Confronting Lies About Cancer

Thank you for your well-intentioned theories on how I could have avoided cancer or how I can treat it alternatively. But, let's get a few things straight.


 Lie # 1: A Strong Immune System Destroys Cancer

Even the healthiest of immune systems does not recognize cancer. In their complexity, cancer cells have learned to disguise themselves as normal, healthy cells. Cells infected with viruses or bacteria send out danger signals, which inturn sets the immune system in action. But cancer cells manage to escape attack by a normally-functioning immune system and grow and multiply without triggering an immune response.
It is a problem of undetection.

 Lie # 2: Cancer is Caused and/or Cured by Dietary and Nutritional Habits

A balanced diet is recommended as a way of reducing cancer risk (and being healthy in general.)

Certainly, obesity is a major risk factor. A balanced, nutritious diet, healthy weight, engagment in regular physical activity, and avoiding alcoholic drinks are known preventatives. Reportedly, up to 1/3 of all cancers can be avoided by such measures.

That being said, cancer is a genetic disease resulting from a variety of mutations and alterations -either acquired over time due to environmental exposures and behaviors (such as diet) or inherited. Dietary habits and lifestyle choices contribute to the development of many cancers, but are not the sole cause or preventative measure.

There is no evidence that certain foods alter the environment of an existing cancer, at the cellular level, and cause it to either die or grow.

Further, supplements have not been found to correct genetic alterations. People should meet their nutritional needs through their food choices. While supplements may help mediate vitamin deficiencies, taking doses above what the body can use provides no known added health benefit.

The World Cancer Research Fund - American Institute for Cancer Research report Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective, published in November 2007, offers the following recommendations for cancer prevention and for good health in general:

  1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
  2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.
  3. Avoid sugary drinks. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods (particularly processed foods high in added sugar, or low in fiber, or high in fat).
  4. Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes such as beans.
  5. Limit consumption of red meats and avoid processed meats (such as lunch meat and hot dogs).
  6. If consumed at all, limit alcoholic drinks to 2 for men and 1 for women a day.
  7. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt.

Lie # 3: Cancer is a Disease of Mind, Body, and Spirit

Again, cancer is a disease caused by genetic alterations. These alterations can occur through our own behaviors (cigarette smoking, obesity, sunburns...) or, they can simply be inhereted.

How personality or stress levels influence genetic alteration is largely unknown. Of course we should all strive to be happy and living lives pervasive with love and peacefulness - because that is undeniably a better way to live. There is no evidence, however, that such a life will prevent or cure cancer. 

Lie #4: There are Easier Ways to Cure Cancer

Yes, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation are all vastly unnatural and all have drastic and unpleasent side effects. But these are currently the only approved treatments in use because they are the only treatments that produce results in conclusive numbers.

No matter how much lemon water I drink, how few animal products I consume, or how much yoga I relax into, I'm pretty confident I would still have a growing tumor, if not for the surgery I underwent. And I might still have stray cancer cells in my chest wall, if not for the radiation I underwent, or in my blood or bones, if not for the chemotherapy.

I would have prefered to skip all of that and just had a coffee enima or a whole lot of alkaline water. But my preference to prolong my life is paramount.

~    ~    ~

I did not cause my cancer. I inhereted a gene mutuation (BRCA I). Implications to the contrary are hurtful and inaccurate.

I can not cure my cancer by myself. I can (and certainly do) take measures to be as healthy as possible, physically and mentally, but at the end of the day, they are only that: measures toward an aim that is, above all, out of my control.


Much of the information used in this article was gathered from Johns Hopkins site,
 Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center.


Make-up and Play-dough

A week later I’m lying in bed on another cool, dark morning. This time, the sound of little feet sprinting across the carpet awakens me. I open my eyes to find my 2-year old son, Little H, standing inches from my face.

“Are you having a nice day Mommy?” he happily inquires.
I can’t say that I have much to go off of, but yes, I am having a nice day.

