Tag Archives: cancer treatment

After a Cancer Diagnosis: Five Things You Need to Know

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Allow yourself time to grieve.

Allow yourself to cry, to feel numb, to be angry, or to feel however you’re feeling. These emotions hurt, but they are natural and normal. Grief is a person’s normal, healthy response to a loss. Understandably, I grieved after my father died, however I was surprised to find myself experiencing similar feelings when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. I discovered firsthand that the loss that triggers grief isn’t always physical. You can experience grief if you or a loved one are diagnosed with a major disease or face a serious illness. It’s common to grieve the future plans you had made, or the ways life will change. Remember there is no “right” way to grieve, everyone is different. Give yourself time to experience your loss in your own way. Also understand that during life’s most difficult times it’s important to make a commitment to take care of yourself emotionally, spiritually and physically.

Don’t let fear consume you.

Fear is one of my constant companions on this cancer journey, for over seven years now it has attempted to overcome me and prevent me from living the life that I want. Naturally, when I was first diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing months of treatment some extremely unsettling questions raced through my mind. Will the recommended treatment be successful or will I die? Will undergoing another major surgery followed by chemotherapy be too agonizing and unbearable? Now that my oncologist has informed me that I’m in remission, it’s the fear of my cancer recurring that I have to cope with on a daily basis. Practicing mindfulness helps me stay in the present moment and to accept that I can’t control certain outcomes. I’ve ultimately learned that faith can be an important factor in dealing with fear. I’m not religious, but like many I’ve chosen to build a life on faith—especially faith in the power of good to triumph over evil in this world.

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It’s ultimately your cancer journey.

One thing that’s become evident to me as a cancer survivor is that we all respond to cancer differently. Our response depends primarily on our own personality and past life experiences. How we deal with a life-threatening illness will differ according to our personal values and may also be connected to how we have responded to crises in the past. It must be acknowledged that cancer is extremely personal, so our response tends to be personal as well. With these facts in mind, I argue that no one has the right to tell me how to react emotionally to my cancer or to lecture me about how I should live my life after a diagnosis. For example, early in my cancer journey I was confronted by a couple of individuals who insinuated that I should not allow my illness to change my life. How could I have not changed? I’m not going back to the way I was before I had cancer. I see that as a terrible waste of all that I have been through.

You never know how strong you are.

When you are diagnosed with cancer you will have moments when you sense that your world is spinning violently out of control. The fundamental paradox for me is that I’m often in situations where I feel a sense of power, combined with courage and self-assurance. It’s as if I’m standing in life’s Category 5 hurricane and remaining resolute, steadfast and unbroken. I certainly don’t aspire to become a legend like Terry Fox or to be anything resembling a saint or a cancer hero. But still, I’ve discovered inner qualities and personal strengths I never appreciated or properly acknowledged in myself. Subjected to the ultimate test, I’ve sometimes shocked myself with my capacity to overcome adversity and to confront physical pain and suffering.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

There’s a familiar proverb that states that it takes a village to raise a child. I think that this can be modified to assert that it takes a village to properly support a cancer patient. When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer seven years ago, I was suddenly faced with a whole new array of complex needs. It was sometimes necessary, or in my best interest, to accept the assistance of my inner circle of friends and family members. For example, my mom was my primary caregiver following each of my three major surgeries. She would also accompany me to and from my appointments at the Tom Baker Centre and remain with me when they administered chemotherapy. Today most cancer patients, including myself, have access to social workers, psychologists, dieticians and other skilled professionals. Treating the whole person and recognizing that each patient has unique issues and needs have become firmly entrenched and are part of the philosophy of cancer care.

