Cancer Sucks

A diagnosis of cancer isn’t a death sentence, and the 5-year survival rates continue to climb.  In 1975, the 5-year survival rate for breast cancer was 75%.  In 2016, it’s currently 89%.  Prostate cancer had a 65% survival rate, which is now up to nearly 100% survival rate.  But, just because the prospect of survival continues to climb doesn’t mean it’s not going to be without challenges.  Both the disease it’s self and the treatment take a toll on you physically and mentally.

Becky Hill, the Chief Financial Officer of Advanced Mobile Healthcare was experiencing pain in her shoulder.  She went to several specialists, who couldn’t find a source of the pain.  Eventually, her own daughter, Rae Lyn Mefford, ordered a chest X-Ray to rule out Pancoast syndrome, which led to a diagnosis of Stage III lung cancer after several more tests.  After researching Becky’s previous medical records, Rae Lyn also found that the cancer had likely started around 5 years ago – two years after Becky had quit smoking.  Being Stage III, they went after it aggressively, using a cyberknife on her for two hours a day for four days in a row.  “That really didn’t affect me much, except it really drained me.  There weren’t any aches or pains, just tired all the time.”

From there, though, it gets more difficult.  The next phase of her cancer treatment  was a combination of daily radiation and weekly chemotherapy for five weeks.  “After the first week of chemo I started slowly losing my hair.”

Hair loss is a common side effect of chemotherapy, though not everyone experiences it the same way.  For some, there’s no hair loss at all, and in some cases they lose all their body hair – head, beard, eyebrows, and everything.   Becky had cut hers to a very short style before beginning the treatments. “You know you’re going to lose it,” Becky said, “so why not do something with a hairstyle you can work with?  Or do something you wouldn’t normally do:  dye it, shave it, buzz it.  You’re going to end up at that point anyway, so why not have fun with it?”  Fortunately, it’s only two or three weeks for most patients to begin growing hair again after the treatments are over.

Of course, the effects of the treatment doesn’t stop there.  Just some of the possible effects include:

  • Anemia
  • Hair loss (Alopecia)
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Slowed Thinking
  • Reproductive Issues (menopause like symptoms in women, lowered sperm count or infertility in men)
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Low platelet count (thrombocytopenia, which causes easy bruising and bleeding issues)
  • Kidney Issues (including swelling in the hands and feet)
  • Loss of bone mass
  • Depression
  • Skin irritation
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pain
  • Increased Chance of Infection (Neutropenia)

The potential effects are actually quite a bit more than the 16 listed above.  Each case is different, based on the type of chemo drug(s) given, the patient’s health, and other factors.  Fortunately, some of those effects can be managed with the help of other medications. “With the first treatment, they forgot to give me my anti-nausea medication, so I was really, really sick.  But, after they got that under control, the nausea went away.”  Potential anemia and neutropenia issues were handled with another drug.  “29 hours after chemo, they give me an injection that travels into the bone marrow, to help the blood cells reproduce, because the chemo is wiping them out.  There’s no immune system.”

Unfortunately, even the drug used to help improve her red and white blood cell count comes with it’s own set of problems.  “That has the side effect of making your hands, feet, arms, legs, back – basically everything – hurt really bad.  They said the main pain would be in the lower back and chest, and I’d feel like I was having a heart attack, but I’m not supposed to go to the hospital, because I’m not actually having a heart attack.  So, they gave me pain pills for that.  My feet and calves have pain and tingling, and feel like they’re swollen, but they’re not.  They just have that feeling.”  Getting up and walking around was the prescription for helping keep that feeling under control.

Fatigue might be an understatement for what the chemo does.  Typically, if you’re feeling fatigued, you can push on through until you find a time you can rest.  “If I get tired, I’m supposed to lay down.  Well, when you’re tired, the effect hits you so bad and so fast, you don’t have a choice.  Wherever you’re at, you’re going to go to sleep.  So, within a few hours of the chemo treatment, I don’t drive a vehicle.  After a couple of days, it’s not nearly as severe, but I do take afternoon naps to get over the tired and drained feeling.”

Becky also dealt with one of the other common side effects, often called “chemo brain.”  While the effect is not completely understood, it’s thought that effects on the brain are often a combination of stress, chemicals produced by the cancer it’s self, and the chemotherapy treatments.  Certain cancers such as thyroid cancer produce chemicals that interfere with memory and cognitive abilities.  Additionally, pain medications have an effect on the brain, depending on the medication.  And, it’s not just a matter of being forgetful: all mental abilities from memory to decision making to multitasking can be affected by chemobrain.  “I would hate to make any major decisions during that time,” Becky said, following it up with a joke and a laugh “but, I can use it as an excuse rather than saying I’m old.”

For some people, the chemo brain effect only lasts a few days until it’s no longer noticeable.   For some, it may take years to completely recover from the brain fog caused by chemotherapy.

Radiation treatment comes with it’s own health effects.  “They started me on radiation treatments every day for 30 days, 4 minutes each time.  With that you get a something like a sunburn front and back, since they’re hitting both places and all around you.  It also caused the esophagus to swell, so eating became a problem, and I had to eat and swallow just a little bit each time.”

Becky isn’t done, yet.  “After the radiation treatment, they moved me to chemotherapy once every three weeks.  At that point, they are giving me triple the dose they were giving me previously.”  Becky’s treatments will continue until the mid October, at which time they’ll run tests to see if the cancer is completely gone.

Dealing with cancer, and it’s treatments, is something that nobody should face alone.  In Becky’s case, she’s able to continue to do her work – she was interviewed at her office – and continues to function somewhat normally.  But, not everyone can.  Having help is a big deal – just the effects of chemobrain alone are enough to require having other people around.  Fortunately for Becky, she has family to help her out, including her daughter, Rae Lyn Mefford, CEO of Advanced Mobile Healthcare.

Of course, cancer doesn’t only effect the people afflicted by it, but it also effects their family and friends.  For example, Rae Lyn explained how it has effected her life.  “Initially, I was terrified I would lose my mom.  She is a huge part of my life and Advanced Mobile Healthcare.  She has taken care of the accounting at AMH since it began, and she has done our billing for over four years.  I couldn’t imagine coming into work everyday with someone else sitting at her desk. Also, she watches my granddaughter and my two young daughters every afternoon.”.  Rae Lyn discussed her Faith and how that has given her the strength to be a strong support for Becky.  Fortunately, Rae Lyn’s schedule is flexible enough to allow her to take her mom to treatments and watch the three girls, when needed.  “My mom has been there for me all these years, and it’s my time to give back to her”.

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Image background:  small cell lung carcinoma by Yale Rosen on Flickr.