How my life has changed…

Well, it looks like almost a year has gone by since I last posted. So much for not letting the blog fall by the wayside as I continue the march through remission.

Frankly and fortunately, there’s not a whole lot to report about my health in tangible terms. I am fortunate to still be in remission from primary mediastinal diffuse large B cell NHL. I’ve had a few CT scans during the past year (two scheduled and one due to psychosomatic scanxiety symptoms and a heavy dose of caution on the part of my oncologist), and all have come back clean. I recently had an appointment with my oncologist that was almost two years to the day from my last chemo treatment, and happily my blood counts looked great. My next appointment will fall right around the two year anniversary of completing radiation, and if I’m still in remission at that point, the likelihood of recurrence drops again to less than 5% or so. I will only have two check ups and one CT scan per year for the next three years, and then I will be considered “cured”. It’s all really kind of amazing.

Although I haven’t been as active on here as I would like, I am staying in touch with the cancer community and current events, especially issues surrounding blood cancers. As a patient in remission for almost two years, most of what I deal with now are the emotional and psychological effects so blog posts and articles related to this are of particular interest to me.

A month or two ago, a really great article was posted in the NY Times blog by Suleika Jaodad, a young leukemia patient who recently went into remission. It is an insightful and honest look at what life can be like after cancer. While our paths and outlook are not entirely the same, like Suleika, I’ve struggled with the emotional and psychological side effects of cancer and treatment. Reflecting on this article, and listening (for probably the 10th time) to a wonderful talk given by a hilariously funny, honest, and gifted co-worker of mine, Ann Velenchik, entitled, “How Cancer Changed My Life…and Didn’t”, made me think a lot about how my own life has changed in the past two years, both practically/logistically and emotionally/psychologically, and how it hasn’t changed.

(Let me preface all of this by saying that one constant in my life as a cancer survivor in remission is that I preface almost every comment, or even thought, about my own cancer experience with, “I know I’m very lucky to be in remission, but…”. I’m not going to do that in this post but please know that the underlying genuine sentiment is there. It is exhausting to feel like you have to validate/qualify every thought, feeling, or statement you have about your own cancer experience by announcing that you know you’re lucky you didn’t die.)

My friend Ann asserted in her talk that while some things have changed in her post-cancer life, many things have not. In my experience, this is true to some degree. I am back at work full time. I have bills to pay and mouths to feed (they’re the mouths of our two cats, but still). Most day to day interactions are similar to those of my pre-cancer life in that they don’t revolve around, or involve, cancer. I have to clean the apartment, I have to do laundry, I have to grade papers, and I have students who I love but who can simultaneously drive me batty. Basically, the day to day is normal and generally ho-hum.

Very little has changed about me physically besides the fact that I discovered I REALLY like keeping my short hair, and chemotherapy and radiation have apparently killed my metabolism. I lost 40 lbs. in a few months about a year before I was diagnosed after transitioning to a low-carb diet. I gained all of that back and then some during treatment. Emotional eating and not being able to move will do that to a person. The trouble is, I’m now back on the same low-carb diet and added in walking on an almost daily basis, and the scale still isn’t budging an ounce. I feel good internally, but it’s not showing up in terms of weight loss, which is SO frustrating. I know I’m not alone in this among cancer survivors either. Cancer can really make you feel ugly, if you let it.

On the other hand, I feel like a lot of things have changed in my post-cancer life. I’ve felt a remarkable shift in my outlook and what I want from the rest of my life. This sounds cliched, I know, and oddly beautiful in an Eat, Pray, Love sort of way, but it’s not always ideal. While I have this renewed sense of wanting to get out and “Do, Do, Do!”, this doesn’t necessarily jive with how Jeff and I approached life pre-cancer. That can be really hard to rectify, especially because I would like to “Do, Do, Do!” with other people, whether it’s Jeff or other friends but I don’t really know how to initiate that very well. I wouldn’t say that I have a bucket list per se. In fact, like my friend Ann, I don’t really like the idea of having a bucket list. This makes it sound like I have this static check list of things that I must do, and if I don’t, my life will be unfulfilled. I’m always adding to my list of things I’d like to do or places I’d like to go. I just struggle with making it happen.

Unfortunately, I’ve also found new and exciting ways for my anxiety to manifest itself (not surprising). Scanxiety sets in the week or two leading up to a scan and the days between a scan and my check up with my oncologist. I’m obsessed with my overall well-being and constantly monitor every pain, bump, rash, and sleepy day occurrence. However, I’ve now asked my primary or oncologist for a referral to specialists for a couple of things that are bothering me that likely have nothing to do with cancer, like a constant ringing in my ears, but when I get the call to schedule an appointment, I end up deciding not to go after all. I just don’t have it in me to visit yet another doctor and have yet more follow ups and tests. The thought is exhausting, and I’m sure this is a subconscious (or maybe not so sub-) avoidance tactic, because I’m afraid that a seemingly benign symptom could be due to something more serious.

