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Cancer, COVID, and Change

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

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

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

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

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

COVID Challenges

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

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

From Person to Patient

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

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

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

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

The Shock of a Post-Op Diagnosis

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

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

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

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

At-Home Adjusting & Recovery:

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

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

Early Treatment: Chemo Buddies are Not Optional

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In-Between Hospital Visits: Public Services & Personal Support

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Later Treatment

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

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

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

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

Maintenance Treatment & Clinical Trials

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

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

Have Some Changes Been for the Good?

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

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

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

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


Resource Links:

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

Patient Profile: Perseverance and Positive Thinking Helped This Young Mother

Cancer is a stealthy assailant. Symptoms can be nonexistent or masquerade as some other ailment. When a medical professional utters the “C” word, the shock can be intense.

“I had no idea,” said Lindsay Hutchings of the softball-sized tumor that had been growing in her chest behind her breastbone. “I just knew I didn’t feel right.”

Lindsay was 34 at the time of her diagnosis. A mother of two young children, she never suspected cancer when she started feeling unwell. It was October. Time for picking Halloween costumes and the season when colds spread like wildfire through schools.  A mom with young kids feeling fatigued and achy was nothing to be alarmed about.

Lindsay went to a walk-in clinic. When she didn’t improve, she went to her primary care doctor. She was given antibiotics. She was tested for the flu and then mono. Allergies were blamed and antihistamines suggested. Every week she was back in either the walk-in clinic or her primary care doctor’s office.  Until one morning she woke up with a swollen neck and jaw.  She knew this was not just a stubborn cold. She knew it wasn’t allergies.

“This time I was diagnosed with a sinus infection and referred to an Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) physician. It was frustrating because I knew it wasn’t a sinus infection. I just didn’t have any idea what it could be.”

By this point, Lindsay’s husband, Jake, was going to appointments with her in hopes he might think of some question or detail she had missed. The ENT doctor examined Lindsay and listened to the path that had brought her and her husband to see him. He scoped Lindsay’s sinuses and found nothing.

Then he ordered a CAT scan and posed the possibility that Lindsay’s symptoms might not be related to a virus, allergy, or superbug. It might be cancer.

She was told to expect to wait three weeks for the results of her CAT scan because of the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, but the ENT called her after a few days with the results.  He suspected lymphoma and referred her to an oncologist.

Lindsay started the New Year off by having two biopsies and a PET scan to confirm what the ENT had suspected.  Four months after she first began feeling off, Lindsay had an answer. It was Stage IIB Hodgkin Lymphoma.

About Hodgkin Lymphoma

Cancers that start in white blood cells—also called lymphocytes–are categorized as lymphomas. The two main types of lymphomas are Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and Hodgkin Lymphoma. Hodgkin Lymphoma (HL) can start in any lymphoid tissue in the body, such as the spleen, bone marrow, thymus, adenoids or tonsils. However, it most often starts in lymph nodes in the upper part of the body. Lymph nodes are bean-sized collections of lymphocytes and other immune system cells and are located throughout the body.

The causes and triggers for HL are unknown. Children and adults can develop Hodgkin Lymphoma. The average age at the time of diagnosis is 39. Although there is a higher rate of lymphomas in people with immune disorders, there is usually no known risk factor or cause for people diagnosed with HL.

There are four subtypes of classic HL and a rarer form of HL called nodular lymphocyte-predominant Hodgkin lymphoma (NLPHL). Treatment for the disease varies depending on what type the patient has, what stage the disease is in (I, II, III, or IV), and whether certain other symptoms are present (called B symptoms).

Cancer’s Emotional Side Effects: Shock, Optimism & Guilt

From the first mention of lymphoma by the ENT physician Lindsay began researching the disease online. She went to her first post-diagnosis oncology appointment armed with questions. Her oncologist patiently answered her questions and laid out a treatment plan he felt confident was the right one. He explained the survival rates were high and the rates of recurrence of HL were low. He assured Lindsay and Jake her prognosis was good.

“I was in shock. I had no idea what I was doing but he was responsive and reassuring. I would call or email my oncologist between appointments with questions and he always responded. It really helped me be positive and more confident,” Lindsay explained.

She needed that positive confidence to help with the first challenge that followed on the heels or her diagnosis. She and Jake had to sit down with their daughters—who were just four and seven—to explain their mommy had cancer and what that meant for their family.

Lindsay’s mother had passed away from lung cancer just two years prior.  It was hard for seven-year-old Delaney to understand that this cancer was different from her grandmother’s.  She became anxious after the effects of treatment began taking their toll that Lindsay might die just as her grandmother had.

Her younger daughter had a hard time distinguishing the kind of sick her mommy was from the everyday illnesses she and her friends might have.

