A lady with lung cancer passed early this morning. I knew her well. She survived two surgeries claiming a lung, radiation, and many many infusions of chemotherapy. Indeed, her disease was being treated like diabetes or heart disease — a chronic but controlled condition.
Lung cancer did not claim her and death is not a celebratory event, but living a full and meaningful life despite lung cancer is indeed praiseworthy. In characterizing the lady’s life, full and meaningful are an enormous understatement.
In recalling our years together, I am struck by how few times we talked about lung cancer. We shared a disease but talked about stock shows, cars, fashion, movies, politics, family, travel, ranching, tomatoes, and friends. That she would not achieve NED didn’t bother her a bit. “I’ve got things to do and doing nothing ain’t gonna happen!”
I will morn her passing. I will also strive to emulate her lifestyle.
Stay the course.
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.
Red, in white shirt and loose thin-black tie and sweating in Maine’s summer heat, is leaning on a rock-wall fence. He’s just opened Andy’s letter found under the black obsidian rock. In the background we hear Andy reading his evocative description of hope: “Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things and no good thing ever dies.” The movie Shawshank Redemption is a powerful story about hope and life with a message that should resonate with every lung cancer survivor.
I watched the movie the other day and made the connection. Andy was imprisoned for two life sentences with no possibility of parole. He was wrongly convicted of murder and throughout the story of his day-to-day life in prison, everyone tells him “hope is a dangerous thing.” On escaping, Andy proclaims that hope is “maybe the best of things.” The movie story line is exactly parallel to the plight of the late-stage diagnosed lung cancer patient ⎯- an unforgiving disease with hope as the most effective means of avoiding consequences.
For lung cancer, hope is not a medical remedy. While new lung cancer treatments are emerging more frequently now, basic research funding to diagnose and treat lung cancer lags other cancers. Perhaps the pace may pick up, one hopes. Perhaps a treatment may emerge just in time to save a life, one hopes. Perhaps a miracle remission occurs, one hopes. Hope may not be a medical remedy but, for many of us, it is our only effective medicament. And, in my case, hope is “maybe the best of things.”
Recall the story line of Shawshank. Andy’s future is confinement in a mind numbing institution, but he makes a choice to live in a different reality and works diligently, every day, on a novel escape plan. He makes a conscious decision to live. He embraces the hope of escape against all odds. Andy’s poignant characterization about life reveals his reasoning: “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.” Exactly!
Sometimes in the heat of lung cancer treatment, we forget its purpose ⎯- extended life. No one knows how long but life for most is extended. So what do we do with the extension? Re-read Andy’s characterization.
We long for a period of life extending into satisfying old age. But most without lung cancer do not dwell on the amount remaining on account. Lung cancer patients take careful measure of the balance. But, measure for what end? I believe, if one chooses treatment, then one chooses life. Rather than dwell on the remaining balance, focus on doing something you enjoy everyday. I suggest a survivor forget the past, declare the future irrelevant, and live in the day.
“Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Stay the course.
MY STEPS TO SURVIVING A LUNG CANCER DIAGNOSIS
Step 1 – Invest in sophisticated diagnosics before diagnosis
If you smoke, were a long-term smoker, or are in an occupation that exposes you to carcinogenic toxins (asbestos removal, auto mechanic, painter, etc.), I suggest getting a computed tomography (CT) scan, often called a CAT scan, of the chest once a year. Insurance now covers it and CT will detect tumors far earlier than a chest x-ray. Early detection of small tumors dramatically enhances your survival chances. I had a chest x-ray in January 2004 and was diagnosed with inoperable stage 3b, non-small cell lung cancer the following month. The tumor hadn’t shown on the x-ray; but at diagnosis, it was almost 3 inches long and ½ inch in diameter. The only symptom I had was coughing up blood the day before diagnosis. Learn more about early CT screening.
Step 2 – Choose a good general practitioner
Your general practitioner may be the manager of your lung cancer treatment. The GP likely will pick your cancer team and may need to do a little arm-twisting to get things moving. Therefore, there can be great benefits to having a GP who is seasoned and well known in the medical community. I prefer doctors of osteopathic medicine to medical doctors. I’ve found that in my experience the former treat people, not patients. I believe a good physician shows kindness, consideration, and compassion toward those in his or her care. These characteristics are essential. Be sure you know your GP and your GP knows you. Such knowledge and trust will give you a survival edge. There are great health care professionals out there.
Step 3 – Ensure your oncologist is a physician
A doctor has a degree in medicine and a license to practice. A physician is devoted to restoring, maintaining, and promoting your good health. My physician oncologist does a complete examination (looks in eyes, nose, and throat, checks pulse in the extremities, checks reflexes, listens to breathing and heart rate) every visit. He reviews and explains all test results and asks how I feel. He looks at me as I speak, and he listens and makes notes on what I say. He carefully explains medical treatment alternatives that may arrest the disease, and together we choose each next step. He never rushes consultations and, consequently, often is late to scheduled appointments. Because his tardiness results from spending time with those he treats, I know he cares about me and every other patient. These are some characteristics your physician oncologist should possess.
