Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Living with the Big C

Why is it that we are all so afraid of Cancer? Well I know darned well why I was. Working in hospital pharmacy for 18 years I know the reality of what it can be far too well. But even people who have no medical experience fear it. We all know someone, or many someones, who have suffered and died from it. We all have at least indirect experience with Cancer.

In addition we are bombarded daily by requests for money to refund research so that Cancer can be cured. Pleading letters arrive in our mail slots, we see ads on TV, read heartwarming stories of people cycling, walking, shaving their heads, all to raise money for the Cure. I remember Cancer Can be Cured as a fund raising slogan long ago, but of course can is the operative word and not always as yet. Cancer is never far from our consciousness, whoever or wherever we are.

But Cancer is not one disease, it is many distinctive diseases which are treated so differently, depending on the site and the type. Even thyroid cancer has four major sub types and each is treated in a different way, some with good response and some unfortunately incurable. A friend who had breast cancer told her oncologist, I don't want to have chemotherapy, I'd rather have radiation. But no, radiation didn't work on her type of breast cancer so she didn't have that choice to make.

What do all cancers have in common? What makes a disease state actually cancer? Cancer is defined as an abnormal growth of cells which tend to proliferate in an uncontrolled way and, in some cases, to spread. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it? But what chaos those uncontrolled cells can cause in the body's delicately balanced systems, even unto death. Of course there's a whole vocabulary associated with cancer which makes it sound more scientific, more complicated to the lay person: malignant, metastasize, neoplasm, oncology, remission. It's a lingo that a cancer patient acquires very quickly, although it was part of my lexicon already. But that's what cancer boils down to, uncontrolled cell growth for one reason or another and that's what we are trying to stop when we treat cancer, with any of the means we have at hand today which we know have worked before.

For the past four year or five years, I have lived indirectly with cancer, as the Old Scientist was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer. I have watched how he handled living with cancer and his various treatments. Yes he had his annus horribilis before me and took it in his stride. Initially stunned, totally at a loss, especially as it was fairly advanced and some treatments were simply not an option for him, he gathered himself together and then seemed to treat it almost like a scientific experiment with himself as the subject.

First of all he researched it thoroughly, reading book after book on the subject, cruising the internet for even more information. I attended all of his medical appointments and read all the books too. We discussed it endlessly in the beginning. He kept the equivalent of a laboratory notebook to record his experiences/observations and his continuing blood test results are still all carefully graphed to this day. He even ran survival rate calculations for himself based on formulae he found on the internet.

He had and still has the most wonderful radiation oncologist who was willing to discuss the whole process with him in great scientific detail and he sailed through his 8 weeks of daily radiation with great confidence and not too many side effects. So far so good! He is in very good shape for his age. He tells everyone he is cured. Please God it may be so.

A year later, he had a malignant melanoma removed from his forehead in two separate operations and a little later a squamous cell carcinoma excised from his bald pate. No doubt direct results of his long ago surfer dude past in Australia! Again he took it all in his stride. Just more blips on his journey through life.

This year it is my turn for the cancer diagnosis. I think I was less stunned than more feeling it was inevitable that it would catch up with me sooner or later. When I worked in the hospital and saw some bad things happen to good people with their health, I was so grateful to be working there downstairs and not occupying one of those beds upstairs. But I used to wonder, why them and not me? When will it be my turn? Yes totally idiotic, I know. But it was a feeling I often had and I am sure I am not alone in it. At least the 'why them and not me' bit. Of course with cancer one of the stages of acceptance is 'why me', but for me, somehow it just seemed, well why not me? You are not exempt from this disease.

Surprisingly I never cried at the time. The diagnosis of cancer is pretty devastating news psychologically speaking and I don't know if some of my old health professionalism kicked in to give me some protective distance from it. Maybe I was just plain numbed by it all. I merely took one step after another and tried to talk unemotionally about it with the various health professionals I encountered.

I seem to have acquired a lot of different medical specialists over these months and unfortunately they are not always on the same page, so to speak. Most disconcerting to say the least! I am a very detail orientated person by nature and don't go with the flow very easily. I like it all spelled out, far in advance. I've had to do some adjusting in that area and learn to make allowances for the subjective areas of medicine.

Anyone who knows me well, knows I am the Queen of Google. I love the collective knowledge of the world, enthusiastically placed online by so many people. Yes, you do have to be selective but there are some amazing sites and forums out there. Initially I refused to look online, but asked my daughter and the OS to look. They filtered information to me as they judged fit. Of course I got past that relatively quickly and cruise around myself as necessary. It can be both good and bad but it never ceases to amaze me what people share on the internet. Sometimes I just shake my head but I'll talk more about that later.

Just so I don't turn anyone off from reading what I write here, if you are interested enough, I want to tell you that while it has been a somewhat emotionally draining journey these past months, so far, physically, it has not been too bad in comparison with what so many people have to deal with. So don't look in here cautiously, wondering what comes next. You've probably been worse off yourself at some time!

With this little musing aside now over, next up, as promised, the surgical experience.

One thing I learned long ago and I ask you to remember it too. Never take your good health for granted, for it can change in an instant. My wish for you all is this: Be healthy and be happy, one day at a time.

Part one of this story is here.


Carver said...

I can relate to this post so much JMB. Even within the cancer I have there are so many subsets in terms of genetic mutations and cell types. I hear people talking about a cure for melanoma which has spread but there will never be one treatment that can treat all types because they all respond or don't to different treatments. I'm glad you are writing about this because these subjects are so important and not easily understood because in my opinion the popular press and even the fundraisers tend to perpetuate the myth of a cure for cancer as if it could be one cure. Take care, Carver

Colin Campbell said...

Interesting and personal story, JMB. My grandmother and father in law died of cancer. My grandmother refused to see the bowel cancer specialist because he was Pakistani. Scottish working class racism at its worst. My father in law succumbed after a lifetime of alcohol and tobacco abuse. As you know we all know somebody who has been impacted.

jmb said...

Thank you both for commenting.