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I've said it before and I'll say it again: cancer can be as hard, if not harder, on the loved ones than the patients. Our family is very close - I don't have any siblings and my husband and I don't have children. Our family unit is small. After 2.5 years, my husband and I have a process. He goes with me to all of my scan result appointments. As soon as Super Doc gives us the results, Neal steps out and texts or calls my parents with the updates. I always want to be with them if we have to give them bad news. My parents live 4 hours away; otherwise, I think they'd crowd into the exam room with us.
Although we had to give them bad news a couple of weeks ago, we actually had something in our favor. A lifelong friend of mine was visiting with them on the way to take her daughter to tour a college. She was able to keep my parents somewhat balanced this time. I'd been preparing them for the results - figured this was coming. But no one wants to have to call their parents and tell them the cancer is back. Stupid cancer.
I've survived a lot of medical treatment. The most sophisticated and creative was while in the care of an extraordinarily gifted, courageous and talented surgeon. We invited him and his wife to dinner to renew our acquaintance and review the bidding. The dinner was memorable.
I could launch into the details of my 8 surgical procedures performed by this brilliant man but that story is told elsewhere. Of more interest to this community is what are the indicators of brilliance in a surgeon? Unlike general medicine or oncology, surgical encounter time is brief. One can ask about reputation, but thoracic procedures are risky and outcomes are variable involving heart, lungs, vessels, transplants and a myriad of complex procedures to the engine compartment of the body. Using my surgeon as a model, it might be useful to develop a means test of thoracic surgical competence that a survivor might use to evaluate suitability during the span of a short pre-surgical consultation. Here is my list.
- Is your surgeon friendly? Is this man or women one you’d enjoy having a coffee or a beer with? Does conversation flow easily? Does the surgeon respond to your elements of conversation? Does he or she listen? Do other practitioners or office staff enjoy being around him? A surgeon that is pleasant is likely to be a surgeon that is sympathetic, benevolent and a true believer of the tenants of the Hippocratic Oath.
- Is your surgeon inquisitive? Surgery is a melding of art and science. The art is “what” to do and the science is “how” to do it. Thoracic surgeons are a small tribe that practice in a complex environment. When something new is discovered, your surgeon should be very interested in investigating it for application. If your surgeon already thinks all the “what” questions are answered, find another.
- Is your surgeon respectful? In your pre-surgical consultation, you ought to feel like the important one. Your medical condition needs to be acknowledged as important and your feelings, fear, anxiety, and uncertainty should to be taken into account. If your surgeon doesn’t use your name or look at you or attempt to help you relax during the consultation, find another. If your surgeon makes a grand entrance, surrounded by a posse of assistants, and talks to them about your case, find another quickly!
- Is your surgeon decisive? At the pre-surgical consult, there is one key decision to be made: operate or do not operate. This ought to be made then and there. If your surgeon feels the need to discuss your case with others, find another. There is so much uncertainty in lung cancer surgery and each encounter will require a decision. Your surgeon needs to come equipped for making decisions, alone.
- Is your surgeon acutely intelligent? Compose a non-surgical question on the surgeon's interest or hobbies ahead of the consultation. Listen for passion and detail that indicates sincere interest and evidence of accomplishment. Intelligence starts with curiosity and leads to ability to assimilate knowledge and use it in cross functional ways. A surgeon with a photography interest would know depth of field (the f-stop setting on a camera) is analogous to layers in skin, tissue structure, and visual focus precision. Photography concepts relate to surgery yet it is a diverse field of intellectual pursuit. Avoid those who are interested only in surgery or who say they don’t have time for anything in their life but surgery.
We had a wonderful reunion made even more special by the attendance of my daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. My daughter met my surgeon 15 years ago while I was near death. She is also a beneficiary of his skills. Ten years after my surgeries, I asked my surgeon to help find a skilled brain surgeon to remove my daughter’s complex meningioma. He moved heaven and earth to do so. Add compassion to my list.
Stay the course.
"Hindsight is 20/20!"
"You know, in retrospect..."
"Looking back now, I'd..."
"If I had it all to do over again..."
"If I had known then what I know now..."
Chances are, if you're a caregiver, you're guilty of saying at least one of these catchphrases at least a little bit often.
I know I am. A LOT a bit often!
Why is that?
