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Quotation Inspiration: 10 Quotes to Inspire, Motivate and Uplift Cancer Patients

This month, I thought we could all do with a little quotation inspiration. When you’re dealing with cancer, some inspiring words can be just the thing to give you a daily lift.

Note this is not the same as saying that “thinking positive” is the best way to deal with cancer. While for some, a positive thinking mindset can help them cope, for many others, the tyrannical think positive brigade only makes us feel worse.

Thinking back on my own cancer experience, there were certain messages of hope and inspiration that I received which help bring some much-needed perspective to my situation.

So with the help of our community, I’ve compiled the following quotes and messages to inspire and uplift you today.


Julia (@juliabarnickle), turns to her own words of wisdom to get her through her various cancer experiences over the past twelve years. In particular this one: “Nothing in Life is worth worrying about.”

 

Nancy (@nancyspoint) also looks to her own words for motivation. “Be real. Be you. It’s enough,” she says.

 

Take a leaf out of Ilene’s (@ilenealizah) quotebook. “When inspiration moves to another neighborhood, I often reference poetry, especially Mary Oliver and Maya Angelou (And Still I Rise)” she says. “Yet I shiver in the cool winds of words whispered in history, my mind running wild as I open up my quotebook (notebook of quotes)‘ to add or to discover. I picked these randomly on purpose, and in no quantitative or qualitative importance of order:

 

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” — Maya Angelou

 

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

 

“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”— Martin Luther King Jr.

 

“The knack of flying is learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss.” —Douglas Adams

 

Sarah (@he4dgirl) shares with us a three-word quote from CS Lewis – one that I have turned to often myself: “Courage, dear heart.”

 

Another one of my favorites is from the author, Cheryl Strayed, who writes: “The place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really hard to get there, but you can do it. You’re a woman who can travel that far.”

 

Finally take inspiration from Cancer biologist, Triona (@NiTriona) and pass on some encouragement to another person today. Triona shares these words from poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue (Eternal Echoes) to remind us of the gift that encouragement bestows.

 

“One of the most beautiful gifts in the world is the gift of encouragement. When someone encourages you, that person helps you over a threshold you might otherwise never have crossed on your own.”

Reaching the Peak: Finding Resilience During Cancer

What does it mean to be “resilient” as a cancer survivor? Does it mean having the courage to remain positive? The strength to carry yourself into the next chapter of this “new normal” life?

In my opinion, having resilience or being resilient means all those things and more. However, resilience can also be built upon a collaborative effort made by both the patient and their healthcare team.

In the recent 2020 symposium held by the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship, results were presented from a survey that stated patients believe that being proactive in the beginning of treatment can lead to better health outcomes. Part of being proactive on the patient side is asking questions of your care about diagnosis and prognosis, treatment options, physical/mental/emotional side effects, and short-term and long-term effects on quality of life. During the treatment process being proactive can also consist of contacting your care team with questions rather than guessing what “should be” happening, instructions on how to take medications, and any unexplained side effects.

Managing these side effects can also count as resilience. For example, speaking with a social worker or seeing a therapist may help with the emotional trauma of a diagnosis. Moving your body and getting your blood flowing by walking, running, yoga, and other forms of exercise can show mental and physical resilience. Most importantly, asking for help when you need it and being specific in what you need can show determination.

At the end of treatment, the journey is not over. Rather, it can feel like it’s just beginning. As you look back on how far you’ve come, contemplate if there’s anything you would’ve done differently. Maybe you were fearful, and now you’re more curious. Maybe you were afraid to share your story and what people would think of you. Now you know that none of that matters, except what you think, what you feel. Your story is powerful, your feelings are valid, and you have the courage to push forward.

Resilience isn’t something to be won; it’s something to be explored. Just like a diagnosis, it doesn’t come easy. But take a moment, breathe, and know that there are people rooting for you. Keep going.

Cancer: The Scariest Ride of Them All

June is home to National Cancer Survivors Day (June 7th), a day to celebrate the journey of survivors, who are defined as “patients diagnosed with cancer.” While there are multiple resources for cancers patients, including an entire website dedicated to the National day, I thought that I would share my perspective of what it means to be a patient/survivor on an emotional/mental level:

Emotional/Mental

  • Sadness and in denial when diagnosed
  • Angry that this is happening to you specifically
  • Hopeless because of a lack of control
  • Frustration when you don’t understand your treatment plan
  • Guilt knowing other cancer patients have it worse
  • Anxiety when preparing for a scan or an appointment
  • Betrayal when you find out who your true friends and family are
  • Hope knowing you may make it out on the other side
  • Strong when you make it through the next chemo and/or radiation treatment
  • Resilient when you’re declared “in remission
  • Fear that the cancer may come back

This is only a glimpse into the many feelings felt, the life that is suddenly a roller coaster with ups and downs and hidden twists and turns. Sometimes you may not hear the whole story, the emotions guarded underneath a face that tries to “be strong” through it all. Really take a listen when you, as a caregiver, a medical professional, a friend, or a family member, ask a cancer patient, “How are you feeling?” Look at the facial expressions, the body language, and the words they’re using. To summarize: Be present.

How to Create a Month’s Worth of Posts for Your Advocacy Blog

Are you looking for a way to boost your advocacy activities online?

One of the best ways to do this is to create a blog.  Blogging shows your commitment and passion for your cause and because a blog is interactive, it’s also an extremely effective way to build a community and engage more people in your cause.

If you are brand new to blogging, and not quite sure how to start a blog, this step-by-step guide will get you up and running.

Many of us who blog start out with great intentions of writing regularly, but over time our inspiration well can run dry. Creating a blog is relatively easy; the challenge lies in consistently creating fresh content. Cancer blogger, Nancy Stordahl (@nancyspoint) recommends a consistent blogging schedule if you want to develop a loyal readership. “This takes commitment,” she explains, “which means posting on a regular schedule that works for you. This might be weekly, every other week or monthly. This way readers know what to expect, plus it keeps you focused. I post weekly (usually the same day) because that’s what works for me. Consistency is key.”

In this article, I want to share with you a month’s worth of things to write about. Whether you’re new to blogging and looking for ideas to get started, or you’ve been blogging for a while but your writing has stalled, the following tips are designed to kick-start your writing efforts.  Commit to consistency by writing one blog post a week for the next month with these topic ideas as your guide.

10 Ways to Create a Month’s Worth of Blog Posts

1. Share Facts and Answer Questions for Your Readers

You might like to start by asking your readers what kind of questions they have that you can answer for them.  You could use Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to do this or you could search on a question and answer platform like Quora. On Quora you can ask a question about your topic or simply do a search using your topic keyword to find what people are asking about that topic. Make a list of those questions which you feel you could write about. When you have written a blog post on the topic, go back into Quora and answer a question related to the topic. You can include a link to your post in your answer.

2. Recycle Old Posts

Recycling content simply means taking one piece of content and finding a new way to create content around it. Identify your most popular content through your blog analytics tool. Now brainstorm some ways in which you can take this content and turn into a fresh post.  Can you turn it into a video or audio post? Are there any new research or treatment updates you can add since you first published this post? Can you get creative and create an infographic or develop a downloadable checklist using the original post as a starting point? You’ve already spent time and effort in creating your content, now spend a little more time to maximize that effort.

3. Compile a Glossary of Medical Terms

One of the things I remember most when I was a newly diagnosed patient was how mystifying the world of cancer was for me. I had to learn a whole new language consisting of unknown medical terms and scientific jargon to be able to understand my diagnosis. Make the process less mystifying for newly diagnosed patients by putting together a useful list of medical and scientific terms (as I did with this Clinical Trials Jargon Buster) and publishing it on your blog.

4. Share the Latest Medical Research in Your Disease Area

Have you been to a conference where you learned about new medical research? Or read about the latest research in a medical journal?  Let your readers know about it through your blog by providing a summary of the key findings and translating the information into easy to understand language for other patients.

5. Create a Reader’s Poll

There are several online tools you can use to create a readers’ poll. If you have a WordPress.com site, then you’ve already got Polldaddy polls built in. You can create, manage, and see results for all of your polls directly in your WordPress.com dashboard. If you use a self-hosted WordPress site, install the Polldaddy WordPress.org plugin. Once you’ve collected your poll data, publish a follow-up post with your findings.

6. Write about a Typical Day in Your Life

What’s it like to live with your condition on a day-by-day basis? What insights can you share to help others understand what a typical day is like for you and patients like you? Can you share helpful tips to cope with common everyday difficulties? Do you have advice for how family and friends can help you navigate your illness? As a person with lived experience you are in a unique position to shed light on what it’s like to cope with your illness by writing about it on your blog.

7. Embed Slide-Decks of Your Talks

Have you recently spoken at an event? Did you use slides in your presentation? Did you know you can upload your slide-decks directly to a platform called SlideShare? This is a great way to develop a portfolio of your speaking work and showcase it on your blog by simply inserting the embed code provided by SlideShare.

8. Invite a Guest Blogger to Write For You

Inviting another patient or healthcare professional you admire to write for you, not only expands your blog’s reach and readership, but adds a valuable new perspective to your site. For example, each week, Nancy Stordahl invites a different metastatic breast cancer patient to share their story on her blog for her regular #MetsMonday post.

9. Create Recurring Content

Creating regular recurring content, like Nancy does with #MetsMonday, is another excellent way to keep consistent with your content creation. Another suggestion is to create a round-up post each week – this could be a round-up of the latest research or a link to useful resources and articles you think would be helpful to share with your readers. Pick a day for this and stick to that day each week so readers know what they can consistently expect from you.

10. Plan Posts around Seasons and Events

This final tip is one of the easiest ways to create content on your blog that you can use on a regular basis. For example a post on how to survive the holiday season, or healthy eating during the holidays is a post you can use year after year. Add the dates of awareness days, such as World Cancer Day, to your calendar as a reminder to create content around these events.