As I’ve mentioned before, I struggled with anxiety/OCD prior to my cancer diagnosis. Yet, I had a remarkable sense of clarity and calmness during my diagnosis, treatment and recovery. I’m sure there’s some clinical psychologist who would love to get their hands on my brain, because I think having OCD allowed me to so singularly focus on doing what I needed to do to get well that there wasn’t the room in my brain to obsess over anything else. I wouldn’t say that I obsessed over getting well, but I think I was so tired and had such an immense sense of resolution regarding my position in life during that time that I couldn’t focus on much else and didn’t care to. It was as if my life had been categorized with a big, old CANCER stamp and nothing else could shoehorn its way into my mind.

Quite frankly, I yearn for that sense of clarity and calm now. I hoped it would stay with me, but it is long gone. I would just love to feel that sense of calm again and I don’t really know how to get there without a catastrophic life event. Consider me unadventurous, but that’s one thing I don’t want to “Do, do do!” again.

My sense of self has changed. That cancer stamp branded me, and I’m definitely a different person coming out of the experience than I was going in, probably in ways that I still don’t understand. What I want from life has changed, I think. I want to have more fun, I want to be more passionate about everything important in life, I want to be the best possible version of me that I can be. I also, probably unfairly, want more from the people in my life. I knew how to be a cancer patient – and quite honestly, I was a really good cancer patient. I think I’m having trouble figuring out how to be me after cancer, and what to expect from the people in my life.

There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about the fact that I had cancer. Sometimes, my thinking about it revolves around the fact that it feels like it didn’t happen to me at all. Did I really have cancer? How could that have possibly happened to me? How is it possible that life could return to normal in some way? On the other hand, some days, having cancer is all I can think about, especially when I’m coming up on an appointment or I have a scan or I’m just generally not feeling well. Why did that happen to me? Why did I survive and so many other people are not as lucky? Why is cancer so seemingly random? A random whiff of windshield wiper fluid reminds me of the burn I would get in my nose from the “red devil” IV push during chemo. I get a look at my scars or radiation tattoos in the mirror. Even the short hair that I love reminds me that I only discovered I like having short hair because cancer didn’t give me another choice.

Yikes, this all sounds like a lot of griping from someone who should be really grateful. Here’s the bottom line, I guess – I am grateful. I’m happy to be cancer free. My life is different in a lot of ways now, for better and worse. I suppose I’m now just lucky to have the time now to figure it all out.

 

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My Truth About Cancer

When I started this blog, I swore I wouldn’t stop updating on a regular basis once I was remission and feeling like myself again, because being a cancer patient/survivor doesn’t end with remission. One of the many truths that I’ll share in this post, though, is that you have to carry on with your “normal”/pre-cancer life once you go into remission. You have to go back (hopefully) to work, you can go outside and be around people again, and you are expected in some way to pick up where things left off. Believe me, I’m grateful to be able to do those things – it just means I haven’t had a lot of time to update the blog lately.

Since my last post, I had standard blood work and a check up with my hematology oncologist, and all is well. My counts were good – I’m still NED (no evidence of disease). For the first time since November of 2012 when I was diagnosed, I feel like myself. My energy level is good and the side effects are relatively minimal. My oncologist predicted it would take between 6-12 months after completing radiation before I felt relatively normal, and once again, he was right on the money – it was about 9 months that I noticeably felt better day to day. This is all great news, indeed. I’ll have another CT scan in July, and hopefully, I’ll get the news that I’m in remission for a year!

Even though I’m in remission, I am still involved in the young adult cancer community and raising awareness when/where I can. I’m particularly sensitive when I see stories on social media platforms that stretch the truth or flat out lie about cancer, as if scientific research isn’t heavily based in years and years of work and data collected, or as if everyone’s experience with cancer is uniform.

That’s why I was especially enraged when I saw a post going around Facebook and Twitter claiming that “John Hopkins” had released a “cancer update” last week. In the mid-2000s, this same update was circulated via email to the point where Johns Hopkins’ Kimmel Center, one of the most prestigious cancer centers in the world, had to release a statement explaining that this email was a hoax. Their release does an amazing job, not surprisingly, of dis-spelling the assertions made in this email point by point. I would encourage anyone who is interested in the details to follow the link provided by the Kimmel Center and read about the science behind cancer. In short, the main point of the hoax email was that traditional therapies (surgery, chemo and radiation) do not cure cancer, and cancer patients should try to manage the disease by altering their diet, among other truth stretching tidbits.

