Illustration by David Busby
I have cancer. At 8:30 a.m. on June 30, 2010, the results of a needle biopsy from a swollen lymph node in my neck fundamentally changed my life. Lymphoma.
Suspended in disbelief and struggling to understand what this meant, I began moving through the medical maze. One oncologist wanted to start chemotherapy the next day. I sought a second opinion. This doctor wanted more information to pinpoint my exact type of lymphoma. Then and there, he became my oncologist.
That summer was a blur, like slogging through knee-deep mud. I felt like a silver ball being tossed about in a pinball machine. I had lots of blood work – ping – and then my first CT scan — ping — which showed multiple tumor sites, above and below my abdomen. That was followed by the excision of a complete node — ping — and then a bone marrow biopsy – ping, ping, ping . I was comforted and supported by my daughter and a circle of fine and true friends. They drove me to appointments, held my hand through painful procedures, took notes while the doctor talked, let me cry, made me laugh, fed me and held me up.
The diagnosis was stage 3, non-Hodgkin indolent B-cell lymphoma. At that appointment, the doctor said it was a non-aggressive lymphoma and that I should think of it as a chronic disease. He explained a protocol called "watch and wait," where there wouldn't be active treatment, but instead, close monitoring of the growth of the disease; eventually there would be chemotherapy treatment. But he said he understood that I was struggling with fatigue (one of lymphoma's symptoms), so it was up to me; if I wanted chemo now, he would do that.
I left his office and burst into tears. I wanted this cancer out of my body. I was tired of feeling lousy and fatigued. I wanted a clear answer as to what I should do. I was frustrated that he was leaving this monumental decision up to me. I was supposed to give him my answer in one week.
That night as I climbed into the safe cocoon of my bed, I was emotionally and mentally drained. The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed for the first time in months. Everything had tumbled into place overnight and I knew what I was going to do. I was excited, eager and confident. I was not going to have chemo. I suddenly understood the "watch and wait" concept. My disease was there, but moving slowly; a disease I will have for life. Chemo can manage it, but chemo damages healthy cells, too, so I want to limit the number of times I subject my body to its rigors.
I determined to trust my body, my heart and my mind, to put together my own treatment plan and to hold off the chemo as long as I could. I made an appointment with my internist to tell her my plan and enlist her support. She was behind me all the way.
Stress Reduction. We all need some stress in our lives, but too much is a bad thing. I resigned from one board and as a committee chair on another. Through all of this, I continued working full time, but I pulled back on some of the really long days. If we had an evening event, I would rest in the afternoon for a few hours. I learned to say "no" to invitations so as not to be out too many nights of the week. I took more control of my time and made it a priority to get plenty of sleep.
Meditation. This was part of the stress reduction as well, but it went beyond that, too. I learned to visualize the cancerous lymph nodes being sifted from my body. I set the tone of my day with 20 minutes of quiet meditation and ended my days with the visualization.
Nutrition. Thanks to my internist, I came to know a wonderful nutritionist. She asked for more blood work and immediately saw I had a severe Vitamin D deficiency as well as a B12 deficiency, which was most likely the root cause of my fatigue. We worked on those through supplements and food. I've learned a lot from her and am now eating more vegetarian meals, although I'm not ready to give up fish, chicken and a good burger or steak on occasion. My vitamin levels are in the normal range and being monitored.
Exercise. I have always loathed it, even while understanding its importance to my health. I had met a woman six months earlier who did yoga therapy and still had her business card. She teaches Svaroopa yoga and it proved to be exactly what I needed. I've remained a faithful student for more than a year.
Massage. My gifted massage therapist goes beyond the traditional methods and uses a combination of Jin Shin Do (a type of acupressure) and cranio-sacral therapy (massage focused on the head) during my bi-monthly appointments. She soothes and heals my muscles, as well as my mind and spirit.
It's been more than two years now. Last December, my oncologist asked if I was still following my program. When I told him I was, his eyes twinkled and he broke into a big grin and said, "Well, it's working for you. The scan shows less disease in your body than when I first saw you."
I am grateful. Most days I don't even think about having cancer. Will I be able to keep it at bay forever? Anything is possible.