Why is it that we never feel prepared to be a caregiver, and always feel like a little of our well-earned wisdom would have been useful at the beginning of our experience?
Here's what I think: our loved one's diagnosis knocks us for a loop; we stumble, we grasp, we stand back up, we take action, and then we can usually coast for a while--and occasionally, the cycle repeats.
But: we were never given a chance to study for this test. We weren't given a warning. We catch the curveball using the only skill sets we already have, and we run with it.
What the **** just happened?
Where do we go from here?
Get our heads back in focus, get info, get a plan.
Stand back up:
We go through our days--every day--as best we can. Somehow, stuff gets done. If it doesn't, we move on.
Take the info we found and start acting on the plan: a testing plan, a treatment plan, a scheduling plan, a support plan, any plan.
The plans in place gradually become blessedly routine. The less work we have to do to establish the plans as the plans settle, the more surprised we are that our days do still revolve--but they just revolve around something we never would have expected. (This is sometimes referred to as the "new normal.")
Any caregiver is familiar with this basic framework.
Finding the way that this paradigm can shift and meld onto any particular family, situation, or lifestyle?
There's the rub.
That's the part that's not so simple.
The GOOD news is: that's the part where other caregivers are the best and most helpful resource.
What calendaring app do you use? What foods help with nausea? What do you say to your kids? How do you organize medical information? Which chores should I prioritize? How can I draw boundaries with my family? How can I ask my friends for the support I need? How can I communicate better with my loved one's medical team? Where can I go for reliable supplemental information? How do I find self-care time? And, by the way, what IS self-care?
At the end of the day, one thing is patently obvious: with most new life experiences, you may not even know what resource/help/knowledge you need (or needed!) until you are well on your way. Caregiving is a prime example.
To that end: the best and most helpful source--the reference with the breadth and depth of life experience to draw upon--are your fellow caregivers.
LUNGevity has TONS of ways to connect with a network of folks with similar experiences. Just to name a few: the LUNGevity Caregivers Facebook group (http://facebook.com/groups/1009865522379898), the LifeLine mentorship program (http://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/support-services/peer-to-peer-mentoring), and the Caregivers message boards here on the Lung Cancer Support Community (http://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/support-services/lung-cancer-support-community).
(Not to mention the Caregiver materials library at http://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/caregiver-resource-center).
Also: LUNGevity hosts the only regular caregiver-focused Twitter chat in the lung cancer advocacy field. We meet on Twitter under the hashtag #LCCaregiver every first Wednesday of the month, starting at 8:00pm Eastern time. This is a sort of live chat room, addressing issues that caregivers want and need addressed. All are welcome!
This month, we will be discussing this exact conundrum: what do you wish you had known before you became a caregiver? What can your fellow advocates (and advocacy organizations like LUNGevity) do to help you learn what you need to know at the front end? How can we help you "grasp" the info you need in order to make a smooth transition into your role, and get settled as quickly as possible in a somewhat comfortable routine? How can you be supported in your role by being given notice ahead of time of what you may need or want to know, do, or think of?
How can you catch the signals ahead of other curveballs?
To assist in answering these questions, and to continue this conversation, we'll be hosting a sort of "Caregiving 101" for our chat this Wednesday. Several experienced caregivers will offer their best advice--the things they wished they had known before starting their work of supporting their loved ones through a lung cancer diagnosis. Please join us to learn together; to hear from others who understand the ups and downs of what you're going through; to share your stories and your advice; and to help us understand how we can better help each other.
Wednesday, June 6th, 8pmET, on Twitter, at #LCCaregiver.
I can't wait to "see" you there! Thank you, my friends!
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“I’m sorry, sweetheart these are tumors in your lungs and a form of lung cancer”.
These were the words spoken to a vibrant, healthy 36-year-old female on October 19, 2017, by the thoracic surgeon. I knew that things were probably not good when he came in and asked if I was alone. Unfortunately, I was alone. Looking back, that day seems like a blur. I remember the ladies at the checkout desk asking how I was doing as they ask so many patients all day long. It’s mere customer service, right? I never made eye contact and mustered enough energy to say the word “fine”. I was far from fine, but I just wanted to get out of there.
I never cried in the doctor’s office that day, but walking down that winding hallway and through the parking lot felt like I was carrying cinder blocks for shoes around my feet. The minute I got in my car and closed the door was the moment that I completely lost myself. I have cancer. I am going to die. My parents are going to have to bury their only child. My world felt like it had crashed.
