How cancer treatment works
Cancer is a world of its own. Sudden entrance into this world can be disorientating, frightening– alienating. The diagnosis introduces the patient to the dynamics of cancer treatment in the U.S.that would intimidate a battle-hardened Marine. There’s a lot of testing to be done before a patient can be considered for chemotherapy, if the extent of the cancer requires it. And then, it could take place either before or after surgery, if surgery takes place at all.. A great deal of preparation, which the patient has to stoically bear, challenges any shyness concerning exposing ones unclothed body to strangers. Medical personnel do their best to support and reassure the patient, laboring to lessen the dehumanizing property of serious illness.
Chemotherapy (aka “chemo”) is as varied as are the patients and their responses to the drugs. There are a number of chemo drugs available and “protocols” (established procedures) for the use of these drugs, depending on the type and extent of the cancer. Simply put, these drugs are toxic to rapidly dividing cancer cells– cells which are rapidly multiplying– displacing healthy cells– stealing their blood supply–, starving to death the “good” cells.
Chemo drugs stop cancer cells from rapid division– killing them. Unfortunately, chemo can also kill “good” cells in the process. This is why some patients lose body hair– have malformed or disrupted nail growth. Hair and nails divide rapidly relative to our other cells and so are easily affected by chemo drugs.
There are other side effects which are not cosmetic and can be harmful to the patient. Anemia, low white cell count; organ damage, nerve and blood vessel damage– pain. There are the more common side effects such as weakness, tiredness, nausea, loss of appetite. Most of these side effects can be addressed and lessened or alleviated. Some of the damage will disappear on its own after chemo has finished– some may not.
Chemo is not the only cancer therapy. Radiation therapy can be adjunct to chemo or stand alone if chemo is not indicated. The area of cancer is targeted and radiation is given over a period of time to kill the cancer cells. The skin in the targeted area suffers from “burn”, much like a very bad sunburn. Non-cancerous cells in the targeted area suffer acceptable collateral damage, death. The patient is, at the very least, tired and sore.
I first considered developing this blog as a project to help those breast cancer survivors who never stray far from their diagnosis even after successful treatment. Survivors might recite mantras such as “cancer does not define me” but there’s the rub. A diagnosis of cancer serves as a protective layer as well as a barrier– deflecting responsibility and providing a safe harbor. Social and political mechanisms have stealthily pressured anxious cancer patients to accept labeling and become unwitting members of an exclusive “cancer club”.
Disease is a great leveler. For some, this may be the only “social club” to which they will ever belong. Fellow members may be the only friends they have or, perhaps, the only ones with genuine acceptance and understanding. It is sad to acknowledge that cancer was once looked upon as shameful– not to be mentioned. That was not so long ago. I remember as a child, adults whispering about the “C ” word as if it were some obscene disease, blamed on the unfortunate individual for his/her imperfection or deficiency.
Regrettably, that embarrassment still lingers in our modern society. People still whisper and many do not know what cancer is or how it is treated. Telling a friend, or co-worker, even a relative, of his/her diagnosis often renders them uncomfortable, speechless, or causes them to disappear from the patient’s life– returning much later, claiming they had been too busy to even pick up the phone. Oddly enough, strangers and people you do not know very well, perform acts of kindness you would not expect but often badly need.
We do not know if this way of living is harmful to the survivors’ emotional and perhaps even physical well-being.. It certainly is preferable to prejudice or indifference. To the unanointed, at the very least it can be annoying to be around someone who wears his/her cancer experience as a badge of achievement. We just have to remind ourselves that cancer without successful treatment is usually a death sentence.
It is easy for the survivor to be lured into the emotion-absorbing folds of the cancer club and become a participant in the campaign for a cure. The active cancer patients and the cancer survivors are honored to walk for the cure, wear pink shirts– carry pink tote bags, pink beach towels; write pink personal checks, etc., each emblazoned with the breast cancer logo. Quite a coup for breast cancer research. All the PR and marketing has greatly benefited breast cancer research.
Aside from early detection, 1 in 8 women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. A case of breast cancer is diagnosed among women every 2 minutes and a woman dies from breast cancer every 13 minutes in the U.S. (Breast cancer facts and figures 2011-2012 ACS; Cancer facts and figures 2012 ACS).
The object of my affection
I had considered focusing this blog on cancer and its victims. I will on occasion cover such issues as they arise in my random Rolodex of a memory. I will reluctantly blame cancer treatment for some of that. Yep. I have a membership in the cancer club [Now is when it dawns on you the cause for all that rambling on about a cancer club and annoying cancer survivors].
The Breakfast Club will be about anything and everything ( within reason and good taste). I will spin the old Rolodex and see what pops up.. My aim (short list) is to transmit wisdom and knowledge– sporting a dry sense of humor and an attraction to the odd, the unattainable, and a moderate interest in macro-economics.
Join me next time for an examination of coulrophobia (does it actually exist?) and, something completely different.