Step 4 – Learn about your disease
At diagnosis, I had no idea what lung cancer was. Moreover, I didn’t know what an oncologist did, nor could I spell the word! After diagnosis, I read everything I could find about the disease; a good resource is the www.LUNGevity.org website. Then I read medical journals, government reports, research papers, and studies. I made notes about things I didn’t understand and asked questions at my oncology consultations. My wife attended every consultation, procedure, and test to ensure every question was asked and answered, and that we understood the answers. You need to know about type, stage, statistics, radiation, diagnostics, chemotherapy, side effects, surgical options, and so much more. Your chances of survival are improved if you are informed enough to ask highly perceptive questions.
Step 5 – Acquire a sanguine attitude quickly
Cancer is a disease of death; lung cancer kills more than all other cancers. Your attitude toward treatment is, I believe, essential to survival. When you acquire a sanguine attitude, your treatment team will notice your optimism. They will enjoy interacting with you; they will care about you. I strongly suggest you read Stephen Jay Gould’s essay “The Median Isn’t the Message” to help you understand survival statistics and find optimism about what appear to be bleak probability of survival projections. Join a cancer blog or messageboard. I am a member of several where I can broadcast my complaints and protestations to people who understand and have useful advice for coping. Find cancer support groups and join one. Most people who treat you have no idea how you are feeling. But survivors in cancer support groups understand; they know how you feel—you’ll fit right in!
Step 6 – Any port in a storm
There is no such thing as “a little stick!” During procedures and treatment, almost everyone will attempt to gain access to your veins with an intravenous device of some type. All such intrusions are uncomfortable, and unless the practitioner is good and lucky he or she will miss more often than not. If your treatment involves intravenously administered chemotherapy, you likely will get stuck at least once a week. A good way to avoid discomfort and frustration is to ask for a port. Installation involves simple, low-risk surgery. Once in place, you need to keep the area clean and exercise precautions when bathing—but access to your veins is no longer a storm but a port in a storm!
Step 7 – Don’t believe the miracle cure
The consequences of a lung cancer diagnosis are frightening. For most, it will be your first serious encounter with the prospect of death. When you type “lung cancer” into Google, you will be bombarded by advertisement that promises miracle cure at considerable expense. There is no such thing as a miracle cure! Before you invest time (now precious) investigating one of these “too good to be true” remedies, check it out onwww.quackwatch.org and discuss it with your physician. Oncology is a medical science. Procedures, drugs, and protocols are tested using scientific methods that are published and reviewed by peers and regulating organizations. When science-based breakthroughs are discovered, they are broadcast very quickly throughout the practitioner community.Read about Steve Jobs—one of the smartest technologists and businessmen the world has ever known—who delayed his cancer treatment.
Step 8 – Don’t try to tough it out
I am a retired soldier and believed I was man enough to handle almost anything. Cancer proved to be the “anything” I could not handle! I suffered a long time trying to tough it out before I admitted I was depressed. My physician’s response: “Of course you are depressed—how could you not be?” He prescribed appropriate medication, arranged consultations with a physiologist, and suggested I attend support groups. Unless you are tougher than I, you will experience depression. Admit it and accept help. Here are some other things you might try. Ask for the “freeze spray” before an IV is used. If claustrophobic, get a script for Xanax and take it shortly before scans. Even in summer, wear warm clothing to diagnostic and infusion sessions. Some areas where these take place are kept very cold. Many treatment centers have volunteers—engage one in conversation. Many are survivors or caregivers and have a wealth of helpful information. During consultations, I was so frightened I couldn’t rationally ask questions about results or next steps, and I certainly couldn’t remember what was said. Consequently, I never go alone to a consultation. I suggest if you can, always have someone with you too.
Step 9 – Become a calendar maniac
If you have a smartphone with a calendar application, become an expert in its use. If not, keep a paper “cancer calendar” to record information. Your life after diagnosis will likely become filled with scheduled appointments, and given the nature of the disease and intensity of the battle, these are appointments you don’t want to miss. For example, my chemotherapy cycle required an infusion every third Friday. I had to record three rounds of steroid medication taken every six hours before each infusion. I had a scheduled blood test every Monday following infusion. Nausea started Sunday morning and lasted until Tuesday. Joint pain started Wednesday and lasted until Saturday. If I took the nausea medication about an hour before onset, symptoms often were minimal. Furthermore, if I started pain medication a couple of hours before onset, my pain was manageable. I used the alarm feature on my phone to warn me in advance. Plus, there was life to live, and the calendar helped me avoid conflicts between my cancer treatment schedule and my life events schedule.
Step 10 – Choose to live
When asked about my cancer experience, I often tell those in treatment that cancer is a disease of life or death. I believe if you choose treatment, you are choosing life. And if you choose to live, do something with the life you are given. The “something” will be different for each of us, but doing whatever you enjoy or find fulfilling is so important. If you enjoyed an activity before diagnosis, do it afterward. Look at yourself in the mirror every morning. If you don’t see an expiration date stamped on your forehead, then enjoy the day and look forward to the next! Oh, by the way, your hair will grow back! Baldness is a beautiful badge of courage.
Stay the course.
Early on, we learn Algebraic equations with only one solution. Then we encounter equations with two solutions -- Quadratic Equations. Consider: x2 + 3x – 4 = 0. This has two solutions: x = -4 or x = 1. Both are correct; one is negative and one is positive. Algebra students get very comfortable with solutions having a positive and negative outcome -- lung cancer survivors are less comfortable!
The positive outcome for lung cancer is extended life. But like quadratic equations, there can be negative outcomes that are less desirable. Mine is chronic pain. So to the question, how does one fit a negative outcome into the positive? No, Algebra does not help. But, for those in treatment or surviving after treatment, preparing for life with negative outcomes is helpful.
