■ This chapter describes my experience when I was diagnosed with cancer and my reactions to it; when I was gathering information and screening about cancer and its treatments; and when I was fighting the disease. It also contains some advice for better living that I learned from my experience. Most importantly, this chapter presents how cancer changed me. I also present a summary and some further thoughts now that I have been cancer free for a number of years.
Cancer changed me—for worse and for better!
When I was invited to contribute to this book, I was honored and overwhelmed. Although I had written technical reports and papers in my line of business—engineering, I had never written a story about myself. So, the thought of writing something nontechnical and, especially, about my own experience and feelings overwhelmed me. However, it took me only a short time to discover that I, as a cancer patient and survivor, have a lot to say and share about my condition, which I hope benefits others. Therefore, I decided to take on this challenge and provide my perspective.
I am going to start with reciting my story, followed by sharing what I learned in my experience and end with what I believe to be one of the most potent weapons we have to fight the disease. I also feel that I have to convey a message to the medical establishment about what we, as patients, go through and what we expect from them.
My friends and family consider me to be very analytical, highly skeptical, and, according to my closer friends and family, hardheaded, competitive, and wanting to be in charge. I had studied in some of the best universities in the world and had my own relatively successful engineering consulting business with a number of employees. This business, probably like any other, was stressful, but I enjoyed most of the work except for some of the business aspects of it. I barely took any vacations and worked hard. However, at the same time, I also considered myself to be generally healthy, somewhat athletic, and in good physical and mental condition.
For a long period before my first colon exam, I started noticing minute and intermittent amounts of rectal bleeding. Initially, I ignored these symptoms to be “normal” reactions to foods (I love spicy foods) and physical activities. My physicians also discounted this as being anything important, which, in light of my age (I was barely 45) and family history, was to be expected. However, my skepticism and hardheadedness were probably the reasons for my insistence about being examined for colon problems. Finally, I was examined by a skeptical physician in mid-2001. Just before the examination, he told me that, at worst, I had hemorrhoids and I was wasting everyone’s time. During the examination though, he found that I have colorectal cancer. Much more than the physician, who did not expect to find anything serious, I was shocked and, I should confess, quite scared. I considered myself young and healthy and no one in my immediate family has ever had this disease; “I am not supposed to have cancer!”
I soon learned that colorectal cancer is the second biggest killer among cancers (after lung cancer) mainly for the reason that its symptoms go unnoticed until it is too late. I was reminded of the people I knew with cancer, most of whom, were no longer around. One case, which scared me most, was that of a friend’s son who died of colorectal cancer at the age of 15! Mostly, however, my diagnosis reminded me of my father-in-law. He was very healthy and athletic with only one bad habit—smoking. He had barely been to any physician in his entire life. In 1999, he, at the age of 74, was diagnosed with an advanced case of lung cancer, and 3 months later, he was gone. Because he was living with us in his last weeks, I clearly remembered his extreme pain and suffering caused by the treatment consisting of high doses of chemotherapy and radiation in those weeks. I remembered how impersonal the treatment was for him. My wife and I questioned each other: “Why would his physicians put him through so much suffering?”
Because of these experiences, I always considered having cancer as pretty much a death sentence and not worth fighting. However, now that I had it, I couldn’t just accept defeat without a good fight! As was usual in my profession, I started studying about the disease and having discussions with experts and cancer survivors. I learned that the disease, in many cases, is defeatable and, hence, worth fighting. However, I should also add that still I remained convinced that, in cases like that of my father-in-law, it would have been much better to make his last days comfortable rather than trying to fight a losing battle. Right or wrong, I still blame his physicians for his suffering!
My diagnosis and the fact that my physicians believed we had discovered my cancer early enough to beat it, started a series of fast-occurring events. I suddenly went from being considered “overconcerned” and a “pain in the neck” by some of my physicians to a cancer patient with multiple visits and consultations to plan a course of treatment.