This thing has reared it’s ugly head yet again, and it’s driving me insane. Why give such a thing any credence by addressing it at all? I’ll tell you why – because when I was diagnosed and went “public” with my diagnosis, I received more than one email/Facebook message sharing information pulled from this stupid thing. Because of this hoax email, people I know suggested that I should explore other more natural/holistic options before “poisoning my body”. In fact, people I know told me stories about their friend’s husband’s co-worker’s son who had a completely different form of cancer from me. He was going to die(!), but he drank this herbal tea, extracted from the stem of an exotic melon or some such thing, and now he’s cancer free. I should totally drink the same thing and my cancer will go away!

Well, golly gee, problem solved!

I also got some variation on the “Don’t feed the beast by eating sugar!” warning – the thought behind that being that cancer cells “eat” sugar. If you eliminate the sugar in your diet, then you will starve the cancer cells and voila! Cancer free! The truth is that all cells metabolize sugars for energy, and it’s not really straight up sugar. It’s complex or simple carbohydrates, among other things, in anything that you eat that cells will metabolize. There’s no possible way to cut this out of your diet, unless you didn’t eat anything. At all.

By the way, guess what I ate first after my diagnosis? A big, delicious, chocolatey brownie. Because I was just diagnosed with cancer, that’s why.

Here’s the thing – spreading these kinds of anecdotes may feel like you’re doing the right thing. At it’s core, this email is just preaching the benefits of living a healthy lifestyle, right? The problem is, messages like this make cancer patients, or at least this one, feel like they neglected to do one or more of these things, which is why they got cancer in the first place. Plus, when you’re literally staring death in the face, the last thing you need is someone telling you about some cockamamie home remedy or that the entire cancer treatment system (so-called traditional treatments) is not going to work for you, or worse, is going to hurt more than help.

I should also say here that all of this, obviously, is my opinion/view point. I don’t hold any hostility towards patients who choose to go with these alternative routes. In fact, I know of a number of patients who chose them after traditional therapies didn’t work. I also know of patients who completely chose the holistic route based on their previously held beliefs, regardless of an email going around. Often times, these patients chose to see a naturopathic doctor, but at least they were under the care of a physician with training and education. I say that each patient has to make their own decisions on what is best for them and I don’t want to chastise patients who choose to go with the alternative routes. I do get frustrated when people who aren’t in any kind of position to be giving medical advice tell someone who is very sick to consider something that flies in the face of what their doctor tells them – just to avoid “poison” – when there is no medical basis in the advice. That is a scary thing.

So, keeping in mind that no one patient’s experience is like anyone else’s, here are MY truths about cancer:

1. There is NOTHING that I did or ate or drank that solely caused cancer (short of being a Caucasian woman in between the ages of 20-40 – the most likely group outside of the elderly to be diagnosed with DLBC NHL with a primary site in the mediastinum). I was 30 when I was diagnosed. There is almost nothing that I could have done in that relatively short period of time that caused my cancer occurrence. Believe me, I have asked my oncologist about this on multiple occasions, even though I know what the answer will be every time. Not a thing that I did – not standing in front of the microwave while it was on, not drinking from a plastic bottle, not eating a boatload of sugar every day (or even now and then), not using a cell phone, not drinking red wine or coffee, not NOT drinking red wine or coffee, not eating red meat, white meat, or any other kind of meat, not eating dairy (the horror!), or eating said dairy from a plastic utensil – has been directly shown to give someone my age a form of cancer. It’s just flat out not enough time to do that kind of harm. My case of cancer, and likely those of a lot of young adult patients (of which there are  about 70,000 diagnosed every year), was likely due to a combination of factors. I will readily admit that I don’t live the healthiest lifestyle. Was this a factor? Sure, possibly. But it definitely wasn’t the sole cause. I am sure that a good deal of it was just random genetic mutation and a whole lot of bad luck.

2. Traditional treatment did some horrible things to my body. The physical side effects of receiving traditional treatments – in my case, chemotherapy and radiation – were difficult and very real. Hair falling out was the least of my concerns, quite frankly. That was relatively painless. My scalp was sore for a few days prior and then my hair started falling out in clumps when I showered or brushed my hair. Sure, it’s superficially embarrassing to be a bald woman and it’s a daily reminder that you have cancer, but it’s easily covered up.

There were far worse things to tackle – biopsies, minor surgeries, horrible tastes in your mouth, fatigue from both chemo and radiation that was damn near overwhelming, random joint and bone pain, short term memory loss, and difficulty breathing/swallowing during radiation.