My chronic pain has two primary and many secondary causes. I have peripheral neuropathy -- numbness in fingers and toes including a burning sensation in toes and pain in the foot joints. It is a common Taxol side effect, and we informally call it “taxol toes.” Also, I have nerve damage caused by quite a few surgeries to my right chest that is chronically painful. How do I fit these negative outcomes into life?
My strategy is to tolerate chronic pain until bedtime. Then something must be done or I won’t sleep. I’ve cycled through over-the-counter, then prescribed sleep medications. Both worked for a while. Doc found a study suggesting a therapeutic effect for Xanax on chronic pain. He prescribed a 0.5mg dose at bedtime, allowing an increase to a total of 1.5mg. This relaxes me and makes me drowsy. It works about 6-in-10 nights.
A secondary cause sometimes drives pain above chronic levels. These are: chemotherapy induced joint pain; muscle cramps; stress, anger and excitement; sneezing and coughing; and flying on aircraft. The joint pain, an in-treatment side effect, required narcotic medication in every case to relieve. Reliance on narcotics has two downsides: an inability to think and function normally the next day and constipation. However, other secondary causes occasionally require narcotic medication to achieve relief. Because of the downside to narcotics, we’ve developed a couple of unique pain abatement procedures that may be of interest.
Our first strategy is to apply prescribed lidocaine transdermal patches to incision scars and or feet in combination with Xanax. Since lidocaine dosage is limited to 2 patches, my wife cuts them into strips and fits them along my incision scars, and applies them to my feet. A pair of tight fitting socks are stretched over my feet to keep them in place. When the offending pain spike is either in my chest or feet, a full 2-patch application is used. The patches are applied in time to allow the Xanax to work and I sleep, hopefully.
The next works only for feet and is a back-up strategy if lidocaine fails. My wife uses an ace bandage to wrap reusable frozen Blue Ice packs to the bottom of each foot. The cold is very uncomfortable for a couple of minutes, but in a short time my feet are numb and if I’m lucky, I sleep.
Muscle cramping is a long term side effect from chemotherapy. It stems from low Magnesium blood levels. I take at least 500 mg of Magnesium supplement per day. My oncologist would rather I take 1000 mg, but I suffer digestive system revolt. I learned that almonds provide 75 mg of Magnesium per ounce so I snack in lieu of a second pill. Regardless, I still experience one to two cramping events per day. When they occur anywhere near my feet or chest, chronic pain soars. There is however, no remedy for cramps. The worst occur in the middle of the night and wake me up.
Archimedes, the ancient Greek hydrologist, provided an explanation for why immersing up to my neck in a swimming pool eases incision pain. The upward buoyant force of the water offsets the gravitational pull on chest incisions thus minimizing pain. Almost every day our community pool is open, I spend hours in the water. This does not eliminate pain but reduces it noticeably. On leaving the pool, the normal level returns but it is very therapeutic. Lying in a bathroom tub, unfortunately, does not work because there is not enough water for complete submersion. A hot tub works fine, but there is no difference in pain relief from water temperature.
Flying in a commercial airliner also spurs chronic incision pain. Most airlines pressurize their cabin between 6,000 and 8,000 feet pressure altitude. This lower-than-sea-level pressure expands my chest cavity increasing incision pain. All commercial flights hurt but long flights are very painful often requiring a dose of narcotic medication in flight. Not flying is the only remedy. Those having thoracic surgery have long complained of incision pain after commercial air flights and cabin pressure is the cause.
Another secondary cause is extensive coughing and sneezing. Sneezing is particularly bad when it is a “surprise sneeze”. During the worst pollen events, I stay indoors and I try and avoid school age children to keep the chest colds in check, especially when school is in session. The last secondary cause I have the most control over: stress, anger and excitement. Admittedly, excitement is the easiest to control except when the Dallas Cowboys are playing my beloved Philadelphia Eagles. These two games a year are indeed stressful and since I live among cowboys, someone is going to be angry over the outcome.
My wife reminds me when I complain too much that I am lucky to be alive. What’s a little pain given the alternative. She’s right. Doc reminds me to avoid scheduling things in the morning so I can sleep-in late if pain interferes. He’s right. Football season is right around the corner and it is a good thing games are scheduled in the afternoon and evening.
Now if the Eagles start winning, everything will be fine!
Stay the course.
Using the words free and invaluable to characterize lung cancer medical care is a hard sell. I’ve seen so many scams promising this, that, and the other thing that deliver nothing more than a money pit. So I was indeed skeptical when Dr. David S. Schrump introduced his National Cancer Institute Intramural cancer treatment program, at our April 2018 LUNGevity Summit, with the words “no cost to patients, including travel and lodging.”
Why didn’t I know about this resource? I’ve encountered so many newly diagnosed folks who had no or inadequate insurance and who had to forgo treatment because of financial concerns. Yet, there is a sophisticated, taxpayer funded, medical system that designs “unique to patient” protocols including surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, and newly emerging treatments. And, it is free! All patients at the NIH are on investigational protocols, including those who are receiving standard care, so that their tumor tissues, blood, etc can be used to develop new cancer therapies. Once a patient is enrolled onto a protocol, care is provided at no cost. There is no third party billing, deductables, etc.
