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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.”

Wondering how YOU can advance MPN research?

September is Blood Cancer Awareness Month and we’ve spent the month focusing on ways you can become a more empowered patient. If you missed our recent webinar: What YOU can do to advance MPN Research, the replay is now available. As always, we’d love to hear from you about ways you’ve empowered yourself!

Clinical Trials – Patients ARE the Pioneers

Editor’s Note: After a long and resilient battle with primary peritoneal cancer, Roberta Aberle, 53, of Auroro, CO passed away on November 1, 2017 with her husband David Oine at her side. Even as she battled her own cancer, Roberta was a tireless advocate for patient care, hoping to improve the lives of others also fighting life-threatening illnesses. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.


“The pioneering spirit is less about thinking up new ideas as ridding ourselves of dogma and old habits that hold us captive in thinking.” Bertrand Piccard http://bertrandpiccard.com/home

Profound. Who wants to be captive in their thinking? No one I can name. Especially in the world of healthcare. Medical sciences are far surpassing dogma in many aspects of delivering care to patients – in technology, in documentation, in processes and structure, in diagnostics, in pharmaceuticals and other interventions such as surgical techniques all the way to preventative care. Some diseases have been eradicated entirely, others are manageable and have become chronic rather than life threatening.

It is invigorating to have even a small part in innovations with the potential to alter and improve the landscape of health and well-being. In last week’s broadcast of Mythbuster’s #3 – Do Patients Have a Voice While Participating in Clinical Trials? Our host, Andrew Schorr brought up the notion of being perceived as a pioneer in cancer treatment with each of our respective roles in clinical trials. Our panel was comprised of an oncologist and a clinical trial navigator (a resource who pairs patients to relevant trials)and myself, a patient advocate and participant in multiple clinical trials.

One trial in which I participated led to the provisional release of a therapy added to front line treatment for Ovarian, Fallopian Tube and Primary Peritoneal Cancer who test positive for either the BRCA 1 or 2 inherited genetic mutations. Addition of the oral medication researched has since shown astounding results for patients with these forms of cancer that prolongs disease free progression an average of 19.1 months. https://www.lynparza.com/ovarian-cancer-treatment.html

I personally never considered myself a pioneer, but in this context, I suppose it fits. Without patients, researchers and oncologists exhausting every resource to identify what can extend our life or achieve a cure for incurable forms of cancer; how can we validate new inroads to treatment?  Regardless of how it is termed, I take great pride in participating in clinical trials to prove efficacy for patients of today and the future. Pioneer. Forerunner. Research Subject. Terms mean less  to me than the knowledge that if just one patient considers a clinical trial as a result of seeing our webinar, it is validation enough my involvement matters.

Shortly after the broadcast, I was talking to a new acquaintance at a gathering about the program and my personal experience with various clinical trials. As I detailed my journey for her, she asked a time or two, so “ALL you ever did was take experimental medicines?” Communication breakdown. But yet, I was quite happy she expressed her question in the way she had so I could clarify. My response was swift, “No. In actuality, in only one clinical trial was the medication ‘‘experimental’. Other than one, I was enrolled in only Phase 3 or higher trials where the medications were known to be effective, they just needed more data to understand dosage, frequency and when to use in combination with existing chemotherapy drugs to amplify the power of each.”

Despite being in multiple clinical trials, I have yet to achieve remission and the elusive cure for my form of cancer; yet, I still chime praise for each trial I’ve been enrolled in. I consider each an opportunity a peek into the future of cancer management. While I cannot claim certain things regarding my cancer as a result of clinical trials, each one has earned me quality time with loved ones or has been a bridge to a new treatment option not available to me were it not for the commitment of researchers, oncologists and patients worldwide.

When you view the webinar rebroadcast or in summation, my hope is that you will be receptive to clinical trials as an additional avenue available to you. Beyond our specific topic of whether patients have a voice in clinical trials, in our segment, our message is clearly that patients do retain their voice during a clinical trial. Of equal importance, collectively our outcomes and first hand experiences are an even more powerful voice chiming their merits. In many ways the patient voice is important not just during, but extends long past the time parameters of trials.

https://www.patientpower.info/event/myth-busters3

It’s Not About Vanity, It’s About Identity

Editor’s Note: After a long and resilient battle with primary peritoneal cancer, Roberta Aberle, 53, of Auroro, CO passed away on November 1, 2017 with her husband David Oine at her side. Even as she battled her own cancer, Roberta was a tireless advocate for patient care, hoping to improve the lives of others also fighting life-threatening illnesses. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.


Appearances do matter. Let’s face it. Whether we like to admit it or not.

My appearance has always mattered to me. But cancer takes over your appearance, forcing you face an unknown entity in the mirror. Even with average looks and physique, I was always comfortable in my skin. Until cancer.

I dreaded hair loss as many do, but little did I know there was more to dread.

How I wish someone had told me losing your hair is minor, wait until you lose your eyelashes and eyebrows. Hair aside, the eyes are the gateway to your soul. My eyes without the familiar frame of eyelashes and eyebrows look distant, shallow and colder. I became a face no longer recognizable even to myself.  

The injury added to the insult is my body ravaged with scars. Each day brings a new blemish in some unexpected place. Bruises even on the tops of my feet. Aches and pains so deep no topical or pain medication can even touch it. A body that wants to lie in bed all day.  I don’t want this to be my body. I don’t know this body.

My scalp feels constantly agitated as hair grows back. Yet, I can’t run my fingers through wavy, soft hair, it’s a mere patchwork of kinky, coarse sprouts of regrowth. I can compensate. I can wear my “hair” aka ‘a wig’. I have scarves, headbands and hats to rival any celebrities accessory closet.  But I’ve lost the appearance that used to be uniquely me.