Being a technical professional, I put my full trust in my medical team, which I considered to be expert in this field. I followed their advice to have surgery to remove the tumor and follow it by a course of chemotherapy to prevent its return. A few days after my initial diagnosis, I checked into the hospital for my surgery. Unfortunately, the surgery to remove the tumor and a portion of my colon led to an internal leak. I had to be readmitted to the hospital with the worst pain imaginable that even the maximum allowed doses of morphine would not relieve. For the next eight days, I was treated with heavy doses of antibiotics and painkillers in the hospital. This experience shook my trust in the medical establishment, and I started seeing physicians as humans who can and do make mistakes. However, I kept following the treatment plan because I believed it was the best way to fight and conquer the disease. The surgical complication led to a delay in the starting of chemotherapy.
I started a standard chemotherapy regimen, consisting of 5-FU (I’d like to rename this drug to “4-FU”!!!) and leucovorin. At first, I handled the chemo reasonably well, but as time passed, my reactions became more and more negative. It is really hard for me to describe how chemo affected me (both physically and psychologically) and I understand that it could be different for different patients. The “normal” side effects—nausea, weakness, pain, etc.—are only a part of the story. It also generates a general “lousy feeling” and a lack of interest in life and anything in it, which is hard to describe. People who have been through chemotherapy may know what I am talking about. In his book, Lance Armstrong devoted a chapter to chemo effects, which I found captured most of the feelings a patient goes through rather well—but, in my experience, that was not yet complete! For me, nothing smelled, looked, or felt good and everything was colorless and lifeless! I felt that I was in a state of limbo—maybe as close to death as a living person can get! Later, during my second bout with the disease, I learned that part of the problem was that my medical team looked at this as purely a technical issue. They were providing medicine that some statistical studies showed had potential, and they ignored the human factors and did not offer any ideas or advice to make the side effects more bearable. But, more about this later.
With all the chemo side effects, my biggest problem became the logic behind the treatment: repeatedly, nearly killing the patient to eliminate the cancer. I considered, in this day and age, with all the technical achievements man has reached, that this was a backward method and there should be better ways to fight and beat this disease.
In my case, one surprising effect was how I felt on the mornings I was to get treatment. On those days, I would feel so nauseated and sick that I could barely leave the bed. This was despite the fact that on previous days I was feeling better (which was the plan—you get ‘strong’ before the next treatment). I figured that the anticipation of what the drugs would do to me made me so negative that I was subconsciously fighting my own treatment. I had a feeling that I was alone in my fight and later, I became convinced that this experience was a testament to the mental factors of the disease and its treatment, a fact that, I feel, was being ignored by my physicians at the time. Anyway, I had to delay treatments a few times and I finally stopped all treatment a little past the half-way point since I could no longer handle the side effects. However, at the same time, I was also convinced that I had already beaten the disease and did not need the additional treatment. I also had started taking a supplement (Inositol hexa-Phosphate or IP6), which I strongly believed (and still believe) helps with the fight. I also tried to have a healthier and less stressful life.
Success against cancer is usually measured by how many years one stays cancer free (in remission) after the treatment. The idea is that the longer one stays cancer free, the better the chances for beating it entirely. The common milestones are three and five years, with five years being considered by many the key milestone. After my treatment, I did the usual exams (CT, PET, colonoscopy…) and all results were negative (good). I was in “total remission” even after three years. This provided me with a false sense of security, which led me to ease off of my healthy diet, skip on supplements and, worse yet, get back to high-stress life style. Personal and family problems I faced in this period also aggravated my situation. During these times, the last thing in my mind was the recurrence of cancer that I thought I had totally defeated. However, cancer was planning differently!
Cancer came back in mid-2005 in what I can only describe as a sudden and “vengeful” manner. The morning after having a heavy dinner with some good friends, I woke up with extreme cramps. My colon was practically blocked and I ended up in an emergency room. Although my tests, some six months before this episode, were all negative, the follow-up colonoscopy/biopsy showed my cancer was back. (“my cancer?” I didn’t want it!!!) Additional diagnostics/imaging tests showed the extent and size of this recurrence.
Those knowledgeable about cancer statistics know that the recurring cancer, especially colon and colorectal cancers, is not “pretty” and has a very low survival rate. At first, I was shocked, disappointed, and pretty much started sliding down toward total hopelessness. Soon after, however, I came back to my senses and started seeing this as just having a bigger challenge in front of me. This time, though, I felt I needed to take a different approach from my first round, which obviously had not worked, by being much more involved/hands-on in my treatment.