Then on the second summit day, I learned Dr. Schrump’s Surgical Oncology Team is developing unique vaccine-like immunotherapies using tumor material surgically removed from a patient — a tailored and individualized immunotherapy agent. In an ongoing vaccine study, Dr. Schrump’s team observed immune responses to lung cancer-associated proteins in 60% of patients; several responders have had unusually prolonged disease free-survivals, supporting further evaluation of the vaccine. Dr. Schrump hopes that personalized vaccines may one day be an alternative to adjuvant or post-surgical chemotherapy, the current standard of care. Much more work needs to be done to determine to feasibility and potential efficacy of this approach.
Moreover, they are using aerosol delivery methods as alternatives to IV or oral administered drugs to increase the uptake of drugs into lung cancer cells, and “prime” them for attack by the immune system. Indeed, his presentation was filled with very innovative methods of attacking lung cancer with promising results.
If you are an American and don’t have the financial resources for lung cancer treatment or if your medical team has run out of treatment ideas, contact the National Cancer Institute. You don’t need a physician referral. Email [email protected], introduce yourself and your diagnosis stage and type and put your phone number in the email. Free and invaluable may indeed be words appropriate to use in concert with lung cancer treatment.
"Count-off...One, Two...Count-off...Three, Four...Bring it on down now...One, Two, Three, Four, One-Two...Three-Four!"
My life is filled with counting. As a young soldier on the march, we counted cadence to stay in step. The rhythm of the cadence was an elixir to the mile-upon-mile-upon-mile of forced march in full combat load. They always scheduled the forced march on the hottest day, or the wettest day, or the coldest day of the year. One memorable march was the day after a hurricane! Weather or not, we marched and counted.
After diagnosis with lung cancer, my life embraced a different sort of cadence. There was the countdown to scan day, then time stopped waiting for results. One...what time is it...just ten in the morning...the clock battery is out...is it back...how bad...how many nodules...how big...ten-oh-two...mets in the bones...liver also...scan tech didn't smile...he saw something...ohGod.... Life just stopped waiting for results. Time stopped!
Waiting for scan results is absolute misery coupled with measured doses of agony and anguish, torment, despondency and gloom thrown in for good measure! Each day was a twenty-five-mile forced march that started but never ended. Cancer sucks but waiting for scan results sucks squared!
Stay the course.
Perhaps you’ve heard? The federal government is a large insurance business with a standing army. Social Security is insurance — a specific kind of insurance called an annuity. The insured and employer pay premiums every month to fund a defined benefit at a specified year (normally your federally mandated retirement year). Everything is peachy-keen till a disability affects work because one has late stage lung cancer. And, when a lung cancer survivor files for disability, allowed by law and regulation, the federal government almost always disapproves. So, here are some suggestions for obtaining disability benefits by disapproval.
1. Expect to be Disapproved. I know a lot of folks with lung cancer. Among this population, only one was approved on initial application. He passed before he received his first benefit check. My company provided disability insurance carrier filed my first application. I had an unresolved bronchopleural fistula after a pneumonectomy that required a second and third surgery and indications of tumors metastasized to my remaining lung. My claim, filed by a former Social Security claims adjuster, was disapproved.
2. Involve Your Doctors. The disability application requires you to disclose all your physicians and medical providers. Then, the administration asks for medical records, reports and observations. Doctors are busy folks; oncologists are bombarded by SSA requests for information, and for good reason. Late-stage lung cancer (including treatment and side-effects) is often disabling. Inform your medical providers of your application and ask them to help by responding to the request for information.
3. Complete the Application. The Social Security Administration is a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies love to find “nits” in applications and return with some very vague description of the problem. This delays a decision and delays payment, and these are typical insurance company behaviors. Read every word of the disability application process (it is all online at www.ssa.gov) and check your application closely to ensure it is complete and error free. Have several family members check it also after reading the application instructions. Ensure you completely describe your symptoms including those caused by side-effects. Also, completely describe how these symptoms affect your ability to stand, sit, walk, bend over, think, concentrate, and etc. (Hint - read the criteria that will be used to determine your disability finding and use those words as descriptors).
4. Understand the Fine Print. There is payment delay: six full months after the date of disability (date shown on claim approval letter). Depending on other income sources, payments may be taxable. You are not found to be permanently disabled. Regulations allow a review of your status after start of disability payments. It is not a good idea to join an adult softball team while receiving disability payments! You are not eligible for Medicare until 24 months after receipt of first disability payment. Your disability payment will be less than your full retirement benefit, and when you reach retirement age, your retirement benefit will not be increased.
5. Lawyering Up. Filing the initial disability application online is a good idea, as long as it is properly completed and supported by doctor reports and observations. But when denied, it is time to level the playing field and retain a lawyer. Not any lawyer, but a law practice that specializes in Social Security Disability appeals. By law, they cannot charge you for their services. They collect fees directly from the Administration if an administrative law judge approves your appeal. And, most important, they know what they are doing and it is in their financial interest to do a good job on your appeal!
The disability process is deliberate, lengthy and frustrating. Like lung cancer, success involves persistence. Insurance companies don’t relish paying claims and every approved disability claim turns a premium into a disbursement. But, Social Security is insurance with disability payment provisions that you pay for! If you can’t work, apply, appeal and persist!
Stay the course.
“Drug-related deaths have grown to be a major US public health problem over the last two decades. Between 2006 and 2015 there were more than 515,000 deaths from drug overdoses.…” This from a March 26 article in Science Magazine. The death rate averages 5,722 per year over the cited period. Further, “the drug epidemic is a pressing concern among policymakers.” This concern translates to a $865 million research budget for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. This budget funds $151,117 per individual drug-related death.