Wigs itch, as do most hats. Scarves are equally obviously just covering the sparseness underneath. All just poor attempts to mask the reality anyway. When in public with any headwear it’s impossible not to be self-conscious. Some days I think, certainly I shouldn’t have to put on this façade. But I do. Day after day.

And why is that? Aren’t we living in a more enlightened period? We’ve moved stigma of cancer beyond whispers and shushing in society to being more vocal and “out” about our disease, haven’t we?

Sadly, not completely. When I was completely bald, I did my own social experiment if you will, I ventured out with the least possible masking of my illness. Just a simple hat. No attempt to conceal my pinkish scalp. No fake bangs or wisps of hair to falsify it. No attempt at false eyelashes or painted on eyebrows. Just me trying to be bold.

Everywhere I went. Eyes averted mine, no one looked me in the eye. The store clerk pleasant enough, kept turned from direct eye contact. Other shoppers browsing, fixated on store racks instead of acknowledging me. I caught a few stares, but when I smiled at them to ease the awkwardness, they just looked away as if caught in some sinful act instead of pure curiosity.

For the first time in the span of an entire day, not a single stranger approached or spoke to me. What an isolating way to go through a day. Was it just me giving off the vibe of unfamiliarity and therefore calling it to me? Who’s to say or know? But it didn’t feel good. Experiment failed.

So, I put my hair back on and join friends who accept me with or without hair. An act that is not about vanity, it’s about identity. Cancer can strip you of the visual aspects that we attribute to vanity. But when cancer not only reflects the disease inside, but projects a spirit uncharacteristic of you to the outside, it becomes about your identity.

In the moments we find to escape our illness; the music can play, the rain can stop for the sun to shine through again, the rainbows can appear. But amid the laughter and smiles, no one has any idea of the burden of sorrow on the mind and soul of those in the cancer experience. They go home at the end of the day, reflect on their worries that while significant are typically not about life or death. We go home at the end of the day and have to study meds to make we’ve stayed on schedule. Feel distress at the new pile of bills and claims owed. Play catch up with the pain or nausea. Then we try to settle into bed and clear our minds of the gravity of the living with a lethal diagnosis.

My hope is that instead of internalizing the slights of strangers, we can find it an interesting study in human behavior. Or the next time we see someone in an obvious state of illness, we can make eye contact, extend a compliment, or project a smile. Don’t let any appearance dissuade you from doing so.

The DisCONNECT OF CANCER

Editor’s Note: After a long and resilient battle with primary peritoneal cancer, Roberta Aberle, 53, of Aurora, CO passed away on November 1, 2017 with her husband David Oine at her side. Even as she battled her own cancer, Roberta was a tireless advocate for patient care, hoping to improve the lives of others also fighting life-threatening illnesses. She will be greatly missed by all who knew her.


The descriptions of first hearing “you have cancer,” all follow a common thread – shock, denial, surreal, as are the emotions and reactions to the news – disbelief, despair, fear. However, I suspect few people ask themselves in those initial stages of grasping the news, “I wonder how many people I care about will disappear from my life as I fight cancer?”

But it happens. I hear it over and over, with dizzying similarity. I was one who never even contemplated the idea any of my loved ones would not be there to through my cancer experience. But it happened to me immediately, gradually and then again abruptly, long after I was down the road of treatment.

And I never saw any of it coming.

At first, there were the expected disappearances. Colleagues, neighbors and distant friends, upon hearing the news either would at first react with sympathy, then the avoidance began. A random colleague would pile up his papers and laptop before the meeting ended and be up and out the door with barely a nod to me. I’d be out walking my dogs and see a neighbor coming around the corner – not realizing I’d seen them – turn to walk the other direction. The e-mail update and invitation to follow my fight on MyLifeline.org site went unacknowledged by more than a handful of long term friends. One couple I had introduced to each other and later married, I’ve not seen or heard from during this 5+ year odyssey. Another couple my husband and I went out with rather regularly at first were adamant they would be all over me helping. I heard from them daily the first week, the last call being to find out what type of soup I preferred. The soup never came. Nor did they, ever again.

Both are still receiving my emails and updates, they never come back undeliverable, I see their updates on social media, so I’m confident they are alive and well. For whatever reason, they’ve chosen not to be a part of my path.

At first it hurt terribly, then I did my best to employ all the psychological and human behavior knowledge I’d gleaned throughout my life.. It was easier to understand once I divorced myself from the hurt and focused on what defense mechanisms those absent friends were using.

Most people don’t know what to say or how to say it. So they avoid the topic entirely. And in the case of cancer, where it’s next to impossible to avoid the topic because it can be all consuming; avoidance of me, as well as the topic seemed to be the natural conclusion.

Even with that understanding of the likelihood absence was their defense, it doesn’t change how much I  miss them, I miss knowing about their lives. I miss their energy and spirit. I miss their friendship.

There are the people who show up in the grand way which helps you cope with those who can’t show up. The support system that come over, pick up the phone to reach out, send cards, books and other resources. Asking for ways they can offer help. Wow. Mind boggling how some people will come out of the woodwork.  And how fortunate we are for those who do.

Then there are the very sad stories of cancer totally wrecking you to your core. Those, for me, were the ones that came quite abruptly later. But in my travels and exposure to cancer patients near and far, I’ve heard about spouses serving divorce papers, children who lash out and misbehave, parents who aren’t present at chemo sessions or surgeries, friends who drop you from social gatherings. The entire gamut. How do you explain these crucial relationships that come crashing down?