I started on a crash course of studying about the disease and soon learned more about it that I ever would have cared. Along with the conventional medical information about the disease and its treatment—basically limited to surgery, chemo, and radiation—I also learned about “alternative” approaches. Needless to say, there is an immense amount of easily accessible information and claims about cancer treatment and it is easy to get overwhelmed. I soon learned that the information landscape, along with having very good data about the disease and its treatment, is littered by bogus claims, some made by those who try to profit from others’ misery. Some of these claims looked very legitimate, containing heart-warming stories of survival. A general theme I found in many such claims was their blame of the medical industry as being profit mongers and not caring about patients, which was rightly fueled by real stories about the greed of the insurance and drug companies and hospitals, and the lack of caring or knowledge by many physicians. My research also led to my own increased skepticism of the conventional medical system, especially the drug companies, and its approach toward cancer treatment. That skepticism helped open my eyes to seeing beyond what conventional medicine had to offer.
To manage the large amount of information and to decipher between the legitimate and bogus claims, I came up with a set of simple criteria: existence of scientific data in respectable forums, a strong plausible theory behind a treatment, and the source of information. These helped me screen the information landscape and identify some simple and yet effective methods to increase my fighting chances against cancer. I looked around and saw that I was fortunate to be living in an area with some of the best scientists and research universities in the country. I decided to take advantage of all the cards I had, including the latest research and treatments and alternative sources I could trust.
After the diagnosis, I consulted with my surgeon who did the initial surgery some 4 years earlier. He quickly, and without much consultation or evaluation, scheduled a new invasive and high-risk surgery to be followed by chemo and radiation treatments—like an assembly line process! This time, however, rather than following this route, I consulted with my new oncologist, a great and compassionate lady whom I later befriended, and a well-known surgeon (and I should add, a great person) at a local university hospital. From my oncologist and the university surgeon, I learned about a newer approach (neoadjuvant) for treating the recurring colorectal cancer, which starts with a chemo-radiation therapy followed by surgery and then a “maintenance” chemo regimen. With this treatment, the surgery would have lower risks and side effects than starting with the surgery, and the overall survival was slightly better. Through my contact with this university hospital, I also learned they had recently opened a new center advocating “integrative” approaches to treating the disease, which became my best discovery and a great resource for me.
From the information I had gathered, I developed a decision tree (Fig. 29.1), assigned risk factors to each step, and analyzed my options, a common practice in my own professional field. As a result, I decided to start with the neoadjuvant therapy but continue to evaluate the risks and benefits of each treatment step before committing to it. I started my chemo-radiation treatment in August 2005.
My best discovery this time, however, was the Center for Integrative Medicine of the university hospital and the physician there who became my “integrative oncologist” as well as my advisor and, later, a great friend. This center advocates an integrative approach to treating disease, a combination of conventional and complementary approaches. They try to take the blinders off conventional medicine and consider and treat the patient as an individual with specific conditions and needs, for whom statistics alone may not apply. Their approach and “motto” was very much in tune with what I had come to believe on my own, plus it was also based on sound scientific methods. I think the best attribute of the center is its open-mindedness and the fact that it is not just another practitioner of existing conventional (assembly line) approaches.
The center became an educational and a sounding board for me to learn about effective treatments, how to better manage the side effects of conventional treatments, and to distinguish false from positive claims. It reinforced my earlier belief that one’s mind has a lot to do with one’s health and that there are some old and effective techniques, such as mental exercises; healthy diet; Eastern traditional medicine; and vitamins and herbs, which can significantly benefit the patient. They also introduced me to a local clinic that advocated the integrated Eastern and conventional medical approaches. Between the integrative center of the university hospital and the clinic, they advocated and practiced herbal medicine, acupuncture, and meditation and mental exercises (yoga, guided imagery, etc.). After a general examination, which included a detailed pulse tracking, evaluation of my history (physical health, emotional health, and family history, considering childhood diseases and my relationships), and reviewing the chemo-radiation plan I was about to start, they developed a personal plan (“protocol,” consisting of a regimen of herbs, vitamins, and mental exercises customized to fit my treatment cycles) for the complementary part of my integrative approach.
