Cancer realities…


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Cancer is scary — duh…

What’s also scary is paying for it — I’m lucky that I have a job with good insurance and a low annual out of pocket maximum — but, other folks aren’t so luck.

Today Andy and I were talking about my cancer care… my surgery poliday is coming up — so, three years ago today I still had two boobs — and I knew one of them was trying to kill me.

My experience with cancer has changed the way I look at life and the world in general — for example —

  • They told me I had cancer over the phone.  There was no “we can’t give you the test results, you need to come in to the office” drama — nope, it was “there’s cancer in your biopsy — if you can be in Woodbury at noon, you can see an excellent surgeon” -wow… I’m typing this from the office where I took that phone call.  The memory is strong.
  • Being diagnosed with cancer is a long process — first, they detect it and they can tell how aggressive it is.  Mine was super aggressive.  It takes much longer to know the extent of the problem.  You get that news from your oncologist.  They do a variety of tests on you before and immediately after surgery — then the oncologist looks at all the information and formulates a treatment plan.
  • Cancer is expensive — very expensive.  My medical bill from May to December in my cancer year would have been something like $500,000 “retail” — my insurance company paid out about $250,000 in that year alone.
  • The first person you talk to at the cancer clinic is the business office — before you see a doctor or a nurse, before they weigh you or any medical professional talks to  you — you explain to the cancer clinic how you’re planning to pay for their services.  Mine was easy — they’d looked up my insurance, saw that my company pays for stuff and it was a quick meeting.  I asked what would happen if I didn’t have good insurance?  The answer was, in effect, we’d ask you about other assets — a house, savings etc.  Yep — paying for treatment may have meant taking out a second mortgage on a house I don’t own..
  • Cancer treatment comes with “education” — I had a class on chemo, taught by a great chemo nurse.  They talk about the side effects… all of them.  Then at your first appointment with the doctor, the doctor’s nurse tells you about the side effects — then the doctor tells you about them.  Each portion of this “education” takes about an hour… by the time  you’re done, you’re really freaked out.
  • You probably won’t  get most of the side effects — and you don’t lose your hair with every kind of chemo.
  • If you like avocados – eat lots of them while your taste is more sensitive… just trust me on that one… you won’t regret it!
  • “Chemo” isn’t a standard medication.  Instead, they look at your kind of cancer and proscribe a mixture of drugs to fight your cancer.  They also proscribe a mixture of drugs to reduce the side effects, both in the clinic and when you go home.
  • Getting your chemo takes a while in the clinic.  They hook you up and the medication drips into you over the course of a few hours.  This is when you come to love the chemo nurses — they keep an eye on you to make sure you’re comfortable.  They bring you snacks and ask you about your life — They also know their patients well, so if the doctor writes down something that seems unusual to them, they’ll check it out before they give you the drug.
  • While you’re sitting in the chemo chair, other patients will probably be right next to you — sometimes with family, sometimes not.  Often they take a nap, read or watch TV — and if you’re lucky, you’ll have a chemo buddy or two.  My favorite chemo buddy was an older woman with the same diagnosis as me… she was further along on the path, so she could tell me about her experiences and I had a first-hand account of what would probably happen.
  • A good chemo clinic will have lots of resources for their patients — emotional and financial support, a nutritionist and other folks to help you adjust to your new body image.  This is part of the general idea that cancer patients are people and their whole lives are important to their cancer recovery.
  • A good oncologist is one who is interested in the patient’s whole life — mine is awesome.  When we have an appointment, we talk about life, what’s going on in both of our home lives and what we’d like to accomplish in the future.  Mine celebrated with me when I completed my Ph.D — and he was genuinely happy for me in the way that a relative or close friend would be… He’s also my primary medical resource for other things — because I trust him to give me good advice.
  • Having a good support system at home and work is essential, both during treatment and afterward.  Having a few close friends and family who will take you to treatment, cook you bland food, cut up your avocados and generally make sure you’re doing ok makes life much better.
  • Cancer is scary — but it’s not the end of your life as you know it.  It’s kind of like taking a long detour into a bad neighborhood — if you have a good team in your car, you can make it out the other side with a lot of life lessons about how other folks live.  You may end up on a different life trajectory on the other side, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad one.  It’s just different.
  • Living as a cancer patient in “observation” stage means that you are much more aware of the problems other folks may have.  You learn to have compassion for yourself and others — not to take life so seriously and generally to enjoy the people you love that much more.

In the end, I can never say that I’m glad I had cancer.  I can say that I learned a lot from the experience, that I’d like to have my left boob back (provide it wouldn’t try to kill me) and that I like my post-cancer life as much or probably more than my pre-cancer life.  Like many enriching life experiences, cancer isn’t an easy way to learn these lessons — but, it’s the path I ended up on and I’m happy to be on the other side.

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