And of course, once treatment began, there was a lot Lindsay couldn’t do for her children anymore. Some days she couldn’t get out of bed. Often Lindsay was unable to take them to school or help with homework. She stopped volunteering at their schools. A low point for their family came early in Lindsey’s treatment when Delaney came home from school sick Lindsay had to avoid being near her. Meanwhile, her husband worked from home as much as he could or took time off to care for Lindsay and their daughters.

Lindsay admits, “I still feel guilt for the burden I put on my family.”

The Cancer Journey Continues

Lindsay’s cancer was treated with chemotherapy and radiation. There were side effects, of course:  exhaustion, chemobrain, nausea, constipation, blood clots.  She had to get daily shots of blood thinners in the doctor’s office, which brought other risks and complications. There were moments of panic when it seemed the tumor had stopped responding and additional biopsies followed.  But in the end, nearly a year after Lindsay first began experiencing symptoms, she was declared cancer-free.

There is a sense of victory from beating cancer. But like many other cancer survivors, Lindsay can’t say her cancer journey has truly concluded.

“At this point I am cancer-free, but I’m paranoid. It [the tumor] got so big without me knowing! I feel like some part of me will always worry.”

Ten to 30 percent of HL patients experience recurrence of the disease, with recurrence being lowest for those who are treated in the early stages of the disease. However, rates of developing a second cancer are higher for HL survivors than the general public regardless of whether the lymphoma returns.

Lindsay will have quarterly follow-up visits and two scans this year to screen for recurrence. As long as her results remain normal, she can scale back to annual screenings the following year. However, because she’s now at higher risks for other medical issues, she needs annual screenings by a cardiologist and pulmonologist. She will have annual mammograms now, instead of waiting until age 40 or 45. She has a roster of doctors at a time of life when many of her peers are in peak health.

The upside, Lindsay says, is that if any of her friends or family ever need a recommendation for a specialist in town, she has her list ready!

In addition to the health concerns she will carry, Lindsay also continues to deal with fatigue. Fortunately, while undergoing treatment Lindsay was able to connect with, Brittany, a two-time survivor of Hodgkin Lymphoma.  Brittany used to teach at Delaney’s school and when she heard about Lindsay’s diagnosis, she tracked down her phone number from a friend because she knew from experience how helpful it is to hear perspective and encouragement from someone who has been there before.

“When I went to my appointments, I was usually the youngest person in the office by decades,” Lindsay explained. Talking to someone closer to her own age has helped.

In addition to finding a connection with a fellow survivor, Lindsay is also grateful for the support she and her family received from friends and family in their community. During her treatment, Jake and Lindsay’s family helped as they could.  But there was also an outpouring of support from friends and acquaintances who helped with meals, gift cards, and donating to a GoFundMe account for the family.

“If I could give one piece of advice,” Lindsay says, “it would be to build your community. If we didn’t have friends and family to help get us through, I don’t know what we would’ve done. You can’t be involved in your community or volunteer or even go to church when you are sick. But I am so grateful that we were involved and active before the diagnosis.”

At a time when she saw few people and did very little outside of her home, she felt buoyed by the care and concern of from relationships she’d established before her illness. So, along with the guilt and worry she may carry forward from her cancer journey, she will also carry an abiding appreciation for the value of a supportive community.

Life for the Hutchings family is gradually settling back into normalcy, with family vacations and school schedules supplanting doctors’ appointments and treatments. Lindsay can begin to enjoy her new mantle of ‘cancer survivor’ with increasing confidence. But rather than consign the experience to something that “happened” to her, she is sharing what’s she learned from the experience. She would not claim to be an expert in cancer and its treatment options. But she does advocate for the power of building relationships and positive thinking. These are lessons that can help others whether they are confronting cancer or any other life-altering ordeal.

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.



 

Living in Fear … Here is my Plan Should My Cancer Recur

Six years ago I went for my first mammogram. I was 40 and thought nothing more about it other than the obligatory 40 year marker of due diligence. In my mind, cancer didn’t run in my family, so this is just the beginning of my routine mammogram journey.  Imagine the shock when I was called back for more imaging the next day and then told to take a seat in the waiting room for what seemed like forever.  Shock turned to fear, as I sat listening to the radiologist tell me that I most likely had breast cancer and needed to see a surgeon right away.

The surgeon ordered a stereotactic biopsy which uses mammographic X-rays to locate and target the area of concern and to help guide the biopsy needle to a precise location. After the sample was collected, it was sent to a pathology lab to determine if there were cancer cells present. The 2 days of waiting for the results seemed like an eternity. The “what-if” was real. I had breast cancer.

Everything moved quickly from that point. Early detection was key to my plan that included a lumpectomy followed by 7 weeks of radiation. I opted for the earliest possible date for surgery and 2 weeks later it was done. Everything went by so fast that even to this day, I really don’t remember how I actually felt at the time because I was so focused on getting it done and moving forward.

