How others and I managed our fight against cancer and why I now like the color purple
Face it with a smile
I never really felt sick until New Year’s Eve, and even then I thought I had the stomach flu. Two weeks later I was in the hospital being operated on for colon cancer. My surgeon estimated I’d had it for about a year, and I never knew anything was wrong.
Six weeks after surgery I started chemotherapy. While I had some bad days, at the beginning the good outweighed the bad. The further along in my treatment, the worse the side effects got, but I was getting very positive results and that made the bad days a lot easier to deal with
The best advice I can give to anyone going through this is that I believe attitude is everything. Of course good medical care comes into play, but if you don’t have a positive attitude about your outcome, your recovery isn’t going to go as well as it should. Laugh a lot and don’t sweat the small stuff.
Although it sounds strange, I feel very lucky in many ways. I’ve had the support and care of excellent doctors, friends and family. There’s nothing like a life threatening
illness to put things into perspective. You realize very quickly who and what are important, and focus on those things that bring you happiness and joy. Our Lhasa Apso Patches never fails to bring a smile to my face; believe it or not he’s been instrumental in my recovery. Long walks with him after my surgery helped me heal faster, and quiet days with him by my side have soothed my soul.
I’m full of advice these days, some of which I’d like to share.
-I understand persons need to share their stories, but if your story doesn’t have a happy ending, please try and refrain. I can listen all day to stories about people beating colon cancer and living to the ripe old age of 100, but if you’re story ends with someone not making it, please keep it to yourself.
-If you’ve been through chemotherapy and had a miserable time, please don’t tell me about it days before I’m going to start. The day before I started chemotherapy 8 year old Isabella French gave me her best advice for getting through chemo-drink lots of water-what an angel, and wiser than many adults.
-If you learn something while undergoing chemo that can help others-share your knowledge with your fellow chemo patients-every little bit of advice on how to make it through helps
-Nowadays I’m preaching the gospel of colonoscopies. As unpleasant as you may think one is-it’s way better than the alternative, trust me on this one. A colonoscopy is a day and half out of your life; colon cancer may take your life away. If you have a family history you probably shouldn’t wait until 50 for your first one- ask your doctor.
Oh, and why I like the color purple? Because it’s the color of survivorship. In the cancer color rainbow, each cancer has a color associated with it, The color for colon cancer is-you guessed it-brown (someone’s idea of a sick joke I think), so I’m sticking with purple these days-because surviving is my number one priority.
According to the American Cancer Society:
- Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States.
- In 2011,101,700 new cases of colon cancer and 39,510 new cases of rectal cancer are expected to be diagnosed in the United States
- The lifetime risk of developing colorectal cancer is about 1 in 20 (5.1%). This risk is slightly lower in women than in men.
- Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the United States when men and women are considered separately, and the second leading cause when both sexes are combined.
- The death rate from colorectal cancer has been dropping in both men and women for more than 20 years. Among the likely reasons: polyps are being found by screening and removed before they can develop into cancers. Screening is also allowing more colorectal cancers to be found earlier when the disease is easier to cure. In addition, treatment for colorectal cancer has improved over the last several years. As a result, there are now more than 1 million survivors of colorectal cancer in the United States.
- More than 90% of all colorectal cancers are found in people who are 50 and older. African-American men and women are diagnosed with and die from colorectal cancer at higher rates than men and women of any other US racial or ethnic group.
- To help lower your chances of getting colorectal cancer:
- Get to and stay at a healthy weight.
- Be physically active.
- Eat a diet with a lot of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and less red or processed meat.
- Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
- Don’t use tobacco in any form.
Beating the Odds
“All I can tell you is go home and make peace with your maker, you have about three years to live.”
That’s what doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore told Harry Brandon after discovering his PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) reading was 94 (2 is normal).
The year was 1988 and Harry, then 55, was told the doctor didn’t want to operate because of the risk of spreading the cancer. Coming home to wife Wendy and their two young children (Beth, 8 and Steven, 6) following the devastating prognosis Harry “started thinking about all the things I wouldn’t get to see, my kids grow up, graduate from college, have children of their own. I really didn’t know what I was facing, I was very sad about all of the things I would never do with all of the people I loved.”
That same weekend the Brandon’s neighbor and Harry’s urologist Dr. Hank Nelson talked to the couple about a new experimental treatment that might be an option being studied by doctors at the University of Florida.