For me, though, the GI tract issues were by far the worst issue, at least physically. Nausea, vomiting, acid reflux, diarrhea, and constipation – it was different every day and there was no way to predict what would come next. Although I haven’t written about it, I will just say that having to give myself an enema was quite possibly the lowest point throughout the whole process. There is nothing like that experience to make you feel like a child again, and I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. As if having the conversation with my oncologist (who I knew for about a month) wasn’t bad enough – “Gee, doctor, I haven’t pooped in about a week and things are getting mighty uncomfortable”. He prescribed me medications – none of them worked so there was only one option left. The only reason I could muster up the strength to do it myself was because I knew that I would end up in the hospital having someone else do it for me if I couldn’t pull the proverbial trigger. Absolutely horrifying and embarrassing. I even hate to write about it, but the truth of the matter is that this kind of stuff happens when you have cancer.

3. The emotional toll cancer, and treatment of it, takes on your life and relationships is just as bad as the physical toll, if not worse. Nothing shakes you to the core like hearing you have cancer. Or learning that the life saving treatment could prevent you from being able to have biological children of your own (although this is unlikely in my case) and that you might not have the six weeks to wait (or the exorbitant money) to go through the embryo preservation process. You are forced to face the possibility that you might not live long enough to share another holiday with your family. That’s certainly not a thought that you expect to have running through your head at 30 and it changes how you perceive the rest of your life.

3. There are long term physical and emotional issues on the horizon. I’m not entirely sure what the long term emotional issues will be, although I know for sure that I’m still sorting through everything and probably will be doing so for a long time to come. I constantly think about things like: who was there for me when I needed help? Who wasn’t? Why? Will my entire life always be lived in fear of a recurrence or secondary cancer? Will I ever be able to talk to someone who had or has cancer without feeling an immense amount of anxiety? I don’t know, but I do know that as a young adult patient, these thoughts could be something I have to deal with for a long time.

Because I was diagnosed at a young age, the possibility of a secondary diagnosis – lung or breast cancer – is a real possibility. However, chemo, and especially, radiation are much more advanced in their targeting capabilities now than they were years ago, contrary to what this hoax email would have you believe, so it’s tough to know what the likelihood is of that happening. More uncertainties, for sure.

4. I have some positive personal truths about cancer, too. Going through the diagnosis and treatment caused me to slow down, both physically and mentally. This period of my life was the first time in a very long time when I couldn’t do anything but relax and rest and I was remarkably calm. I had to relinquish control very quickly to my oncologists and there was some sense of relief in that. In a twisted way, I enjoyed having an excuse to just sleep, move slowly, and only do what absolutely had to be done. There were no feelings of guilt if I didn’t attend an event or do this, that or the other thing. That was so wonderfully freeing. No one had any expectations of me other than to focus singularly on my treatments and taking care of myself. I could read or watch TV without feeling an ounce of concern about what wasn’t getting done because I was doing that instead. I was also so exhausted that my mind just couldn’t go a mile a minute, which was pure bliss for someone with OCD on top of cancer.

5. It sounds cliche but having cancer and going into remission has quite truthfully encouraged me to be thankful for all the good things in my life, to focus on what is important and not take a thing for granted. I know now how quickly life can change, so I’m grateful for every good experience, opportunity, and relationship in my life. I’ve also tried to maintain some sense of calm, although the farther out I am, the harder it is to keep it up.

6. But my most important and “truthiest” truth about cancer? Traditional therapies, no matter how grueling in every possible way, saved my life. Six rounds of RCHOP and 22 radiation treatments to my chest took a lot out of, and from, me, but they gave me my life back. If I had to go back and do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing.

And that is my truth.

 

Life in Remission – Physical Aftershocks

Clearly, going back to work full time has seriously infringed on my blog writing, and that stinks if you ask me. If I’m not at work, I’m driving to/from work, catching up on work at home, cooking, cleaning, running errands, playing with our kittens (fun! fun! I have absolutely become a crazy cat woman) or sleeping. In fact, most of my free non-work (or doing-things-to-make-Jeff-and-Jocelyne-be-functioning-members-of-society) time has been spent sleeping or resting. I even had trouble staying up to watch the Red Sox in the World Series, and that should tell you something, especially if you know me in “real life”.

So, I have amassed a list of topics that I have been wanting to touch on for the last month or so. Forgive the haphazard nature of things, but I’m going to try to write about what’s been going on lately over a couple of posts. My physical health is still at the forefront of my thoughts on most days so it’s what I’ll address first.