Over my 5+ year battle, even a handful of those who stepped up in the most generous and productive ways eventually disappeared too. I barely have had the stamina for this duration of time, how could I ask anyone else to? But there are equally just as many who were there are Day 1 and are still here on what is around Day 1,991. For all of them, I’m eternally grateful. They have carried me through.

But back to those significant relationships that collapse, what logic explains those? Not being an expert in the field of human psychology, I can only comment based on my own personal circumstances

For me, it was two nearly life long friends who left my side with extreme abruptness and even more extreme callousness. Amid harsh words both of them, who did not know each other, accused me of using my cancer as an excuse to be horrible and nasty to people. Furthermore that they only stayed friends with me due to feeling sorry for me having cancer. Wow. One went so far to say how sad it was I needed help with my laundry and who really did I know who would want to launder my dirty underwear? True and unfathomable.

My personal interjection here is: where is the compassion and where is the sensitivity? I have a terminal diagnosis, even if I were a bad person to be around during my cancer, wouldn’t a true friend help you identify and seek out ways to help you cope differently? What motivation and impure intent has to be behind hurtful and hateful words that are spewed knowing the dire circumstances of a person they claim to love and care for? Would you say such things to a person with life threatening heart disease, addiction or diabetes? How does going for the jugular help the person in a medical crisis? How does deserting them help power them through healing to a cure?

Those are the questions to ask yourself when you seek to recover from the abandonment of anyone significant while you are struggling with cancer. What would a reasonable person do in the same situation? How would they help you cope and manage? Would they put hurtful, hateful adjectives around you and blame you for your plight?

No.

Is it possible they had to create conflict with you to push you away because they couldn’t bear to see you suffer?  Or because they couldn’t fix it? Or because they were sheerly self-referential, unable to cope with mortality, yours or their own and just wanted to be free of the confines cancer can bring?

In other words, odds are, it’s not you, it IS them. I wish I could wave a magic wand and tell every person who has leaned on my shoulder, who has confided to me in tears about who has left or worse, their words, who has “rejected” them since their diagnosis. Every story of this nature, pierces my heart again as if it were happening to me all over again.

All I can do is suggest that as painful and prickling as it is, hold your head high. You did nothing to deserve being abandoned nor did you cause your own cancer. If a significant person in your life cannot walk through the fiery coals with you and carry you if needed, you do not need them there with you. It is not an easy lesson, and trust me, I replay it over and over as to what I did wrong and should’ve done differently; all the while knowing the outcome would likely be the same. They may have left anyway.

There are thousands of quotes and adages about allowing another person to leave when they want to leave. For whatever reason. The true and pure individuals will return. They may or may not have answers for you as to what or why they were driven to desert you. This would be the happiest conclusion, the true meaning of closure.

The best way to view this situation when and I hope, only IF it happens to you; you sweep all the negativity and the pain of it aside. Allow yourself to immerse yourself in those who can be present, who do show up, otherwise you’d be preoccupied with hurt to invest in the people who can put aside their own needs, who can sacrifice their own potential for hurt and loss to be there without reservation, without stipulations and without complaint.

Then the decision belongs to you, whether you welcome them back into your life or not. I’ve asked myself, if ever had the chance to reconcile with the immediate, the gradual or the abrupt departures could I or would I? It remains to be seen as it hasn’t happened yet. All I can predict is that, for me, and this is only me, it would be hard to edit out this huge segment of my life and resume a friendship the way it was. It doesn’t mean it can’t be a different relationship, but it also doesn’t mean it could never be resurrected. But I don’t have to worry about that right now. If it ever does happen in my lifetime, I will be sure to let you know what I choose to do.

Mapping the Patient Information Journey

Patients need appropriate information tailored to their specific needs at each step of the care pathway. This should begin on the day of diagnosis and continue on through treatment and long term self-management.  Your healthcare journey is a continuum and your information needs change as you move along the patient pathway.  When you are first diagnosed, you will have many questions, fears, and concerns. Having answers to your questions can help you understand your diagnosis better and feel more in control about your treatment decisions. How much information you want is up to you. Some patients feel overwhelmed by too much information at this stage.  Others say they didn’t receive enough information.  While information upon first diagnosis is vitally important, we may be in shock and in a heightened emotional state which makes it difficult to fully comprehend all the information we receive at the beginning.

Several years ago, when I raised the question on my blog of whether you can have too much information, Dr Deana Attai, Assistant Clinical Professor of Surgery at UCLA Health, pointed out that “it can be difficult to navigate all the information and options that are available”. Dr Attai recommends you “take your time, get organized, and if possible, bring a trusted friend or family member to appointments with you. If that is not an option, ask if you can record the consultation – that way you can focus just on listening, and go back and review the whole conversation later. Slowly sort through the information, do some research, and ask more questions if needed before you make a decision on treatment.”

Patients make the best decisions when armed with the right information.  Research has shown that access to the right information at the right time delivered in the right way leads to an increase in a patient’s desire and ability to have a more active role in decision-making. Shared decision-making (SDM) is the conversation that happens between a patient and physician to reach a healthcare choice together. Examples include decisions about surgery, medications, self-management, and screening and diagnostic tests. Decision aids that are based on research evidence are designed to show information about different options and help patients reach an informed choice. There are a number of tools available to support the SDM process such as information sheets, DVDs, interactive websites, cates plots or options grids.  A 2012 Cochrane review found that patients who use decision aids improve their knowledge of their treatment options, have more accurate expectations of the potential benefits and risks, reach choices that accord with their values, and more actively participate in decision making. It’s important that the information you receive is tailored to your age and specific needs. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, the information I was given wasn’t tailored to my needs as a young woman with breast cancer. The information was aimed at a much older patient demographic and didn’t reflect the impact that breast cancer would have on me as a young woman living with the disease.