I started my 2-month chemo-radiation treatment along with my customized protocol. The first cycle, as expected, was pretty rough, especially toward the end, but this time I was determined to stay with the treatment and, as my new oncologist’s nurse told me once when I was feeling really lousy, “tough it out.” Plus, this time, I had a lot of emotional support, which made the cycle easier to handle. I should add that my complementary protocol was not rigid, like a prescribed medicinal approach, and that I did make some adjustments to the protocol by eliminating some items I had trouble taking and adding others that I found helpful. One such item was medicinal cannabis, particularly cannabidiol (CBD)-based herbs, which were recommended but could not have been legally prescribed. The CBD helped me immensely with side effects including pain, nausea, lack of sleep, lack of appetite, and that general “lousy” feeling. I later learned that such herbs can and must be an essential part of the treatment, and that is pretty much being scientifically proven (more about this later also).
An important factor in my fight was that my complementary team listened and worked with me to make the process easier to handle and more “humane.” I also tried some mental exercises such as guided imagery, but I soon discovered that I am too much of a skeptic for these methods to help me. I did, however, mend some of my rocky relationships, found great support from my wife, and counted on my many friends throughout this process. I also started a “slow-down” process at work, which helped with my stress management. The love and support I have been receiving has become a very potent weapon in my fight against the disease. I truly believe that my protocol and the mental support made this chemo-radiation treatment manageable and more effective. Also, I probably could not have completed the treatment without them—as I couldn’t the first time.
After my chemo-radiation treatment and just days before the planned surgery in the local university hospital (I wasn’t ever going back to my original surgeon!), I learned my insurance would not cover the surgery because it was “outside the network.” This was initially a disappointment, but later, became a “blessing” for me. The disappointment was because even a well-planned treatment could be canceled by insurance companies for some obscure bureaucratic reason, and the blessing was how this event led to a change for the better in my treatment plan.
I searched and found a new surgeon within my insurance network whom I could also trust for the planned surgery. I also found out this surgery is still very invasive and can lead to permanent damage affecting the “quality of life.” During this delay, I was tested to establish my condition. The PET scan showed no signs of cancer in my body—of course, considering the accuracy and resolution of the diagnostics methods. These good results along with the surgery’s risk, its small statistical benefit, and my past experience with surgery brought the surgery option under question for me. I consulted my team and some other experts in the field. Although the consensus among my physicians was for me to have the surgery, some also agreed that my condition did not fit the limited available statistics. I went back to my decision tree and performed a new risk/benefit analysis. As a result, I decided to bypass the surgery at the time and only use it in the future if absolutely needed. As expected, this was not received well by my entire team, especially my surgeon; however, no one could convince me that my decision was wrong based on available scientific data and my own special case.
After my decision to forego the surgery became final, I found great support among my team, especially from my oncologist and my integrative oncologist. My oncologist developed a new chemo treatment cycle consisting of four drugs-bevacizumab, 5-FU, leucovorin, and irinotecan. My oncologist also included a number of supplemental drugs, such as blood cell boosters and steroids, which helped with handling the chemo drugs. From my integrative oncologist and the clinic, I received a new protocol from my integrative medicine advisor to help with the effectiveness of the chemo treatment and its side effects. In my own mind, I had accepted the risk associated with this plan and was trying to improve my chances by developing an effective integrative approach. I was convinced that I had made the best decision about my treatment while continuing on the path for a less stressful life style.
The second-cycle treatment was quite rough at times, but I managed it much better than my prior simpler regimen 4 years earlier. The supplements, including special herbs that were tailored for the effects of the treatment, great support from my team, and maintenance of a positive attitude helped a lot. What helped most, probably, was the empowering feeling I had because of my involvement in developing my own treatment plan!
I finished my treatment in 2006 and the follow-up scans have shown no recurrence. Well, they thought they saw something in my chest, but testing inaccuracies and logic convinced me, my oncologist, and my integrative oncologist that the perceived indications were a case of false positive. A later scope and biopsies showed no recurrence in or around the original cancer site. These results are good news, and I intend to continue getting them!! I will stay under close watch for at least 5 years, and I plan to make the healthy living habits I have learned a part of my life.