I had my first 3 month post-remission checkup a few weeks ago with my hematology oncologist, and everything turned out great, as did my appointment with my radiation oncologist about a week ago or so. During the checkup with my hem/onc, I had blood work to check on complete blood cell counts and tumor markers, like lactose dehydrogenase (LDH), that were elevated while I was sick. My hem/onc feels confident in looking at these values and assessing whether I’m still in remission every other checkup, as opposed to doing CT scans every time, and I’m confident in his confidence. I will have a CT scan every six months, so I’m scheduled for my first post-remission CT scan in January. It is called a re-staging scan, but I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like this is not optimistic terminology. Why can’t they call it a “remission confirmation” scan? In reality, scans only catch about 2% of recurrences of diffuse large B cell NHL, according to current research. This is largely because the masses characteristically grow so quickly that it is usually patient symptoms that tip off clinicians as to a recurrence or relapse as opposed to scans or even blood work so it really comes down to me checking in on my overall health and how I feel everyday that is the most important.

Even though I’d been feeling okay coming up to the most recent appointments, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t worried right before both of them for some reason. My original symptoms were extreme fatigue, pain behind the shoulder blades, profuse and unexplained sweating, heart palpitations, and trouble breathing, not just shortness of breath. They were all well beyond the norm and completely abnormal. However, right before this follow up with my hem/onc, I was seriously concerned every morning that I woke up overly tired (welcome to the life of a cancer patient – you almost always wake up tired or get tired at some point in the day, even in remission) or I sweated a lot/was short of breath after climbing up a flight of stairs. Never mind that my aerobic capacity is next to nothing because I’ve been laid up for a year, and let’s be honest, I’ve never been the picture of physical fitness to begin with. (The President’s Physical Fitness Test that we had to take in elementary school gym every year still gives me nightmares – sit-ups were the bane of my existence.) Yet, with every labored breath and every drop of sweat, I couldn’t help but think (and still do think, even after the appointment) that It had come back. I have to constantly remind myself that these day to day reactions aren’t severe – they’re normal.

My hematology oncologist put my mind at ease, as he always does. It wasn’t surprising to him that I was anxious and still not feeling great. In fact, he said that he would have been surprised if he walked into the exam room and I told him that I was feeling fine. He reminded me that I’ve been through a lot over the past ten months and it’s going to take a lot of time to get back to “normal”. Since my blood work looked good, he is confident that I am still in remission and things are fine for now.

In truth, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to let go of the “for now” part of that statement. I just feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop whether it’s in the near future or years down the line. Somehow I can’t shake the feeling that my “battle” (I hate that term but can’t think of anything better) isn’t over yet. I’m hoping that feeling will go away once I’m out of the two year window when recurrence/relapse is most likely, but a lot of patients/survivors have told me that feeling never really goes away, so we shall see.

Being back at school and teaching full time is generally a good feeling. It is very tiring, though. There are still days when I feel like I got hit by a truck, and I’m experiencing a lot of bone and joint pain that my hem/onc delicately attributed to “de-conditioning” and side effects from chemo and radiation. There are some days where the pain in my hands, especially, is excruciating. I never thought myself to be one for a massage – frankly, the thought of a stranger touching me in any way creeps me out – but there has been more than one day lately that I’ve thought having a massage would be positively heavenly. The pain and fatigue is slowly ameliorating, though and I’m sure I’ll get better as time goes on. My hem/onc had a patient with diffuse large B cell who was a professional cyclist prior to diagnosis and it took him two years to get back to normal, so I think I’m doing well, relatively speaking.

In terms of other long term side effects…my periods seem to have finally gone back to normal. That’s too much info for some, I’m sure, but fertility problems are a reality for many female cancer patients. I still have digestive tract issues, including some that “flare up” and make everything very uncomfortable. I’ll leave what exactly is going on to your interpretation. Those sorts of issues will probably stick with me for the rest of my life, but at least I have a life to live, and Preparation H and I are forever entwined, I suppose. While I will say that having cancer has taught me many things, many of which were good, it has also taught me that when it comes to the physical effects, cancer is a disappointing gift that just keeps on giving.

I am positive that the physical side effects will wane, or at least become a part of my new normal, which I can handle. If being in remission means being a little bit more tired/winded and being occasionally reminded of nagging, but harmless, long term side effects, I’ll gladly take it over the alternative – that’s for sure.

Holy fatigue, Batman!

Since my last post a few weeks ago, I have returned to work full time and I began teaching again last week. I am grateful to be up and about and back at work, although it’s been quite busy. Seeing my colleagues and being welcomed back with collective open arms has been amazing and it is energizing to be around my students again. Most of my students are highly motivated and energetic, which is certainly contagious to an extent. It’s also just good for me to get back into a routine. As much as I enjoyed being a lay about after I went into remission, it is time to become a functional member of society once again.

