December 2007

In Case You Were Wondering...But Were Too Afraid to Ask!

Author: Lindsey Hawkins

Choose to be dying of cancer or choose to be living with cancer. It boils down to this one very difficult decision.

I can only imagine it would be hard to choose optimism in the face of a future possibly cut short by an illness for which people are still walking for the cure. However, there are angels disguised as cancer patients who bring courage and hope to the survivors and future soldiers battling this ancient disease.

These patients choose to keep on living with their heads held high. Most have no idea that if their daily actions were broadcast, they would inspire a nation with the notion that life is about the simple things: family, friends, love and hope.

Hello fellow islanders, this month I am talking about cancer. It’s not a death sentence.

In case you were wondering…

According to the American Cancer Society, 678,060 women and 766,860 men make up the estimated cancer cases reported for 2007. The most current data suggests an approximate 63 percent overall survival rate that varies per sex, age, race and type of cancer.

New research and developments for the cure are found every year, but did you know that the human race has been fighting this illness since 1600 B.C. when the Egyptians first described it as tumors and ulcers of the breast? Back then it wasn’t called cancer, but it was recorded that there was no cure. Today, almost 90 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer survive.

Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, is actually responsible for the origin of the word cancer. He referred to the illness as carcinoma, a Greek word used to describe a crab, a shape cancer frequently resembles with its leg-like extensions. Giovanni Morgagni of Padua, Italy, performed autopsies in the mid-1700s with a purpose of relating a person’s cause of death to what was found in the body. This process, which is still performed today in cancer research, is called scientific oncology.

Other historic doctors made huge strides toward the cure for cancer before their time. Dr. John Hunter of Scotland wrote about surgically removing tumors which had not yet spread to other organs in the body. Today, this life-saving process is called a mastectomy.

With ingenious inventions such as the microscope and Rudolf Virchow’s modern cellular pathology, finding cancer before it spreads has become more of a precise science than a guessing game—not to mention that detecting cancer has, fortunately, become a process that now happens while patients are alive.

Modern day research has brought about treatments and created a new era of cancer survivors. Radiation and chemotherapy, which have also been a long time in historical development, are the most common treatments used to battle cancer today.

But what is it like to be the patient, the soldier, the one who has to go through the treatment? What is it like to sit in the chair and hear the words, “We found a lump”?

Here’s what you were too afraid to ask…

Her name is Margaret Lenora Donelson. She is 79 years old. She was 68 years old at her yearly check-up when she heard, “We found a lump.”

“I cried,” she said. “I was fine, and then I just started crying, and the doctor just put her arms around me and petted me.”

For most, cancer is a life-altering experience, but it shouldn’t have to be a life-consuming experience, according to Donelson. She cried at first, and then the fight in her was released. It’s funny how, for me, nothing seems real or hits home until I see it. I have been fortunate enough to live in the protective environment my parents provided. Well, last month I received a dose of humbling reality. She was my grandmother—my Mommom.

I knew about her breast cancer when it first started at age 68, but I had no idea how it really affects a person until now, 11 years later. She told me that the doctors got most of the breast cancer during the first biopsy. After operating, they got the rest of it, and then she endured radiation. After 30 treatments, she was in the clear.

“It didn’t hurt,” she said. “I set the treatments at 4 p.m. so I could play golf.”

Mommom made it to her five-year mark of breast cancer survival, and her battle seemed to be a thing of the past. I really don’t remember being involved, sadly. I was in high school, and I was more self-concerned back then. But I do remember I prayed a lot. And then, in what seemed like a blink of an eye for me, she was cured. Eight years later, she was diagnosed with cancer again.

This time was different. We were in Tahoe when Mommom started feeling pain in her lower back. She went back to her doctor and an MRI revealed a tumor in her pelvic bone. I found out she had pelvic bone cancer shortly after a trip where the most important thing in life seemed to be margaritas and gin rummy.

“I was shocked,” Mommom said. “I never expected it to come back; I thought I was cured.”

This diagnosis was not curable, but treatable. After the tumor was removed, 20 radiation treatments shrunk the remainder. The real battle began here. Mommom knew she could live a long time if the bone cancer stayed in the bone. So, chemotherapy was necessary. The first type of chemo nearly killed her. She was in the hospital for five days with every side effect in the book, including a mouth full of blisters.

“I never cried this time around,” she said, “not even from the pain. It never hits me fast; one day I will probably see something funny and I’ll laugh until I get to cryin’.”

The thing about chemo is that it’s trial and error. The second chemo, Doxil, didn’t have any side effects, but her body eventually stopped responding to it and she had to move on to a third called Abraxane. This chemo, like the others, made her tired, but she was not prepared to lose her hair, which followed shortly after she began the Abraxane.

“It all came out in one week, and I felt awful,” she said. “But you can’t dwell on it.”

She bought a wig before all the hair came out. No one, including me, can believe how real it looks. I thought it was her real hair when I went to visit. Mommom said next time she wanted to get one with more curl.

“One of the perks is you can change your hair color and style anytime you want,” she said.

You can’t break someone who thinks the way she does, and you can learn a lot about life through someone who looks on the bright side and finds the perks of chemotherapy. Treatment is three weeks on and one week off. Golf is now a fond memory for my grandmother, but she has not been sick since the first round of chemo. Chemo now lasts about 30 minutes per treatment, which includes an anti-nausea bag in her drip and a once-a-month bone builder.

I came face to face with my grandmother a month ago. The last time I saw her was at my college graduation last December. I was humbled by her strength and grace. Even in a do-rag, she seemed tougher and wiser than anyone. She drove me around the whole weekend and out-ate me at every meal. We watched a British comedy that, oddly enough, I had watched on my own a couple weeks prior to my visit. I was the happiest I had been in a while. I think she was too.

“I talk to God every night and I talk to my family,” Mommom said. “When I hurt, I get mad, but I don’t dwell on it. You have to live your life and do everything you can normally do and don’t sit around and feel sorry for yourself.”

I am inspired, and hopefully you can share in this small town woman’s faith and bring peace to those who are trying to answer the question, “why?” I truly know that it’s the little things in life that make it worth living: my family, my friends, British comedies and margaritas in Tahoe.

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