As you move along the patient journey and better understand your illness, you may want higher levels of information. However, you may find the information healthcare professionals provide has not keep pace with your increased needs. This is the point where many patients turn online to seek more information. While the Internet can be a useful source of health information, it’s important to know how to critically evaluate the information you find online. This previous article, How to Read Beyond the Headline: 9 Essential Questions to Evaluate Medical News has many helpful tips and resources to guide you. Always discuss what you find online with your doctor and ask them to put the information into context for your particular situation.

Increasingly patients are turning to their peers online, using social media to seek out the experiences of other patients to help guide their healthcare decision making. Reading information in a brochure doesn’t compare to the ability to interact and ask questions in a social networking site.   US Department of Health and Human Services Chief Technology Officer, Susannah Fox, has labelled this trend as “peer-to-peer health care”.  She observed how “people living with chronic diseases (and their caregivers) are especially likely to say they look online for peer advice. They are pioneering new ways of pursuing health by banding together and sharing knowledge”.  This model of seeking and sharing information online has given rise to a new breed of expert patient – the ePatient. Dr Tom Ferguson who coined the term used it to describe patients who are “smart, motivated and experienced with an impressive and up-to-date knowledge of the best resources, centres, treatments, research, and specialists for their conditions.”

Once the initial diagnosis stage has passed, and you are moving through and beyond treatment, your information needs will also include every-day coping tips and long-term strategies to manage your care. This is where peer-to-peer support is particularly helpful. Research conducted by the Pew Research Center shows that one in five Internet users have gone online to find others who might have health concerns similar to theirs.  That percentage is even higher – one in four – among those living with chronic disease, or caring for someone with a disease. Not surprisingly, doctors remain the first choice for an accurate medical diagnosis. But the number of patients saying they turn to their friends, family and other patients for day-to-day advice, and emotional support is higher. Dr Ferguson observed “when it comes to aspects of illness that some clinicians may consider secondary – such as practical coping tips or the psychological and social aspects of living with the condition – some experienced (ePatients) can provide other patients with particularly helpful advice.”

Apart from social networks hosted by patient advocacy groups, medical facilities, and health sites, patients are blogging about their experiences, sharing stories of coping with diagnoses and dealing with their diseases on a daily basis. On Facebook, which continues to be the number one social networking site, groups can be private or public places where users share coping tips, ask questions and find a sense of connection. While Facebook groups and pages are useful resources for patients, Twitter takes the healthcare conversation to another level. Here you have a greater mix of patients, physicians, healthcare professionals, and medical researchers, all coming together in one virtual space to discuss healthcare matters. Use #hashtags to search for health-related information and join Twitter chats related to your health condition. There are chats for most disease topics and a full list can be found by searching the database of the Healthcare Hashtag Project. I use Twitter as my personal learning network, a real time information resource in which I am globally connected with patient peers and health professionals.

It has been over a decade since I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Today as I look back on how far the journey has taken me, I can chart my progress towards becoming a patient advocate through the quality of the information I received along the way.  My progress was advanced step-by-step by learning more about my disease initially from doctors, then through Internet searches and patient peers online. Now I have become the person sharing my experience to help others along the pathway. And I am not alone. By sharing your journey too, you can help shed light on a condition’s symptoms, prognosis, and other details for those still searching for the correct diagnosis or learning how to cope with an illness, its treatment, and long-term care. As advocates, I believe it’s part of our job to make sure that all patients receive timely, accurate and understandable information to help guide decision-making. We have a wealth of hard-won wisdom and information to share, so let’s share generously with others who are just starting out on their own patient journeys.

Ask yourself who can you help today?

Clinical Trial Mythbusters: Are Clinical Trials a Last Resort Treatment Option?

Are clinical trials only for patients who run out of treatment options? Watch as our expert panel answer questions as they debunk common myths around clinical trial participation. Tune in to hear the patient perspective and expert advice for making decisions about clinical trials.

Watch the video and learn:

  • What is a trial and when should I consider one?
  • What are common clinical trial myths?
  • If my cancer center does not offer a trial, what should I do?
  • How can I stay informed?
  • Is there financial assistance to be in a trial?

Clinical Trial MythBusters: Are Clinical Trials a Last Resort Treatment Option? from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.


Transcript:

Andrew Schorr:

Hello and welcome to this Clinical Trials MythBusters program.  I’m Andrew Schorr from Patient Power joining you all the way from Barcelona, Spain.  We’re here for a conference.  You’re about to meet folks from across the U.S. and wherever you’re joining us.  Thank you so much for joining us.

Thanks to our wonderful partner, the Patient Empowerment Network, and also the Coalition for Clinical Trial Awareness and the Alliance for Patient Access.  And thank you to our sponsors, they all start with A, Astellas, Amgen and AbbVie.  They help make this program possible.

We have a lot to talk about in helping debunk the myths about clinical trials and hopefully raising awareness and understanding for you and your family, so you can consider a clinical trial and see whether it’s right for you.  And I can tell you, in so many areas of cancer now there’s exciting research going on. But if you want to get the possibility of tomorrow’s medicine today, and it happened for me with chronic lymphocytic leukemia, being in a Phase II trial way back in 2000, 10 years before the drug combination I received was approved.  I know it was life-saving for me.

