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Cancer – Up Close and Personal

March 10, 2016

Somewhere around eleven years ago we found out that my wife has non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.  Probably like most people, I did not know a whole lot about cancer.  However, I did know that this was not a good diagnosis.  Among the first things that I learned was that it is very confusing to think about cancer as though it were a singular thing.  There are many different kinds of cancer that have differing characteristics and differing treatment options.  There are even many different kinds of Lymphoma.  After my wife had gone through the diagnosis process and got connected with a very good oncologist, one of the first things that we were told was that when it comes to Lymphoma we should hope that she had one of the very aggressive and fast growing forms.  That certainly seemed counter-intuitive.  The doctor did explain that with the more aggressive forms after a course of treatment a cure was a reasonable outcome.  No such luck.  She has a more slow growing and less aggressive form.  In these cases, treatment can beat back the cancer and lead to periods of time without symptoms, but it cannot be cured and it will return.

She is now at the mid point in her fourth round of treatment spaced out over the past eleven years.  We know that over the years cancer treatment and the results that can be achieved have progressed significantly.  Many forms of cancer that were once immanently fatal can now be cured.  There are many cancer survivors out there who have benefited greatly from progress that has been made.  Even for those who have been treated successfully the treatment is most often brutal.  People often point to losing one’s hair as one of the negative side effects of treatment.  That is only a question of vanity and is minor on the scale of what people in treatment go through.  When we were talking to the oncologist just today, he said the same thing that I have said a number of times, “Chemo-therapy takes you as close to death as possible without crossing that line.”  The body’s immune system is reduced to near zero.  So every bug is ready to take advantage bringing whatever illness it can with it.  When she is able to go out, it is routine for me to grab the sanitizer near the store entrance and wipe down the shopping cart before she touches it.  The effect of the drugs used in chemo is also to cause nausea and exhaustion.  Mental sharpness can also be impacted.  My wife calls it “chemo-brain”.

Now the duration and scheduling of treatment varies depending on the kind of chemo or radiation involved.  Some treatments may be daily for a week or more.  Others, like my wife’s are one day every three weeks.  This time she will will be having six treatments, so the treatment will last almost four months.  Where the cancer is localized surgery may be part of the treatment process but even then it will usually be paired with either radiation or chemo.  Here is some helpful guidance for all.  If you know anyone who is going through cancer treatment and you even think that there is a possibility that you may be getting sick, stay away from them!!  You may be well motivated and want to visit and cheer them up, but the very last thing that they need is your germs.  Bringing flowers or plants to them is also probably not a good idea.  During the times when my wife is most compromised she must even avoid any uncooked vegetables, so no salads or coleslaw.

If you would like to help out and bring a meal that might be a great thing to do.  But, ask about dietary issues first.  Chemo can have a major impact on taste and digestion.  My wife never cared much for spicy foods until she had chemo.  Then when everything tasted so bland spice helped some.  She has always loved a good steak or piece of prime rib but while on chemo she cannot tolerate beef.  We have a friend who is Polish and always love kielbasa but since chemo she has not been able to eat it at all.  We went to a restaurant one time and requested that all raw vegetable garnish be left off of my wife’s plate.  When the food was brought out there they were.  We had to try to explain to an unsympathetic server that we could not accept this and that it would simply not do to take the plate back to the kitchen, remove the veggies, and bring the plate back to us.  Not at all sure that this happened.

As cancer treatment has improved and more people are being cured that has come to be more and more of an expectation.  It is always great to hear that someone has been “cancer free” for five years, or ten year or more.  At the same time it is important to be sensitive to those, who because of the kind of cancer that they have, will never be cancer free.  There may me times when the cancer has been reduced and they actually feel pretty well.  They may be able to live relatively “normal” lives during these times.  But, the cancer is always there.  It will become active again and the need for treatment will need to be considered once again.  We have discussed with each other and with our adult children that at any point it is entirely up to my wife if she chooses to opt for treatment.  She is the only one who can make that decision and I will support her in every way that I can whatever choice she makes.

Another consideration for those dealing with cancer.  It is one thing to embark on the ordeal of treatment is the prognosis is a potential cure.  To consider treatment when it means going through the ordeal knowing that this is a cycle that will repeat itself again.  As I said my wife is currently going through her fourth cycle of treatment in eleven years.  When she was first diagnosed we were told that average life expectancy for someone with her type of cancer was about ten years.  She has beaten that average.  There is always the hope that before she needs to face treatment again there will be a new medical breakthrough that will mean cure is possible.  We are people of strong and enduring faith.  We believe that miracles are always possible and have prayed that this might happen, but it has not.  We can accept that.  Faith that only works when things go well seems that it is not worth much.  My wife is an incredibly strong woman and her strength of character and faith dwarfs my own.

A final note: if you know someone with cancer, consider their caretaker.  I know that this may seem self-serving for me to say at this point.  I don’t mean for it to, but the reality is that cancer does not only affect the person with the disease.  I know that I feel guilty when I even consider myself to be having a difficult time.  My wife is going through so much more than I am.  Remember cancer is not contagious.  You cannot get it from someone who has it.  They will likely appreciate hearing from you.  Be encouraging without being unrealistic.  Let them know that you care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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