I’d be lying, though, if I said that the transition has been 100% smooth, and this largely has to do with the fact that I’m tired in a way that I didn’t even think was possible now that I’m recovering and working at the same time.

For those that don’t know, Jeff works an hour south of where we live while I work an hour to the north. We quite often leave the house at 8am (or earlier) and return around 8pm, assuming he doesn’t have an event at work in the evening. Under normal conditions, this leaves a couple of hours for us at night to cook, eat and clean up dinner, do some work/answer emails, and get ourselves ready for the next day before we go to sleep just to get up and do it all over again.

This schedule was beginning to wear on me before I got sick, and in a sick/twisted way of looking at things, cancer gave me a break from that hellish commute and schedule. Now that I’m back at work, talking to colleagues/students all day and teaching three 3.5 hour lab sections a week wherein I’m often on my feet/talking for a majority of the time, I’m pretty much the walking dead right now. I might look okay on the outside, but I feel like this:

walking dead zombie

The fatigue I feel at this point is essentially a combination of the types of fatigue I felt while in treatment. When I was undergoing chemotherapy, I felt like I had weights attached to my arms and legs all the time and it took a tremendous amount of effort to move from place to place. In fact, the thought of even getting up and out of the recliner was overwhelming at times. During my radiation treatments, that feeling was replaced by being so sleepy. Now, I have an amalgam of those two things going on – it takes an extreme amount of effort to move, and then the second I stop moving again, I want to sleep. That’s Newtonian physics for you – a body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest stays at rest.

I’m finding that I can get through about 2/3rds of my lab classes before my body begins to scream at me to sit down and chill out for a second, and I certainly don’t recover by the next morning as I did before I got sick. I’m learning now that I need to rest somehow more throughout the labs, although I find that if I sit down, my legs begin to throb and I have a tough time getting going again. I almost feel like I’m better off just staying “in motion” throughout the entire lab, letting adrenaline carry me through, and then crashing at the end of the class in my office. To that end, I’ve covered up some of the windows and got a comfy chair that enables quick cat naps when I need them. During my last class, I also tried to lean on counters and things a bit more as opposed to fully sitting down.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me not to push myself too hard, I wouldn’t need to work anymore. The problem is that It is very difficult to figure out what my body can handle until I try and then moderately succeed, crash and burn, or something in between. I’ve been relatively sedentary for so long now that it is difficult to figure out what “pushing myself too hard” is until it’s almost too late to pull back. At least I can get a sense of what works for me/what doesn’t and adjust from there. There are a few things I’ve learned so far, though:

1) Put a smile on your face and try to look pulled together even if you don’t feel like putting in the effort. Having cancer has taught me many things. One of the most important is the idea that you can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you react by having an overall positive attitude. Being positive generally makes me feel better physically and mentally and feeling good about how I look only boosts my resolve to have a positive attitude throughout my day. On top of that, I find that people react more positively to me and my ideas if I have a smile on my face even when I feel like crud on the inside. That said, keeping all of this up takes a lot of energy sometimes so it can be a bit of a double edged sword.

2) More practically, get rest whenever you can. I’ve learned over the past few weeks to take quiet moments for myself when I can. This could mean that I close my office door, turn out the lights, sit in my cushy chair and try to catch a few winks for 15-20 minutes. It could also be as simple as leaning up against the wall for a few floors during a solo ride on the elevator. If you’re feeling out of breath after you climb a flight of stairs and don’t want anyone to think you’re struggling a bit, read some flyers on the cork board in the stairwell. Why feel like I need to hide that I’m hobbling along? My co-workers have been beyond supportive and really have, in some cases, become like a family away from home. I don’t want anyone to worry that I’m not doing well (I’m really fine – this is all part of the recovery process and is common for most patients) and I really would like to feel “normal” again, as much as that is possible. I also don’t want people feeling like they need to help me more than they already have, and that was more than generous.

3) As a colleague recently reminded me, I don’t need to do things the same way I did before I got sick to have a successful return to work and the rest of my life as I knew it. For example, work emails should, of course, be answered in a timely manner but I should not feel the need to answer student questions at midnight or even the instant they hit my inbox. Essentially, I shouldn’t feel pressure to return to life as I knew it before cancer until I’m ready, if ever, and life will go on without a hitch for everyone else.