“Hank told us there was a 20 percent chance it might work,” says Wendy. “I said 20 percent-we’d go with that. We thought that sounded pretty good. Never for a moment did we think about the 80 percent chance it wouldn’t work-that 20 percent gave us hope where we’d had none before.”
When it became apparent the experimental protocol was to reducing the size of the tumor, surgeons were able to operate. Fortunately there was no presence of cancer in the Harry’s lymph nodes, and he underwent focused laser radiation treatments for several months following his surgery.
“I was very lucky,” says Harry, who credits Wendy with having a great deal to do with his successful outcome. “She did a wonderful job researching my treatment.”
“You have to do your homework,” says Wendy. You need to be prepared to ask the right questions. I’ve often thought about what would have happened if Hank weren’t our doctor. He cared so much about us and went out of his way to find the treatment that worked for Harry.”
Harry will celebrate his 79th birthday this December and says “I know one of the reasons I’m here today if because of the tremendous amount of strength and support I received from my wife, my friends and my doctor. No matter what they tell you, what statistics they throw at you, you’re the one who makes the decision about what’s best for you.”
According to the American Cancer Society:
- More than 2 million men in the U.S .are prostate cancer survivors.
- Some prostate cancers can grow and spread quickly, but most of them grow slowly.
- Prostate cancer can often be found early by testing the amount of prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the blood. Another way to find prostate cancer is the digital rectal exam (DRE), If prostate cancer is found during screening with the PSA test or DRE, the cancer will likely be at an early, more treatable stage than if no screening were done.
- Since the use of early detection tests for prostate cancer became common around 1990, the prostate cancer death rate has dropped, however it remains the second leading cause of cancer death in American men (lung cancer is #1).
- Other than skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men. The American Cancer Society estimates About 240,890 new cases of prostate cancer will be diagnosed in 2011.
- 1 in 6 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime. More than 2 million men in the U.S. who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer are still alive.
Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia
This Halloween 8 year old Isabella French wants to have a party. Not just any party mind you-a celebration of huge proportions. Because that’s when Isabella will finally be done with two and a half years of chemotherapy to treat Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL). The most common malignancy diagnosed in children, ALL represents nearly one third of all pediatric cancers, primarily affecting children between two and five years of age.
Isabella was 6 when she was diagnosed with ALL. For several months she had complained of soreness in her shin. Doctors in Jacksonville thought it was a slow to heal sprain. When the French family moved to West Melbourne from Jacksonville, local pediatricians originally believed Isabella had a bone infection. A biopsy turned out negative for infection and it was discovered Isabella’s condition was much more serious.
“All I can remember are the words malignancy and small round blue cells”, Isabella’s mother Natalie recalls. She and husband Danny took Isabella to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando and “we didn’t leave until Isabella’s treatment began.” Enrolled in a study of ALL, after 8 days of treatment “the doctors told us she was in remission.” As part of the study protocol Isabella underwent chemotherapy twice a week for six months and for two years has undergone monthly IV chemo treatments and daily oral chemotherapy.
Home schooled for the majority of her treatment due to increased risk of infection, Isabella went back to school at Meadowlane in March. “Her teacher Mrs. Majoy was amazing, she came to out house every night after school to make sure Isabella kept up.”
Isabella credits “all the support of my family and fiends has made this easier. And I was able to help other people going through this. When I first started chemo I lost my hair and I really hated that. So I wanted to do something for other kids who were losing their hair. My mom and I started ‘Isabella’s Happy Hats’. I would get these huge boxes of donated hats and we took them to cancer centers and dropped them off. We collected more than 1,000 hats and scarves. I just wanted other kids to be happy about someone not having to see their bald heads.”
Natalie, Danny, Isabella, twin sister Elena and little sister Ava moved back to the area just before Isabella’s diagnosis. ‘We grew up here,” Says Natalie, “we have this amazing network of people, some of whom we’ve known all of our lives and some complete strangers who have reached out to us because of Isabella. It’s wonderful to be in such an loving community that’s been so caring and so generous.”
Having a child with Isabella’s spirit has made this easier for the whole family say’s Natalie. “She’s so brave, strong and smart beyond her years. We told her that everybody gets sick at some point in their lives, her time just came earlier. She’s never been afraid and understands everything that’s happened. We’ve managed, for the most part, to push all the bad stuff out of our brains and focus on positive things.”
According to Medscape MD:
- ALL is a cancer of the bone marrow and blood that progresses rapidly without treatment. That’s why it’s important to start treatment soon after diagnosis.
