I am 62, and was in pretty good health. I had no breathing problems but because of some other problems my doctor ordered a CT scan of my chest. I can’t really describe the shock and disbelief that my husband and I felt on learning the results of the scan, and the follow up tests that confirmed the diagnosis.
Until the day I was diagnosed, I was working full time as a public health doctor, in charge of health protection. Suddenly I became a full-time patient, spending my days at the hospital undergoing chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
It is now only 5 months since my diagnosis –most of the time I can’t believe how much has happened in such a short time.
Despite the first round of therapy, the cancer spread to my liver and bone. But I am lucky enough to be one of a small percent of the patients with a certain genetic mutation in my cancer cells. There is a new drug that works very well in some patients with this mutation. This is a very new field of cancer genetics that I hardly understand, but it is has been a game changer in lung cancer. The drug I am on, called Crizotinib, has only been available for about 3 years, and some patients have stayed stable for several years on this drug. I only hope that I will be one of those patients.
Becoming a cancer patient has changed my life and taught me so much. First, I can’t get over how important the support of my friends and family has been. Before I got sick, my focus was on my work; loved my job and worked at the expense of my relationships with friends and family. When I got sick, I gradually got the courage to reach out to friends who I felt I had neglected over the past years. I can’t get over how they have all welcomed me back, and can’t seem to do enough for me, offering to drive me to appointments, cook for me, listen to me when I am down, and just keep me company. My family – siblings, husband and children and my numerous cousins have also been amazing.
I also am very lucky that I am been followed at a hospital that specializes in cancer care and has developed a program in complementary therapies for lung cancer patients. So, in addition to medical and nursing care, I have access to acupuncture, nutrition, physiotherapy, support groups, meditation, mindfulness, psychology and even more. I have taken advantage of these services, and they have helped enormously. Partly, just to give me a group of professionals to talk to, partly to help me with issues of eating well, pain, control, getting back my strength, and especially dealing with psychological issues like going back to work, facing the future, and the inevitable family stress that this has caused.
It took a little persuasion to convince me to see the psychologist, but he has been enormously helpful. He is very practical and has given me advice that has been useful in making the decisions I need to make and about work and friendships. Probably the most important piece of wisdom is that there is a large team of health care providers working very hard to keep me as healthy as possible for as long as possible. My primary job is to do everything I can to help them in that task; that means getting rid of any other issues that use up my energy, such as work stress, pain, and even difficult relationships. As my husband told me at the beginning of all this, it is now all about me, and I don’t have to feel guilty in making sure that I am surrounded by positive people and doing things that make me feel good. This has allowed me to open myself to complementary therapies like acupuncture, and accepting all the help that others are so willing to offer. And it allows me to say no thanks to offers that cause more stress than help.
I have also made much stronger connections with friends and work colleagues who have had cancer as well as other patients I have met over the course of my treatment. Being able to share our experiences, our reactions and our fears has been incredibly helpful to me.
Right now I am responding well to the new medication but dealing with some other problems – a delayed lung reaction to the radiotherapy and problems with some of my blood levels – all of which will resolve over time. When I am feeling well, I am trying to decide how to organize my time – whether to return to work at least part-time and how to contribute to other cancer-related organizations.
Having cancer is hardly something I thought would ever happen to me. It has changed my life in ways I never could have understood and I wonder how my experience can be helpful for others. If this blog can be helpful to other patients or their caregivers please let me know.
[Continued in Part 2]