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Getting Organized: Learning to Manage Your Cancer Journey

 

IMG_0117When my gynecologist informed me that I had cancer almost three and half years ago the last thing on my mind was trying to manage the absolute chaos that my life had suddenly become. First, I was numb and in shock to learn that I had gynecological cancer at a fairly advanced stage. Once the dust had settled I found myself experiencing intense anger and fear, I was actually astonished to learn that emotions so strong existed. My life seemed to be spinning violently out of control and there appeared to be little I could do to stop this process or to regain a sense of stability. It was tempting to sit back and let things happen to me, and to believe that events were completely beyond my influence.

Despite my anxiety, I immediately realized that successful cancer treatment would require me to be an active participant, I would need to schedule and attend literally dozens of medical appointments. At the same time I would have to deal with the bureaucracy of the health-care system on an almost daily basis. Of course, I knew I could depend on family members to assist me when I was hospitalized or completely exhausted. But by and large I established that it was my cancer, my body and my complex journey to navigate.

Following my diagnosis I was often overwhelmed with the countless tasks that I was required to perform and with the hurried pace at which things were happening, but I’ve gradually devised my own system that enables me to be more organized. Over time I’ve learned to confront the practical life changes associated with cancer treatment, I’m now able to approach them with more efficiency and less hassle.

Keeping a Record of Your Treatment on Paper

 

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I strongly recommend keeping a personal record of your cancer treatment, including surgeries that are performed and any chemotherapy or radiotherapy that is administered. I have chosen to use a binder and I suggest the following other essential stationery supplies:

1. Page protectors (single page and multipage)
2. A hole punch
3. A stapler

I’ve used a combination of chronological order and straightforward categories to organize my documents. In case you’re wondering what needs to be in your cancer treatment diary, here is some of the key information that I’ve chosen to include in mine:

  • Basic documentation concerning my hospitalizations and surgeries
  • Complete pathology reports
  • A timetable of appointments, the specific drugs that I was given and other essential details regarding my chemotherapy
  • Physician progress notes summarizing my appointments at the Tom Baker Cancer Centre outpatient clinic

Using a Computer to Bring Your Journey Together

 

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Now that personal computers are firmly ingrained in our culture and nearly everyone is computer literate you’ll want to take advantage of this technology to make your cancer journey easier and more organized. As with traditional filing, you’ll require an organized system for letters, personal notes, essays and other word processing files. It’s best to create a classification system that makes sense to you and that allows you to locate files and documents quickly on your computer. Of course the Internet is invaluable for cancer patients wishing to learn more about their disease, but it’s essential to ascertain the difference between reliable or accredited sites and those that contain inaccurate, and sometimes even dangerous, information.

Some cancer patients have the advantage of accessing their official medical records online. Those of us being treated for cancer in Alberta unfortunately do not have access to these types of databases; my hope is that we might in the near future. I was excited to learn that there are plans to start an online portal this year that will give Albertan’s access to their prescriptions. Meanwhile, the intention is to add other medical information to the online system over time. In the interim I have to be content with requesting information from my medical records directly from the Tom Baker Centre and making sure each request is in writing. This can be a time consuming and tedious process, but it’s my judgment that the aggravation is worth it.

Ultimately the completeness or comprehensiveness of your medical information and the ease with which you can obtain medical records will vary depending on where in Canada you are receiving treatment. There is little doubt that receiving your cancer treatment in the United States or in a private health-care system may offer some advantages in terms of obtaining complete documentation. There is considerable bureaucracy and more overall effort involved by patients in the public system that I am a part of in Calgary, Alberta. We have to advocate a great deal for ourselves in terms of getting the information we need, and such pursuits can be difficult for a cancer patient when they are receiving chemotherapy or other active treatment. Personally I admit my medical appointments and diagnostic tests have slowed down substantially now that I’m in remission.

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The Top Six Things Not to Say to Someone With Cancer

When a friend or family member is diagnosed with cancer it’s sometimes difficult to find the right words or to be sure that you are doing the appropriate things. In this blog post I’ve chosen to address some of the most common mistakes and I make specific suggestions about how you can communicate better with someone who is going through a cancer journey.

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Always permit a cancer patient to control how much medical information he or she wishes to share with you.