Cancer, COVID, and Change

“There’s something to be said for not being a patient,” one of my doctors said.

“It feels so good,” I said during our telemedicine appointment, “to be away from the hospital for eight weeks in a row.” It’s the longest hospital break I’ve had since being diagnosed with cancer last summer. Before mid-March, I’d been to four to ten medical appointments every month. Being a cancer patient felt like a full or half time job. Because of the pandemic, I’m now treated by my oncology team from the comfort of my own home.

I don’t miss shuffling from room to room or floor to floor and sitting in waiting rooms for hours. I love not needing to ask for rides or take cabs or public transportation while my white counts are low. I don’t miss being poked,  prodded, weighed, and measured or having my vital signs documented in hallways while removing my coat, wig, and shoes. I love not having to roll up sleeves for the vials of blood to be drawn or to pull down my pants so the doctor can put a stethoscope to my belly and bowels.

Because of the increased health risks at hospitals, new access to telemedicine, and flexibility around clinical trial protocols, I can see my oncologist, face to face, through Zoom. Questions can be answered ,via email, a text, or a phone call. Clinical trial drugs are overnighted to me.

I enjoy the time and money I’m saving and the convenience of getting all care from home. But I also miss the real-life hugs, handshakes, and high fives that used to come with seeing the clinical team in person.

COVID Challenges

Many cancer patients are losing jobs, homes, loved ones, and health insurance. For those newly diagnosed with cancer, surgery, scans, and treatments must be done all alone. Those in active treatment are often terrified of catching COVID-19 while immunocompromised. Others are afraid hospital visits will expose our family members to COVID.

It’s startling how much hospital protocols and procedures have changed. When I look back or think about what comes next, I worry. I hope the pictures and stories below capture what it’s like to be an oncology patient and how swift and severe the COVID-related changes over the last few months have been and continue to be.

From Person to Patient

My partner drove me to the hospital on the morning of my surgery. We checked in before 6a.m. and waited, with others, in the lobby.

Eventually, we were called up and walked, single file, through halls by someone escorting us to the pre-op area. Each one of us was assigned a bed (pictured) and a nurse (not pictured). The photo is of the pre-op area.

My partner got to visit me before surgery. He was there when the surgeon, nurses, fellows, and anesthesiology came to prepare me for surgery.

If surgery were scheduled today, my partner wouldn’t be able to stay with me.

The Shock of a Post-Op Diagnosis

This is me in post-op. My partner took this photo on his phone and was able to share it with my family and friends to let them know I made it through surgery. They were worried because it went hours longer than expected.

In the photo, I’m high as a kite and happy to be alive. I’ve just downed the iced coffee my partner snuck in (as planned and with permission from the nurse). In the photo, I am still in shock that my surgery was five hours long, it’s afternoon, and that cancer was found. I don’t yet know how serious my diagnosis will be. That will come twelve hours after surgery when the surgeon explains my cyst was actually a cantaloupe-sized cancerous tumor, aggressive, advanced, and usually chronic. Mercifully, my partner is with me as she explains that she had to do a total hysterectomy, removing ovaries, fallopian tubes, lymph nodes, and my omentum and lays out the timeline for chemotherapy.

My partner held my hand and crawled into my bed to hold me while I sobbed. But he provided far more than essential emotional support. He helped me stand and keep my balance, helped me get to my first trip to and from the restroom. He was there to advocate for me when I dozed off and to get the nurse when my call button went unanswered. He was the one who provided my loved ones with updates. He was the one who snuck my favorite health foods to help “wake up” my digestion enough to allow me to be discharged after one day.

It’s hard to imagine what that traumatic and challenging day would have been without him. I can’t imagine recovering from major surgery and receiving such devastating news alone but it’s what many diagnosed with cancer during COVID now endure.

At-Home Adjusting & Recovery:

Going home after surgery is comforting and scary. My right leg was giving out from under me because my obturator nerve “got heat” during my surgery. I had trouble standing in the shower or lifting my right leg onto the bed or into a car. I had extensive swelling and bruising on my right side and pelvic area and had a bit of a reaction to the bandage tape. I didn’t know what was normal. And after a phone call to the hospital, I was asked to come back in for a check-up.

Today, I’d either have had a telemedicine appointment or need to decide if an in-person visit with a medical professional is worth possible exposure to COVID. These are the types of decisions we are all facing but it’s especially scary when one is already vulnerable and fighting for life.

Early Treatment: Chemo Buddies are Not Optional

Getting chemotherapy infusions is time-consuming, scary, and intense. Everyone reacts differently to the many drugs given with chemotherapy (such as Benadryl, steroids, Pepcid, and anti nausea drugs). Everyone reacts differently to the chemotherapy, marked hazardous,  that require the nurse to wear gloves, masks, and protective clothing to prevent contact in case of accidental spills. Some drugs make you sleepy, and parts of your body numb. Others make you feel amped, wired, and agitated.

Some cause nauseous, headaches, or allergic reactions, immediately and others not for days or weeks.

Having a chemo-buddy like Beth was a huge help. She was the one who asked for window seats in the infusion center, who made sure I got warm blankets. She massaged my feet and reminded me to listen to guided imagery. She sat with me in waiting rooms as we waited for my labs to come back to make sure my white and red blood counts weren’t too low, my liver counts not too high, and that the chemo was making my tumor marker scores go down.

She was the one who touched the elevator buttons for me, the one who walked me to the car and handed me off to my fiancé at the end of the day. She was the one who got me water, coffee, or snacks.

I felt safer whenever I had a chemo buddy with me and Beth would also take notes and make sure I didn’t skip any of my questions just because the oncologist seemed in a hurry.

Beth was not only a source of support but provided an extra pair of hands to plug in my iPhone, to hold my bags, food, or books. She was the person I could share tears, laughs, and heart to hearts with. She listened as I worried about my daughter, as I struggled to balance work and parenting.

She was there to support me as I talked endlessly about healthy eating, fasting, supplements, and complementary medicine. But the greatest comfort of all was knowing she would be there if passed out, fell, or had an allergic reaction to all the treatment drugs. At my last treatment, I was alone and Beth at home. It was hard.

In-Between Hospital Visits: Public Services & Personal Support

 

Social distancing during treatment is hard even for introverts like me who need a lot of alone time. When physically weak, short visits with loved ones who bring food, hugs, and gifts are life-affirming and life-changing.

Those who show up do so for cancer patients as well as our families. They help us to take care of our kids, partners, pets, plants, and housework. They help us manage as we face fear and loss, whether losing jobs or body parts, or hair and having few or no visits is hard. Today, barber shops where we might get our heads shaved are closed.

The wig shops and stores we go to for hats and head coverings are often closed.

We can’t go out to eat with loved ones, or do yoga on good days. We can’t have parties for our loved ones to create normalcy or new rituals. We can no longer go out in the public either. We can’t do things such as sitting alone writing in a journal and drinking a smoothie when swallowing food is too hard.

We can’t travel to remind ourselves there is still beauty and magic in the world and to enjoy our loved ones and lives as much as possible.

These are not all small things or luxuries in coping with the brutal effects of cancer treatment and chemotherapy. They can change the cancer and recovery experience and all that helps keep us strong. 

Later Treatment

We need others when we are sick. We might need help standing, walking, or eating. We might need rides, treatments, or blood or platelet transfusions. We might need help articulating symptoms and side effects. To have fewer in-person visits when so medically vulnerable can be anxiety-producing.

We also have less in-person celebrations with our clinical teams when we finish a line of chemotherapy or have a cancer-free scan. We no longer have informal pet therapy either with the cheerful and cuddly animals of friends, family, and neighbors.

I can’t imagine going to chemo alone, depleted, and with low white counts.

The increased risks, vulnerabilities, and lack of human company and tactile comforts feels indescribably epic.

Maintenance Treatment & Clinical Trials

My immunotherapy infusions (or placebo) have been put on hold for the past two cycles. I asked if I could remain in my clinical trial if I refused to come to the hospital for treatment until the risk of getting COVID is decreased. Luckily, I’ve been allowed to stay home. Clinical trial protocols, in general, are much more flexible as a result of the pandemic. My medication (or placebo pills) are mailed to me. Before March, in-person prescription filling was required and always took hours.

However, I’ve been weighing what I’ll do if I have to weigh virus-related risks against the possible benefits of clinical trial treatment. If I’m required to be treated at the hospital I may drop out of the trial. This is one of the many difficult decisions oncology patients often face but it’s made more complicated because of the coronavirus. .

Have Some Changes Been for the Good?

The losses, challenges, and changes are worrisome and real. That said, not all the COVID-related changes for oncology patients are bad. The whole world is wearing masks, staying home, socially distancing, and worrying about health, wellness, death, and dying.

Instead of being stared at when I wear a mask, I’m now in good company, because much of the world is doing the same. Many of us are consumed with health issues and worried about health, mortality, and immune functioning.

To be reminded, once again, that health and life aren’t guaranteed to anyone, that we are all facing mortality, and must appreciate every day we have, is strangely comforting. While I’m reminded of our collective vulnerability, to hear health concerns, risks, and challenges confronted as the world and nation’s collective concern is a reminder that none of us are being personally picked on for failing at being human, we are just, in the end, all excruciatingly fragile and mortal.

“I feel like I’ve been slow-dancing with death since last summer but now I feel less alone,” I told my friend Kathy. “It’s like others have joined you on the dance floor,” Kathy said. “Yes,” I said, which once again makes me feel like a person rather than a patient and there’s something to be said about not being a patient….


