The New Face of Surviving Cancer

What’s so new about surviving cancer? A ton.

As I travel this road of being a cancer survivor, I’m learning a hell of a lot. Maybe more than I ever learned as I crisscrossed the globe for two decades. Maybe more than I learned my entire life. Absolutely more than I ever wanted to know about this particular subject.

Now, it’s my reality and I’m going to live it. And if I can help others in the process, even better. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, right?

But let’s get back to that new face of surviving cancer.

What’s your perception of someone with the Big C? It’s this, right?

Chemo Two

This may still be reality for some unfortunate enough to get this disease, but not all. What if I told you that every single picture of me in this blog (and most on my website) were taken after my diagnosis, and that my appearance didn’t change at all as I’ve gone through treatment? That there are people wandering around out there in the world, like myself, that have cancer and you don’t even know it unless they tell you? You’d call me a liar, but that’s okay. It gives me a job to do here, changing your perception of what a cancer survivor looks like.

Let me just clear up one more thing.

You’ll see a lot of this stuff out there, too:

Chemo One

I’m going to title this one “Gorgeous Woman Who Has Never Known Cancer in Her Life Telling You That You Can Look as Happy and Fantastic as Her While Your Body and Your Identity Get Depleted By Chemo.” This is called “putting a happy face on a really crappy situation.” It’s misleading advertising at its best and worst. And this is absolutely not what I’m aiming for here. Nor am I suggesting that every chemo patient is ugly, or that any chemo or cancer patient is ugly. I’ve seen people look absolutely stunning in head wraps and/or wigs. Don’t know how they do it. I admire them greatly. In general, I think strength is way more admirable than the Kardashians.

Disclaimer: I was lucky enough to turn my back on chemotherapy, but was less than twenty-four hours away from having it when I was offered cutting edge treatment at a comprehensive cancer center.  I don’t know what chemo is “like” and I don’t plan to. But I do know what it’s like to think that this is the only way to rid my body of this demon called cancer. I was almost there. My lucky stars aligned and I was saved this misery. And this is why I’m so different.

I have lung cancer. And no, it’s not because I smoked, and no it is absolutely, positively not okay to assume that or to ask me about it as if it’s a given fact. That’s an unfortunate way the face of cancer is changing: lung cancer is on the rise in populations in otherwise healthy individuals like me. But that’s for another blog. For this one, let’s get just a bit deeper into two of the reasons that cancer is getting a much needed makeover.

I was diagnosed at a local hospital before I went to Dana-Farber in Boston, which is consistently in the top five cancer research institutes in the entire United States. My local hospital was prepping me for chemo and radiation, but had the good sense to send my biopsy tissue out for what is referred to as biomarker testing, though it may also be referred to otherwise. I can’t even stress how important it is to get this type of testing done if it’s available for your type of cancer. It could be the difference between vastly different treatment scenarios. It could be the difference between life and death, as it was for me. When you settle for chemo and radiation as a first line treatment, that is all you’re ever going to get, and at many small cancer facilities it may be your only option. I know now that if I had not gone to Boston I would not have lived long. Scary stuff.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a biomarker, you may be able to have something called targeted therapy, which is what I’m on. It’s basically a pill that targets the specific mutation in your tumor but usually doesn’t destroy anything else, like white blood cells, which is what chemo is known to do. Targeted therapy drugs often have many less side effects than chemo. It may sound far fetched, but the therapy that I take daily started shrinking visual tumors I had in less than a week and set me on the path of getting my life back. Results vary, (mine was phenomenal) but many people have great responses to these wonder drugs.

The second fairly new treatment is called immunotherapy, which uses your own immune system to attack cancer cells. Like targeted therapy, more cancer survivors are living longer lives with infusions of immunotherapy. Many options are available, and I’ve read several success stories.

It is accurate to say that targeted therapy and immunotherapy are rewriting the script on cancer and putting more people in the survivor column.

Before you accept chemo and radiation, be sure to look into all your treatment options.

And join me as the New Face of Surviving Cancer.

Advocacy, Not Lunacy

Angry Woman Banner

We live in a world where the word “advocacy” gets thrown around a heck of a lot. Me, I use it all the time. Lately, even more. For years, I’ve advocated for my older sister, who is severely disabled, and for my students, who are to varying degrees, also disabled.  Since September, I’ve had to add myself to the list of people I have to advocate for. Being diagnosed with cancer opened up a whole new world of advocacy. In all these forms, I’ve seen some pretty bad examples of what an advocate is and isn’t. Recently, I had the misfortune of being in a meeting for as student in which an advocate made it a point to stand up and yell at me. I was hardly her first victim. Her behavior prompted this blog post.

A couple of days ago I was witness to another poor example of advocacy. Now, I know I’m not supposed to be listening to the medical business of others. But it’s kind of hard not to when the “patient advocate” is getting hot under the collar in the reception area of a world famous comprehensive cancer center. It was all over an appointment with an oncologist that the young lady at the desk was trying unsuccessfully to help him with. Evidently, the patient in question wasn’t on the doctor’s appointment list. Who’s to blame for that? The receptionist? Probably not. But the “patient advocate” started kicking and screaming. “This is Stage IV lung cancer, a life or death situation!” he proclaimed, while the patient and his wife stood by, neither of them looking ready to keel over and die. I’m not making a joke here; I have Stage IV lung cancer, I know it’s no joke. What is a joke is that this “patient advocate” was getting himself in a twist and heightening the moment to a downright lie. Unfortunately, my dealings with advocates have been much the same as this. Furthermore, the “patient advocate” didn’t say anything that the patient himself couldn’t have said. Let’s be real here. Self-advocacy, if possible, is a lot more impressive.

I understand better than anyone that self-advocacy isn’t always possible. My sister is non-verbal, so I have to be her voice. Have I gotten into some tangles on her behalf? Yes, I have. Have I yelled at people? No. Have I lied for her? No. Have I been realistic about getting her what she needs? Yes, I have. And these are the real points of advocacy. Making respectful requests, being honest and open, and most of all, being realistic about what you’re asking for. I have not met too many professional advocates who stick by these rules.

Let’s go back to the student meeting. The advocate showed up wearing a dress with a severely plunging neckline, and bedroom slippers. The mother of the student in question didn’t say a word, but exhibited all sorts of nonverbal responses. Eye rolls and deep sighs were really big. When anyone tried to ask her a question or get an opinion, the advocate in bedroom slippers would cut in and say, “Mom is too upset to talk.” She was so upset, in fact, that she had to play with her cell phone while the advocate raised her voice, tried to make others in the meeting feel stupid, and made unrealistic demands for a student that misses at least half of the school year with questionable medical concerns. This folks, is not advocacy. It’s lunacy. Don’t get caught in this trap.

Here’s reality: not everyone with a serious disease is going to live. Not everyone with a serious disease is going to die. Not everyone with a life-threatening disease is ready to expire at any moment. (Take my word, cancer can be pretty boring at times!) Not every child is going to college. Not every child needs to go to college. Not every person with disabilities is capable of fulfilling lofty goals. Not everyone is going to get what they want out of life just because someone with a big mouth is speaking for them. Being the right kind of advocate is not about having a big mouth and thinking you can yell and accuse people of things they aren’t doing. Thing about it: when was the last time you got what you wanted by getting bent out of shape?

With that thought in mind, if you decide to hire an advocate for any purpose, for yourself or a loved one, remember: make respectful requests, be honest and open about your hoped for outcomes, and most of all, be realistic about what you’re asking for.  Otherwise, be prepared to be disappointed.

And please, please, please, look under the desk. If you see bedroom slippers, run.

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