On being radioactive

10991307_10153055708750915_6654881605691342497_nThough we often laugh and joke about it, there’s nothing fun about being radioactive two weeks out of every year. I don’t glow in the dark and I don’t have any special powers. I simply feel tired and have to limit the time I spend in close contact with other people. It’s not that bad really, but when I sit alone and watch Sunday morning’s sermon online and when my husband is out at a social event while I’m at home alone, it’s easy to start feeling a bit sorry for myself.

People often compliment me on my positive attitude and I think they’re right that it has a lot to do with how well my cancer battle is going, but there are moments when it’s hard to remain positive, when I’m tempted to invite myself to a private pity party.

For those who are new to my blog, I have neuroendocrine tumours (NETS), a little-known cancer that is often quite advanced at diagnosis due to the fact that its most common symptoms are very similar to more common ailments such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s disease, lactose intolerance, asthma, and even menopause. Though it’s incurable, it is slow-growing and often treatable. I have the good fortune to live 2.5 hours by car from a state of the art treatment centre, one of the very few in North America that offer the latest and best treatment available for this type of cancer.

At this point, I am treated with radioisotope therapy once every six months. This involves an overnight stay at the cancer clinic followed by a week of semi-isolation at home. During that week I have to have my own bedroom and my own bathroom and I have to limit my contact with other people because I’m highly radioactive. I pose an especially high risk to pregnant women and children under the age of 12.

I had my most recent treatment on Wednesday. Scans the following morning showed that my condition continues to be stable. My cancer has not grown or spread. That’s exceptionally good news and when I start to feel sorry for myself, I have to remind myself of that!

The first couple of days of radioactivity aren’t bad. I spend a lot of time in the armchair in the corner of our guest room (which becomes my room for the week) or curled up on the love seat in my den. I’ve read almost two books in the past few days and drank copious cups of tea. By today, however, I’m beginning to miss human contact and I’m itching to be set free!

I did go for a short walk this afternoon. It’s a gloomy, grey Sunday afternoon in our very small town and the temperature is -5ºC (23ºF). Two vehicles went by, one at a distance and the other close enough for the driver to wave. Other than that, I didn’t see a single soul. Definitely no danger of radiating anyone! I could hear traffic out on the highway, my own feet crunching on the snow, and the occasional winter bird in the trees. It didn’t do a great deal to lift my spirits, but I’m sure the fresh air and exercise were good for me.

When I start feeling a little mopey, perhaps it’s a good idea to once again remind myself of the things that cancer cannot do.

What Cancer Cannot Do

Cancer is so limited…

It cannot cripple LOVE

It cannot shatter HOPE

It cannot corrode FAITH

It cannot destroy PEACE

It cannot kill FRIENDSHIP

It cannot suppress MEMORIES

It cannot silence COURAGE

It cannot invade the SOUL

It cannot steal ETERNAL LIFE

It cannot conquer THE SPIRIT

Author Unknown

It may leave me radioactive for a little while and feeling a bit sorry for myself. It may even eventually destroy my body, but as the poem says, it cannot conquer MY SPIRIT! 

As the old saying goes, “This too shall pass!” Two more days and I’ll be free again!

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NET Cancer Day 2017

Net Cancer DayMy weekly Fashion Friday feature is taking a break today as I have something much more important to share. November 10 is World NET Cancer Day, a day set aside to raise awareness of neuroendocrine cancer, the disease that I’ve been fighting since 2013. Those of us who have been affected by NETS (neuroendocrine tumours) hope that for today our voices will rise above those of all the more well-known and prominent diagnoses. Today is our day to be heard by decision makers, health professionals and the general public. In addition to raising awareness, we want to encourage more funds for research, treatments, and patient support; and to advocate for equal access to care and treatment for NETS patients around the world.

So as not to disappoint those of you who came looking for a fashion post, here’s what I’m wearing today… my CNETS Canada t-shirt. I don’t usually wear graphic tees, but the message on this one is a vital one.