What Worked for Me
During and after my ordeals, I continued my research and kept learning about the disease and its treatment. Among the interventions that helped me, I would like to highlight the mind’s “healing” power. Studies have shown this to be a real phenomenon in helping many patients with various diseases. However, despite such studies, it has not been scientifically explained, nor rigorously proven, and the majority of the conventional medical establishment discounts it entirely. My own scientific background and skepticism does not allow me to take something on just faith either. However, it is also very hard to argue against what seems very logical and has many studies and cases to support it. So I came up with the following explanation for myself: It is common knowledge that the mind has powers that science has not yet discovered, and there are many cases (I personally know a few) in which a “dying” patient completely recovers—some even without receiving any conventional treatment. To me, this is a proof that the “mind’s” healing power, when tapped properly, can direct the body’s immune system to fight and cure the disease. I think this may be the same as what some call the “placebo” effect! Studies that show people with strong and positive faith (religious) and strong will power recover better than average reinforces the notion of mind-power effect. Therefore, if one can find a way to tap the mind’s healing power, his or her chances for recovery improve significantly. The question then becomes how one can tap this vast and immense power.
Although strong faith helps some patients perhaps subconsciously to tap into their mind’s healing power; an analytical person like me has a harder time using this resource. However, there is hope even for the most skeptical among us. By learning about the ever-evolving science of mind power, even the most analytical person can tap into this resource for health. This requires being open-minded, having physicians/scientists on one’s team who are also open-minded, researching and identifying techniques (within conventional and complementary fields) that have a high potential for helping fight the disease, developing an integrated approach to health including mind and body, and, above all, believing and convincing oneself that the approach will help.
I think of having cancer as being in a marathon race between the body and the disease in which the disease is not “smart” enough to realize its victory equates to its own death! The irony is that the race ends with death regardless of who wins. The goal, therefore, should be that death be on the person’s terms. Fortunately, this is a race that most people don’t have to face, but for those of us who are in this race, we need all the help we can get. After all, the disease has a lot of support, ever increasing since the start of the industrial age, including too many chemicals in the air, the diminishing quality and the increasing quantity of food, and, above all, lifestyles with ever-increasing stress. On the body’s side, the support has been mainly from the conventional treatment, which is not sufficient to counteract the disease’s extensive support system. One needs to find the best support team and coaching available to win the race. The coaching is best provided by the mind, which can advocate good attitude, healthy living, and stress management—all great cancer killers—along with the best conventional treatment available. This race in many cases—but not all—can be won utilizing all the available resources and support for the body and mind as possible. And, unless and until the mind is determined to win the race, no treatments will be as effective.
Medicine is still mainly an art compensated by a large amount of data and statistics—but it is also the best we have. Lack of knowledge, errors, lack of care, bureaucratic issues, and downright greed and even fraud are its main deficiencies. Medical schools, until recently, ignored nutrition and mind power in fighting diseases (many still do), and as a result most physicians are not even educated in these important facets of health care. Our “for profit” health-care system does not have equally strong incentives to heal patients as it does to maintain them. Additionally, legal and bureaucratic processes prevent many patients from receiving as good care as they need. However, fortunately, the field is mainly run by people (physicians, nurses, agents, etc.) like you and me and it is still very much “human.” There are many practitioners who truly believe in helping their patients and, despite being tied by bureaucratic issues, will go out of their way to provide the best care possible. For these professionals, nothing makes them more proud and satisfied than to see their patients recover under their care!
As a patient, when you are ready to plan and receive treatment, demand attention and respect from your health-care professionals while being respectful and considerate of their situation as well. After all, most health-care professionals still care about your well-being and are there to help you. If you feel you are not receiving the attention you deserve, move on to the next option and seek a different provider if possible.
I also call on the medical professionals to treat patients with respect and as individuals. I ask that they educate themselves with the latest in both conventional and complementary approaches and keep an open mind to find the best “integrative” methods for treating their patients.
Cancer patients, I believe, expect to be treated by individuals who show interest in their well-being and by the best available approaches. If there was a “bill of rights/expectations” for cancer patients, it would/should include the following:
• Most of us expect to hear the truth about our condition in as simple and straightforward a manner as possible.
• We dislike being treated arrogantly and we like to be treated with respect and compassion. After all, we are talking about our lives.
• We expect to be given available treatment options that preferably include established, research-stage, and nonconventional approaches; and not just one take-it-or-leave-it plan. We want to feel empowered and be part of the treatment planning and its execution.
