Walking the third pathway: living with chronic cancer

“Have you finished having treatments yet?”

“How many more treatments do you have to have?”

These are questions that I’m asked constantly. When someone has cancer, people usually expect one of two outcomes; either you’re cured or you die. Because two years have passed since my neuroendocrine cancer was diagnosed and I’m obviously still very much alive, people automatically assume that I must fall into the first category, those who beat the disease and move on. Few are even aware that there’s a third pathway. With proper treatment, however, some cancers are considered chronic. Though incurable, they can often be controlled with proper treatment and the patient can live what appears to be a relatively normal existence. That’s the road that I’m on.

“Have you finished having treatments yet?”

No. I’ll probably have to have them for the rest of my life.

“How many more treatments do you have to have?”

That depends entirely on how long I live.

People are usually startled by my responses, but this is the reality that I live with. It’s entirely possible that I’ll eventually die of my cancer, but I could also die with it. All I can say for sure is that, at present, things are going in the right direction. I had another treatment on Tuesday morning and the follow up scans showed that my primary tumour, which is located in my colon, has continued to shrink. In fact, it’s tiny compared to the size it was at diagnosis. That, in itself, was very good news, but we also learned that the largest of the three tumours on my liver has now started to diminish in size and there are no new growths. Obviously, the treatments are working! How long that will continue to be the case, no one has any idea, but we do know that there are new treatments on the horizon and when this one stops working, there will probably be something else that we can try.

So, what’s it like walking this third pathway?

There are plenty of things that I’d still like to accomplish in life and places I’d like to go. Some I’d like to return to and others I want to see for the first time. It may sound surprising, but there hasn’t been a huge sense of urgency to try to cram these things into whatever time I might have left. Perhaps that’s because our focus for the past two years has been largely on fighting, not one, but two cancers; the neuroendocrine tumours (NETS) that put me on the third pathway as well as the completely separate and unrelated cancer that was diagnosed seven months later. With that one out of the way and my NETS well under control now, maybe we can begin to focus more on crossing things off my unwritten bucket list, but the lack of urgency may also be due to the fact that I don’t really sense that my end is imminent. You see, I really hope to be one of the ones who dies with this disease, not of it.

I still plan for the future, but I’ve also been learning to inhabit one square on the calendar at a time. Walking this pathway has definitely given me a greater appreciation for the moment and for the small things in life. I’ve always loved hiking, but the delight that it gave me this summer was greater than ever before. I was simply so thankful to be able to do it! I don’t take things like that for granted anymore.

I’ve always been one who believed in living life to the fullest; now I just have to do that within the confines of my treatment. There are limitations, of course, especially during a week like this one when I’m highly radioactive, but overall, I am blessed to be able to continue living a fairly normal life.

NETS

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