The best way to define “progress” is to use the words advance or develop. In the world of cancer and cardiology, we look and hope for progress in the diagnostics, treatments, and survival. We hope in our lifetimes to see more advanced technology to pinpoint every cancer cell or to gauge the walls of an artery. We want less toxic and less dangerous modes of treatments that produce less side effects, short term and long term while producing an increased rate of longevity.
When patients and families hear that how long that I have been in remission from Hodgkin’s Disease they express many emotions ranging from surprise to hope and inspiration. But when they hear that I have to deal with late secondary issues, those expressions turn into despair, frustration, and sometimes, surrender.
I will not tell you that a cancer diagnosis or a heart diagnosis is a good thing. But how they now get to those results are amazing. A favorable prognosis is often more predictable from earlier detection with advanced technology. Survival rates have been climbing steadily. This, is progress.
My earliest memory of cancer, goes back maybe 35 years ago. I believe the movie that we watched in school was called “The Terry Fox Story”. Stereotypical story line for those times, diagnosis, sick as hell from the chemo, only to die anyway. “Brian’s Song”. “Terms Of Endearment”. All great movies but unfortunately when it comes to the portrayal of cancer patients, were not real encouraging. Television shows also were prone to the stereotyping of cancer. And print media also failed its readers as stories of celebrity deaths from cancer sold more copy than survival stories.
But my first exposure of success in defeating cancer actually came from home. My grandmother late in her sixties had beaten breast cancer. Three years later was when I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s. Believing the odds were against me, after all, it was cancer, I chose to go with what worked. I called up my grandmother’s oncologist. Dr. M is who I would challenge to make sure that I saw many “tomorrows”. And so far, it has been 22 years worth of tomorrows. But this post is not about my success in survival or struggles with late side effects. I would like to tell you of the progress that I am aware of in just over two decades since I was treated.
Diagnostics alone has made the most progress as many of the testing, biopsies, and other procedures are no longer done. Gone are the lymphangiogram and laparotomy for the most part. I hardly hear of bone marrow biopsies any more. New technologies allow less invasiveness, quicker diagnosis, and earlier response which in most cases should result in better odds of remission. The laparotomy involved removing the spleen, something so common not just for cancer, but other events as well. Today, medicine now recognizes how important a role the spleen plays in not just immunity, but even for cardiac issues, like heart attacks.
Radiation treatments have changed dramatically also. Researchers have found that doctors can do more with less. Instead of laying on a table and being exposed to a “scattered field” of radiation (in other words, the radiation hits more than just the tumors but surrounding areas of the body not needing radiation), exposure to levels of radiation more than four times the lifetime limit, the radiation doses are much lower and more exact to the area that must be treated. This has greatly reduced short and long term side effects from radiation.
My chemotherapy cocktail is now hardly ever used. One drug was so toxic, that in another form, Sadam Hussein had used it on his own people. Another drug was notorious for doing damage to the lungs, and another to the heart. Steroids were taken to build up immunity and muscle mass that was lost due to cell destruction from the other drugs, only to cause orthopedic issues in me. Drugs used today may still offer side effects, but they are less severe and many with the same success or better.
And ports? I never had them. I got stuck so many times, I hardly have any usable veins, not to mention a huge phobia and anxiety dealing with needles. Dealing with nausea, there are so many anti-nausea medicines out there to help besides Ativan, some last a long time.
And most importantly, follow up care. There is an established protocol to be followed depending on the treatments that were given. Things are much easier to be dealt with when caught early. Some tests may be done annually, some maybe as far as five years apart. Preventative steps may be taken as well to help boost immunity such as flu and pneumonia vaccines.
I am a 22 year survivor of Hodgkin’s Disease. I submit to you, I have seen so much progress in diagnosing and treating not just the cancer that I had, but so many more. And I will tell you, I personally know of other survivors who have passed 50 years of survival and were exposed to much worse treatments and diagnostics that I was exposed to. So as you read my posts, know that research is doing all it can to improve medicines, diagnostics, and longevity. Programs that raise awareness and funds such as the Relay For Life, Livestrong, and Stand Up 2 Cancer, and my personal favorite, the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society have made opportunities even greater.
I have long used an expresession to offer hope for all cancer patients and survivors. “As I travel down the road of remission, I will keep looking in my rear view mirror to make sure that you are still following me.”