And I want you to meet our first guest.  It was life-saving for him, and that is Pat Gavin.  Pat joins all the way from Marne, Michigan, which is outside Grand Rapids.  Pat, thank you so much for joining us on this program.

Pat Gavin:

Thanks for having me, Andrew.  Glad to be here.

Andrew Schorr:

Now, Pat, I want to go over a little background about you.  I believe that you’ve been treated for three cancers, right?  Pharyngeal head and neck cancer, in 2007, right?

Pat Gavin:

Right.

Andrew Schorr:

And also you were treated for melanoma 2008, and then in 2014 prostate cancer.  Now, you were in a Phase II trial for that pharyngeal head and neck cancer.  Do you believe it made a big difference for you?

Pat Gavin:

Well, that trial is absolutely the reason I’m here today.  My oncologist described it as we had the experience of witnessing a miracle.

Andrew Schorr:

Let’s meet one of our medical specialists who is joining us, who has been on our Patient Power programs before and our lung cancer programs, and that’s Dr. Charu Aggarwal.  She joins us from Penn Medicine, the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia.  She’s a lung cancer specialist and also a head and neck cancer specialist, very active in trials.  Dr. Aggarwal, thank you for joining us.

Dr. Aggarwal:

Thank you, Andrew.  Thank you for having me here.  I’m delighted to be part of this program.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Aggarwal, you have a lot of research going.  It takes patients wanting to participate for us to ever have approved medicines, right?

Dr. Aggarwal:

Absolutely.  And I think that’s key in clinical trial participation, to get drugs to patients early.

Andrew Schorr:

All right.  And certainly in the area of lung cancer and many other cancers now there’s a lot happening, and smart researchers like Dr. Aggarwal are trying to prove some things that really seem like they would make a lot of sense, but we patients have to participate, be their partner.  I’ve seen that.

Dr. Aggarwal, lung cancer is a good example, but you’re an oncologist, and you see many different areas that are changing fast.  What would you say to patients about the opportunity, like I said, did it give me tomorrow’s medicine today?  Or, Pat, who feels he’s alive because of that.  You must see that a lot.  Doesn’t always work out, but it’s happening more and more, isn’t it?

Dr. Aggarwal:

It is definitely happening more and more.  Clinical trials are really accelerating our ability to get patients, like you said, tomorrow’s medicine today.  In the last five years, we’ve had upwards of eight to 10 drugs approved for lung cancer alone, and it would not have been possible without patients’ participation on clinical trials.

As we understand the biology of diseases better and as more medicines are available to us, the only way to access them and the only way to get FDA approval is through clinical trials.  And we’ve certainly seen that for lung cancer, but we’ve also seen that for head and neck cancer, and immunotherapy is now possible because of clinical trial participation.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  And I’m living with two cancers, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, where there are many new drugs now, and now we’re looking at trials with combinations of new drugs.  And then I have another condition, scarring in the bone marrow, myelofibrosis, and I was very grateful that a new drug had been approved for that. And I’ve taken that drug now four-and-a-half years, a genetic inhibitor, and I’ve met patient number one, who is in that trial, and I give him a big hug.

Now, Pat, what do you think are some of the myths?  You know, you meet people all the time.  What do you think are some of the things that people just think are true but really aren’t?  Maybe you could tick some off.

Pat Gavin:

Well, one of the big myths out there is that there’s going to be a placebo arm, and there are not placebo arms to treatment trials, unless the standard of care would be a wait and watch, which is relatively rare.  So you’re always going to get either standard of care or a combination that includes standard of care and the test drugs or the—test drugs.  You’re never going to be left out there with just taking a sugar pill.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  So let me go over that with Dr. Aggarwal.  People I think are—have heard about trials for other illnesses, but we’re talking about cancer now.  Your patients don’t get just a little white pill with nothing in it, right?  They either get quality care, standard of care, or they get something new.  Is that correct?

Dr. Aggarwal:

That’s correct.  So the era of placebo?controlled trials is almost over, and I say almost because in the metastatic setting or in the stage IV setting or incurable setting we almost always never use placebo anymore.  We are either randomizing patients to standard of care or meeting standard therapy, the chemotherapy, be it a pill, be it targeted therapy or immunotherapy, and we compare patients to that approach and introduce the experimental approach on the other hand.

Now, if there are patients that have standard of care as observation, then, of course, that observation arm does become our randomized arm.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  And may I ask what Pat was taking, or like I know in leukemia we have people who are in watch and wait.  So we have some people who are in watch and wait, okay.  So I get that.

Pat, what’s another myth, do you think?  So one was where you get a placebo, so we heard no.  So what’s another myth, do you think?

Pat Gavin:

I think there’s always a feeling that I’m going to be just a guinea pig, and that’s the one thing I think I hear most often from people is I don’t want to be a guinea pig.  I want to make sure that I’m getting a treatment and not being exposed to things that are unsafe.  Of course, there’s always a certain amount of risk with any trial that we participate in, but the chances of some of the things happening that you might see on the comedy TV shows just aren’t going to be there.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Dr. Aggarwal, let’s go over that.  So, first of all, you’re at a major university center, University of Pennsylvania and Abramson Cancer Center.  What sort of panels in decision?making of smart minds are there going to whether you’re even going to go ahead with a certain trial?  I think you call it an investigational review board.  Tell us a little about the process of deciding whether you’re going to have a trial at your institution at all.

Dr. Aggarwal:

Yes.  So there’s a very thorough review of clinical trials, and these are vetted through several committees both in terms of ethical review as well as scientific review.  And, you know, when my patients say to me I don’t want to be a guinea pig, I really try and figure out what is it about the trial that they don’t want to do?  Is it the fact that they don’t want to get the investigational drug, or is it the number of tests that are involved in association with receiving that drug?