Moving forward does include a new “what-if” that weighs on the minds of people in remission. What if my breast cancer returns? All the genetic testing I did showed little chance of recurrence, but still…what would I do this time?

What is My Plan if My Cancer Recurs?

I’ve done my share of diligent research on standard cancer care and cutting-edge cancer therapies. Much of the findings have me saying to myself “I wish I had known about this 6 years ago” and I talk with many other cancer patients saying this too. Through my discoveries, I took a profound interest in tumor storage. As a breast cancer survivor and patient advocate, my plan includes a more personalized approach to my cancer treatment.

First, I will store my cancer cells alive so that I can test various drugs on these cells and prioritize which ones (or combinations of) actually works (look up organoids), I can enroll in one of the cellular immunotherapy trials that activate the immune system to fight the cancer and minimize the chance of relapse (look up dendritic cell vaccines or T-cell therapy), and I can also genetically profile my tumor to identify targeted drugs and/or clinical trials to enroll in. I will have StoreMyTumor (www.storemytumor.com) handle the tumor preservation so that this will be an option for me tomorrow or in years to come. In my work, I see many advanced cancer patients have doors open for them that would not exist without their own preserved cancer cells available for testing different treatment options.

Personalized treatments start with the cancer cells, and I will lean on StoreMyTumor to be my resource for emerging personalized treatment options and trials all around the world. Every tumor is unique and contains information critical to treatment, but tumors are not preserved alive by hospitals and routinely discarded as medical waste.

Why are more patients requesting that their tumors be stored?

Cancer patients achieve a new level of control of their cancer management through their own Personalized Tumor Intelligence. I see this all the time as a Patient Support Coordinator interacting with cancer patients at all different stages. With the rapid pace of emerging new therapies, there is no reason to settle for the standard of care when there are better and more personalized options available. You just need to find them and be your own advocate to save your life.

The Power of Patient Storytelling #patientchat Highlights

Last week, we hosted an Empowered #patientchat on the power of patient storytelling with special guest Kerri Sparling (@patientrev). Kerri was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1986, sits on the Patient Revolution team,  and is working towards careful and kind care. The #patientchat community came together and shared their insights and best advice.

Top Tweets and Advice

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Share Your Story With Your Doctor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Full Chat

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.

MPN Patient Story: Ruth Gerwin

My journey began in 1999 when I was diagnosed with Essential Thrombocythemia (ET). All I took was a baby aspirin, even then they [platelets] soared to over 1 million.

In November 2004, I had a bad cold and had this aching on my left side. It was discovered my spleen was enlarged and I had a bone marrow biopsy. I was at that time diagnosed with Myelofibrosis (MF). I went to see Dr. Richard Silver in New York and he put me on Interferon. I saw him for 5 years and then transferred to Cleveland Clinic as my insurance company was making it harder and harder for Dr. Silver to be paid. There I was under the very capable care of  Dr. Ramon Tui. It was under his care that I did a trial for Jakafi. It only helped the spleen size for a couple of months, but it has kept some of the other side effects of the disease at bay. I still take 20 mg. twice daily. Also, in 2014 I had a double mastectomy.

In the spring of 2017, I was so horribly uncomfortable because by this time I looked 9 months pregnant with my spleen. I also had swollen legs and feet. I could hardly walk. I made a decision at that time to radiate the spleen to give me some relief. I was supposed to receive 10 treatments, but was stopped at 7 because my blood counts bottomed out. Hmg 6.0, Pl 5, WBC 0.8. I started with transfusions twice weekly of one platelet and two blood. I did this for several weeks and developed a horrible headache. I stopped the transfusions and my Dr. said to go home and call Hospice. He thought I had 2 weeks to 2 months to live. I was really sick, but as my spleen began to recover, my counts went up. By the fall of 2017, I was basically back to normal with the blood counts and, of course, out of Hospice. My family think I’m a miracle. But, the spleen, by December 2017 was becoming very uncomfortable again and I started radiation again January, 2018. This time I had 4 treatments and had to stop because of my blood dropping.

It has been suggested to me by two doctors to have my spleen removed and have a bone marrow transplant. But, I have read about this procedure and I know I wouldn’t survive as I am very sensitive to most of the medications they would have to give me. My current hematologist is looking for a trial I can do, but my bone marrow is nothing but fatty tissue. I have nothing there…not even fibrosis. I keep telling them my spleen is doing it all, but they won’t believe me. With no bone marrow tissue, I can’t do a trial. So, I don’t know what they are going to do with me. Anyone else have this problem? I’d love to hear what you are doing.

I know the Lord has a good plan for me and I just have to wait and see what it is. He is the “great physician”!  I’m just not real patient. I haven’t felt really well for a long time.