The days and weeks ahead were just amazing considering my new circumstances. People loved on me like I had never been loved on before. I received cards and texts and all sorts of support, but a part of me wanted to tell them that I was still the same person and I appreciated the cards of support, but that I wasn’t dead yet. Please hold the flowers too.
My lung cancer diagnosis was a complete shock as it is to so many. However, I was asymptomatic and cancer was the last thing on my brain. I was hospitalized for a Bartholin Cyst. I had my yearly exam already scheduled with my OB/GYN and this exam was far from routine. I explained to the nurse that I was in pain and was running temperatures between 101-103⁰. I visited the local emergency room twice to attempt to acquire some relief and was incorrectly diagnosed. My OB/GYN admitted me to get antibiotics started quickly and mentioned a minor surgery, but before I went to the hospital, he wanted me to have a CT of my abdomen to identify the cyst prior to any procedure.
Thankfully, the tech caught just the lower portion of my lungs on that scan and the radiologist noted lung nodules. When I went back to my OB/GYN for my check up, he mentioned the lung nodules and ordered a full chest scan. He informed me that people had benign nodules and they could be there from my severe infection, but that he wanted to just make sure that it wasn’t anything.
The next day he called me to inform that the nodules were still there and he would like for me to see a Pulmonary Specialist. I agreed and the Pulmonary Specialist was very concerned about the number of nodules in my lungs which were over 100 scattered across both lungs. He conducted a bronchoscope and a needle biopsy for which both were non-diagnostic and I was then punted to the Thoracic Surgeon. The Thoracic Surgeon removed three wedge sections and sent the pathology off to Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
After further molecular testing, my oncologist educated me on the different mutations and the path of treatment that would be taken for each of them. It was determined that I was Stage IV due to both lungs being involved and was positive for T790M. I began Tagrisso as a first line on November 11, 2017. After 6 months on this drug, my last scans read “barely perceptible”. I will keep taking Tagrisso until resistance occurs and hopefully there will be another inhibitor to take its place.
When I was first diagnosed, I would literally wake up in the night in a panic. I couldn’t sleep, eat or function normally. I started browsing the internet for support groups and pages as well as social media. I found the LUNGevity private patient groups on Facebook and asked to be added to every single one of them. I began telling my story and people started responding to me and sharing their stories. Strangers were sending me encouraging private messages. I saw people living and thriving with an incurable, life-shortening disease. I found hope. I started sleeping and not crying so much. Finding those support groups really made the initial journey a bit easier. Although we were strangers, we were brought together by a common bond. I’ve since been able to meet some of those people in person through the HOPE Summit and my “family” has grown by leaps and bounds. I would have never met these incredible people without lung cancer.
Receiving a lung cancer diagnosis is not something any of us would have willingly signed up for, but I am thankful that I was able to find out before it spread all over my body and treatment options were expunged. I am also thankful for the perspective shift. I now know what it means to live each day with intent. The days of merely existing are over. It’s time to live and love life to the fullest because I now understand the value of each day that I am given.
Becoming Empowered Advocates
My wife, Heather, told me about LUNGevity National HOPE Summit and that she wanted to attend. She received a Travel Grant from LUNGevity and I decided to join her at the conference. It is one of the best things we ever did. The wealth of information about lung cancer available through LUNGevity is not comparable to anything I could find in Canada or through any Canadian organizations. LUNGevity is so caring, thoughtful, and cutting edge.
Heather and I attended our first National HOPE Summit in 2016. It was so incredibly inspiring. We got to see first-hand that the statistics are just numbers, not individual expiry dates. The number of people in attendence was impressive and the conference was well organized. We met people from across North America who embodied hope and positivity. It felt like a family. The medical professionals at this event were amazing. They spoke with my wife and gave her their contact information if they could ever assist her in any way in the future. After that experience, I felt empowered to become an advocate and to get involved with awareness events with my wife in our home province of New Brunswick.
I followed LUNGevity on Twitter and I joined the LUNGevity Caregivers group on Facebook. I started participating in a few of LUNGevity’s LC Caregiver Twitter chats, which are held the first Wednesday of every month. I utilized the #stopthestigma hashtag on Twitter whenever possible. I volunteered to be a LifeLine Support Mentor to provide peer-to-peer support to other caregivers, and I joined LUNGevity’s Social Media Ambassadors to help raise awareness online.