• We want our health-care professionals to take the time and to get to know us and what we are going through—especially when we are weak, scared, depressed, angry, or all of the above.
At the same time, cancer patients need to be made aware of what is available and what treatment plans are being offered, and we need to be aware of the urgency associated with developing and implementing it.
If there was a “bill of responsibilities” for cancer patients, it would include the following. As cancer patients:
1. Develop a “support team” among your physicians, family, and friends. Use your team to express your condition, share ideas, or just get mental or physical support.
2. Get second, third, and more opinions. Do not limit yourself to those who refuse to consider any other approach except conventional medicine. Avoid those who make you feel uncomfortable or are too arrogant (we all see enough of them). Of course, given the urgency of the matter, we need to be systematic and fast in planning our treatments.
3. Make sure you have at least one “health advocate” (advisor) on your team with whom you feel comfortable sharing your condition and thoughts, one who is open-minded and is knowledgeable in both conventional and complementary approaches. This could be your primary care doctor, your oncologist, your herbalist, a family member, or just a good friend. In my case, being lucky to have more than one, my advocates were a combination of my integrative oncologist, my conventional oncologist, and my family.
4. Working with your team, develop a treatment plan that makes you feel comfortable. This may include some or all conventional and complementary approaches available to you.
5. Try to tap into your mind’s healing power by convincing yourself that the treatment plan is the best thing that can be done. After all, since you were part of the team developing the treatment and no one knows you better than you, it is the best approach.
6. Simplify your life by resolving the sources of stress that can be managed including family and work issues.
7. Go “natural.” Stay away from processed foods. Find pleasures in simple and healthy foods. After all, “you are what you eat!” By the way, stay off sugar because that is cancer’s favorite food.
8. Stay positive. Don’t forget to find pleasures in life and enjoy those as much as you can.
Don’t forget that fighting cancer is a lifetime commitment and not just limited to the duration of your chemotherapy or other treatment. Develop a healthy lifestyle that includes a positive attitude, exercise, and a healthy diet including supplements that are proven to help. As you know, professionals have devised many programs and recommendations, sometimes even contradictory ones, which are supposed to help you fight this disease. The sheer volume of such information is overwhelming and confusing even for the experts. However, if you step back and look at them, they all revolve around some very simple ideas based on common sense. To make sense of all these, I have tried to summarize the key points for fighting cancer and a healthy living into a simple Avoid/Acquire (“AA”) table (Table 29.1).
Table 29.1. “AA” (Avoid/Acquire) of Fighting Cancer.
Stress: I consider this to be one of the main causes for cancer as well as many other diseases. Stress, however, means different things to different people. Find what stresses you and eliminate/avoid/minimize them
Positive Attitude: By far, this is your most potent weapon against cancer (and many other diseases). It is as simple as: “if you believe something will help you, it most probably will!”
Processed Foods, Specially Sugar: Cancer cells love sugar and thrive on foods that are bad for your general health as well. Bad fats, preservatives and chemicals, and other similar ingredients should be avoided
Eat Healthy and Well: Simple and fresh foods consisting of mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and some fish. Again, this is as simple as: “you are what you eat.”
“Negative Energy:” This is rather vague, but try to avoid situations and people that make you feel uncomfortable or bring your energy level down.
Support Team: Tap into family/friends who make you feel good for your support team. But don’t forget that this is a 2-way street.
Being Down: Being down (depression?) weakens your immune system and helps cancer win over you. Fight it with all you can!
Exercise: Even some moderate exercise goes a long way to fight depression and toward a better/healthier living.
And, most importantly, pursue HAPPINESS!
A Look Back and A Look Forward
It’s been more than seven years since I finished my last treatment and I have stayed cancer free and intend to keep it that way. A lot has happened since then. I have changed many things in my life. Most of all, I’ve learned to be more relaxed and I strive to enjoy life, and, although it sounds like a cliché, I take it one day at a time. I try to simplify and not take anything too seriously. I even enjoy things that are not supposed to be good for me—but in moderation. I am in the process of giving up on the many dogmas I used to have related to work, politics, and religion, and overall I try to be a more relaxed and a better person for myself and others around me. I do these not just to keep the cancer in check but also because I now believe these are keys for a happier and healthier living.