Resource Links:

  1. The National Cancer Institute  guide: Coronavirus: What People with Cancer Should Know.
  2. American College of Surgeons: (ACS) Guidelines for Triage and Management of Elective Cancer Surgery Cases During the Acute and Recovery Phases of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic
  3. Sample of patient visitation changes hospitals have implemented from Mass General Hospital.
  4. Telehealth at Dana Farber.
  5. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Issues Guidance for Conducting Clinical Trials

In this moment

“Is there a pressure to be positive all the time?” my friend Kathy asked.

It’s a good question. I said, “No,” and then “Yes,” and added in a “Maybe.”

But it’s not a simple yes, no, or maybe. It’s actually Yes-No-Maybe all at the same time. My kid is on Facebook and so is my family. My friends are on Facebook and they want the best or at least to know I’m not suffering. I’m aware of that and of them. But that doesn’t mean I show up fake or put on fronts. I don’t.

The pressure to be positive isn’t external. I am safe to be real with SO MANY people and that luxury is a gift beyond measure. The desire to be positive comes from within but it’s not motivated by pressure. It’s real. In general, I ACTUALLY FEEL positive.

And also, when my oncologist asks how my partner or daughter are doing, I say:

“Well, I’m cranky, lethargic, have chemo-brain, and obsessed with recurrence so that’s fun for them…”

That’s also real.

Real is positive.

So, when people say I’m strong, a rock star, a warrior, and a fighter, I can’t say I feel I am any of those things. My day to day to life has been changed and though I feel 100% half-ass as a mom, partner, friend, relative, and employee – I also know I’m doing the best I can.

I don’t even have much time to think of how I’m doing because I’m so busy doing, if that makes sense.

It’s like I woke up after surgery standing in the middle of a highway I didn’t drive myself on. The focus is dodging the cars going 75 m.p.h. on my left and right while feeling groggy and confused. When I manage to make it to the sidewalk or the rest area, the relief I feel is real. I’m happy to be alive and out of danger. It’s a genuine and consuming experience. I’m relieved any time I’m not in the road and also aware I could be dropped back on that highway in another minute, day, week, or year.

That’s the complexity and reality of living with cancer (#ovarian, high-grade serious, stage 3) that, even when it’s effectively treated, still recurs 75% to 85% of the time. To have no evidence of disease isn’t the type of blessing I’ve been in the habit of counting.

For decades, I have had the luxury of physical wellness and had never stayed overnight in a hospital. Health isn’t something I take for granted anymore but that doesn’t make me a warrior as much as it makes me someone changed by cancer more than by choice.

I used to think people were sick with cancer, and either mounted a “successful” fight and returned to living or lost “the fight” and died. It seemed either/or and as those were the two extreme outcomes.

I knew my mother HAD cervical cancer in her early 20’s and survived. I knew that my Nana and her two siblings had cancer in their 60’s, and did not. They died.

I know cancer is always a full-on fight for the person with cancer and those that live with and love them (us), but fights are won or lost and that is the problem with the “fight cancer” narrative. It’s way too simplistic for the complexity of cancer, cancer treatment, cancer survivorship, palliative care, and grief.

It omits the vast amounts of time that many of us live with cancer. We live with it in active form, or in remission, or in fear of recurrence, and sometimes with recurrence after recurrence. That way of living may last one or two years or one or two decades. We may have years we seem to be “winning” the fight and years we seem to be “losing.”

But winning and losing is far too simplistic. Some live and have loss. Some die and should be counted as winners.

I’d never known some fight the same cancer repeatedly, or “beat” it before getting another kind and another and another. I didn’t know that people cancer can be a lifelong disease and that some kinds are genetic time bombs in our bodies and families that can put us at risk even if we never smoked.

I didn’t know that one can have or five surgeries, that the side effects can start at the head (loss of hair, headaches, chemo brain, no nose hair, dry mouth, hearing loss), for example, and go all the way to the feet with lymph edema, joint pain, neuropathy, and that all the organs in between can be impacted as well.

I didn’t know that most cancer side effects are not from cancer but the treatments to fight, eradicate, and prevent more cancer.

I didn’t know that in addition to chemo, one might contend with liver or kidney issues, with high or low blood pressure, with changes to the way heart beats, the digestive symptom works.

I didn’t know that cancer surgery might include a hysterectomy and removing some or several organs, lymph nodes and body parts I’d never heard of. I didn’t know how it’s impossible to know what is from cancer, chemo, menopause or the piles of pills one is prescribed.

I didn’t know how much the body can endure and still keep going. I didn’t know I’d have a body that would have to learn and know all that I was mostly ignorant about -even though cancer is a disease not unknown to my own family members.

I am still learning and knowing and going. I hope what I learn keeps others from having to have first-hand knowledge of the cancer experience.

And even as I say that I know the ways I’ve been changed are not all bad, hard, or grueling.

I didn’t know that at, even in the midst of being consumed by all things basic bodily functioning (breathing, heart beating, eating, pooping, sleeping, and staying alive), one can also be grateful, satisfied, and appreciate life and loved ones.

I know it now and feel grateful daily.

Five months after my diagnosis, I’m what’s called NED (No Evident Disease). It means that after surgery, and then 5 rounds of chemo, a carbo/taxol combination every 3 weeks, there is no sign of ovarian cancer. My CA 125, a cancer marker in the blood, is back to normal. Things are looking better today and I’m grateful, optimistic, relieved, but also know that my life is forever changed, and I’ll never be out of the woods.

Despite my NED status, my chances of being alive in 10 years are 15%.

Despite my NED status, my chances of being alive in five years are less than 30%.

Did you know 70% of those with ovarian cancer die within five years of being diagnosed?

I’m not a statistic, but a person – still, it’s hard not to do the calculations.

5 years from my diagnosis I’ll be 57, and my daughter 21.
5 years from my diagnosis, my partner will be 62.
Will we get to retire together, ever?  Will I get 5 years?

It’s hard not to wonder if some or all of those five years are what most would consider “good” years and how I will manage well no matter what? And how my loved ones will fare…

So I focus on moments, days, and now.

My new mantra remains, “In this moment….”

It’s how I approach all of my days.

I do think and worry about the future, and even plan for the worst while also planning for the best. Because the best is always possible.

What if, I’m the 15% and live for 10 or more years? What if I make it to 62? What if a new way to detect, manage, or treat ovarian cancer is discovered? What if I discover some synergy in remedies and medicines not yet combined?

Maybe I will see my kid graduate college or start a career. Maybe I’ll help her shop for furniture in a new apartment. No one knows the future. No one guaranteed more than now.

Maybe I’ll get to go to Europe with my partner, elope and return married, or stay forever engaged.

Maybe I’ll attend a mother-daughter yoga retreat with friends like I’ve always wanted to do.

Maybe I’ll spend a month at a cabin writing and eating good food with my besties?

Maybe I’ll be able to be there for my family members and friends the way they have been there for me?

Maybe I’ll get to walk my dog at the same beach and park, with my guy, my brother and sister-in-law, and our dogs and kids?

I don’t know how much time I’ll get or what life holds.

I know when my Nana died in her mid 60’s it seemed way too soon. I know that now, if I make it to my mid 60’s, it will be miraculous.

I don’t put as much into my retirement savings.

I think more about how to spend time, and money, now.

These are not negative thoughts they are the thoughts of someone contending with cancer and wide awake while pondering my own mortality.

“You won’t die of this,” some have said. “Cancer won’t kill you.”

But no one knows that for sure. It’s not an assurance the oncologists offer.

People mean well when they say such things but I no longer bite my tongue when I hear these words.

I say, “I might die of this,” (and I think, but don’t say, and you may as well).

I do remind people that we are all going to die and few of us will get to choose the time or place or method. It’s not wrong to acknowledge mortality. It’s not depressing and it does not mean one is giving up. I want to be responsible, and quickly, as I don’t have the luxury to be as reflective as I used to be because cancer is all-consuming.

I’ve barely had a moment to reflect on the past five months never mind the last five decades. I am trying to stay on top of the bare minimum requirements of being alive. I can’t yet keep up with emails or phone calls or visits. Projects and goals and plans of all kinds have shifted, paused, halted, or been abandoned.

My energy is now a resource I have to monitor and preserve. My will is not something I can endlessly tap into or call upon to motor me and keep me motivated. There’s no resource I have yet to tap into or call upon. Each day, I must consciously and repeatedly work to fill the well. And now, when friends and family who work while sick, I no longer think they are tough or strong. I think of how we routinely punish and ignore our bodies. I notice how often we run on fumes, require more of ourselves than we have as though we will never tire out.

I think of all those who must or feel they must keep going no matter what, without pause or rest, oblivious to the toll it will take or of those who have systems that can’t fight their germs. And I think of employers who sometimes require it because they offer no paid time off.

I used to run myself ragged. I used to say, “I’m digging deep, into my bone marrow if I have to.” I wasn’t being literal.

Now, when my iron and my platelets go low, I think of my old words in new ways. Now, even my bone marrow isn’t what is used to be.

I’m entirely who I always was and completely different.

It’s both.

I am more and less of who I was.

My life and days are simple and structured now and also heavy, layered, and complex. Who and what fills my day, by choice and not by choice, is radically different.

Cancer changed my life. That’s irrefutable and will be whether I live or die in the sooner or in the later.

I speak with and interact with doctors, nurses, life insurance and disability insurance and pharmacists more. I spend more money on supplements, clean eating, and make more time to walk, exercise, and sleep. There’s so much less I am capable of.

But sometimes, even without hair, I feel totally like myself.

Sometimes, like this week, my daughter caught me in the middle of life, reading a book, petting the cat, on my bed in my heated infrared sauna blanket. I was relaxed and at ease.

I shared this photo and someone commented on how my “cat scan” was quite feline, – the image brought a whole new meaning to the “cat scan” image.

I laughed and laughed and laughed. I’m still laughing.

In this moment, in many moments, I’m humbled by the enormity of all things cancer and being alive. That’s real. That’s there. It can be intense.

But also, in this moment, I’m laughing.

