Cancer Lesson #??: Some Cancers Are Preventable

Cancer Lesson #??: Some cancers are preventable.

If you’re a woman, you have only a one in eight chance of getting breast cancer in your lifetime.

I say “only” because your chances of getting some form of cancer in your lifetime is actually one in three.

One in three.

An incredible ratio in every horrifying sense.

If you’re a man, the news is worse. You have a one in two chance of getting cancer in your lifetime.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at the chart on the American Cancer Society website (http://tinyurl.com/cancerchances).

Take heart. Although no one is 100% sure what causes every cancer, there are many things you can do to lower your risk.

This mostly involves making the logical choices you’d make if you want to live a long and healthy life. Exercise regularly. Don’t smoke. Eat a reasonable diet. Don’t drink too much.

There is one type of cancer,however, caused almost exclusively by single factor — exposure to asbestos. That cancer is mesothelioma.

Mesothelioma has a long latency period, but is extremely aggressive. This means a person could have it for years, then be diagnosed as being in a late stage of the disease when the survival rate is considerably lower.

Obviously, we need to avoid asbestos. This lowers your risk factor to almost zero.

Until I wrote this post, I thought this would be simple because asbestos is banned in the U.S., right?

Wrong.

Here’s what the EPA says about the material, “On July 12, 1989, the EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. In 1991, this regulation was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, as a result of the Court’s decision, only a few asbestos-containing products remain banned.” (http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos/asbestos-laws-and-regulations#epalaws)

Also, “On July 12, 1989, EPA issued a final rule banning most asbestos-containing products. In 1991, this regulation was overturned by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. As a result of the Court’s decision, the following specific asbestos-containing products remain banned: flooring felt, rollboard, and corrugated, commercial, or specialty paper. In addition, the regulation continues to ban the use of asbestos in products that have not historically contained asbestos, otherwise referred to as “new uses” of asbestos.” (http://www2.epa.gov/asbestos/asbestos-ban-and-phase-out-federal-register-notices)

So, we can still be exposed, as were countless others before we knew the dangers. If someone in your family worked in the building trade, chances are they came in contact with asbestos, which means you probably did too since the fibers cling to clothing, thus invading the home.

Fortunately, there’s now a blood test that measures the biomarkers of Mesothelioma long before it can be otherwise diagnosed.  To quote the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, “Scientists have been working on new tests that strive to diagnose the disease at an earlier stage. For example, the Mesomark® assay is a simple blood test that measures the rate of Soluble Mesothelin-Related Peptides (SMRP) in the blood. This biomarker is released by mesothelioma cells into the bloodstream and SMRP can be elevated for many years before symptoms appear and an actual diagnosis of the disease is made.” (http://www.mesothelioma.com/mesothelioma/prognosis/)

As with any cancer, early diagnosis is key to survival. Catching the disease in its early stages makes it imminently more treatable, and becoming aware of the risk factors makes early diagnosis more likely.

As I said earlier, there many ways to lower your risk of getting cancer. Avoiding asbestos is certainly one of them.

For more information on this disease, visit http://www.mesothelioma.com/mesothelioma/information/

Cancer Lesson #54: Each Treatment Affects You Differently.

Cancer Lesson #54: Each treatment affects you differently. You may sail through your first chemo sessions with few side effects. Don’t assume this will always be the case, or you could be setting  yourself up for an unpleasant surprise.

I had a variety of side effects, most of them fairly minor.

One treatment left me feeling like an elephant had taken up residence on my chest. A prescription for Nexium took care of the problem.

Another time, I was struck by fever and chills. I somehow convinced myself my temperature was lower than the number at which I was supposed to call my oncologist.

It wasn’t, but by the time I reviewed my instructions, the fever was gone.

I got used to becoming overwhelmed with sudden exhaustion when I pushed myself too far.

Like when I decided to bicycle six miles in the summer heat – three miles into town, and three miles back.

It was only six miles. Not that hard, right?

Wrong! On the way back, we had stop every five hundred yards so I could rest.

Fortunately, I didn’t pass out. At least not on that occasion.

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Cancer Lesson #53:Fighting Cancer Doesn’t Make You a Saint.

Cancer Lesson #53: Fighting cancer doesn’t make you a saint.

Or amazing.

Or brave.

Bravery involves a sacrifice to defend a principle or another person. Firefighters, police officers and soldiers exhibit this kind of courage every day.

Now that’s amazing.

But battling cancer is common sense, a clear case of self-defense. The only other option is to lie down and die – not a choice anyone in their right mind would pick.

In saying this, I’m not denigrating those who have fought this disease with fearlessness and grace (and I know there are many). And I’m not being falsely modest in confessing I wasn’t one of them. (No one who’s ever known me would accuse me of that virtue.)