My little charge and I are off to the Cancer Support Community for a program by The American Cancer Society. I am bringing him along, with high hopes, because I don’t know anyone in the area I can call for two hours of babysitting on a Monday morning. I have packed a very large bag of trucks, markers, snacks, and play dough to help keep him busy.           
We arrive a little early and walk down to the beach. I’m imagining a pleasant stint among the seagulls and the waves. Little H, on the other hand, is consumed by an attraction to the purple play dough he spotted in the busy-bag. He is not responding well to my rational argument on the advantages of waiting until we’re done at the beach. I hand it to him. 
I enjoy the bright sunshine and the crashing waves. I watch two scuba divers coming out of the water and dozens of seagulls trotting across the sand. My child enjoys standing there and squeezing his small wad of play dough - and doesn’t even drop it in the sand.

“The Look Good… Feel Better” seminar we’re here for this morning provides women undergoing cancer treatment with a bag full of donated cosmetics and detailed instruction on how best to use them to combat appearance-related side effects.
Five other ladies and I are seated at a long table covered in boxes of cosmetic goodies, mirrors, and instruction booklets. Little H is a perfect child during the two hours of discussion and demonstration. He’s quiet and content, playing with empty make-up boxes and that wad of play dough, eating his crackers and pushing his trucks across the carpet.

Little H was right, today is a good day.


Rise and Shine

It’s 10 AM and I am still in bed. 

It’s a preschool morning and I’m awash in satisfaction that Little H’s tuition check is money well-spent. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings I spend a lot of time in bed, luxuriating in the quiet and relaxation simply because I can.

I understand this is a very unique spell in my adult life, where I don’t have work consuming my time and, on these mornings, also don’t have a child to look after. It feels akin to taking a sick-day - when you actually are sick - but also enjoying the quiet and restful time of recuperation.
Sort of like this. But yet so not. 
I am grateful to have these days during this tumultuous period of treatment. Completely removing the obligation of work (thank you medical leave of absence) is an important aid in my physical endurance, but even more so, my emotional state. I need to shed as much as possible during a period of overwhelming stress. I need silver linings, such as a couple of months off of work, to help me cope.
So, without work and without my little guy, I simply sit in bed this morning.

Today is lovely bed-weather; it’s cool and gloomy. Bobby pulled our big, puffy down comforter out of storage a couple of weeks ago, but he has it carefully folded to spread across his side of the bed only. Thanks to the monthly injections of Lupron I now receive in order to shut down my hormone production (and avoid a repeat of my bleeding episode,) I’ve been thrown into immediate and severe menopausal symptoms. I have hot flashes so frequently that I can barely keep covers on at night, let alone goose down.

Like this. But sans the make-up.
Poor Bobby has taken to sleeping in socks and fleece to compensate for my keeping the heater in the so-cold-it-might-as-well-be-off setting. I lie next to his burrowed body in a t-shirt, maybe a sheet, and awaken over and over again in a drenching heat that sweeps over me in an instant. I swear I can feel the individual sweat droplets rising out of my scalp. The cotton turban hats I sleep in (think Persian man’s Dastar meets 1950’s housewife) come on and off at least a half dozen times in one night. I’ve actually developed a system for how I push them off so that I can find them in the dark to pull back onto a scalp that grows cold quickly when the hot flash subsides.

This is not exactly how I envisioned my 20’s unfolding.

But… at least they’re still unfolding. And, well, I didn't have to go to work today, and I'm still in bed at 10 AM. That is worthy of appreciation.


Feeling Up My Friends

I saw and felt another woman’s boobs for the first - and second and third - time this week.  And it was quite nice.    
Although far from the traditional ways pleasantness and intimacy are expressed with breasts (such as with mother/child or wife/husband), closeness and bonding was certainly conveyed through these three women who bared their beauty and their scars for me.

I saw how mangled my natural body will become. I felt how heavy and hard my new breasts will be.

With the date of my bilateral mastectomy on the horizon, I’m now ready to channel attention into surgery and reconstruction details and options. 
I seek out women with implants to share their experience and possibly their results with me, which is not uncommon within the sisterhood of survivors. We want to help those behind us in the journey. Plus, well, by the time you have been cut open, scooped out, and rebuilt, not a lot of timidity remains.

There are two main techniques for reconstruction, with several nuisances available within each. One method uses implants and the other uses transplantation of tissue from another area on your body.