And I think, you know, most of the time, 80 to 90 percent of the time, I’m able to answer patients’ questions and concerns regarding their guinea pig concern, and most of the times actually it’s related to the fact that they don’t want to undergo extra tests or procedures that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

As soon as they hear that this is actually a drug where it may benefit them and they’re not just going to get a sugar pill, most patients are actually interested in clinical trial participation, because they’re here to really help themselves and to get something that can help their cancer.

Andrew Schorr:

So, Pat, another concern—well, I guess one limitation of people being in trials is people don’t even know about them, you know, not only don’t understand what a trial is but have not even been told that it’s an option, and that’s a problem in the U.S. today, isn’t it?

Pat Gavin:

Absolutely.  I even think it was a problem for me.  I didn’t know that a trial was going to be available in my home town.  If it wouldn’t have been for my oncologist recommending it to me, I probably wouldn’t have joined.  Fortunately, today I think patients are getting more knowledgeable about trials that are out there, and they’re hearing more and have the interest in joining a trial, and they’ll recommend it to their oncologists and tell them that they are interested.  But not knowing about them is a big problem.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay, Pat.  So for our viewers today, what question or questions would you urge cancer patients or family members to ask today so that they have the awareness of trials that might be right for them?

Pat Gavin:

Well, the first thing I would do is I would offer to my oncologist that I’m interested in being in a trial.  And I would ask what type of trials are available for people with my cancer, and what would you recommend as far as the trials that you see out there that you think is right for what I’m facing today?

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  All right.  Well, now joining us I think is Mary Ellen Hand, who has been at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago for many years and also works with lung cancer patients but has been in oncology for many years.  Mary Ellen, first of all, thank you so much for being with us.

Mary Ellen Hand:

You’re welcome.  Sorry for the technical difficulty.

Andrew Schorr:

It’s okay.  Thank you for being with us, Mary Ellen.  So from your point of view, what’s a myth that comes up a lot for people?  We’ve been talking a little bit with our other guests about whether with you get a placebo, no, whether you’re a guinea pig, no.  Are there other myths that you can think of that you really want to talk about now?

Mary Ellen Hand:

I think that people sometimes come to this thinking I don’t want to do something because I don’t—as you’re saying, a guinea pig or be in uncharted territory as opposed to having an opportunity to have a therapy that may be more impactful in their disease and help control their cancer better.

And, secondly, I will have people who have an out?of?network insurance or something that doesn’t allow them the flexibility to maybe even come to our institution or somewhere else for their therapy, and they think cancer trials are free care, anything you get if you’re on a trial is free.  And what is true is that ordinary customary charges for things like blood tests and scans and doctor appointments and the medicines that are approved are billed to your insurance, and what the company might provide that’s being tested would be the thing that’s provided free to you.  And so I think that that’s a misconception that many people have.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Now, can a major medical center like yours help a patient discover the financial issues related to them, maybe even work with their insurance company to see are there options for them related to being in a trial?

Mary Ellen Hand:

I think over the last couple years in particular things have become much more complicated for people.  You know, some people sign up for Medicaid or Medicare replacement policies in the different states.  There’s Medicaid with places—Medicaid policies that don’t allow people flexibility.  But certainly that’s our job is to help people find out where they could go and if they’re eligible for a trial to help them get to that trial, and some of that is people who have—fit a particular niche.

And some people need to be well enough to travel, you know, if they need to—if the trial is out of our ZIP code.  Here in Chicago we’re very collegial in head and neck cancer and lung cancer and, you know, multiple other cancers.  You know, if the trial exists five miles from here, we’ll facilitate the patients getting on that trial there.

I think that medical records, one of the many—one of the most common medical records systems is available at many institutions across the country, so people can have access to the reports for another hospital.  Otherwise, there are coordinators and people who can make sure that all of that gets to the research nurse and gets in the hands of the person who is going to take care of that.

And then at our hospital, and I’m sure across the country, we make sure that they get the imaging so that they have something to compare it to, and then that’s uploaded into your chart, you know, at the other facility so that everybody has the right information to take care of the patients.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Dr. Aggarwal…

Dr. Aggarwal:

I would just add…

Andrew Schorr:

Go ahead, please.

Dr. Aggarwal:

I would just add that this is a very common concern about the financial responsibility for clinical trials.  And here at Penn we are actually trying to make this process very, very transparent so that when I discuss a clinical trial with a patient actually our consent forms reflect what will be the standard of care costs and what will be sponsored by the clinical trial.

And, in fact, we do facilitate meetings with a financial counselor so that if a patient has concerns about what will be covered versus what will not be covered will be discussed at length with a financial counselor.  And that actually has gone a long way in allaying some of the concerns that patients have when going on clinical trials.  So, you know, it goes hand in hand with what Mary Ellen was saying, that I think once patients hear from the oncologist that there’s another level of—from a finance person I think that really goes a long way.

And I would urge patients to actually discuss and ask the facility where they’ll be treated if there is such a person who can discuss with them, because most academic cancer centers do have this facility.

Andrew Schorr:

So many people are treated, you know, by a local oncology clinic, but often they can work in partnership with an institution like yours, Chicago, Philadelphia, others around the country.  How does that work?  How can that work where they can be in your trial but maybe some testing or some other things, or do they have to commute to your institution maybe from a distance all the time?  Let’s start with you, Dr. Aggarwal.  Can there be more partnership, or are more trials available now in the community as well?

