Everyone’s Cancer Is Different

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Where should you turn after receiving a cancer diagnosis? A cancer survivor offers advice on handling the difficulties of treatment.

With close to eight billion people on earth, as much as we would like to bundle cancer up into neat little packages, it's not that easy. Today we classify it by where it occurs, such as in a breast, the brain, or in my case, the pancreas. Rather than using this all too tidy classification system, I suspect everyone’s cancer is as night and day different as every person on the planet is different. Thus, everyone’s cancer should be classified to them by their name rather than by its location.

Having survived a type of cancer few do doesn’t make me the authority on all things cancer. At best I’m an expert on my cancer alone and no one else’s. Considering this, I am always hesitant to offer advice on anyone’s cancer treatment. I always leave that up to their doctors and them.

I avoid offering advice based on what worked for me or my Aunt Susie. It’s game time. They don’t need to be confused by my prattle (or yours) about how such and such worked or didn’t.

I avoid telling them about some exotic treatment somewhere. These things are endless and can be dangerous.

I avoid slogans and platitudes. Although these can help someone facing cancer feel better, they offer them little real help. But I must admit there is something about maintaining an upbeat perspective. Facing cancer is dark enough without succumbing to the terror of it.

So, what do I do?

I always offer them hope. I encourage them to get a second opinion and research their type of cancer on reputable websites to discover what’s new and possible trials they might want to explore with their doctor. In my view, an informed patient is a good patient. My doctors have told me as much. The better educated we are, the more likely we are to follow their sometimes-byzantine orders.

I talk to them about the process. Going to the clinic. Seeing people who are washed out and in trouble. Heart-wrenching doesn’t even begin to describe it. In particular, I let them know that their first visit to the chemo room will be an out-of-body experience. If their clinic offers chemo classes I tell them much like Nike says, “Just do it!” I offer ideas on how to deal with the tidal waves of information and what will seem like endless appointments with all types of specialists from A to Z.

I encourage them to see a counselor if they’re feeling overwhelmed by it all. Many clinics have staff counselors who are trained to deal with the hyper-anxiety cancer can cause. If their clinic doesn’t have a staff counselor, they may know who around town is good. I tell them there is no shame in talking things through with someone who is trained to help. Facing cancer is something few of us can do on our own. The same goes for our beyond courageous caregivers.

I tell them to take an active role in their treatment by asking a lot of questions rather than assuming that because their doctor said it, it must be correct. Our doctors are human too, they can and do make a mistake on occasion. Sometimes, what is plain language to them might be unintelligible to us.

I would say if their doctor does not want to have a give and take chat about their treatment plan, it may be time to look for another doctor or at least get a second opinion.

Fighting cancer is a team effort. Our doctors can do a lot, but they need us to do our part.

Although I am not a doctor, I read everything I can find about emerging cancer treatments. The news is promising. Big strides are being made. More and more genes are being profiled, unlocking their secrets long held in plain sight. Somewhat like an experienced mechanic who knows their stuff front to back who with the right tools can diagnose any engine problem, I envision a future where our doctors will have the tools to diagnose each cancer no matter how complex and offer an effective treatment regimen rather than pump us full of chemicals and hope it stops our cancer. Though I think this is still years away, we seem to be moving in that direction.

I hope for a future where our doctors will be able to tell us more about our individual cancers. While we are getting closer to this with genetic testing and tumor profiling, there is still so much we don’t know.

I envision a future where scientists will be able to profile our cancer down to the nit that caused it rather than classify it by its location alone. Hopefully, this will allow them to tailor a treatment to target the rogue gene that led to it.

I am ever hopeful that once science can classify a cancer to each of us by our name rather than by its location alone, we can offer real hope to those facing it. Everyone’s cancer is different, and it should be treated as such.

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