I just couldn’t accept the credit others kept trying to foist on me for simply trying to stay alive when I knew they would do exactly the same if they ever – God forbid – are in this situation.

While no cancer treatment is a walk in the park, I was lucky mine wasn’t the walk through hell I expected. True, my body was scarred and weakened, but with physical therapy, I regained most of my strength and mobility. And – to my very great relief – chemo wasn’t the pukefest I dreaded.

Saint Kym?

I don’t think so.

 

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Cancer Lesson #52: Most People Don’t Care Whether You Have Hair

Cancer Lesson #52: Most people don’t care whether you have hair.

It was summer when I was in chemo, and as I said before, wigs are hot. So even though I saw Grandpa Byrd every time I looked in the mirror – minus the glasses and wad of chewing tobacco – mine adorned the newel post of our steps more often than my head.

Having chosen comfort before fashion many years ago, I usually wore a baseball cap when I went out of the house.

That’s how I learned what happens when a bald woman goes out in public.

The answer is not much.

I expected some staring and pointing. Maybe even lights and sirens.

But no one gawped. In fact, no one seemed to notice.

Even the children – who might understandably wonder about someone who looks a little different – took it in their stride.

I was just happy they didn’t run screaming to their mothers. :-)

At the time, I thought this indicated a level of sensitivity and awareness that spoke well for the human race. Now I wonder if perhaps people are simply too busy with their own lives to care about another person’s lack of hair.

Either way, it was good to be reminded the world didn’t stop because I got cancer.

In fact, the whole time I was bald, there were only two people who stared. The first was a young man who emanated a kind of weird social misfit vibe. I gave him my best “What are you looking at?” glare and swept past.

You see, I’d forgotten my baldness and assumed he was merely being rude. Which he was.

The second time, I was working the children’s desk at the library. An elderly woman came in with someone who was obviously her caregiver – possibly her daughter – to find books the older woman might enjoy. “Daughter” explained that “Mom” suffered from dementia, and liked to look at the pictures.

“Mom” was intrigued by my lack of hair.

She asked, with genuine curiosity, “Are you a boy or a girl? Because you have short hair like a boy.”

The daughter was mortified, and tried to steer Mom to other topics, but Mom would not be deterred. She had a question, and she wanted it answered.

“Are you a boy or a girl?” she repeated.

I found it difficult to reply, mainly because I found it hard to stop laughing long enough to speak.

Her interest was so sincere and friendly; the memory still makes me smile.

Addendum: One thing many people don’t realize is when the drug companies list hair loss as a side effect, they don’t just mean the hair on your head. I was lucky enough to keep most of my eyebrows and lashes, but they did get much thinner. On the bright side, it was great not to have to shave my legs. They were smooth as a newborn’s cheek. 

Also, some people have had success using cold caps during chemo to prevent hair loss. For me the thought of ice on my head – even for only a few hours every couple of weeks – was worse than the prospect of losing my hair.  

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Cancer Lesson #51: Wigs Are Hot

Cancer Lesson #51: Wigs are hot, and not always in a good way. (Although I will say my hairpiece with the raspberry-colored streaks was pretty damned fine).

Also, wigs make your scalp itch.

Baseball caps, on the other hand, are way cooler. They may even be “cool.”

I had chemo in the summer when the temperatures were hitting mid to high eighties most days. Frankly, I cared more about being cool than looking “cool.”

My Feminine Pink Ball CapMaybe I was delusional, but I kidded myself that my pink ball cap
added a certain femininity to my bald head.

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Cancer Lesson #50: Everyone Needs a Hand to Hold on to

Cancer Lesson #50: Everyone needs a hand to hold on to.

John Cougar Mellancamp sang about it in the eighties, and it’s true. Cancer treatment is challenging, with the difficulties being different for each person.

I found the constant needle jabs particularly distressing, so my “hand” was literal. Whenever I had to get a shot or have my port poked – and I’m sure the medical profession has a more technical term for that procedure – The Engineer or Darling Daughter came along to hold my hand.

Before chemo, I would have sucked it up. Now, three years later, I do the same. But when I was in treatment, I realized there was no harm in asking for a little comfort.

If that made me a wimp, I didn’t care. There are plenty of things about cancer that can’t be made any easier so if this one small thing helped, I determined to grab on to it with, well, both hands.

 

 

The point is, cancer treatment is hard enough without thinking you need to be brave every single minute. So quit trying to be a hero already. It’s okay to accept help now and then.

It’s a “whatever gets you through the night” kind of thing, with no right or wrong way to do it.

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