Dr. Aggarwal:

So a lot of partnerships exist between community physicians as well as academic physicians, so I see patients for my community oncology colleagues all the time, and the goal really is to make access easier, you know, the access to clinical trials and drugs easier.  So while the administration of the drug and the monitoring of the drug may happen at the academic center, there are many tests and imaging procedures that can occur in the community.

And the goal is also to make this easier for patients.  So if a patient is 25 miles away, I try not to drag the patients here just for a clinical exam or just for a scan.  You know, so I would facilitate them getting scans closer to home with their outpatient oncologist and then ask them to perhaps bring a CD with them for review.  They can get their blood work done closer to home.

So there are lots of things and lots of procedures where we work synergistically with their community physician hand in hand to try and facilitate all of these procedures so that they don’t have to keep traveling all the time.  So we certainly do that.

Andrew Schorr:

In Chicago, too, Mary Ellen?

Mary Ellen Hand:

Certainly.  You know, there are some things that the study requires.  If an infusion needs to be done onsite, that’s what happens.  You know, we have patients who travel across the country that might have a genomic mutation.  They may be looking for second or third generations of drugs, and so those people may travel.  So they have their local oncologist, meaning near, whether that’s someone in the community or someone in the academic center.

I think that’s another thing, is that patients are concerned that their doctor, whom they’ve forged this relationship with and the nurse, they think they will be upset if they go somewhere else.  And then instead of knowing that it’s a great opportunity for us to advance the body of knowledge but it’s also—we’re always encouraging and hopeful that people can get onto a clinical trial.

And so I think it makes them feel really good that people have these connections.  I think they like to know they’ve talked, they like to know that everybody’s on the same page and this many more layers of care take care of that.

Andrew Schorr:

Pat, let’s pick up on that.  So…

Mary Ellen Hand:

Their problem, their knowledge, all of us together, so.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  Well, Pat, let’s talk about that.  So people have a doctor, maybe the one who diagnosed them, and they have a close relationship with them, and they’re afraid of losing them.  What do you say to people?  Mary Ellen spoke about that but from your perspective.

Pat Gavin:

Well, I think it depends somewhat on the trial and where they’re going to be available.  I received all of my care through the clinical trial locally at the Lacks Cancer Center here in Grand Rapids.  It was a trial like many others that are in the national clinical trials network, and the NCI-sponsored trials are generally available at the NCORP sites, and there are a lot of those around the country.  I was fortunate to have one of the original ones here in Grand Rapids by the Cancer Research Consortium, and those trials are available in academic centers, they’re available in community cancer centers like I had.  So it depends on the trial.

Now, some of the pharma trials may be a little more isolated and localized to specific hospitals for some of their early?phase trials.  Talk to your oncologist again.

Andrew Schorr:

We are getting questions.  And so I mentioned I have chronic lymphocytic leukemia.  This came in from George, who also has CLL.  He said, I’ve had no treatment, but it’s likely that it will be needed very soon, and it seems that Medicare patients are treated somewhat unfairly when it comes to available financial assistance for oral chemo, oral drugs that are now in trials often, Mary Ellen.

And so he says, are we likely to run into problems with clinical trials if you’re on Medicare?  So, Mary Ellen, any guidance about that, Medicare patients and trials?

Mary Ellen Hand:

No.  I think that we’re an aging America, so I think that we want to be sure that patients who are on Medicare have access to clinical trials.  So I think what he’s speaking particularly to is the co?pay of some of these medications is so very high, and co?pay assistance programs are not always built to support and help them in this.  But I think that if he’s going to be eligible for a clinical trial, he should, you know, number one see if he’s eligible. And then hopefully the place that he’s at will be able to help navigate that for him so that he can be—you know, be eligible to participate in that trial.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  One other question, Dr. Aggarwal.  This one comes from Stacey.  Stacey also has leukemia, and we’ve had oral drugs being developed a lot now for various leukemias, this is CLL.  And so there’s a clinical trial underway combining two of these oral agents, ibrutinib (Imbruvica) and venetoclax (Venclexta), is underway at MD Anderson in Houston, and the same trial is supposed to begin at Northwestern in Chicago near where Mary Ellen is, and that’s in May.

And she says since there’s a four? to five?month period before the introduction of venetoclax following ibrutinib, what would be the chance that I could join the trial at Northwestern in May, or would this be something I would have to direct to the doctor leading the trial?  She’s wondering about since the drugs get combined but sort of one after the other, can you sort of start, and how does that work?

Dr. Aggarwal:

So I would say that each clinical trial is different in terms of how they’re designed and what eligibility criteria are outlined.  I would really encourage participation—or I would encourage her to speak with this—speak about this trial with a physician or contact the PI of the clinical trial at MD Anderson…

Andrew Schorr:

Principal investigator.

Dr. Aggarwal:

…principal investigator to try to get some clarification of that.  There are some trials that prohibit previous therapies or previous ibrutinib, for example, prior to enrolling in a combination clinical trial, and there are some trials that allow prior participation.  In some instances, they may see progression on ibrutinib prior to combination therapy that is ibrutinib and venetoclax.  So I think it’s a matter of finding what the check boxes on the trial are, and talking to the principal investigator would be the best way to go about it.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Here’s a question for Pat.  So, Pat, one of the things I wonder about is there are people who are on modern therapy now like for instance some of these drugs we mentioned, people are doing well on ibrutinib or people are doing well on venetoclax, or people are doing well on some of the lung cancer drugs.  Now, none of us know how long they’ll last, so they say, well, why should I even think about trials if it’s not broken now?  What would you say to them?