This year, 163,199 Americans are projected to die from lung cancer. The National Institute of Health Lung Cancer research budget for 2018 is $282 million. This level of research amounts to only $1,727 per individual death.
Lung cancer kills 28 times more people per year than drug addition, but the drug addiction research budget is 87 times larger then lung cancer’s on a per-death basis. Clearly, our public health policy makers fail to understand the meaning of the word major. The major and largely unaddressed US public health problem is death from lung cancer.
Stay the course.
It was mid-morning on a beautiful February Sunday in Texas when my phone rang. Randy’s name flashed on my phone screen and on realizing who it was, my mind raced to recall the last time we spoke. Pam his wife greeted me, a mild surprise.
Randy and I grew up in the same Pennsylvanian township and attended high school together. Our lives parted with college and after an Army career took me everywhere but home. Randy settled in our hometown. We had many things in common including surviving lethal cancer.
Five years ago, Randy and I had a fortuitous meeting online in a cancer blog site. Randy was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL). We soon reconnected and were gabbling away during marathon telephone calls. When we spoke, our wives went shopping!
Our last conversation was shortly before the Super Bowl. Randy’s disease reoccurred and he was back in chemotherapy. He’d seen blood work indicators during the fall, yet he remained hopeful that treatment would again arrest his cancer. Randy’s form of CLL was characterized by adverse prognostic factors. CLL is rarely cured; never cured applied to Randy.
While recurrence and mortality were frequent topics, hope and joy always dominated our conversations. We helped each other find meaning in our fragile lives. We coached away depression. We talked about everything: music, obtuse rock-in-roll lyrics, being young, high school girls, cars, motorcycles, politics, military tactics, bourbon, ballistics, physics, even the strength characteristics of bolts. We formed a bond of friendship experienced by few.
Pam’s voice was a tell and then instantly I knew Randy was no longer a survivor. Our friendship ended on February 17th. Pam is without her beloved husband, and I am missing my dear friend. Randy was a man of great wisdom tempered by uncommon common sense. His virtues of kindness, selflessness, and courage stood like great pillars in our least-common-denominator world. Today, that world is smaller, colder, and far less interesting.
Stay the course.
This is my fourteenth anniversary surviving a lung cancer diagnosis. Granddaughter Charlett's decorated toes join mine to keep our right feet forward! I paint my toes every year as a celebration of the joy life brings. In early treatment, there was no joy. There was fear, frustration, pain, uncertainty and scanziety. I'd not yet discovered Dr. Phillip Bearman who taught me the reason for lung cancer treatment -- achieving extended life. Phil decided he would live every moment to the fullest despite the rigors of treatment, and he'd celebrate every year of survival with a painted red toenail. He couldn't control his lung cancer, but he could control the way he felt about his lung cancer. I started living when I internalized his message. My first paint job was at my third anniversary and I'll never miss another.
I am a lung cancer survivor. My message for those in treatment is twofold: enjoy the life extension treatment provides and if I can live, so can you.
Stay the course.
Summer has ended and baseball is in World Series mode. I’m a long suffering Philadelphia Phillies fan — a Phanatic! To have a lifelong fascination with a mediocre baseball club requires supreme dedication, unusual perseverance, and a strong conviction that tomorrow will be a far better day. These attributes are prerequisites for facing a daunting lung cancer diagnosis and enduring the arduousness of treatment.
Danny Ozark, once manager of the Phillies, took the team from perennial cellar dwellers to contenders. He explained his formula for success thusly: “Half this game is ninety percent mental!” Dismissing the missing half, the same can be said of life after lung cancer treatment.
Presume diagnostic and treatment routines of lung cancer are largely similar; the unique and difficult challenges occur post treatment. Adding Ozark’s missing half, coping with post treatment life challenge "is ninety percent mental.” Individually, each will face a distinct challenge set but universally, life will be different than life before treatment. How so?
First was a misplaced expectation to return to pre-diagnostic life. After NED, there were so many things I could no longer do. It took a while to realize I needed to carve out a new lifestyle. There is a new normal life after lung cancer, but the mental challenge is finding it. No one gives you new normal; you have to make it.
Several side effects became chronic conditions. Coping becomes a mental challenge. Everyday, I play a round of mind over matter. Most days my mind wins but I have to live with losing days. Too many in a row and I need help. Fortunately, my wife is a godsend. Plan to have someone trusted close by.
I’ve learned to go well out of my way to avoid confrontation. There are no “civil” discussion these days. There is disagreement, branding, insult and anger. My spin cycle goes one step farther to pain. If I walk away, I may have a good day. I won’t if I don’t. I’ve learned to control how I feel about something and not caring enough to have an opinion works well indeed.
My new normal life is both challenging and enjoyable. Achieving that state involves application of Danny Ozark’s recipe for baseball success — new normal life “is ninety percent mental.”
Stay the course.
Amazon Kindle Royalties Donated to LUNGevity.org During November:"I am not a doctor; indeed, I possess little medical knowledge. I am, however, a very experienced and long-tenured lung cancer patient. That gives me a unique perspective on the disease that kills more people—many times more—than any other type of cancer. I do not intend to fill this story with statistics. They are readily available from any number of reputable resources. I have a firm belief, however, that lung cancer research is poorly funded because lung cancer is considered a self-induced disease.