And laughing, it turns out, is my favorite way to live.

Ten Things I Wish I Had Known When I was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer

As soon as the first golden leaves of autumn appear on the trees a feeling of sadness starts to descend over me. I’m catapulted back over the years to a late September day. A day that’s etched forever on my mind. The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In the weeks that followed my diagnosis, I became enveloped in a sea of pink as Breast Cancer Awareness Month took place. But when October came to an end and the pink ribbon wearers disappeared, I was left wearing the everyday reality of the disease. Over a decade has passed since then and yet I still feel a sense of sadness when I think of that time and all I had yet to learn and go through. I can’t help wondering how much my experience might have been different if I had known then what I know now.

One thing I now know is that we owe it to those who come after us to share our hard-earned wisdom. So in that spirit, here are ten things I wish I had known back when I was a newly diagnosed patient.  I hope sharing these lessons may make the path towards recovery that little bit smoother for others who are new to this journey.

1. Everything in your life is about to change

Once you’ve been baptized in the fire of cancer your life as you knew it will be irrevocably changed. The apparent randomness of a cancer diagnosis can shake your sense of identity to its very core and afterwards nothing will ever feel certain again.   Cancer invades not only your body but every other area of your life, including your relationships, family life, friendships, finances, career, and even your sense of self. You may be surprised to find the people you thought you could count on disappear from your life. At the same time, you will be surprised to find support can also come from unexpected sources.

2. Online support is real

Among those unexpected sources will be the people you meet online. Online communities may be virtual but they are no less real in terms of support and advice. On Facebook and Twitter you can find patient communities which will be an invaluable source of information and support to you. Check out the #BCSM Twitter chat – a weekly chat for breast cancer patients and their caregivers.

3. You will feel fearful and anxious

One of the most common emotional and psychological responses to the experience of cancer is anxiety.  Cancer is a stressful experience and normal anxiety reactions present at different points along the cancer pathway. Anxiety is a natural human response that serves a biological purpose. It’s the body’s physical “fight or flight” (also known as the stress response) reaction to a perceived threat. You may experience a racing or pounding heart, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, upset tummy, sweating or tense muscles. All of these signs indicate that sympathetic arousal of your nervous system has been activated, preparing you to stand your ground and fight or take flight and run away from danger.

Try this coping tip. When we are fearful and anxious we tend to breathe more shallowly.  Shallow breathing, which doesn’t allow enough oxygen to enter our bodies, can make us even more anxious. Practice taking some slow deep abdominal breaths.  Deep abdominal breathing slows the heart down and lowers blood pressure. The advantage of focussing on the breath is that it is always there with us. We can turn to it anytime we are feeling anxious.

4. You are your own best health advocate

Although you may be reeling from the news of a cancer diagnosis, it’s important that you learn as much as you can about your diagnosis and what treatment options are available.  In this article, you will learn which questions you should ask your healthcare team and where to find reliable and trustworthy information to become better informed about your health condition.

5. Your will experience brain fog

Cognitive impairment, to a lesser or greater degree, can affect you both during and after your treatment. You may have the feeling that your cognitive abilities are slower and less acute than before – almost as if your brain is shrouded in a fog. We call this the “chemobrain” effect and the effect may persist for months or even years after treatment ends.  A more formal term – post-cancer cognitive impairment (PCCI) – is used by researchers to describe a group of symptoms, which include slow mental processing, difficulty concentrating, organizing, and multitasking.

PCCI symptoms can also include:

  • memory loss – forgetting things that you normally remember
  • struggling to think of the right word for a familiar object
  • difficulty following the flow of a conversation
  • confusing dates and appointments
  • misplacing everyday objects like keys and glasses

It’s still not clear how many people with cancer get chemobrain or which drugs cause it. However, there are several things that you can do to help you cope with its symptoms. Read this article for more information.

6. You will experience bone-crushing tiredness

We all know what it’s like to feel tired – physically, mentally, and emotionally, but usually after some relaxation and a good night’s sleep, we are ready to take on the world again. When you have cancer, though, rest often isn’t enough.  You experience a persistent, whole-body exhaustion. Even after adequate sleep or rest, you will still feel tired and unable to do the normal, everyday activities you did before with ease.

A lot of cancer patients don’t report fatigue to their doctors because they think that nothing can be done for it. In fact, there are things that can be done to alleviate the debilitating effects of cancer-related fatigue.  If left untreated, fatigue may lead to depression and profoundly diminish your quality of life, so it’s important that you speak to your doctor if fatigue is an issue for you. Read How To Cope With Cancer-Related Fatigue for more tips and information.

7. You may be surprised by feelings of guilt

Cancer-related guilt is a complex emotion. You may feel guilty and worry that your lifestyle choices somehow contributed to a cancer diagnosis. If you learn that you carry the BRCA1/2 gene, you may feel guilty that you could pass this gene mutation on to your children.  Or you may feel guilty that your cancer was diagnosed at an earlier stage than a friend or family member who has a worse prognosis.  These feelings of guilt may surprise you, but it’s a perfectly normal reaction to a traumatic life event like cancer. Read How Do You Deal With Cancer Guilt to learn more about this topic.

8. You will feel pressured to stay in a positive frame of mind

I admit I caved in at the beginning to pressure to stay strong and positive when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. I did it because it reassured the people around me.  While I accept that for some people maintaining a positive attitude is a valid coping mechanism, for myself and many others, the pressure to always show our sunny side is a denial of our pain, anger, grief, and suffering. I now believe by promoting this attitude in the face of cancer, we create unfair expectations and deprive patients of an outlet for their darker fears. This is my personal viewpoint, and it’s one that I don’t expect everyone to share. However, I mention it here so that those who are newly diagnosed don’t feel they have to always present a smiling face to the world. It really is ok to express your fears, your sadness, your anger, and your grief too.

9. You will need time to grieve

While many people think of grief only as a reaction to bereavement, we can feel grief after any kind of loss. When we step back and look at the cancer experience we see that grief and loss are a fundamental part of the experience. Some of our losses are tangible, for example losing our hair, and some are more intangible, such as the loss of trust in our bodies.

Coping with the losses associated with cancer is challenging.  Grief brings many emotions with it. Patients, as well as caregivers and family members, may go through emotions of anger, denial, and sadness.  While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope with the pain and sadness that, in time, can help you come to terms with your loss, find new meaning, and move on with your life.   

10. Cancer doesn’t end when treatment does

I wish I had been better prepared for how I would feel when cancer treatment ended. I just assumed I would pick up where I had left off and get on with my life as if cancer was no more than a blip. I wish someone had told me that cancer doesn’t end when treatment does.    Sometimes, there can be a code of silence surrounding the aftermath of cancer treatment.  There is an expectation that when you walk out of hospital on that last day of treatment, your cancer story has ended. But in many ways it’s only just beginning.

I now know that cancer is more complicated than simply being disease free and that a physical cure doesn’t mark the end of the healing process. Adapting to changes in energy and activity levels, adjusting to altered relationships at work and in your personal relationships, coming to terms with a changed body image, and managing pain and treatment side effects are some of the things you will face in the post-treatment phase of recovery. Be compassionate and gentle with yourself as you move through this stage of your cancer journey. Don’t judge yourself or feel pressured by others to try to hurry this stage along.

Wrapping Up

Being diagnosed with cancer is a life-changing event. You will go through many emotions and experiences throughout the roller-coaster ride of diagnosis, treatment, and beyond. Each person will experience it in their own way. While there’s no right or wrong way to go through the experience, it’s important that you don’t ever feel as if you have to go through it alone. Reach out at each step of the way and find someone who understands what you are going through and can offer you the support you need.

Facing Forward: How to Move On After Cancer Treatment

When you go through something as stressful, traumatizing, and life-altering as cancer, you may come out on the other end of the tunnel feeling like you were just put through the spin cycle. There’s no “normal” way to respond to a cancer diagnosis, treatment, or remission prognosis, and you should never force yourself into taking on one specific emotion or perspective. You may feel angry, sad, scared, hopeful, or joyous, and all are perfectly acceptable responses to have.

Regardless of how the experience left you feeling, it’s important to work at moving on and processing it in a healthy way. Here are a few ways to help you do it.

Measure Your Mental Health

You’ve spent the last several months or years caring for your body to the point of exhaustion. Now it’s your brain’s turn. Depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and cancer fears are quite common among survivors. In fact, between 18 and 20 percent of adult cancer survivors report symptoms of anxiety[1], while almost 80 percent of survivors experience some level of fear of recurrence. It’s vital that cancer survivors and patients alike are constantly looking inward and taking daily measurements of mood and general well-being. If you experience any persistent, negative feelings, be sure to seek out advice from a licensed mental health professional.

Focus on Daily Self-Care

Because your daily life was thrown completely off track during treatment, it can be hard to settle back into a healthy routine when it’s all over. Implementing certain self-care practices into your day-to-day life can help you stay mindful and prevent you from slipping into prolonged states of anxiety or depression. It will help you immensely to pick up healthy self-care practices, such as yoga, meditation, or long evening baths. Integrating weekly or bi-weekly social time will also help quite a bit, especially if you’re spending time with people who share similar interests or experiences.

Work on Rebuilding Self-Confidence

Though we’re ever-grateful that they exist (and save thousands of lives each year), chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation take a massive toll on our bodies. They leave us looking and feeling burnt out and exhausted, often grinding the last little bit of self-confidence we have into a sad, lifeless pulp. Even if you’ve never been a particularly vain person, your life post-cancer is time to help you regain your self-worth at every turn, and it’s perfectly okay to spend some time making yourself feel beautiful both inside and out! Here are some great ways to do it:

Regrow a Full Head of Hair

If you lost your hair during chemotherapy, there are a few cutting-edge hair loss treatments to consider. Though they’ve only been cleared to treat hair loss due to androgenetic alopecia by the FDA, many people find that low-level laser therapy devices help hair to grow back [2] quicker and healthier after treatment. Luckily, while it takes a little bit of time, most cancer patients are able to fully grow back their hair.