- ALL is the most common malignancy diagnosed in children, representing nearly one third of all pediatric cancers.
- The annual incidence of acute lymphoblastic leukemia is approximately 9-10 cases per 100,000 population in childhood.
- The peak incidence occurs in children aged 2-5 years.
- According to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society:
- ALL is the most common type of leukemia in children from infancy up to age 19.
- Overall survival statistics for people with ALL are 66.4 percent (all ages) and 90.8 percent for children under 5 years old, according to the National Cancer Institute.
According to the American Cancer Society
- With regard to acute leukemias, children who are free of disease after 5 years are very likely to have been cured, it is very rare for these cancers to return after such a period of time.
Accentuate the Positive
Julie Song was no stranger to cancer when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2003. Her sister was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998. Three years later her mother was diagnosed with the most aggressive type of breast cancer and died seven months later. A year to the day following her mother’s death, Julie received the devastating news about her own health.
“I had started feeling poorly, experiencing cramps and just not feeling right, so I went in for some tests.” The day the results came in my husband Si came with me, more because it was the anniversary of my mother’s death than because we were worried. But I knew as soon as they put me in the doctor’s office rather than an examining room that something was wrong.”
Even after the diagnosis the Songs were told the results could be am indication of endometriosis rather than cancer, but Julie knew, waking up in the recovery room following surgery at Florida hospital, that the news wasn’t good. Despite grogginess from the anesthesia “I heard one of the nurses calling up to the 4th floor, 43 year old female Caucasian-cancer positive and I knew they were talking about me. When I got up to the room my family thought everything was okay, because the doctor hadn’t come in to see them yet. But I knew the 4th floor was the cancer ward, and I knew what I heard.” When her doctor confirmed it was stage three ovarian cancer Julie knew her fight was just beginning.
“I started chemo the week after surgery and continued for six months, 6-hour sessions every 21 days. When I started losing my hair my stepson Conner was all excited about shaving my head, and although in the end he couldn’t do it, I found out I was lucky enough to have a good shaped head. It turned out to be one of the best summer’s of my life-I never had a bad hair day. My sister Sandy says I went through the whole thing in denial, I look at it as that I chose to not act like a victim.”
Today Julie serves as a project manager for Florida MEP (Manufacturing Extension Partnership), working with local businesses to help them sustain improvements. Cancer free for 8 years, she undergoes blood tests every 6 months. Her sister’s breast cancer recently reappeared, prompting Julie to be even more diligent about her own health. “As soon as my sister and mother were diagnosed I began having mammograms every six months. There’s still so much emphasis on breast cancer, but ovarian cancer kills more women. Women need to take charge of their own health and be aware of changes in their body. The problem is there’s no easy way to detect ovarian cancer. Endometriosis can give a false positive, usually by the time you find out you have it it’s too late because it’s spread too much.”
In the long run you have to ask yourself “are you going to live to live or live to die. You have to stop looking at the glass as being half empty. This was hard, but I was okay. I continued to live my life, I never said ‘why me?’ and tried not to feel sorry for myself.”
According to the American Cancer Society:
- This year 15,460 women will die from ovarian cancer.
- It ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.
- The rate at which women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer has been slowly falling over the past 20 years.
- Almost half (46%) of women with ovarian cancer are still alive at least 5 years after diagnosis.
- There has been a lot of research to develop a screening test for ovarian cancer, but there hasn’t been much success so far. There are 2 tests that are used most commonly to screen for ovarian cancer. These tests, transvaginal sonography and CA-125, are often offered to women who are at high risk of developing epithelial ovarian cancer, such as those with a very strong family history or with certain inherited genetic syndromes.
Dr. Richard Levine
At the age of 19 Dr. Richard Levine decided to become an oncologist. “I wanted to spend my time helping care for people who had a serious, potentially life threatening illness. Oncology focuses on all the things I enjoy about medicine: research, teaching and total patient care.”
Dr. Levine launched his Titusville practice in 1983, a practice that evolved into Space Coast Cancer Center by 2008. “We strive very hard to be as good as we can, as good as anyone in the country at doing what we do. Everything we do is about our patients. We’ve invested millions of dollars in the latest equipment to ensure our patients have the highest quality of service.” Another quality vital to superior patient care is empathy.
11 years ago, Dr. Levine faced a situation that led to his becoming more understanding of his patient’s needs.