My goal is to raise awareness of lung cancer as the number one cancer killer, taking more lives annually than breast, colorectal, and prostate cancers combined, while receiving the least amount of federal funding for research. I hope that my advocacy efforts will help other caregivers through sharing my experience, strength, and hope.
Whenever I can, I join my wife in her advocacy work. It is important to us to stay educated on new treatments, research, and changes within the lung cancer community. We continuously meet with Federal and Provincial politicians to educate them about lung cancer, to lobby for equal access to health care, to promote genetic testing, and to demand equal catastrophic drug coverage in Canada.
Heather lends her name and story to different publications to spread the word about lung cancer. Through social media, she has connected with doctors and research scientists across Canada to support their requests for research funding. The most recent was through a connection with a very passionate doctor at the Dalhousie University Research Foundation.
I hope to help educate the greater public that if you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. It’s not “just” a smoker’s disease and smoking is listed as a possible cause for all cancers. Lung cancer patients do not deserve this disease. I plan to continue to volunteer at events in my area to help raise funds for research and to promote the work and resources available through LUNGevity. And Heather and I look forward to attending National HOPE Summit together this spring.
Had my last chemo on Aug. 3 and C. T. scans of chest, abdomen, and pelvis toward the end of August. The 3 tumors in my lungs had shrunk and still no spread of the cancer seen anywhere else. Have recovered from chemo side effects and just been enjoying not having to think about or battle the cancer for a while. Don't seem to have any long term effects from the radiation. Had a short bout of more coughing and shortness of breath right after last chemo. But from what I've read this could have been the result of the chemo or the radiation or both. A short course of steroids took care of that and have had no trouble since then. Will be having P. E. T. scan in early Dec. So far, have been happy with my treatment. I believe it was the best I could have been given in the circumstances.
Don't help me.
I am a fiercely independant woman. i am a survivor. I am strong. I will beat this (insert cancer type/condition here) and my life will inspire others. If I show weakness then it wins. I will get up everyday and tackle the world. I will do my hair and put on lipstick and look as amazing as I can so no one will know that I am "sick". I will not ask anyone for help. I will carry all of the groceries into the house. I will change the water bottle on the water cooler. I will carry packages to Fex Ex. I will walk the dogs. I will drive myself to scan appointments and blood draws and biopsies. I will wash and dry laundry and I will never miss a single day of work.
Please help me.
I get up everyday in pain. It takes me longer these days to do my hair and put on my lipstick. I carry all the groceries into the house and I have to sit, catch my breath before I put them away. I wait until I am practically dying of thirst before I change the water bottle on the cooler. I carry the heavy packages into Fed Ex one 5 pound box at a time. I no longer walk the dogs- that's what the doggy door is for. I drive myself to scan appointments and wring my hands and bounce my leg because I am afraid of bad results. I drive myself to biospies and sometime I cry when I'm alone and putting my clothes back on. I can take laundry for 4 people up the stairs and put them away, but my body will hurt for two days after. I never miss a single day of work- but sometimes I am working from my bed.
It's easier for me to help others than it is to help myself. While I want to do everything myself- there are times that I get really annoyed if those I love don't offer to help me.
To their credit how can they know I need help when I don't look or act "sick"?
Recent EntriesLatest Entry
My name is Eleanor
I have cancer, but it is not who I am.
I am not a number or the result of a
My name is Eleanor
I am a baby at my mothers breast.
I am a toddler being thrown high in
the air by my father and giggling.
I am a young girl playing with my
dolls and my trucks.
I am a teenage girl going on my
first date full of nervous anticipation.
I am graduating high school and
trying to figure out what next.
I am a young woman walking down
the aisle with the love of my life.
I am an employee and a homemaker
I am a new mother.
I love my family, my friends, roses, cooking
I love watching sappy old movies and
going through a box of tissues while
munching on popcorn.
I love to dance and sing.
I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister,
a granddaughter,a niece, an aunt, I am
a grandmother and a great grandmother.
I am all of these things and more but what
I am not is a disease.
I have cancer and it may destroy my body
but it cannot touch my spirit or my soul.
So you see although my body may have cancer it does
not have me.
My name is Eleanor.