Work on Getting Back to a Healthy Weight

Cancer patients know that the constant barrage of chemicals and harsh treatments can seriously mess with our weight. Weight loss is one of the most common symptoms of both cancer and treatment, with between 40 and 80 percent of patients reporting weight loss [3] and cachexia (wasting) from diagnosis to advanced treatment. Working with your doctor or a dietician will help you return to a healthy weight in a safe way. He or she will design a diet and, if needed, prescribe medication to help you manage your weight.

Treat Your Skin and Nails

Hair isn’t the only physical feature that takes a beating during the treatment process. Chemotherapy and radiation can leave skin red, dry, itchy, or discolored, and it tends to leave nails cracked, infected, or yellow. A full-blown spa day is in order after you’ve recovered from your final treatment. Make sure to also see a dermatologist, especially if you’ve seen any serious changes in your skin since you were diagnosed. 

Connect with Other Survivors

Building up a strong social network is vital to staying happy and positive post-cancer, and nobody will help you get there faster than fellow survivors. Like anything on this list, make sure you ease into it and wait until you’re fully ready. Having to recount your experience before you’ve fully processed it can worsen symptoms of post-traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety. But, after a period of time, it will help you feel stronger and more secure when you have a group of friends or family members to share your experience with. You can use the American Cancer Society’s resources database [4] to find specific support groups in your area.

Get Enough Exercise

Medical experts consistently say that exercise is among the most important components of a healthy life during and after cancer. One of the biggest reasons for this is that, though it sounds counterintuitive, getting physical can help reduce the ever-present cancer fatigue while also helping you get better sleep, reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and helping you build back muscle strength that may have deteriorated during treatment. Just be sure to follow all medical advice as you ease back into exercise, especially if you’ve recently had surgery.

Volunteer for a Research Foundation

If you’re experiencing any feelings of sadness, anger, or hopelessness, it can really help you to get involved in cancer-specific organizations that donate to research efforts. Finding a cure or at least more viable treatment options for this devastating disease is certainly on the horizon, but getting there takes a lot of money, resources, and effort. Getting involved can help you connect with other survivors and hopeful people, which will lead you into a deeper state of happiness and optimism.

Let Yourself Experience Loss, Pain, and Joy

Again, there’s no “correct” way to experience cancer, no matter if you’ve just been diagnosed or have just finished your final round of treatment. The most important thing you can do is to constantly take stock of your feelings, being careful not to suppress them, and do everything you can to stay healthy both mentally and physically every step of the way.


References:

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5915316/

[2] https://www.capillus.com/blog/a-skeptic%E2%80%99s-guide-to-understanding-how-a-laser-hair-cap-helps-regrow-hair/

[3] https://www.cancer.net/coping-with-cancer/physical-emotional-and-social-effects-cancer/managing-physical-side-effects/weight-loss

[4] https://www.cancer.org/treatment/support-programs-and-services/resource-search.html

Before You Share Your Cancer Diagnosis at Work

When Marybeth heard the word “cancer” she felt like the floor had fallen out from under her. She had a million questions. So many, in fact, she was too overwhelmed to ask a single one the day she was diagnosed. However, as she absorbed the diagnosis and read the materials her doctor had given her, she began to have non-medical questions.  Such as, what would happen to her job if she needed a lot of time off?  How much of the cost of treatment would be covered by her insurance?

Marybeth debated telling her boss of her diagnosis. She wanted to know her options for taking time off, and if they’d be willing to let her work from home sometimes. However, she was also afraid of how her boss might react. She’d been working at the company for less than a year. And Marybeth was a single mom of a teenage son. She relied on her job to pay the bills and provide medical insurance. She was terrified her employer would cut her hours or even let her go.

Fortunately for Marybeth, people with cancer are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It is illegal to fire someone because of a cancer diagnosis and employers must provide reasonable accommodations for employees who have cancer. However, even with legal protections in place, it’s important to prepare before telling your employer of your diagnosis.

Know When to Tell Your Employer

Marybeth waited until after she’d met with her oncologist and agreed on a treatment plan before telling her boss.  To her surprise, her boss seemed supportive and offered to work with her on adjusting the work schedule and asked human resources to send Marybeth information on taking FMLA (Family & Medical Leave Act) leave.

However, it’s not enough to know if you’ll have surgery or how many chemotherapy sessions you might need. Before talking to an employer, you should know how the treatment plan might affect you physically and emotionally. Your doctor can provide insight into how most people respond to treatment. It’s also a good idea to read or listen to patient experiences to get an appreciation for how diagnosis and treatment might affect energy level, ability to concentrate, and ability to handle stress or fight off an infection. The Patient Empowerment Network provides numerous resources to equip cancer patients and their caregivers with that kind of robust perspective.

While there’s no guarantee your experience will be like someone else’s, the more you know about the possibilities, the better prepared you are to talk to your boss. There will still be unknowns and you should explain this to your employer. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” Ideally telling your employer about your diagnosis is just the first of several discussions. Consider scheduling ongoing conversations with your supervisor to evaluate your needs and adjust.

Know What to Tell Your Employer

Most people find it helpful to write down what they want to say before their first time sharing information about their cancer. When talking to an employer you should cover:

  • The diagnosis
  • How your treatment may possibly affect your work
  • Ways you and your employer can work together to overcome the challenges of working during treatment, or—if you are taking medical or disability leave—the challenges of returning to work after treatment

The more you know, the better you’ll be at communicating what you expect and what adjustments you and your employer might need to make. You needn’t ask for these accommodations immediately. But it’s worth knowing what kinds of accommodations might be available.

The most obvious accommodation during and after treatment is time off. Cancer patients should consider not just the time off for surgery and medical appointments, but time to deal with fatigue or secondary illnesses. Some cancer patients request extra breaks during the day to rest or take medicine. Other common accommodations are temporary or permanent reassignment to less physically demanding roles, or permission to work from home. The federally funded Job Accommodation Network can provide a wealth of suggestions. It is often the employee who identifies the need and the most appropriate accommodation, not the employer, so familiarizing yourself with possible options is helpful.

An employer is not required to grant every requested accommodation. They only need to agree to accommodations that don’t create a hardship for them. They can require essential job duties be fulfilled and they don’t have to lower productivity requirements. Your employer may counter your requested accommodation with an alternative that is easier for them to implement. Most employers are willing to work with their employees to find an arrangement that works. However, the burden for educating them about your needs and accommodations to support your success may fall to you.

Know Who to Tell at Work

You don’t have to tell an employer about your cancer at all.  An employer can’t ask about an employee’s medical situation unless they believe a medical condition is negatively affecting job performance or workplace safety.

However, your employer needs to know you have cancer for you to be protected by the ADA.  It is within your employer’s rights to ask for medical documentation if you request disability or medical leave.

Once you have decided you have enough information about what to expect during and after treatment, start by telling your direct supervisor. He or she may ask you questions you aren’t able to answer and that’s ok. Your goal is to open communication and set expectations.  Don’t expect your supervisor to be familiar with your protections under ADA.  However, your company’s Human Resources department should be.  If your supervisor doesn’t inform HR after you disclose your diagnosis, you should.

After that, it’s up to you who you would like to tell.  Your employer is not allowed to tell other employees about your medical situation, not even if coworkers notice you receiving accommodations and ask about it. It is up to you which coworkers to tell. Some people tell only a trusted coworker. Some people want everyone they work with to know.

Decide how much information you want to share. If you are comfortable sharing your story, this is a great opportunity to educate others.  People will likely make assumptions about your ability to work, or your long-term prognosis. They may comment on changes to your physical appearance or ask personal questions. Most people have beliefs about cancer that are incorrect or based on experiences that have little to do with your diagnosis and treatment.  People are rarely intentionally nosy or hurtful. However, if you feel comments or questions are excessive or constitute harassment, report it to your company’s human resources right away.  This is a form of discrimination and your employer has an obligation to address it.

Keep a Record

Even if your employer responds well to your initial conversation and grants accommodations, it’s a good idea to keep track of discussions you have with your boss or human resources office. Keep copies of emails related to your diagnosis and requests. Also, keep copies performance reviews or other documents related to your job performance. This documentation will be helpful if you feel your cancer diagnosis or accommodations are ever held against you.

Discrimination can sometimes be subtle, such as being excluded from meetings or being disregarded for assignments or promotions. You have 180 days from the date of an incident of discrimination to report it to the EEOC, which is another reason to keep records.

Marybeth wasn’t aware of all the protections of the ADA and that those protections continued even after she’d completed her treatments and returned to work full time.  Six months after her last chemotherapy session, she still found herself struggling to keep up with her workload. She was exhausted and felt frustrated by her coworkers’ lack of understanding. Marybeth says she didn’t want to be known as “the woman with cancer” and she figured asking for more help would be held against her.  She struggled on but her job performance suffered, eventually resulting in a poor performance review and job dissatisfaction.

“I don’t know if things would’ve been different for me if I’d been more willing to talk to my boss about how I was feeling and to ask for more adjustments to my work. I’d like to think so,” said Maryann. “I hope I never have to go through treatment again, but if I do, I know I will be more open to talking to my workplace about it.”

It may be difficult to talk about your diagnosis and expectations with your boss.  However, it is almost always the right thing to do to protect yourself.  Armed with an understanding of your potential needs and rights, you are in a better position to take control of your cancer and your career.