We speak of those who suffer from or succumb to cancer as having engaged in battle; but in battle, one can choose to retreat. When diagnosed with cancer, the only choices are treatment or death. Statistically for lung cancer patients, the battle for life through treatment more often than not is lost.
Treatment borders on barbaric torture that is endured repetitively, with uncertain outcomes and with death looming closely. I claim no medals for bravery. I was, and still am to some degree, overwhelmed by fear. While in active chemotherapy, the time between a diagnostic scan and results was a nightmare to endure; thus, my name for this experience: Scanziety. Several times, my treatment nearly killed me. I survived, not knowing how or why. My survival provides hope for those who suffer, particularly for the 230,000 Americans who will receive a lung cancer diagnosis this year. If I can survive, so can you."
Stay the course.
Get your copy of Scanziety here https://www.amazon.com/Scanziety-Retrospection-Lung-Cancer-Survivor-ebook/dp/B01JMTX0LU
Today we pause to celebrate new life, life continued, and hope renewed. For me this is a holy season but it has a much broader meaning, especially for those struggling with lung cancer. Christmas Day is a celebration of new life and a continuation of life. The new life is Christ while continuation is everyone alive. Including especially, those who live with lung cancer. We have at first glance an insurmountable challenge: to live with a disease that consumes our body with cells made of our body. Indeed, our disease is a paradoxical phenomena. Yet, we live. We rise above the biological paradox, thus our celebration of life continued.
The hope of the season is reflected in many ways. On earth's scale, each day length changes as we orbit towards spring. Thus hope is realized as we progress in day length and temperature change. On the lung cancer scale, we hope for good treatment outcomes and new treatment methods. Fortunately, outcomes are improving, sometimes dramatically as are methods. But the progression of seasonal change is neither smooth nor completely predictable. There will be uncertain days ahead. Similarly, as lung cancer survivors we will face disappointment and perhaps reversals. But like the season, treatment is a progression: a change over time. And the renewal of hope for survivors is the belief that progression toward success will continue.
My wish for all lung cancer survivors is the gift of life continued.
Stay the course.
I had an interesting chat with my general practitioner over the Fourth of July holiday. He’s a gentleman rancher with an abundance of tomatoes so I brokered an invite to his beautiful ranch to relieve him of his abundance.
A social cup of coffee segued into a wide ranging conversation about medicine, ranching, politics, engineering and cancer treatment. Doc has lots of opinions but they are founded on deep study and comparative analysis. But, unlike most intelligent people, he rarely uses technospeak but rather explains complex topics in easily understood words and concepts. Thus fostering interesting conversation. The topic turned to patients seeking second opinions and physician egos. His words are worth capturing: “I don’t mind a patient seeking a second opinion…I get paid.”
Doctors are important people in our society. Our adulation of their skills causes us to forget that in a pay for service system, customers have a right to express dissatisfaction and seek alternative practitioners. If you don’t like the medical service you pay for, find someone who provides better service.
Stay the course.
How does one find joy in lung cancer? I find some of mine by celebrating survival, and there is no better way than to attend a LUNGevity sponsored Breathe Deep event.
Our's was a pleasant but breezy fall Texas day and about a hundred of us showed up to the celebratory walk-jog-run event. Our pleasant jaunt around the Arlington Texas park also raised thousands of dollars to undertake LUNGevity focused research for new diagnostic and treatment methods for lung cancer. But, while fund raising is vital, celebrating survival is even more important. When we meet and walk together, we become a powerful symbol of hope. We become energized. We find a moment of joy.
Forum moderator Susan Cornett and I met each other for the first time at today's event. We've been internet connected for nearly 2 years but our in person meeting was a wonderful experience. We talked about vacations taken and planned, survivor memories, and shared life experiences. I took this photo of Susan with her mom and dad who turned out to help Susan celebrate life after lung cancer. We had a grand time.
Stay the course.
There are advantages to receiving lung cancer treatments in small clinical settings. Among them is everyone knows your name and treatment circumstances. Scheduled for a CT scan with contrast yesterday, when I checked in I was routed to the infusion area to have my IV device installed. Chris, the radiology technician who’s been scanning me for almost 14 years, is well aware of the difficulty of installing an IV. So he passes me to the infusion nurses who yesterday managed to capture a vein, first try!
But, the infusion area was packed and so I had my device installed in proximity to the treatment complete celebration bell. In my day, the occasion was not a big celebratory photo op. One would ring the bell softly because many were asleep during infusion. Consequently, I never got a photo. Yesterday’s photo will be added to my archives. It is shared with you because it took three rings to find life. Lung cancer is persistent. Treatment is often a marathon but one that can be won!
Stay the course.
Today we celebrate 13 years of surviving NSCLC. I'm borrowing three toes from Martha, my wife and caregiver extraordinaire, who deserves most of the credit for my continued life. Martha did the heavy lifting during treatment, asking the right questions at the right time, and prodding my medical team with just the right touch. By comparison, I was at wit's end during my nearly 4 years of continuous treatment. Doctors McK (GP), H (Oncologist) and C (Thoracic Surgeon) also deserve a lion's share of credit. Collectively, they share a trait that distinguishes them from the rest of medical community -- they treat people, not patients.