Pat Gavin:

We have to as patients look at clinical trials as a form of treatment, and it should be something that should be considered right from the beginning.  I hear people saying that, well, I’m going to go with what I’ve got so far, and if that doesn’t work and nothing else is an option, then I’ll use it as a last resort.  Now, in some cases a clinical trial may be a last resort, but in other cases, like you mention, there may be things about early treatment that would disallow you from participating in a clinical trial later on, so it’s best to be talking about clinical trials as an option right from the beginning.

Andrew Schorr:

Well, you know, this is a series we’re doing, and so we’ve covered some ground today, and I just want to recap a couple of things.  We talked about the phases of trials.  We talked about financial issues, and there are counselors to help you related to that.  Pat and I told the story of each of us thinking we wouldn’t be alive if we hadn’t been in a trial.  We talked about genomics.  So we’ve covered a lot in our first one, and we have another program coming up late in June.  Dr. Aggarwal, was this a good start?

Dr. Aggarwal:

This was an excellent start.  I think we definitely look forward to more patient participation on further trials, further programs like this.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  And, Mary Ellen, do you think we made a good start today, and hopefully people will now consider trials?

Mary Ellen Hand:

I think that it’s always just good to have more education, so whatever venue we can give that to people, whether it’s talking one on one with their physician or nurse or whether it’s online, to give people permission that they can get more information.

I think the other important thing to know is the criteria we talked about is you can’t—if you are truly getting a second opinion, you should get it before you start something, because you don’t want to have started a treatment that you get one dose of something that blocks you from access to a clinical trial.  Or you don’t want to have your genomic testing done yet, and yet you’ve started chemotherapy.  So sometimes it’s just educating people that, you know, if they’re not very sick, there’s time to get more information.

Andrew Schorr:

Good, good point.  Pat, what’s a final comment from you?  What do we want to leave people with, hopefully have more people think about trials, get access to them and have greater participation?

Pat Gavin:

Well, every time I talk I say I’m alive today by the grace of God and the fact that I participated in a cancer clinical trial.  They make a difference.  They’re the reason why you and I are alive today.  They need our support.  If clinical research is going to advance, we have to have patients in clinical trials.

Andrew Schorr:

Right.  So if we want progress and cures for the cancers that we’re living with, we’ve got to work with folks like Mary Ellen, Dr. Aggarwal and the other folks involved in research around the world, really.

Well, I’m over here in Europe, today in Barcelona.  This is a worldwide broadcast we’re doing.  Pat Gavin, I want to thank you so much for joining us from near Grand Rapids and wish you good health, Pat.  Thank you for being with us.

Pat Gavin:

Thanks.

Andrew Schorr:

And, Mary Ellen Hand, thanks for joining us again on our programs and in Chicago and 34 years of devotion to us, Mary Ellen, you keep going.  Thank you for being with us.

Mary Ellen Hand:

You’re welcome.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Dr. Charu Aggarwal from Penn Medicine, the Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia, thank you for being with us again on one of our programs.  And thanks for the research that you’re moving forward with and your devotion to patients with cancer.  We hope that—well, we know it makes a big difference, and we look forward to you having great discoveries in partnership with patients moving forward.

Dr. Aggarwal:

Thank you for having me.

Andrew Schorr:

Great program.  Our next program will be coming up on June 21st, and we’re going to discuss are clinical trials a gamble?  So how do you decide as a patient, you and your family?  We’ll talk about that in June.  Thank you so much for being with us.

A Compromised Immune System…Myeloma & Me

My year is off to a rocky start – Myeloma is wreaking havoc on my body and doing a number on my ever-weakening immune system. New Year’s Eve I went to the emergency room…. they ran tests and sent me home.  A few weeks ago, I went to the ER again as I have been puking nonstop, unable to hold down anything even those that go straight into my intestines via my GI tube. I was so dizzy I couldn’t handle it anymore. I figured they would do the normal treat and release but they didn’t. I spent 48 hours in the ER till they found me a room, my primary care physician came in and said, “I’m getting you out of here cause it’s most likely just an ear infection.”  Well that two days ended up being seven days and many doctors were called in, including a few of my previous specialists. He then called my oncologist who said yes, we will resume care just get her here. I then was at that hospital another seven days. They changed my formula after withholding some of my meds that entire time. Two weeks without Lasix and they wondered why my potassium bottomed out. Nothing makes sense about the time there but with my new feeds I’m doing well on.

So, I’ve been home a week now. My labs they drew Monday were normal. Potassium was 2.7 at the hospital and are 8.2 now. I had restarted my Lasix on Saturday before the labs were drawn. Of course, now I’m dealing with severe swelling. When I was weighed at the hospital I dropped from 204 to 130! No one is happy about the weight loss and I’m questioning if I need the Lasix, is it causing me to swell? So, I have an emergency cardiology appointment this week. I will also see my oncologist this week.

I’m also wondering if I have a blood clot as when I was in the hospital I started having numbness from the ankles to my feeding tube area!  So much going on ….and yes, I’m scared. My grandfather died from a clot going into his lung unnoticed by hospital personnel back in the 80s, I’ve told my care team about this and about the numbness and no one is taking me seriously. They called the doctor on record who did nothing either. Now my father found out he has clot issues in his legs (not his dad who had that clot but my moms, my father had to have surgical intervention to ease his).

TD March 2017All of this on top of dealing with cancer – too much for one person to deal with.  But no matter how poorly I feel and how worried I am for the future, I am reminded to advocate for myself and then others if I’m able to. I sometimes have a hard time remembering that myself…It’s going to be a long week

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