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Resource Links:

Americans with Disabilities Act

Job Accommodation Network

Facing Acute Myeloid Leukemia: Notes from a Survivor

In the spring of 2016, I was looking forward to a final year of teaching sociology before a retirement promising new adventures.  I felt great and had no reason to think I had any health problems.  When my doctor suggested some routine blood work, I readily complied.  When the results showed abnormally low white blood cell counts and he recommended a hematologist, I readily complied. When the hematologist ordered a bone marrow biopsy, I still readily complied.  When the results came in, my life changed forever.

The biopsy revealed that I had acute myeloid leukemia. Since this disease can kill within months, they recommended immediate treatment. The next day I checked into a hospital and started chemotherapy.  I received the standard treatment for this disease for the preceding 40 years: a “7 + 3” cocktail of cytarabine and idarubicin.  I spent five and a half weeks in the hospital dealing with various infections brought on by immunosuppression and patiently waiting for my blood counts to recover. As they did, I received the best possible news. The chemotherapy had achieved a temporary remission that bought me time to explore my options for longer term treatment.

As I awaited the molecular and cytogenic data on my cancer, I was told to expect two possibilities.  If there was a relatively low risk of relapse, I might get by with additional chemotherapy. If there was a high risk of relapse, a stem cell transplant was in order. When the results placed me in an intermediate risk category, I had a tough choice to make. After researching my options, getting second opinions, gathering advice, and reading my doctor’s cues, I settled on the transplant.  My logic was that if I opted for more chemo and it didn’t work out, I would deeply regret not having the transplant.  If I had the transplant and it didn’t work out, at least I would feel as if I gave it my best shot and it just wasn’t meant to be. Despite the 15-20% mortality rate from the transplant itself, I was at peace with my decision to proceed.

My benefactors were two anonymous sets of parents who had donated their newborn infants’ umbilical cords to a transplant bank.  Once we found two good matches, the cords were shipped to my transplant hospital, the cord blood was extracted, and it was transfused into my bloodstream. These stem cells just “knew” where to go to engraft in my bone marrow and begin producing a healthy new immune system.  For the second time, I received the best possible news. Three weeks after transplant, one of my donor’s cells were 99% engrafted. With that result, I returned home for a prolonged recovery.

For the next few weeks, I faced daily clinic visits, blood tests, transfusions of platelets and red blood cells, growth factor injections, and lingering effects of my conditioning chemotherapy and radiation as well as the engraftment process itself. As the weeks turned into months, my recovery proceeded apace.  It eventually became clear that I could claim the best possible news for the third time, as my new cells and old body got along with each other and there was no evidence of graft-vs.-host disease.  Looking back over the entire process, my oncologist summarized it by saying “this is as good as it gets.”

Many people wanted to give me credit for surviving this disease. While it is tempting to claim such credit, I remain agnostic about whether anything I did had a material effect on my positive outcome. I think my survival was largely a matter of luck, chance, and random variation across AML patients. Nonetheless, there were several practices I engaged in throughout my treatment that deserve mention. At the very least, they brought me peace during a difficult time. And at the most, they may indeed have contributed to a positive outcome for which I am eternally grateful.

The first set of practices that sustained me was mindfulness, meditation and yoga.  To the greatest extent possible, these practices helped me let go of ruminations about the past or fears about the future and focus on the present moment.  Focusing on my breathing kept me centered as – like my breaths – each moment flowed into the next.  Maintaining a non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of each passing moment kept my psyche on an even keel.

Rather than extended periods of formal meditation, I simply sought a mindful awareness of each moment, hour, day and week.  I also went through a daily yoga routine even while receiving chemotherapy. Doing so helped me retain my identity as I weathered the toxic treatment and its inevitable side-effects.  In the evenings, I used a technique called a body scan to relax and prepare me for a peaceful sleep. The cumulative effect of these practices was a calm acceptance of circumstances I could not change alongside a serene hope that all would work out for the best.

A second practice involved being a proactive patient.  Perhaps it was my training as a social scientist that allowed me to bring an analytical curiosity to my disease and the treatments my doctors were deploying. I asked lots of questions during their all too brief visits, and they patiently responded to all my queries.

On several occasions, my proactive stance made a positive contribution to my treatment.  When I developed a nasty, full body rash, it took a collaborative conversation between me, my oncologist, and infectious disease doctors to isolate the one drug among so many that was the culprit. I identified it, they switched it out, and the rash abated. On another occasion, I was able to identify two drugs that were causing an unpleasant interaction effect.  I suggested changing the dosing schedule, they concurred, and the problem resolved.  The sense of efficacy I received from this proactive stance also helped me retain a positive mood and hopeful stance during my prolonged treatment.

A third practice involved maintaining a regimen of physical activity.  During my first, five-week hospital stay, I felt compelled to move and get out of my room for both physical and social reasons.  I developed a routine of walking the halls three times a day, trailing my IV pole behind me.  They tell me I was walking roughly 5 miles a day, and every excursion felt like it was keeping my disease at bay and connecting me with all the nurses and staff members I would encounter as I made my rounds.

When I moved to my transplant hospital, I was confined to my room but requested a treadmill that met the physical need for activity even as I sacrificed the social benefits of roaming the halls.  But throughout both hospital stays and later at home, I maintained stretching activities, exercise workouts, physical therapy routines, and yoga to keep my body as active and engaged as my circumstances would allow. These activities also gave me a welcome sense of efficacy and control.

A fourth practice involved maintaining my sense of humor.  I have always appreciated a wide variety of humor, ranging from bad jokes, puns and double entendre to witty anecdotes and stories to philosophical musings.  Cancer is anything buy funny, which is precisely why humor has the power to break through the somber mood and fatalistic worldview that so often accompanies the disease.  Using humor became another way of keeping the cancer at bay.  It was a way of saying you may make me sick and eventually kill me, but I’m still going to enjoy a good laugh and a bad joke along the way.

Alongside these practices I could control, there were also beneficial circumstances beyond my control that worked in my favor.  These included the privilege of being a well-educated white male that led to my being treated respectfully and taken seriously by all my health care providers.  In addition, my doctors and nurses consistently combined skill and expertise with compassion and empathy in ways I will never forget or could ever repay. And finally, my privileged status and excellent care played out against a backdrop of strong social support from a dense network of family, friends, colleagues and neighbors.

A final practice that integrated everything else was writing my story as it unfolded. Upon my first hospitalization, I began sending emails to an ever-expanding group of recipients documenting and reflecting upon my disease, treatment and recovery.  Narrating my story for others required me to make sense of it for myself.  The ostensible goal of keeping others informed became a powerful therapeutic prod for my own understanding of what was going on around me and to me.  While my doctors’ ministrations cured my body, my writing preserved my sense of self and a coherent identity.

I eventually sent over 60 lengthy reports to a group of roughly 50 recipients over a 16-month period.  This writing would eventually serve three purposes.  It was a sense-making procedure for me. It was a communication vehicle with my correspondents. And finally, I realized it could be a resource for others in the broader cancer community. With that insight, I did some additional writing about lessons learned and identity transformations and published the resulting account.

As I mentioned at the start, I will never know if any of these practices or circumstances made a material contribution to my survival.  But they maintained my sanity and preserved my identity during the most challenging experience of my life. Regardless of the eventual endings of our journeys, sustaining and nurturing ourselves along the way is a worthy goal in itself.



 

Deceived But Not Defeated

I never felt any symptoms. I mean, I was tired, but what young 20-something who had just started graduate school while maintaining a full time job wouldn’t be? It happened during a physical. A lump towards the top of my throat was felt by my doctor. “I would go and have that scanned,” he said. I wasn’t worried; he had never mentioned cancer. So I went and had the ultrasound. “Well, we see what your doctor was talking about, and it appears to just be a cyst,” the doctor said, “but there’s another spot on the right side of your thyroid. You have two options. You can wait to see if the spot grows or we can perform a biopsy to see if it’s cancer,” he explained. “Now, the chance of it being cancer is anywhere between 10-15%, a very very low chance,” he reassured me. “I want the biopsy,” I said, not wanting to take any chances. The biopsy was performed, and within minutes, the doctor returned saying he had bad news. “Unfortunately, it’s cancer, but the good news is that it’s very treatable. I recommend you having surgery.” And that was it; although, it hadn’t hit me, at least not as hard as I thought it should had – at least not immediately. I went to my car, called my mom, and asked her if she was sitting down. I told her the news, still shocked by the ordeal I was just handed. In an instant, my life had changed forever. I heard those three words no one ever wants to hear, “You have cancer.”

I wasn’t sure how to proceed. How advanced is my cancer? What doctor(s) do I go to? How quickly do I need surgery? I just started school – do I need to drop-out already? What about my job. All of these thoughts raced through my mind. However, the support of my family and, luckily, not having any symptoms kept me going. I was working in a hospital at the time, and I spoke with a few of the doctors I worked with. “Oh, the good type of cancer. You’ll be just fine,” one said. “‘Good type?’” I thought. What is good about having cancer? He gave me the name of a surgeon who specialized in thyroidectomies. It was a five month wait to get in.

When I eventually saw my surgeon, he gave me two options. The first, he explained, was a partial thyroidectomy. “We’ll only remove the lobe of the thyroid where your tumor is. The benefit of that is that the other lobe will continue producing enough of the hormones that your body needs so you don’t have to take a medication for the rest of your life. The second was a total thyroidectomy, rendering me to that medication, literally, for a lifetime. I went with the former, and had a successful surgery. Of course, it didn’t end there.

Two days after my surgery, my doctor called. “We performed pathology on some of the lymph nodes that we removed from your neck, and unfortunately, almost all of them had cancer. What this means is that we need to have you come back and perform another surgery to remove the rest of your thyroid. Then after, you’ll have to undergo radioactive iodine to rid your body of any residual thyroid tissue.” My heart sunk. My world was crushed yet again. Another surgery? What was radioactive iodine? I didn’t how to process the emotions that I was feeling as tears streamed down my face. “It never ends,” I thought.