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If you don’t suspect it, you can’t detect it. 

So what’s with the zebras? Medical students are taught when hearing hoofbeats, to think of horses, not zebras. Neuroendocrine tumours are difficult to diagnose. Though they are the fastest growing class of cancers worldwide, their symptoms are usually vague and similar to more common health problems.  Many family doctors have never encountered a NETS patient. When presented with symptoms like stomach pain and diarrhea, they naturally think of things like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease or lactose intolerance. They think of horses, not zebras. Hence, the zebra became our symbol.

As with all cancers, early diagnosis is important. Sadly it doesn’t happen often. If the initial tumour is found before any secondary growths occur, it can often be removed surgically and the patient is considered cured. Once it has spread, however, the disease is incurable.

NETS arises from neuroendocrine cells which can be found anywhere in the body. The most common types are found in the lungs, bronchi, thymus, pituitary, thyroid, adrenal glands, intestines, pancreas, appendix, and rectum. They may also occur in other areas including the ovaries, cervix, testicles, and spleen. NETS is a slow growing cancer that is often misdiagnosed. By the time a correct diagnosis is made, the cancer has often spread. In fact, 60 to 80% of NET cancer patients are diagnosed with advanced disease.

My primary tumour was in my colon. At the time of diagnosis, I also had three tumours on my liver and one in a lymph node. It was estimated that I had already had the disease for ten years when it was detected quite by accident! Off and on for at least seven or eight years I had been experiencing most of the common symptoms which include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, flushing of the skin, pounding of the heart, and wheezing or shortness of breath. Neither I nor my family doctor had any idea why.

Today coffee shops across Canada and around the world, including The Wooden Spoon here in Sedgewick, will be raising awareness about NETS by using special coffee cups bearing the slogan “Lets talk about NETS” and handing out promotional material to help educate their customers about the disease.

Lets-cup10

What can you do to help? You can help us spread awareness by simply reposting this on your blog if you have one or posting a link to it on your Facebook page. Thank you so much!

 

 

Good news!!

Good news

Four years post diagnosis, there are times when I almost forget that I have an incurable cancer. It’s no longer the first thing I think of when I wake up every morning and I’m sure there are days when it doesn’t even cross my mind.

Then there are days like today; days when it jumps to the forefront again. This morning started with CT scans of my head, neck, chest, and abdomen. Several hours later, we sat down with my doctor to discuss the results. I had no reason to anticipate bad news, but we’re fully aware that at any time the treatment could stop working. New growths could appear or tumours that have shrunk could start growing again. Someday, we probably will receive that kind of news, but not today!

Today, my doctor called me a “poster child” for the PRRT treatment protocol that I’ve been on since September 2014. He’s as delighted as we are with how well it’s been working for me. The largest tumour on my liver is noticeably smaller today than it was six months ago. The other remaining tumours appear unchanged and there are no new growths!

Quality of life is an important factor in cancer treatment and Dr. MacEwan is always delighted to hear that mine continues to be superb. It’s only days like this one that remind me that I have cancer! The rest of the time I’m busy living life to the fullest and with utmost gratitude to my amazing medical team, my many faithful praying friends, and the God who promised to take care of me on this journey.

Wink!

It’s Wink Day again today, a day set aside by the Canadian beauty industry to bring awareness to the appearance-related effects of cancer. For over 20 years, the industry has helped tens of thousands of Canadian women undergoing cancer treatment look and feel like themselves again with programs such as Look Good Feel Better and FacingCancer.ca.

Last year and the year before on Wink Day, women were encouraged to post pictures and videos of themselves wearing blue eyeshadow (with the hashtag #winkday) as a way of raising awareness of the Cancer Blues. The Cancer Blues is a term used to describe the emotional distress caused by cancer and its treatment, an often ignored consequence of the disease that can seriously affect a person’s ability to fight and thrive through the ordeal. On both of those occasions, I happened to be in Calgary visiting my daughter, so we both took part.