Fatigue isn’t the only issue I’m dealing with – chemo brain is becoming more and more of a problem since I’ve returned to work. I’m thinking it may be more apparent now that I need to use my brain on a regular basis. I’ve always had trouble remembering students’ names. That is next to impossible now. I’ve also been forgetting seemingly basic and simple words. There are also times where I have trouble focusing or forming coherent thoughts when writing emails to students or talking to them in class. In probably the most scary and unexpected event so far, I recently forgot how to hold a fork and knife in order to cut my food. I couldn’t remember how I held them – is it fork in the left hand and knife in the right or vice versa? Do I cut in back or in front of the fork? I honestly couldn’t remember this at all, as if it was my first time cutting up my own food. My muscle memory had momentarily escaped me. I ended up having to put the utensils down (probably best for the safety of all around me) and allow my brain to reset itself. Fortunately, everything came back and I enjoyed my chicken Caesar salad. Still, it was a terrifying feeling and I’m definitely going to talk with my hematology oncologist about it during my next visit as I think it might be something that needs to be addressed in more detail.

I also can’t help but get anxious about every sudden muscle twinge in my shoulders or when I  break out into a sweat or have sudden feelings of exhaustion. (This last point means I’m always in a minor state of anxiety.) With every instance of any one of those things, I can’t help but immediately think, “Oh my God, IT is back. The cancer is recurring.” I know, in my rational mind, that while my symptoms were similar to those, they were much more extreme and I felt absolutely awful but my irrational mind can’t help but catastrophize everything. It is a difficult place to be mentally and I don’t know how much I can expect it to change.

Despite all of this, though, I’m very happy to be back at work and thinking about all of these things as cancer patient in remission. There are certainly worse problems to have and I know it will all get better over time.

The Waiting

My last treatment is done. It was the hardest of the six. My nose started to burn pretty badly during the cyclophosphamide and I felt really nauseous last night. My eyes and teeth were killing me and I couldn’t relax enough to get comfortable and had a hard time falling asleep. Jeff got me a cold compress for my head, which helped a whole lot and eventually I was able to get some rest. I woke up this morning feeling relatively well.

Now, we wait until April 22nd when I will get a PET scan that will show whether the cancerous cells are gone (hooray!) or if a small area of cancerous cells remain (boo!). The wait is because I need to let the prednisone work its way out of my system as it could yield a false negative on the scan. I’ll meet with my oncologist on the 24th to get the results of the scan.

My oncologist and I talked through the possible scenarios after the scan. If the cancer is being a stubborn mule and hangs on, then I will likely have 1-2 rounds of very localized radiation. If not, then I will be in remission. I will then see my oncologist every three months during which time I will have blood work for specific tumor markers and I will get CT and PET scans every six months for two years. After that, I will see him once every six months and will get scanned once per year for another three years. I will be officially cured if I remain cancer free throughout that entire period.

These time tables might seem arbitrary, but not surprisingly, my oncologist had a very reasoned explanation for it. Overall, the recurrence rates of diffuse large B cell lymphoma are about 10%. If it does recur, it will most likely happen within the first two years of remission, so he will keep a close eye on me during this period. Of course, since my cancer was so aggressive this time around, he wants me to come in as soon as I feel any familiar symptoms should they arise between visits. After two years, the likelihood of recurrence drops significantly and after 5 years, it drops to 0.01%. There aren’t any known connections to other types of cancer, unless I need radiation.

Overall, my oncologist is really happy with my results. He feels I’ve gotten through it with a positive attitude, which is helpful and I’ve had rarely few side effects. I think he might have even been more excited than I was that I was going in for my last treatment.

For now, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for good news on April 22nd.

Choices

Last night, I had a bout of complain-itis.

I whined to Jeff that I am officially sick and tired of being sick and tired. I’m tired of having excessively dry skin. I’m tired of my digestive tract being in a constant state of turmoil. I’m tired of being so physically exhausted that it takes me two hours to run to the post office and back. I had to shave my head again because the hair that remained is growing in as some sort of fuzzy down feather concoction while the hair that fell out isn’t coming back in yet. I decided to buzz it down to avoid looking like a fuzzy bowling ball with bald spots.

Plus, my next chemo treatment is coming up in about ten days, and I’m really dreading it. I should be looking forward to it, because it’s the last scheduled treatment. I’m dreading the nausea and vomiting and generally horrible feeling that comes for a week after treatment. My body hates these treatments so much now that I actually get anticipation sickness – feelings of nausea and the metallic taste in my mouth – days beforehand. This is common among chemo patients as, apparently, the memory center of brain triggers these symptoms in reaction to the anticipation you have about an upcoming treatment. Joy of joys! Not only do I have to deal with the nausea and metallic taste due to the actual treatment, I also get to feel sick a few days ahead of time, too.

Jeff’s response when I complain about chemo? “Go for the treatment and get better or don’t go for treatment and don’t get better, so really there’s no choice.”