After my second surgery, I was thyroid-free. Later, I went through the radioactive iodine procedure where I had to be a specific diet for approximately 3 weeks. I could consume very little to no iodine, or salt, which was essentially in every product. As I went up and down the grocery store aisles reading every nutrition label, I found myself frustrated finding almost nothing that I could eat. Don’t get me wrong, this was a very healthy diet, as I was essentially restricted to meats (without seasonings), fruits, and vegetables. But it wasn’t my favorite. I went to a nuclear medicine center where I consumed a pill that would make me radioactive. I was to stay physically away from people for approximately one week, slowly decreasing the amount of feet I could be within others as each day passed. I then had a whole body scan that showed that the cancer hadn’t spread, or metastasized, to any other place in my body, but there was still some residual thyroid tissue that the radioactivity would hopefully kill.

The journey continued. I would need to be on a medication for the rest of my life. I would need to see a specialist, an endocrinologist, for the rest of my life. They would decide the dosage of my medication based on a variety of factors, including how I was feeling emotionally and physically. It wasn’t until after I had my thyroid removed that I realized how much it does for our bodies. “It will take some time before we find the right dosage for you,” my endocrinologist explained. In other words, sometimes I would be hyperthyroid, other times, hypothyroid. My symptoms may be all over the place, including my metabolism rate, my body temperature, and even my mood. As a patient with chronic depression and anxiety, I could only hope that the “right” dosage would be found quickly.

Fast forward two years later from my diagnosis, and I have been deemed “cancer free,” no more thyroid tissue. While I am incredibly thankful for this result, I can’t help but feel survivor’s guilt. I often think, “Why me? Why did I get to survive and others don’t? How did I get by so easily?” Despite this guilt, I have used my cancer diagnosis and journey to become stronger both mentally and emotionally. I have unashamedly shared images on social media and written stories that have been published in the hopes to inspire others and to be an advocate for those who don’t feel like they have a voice. Yet, I don’t pretend to know everything. I still have questions that remain unanswered. How likely is my cancer to come back? Why do I keep losing so much hair? Why am I always so tired? Despite having the “good” type of cancer, there is nothing that great about it. Although I never had symptoms, I still went through two surgeries and a radioactive iodine procedure, which had its own side effects.

As a result of what I went through and my never-ending passion for helping others, I believe that my diagnosis happened for a reason – to lead me to a career in patient advocacy. I have a background in health administration, policy, and communication. I have worked at doctor’s offices and hospitals. I feel I had an advantage in having the knowledge that I did/do, and access to physicians. However, I still get confused when I ask my doctor a question, and I receive an answer that’s in medical jargon. I think, “I can’t be the only one who feels lost, who feels confused.” Plus, I know that there are patients who are going through worse situations than I did. There has to be a way to mend the physician-patient relationship that is currently suffering. There’s not enough time dedicated to each patient, to hear what they’re going through each day. Physicians also need to make sure that what they’re saying/explaining makes sense to the patient, especially when it comes to taking medication(s) (patients with chronic conditions usually have multiple, which can be hard to keep track). There are solutions coming to the forefront, such as pill packs, patient portals, and support groups. But I believe this is just the beginning. Every cancer is different. No two patients are the same – indifference is ignorance. It’s time to combine research, health literacy, and ultimately, compassion for a patient’s story, to provide the best care and create better health outcomes.

A Warrior’s Perspective on Cancer

First, full disclosure: I’m not a member of the armed forces. I am a member of a multi-generation career military family, though, so my syntax is flavored with warrior-isms, from throw-weight to battle-ready.

I’ll ask you this: are you battle-ready for an engagement with cancer? I can say that I was not fully prepared for my own personal war on cancer, but who is really ready to hear their name and the word “cancer” in a sentence? It’s a subject that anyone who plans to live past 40 should become intimately familiar with, though, because every day you live on the planet increases your cancer risk.

We are indeed lucky to live in an era where medical discoveries are as accelerated as they are in the early 21st century. The core challenge that faces us, though, is how we live with the biological impact of our technological advancement: plastic in our food, chemical effluent from tech manufacturing in our air and water, and many other human-created biological threats.

Humans have internal challenges on the cancer front, too – just ask anyone with a genetically driven cancer risk, like BRCA1 or BRCA2. Until the last half-century or so, it was hard to know if we were staring down the barrel of a genetic howitzer until nature fired a round. Now it’s possible, via genomic testing, to know our risk of cancer and other illnesses long before they manifest … but what can we do with that knowledge on the prevention side, really? Again, we can ask people in the hereditary cancer community about that. Many women, and some men, in the BRCA community have taken proactive steps, such as prophylactic (preventive) bilateral mastectomies and oophorectomies (ovary removal), but how many people can freely make that choice and receive good, effective care?

As someone who self-identifies as a cancer warrior – I don’t care for the term “survivor,” since it suggests victimology to me – I think about this stuff all the time. I thought about it before I heard my name and the word “cancer” in a sentence, but not as hard, or as much, as I have since.

My thinking tends to revolve around how to make genomic testing available to everyone, not just those who can afford it. It runs toward community crowdsourcing of ideas on how to clean up after ourselves in ways that don’t mean resigning ourselves to eating plastic, or to becoming Luddites to avoid the side effects of technology. It embraces the idea that we can put our biology and technology more in sync – to be the Cro-Magnons with smartphones that we really are in the 21st century.

Healthcare works within human biology. Fully understanding human biology requires that we embrace that biome, and drill as far into it as possible to unleash our full human potential. That does not equate with patenting human genes (yes, Myriad Genetics, I’m looking at you) – it does equate with embracing data input from every possible source to learn how to defeat cancer.

This warrior asks you to grab what weapons you have at your disposal, and put them to use in the fight. We’re all in this together – the cure for cancer won’t be one thing, it will be many. It will come from many places. It must be available to all. And it will never end.

One way to get directly involved is to join the Count Me In project at the Broad Institute. As they say on their website, “Patient-partnered research is changing the future of cancer” – there are countless people across the country, and around the world, working to unlock new information about what triggers cancer cell mutation, and how to find its “off” switch.

Suit up, and join the fight. And if you know of projects working to make the war on cancer an artifact of history, share it on a #PatientChat. Let’s win this one.

Singing Through Cancer Helped Me Survive

I was not very curious about the nuances of singing and producing pitch during my younger adventures in a choir. A solid chorus member, I enjoyed the demands of music acquisition, the camaraderie, and the chance to conjure my inner diva, when appropriate.

My perspective changed when I heard the words “You have cancer.” That year, those four syllables cracked me and my beautiful, imperfect, 45-year-old life wide open and handed me the dramatic role no woman desires. I found myself memorizing not Latin and French lyrics, but malignancy’s bewildering status symbols: grade, stage and node, hormone reception and recurrence. I donned drafty hospital gowns instead of costumes or robes, and summoned the diva, not to perform, but to confront a relentless, faceless villain. When offers of support poured in, I learned “Yes“ and “Things will be OK” were the only lines I needed.

I completed my transformation, from ordinary woman to infiltrating breast carcinoma patient to survivor, in just eight months. During the harrowing passages, I felt scared, boxed-in, smaller than before. Carrying the role of cancer patient sometimes left me gasping and utterly out of tune. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

Facing a life-disrupting disease didn’t give me special gifts, but it reminded me that strength and healing come from unexpected places, and it deepened my appreciation for the restorative powers of singing and music. I’ve never regretted the nights I showed up to sing when I was too weary to speak or even stand.

– – –

Singing in perfect pitch tests professionals and amateurs alike. It’s an acoustical feat of mathematics, physics and human anatomy. We climb musical scales powered by our vibrating vocal folds. The higher we go, the faster the vibrations. Those frequencies are measurable, but how our ear perceives pitch is subjective and more complex as we approach our voice’s upper limits. It’s tough for one accomplished soloist to stay the course. That challenge expands exponentially when many differently gifted vocalists attempt the crossing together.

Diabolical phrasing, chords that don’t resolve, inadequate breath control, nerves and the winter’s chill lead us astray. Sorrow enters our rehearsal spaces, announcing itself with drooping shoulders and sagging tones.

When the choir drifts off-key, directors “tune” our voices with exercises to improve pitch accuracy. We might vocalize in sections over a major chord or focus on creating an elusive, well-tuned third and then, at the director’s signal, migrate to a lower one. Interesting things occur as we’re sustaining our notes. Vibrations collide, blanketing us in an exhilarating cloud of sound that helps us recognize if we’re hovering under or over so we can recalibrate. If our tone flattens, we brighten it together, modulating up in barely-perceptible increments until all singers land on a near-perfect third or triad.

The instant when 10 or 20 choir members lock into magical harmony to sing as one voice defies description, like a ballerina’s floating, a perpetual string of fouettes. It isn’t buzz, scream, or reverb, but when an ensemble gets it right, the air celebrates with us.

– – –

I was hitting my mid-life stride when those four syllables knocked the wind out of me. I had a loving husband, amazing sons, good friends, interesting work, and meaningful volunteer pursuits. I’d even forged a delicate peace with painful childhood circumstances that bled into adulthood, and I was envisioning my next chapter.

In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, I came under bombardment. Dad and I were saying reluctant goodbyes. We knew he was running out of options and precious time. Many afternoons, I held his hand, saw his battered body succumb to cancer’s onslaught. I returned home at dusk to quietly plot my own body’s defense amid an escalating campaign of biopsy and MRI results and five-year survival projections. I had just reassured Bob and our kids (and myself) that, after my treatment, things would be okay when we were called to gather at Dad’s hospice.

On his final night, Dad’s chest labored with every subsequent breath until we watched him draw in and hold onto his most important one. The air patiently awaited permission, then transported my father to his next home. Dad died of cancer four days before my surgery; I attended his funeral, in a haze, five days after.