This year they’ve dropped the blue eyeshadow and are simply asking women to post pictures of themselves winking and share who it is that they’re winking for. It could be a family member, friend or acquaintance; anyone who is experiencing the effects of cancer treatment. I decided to wink for neuroendocrine tumour (NETS) patients worldwide. Since the zebra is our symbol, here’s my attempt at a zebra wink!

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The dots keep disappearing!

My life is broken into 6 month, 3 month, and 28 day units with a treatment every 6 months, a scan every 3 months, and an injection every 28 days. Last Tuesday, was treatment day followed by a scan early the next morning. I usually get the results right away, but this time the doctor wasn’t going to be in until later in the day and because no one was expecting anything worrisome, it was suggested that I not wait around to talk with him. Instead, I got the results over the phone today and they were definitely worth waiting for!

Six months ago, we heard the good news that one of the five tumours that I had at diagnosis was no longer showing up on the scan. There were only four black dots instead of five. This time, apparently there are only three! Another one seems to have disappeared! The primary (original) tumour in my colon as well as one of the three on my liver are no longer visible! That doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re gone. They could be, but what we do know for sure is that, at the very least, they’re so dead that they are no longer absorbing any of the radioactive substance that I’m treated with! In addition, two of the remaining three tumours are smaller than they were 6 months ago! That’s a lot of exclamation marks, but that’s a lot of good news!

My cancer is still considered incurable but when we spoke with the doctor prior to Tuesday’s treatment, he did tell us that people who get as far as I have (8 treatments) with this kind of success seem to have a very good chance of living a quality life for a long time. That’s a pretty vague prognosis, but it’s about the best they can say at this point and it’s good enough for me. It’s called hope; a lot more hope than I had a couple of years ago!

I would be remiss not to mention that though I have utmost appreciation for the medical advances that have brought us to this point and for those who are involved in providing my care, I also serve a miracle working God “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” and I give him full credit and glory for today’s good news! (Ephesians 3:20)

Fighting the third enemy

On February 7, shortly before our trip to Mexico, I had routine PET and CT scans to check on my neuroendocrine tumours (NETS). Diagnosed in September 2013, they are Enemy #1. NETS is a little known, slow growing cancer that’s usually considered incurable. Fortunately, in my case, treatment has been successful in shrinking the tumours and controlling the symptoms related to the hormones that they produce. For the most part, I feel 100% healthy and I’m able to lead a normal life.

Enemy #2 was a second completely unrelated cancer discovered in one of my salivary glands in March 2014. After seven hours of surgery and six weeks of radiation it was gone.

So what is Enemy #3?

Fear is not usually part of my vocabulary. I’ve placed my life in the hands of the creator of the universe and I trust Him completely. For the most part, I’ve held onto His promises to take care of me and I’ve experienced great peace, but there is an adversary who does his best to shake that confidence. He, or at least the anxiety that he instills, is Enemy #3.

Anxiety often begins as a little thing, but it feeds on itself. That’s what happened to me over the past couple of months and by this morning, when the phone finally rang to give me the results of last month’s scans, I was approaching a full-blown case of scanxiety.

When you have or have had cancer, it’s easy to start second guessing every ache or twinge and wondering if it’s related, if it’s a sign that something’s going wrong. That’s what happened this time. Back in January, I had a cold. It wasn’t even a particularly bad cold. It started in my sinuses, moved briefly into my ears and then settled in the lymph nodes in my neck. I knew that that’s a pretty normal scenario and that it can take awhile for the swelling and discomfort to dissipate, but I began to worry. When I’m stressed or anxious, I carry the tension in my jaw, neck and shoulders. I’m sure that that didn’t help. Add to that the fact that even almost three years after surgery, nerve damage to my face and neck is still gradually repairing itself. Sensations are constantly changing and feeling is returning where only numbness has been. I don’t even know what my neck is supposed to feel like anymore! Foolishly, I started wondering if maybe I was actually experiencing a recurrence of Enemy #2. Logically, I knew that that wasn’t the case, but Enemy #3 is insidious, sneaking doubts in where they don’t belong.

