Cancer is a scary word. So is chemotherapy for that matter. My mom and I decided that this fear of words bunk and we shouldn’t be afraid. Here’s how we debunk cancer and chemotherapy so that we’re less scared. Cancer just means abnormal cell growth. That’s it. This abnormal growth of cells keeps growing until your organs can’t function and the cells can spread throughout your body via your lymph node system. However, to cure cancer it’s as simple as knocking back the abnormal cells and stopping them from spreading.
Cancer is a rapidly dividing cell. After a cell divides, be it cancer or normal cell, it’s weaker than a mature cell. This is where chemotherapy comes to the rescue! Chemotherapy is a low grade poison that kills immature cells. Chemo is personalized for each person and cancer. The side effect though is that chemo can affect other rapidly dividing cells, such as taste buds, all along the digestive track, hair follicles, nose lining and skin cells. Here’s where you get a lot chemo side effects (in order of rapidly dividing cell listed above): loss of tastes, nausea & diarrhea, baldness including eyebrows and eyelashes, nose bleeds, and dry/itchy skin. Chemo also beats down your red and white blood cells; as a result chemo patients are tired because they don’t get as much oxygen from the red blood cells and the immune system is compromised because they lack white blood cells. It may not be sexy (especially the diarrhea part…), but at least when I think about how and why chemo works, I’m a lot less scared. Chemotherapy, after all, is just proven medicine that kills abnormal cell growth (aka cancer). Knowing the science behind my treatment course – even at my layman’s level - makes it a lot less like black magic.
Sidebar. My mom would never forgive me if I didn’t put her favorite joke in here: since cancer kills the immature cells, that’s how we know my father wouldn’t survive chemotherapy since he’s all immature cells. He’d be brain dead. Har Har Har. That one may cost me the photo booth at my wedding. Worth it!
In my mom’s case, she has very small pockets of cancer left. They’re not responding to chemo just yet. Interestingly, this could mean that they’re not rapidly dividing so the chemo has less of an impact on them because there are few immature cells. My mom’s doctors recommended stopping chemo for a while and monitoring blood levels and doing scans in 2 months. My mom will also be taking a pill each day that hopefully stops cell growth and division. Her doctor estimated this could work for 6 to 12 months, with a chance it would work longer. If nothing else, this gives her body a chance to rebuild and recuperate. I’m still hoping she has her own hair by my wedding (selfish me!).
In related news, I recently had testing on my cancer cells left over from my surgery in November 2008. Apparently, UVA kept a sample all this time and it’s a good thing too! The test is called a K-RAS testing (not sure on the spelling or what it stands for. Google it if you care!) The KRAS testing shows what chemos my cancer cells respond too. Luckily for me, the cancer responded best to the chemotherapies that I’m already taking. Lucky for my doctor too! We would have had some words. (Kidding.) My cancer cells also responded to other treatments – by “responded to” I mean “died rapidly with”. My wonderful doctor said that I have a lot of options for treatment. My sister called it a good kind of cancer - and here I thought “otherwise healthy” was an oxymoron.
If you wanted to fire up your positive thoughts, please send them to me at the hospital on Monday through Thursday. Chemo #3 – Wohoo! More cancer cell dying and more violent vomiting. Guess which part I’m more looking forward to? I’ll also have a CAT scan early Monday to get an update on my progress. I’m nervous, but also pretty positive that this cancer has been knocked back a significant amount. I spent the weekend feeling pretty good for the most part. Minor pain that was controllable and I had free time that I got to take a 3 hour nap one day. Winning.
Chin up. Positive attitudes and no more fear of cancer or chemotherapy. It's just semantics anyway.