When we are diagnosed with cancer, we are in so much turmoil that making life-saving decisions is so very difficult. All of a sudden, we are inundated with statistics of which treatment(s) are most likely to save our lives. Not to mention the maelstrom that a cancer diagnosis causes in our lives..
So, with a shaky leap of even shakier faith, we cast the dice, hoping our medical decisions turn out in our favor.
“You are lucky,” says my cheerful radiation oncologist. “Radiation is safe. It will not harm your heart because the cancer is in your right breast.” I love her for her sunny disposition and cheerfulness. It is the only time I feel good during this shitty time of diagnosis. And I am reassured that the treatment protocol I chose based on the medical numbers will help destroy the cancer once and for all.
Several weeks earlier, my surgeon gave me a choice. Either I could have a mastectomy with no radiation or a breast-sparing lumpectomy with radiation. He spoke highly of the latter choice, saying that a lumpectomy with radiation had the same effects on killing cancer as a mastectomy.
I chose to keep my breast and receive radiation.
When I finished chemotherapy, there was thankfully no bell to celebrate the end of this treatment. But when I finished radiation, the bubbly radiation oncologist and her staff gave me a signed certificate and hearty congratulations and ushered me out the door of the radiation area.
This was in 2001. And I’ve been so fortunate thus far. As far as I know, I’m cancer-free.
But 2019 has reminded me that one is never, ever done with cancer.
I had been having difficulty breathing toward the beginning of the year and went to a new-to-me primary care physician. And he had the balls to tell me what other doctors denied: that radiation treatment permanently damaged my lungs. “The lungs are right behind the breast,” he said before I went blank. Stunned, I told him, “Well, isn’t that nice. Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving.” He smiled painfully.
Unlike my previous primary care physician who was dismissive — telling me my chemobrain was really age-related and bone density problems were due to menopause (chemo-induced), this new doctor gave me a gift:
And he gave me another special gift: a prompt referral to a pulmonologist, who concurred with the primary care physician. After a series of brutal tests that left me gasping for breath, I was diagnosed with asthma and restrictive lung disease. My pulmonologist told me that my condition was “out of control” and, while my lung condition was permanent, there were things I could do to alleviate the symptoms and gain control over my breathing. I needed to lose weight to take the pressure off my lungs.I also had to take a strong daily powder inhaler and use a “rescue inhaler” as needed.
I’m an overachiever. Give me a finite medical goal (or any goal for that matter), and I will do my best to achieve it. The next time I saw my pulmonologist, I had lost 10 pounds, thanks to exercise and eating better. My breathing was markedly improved. My doctor was happy and reiterated how much he wanted me to have a quality of life. He said words that were gold to me: he didn’t need to see me so soon. I needed a six-month appointment.
My appointment is coming up, and I’m another 10 pounds lighter. While my breathing continues to be better than before I was treated for my condition, I still have those off days — when there’s a tightness in my chest or I’m short-winded.
Like many people, I took breathing for granted. Breathing is so underrated.
I am now content to be gradually improving and feeling stronger. I am grateful for a better quality of life. And I’m super grateful that I had some power to alleviate the symptoms of my condition.
I am beyond proud of myself and my progress.
I’m hell-bent on losing the next 10 pounds.
My health is my new religion.
I’m my own opus.
But I’m still pissed off.
At my cheerful radiation oncologist who touted radiation as “safe” and who intimated to me that I was “done” with cancer. My former primary care physician who minimized my concerns about the symptoms of cancer treatment. My surgeon who pressured me to choose a treatment that, had I done more research, I might not have chosen. Then again, when a person is newly diagnosed with cancer, he or she is so desperate to kill cancer cells, it is difficult to say, “Wait, doc, I need to research this further.”
I’m angry at myself for not doing research before undergoing treatment and trusting a doctor’s word as gold.
But I’m most angry at cancer. Because it’s all cancer’s fault.
Tags: cancer's collateral damage, pulmonologist, radiation, radiation and breast cancer, radiation oncologist, radiation therapy