Remember that some patients are more private than others, so don’t pry—only discuss these matters if the patient chooses to bring them up. As a general rule don’t ask detailed questions about the diagnosis or treatment plan. Examples of inappropriate questions might include: “How many chemo sessions do you have?” and “What kind of surgery does your oncologist recommend?” Of course caregivers and close family members are almost always privy to this information. If you are in such a position, I strongly advise you not to divulge intimate details about the condition of your husband, wife, adult son or adult daughter without their specific consent. For instance, as a caregiver you probably have friends or your own support group and you may need to take some time off work. Still, it’s almost never necessary or appropriate to inform your best friend or your boss of exactly how much weight your loved one has lost or the name of the chemotherapy drugs they’ve been prescribed!

Try not to make your offers of assistance too vague.

“Can I do anything to help you?” Your overall intentions for asking a cancer patient this question are likely noble and your heart is in the right place. However, the phrasing of this question is frequently too vague or broad. The person undergoing cancer treatment is probably too overwhelmed to think of something specific, furthermore they don’t want to feel like a burden. Instead, it’s recommended that you ask if you can perform some task in particular for the person. “May I pick up some groceries for you?” or “I’d like to make you dinner tomorrow night.” are good examples of things you might want to say. Even scheduling routine appointments is difficult for an individual facing surgery or chemotherapy, so it might also be fitting to take the initiative by offering to make some telephone calls or send some e-mail messages.

Don’t give a cancer patient health advice, especially if you have never had cancer.

118184-400x265-Dandelion_Facts“Healthy people should never give cancer patients health advice,” physician and cancer survivor, Nikhil Joshi, argued in a recent Globe and Mail interview. “There’s nothing worse than being sick and getting advice from the healthy, because it’s almost like insinuating you did something to make this happen to you,” he said. I firmly agree with Joshi’s statement. It may be true in some cases that our lifestyle or health care choices increase the odds of getting cancer or contribute to cancer progression. However, if you cause someone with cancer to absorb blame and feel shame it will almost certainly make matters worse. Shame and guilt are unnecessary burdens to carry. From everything that’s known about the emotions and health, acceptance and forgiveness are what we need to cultivate and enhance healing, not self-condemnation and self-blame.

Remember every cancer journey is unique physically, psychologically and spiritually.

My situation may remind you of someone else, but telling me a story about a family member or friend who has or had cancer is simply irrelevant, and it’s especially a bad idea if it’s a fatal story. Modern medicine has essentially proven that everyone’s cancer experience is unique, even individuals with the same type, stage and grade of cancer can have radically different outcomes. Telling me about your aunt Lisa’s current third round of chemo for colon cancer won’t help me to process my diagnosis or make decisions about my own cancer treatment.

Don’t send a cancer patient newspaper articles about cancer that you’ve read or give them a basket with holistic cancer remedies in it.

If I want information regarding cancer or cancer treatment, I’ll ask for it. In the months following my cancer diagnosis I was inundated with information and advice from a medical team. Consequently, the articles from newspapers, magazines or online publications that I received were annoying. For the most part these pieces were irrelevant and unnecessary. When some acquaintances sent me ginger and dandelion root, two common homeopathic therapies for cancer, I didn’t bother to explain to them that these items are specifically mentioned on a list oncologists give to their patients. Ginger and dandelion root do not combine well with many traditional chemotherapy drugs, and therefore patients should refrain from using them during treatment.

Don’t tell someone with cancer that everything will be the same again or that everything will workout fine.

Cancer can be a terrifying experience and a diagnosis of this disease is usually a turning point that will alter a person’s life forever. I hate when people try to deny this fact or minimize it by giving me false reassurance. The truth is I don’t know I’m going to be fine, you don’t know I’m going to be fine, even my oncologist doesn’t know I’m going to be fine. Instead, I feel comforted when people use phrases like “I believe in you.” or “I’m pulling for you.”

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