Cancer in Context

Remembering Debra Sherman

It is with great sorrow that we learned that our much beloved and admired colleague, Debra Sherman, died yesterday morning in Chicago after battling lung cancer for more than a year. Deb’s signature mix of humor and moxie made her a fierce reporter and wonderful friend to so many of her colleagues around the world. She covered healthcare for more than a decade, breaking news on the medical device industry and writing considered pieces on such subjects as the rising financial toll posed by a cancer diagnosis.

After learning of her own illness, she employed that expertise in fighting the disease and imparting to readers honest accounts of her experience. Her “Cancer in Context” blog attracted a wide following among oncologists, cancer patients and their loved ones. In her memory, we recall here an excerpt from her inaugural post that speaks to her bravery and spirit.

If there has been an upside to this dreaded disease it is that people are so kind when they find out I have cancer, even nicer than when I was pregnant with my two children. Loved ones seem to love me more, or tell me so more often. Everyone wants to do things for me and offer help. The love has come from some unexpected people and warms my heart in indescribable ways. At times, the outpouring feels as if it could actually cure me.

Hiring a cancer survivor

Today’s employment report from the U.S. Labor Department showed the job market remained tough in January. If it’s difficult for healthy individuals to get a job, what is it like for cancer survivors?

Personally, I’m not looking for a job. When I was diagnosed with lung cancer about a year ago, my editors and I came up with the idea that I should write a blog about all aspects of cancer.

I had not focused on what it would be like conducting a job search with cancer as my co-pilot until I read a recent LinkedIn post: “If you think it is tough finding work for the average Joe, imagine what it is like for the cancer survivor. How do you explain the gap in your resume? You lie of course.”

Cancer wrecks your body, even some friendships

Much as cancer can cause skin to lose its suppleness, hair its sheen, and the body its vigor, it can also wreck some friendships.

Since one out of three people will get cancer during their lifetimes, almost everyone will be touched by this dreaded disease, either directly or indirectly. We may surprise ourselves by how we deal with it, either as a victim or as the friend of a victim.

My experience has come as a victim of stage 4 lung cancer. I am the person who friends gather around and offer support. I’ve also felt the sting of people recoiling, averting their eyes, pretending they don’t see me in the grocery store aisle. 

Unnecessary palpitations over palliative care

The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) said it best when it declared in its December 13, 2013, issue that “palliative care suffers from an identity problem.”

Indeed it does. In my last blog post, I wrote about pain and addiction, and quoted my palliative care doctor. Some readers took that to mean that I am at the end of the road, so to speak, since I am calling for palliative care. 

No, I’m not! (At least I hope I’m not.)

While it is true that the palliative care movement grew out of hospice care, there are substantial differences. 

Pain and addiction

Pain arrived for another too-long visit recently, so I called on my palliative care doctor to get relief. Pain has been an exhausting, debilitating aspect of my cancer, affecting me primarily in my ribcage, on the right side. This is the site where my stage 4 lung cancer first was diagnosed. If it weren’t for the pain I felt in my ribs I never would have known I had cancer, and it’s still my only symptom.  

I went to see Dr. Eytan Szmuilowicz, the director of Palliative Medicine at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. He specializes in managing pain for seriously ill patients, a specialty called palliative care which is one of the fastest-growing areas in medicine. I told him I couldn’t put up with the pain and asked for more, stronger, drugs.

It is so comforting to have a doctor who is focused on me and my pain, and not have to deal with doctors worried about drawing scrutiny for being perceived as over-prescribing powerful narcotics. 

Pumping Iron During Chemo

Exercise is good for cancer patients, doctors these days say. That’s an about-face from just a decade ago when they urged patients to conserve their flagging energy. My oncologists tell me to exercise as much as I can, as long as it’s not causing pain. Otherwise there are no limitations, no matter the patient’s age, type or stage of cancer.

I can understand that exercise may not be a priority for many cancer patients, in spite of evidence that those who do work out fare better than those who don’t. It wasn’t a priority for me until after I was diagnosed in March with lung cancer. I exercised regularly before my diagnosis, and suspect exercising is one way for me to reassert control and counter feelings of helplessness. Whatever the case may be, my exercise program makes me feel better physically and boosts my confidence, so it seems worth sharing. 

I got a jump-start by my husband’s personal trainer, Erin, who offered me four free workout sessions while I underwent chemotherapy. After two weeks, I splurged on 10 more sessions, at $85 each, with Erin’s employer, GH School for Healthy Living. I considered this a necessity, not a luxury, because it had to do with my health. I wish my insurer saw matters this way, too: Insurance does not cover it.

Researching the obvious: It stinks to have cancer

Being poor stinks. Having cancer really stinks. You probably can’t do worse than being poor and having cancer.  

That seems so obvious, I’m not sure why anyone needs a study to confirm it.  But researchers actually looked that this problem and found exactly what anyone might expect: Breast cancer patients with higher incomes were more likely to receive care that followed the guidelines set by the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) than patients with lower incomes. 

The NCCN is an alliance of 23 of the world’s leading cancer centers that has put together treatment guidelines that are widely recognized and used as the standard of care.

Giving back: data for cancer research

Scott Reid lost his wife to lung cancer 19 days after they were married. It has been 15 months since she passed away. She was 46 years old.  

“I still miss her more than anything,” says Reid, who has used his grief to energize his efforts to become a patient advocate in this months since his wife, Gail, died.  

Scott and Gail

Surviving for only a year with stage 4 lung cancer is not unusual. It’s a fact that weighs on the mind of a person like me, who got a stage 4 diagnosis last March.

I’ve got $100 to donate to a cancer charity. What to do?

The other day, I received a $100 honorarium from a cancer research organization for participating in an interview conducted by a group called Patients Like Me.

It struck me that I ought to donate the money, and my initial thought was to give it to a charity set up for the treatment center where I am receiving care, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. It also occurred to me to send it to The American Cancer Society, a mainstay of the cancer community.

Then I met Abby Milloy (pictured to the right), a “cancer navigator” for the Livestrong Foundation, which aids disadvantaged cancer patients by providing such necessities as help with insurance and free rides to treatment sessions. 

Do you need to love your doctor? Cancer made me realize that I do

I’ve seen the same dentist, the same gynecologist and the same internist for years, even decades. They are competent, and nice enough. But I recently dropped my oncologist because, in part, I didn’t love him. And I need to. After all, my oncologist has my vulnerable life in his hands.

Before getting a cancer diagnosis in March 2013, I had no reason to believe I needed to like my doctors, let alone love them. As long as they were competent and honest, showed integrity and treated me with respect, I was content.  But cancer made me realize I wanted more from my oncologist than I got, a lot more.

I went to see him again not long ago after several rounds of treatment — four rounds of chemotherapy and some targeted radiation therapy. Then one summer day in his office, he told me what I dearly wanted to hear — – that my stage 4 lung cancer, which had spread to my brain and rib was, for all intents and purposes, in remission.