During these past few years, I have also witnessed some dear and close family/friends suffer from cancer—some surviving it but others losing the “race.” Among them, one that hit too close to home for me was the very recent loss of my younger sister Nasrin to ovarian cancer which she fought for about three years. Her condition and the loss reminded me of the nastiness of the disease and why there are no guarantees in life. Her case was poorly managed from the beginning, from late detection to continuously changing treatments by her physicians in such a way that she lost her confidence in conventional medicine and delved into “alternatives.” She would become very hopeful in a given approach but then quickly lose all trust and hope in that approach to go on looking for another. She was struggling against one of the worst types of cancer, and she did not have or feel the support around her. I felt she was confused, scared, and sometimes resembled a person sinking in quicksand where her struggles would only worsen the situation. I tried advising her, mainly asking her to find her inner peace and then focus on fighting the disease, but, instead she was caught in her reaction to the pain and suffering that cancer would impose on her—and there was no shortage of those. The enemy was too strong, and regardless of what she would have done, the outcome might have been the same. However, seeing her suffer in her last weeks/days will remain in my memory as a testament to the nastiness of this disease and why we, as a society, need to develop better and more humane treatment, if not a total cure for the disease, soon! Her case reminded me of the value of living in the moment and not being afraid of dying.
Initially, I shared my story to help myself, which it did, but I also hoped that it could benefit others who are going through a similar experience even though everyone’s story and situation is different. I must confess that I get great satisfaction and conviction about the decision to share my story every time I learn about or am contacted by total strangers who read my story and feel it could help them in their own fight.
When I look back at my experience, I can’t credit a single item alone—drug or otherwise—that helped me survive cancer. In a way, in the fight against cancer, and probably other terrible diseases, I think there are no silver bullets. In my case, I do think that it was the combination of many things that helped me overcome it. If I were to rank them, I feel my new-found attitude toward the disease and, in a larger context, toward life, which I only reached during my second round of treatment, is at or near the top of the list. I say that because I now firmly believe the body is the best and sometimes the only healer; and its main partner, the mind, can direct or hinder its healing process. All other external factors, be they conventional or alternative treatments, are only there to help the body/mind team, and they must be viewed from that context.
Science against cancer has been making some amazing progress, and it won’t be far off when we can think of cancer as something of the past. That, however, will require the negative environmental factors promoted by big business (processed foods, pollution, hectic life styles) and the profit side of cancer treatment to be taken out of the overall equation—probably a much more difficult task than coming up with better treatment plans. I am convinced that we will get there because we humans can be (should be) much better than this! In that ideal cancer-free future, we all know what is good and bad for us, and we will avoid things that harm us or nature.
Although my experience with cancer and being near death has taught me some valuable lessons about living, and although I feel blessed and partly lucky to survive it, I am as confused and imperfect as always. I keep making mistakes and do and say things that I shouldn’t, but I see all that as part of living. I just try to be a better person for myself, for those around me, and for the world. I think that understanding was one of the greatest gifts I received.
Cancer will remain a part of me for the rest of my life as it is part of the lives of so many others. After all, I believe it is in all of us and is just looking for an opportunity to raise its ugly head. However, in most cases it can be kept in check if we adopt a healthy attitude and lifestyle. I myself have learned not to worry about it and stay focused on living. When my time is up, I have a feeling it won’t be because of cancer.
Cancer changed me—for worse and for better! In addition to all the pain and suffering and the stress of observing concern in loved one’s faces, my outlook and planning of activities had also become limited to my next test. It is as though life stops and you are still in pain. However, this experience also taught me to look at life very differently and learn to “live in the moment.” Although it is unfortunate that it takes a disease like cancer to make many of us realize this important lesson in life, for me it was the best outcome of the disease. So, while I started with anger and disappointment once I found out about having the disease, I no longer feel sad because it made me learn a lot about myself and what life should mean.In closing, let me also share my new-found philosophy of life: A good life is summarized in three “H’s.” They are, in order of importance: happiness, health, and… hmm, I forget the third one!!! Good luck in your fight and remember to stay happy and positive. After all, the reason it is said that you can’t buy happiness is because it is free!