The latter, which are called tissue flap procedures, have been ruled out as an option for me, as I currently lack a sufficient excess of fat to fill two breasts. I am not keen on the added invasiveness of tissue flap surgeries and, frankly, am relieved to have the option taken off the table. One less disturbance of the natural state of my body. One less life-altering choice to face.

This leaves me with implants: silicone or saline filled pouches. The vast majority of women select silicone, finding them to create more natural looking and feeling breasts.

There are some lingering disputes about the safety of silicone, but my surgeons and doctors assure me of their trust in either option. I waver undecided until just before the surgery.
Saline. Mostly for my own peace of mind, I will decide to go with saline. They will create an inferior result, but in turn, offer me some relief from worry that I have caused or exacerbated the inflammation that will flare in my chest for years to come.

At this point, I don't really understand how just how odd my chest will feel after the surgery - and for the rest of my life. But I also don't care all the much. Yet.




Baby. Crazy.

Baby. Baby. Baby. The little one I don’t have is invading my thoughts, haunting the equilibrium I am fighting to maintain.

Although he doesn’t say much at the time, my husband will later admit our inability to have another child will be, for him, the hardest residual side effect of my cancer.
Okay, so in our own ways, we’re both a little baby-crazy.

International or domestic adoptions through an agency cost upward of $20,000. And apparently, 1 in 5 couples has fertility problems; it seems there are more than enough families wanting to step in and take healthy babies here in the U.S. Our hope to help someone beyond ourselves through adoption is a little deflated by the apparent lack of need. Fees are less and need is higher for adoption through our county’s family services, but their children consist primarily of older, special needs, and siblings. These little ones really need homes and I would love to step in for such a child, but I question our ability to do so at this point in our lives. Do we have enough remaining fortitude for such a commitment as that?
I will continue to pursue adoption, whatever that looks like.

I will run through the women closest to me, imaging how they might feel about being a surrogate.
I loathe admitting, in desperation, I will concoct such outlandish scenarios as using one male relative on my side with a female relative on my husband’s side - as though these human beings, whom we love most, are impassive instruments.

I will sit at the park with my son and have absurd and disgustingly judgmental thoughts toward the happy, bouncing mothers of mulitples– in their yoga pants and ponytails, with their organic fruit snacks and expensive strollers. They don’t appreciate that baby. They should give it to me.
I’m joking, of course. But I’m marred with desperation.

Lord, I am praying, take this jealousy from my heart. Ease the consuming envy I feel toward every pregnant woman, toward every friend’s birth announcement…  toward every person living their normal life. Accepting my lot is an ongoing challenge, a difficult aim I am perpetually working toward.


Department of Oncology. Blah.

Living in the dormitories my freshman year of college, I spent a whole lot of time around 18 to 20-something year olds. Older adults were also a regular part of my sphere of contact. But children were rare. The sight or sound of a child on campus would make for an unexpected, welcome surprise.

Taking my son, Little H, to my Oncologist’s office is a bit like that. He’s an anomaly, a tiny body of life and health running (sometimes loudly) through a space that is uniform with sickness and old age. Eyes naturally rest upon him, the liveliest thing in sight. 

My oncologist’s suite is a particularly dark place, as places associated with pure awful tend to be. Tiny exam rooms curve around the front section, doctor’s and nurses’ stations form a bank of computers in the center, and a crowded row of chemo infusion chairs lines the back wall, forming one busy and bland circle of (primarily unpleasant) activity.
When I’m here without Little H, which is usually, I often feel the circle of gazes fall on me. My relative-youth draws attention among a population that is heavily skewed to an over-60 crowd. As I absorb stares, I imagine the brains of my compatriots taking-in my presence in this place and my bald head as confirmation that, yes, I am one of them. I too have befallen the tragedy of an interrupted life. I too am here to push back death.
But there is no tragedy in Little H; he is just life. 
In the small suite of ugliness, I want to share him with these patients and doctors. But at the same time, I want to shield him from the place.