The red toenail painting tradition was started by a Dr. Phillip Berman, radiologist and never smoker, who was diagnosed with Stage IV NSCLC. In an early Internet cancer website he founded, RedToeNail.org, he vowed to paint a toenail red for each year he survived what he called "this nastiness." He painted 5 before passing but taught me a great deal about living with lung cancer. During treatment, he was playing with his children, exercising, interacting with friends, and finding something to enjoy every day. In other words, he embraced the life he had and lived every day reveling in the joy he discovered. His lesson -- those who choose treatment choose life and the important thing is to do something with the life you have. I pass his powerfully evocative message to you. If you suffer with lung cancer then resolve to live every day and find something to enjoy. Realize that if I can live, so can you. Paint your toenails red!
Stay the course.
I am writing this from the pool deck of a cruise ship while on a transatlantic sojourn. Our fourth transatlantic and our favorite form of vacation, we cross then pick several countries and explore. This year, after docking at Barcelona, we fly to Ireland and tour the wild and unpopulated western coast, then spend a long weekend in Edinburgh, and fly home. The cruise and the touring after is wonderful. The flight back is a nightmare because my incision scars throb in pain in a pressurized aircraft. We need to make the return flight in two legs (overnighting in Boston) to recover from the pain.
The national hope summit concluded, and missed for the second time because of our annual spring migrations, I tell you about our cruise as two examples of hope.
First, we undergo treatment and endure discomfort for a reason -- extended life. It is important to shelve the treatment and uncertainty mantle to do something enjoyable with this life extension. We enjoy these long (and reasonably priced) repositioning journeys on a cruise ship. We step out of the mundane and into the lap of luxury and enjoy interactions with the international assortment of passengers we sail with.
Second, to the essence of hope, if I can survive to do this, so can you.
I will never go back to my lifestyle before lung cancer. But, I can have an enjoyable and meaningful life after lung cancer. And, my attitude dictates the amount of joy and meaning experienced. It is so important to realize this point. We endure treatments for a reason. Find your reason. Revel in your new normal.
Life indeed is what you make it. Make yours.
Stay the course.
The other day, in conversation with a newly minted medical school graduate, he told me low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) was dangerous. Dangerous! If LDCT is dangerous, what is late discovery of lung cancer? He nearly fainted when I told him I had perhaps more than 40 CT scans in my treatment history, telling me I was a candidate for radiation induced cancer. It didn’t seem to register that I was a candidate for extinction by lung cancer.
We are told the only effective way of treating our disease is early discovery. Few dispute this point. Why then would the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) want to reduce reimbursement for low-dose computed tomography (LDCT) screening by more than 40 percent? The Society of Thoracic Surgeons is concerned calling LDCT a “game changer in the battle against lung cancer.”
Then I read: “Family physicians lack sufficient knowledge about recommendations for LDCT." Moreover, Doctors Patz and Chen, professors of radiology at Duke, say: “Not screening patients annually could save millions in health care costs and spare patients the radiation exposure and downstream effects of false positive screenings.” Something is very wrong. We have an effective tool for early discovery of life-threatening disease when not discovered early, and there is a campaign mounted against using it.
CMS is a federal government-funded agency. In government programs there is a big difference between savings (cash you can put in the bank) and avoidance (cash spent elsewhere). CMS money is appropriated in broad categories. Once appropriated, fiscal managers move money around to address other needs or requirements. Appropriated federal funds are almost never returned to the Treasury. So the reduced funding for LDCT will be a bill payer for some other CMS program. No money is saved; it is spent on something else.
Further, when making a valid cost avoidance argument, one must identify all cost. For example, the professors of radiology predicting savings for reduced screening do not identify the millions of dollars of increased cost for treating late-stage-diagnosed lung cancer. A cost avoided almost always results in cost added somewhere else, and without disclosing added burden, professionals are making very unprofessional arguments.
Lastly, and most importantly, no one advocating reducing LDCT is considering the most important impact—suffering. There is a vast amount with late-stage diagnosis. Suffering affects more than the lung cancer survivor; it devastates families. While real and detrimental, suffering defies quantification in dollars. Several hundreds-of-thousands of us in the United States will suffer a late-stage lung cancer diagnosis this year. LDCT can eliminate some of this.
In this light, it is hard to understand the assault against using LDCT to find, fix, and finish lung cancer!
Stay the course.
I'm writing this from a Florida Hospital radiation clinic waiting room. My daughter is having intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) to treat her meningioma residual left over from surgery 3 months ago. This was her second brain surgery and in between was the birth of my granddaughter. Ironically, our greatest joy was sandwiched between our greatest fear.
She'll have at least 30 fractional sessions. I'm here doing grandfather and father stuff, the former fun, the latter hard as nails.
There are substantial risks. The tumor residual is lodged around her eye socket and the impact to her vision is of vast concern. We've talked about it. Mostly we try and forget. Daughter feeds back my mantra of only worrying about things that can be controlled but it doesn't ease my concern. Too much experience in this radiation domain to not worry. I find myself undone by uncertainty, again!
Yesterday's clinical visit experience was my first in a long time. Things haven't changed. Quiet people waiting for their time with "the beast", families talking in hushed tones, most have lost hair indicating combination therapy. One change: the radio oncologist came out to greet my daughter. He supervised the fitting of the facial fixture and stayed through the entire dose application. That was unique in my experience and immensely comforting. Maybe the cancer community is learning to treat people not patients.