This response makes me think about the choices you have as a cancer patient. When I talk to people about my cancer diagnosis and treatment, it is not uncommon that they respond with, “You’re so brave to go through that” or “I don’t think I could handle chemotherapy” or something along those lines. A lot of people think they couldn’t deal with the treatment and wouldn’t be able to go through with it.

The truth is, they would be able to do it and are braver than they think. In fact, I honestly cannot think of anyone in my life who wouldn’t immediately choose to start chemotherapy as soon as possible if they were in my position a few months ago. Not one. There really isn’t a choice to make in that situation at all.

That said, there is some latitude as far as the type of treatment that you decide to pursue. If you’re like me and completely trust your oncologist, you will go through with whatever combination of chemotherapy and radiation that they think is appropriate. Time was really not on my side – my tumor was growing so quickly that I really didn’t have the option of getting a second opinion, not that I wanted to. Other people opt to seek out second opinions and perhaps land on a different type of chemo that they feel will be better for them and their lifestyle. Some seek out a combination of chemotherapy/radiation and holistic treatments, like meditation, massage therapy, acupuncture, and herbal supplements. Others still believe that chemotherapy and radiation are poisons that shouldn’t be used to treat cancer and instead decide to only pursue holistic/naturopathic treatments. (By the way, before my own cancer diagnosis, the biologist in me used to think these people were just plain nutty. Now, I think every patient needs to do what’s right for them and will get them through each day. To each their own. How very zen master!)

Outside of how you decide to pursue your treatment, the only real choice you have as a cancer patient is about the attitude you have towards your treatment and the disease. I chose to be proactive and positive about 10 minutes after learning I had a tumor in my chest. In my mind, there wasn’t really any other option. What good was it going to do me to wallow in self pity and to pull the “woe is me” routine? Absolutely none. I have nothing to gain by being a sad sack and everything to gain by being my own best advocate in my treatment and being confident from the start that I am going to beat cancer.

Along with that positive attitude comes using comedy as a coping mechanism. Jeff and I do this to deal with pretty much every situation in our lives, good and bad, and my cancer diagnosis is no different. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, and in fact, there has been more than one occasion in which our cancer jokes have been a little off-putting for those around us. Oddly, some people don’t think it’s funny when I say something like, “What? It’s not like I have cancer or anything….oh wait” or Jeff says, “You know what I just realized? Pitbull looks like a 30 year old woman with cancer”. (Actually, I didn’t think that one was particularly funny. I also didn’t like, at first, that he called me Little Stevie when I wore a head scarf for the first time. I think I’m too sensitive about my bald head.) It’s an acquired taste, and I know that. But, that doesn’t stop us from making jokes because it makes us feel better and I honestly think that, ultimately, it does make most people comfortable around me.

When I was diagnosed, I was so set on positivity in my life that I instituted a no crying and negativity rule for those around me. I told my parents and Jeff that anyone could visit or call me, but they couldn’t cry and they couldn’t be negative about my diagnosis and treatment. I didn’t want to hear it – period. I know what all the possibilities are surrounding cancer – bad side effects from chemo/radiation, time away from work and doing things I enjoy, the possibility that my treatments wouldn’t work, and ultimately, I could die from this. I didn’t need to be reminded of any of those things. That said, I also can’t tell people how to feel about my diagnosis and what I’m going through. If they want to be sad about the fact that I was diagnosed with cancer, that’s fine. They just don’t need to bring that attitude in my house. For all intents and purposes, I am the Dikembe Motumbo of cancer.

All of that said, there are times, like last night, when I am frustrated or negative thoughts begin to creep in. This often happens when I’m reading other patients’ blogs or I hear stories about cancer patients that don’t have the best ending. I would be lying if I said I never once wondered, “What if I am in the 10-15% of diffuse large B cell patients of my age group that isn’t cured?” or “What if I’m one of the 10% who has a recurrence?” Fortunately, I’m able to just mentally acknowledge those thoughts and then focus on the positive. A few deep breaths usually help, too.

As I’ve said before, it’s easier for me to feel this way because my prognosis is very good and this is the first time (and hopefully last) I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. It is obviously not nearly as easy when you’ve had a recurrence or a diagnosis of a completely different type of cancer after being in remission for several years. Last night, in the middle of my complain-itis, I watched the season premiere of World of Jenks on MTV. This season includes the story of Kaylin, a woman in her 20’s who was originally diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, went into remission, and then was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, for which she underwent an intense surgery. Unfortunately, she was recently diagnosed with a recurrence of Ewing’s sarcoma. She writes a really great blog called Cancer is Hilarious that chronicles all of this. It is interesting to read about how another patient who is close to my age is going through her treatment for the third time, but mostly, her story reminds me that I’m lucky in that my prognosis is very good and my treatment has been relatively complication free so far. This certainly put things into perspective.