He, of course, is oblivious to the weight of his surroundings. He lies with his face in the waiting room carpet and pushes his trucks around. He sets his half-eaten pear on the waiting room chair and then picks it back up to continue eating. He uses the pen from my purse to draw on the paper sheeting they put over the exam table. He rests his head right on the yellowing pillow of the table, just to the side of the protective cover. He serves me imaginary cheeseburgers and strawberry ice cream off the stainless steel over-the-bed-table. He touches every knob, screw, and jar in the place. 
He keeps my attention on him, just where it should be.
These people in here probably are not awakened from their nightmares and hot flashes by a little voice singing, “The Wheels on the Bus.” They likely are not in a stage of life where a small person is relying on them, every waking day. They may not have such a constant reminder that life is fast and beautiful.

Sometimes I share him with them, even if just for a moment as we move through this place.


So, So True

I'm afraid I don't know where to credit this, as I haven't found the original source. But it's too hilariously true to not share.


My Pal Soy Patty

Time for breast MRI number two, the indicator of how effective my treatment thus far has been. (In other words, is the chemo shrinking the tumor?)

The Radiologist is the same one I had for my first MRI a couple months ago. We remember each other. She’s about my age, maybe a few years older. She wears her hair tied back like I used to, she makes a lot of eye contact, and she bows a little when she says goodbye. I wonder if she remembers me more by my face or by the cancerous images she views on her screen. Anyway, I like her.

Today she has me in her office to start the IV, through which she’ll insert dye contrast during the last scans. Thankfully, the needle goes in easy enough and we’re left chatting for a few minutes before the machine is available. 

She’s looking over my charts and commenting on my height to weight ratio. “I’m 130 pounds too! Actually, 135; I just gained 10 pounds,” she tells me. “But I have nooooo muscle. I’m just like a big, thick soy patty, or something.” 
I laugh at her analogy.  She continues to describe her lack of exercise and comments enviously on my toned legs. I’m a little stupefied at the irony of her coveting anything at all about my body or health at the moment.

Cancer doesn’t follow clean rules about who will get it and when. It will defy conventions on prior health, age, gender, or even family history. It’s not predictable or understandable. There are things we can and should do to bring our risk factors down, but even so, cancer, like most other diseases, can creep up on anyone, at any time. So, while I may be a lean fish next to my soy patty pal here, I’m still the one with a needle in my arm and cancer in my chest.
I climb on the table to lie face-down, as I’m directed. There’s a white, bowl-shaped head rest at the top that fills my forehead with painful pressure as soon as I settle into it; it feels like the entire weight of my body is concentrated into the space between my eyebrows. The bowl also confines the flow of air to my face - not an ideal situation for a person suffering from nausea. I’m imagining vomiting into all that white and still having to hold still for the remainder of the tests. 

The prickles of a hot flash descend not long after I’ve been inserted in the MRI tube. I can feel the sweat collecting at each hair follicle remaining on my head – all 12 of them. The flush of heat severely challenges my ability to remain still.
I can do this. This is a small challenge. I’m picturing floating in a cool pool of water… diving below the surface, the calm, the quiet, the water muffling the loud banging and clanging of the MRI machine.

“Here comes the dye,” says Soy Patty through the intercom. A strong chemical odor wafts to my nostrils just as I feel the liquid being pulsed into the vein of my right arm.  My weak stomach is fluttering; I feel so sick I actually laugh. Yes, I really am lying uncomfortably in an MRI machine, with bruised veins, sick from chemotherapy, and having a hot flash. This really is my life.
The imaging only takes about 15 minutes and then I’m rolled out and allowed to stand dizzily on my own two feet. I receive Soy Patty’s small bow and best wishes, get my “toned” but unfortunate self dressed and head out with a bright, red indentation smack between my eyes. 


4 to 6 = 6

Amongst the barrage of un-lovely information imparted upon me at Medical Plaza 2nd Home, I am enlightened that “four to six rounds of chemotherapy” does not actually mean I have the chance of being done after four rounds. Rather, it apparently means four to six before my surgery. Six, is what they meant all along; two just may come post-surgery.

Thank you for this pleasant elucidation, roughly three months late.
I want to slap every last one of those doctors and nurses for not clarifying that I do not, in fact, have any chance of being finished after four rounds. (Not really. But somehow saying I want to slap them makes me feel like I'm expressing the frustration and angst I'm feeling.)
Setting my sights upon being done after four was futile.

Two more rounds; six more weeks, here I go.