Finding a way through the conventional v. alternative medicine debate for treating cancer.
|Finding My Way
If my journey through cancer treatments were compared to a Relay for Life celebration, it would be about one o’clock in the morning. The testimonials, remembrances, and recognitions of cancer victims and survivors would have ended. The hoopla of the chili cook-off and the Queen of the Relay contest would be over. Most of the participants would have gone home. The few people at the remaining team tents would be lounging in lawn chairs, talking softly while watching their more energetic comrades still walking laps around the luminaria-lighted track or line dancing in straggly lines to country music blasting over the PA system. There’d be a general sense of accomplishment, of doing something meaningful, but it would be a quiet feeling, hushed by the exertion and fatigue of it all.
Yes, that’s where I am. Still carrying on, still convinced of the worthiness of the effort, and deeply thankful to everyone who has shared this journey. But I am also tired. Really, really tired. And stiff. And sore. And acutely aware that, at best, I’m only halfway through my treatment plan, that I still have at least as far to go as I’ve already come. At times, it’s enough to discourage even the most determined cancer patient.
Last week I hit the lowest point thus far in the cancer journey. I’d just gotten my third round of chemo, followed by a Neulasta injection to force my bone marrow to produce white blood cells. My body ached as though I’d been beaten with sticks. I was so weak that when I took my little dog, Blink, outside, I had to take her off her leash lest she accidentally pull me over. I was so tired that, when I did take her out, I could only stand on the porch and watch as she gamboled alone in the snow.
Then I got an email from a friend. In it, she’d pasted an article asserting that an all-natural substance found in a plant native to South America was the “magic bullet” for curing cancer. The only reason oncologists didn’t use it, the article continued, was because doctors were locked in the stranglehold of big pharmaceutical companies and the FDA.
If anyone but a friend had sent the literature to me, I would have stopped reading after the second paragraph. While I am an huge proponent of all-natural foods and many alternative remedies -- gargling with warm salt water to treat a sore throat, for instance, or putting fresh aloe gel on a burn -- when it comes to curing something as complex and potentially fatal as cancer, I want scientific proof. I want studies. I want a preponderance of credible evidence that a substance, naturally derived or not, works. The article offered none. Still, it had been sent by a friend and so I continued reading.
What a mistake! Just a few paragraphs down, the article stated that, according to researchers at Harvard University School of Public Health and the University of California Medical School, less than two percent of cancer patients are cured by chemotherapy. Worse, it claimed that chemotherapy, not cancer, is more often the cause of death of patients who receive it as treatment.
Let me tell you, those assertions stopped me cold! Here I was, bald as cue ball, sitting in pajamas and robe, shivering because my internal thermostat is on the blink, feeling as though I’d been bounced around in a boxing ring. Then, suddenly, words in black and white were telling me that everything I was going through was only for a two percent increase in my chances for survival? Even worse, that the chemo could kill me?
I froze. Then I burst into tears. Then, I did what I always do when scared witless and stunned into disbelief: I went online and began searching for information. As though every healthy cell in my body depended upon it (and actually, they did), I began scouring the internet. What were my chances of surviving this cancer if I had only had the surgery, I needed to know. What about with chemotherapy? And with the upcoming radiation?
For three days, I spent most of my waking hours perched on the edge of my chair as I typed query after query into Internet search engines and read page after page on endometrial cancer and treatments. The first thing I discovered was that the two studies the article cited were horribly outdated. The Harvard one was from 1979 and the University of California one from 1987. Then next thing I discovered was that it was darned hard to find information on specific cancer survival rates.
As I tried search after search, my queries became more specific, then filled with medical terminology. The resulting websites became more specific, too, and increasingly filled with medical and scientific terminology. Again and again, I had to stop reading to look up words and phrases in online dictionaries, or google a medical procedure so I’d know what the researchers were talking about.
Finally, late in the afternoon of the third day, I entered the query “efficacy of adjuvant radiation in endometrial cancer.” What a phrase! And the right one, too! In the list of search engine results was a meta-study (a study of studies) done by researchers at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University. The study was published last year.
Long story short (and simplified), it said that women with my diagnosis who only have surgery as a treatment had a 50% chance of remaining cancer-free for five years. Women who had surgery and radiation combined had a 68% chance of remaining cancer-free. And, women who had surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy had a 77 to 87% chance of remaining cancer-free (depending on the study).
Since reading that study, my commitment to the treatment plan, the ongoing chemotherapy, and the upcoming radiation has been renewed. Bring it on, I say. Or, as I wrote in an email to a dear friend, “Once again, I know why I'm going through what I'm going through and I am doing it willingly! Enthusiastically! Alas, not exactly happily, but I'm certainly recommitted to the entire plan. What a relief!”
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