Then came Mexico. I relaxed, had a wonderful time and forgot all about my neck! On the way home, we spent a couple of days with grandchildren. The two year old, who attaches himself to me like velcro, had a nasty cold. Not surprisingly, I started to experience minor cold symptoms again and with them came a recurrence of the swelling in my neck. Enemy #3 started to poke and prod again.

Long story short, however, this morning’s phone call brought good news. Enemy #1 is still entirely stable. There’s been no growth or spread of my neuroendocrine tumours. Better yet, there’s absolutely no sign of Enemy #2; nothing unusual growing in my neck!

What a relief! Regardless of how weird my neck might feel, I can get on with living life. I will continue hanging on and not let Enemy #3 overcome me!

 

Not so rare after all!

November 10 was worldwide NET Cancer Day. In addition to writing my Let’s talk about NETS post, I read several other articles about neuroendocrine cancer that day and what I learned was quite astonishing.

When I was diagnosed with neuroendocrine cancer (NETS), I was told that it was rare and much of the literature about it seems to agree, but is it really? Is it actually rare, or is it just not very well-known?

You’ve heard of cystic fibrosis, right? And what about ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), often called Lou Gehrig’s disease after a hall-of-fame baseball player for the New York Yankees who was diagnosed with ALS in the 1930s? If you hadn’t already heard of that one, I suspect that the famous Ice Bucket Challenge of July and August 2014 brought it to your attention. Unless you’re a fellow patient, however, I’m guessing that you’d never heard of NETS before you read about it here on my blog, but is that because it’s rare?

Let’s take a look at some statistics. I’m using numbers for the United States simply because they were the easiest ones to track down, but I’m assuming that the ratio would be similar elsewhere. In the US, there are

  • approximately 1000 new cases of cystic fibrosis each year
  • a little over 6000 new cases of ALS each year
  • an estimated 15 500 new cases of NETS each year

Do the math! That’s more than 15 times as many cases of neuroendocrine cancer as cystic fibrosis and more than twice as many cases as ALS! It’s also an average of more than 42 new cases a day or more than one every two hours!

So why is NETS not nearly as well-known as the other two diseases and why does that matter? It matters because doctors don’t detect what they don’t suspect and they don’t suspect NETS if they don’t know anything about it. Secondly, more research dollars go to higher profile diseases. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, $49 million was spent on ALS research in the US in 2015 and $80 million on cystic fibrosis, but NETS wasn’t even on the report!

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I know you’d probably rather read about my travels or my Fashion Friday posts and they’re definitely more fun to write, but unfortunately, it falls upon patients like me to publicize and educate whenever and however we can. It might be easier if we had a Lou Gehrig, someone well-known to put a face to our disease, but that hasn’t happened yet. Our best hope so far was Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple Inc, but Jobs initially chose to reject his doctors’ recommendations and try alternative treatments, a decision that may have hastened his death in 2011. He was also very private about his condition which was, of course, his right, but he could have done so much good had he chosen to be a vocal spokesperson. The fact that the media, left in the dark by his silence, commonly reported that he died of pancreatic cancer rather than neuroendocrine cancer that originated in his pancreas, didn’t help our cause either.

Increasing awareness is a slow process, but I believe we’re making headway. In spite of the fact that it’s still not well-known, NETS is actually the fastest growing class of cancer worldwide! I believe that that’s because it’s being diagnosed more often and because improved treatments are allowing many of us to live longer. Our goal continues to be to raise awareness in both the medical field and the general public, so that research funds are made available that will lead to even earlier diagnosis and better treatment. It’s time for NETS to come out of the dark!