Amid the pandemonium, I refused to abandon the singing and ballet that anchored me in other storms, but my positive outlook didn’t spare me the progressive toll of chemotherapy, radiation and estrogen-destroying medications. Cellular warfare punished my stamina, spirit, and untrained, lyric soprano. Amid brain fog, hobbling myalgia, crushing fatigue and disappearing hair, my suffering soprano seemed like cancer piling on. What was clear and steady became temperamental and prone to croaking or evaporating mid-larynx. The diva went into hiding.

I smiled when people said, “You’re so strong.” Making peace with vulnerability was harder; it required a system override or an existential re-tuning.

I noticed the subtle, curative powers of music-making, how it awakens emotions and gently moves us into community. I soaked up the beauty of silences and admired how we stagger breathing in torturous passages to support the sound and one another and how a lush, alto line sends descants floating to wondrous heights.

There were some bruising remarks and sour notes. One regretful solo I should have refused, accomplished with sleep-inducing quantities of antihistamines. Yet I mostly recall how gracefully my musical community tuned me. Changing seats to accommodate scary side effects. Steadying arms when emotions overtook me. The kind diva passing me missing choreography, instead of scowling, when I accidentally trampled on her solo.

Friends raising a glorious roar when I could barely chirp, reminding me we belong to something mightier than any hardship or disease.

Singing through cancer punched up my playlists for the blessedly ordinary and terrible days and taught me to treasure songs that speak directly to our broken places. I count on the haunting, intersecting supplications of Renaissance master Victoria and Bach and Coldplay to calm the MRI chamber’s mayhem. It’s Prince, Bowie and Jackson Browne inviting me to dance in my kitchen. I memorized those melodies that carried hope and faith back to me when they went missing for a spell.

– – –

I’m still okay. Gratefully, still a lucky one. I reclaimed my diva and, shortly after our move to Connecticut, joined a lovely women’s chorale. I’m discovering anew how routine vocalizations can realign not only discordant notes, but our anxious minds. At a recent rehearsal, I could almost see all our invisible burdens yielding to the room’s overtones, then evaporating in the swirling, ephemeral soundscape.

I believe the best choirs accept our offerings of exacting diction, buttery timbre and angelic tones, along with our heartaches, to grow something of honesty, tenderness and majesty. Sing long enough and you’ll one day find yourself harmonizing with and holding up someone who’s making her way out of a dark or lonely valley.

The fragile heart and unpredictable, faithful voice rising with the descant (and missing an entrance or two) were once my own. People said I inspired them by sharing my voice while my body was so visibility under siege. It was uncomfortable, almost as unnerving as cancer itself.

Looking back, I think that was the point.

My Breast Cancer Story

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. It was found by accident on a chest x-ray, and I was shocked. There was no history of breast cancer in my family, and I never thought it could happen to me.

Cancer patients are supposed to be upbeat; we are supposed to relax and trust that our doctors will provide the best possible care. I had never had a serious illness before, so I was naïve about what to expect from the medical establishment. I wanted to feel that I was safe and in good hands, and that I could simply follow my doctors’ advice. Unfortunately, that was not my experience.

Our physicians are usually our primary source of information, but the fact is that medicine in the USA is a business. Physicians are paid for their time, so unless a patient is a family member or a VIP, most physicians will not allot a patient any more time than the number of minutes that is the “standard of care.” Some doctors are more caring than others, but the for-profit system that we have in the United States rewards oncologists financially if they squeeze in as many patients as possible. A surgical oncologist will want to do surgery; a medical oncologist will want to do chemotherapy; a radiation oncologist will want to do radiation. This is what they know and what they are paid to do; and most oncologists want to get on with it as quickly as possible.

What they will usually not do is spend extra time consulting with specialists and/or looking in the medical literature for newer and better ways to treat their patients. They will generally not become knowledgeable about any kind of treatment outside their specialty, such as nutrition or any type of complementary medicine. I suspect that most oncologists would be willing to spend the time if they were paid, but insurance in the United States will usually not reimburse for these kinds of activities. In fact, the extra time that an oncologist would have to spend would actually cause them to lose income.

It seemed to me they just wanted me to follow their program, but I knew from even a very quick survey of the literature, that cancer decisions are not easy and simple. The treatment is often unsuccessful, and the side effects can be life threatening. Every patient’s case is different, so the “one-size-fits-all” approach on which traditional cancer treatment is based may not be the best way to proceed. Every year 40,000 women in the United States die of breast cancer after getting the standard of care. I did not want to be one of those statistics.

Because I have an academic background, it was natural for me to jump in and do a lot of research. I went to books, journals, and the Internet. I also got a huge amount of help from other patients. I told lots of people that I had breast cancer, and I gave them permission to tell anyone they wanted. My thought was that the more people they told, the fewer I would have to tell. But I had a huge side benefit—because breast cancer is so common, lots of former patients offered advice and support. I also joined a local breast cancer support group and an online support group at breastcancer.org. These patients were incredibly valuable to me. They referred me to doctors, including an integrative oncologist; they told me how to save my hair through chemotherapy; they told me about a program to reduce side effects through fasting; I was able to avoid neuropathy, mouth sores, and much more.

As of now, I have no evidence of breast cancer, but I am at high risk for recurrence or metastasis, so I am not able to simply return to the life I had before. Conventional cancer care offers periodic tests to see whether the cancer has returned, but it does not offer anything beyond hormone therapy to prevent the cancer from returning. The problem is that if it returns it will likely no longer be curable. I had to go outside of conventional oncology, where I found a lot of evidence that changing one’s “terrain” can keep the cancer dormant. Working with an integrative oncologist, I follow a program of diet, supplements, exercise, mental/spiritual practices, and avoidance of environmental carcinogens.

I learned a great deal from my cancer experience that most people don’t know, and I wanted to share my experience. I wrote a book that I hope will help other patients take charge of their care, to help them make the best medical decisions and to stay in remission afterward.

Family Member Profile: Alison Greenhill

Family-Member Profile
Alison Greenhill
Pancreatic Cancer

It’s been little more than a year since Alison Greenhill lost her husband Richard to pancreatic cancer. Richard was 47 at the time of his death and the couple had been married for 18 years. They had a tortoiseshell cat named Nibbles. Richard was a Registered Nurse and Alison worked for and continues to work for a major airline. Despite a history of Crohn’s disease, Richard was a generally healthy guy so when he started complaining of stomach pains in September 2016 he was referred to a gastroenterologist.

The couple had just returned home from a cruise and Richard’s stomach pains were severe enough to send him to the hospital, but all the test results done by the gastroenterologist were negative. The doctors didn’t know what was causing the pain, but it continued through December when Richard was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis as a possible result of Crohn’s disease. Crohn’s is an inflammatory bowel disease that can cause abdominal pain and lead to a host of other issues so the diagnosis made sense.

But, in January Richard was back in the hospital with jaundice and he received a couple of stents to relieve bile duct blockage. He also had a number of tests done including an MRI and several lab and blood tests, but there still seemed to be no definitive answer as to what was causing Richard to be so sick. Alison recalls being frustrated that they still didn’t have more answers and says she felt like things were moving at a snail’s pace. Richard, she says, thought his symptoms indicated cancer, but on his birthday, also in January, they were told that Richard did not have cancer. “When they said it wasn’t cancer, it was his birthday,” says Alison. “We couldn’t have gotten better news.”

Ten days later Richard started vomiting and was back in the hospital with a blood infection. Alison says he recovered from the infection, but that it had almost killed him and that doctors were still saying they weren’t sure what was wrong. Finally, at the end of February Richard got referred to the Mayo clinic. Alison says they got there on a Thursday and by Friday evening the oncology department had been added to Richard’s daily report. Richard had stage four, pancreatic cancer that had metastasized. “It was the worst possible diagnosis with the worst possible cancer,” says Alison. “We were just numb.”

The Mayo Clinic oncologist suggested Richard start chemotherapy and referred him to a local oncologist who took over his case. Two weeks later, in March, he started chemo. During chemo, Alison says his numbers were going down, but Richard had a bowel blockage, another bout of jaundice, and an infection that interrupted his chemo. They learned that the tumor was covering his pancreas and he had another tumor on his liver. By the end of June he was in Hospice care. Richard remained positive through it all, says Alison. “My husband was like a rock. I don’t know how he did it,” she says adding that Richard made peace with his diagnosis. “We decided were were going to handle things the best we could.”

After his death, Alison says she had a lot of ups and downs and a lot of anger, but that, through Hospice, she got a grief counselor who helped her through each step of her grief. “She was wonderful from the beginning,” says Alison who focuses on remaining positive rather than letting herself get caught up in questioning why they were told Richard didn’t have cancer and why his cancer wasn’t found sooner. “I wish we would have known more. We didn’t know what we were working with,” says Alison, but she knows they did the best they could at the time. “I can’t keep going backward,” she says. “I would never be able to move forward.”

Along with the grief counselor and exercise, which she says helps her to stay positive and outgoing, Alison says she learned to accept help from others. “You have to let people do things for you. As time went on I realized I can’t do this by myself,” she says. Alison received a lot of help from her parents and had a strong support group. “Lean on your family. Let people help you,” she advises. Although it’s been difficult reaching each milestone or holiday throughout the year she says, “I’m better than I was a year ago.”

Now, Alison says it is important to her that others might benefit from what she and Richard went through. “I pray every day that no one else has to go through this,” she says. Richard also hoped his story might help others. “He said that he hoped one day we could help someone else,” she says. “He said people can learn from this.”

Alison wants people to hear her story and know they aren’t alone, but more importantly she wants people to do whatever it takes to get answers.“You’ve really got to speak up for the patient,” emphasizes Alison. “If you don’t have the answers and the doctors don’t give you the answers, don’t take no for an answer. Take it to the next level.” Alison says that patients and caregivers shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions and to push for more information. She says, “Keep fighting for your person.”

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