Did you know September is Worldwide Leukemia and Lymphoma Awareness Month? Well, neither did I until a few days ago. Actually, up until a couple months ago I didn’t even know what lymphoma was.
Charity, awareness, fundraising, these are all things that I didn’t give too much thought to before. I’d play my part, feel good about myself, then move on with my busy life. Now that I am one of the growing number of faces affected by cancer, my view of the whole thing has completely changed.
First, let me help raise the awareness by describing these cancers a little more. They are not your typical “get tumour, get operation” cancers. That is because they start in the blood. The cells that travel all through our bodies which are not just located in one convenient place.
There are three types of cancers that are generally categorized as blood cancers – leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma. There are probably hundreds of different sub-classifications from here, so today I am just going to point out the main differences.
Leukemia starts in the bone marrow. Inside our bones is where the white cells are created, and these cells can rapidly grow, turning them cancerous. Myeloma also starts in the bones, with a different kind of white blood cell called plasma.
Lymphoma, the cancer I have, is sort of like the next step in the cell process. The white blood cells go from the bones to the lymphoid system, an array of complex vessels that is part of our circulatory system.
Once in the lymphoid system, the cells become known as “lymphocytes” and move around the system, flushing out through small nodes at the end of the vessels. It’s also where immune responses are stimulated, making it a part of our immune system.
The cancer I have is of those lymphocytes. Specifically, of a “B” type of cell that designates it as “Hodgkins Lymphoma.” This type of cancer is actual very predictable in how it grows, often starting with a mass of growing nodes in the throat or chest. It also responds very well to chemotherapy. Blood cancers can’t always be operated on as they don’t create the big lumpy tumours we are more familiar with. I think of it more as a “shadow” of extra, unwanted cells. I personally find blood cancers more scary because of the cell’s ability to travel anywhere in the body and spread to organs.
Blood cancers, like any other kind of cancer, can happen to anyone at any time. But you’ll notice they are the most common types of cancer in younger people. And this is where awareness is important!
As I’ve mentioned many times before, it’s not like someone can just get cancer at 20 years old, beat it, then forget about it. Getting cancer at such a young age sets patients up for decades of potential health problems as a result of our still-outdated treatments.
Chemotherapy is an incredibly harsh therapy that kills the good cells along with the bad cells. For example, apart from making one’s hair fall out, it can also cause infertility. A big deal to a 25-year-old woman like me. Radiation puts people at risk for other cancers down the road. A much larger risk to take if you still have 60 years of life ahead of you. To the point where I may not get radiation to my chest because of the high associated breast cancer risk.
I had no idea just how outdated our cancer treatments were until, obviously, I started receiving them. When people say that “chemo isn’t as bad as it used to be” it’s not that the chemo has necessarily changed – it’s that there have been more advancements in drugs to take along with it to make the side-effects more manageable (thank you Zofran!!).
What we really need are treatment options that don’t kill the healthy cells. In today’s advanced medical world, it sounds like an easy task. But it’s not. It’s still really hard to make a medicine that can distinguish between the healthy thriving cell that grows the hair on my head, and the bastardly cancer cell that wants to take over my chest.
There have been small advancements in recent years, and scientists are still working away at finding modern treatments. But as we know, research ain’t cheap. Part of raising awareness is inspiring people to take action on top of that. There are all kinds of way you can give back if you feel so inclined. You can check out the LLS website. I’m a big fan of donating to your local oncology clinic and cancer research centres. Or, in the tune of The Great Fundraising Act, find an individual cancer patient who needs your help.
Even if you can’t give back, just having a greater understanding of cancer is a good start. In a world where “awareness” is wearing pink boas and updating our Facebook statuses, I think it’s important to know that there is much greater depth to this big bad disease. You don’t have to know all the science behind it, but you should know there are real people dealing with real problems because of it.
As I alluded to yesterday, my mom and I hit the road on Wednesday for a mini adventure!
One thing that cancer introduces you to, is the big world of alternative medicine. I have so far ignored this because Hodgkins Lymphoma can actually be cured through traditional medicine. I don’t want to stray from the tried and true methods with something as serious as cancer. With that said, I have been slightly interested in complementing my chemo with safe methods to gently help it along. I’ll try anything to make sure I’m in that 80% of people that are cured!
My mom, the former microbiologist, is a big proponent of reiki. It’s something that my great-grandmother did (and did successfully) before it came known to people as Japanese energy healing. Put simply, someone performs reiki on another person by using the energy around them to heal or calm the recipient’s body. This can be done through gentle touch, or moving their hands over the body.
When my mom made an appointment for me to get reiki in Sussex, I figured what the hell. I can’t do massage or acupuncture in my current state, so a gentle therapy sounded like the next best thing.
I arrived not really knowing what to expect. The Reiki Master first asked me a bunch of questions, then laid me down on a massage table. He began by going through the reflexology points on my feet. He pushed on various areas and I told him when one hurt more than the other. This part was the most interesting, because the areas I picked out as being tender were those areas I have the most troubles with – inner ear, sciatic nerve, lymph glands, ovaries, and pancreas. He taught me how to work these areas on my feet to help ease these spots.
After that, he began the whole-body therapy. He began by gently touching my feet and went up through the whole body. I closed my eyes and tried to relax, but it was hard not to get distracted. The Reiki Master spent a lot of time moving his hands quickly over my heart (where the most active part of the cancer is) and I could feel the air whistling down my body as he pushed the energy towards my feet.
