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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 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 on www.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 psychologist, 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.
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.
“Terminal stage IV lung cancer patient miraculously cured by cannabis oil.” “Frankincense oil kills cancer cells while boosting immune system.” “The real reason pharma companies hate medical marijuana is because it works.” If you are a lung cancer survivor, you’ve read these pronouncements. Hopefully, you don’t believe them. The purveyors of miracle cures are so persuasive that some people avoid conventional treatment and rely instead on the unconventional. I remember my frantic web search for treatments after diagnosis. I explored conventional methods and learned about lots of downside and little upside. Reading the benefits of aromatherapy, guaranteed to cure my lung cancer by simply breathing a fragrant substance, was so appealing. Then as others learned of my diagnosis, I was bombarded by emails suggesting holistic medicine, Breuss diet, and magnetic therapy, to name a few. All that need be done to cure my lung cancer was move a powerful magnet over my chest for 30 minutes a day! Of course, one needed to spend thousands of dollars to purchase the special magnet but it was a money-back guaranteed cure. There are miracles. These are medically documented instances where cancer stopped growing and spreading without treatment. But those touting magnets, cannabis oil, or a multitude of other treatments, methods, or substances (check Wikipedia’s list of unproven and disproven cancer treatments) are selling miracles. A miracle, in case you are wondering, is an event that defies explanation. No one knows why, including the seller of miracle cures. When stricken by lung cancer, time is of the essence. We are often diagnosed at late stage and effective treatment must be prompt. Consuming time to undergo Miracle Mineral Supplement or Orthomolecular Medicine at great expense eats into this now precious time. Here are three tests one can apply to sniff out a phony cure: (i) drugs and procedures not FDA approved; (ii) drugs and treatments not covered by insurance, and (iii) the patient needs to pay large amounts of cash in advance of receiving treatments. Oh, and check out Quackwatch. Our world is plagued by conspiracy as in: “big pharma has a cure but is withholding it from the market to boost profits.” Sure! Think about it. A publicly traded corporation has a cure for cancer and is not selling it—that would never happen. Recall how quickly we learned of Cuba’s cancer vaccine, and Governor Cuomo’s ex-officio trip to Cuba before restoration of diplomatic relations to negotiate putting the vaccine under accelerated FDA testing. A sure-thing cancer cure would be front page news on every paper around the world! Oncology is a medical discipline founded on science and grounded by rigorous studies that are openly published and reviewed by doctors and scientists around the world. New treatment and diagnostic methods are well vetted to ensure both safety and effectiveness. An oncologist dedicates his or her life to treating people with cancer. When a board-certified oncologist tells me about a miracle lung cancer cure, I’ll believe it. Till then, it walks like a duck. Stay the course.