In 2000, a case of swollen lymph nodes led to a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. “I remember for 24 hours I was immobilized-in shock. Then I started researching my options”. Following a total thyroidecotomy, Dr. Levine opted to receive the maximum dose of radiation as part of his treatment.
“I have been there, waiting for the phone call from my doctor to be returned. Since being in their shoes I have more insight and empathy for my patients, Subconsciously and consciously it has changed my approach. In the past when it was at the end of a long day and I had twenty phone calls to return, before my diagnosis of cancer I would prefer to go home and catch up in the morning. Today I make every effort to call that evening. I have a much greater appreciation of my patient’s needs.”
Dr. Levine says having cancer “changed my whole philosophy to work harder and be more available and responsive to our patients and their families. As a patient I recognize how dependent you are on having ready access to quality care provided by a knowledgeable, skilled and ethical health care team.”
According to the American Cancer Society:
- Only about 1-in-20 thyroid nodules are cancerous and this is generally one of the least deadly cancers. The 5-year survival rate for all cases is about 97 percent.
- Nearly two of three cases of thyroid cancer are found in people between the ages of 20 and 55.
- The chance of being diagnosed with thyroid cancer is more than twice what it was in 1990. Some of this increase may be the result of the increased use of thyroid ultrasound, which detects small thyroid nodules that might not otherwise have been found. At least part of the increase is from finding more large tumors
- Survival rates from thyroid cancer have remained stable for the past several years.
- About 44,670 new cases of thyroid cancer will occur
- (33,930 in women, and 10,740 in men)*
25 years ago Rita Moreno found out she had cancer.
“I was holding my son Anthony and feeling constriction in my chest and I would hear a clicking sound when I took a breath.” This prompted Rita to visit her doctor, whose initial diagnosis was walking pneumonia. It wasn’t until four months later that she found exactly what was wrong when doctors at Sloan Kettering in New York City diagnosed her with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“I’ll never forget Ruben (husband Dr. Ruben Moreno) telling me they’d found a tumor on my chest. It was like someone dropped this incredible load on me, I was dumbfounded. This was supposed to be wonderful time in my life, I was 32 years old, I had this beautiful new baby and this wonderful husband and then this happened.”
Chemotherapy and radiation for a year and half took care of the grapefruit sized tumor. “I was lucky, I was put in a study and was given drugs that worked,”
Rita believes divine intervention certainly played a role throughout her experience. “Before Anthony was born we contemplated buying a house and staying in Pittsburgh, but something pushed me to go home to New Jersey where my family was.”
Following her treatment Rita and Ruben decided to move to Florida. “I knew I had no guarantees the cancer wouldn’t come back, but we thought the quality of our lives would be better here. I decided if it did come back I wanted to be with Ruben and our son and live the best life I could.” Although it was difficult to leave her family she decided, “I had the baby and Ruben, the most amazing man I’ve ever met. He took such good care of us when I was sick. I rooted myself here and this became home.”
Following her treatment doctors told Rita the chance of her having more children was slim, but two years after moving to Florida son Adrian was born. “Anthony was my miracle because without him I don’t know that I would have discovered the cancer early enough, Adrian was my miracle because we weren’t sure we could have more children.”
A quarter of a century later, still cancer free, Rita served as honorary chairman of this year’s survivor luncheon at the Satellite Beach Relay For Life. When asked whether or not she would change her experience with cancer, her answer was an unequivocal no. “Having cancer helped make me who I am today. It molded me. It made me see things differently and I would never change that.”
According to the American Cancer Society
- Hodgkin’s Lymphoma is a type of cancer that starts in cells called lymphocytes (part of the body’s immune system). Because lymphoid tissue is found in many parts of the body, Hodgkin’s disease can start almost anywhere, but most often in the upper part of the body. The most common sites are in the chest, in the neck, or under the arms.
- In 2011 about 8,830 new cases will occur
- (4,010 in females and 4,820 in males).
- Over the past five years those numbers haven’t changed much.
- Hodgkin disease is most common in early adulthood (ages 15 to 40, especially in a person’s 20s) and in late adulthood (after age 55).
- Hodgkin disease is rare in children younger than 5 years of age. About 10 to 15 percent of cases are diagnosed in children and teenagers.
- The 1-year relative survival rate for all patients diagnosed with Hodgkin disease is about 92 percent; 5 year rates are about 85 percent and 10 year survival rates are 81 percent