Passing on parental knowledge and experience is expected but not on this subject matter. We need to fry this tumor, but the potential vision side-effects are disconcerting. We've got one chance, twenty-nine radiation bullets left, and then scanziety and hope. Tumor is a word I need to discard from my vocabulary.
We will stay the course.
Today, in the United States, we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving. Our first president, George Washington, called for an official “day of public thanksgiving and prayer” in 1789 and although the Congress heartily agreed, the proclamation was lost in the bureaucratic press of politics. It fell to Abraham Lincoln to rekindle the Thanksgiving Holiday shortly after the pivotal battle of our Civil War—Gettysburg in 1863. Thus in the mist of warfare and uncertainty, a holiday dedicated to thankfulness was founded.
Today, we gather to celebrate life and thank the Almighty for health and bounty. Thankfulness for me, a lung cancer survivor, is particularly significant for I have been blessed to witness one of life’s most memorable events: birth of a first grandchild.
During my recent visit, while cradling her in my arms, I felt a connection with my infant-offspring. As the picture captures, Charlett Emilyrose was looking intently into my eyes, unusual for a three-week old baby. She held my gaze for the longest time as if painting a mental portrait. Her grandfather was joyous and delighted and thankful.
This touching moment is unfortunately rare for those with lung cancer. By statistical expression, Thanksgiving 2005 should have been my last celebration. Yet, nearing my 13th year of surviving a lung cancer diagnosis, I am so thankful to have witnessed the birth of a grandchild. Providence has indeed showered me with gifts.
So today I give thanks for survival and in the spirit of George Washington’s original scope of holiday, I pray all who suffer the effects of this horrid disease experience the joy and delight I felt as I held my granddaughter in my arms. Happy Thanksgiving all.
Stay the course.
Start with any whole positive number. If it is even, divide it by 2; if odd, multiply by 3 and add 1. After a string of calculations applying the even-odd method, regardless of the starting number, the answer will always be 1. Well maybe because all numbers have not yet been checked. But up to 10 raised to the fourteenth power have been. And that is a very big number! This mathematical oddity is called the Collatz Conjecture.
For example, here is the calculation string applying the even-odd formula starting with 5: 16, 8, 4, 2, 1. (This is a great challenge for children BTW, especially if you require mental calculation.) Try a number. Don't try 33 or you will be up all night calculating till you reach 1, but you'll get there.
Why is it called a conjecture? The word is defined as a hypothesis that has been formed by speculating, usually with little hard evidence. I'm sure Collatz tried thousands of calculations before publishing his conjecture unlike the lady who questioned me about the origins of my lung cancer.
People are inquisitive. When I slip off my tee-shirt to enter the pool, people can't help but notice my "battle-scarred" chest. I've a distinctive banana-shaped scar along my back and missing ribs and a noticeable lack of a right pectoral muscle in addition to many suture scars front and back. I could easily claim a battle wound but tell the truth. When I did, my inquisitor said: "smoker right?"
This is the Lung Cancer Conjecture -- pure speculation. In my case, it is likely true but think of the never smoker encountering the same conjecture, then suffering the disdainful scorn of disapproval normally reserved for a badly misbehaving child.
It is of little value to take these people on. They have small minds that are already made up. It is however required we attack the attitude of deserving to die because we contracted a disease that settled opinion holds as self-inflicted. HIV/AIDS is largely self-induced and the ill are treated as heroes, reaping a bonus-budget of 10-percent of all NIH research dollars. This malicious Lung Cancer Conjecture must be contested if we hope to increase research funding from minuscule to meaningful.
The number 1 is the likely answer to Collatz's Conjecture. One also signifies a single entity, a whole person, a human being who contracted lung cancer. Does the reason really matter?
Stay the course.
I like thinking about choice. It is an interesting concept and can involve logical, rational thinking and irrational and illogical thought — sometimes concurrently. Choice is not just a human phenomena. Animals make choices, some deliberate and some random. But when all is said and done, a choice is a decision that has an outcome (or consequence). When we make rational choices, we are said to be informed of the consequences. Irrational choices are those where consequences don’t matter.
To digress for just a moment, consider the age-old saying involving cake. It is generally cast as a statement of choice that resolves to a consequence: if you eat your cake, you can’t have it. Think about the statement for a moment. If I truly want to possess a cake, I can’t eat it. Both are desirable: having a cake is nice, eating it is better. But, the consequence of eating involves the loss of cake and, for example, a further consequence if one planned to use the cake to celebrate a child’s birthday. Most would characterize eating this presentation cake as irrational. Disappointment is the consequence and it is known and understood before making the choice to eat.
Let’s extend our thought experiment to a choice between lung cancer treatment and continued smoking. Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy all irritate the lung, and presume the smoker realizes that tobacco smoke (indeed any smoke) is also a lung irritant. Choosing smoking under these circumstances is irrational. The known consequences range from healing problems, surgical failure, and premature reoccurrence. Yet these don’t seem matter. The impact of consequences will also disappoint the treatment team and family who are praying and hoping for success.
There are many choices in lung cancer, all with consequences. Not choosing treatment because disease is at an advanced stage is rational. Implicit is the forbearance of side effects with little prospect of success but yielding a higher quality of end-time life. But when one chooses treatment, one is choosing life extension. Choosing also to continue smoking while undergoing treatment is not rational and puts at risk the opportunity for extended life. Let’s make rational behavior choices and avoid undesirable and disappointing consequences. Chose either to have your cake or eat it.
Stay the course.