancer was caught early thanks to a competent PCP, I have only a moderately aggressive translocation, which is much better than more highly aggressive versions, which could have buried me in short order. But what bothers me most, regardless of all the other things that have happened during this experience, is the uncertainty of it all. I feel like I am always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Learn the rest of Bruce’s story in part two of the two-part series in which he shares his story from diagnosis to living his life with cancer.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Sandy Peterson

When she was diagnosed, Sandy Peterson had never heard of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a type of blood and bone marrow cancer, so she got to work learning about it. “I really appreciate the organizations who do research, provide support, and make it easy to access,” says Sandy an avid user of the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) website, powerfulpatients.org. She says she likes to be able to access the resources whenever she wants or needs to revisit something she learned or read. Sandy follows several other organizations specific to her disease, and says each organization offers something a little different that she can benefit from. “PEN stands out with the activity guides,” she says noting that she especially likes how the PEN-Powered Activity Guides are formatted: like a book, where she can flip the pages and not have to scroll through them. “It’s fun,” she says.

Sandy says she learns a lot from the pages about understanding cancer, but she says she also likes the inclusion of articles that focus on lifestyle. “What I have enjoyed most are the recipes,” she says. She appreciates that they aren’t wild and fancy and that they include ingredients that she usually has on hand or can easily pick up at her local grocery store. Sandy also likes the fitness and the coloring pages and says they provide a pleasant distraction. “I look forward to that activity guide,” she says.

Sandy also values the webinars PEN provides. “The webinars are just wonderful. You can look at them again and do it at your leisure. It’s wonderful, and I’ve learned so much,” says Sandy who says she has gotten familiar with a lot of the presenters in the webinars and she looks forward to them because she appreciates their method of explaining things. Sandy has found that the key to putting her mind at ease and escaping fear about her disease is to understand it, which she says isn’t always easy, especially in the beginning. “Everyone knows what they’re talking about, and you don’t have a clue,” she says. “It’s the alphabet soup of a cancer diagnosis. It’s intellectual overload.”

On top of the intellectual overload that comes with being diagnosed with cancer, Sandy was also recovering from major surgery. It was in February 2011 and Sandy was just shy of turning 70 when she had to have emergency brain surgery. It still makes her emotional to talk about it, and Sandy says she doesn’t remember anything about that weekend, but she does know when she came out of surgery and they told her she was going to be fine, they also told her she had cancer. “I was worried about recovering from the brain surgery and was told it could be years before CLL became a problem for me,” she says. She was assigned to an oncologist, got an overview of her disease, and didn’t think much more about it. She had no symptoms, so she says the word cancer didn’t seem scary. However, she does say she was frustrated that her oncologist kept changing. She started with a hematology oncologist, but after a couple staffing changes, she ended up with a breast cancer specialist. “I didn’t complain because you kind of take who they give you,” says Sandy, but she said it just didn’t feel quite right.

By this time, Sandy had fully recovered from her brain surgery, and she started to do some research about her CLL. She started by looking online for reputable websites. Her tip is to avoid .com websites. The .com stands for commercial, and Sandy says she didn’t want to get her information from anyone who was selling something. “You have to do a little bit of searching to find the resources, but there’s a lot out there to support people who have cancer,” she says.

It was through her involvement with online support communities that Sandy learned she needed to make some changes in her cancer care. She says she kept seeing CLL experts and other patients refer to having treatment teams. “I realized I needed a team,” she says. She had her primary care doctor, and the breast cancer specialist, but she wanted a CLL specialist on her team. She had to go out of state to find one, but she did. After ten years with CLL, Sandy continues to have no symptoms and remains in the watchful waiting phase. Her most recent blood test was in mid-October 2020, and her numbers were essentially the same as they were a year ago. “It’s not going away, but it’s not progressing,” she says. “I am very, very fortunate.”

While Sandy is asymptomatic now, she’s concerned about the eventual progression of CLL. She says she’s not to the point of worry yet, but she wants to be prepared. “If it begins to progress and give me trouble at any time, I want to plan for a less healthy me.” She thinks about the logistics and expense of managing house and lawn care and wants to simplify her life so that if the disease progresses, she has a plan in place for managing those things. “It doesn’t have to be depressing, and you can do it while you’re still in control of the situation,” she says. “We not only want to simplify things for our own benefit, but for those who are going to help us.”

Sandy says she also thinks about what will happen if she ever needs treatment. “I’ve heard horror stories about the costs of treatment, and I don’t know how people pay for it,” she says. She stays on top of the latest CLL treatments and pays attention to the laws being passed about covering medications, and she says she’s open to doing a clinical trial if she has the opportunity. “The treatment picture for CLL is constantly changing,” she says, adding that new treatments are emerging, and more clinical trials are opening up all the time. “It’s really exciting.”

In the meantime, Sandy continues to find enjoyment by accessing yoga or tai chi classes online, staying up to date about her disease, and finding support from her trusted online communities like PEN. “It’s a lot to learn, and it’s changing all the time. The understanding is growing, the treatments are improving, there’s always something new,” she says.


Read more patient stories here.