When we were all done, he taught me how to meditate, which I am SO thankful for. I’ve been trying and failing to meditate for over a year now. I will definitely give his method a try.
Overall, I don’t really have many deep thoughts on the experience. I think I was too preoccupied when I walked in the door to get a deeper experience out of it. I’ve been having pain in my skeleton all week as a drug side-effect and was very wrapped up in that. The reiki did help temporarily ease the pain because it helped me relax and take my mind off it. If anything, I just hope the reiki helped reduce the inflammation in my body, and maybe help the chemo kill those cancer cells.
The other part of the mini adventure included the out-of town trip!
Sussex, New Brunswick is a small town surrounded by dairy farms and home to about a gajillion murals.
Mom knew just the place for lunch – Broadway Cafe.
A cute little place that doubles as a cafe-restaurant during the day, and a place for drinks at night.
They had an extensive sandwich menu. I went with one of my favourites – smoked pastrami with mustard and pickles. I ordered this right after the Reiki Master told me not to mix my meat and starches. I’m working on it!!
A+ on the meat, A+ on the bread, but together the bread got soggy. My mom and I discussed how this is a combination Montreal has managed to perfect.
Side salad was delicious. Called a “Red Head Salad” it had red cabbage, apples, carrots, cucumbers, raisins, walnuts, and a creamy herbed dressing.
With our bellies full, Mom and I wandered the streets of Sussex, enjoying being tourists for a day.
We poked our heads in all the knick-knack shops. I love antiques! Actually, I don’t think these are even technically antiques. “Old junk” may be more appropriate.
I can’t wait until the day I have a house to fill with my own cool junk :)
Everyone has been asking me if reiki is something I will do again, and I think my answer would be “yes.” But not right away. I think I will let the chemo do its thing first and perhaps explore more alternative medicine when the poisons are out of my body and I can focus more on making sure the cancer never comes back. One treatment at a time I think.
Remember when this was a food and exercise blog?
Well I still do those things! Just on a much, much smaller scale.
Even though I whine about getting cancer despite all my healthy habits, I must say, it hasn’t all been for naught. My chemotherapy side effects haven’t been that bad. Not nearly as bad as some of the horror stories I’ve seen and heard. I credit my pre-cancer lifestyle for my ability to stay strong and withstand the powerful chemo poisons. I also hope my healthy body will be able to help the chemo work its magic faster!
Everyone told me to rest during treatment, but eventually my body started getting weak from lying around all day. I decided I wanted to try to stay active in order to keep my body strong. Then I read this New York Times article which says:
For those who can handle it, though, a light or moderate exercise regimen could help reduce some side effects of treatment, the new report stated. Studies have shown, for example, that arm extensions and other range-of-motion exercises can help relieve lymphedema, a painful swelling of the arm stemming from breast cancer surgery. It can also help patients who gained weight during treatment slim down and regain some physical function, and combat some of the exhaustion stemming from chemotherapy.
On top of that, the study showed that exercise could reduce a breast cancer patient’s risk of dying by 40 percent and 30 percent for a person with prostate cancer. They’re not kidding around!
Honestly, when I first read that I realized that there really no longer exists any excuse not to do some kind of exercise. Then, I promptly hopped on my dad’s recumbent bike.
For over a week now I’ve been taking care to get 30-60 minutes of light to moderate exercise almost every day. The usual mix of cardio, strength, and stretching. Cardio has to be monitored because the most active part of the cancer is around my superior vena cava, the main vein that goes into my heart. So nothing more than 65% of my max heart rate. Strength on the other hand is difficult because I’m recovering from surgery on BOTH arms now. One side is my elbow, the other side from getting a lymph node removed (with mild lymphedema as mentioned in the excerpt above).
It may seem counter productive to exercise when my biggest side effect is extreme fatigue (think run over by a mack truck x1000). However, working up a little sweat helps me bust through the fatigue and provides a big boost of energy!
In terms of food, I’m finally making the switch to organic.
I’ve always been too cheap to do this in the past. Especially when I couldn’t measure any concrete benefits from doing so.
Well it’s no longer a matter of preventing myself from getting cancer when I’m 64. It’s matter of getting rid of cancer today and making sure it neverever comes back. I now know I’m one of those people who are more susceptible to developing cancer. Suddenly the extra dollar for a can of garbanzo beans doesn’t seem so steep.
On top of going organic, I’m attempting to cut back to one serving of dairy and one serving of meat a day. Experimenting with some new products for fun!
Fresh fruits and veggies may sound like the easy go-to, but chemotherapy actually makes this the difficult part. I am a bacteria-free zone, and produce is crawling with it.
I joined an organic CSA before I was diagnosed and without it, I probably wouldn’t feel the pressure to eat any vegetables. So for this, I’m thankful.
I know a lot of people praise the benefits of raw vegetables, but I’m instructed to cook them down to kill any nasty stuff that may be lurking on them. And thanks to chemo deteriorating my stomach lining, green mush is a lot easier to digest.
Stir-fry with a blackened chicken breast. Sauce made with goat yogurt. It’s what’s for dinner.
Suddenly food and exercise aren’t just for my general health anymore, they’re for my LIFE.