Living With Cancer
Cancer is more than just a bunch of cells that have run riot. Behind the test findings
in every case is a person who has to deal with the illness and its impact on all the other
facets of one’s existence, including work and relationships. Meet three people who have
adapted their lives to cancer’s everyday reality—and learned about
themselves in the process.
From diagnosis to treatment and beyond, cancer is a challenging road. Formerly a near-certain death sentence, the disease is often now more of a detour. The five-year relative survival rate for all cancers diagnosed between 1996 and 2003 is 66%, up from 50% in the period between 1975 and 1977, according to the American Cancer Society. (The rate compares survival among cancer patients to that of people of the same age, race and sex not diagnosed with cancer.) The improvement in survival reflects progress in diagnosing certain types of cancer at an earlier stage and advances in treatment. Factors such as behavior are difficult to gauge in survival, though the selflessness and determination of the following three survivors, and the emotional support they received, appears to have played a role in their endurance. Here are their stories.
Cynthia’s Story: A Complicated Pregnancy
Two and a half years ago, a pregnant Cynthia Lufkin, 45, was examining her breasts. “I felt unusual changes, not like my first pregnancy,” the Washington, Connecticut, philanthropist recalls. Mammograms were not an option because a baby was due, and three doctor visits in five months uncovered nothing. Then, 32.5 weeks along in her pregnancy, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Lufkin had to give birth as quickly as possible via C-section so treatment wouldn’t harm the baby. One doctor urged chemotherapy, another a bilateral mastectomy. Lufkin chose the latter. Meanwhile, because she was born prematurely, little Aster Lee was suffering complications of her own and was put on oxygen, with a 50-50 chance of making it through the night. “For those 12 days before my surgery, it was unbearable, not knowing if my baby or I was going to die,” Lufkin says.
When Lufkin awoke from anesthesia, her newborn was breathing on her own. But two weeks after her surgery, Lufkin started chemotherapy followed by radiation. “There was no question about either,” she says.
To stay as healthy as possible, Lufkin watched her diet and kept herself moving. With her the whole way was Donna Wilson, RN, MSN, RRT, personal trainer, at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, who says, “Chemotherapy causes fatigue and weight gain, and radiation can cause more scar tissue, making full range of motion difficult. Cynthia’s exercises were stretches and arm movements coordinated with her breathing, to decrease stress and return mobility, relieve soreness and stiffness, and improve posture and circulation.”
Before chemo could take her hair, Lufkin had it removed. “That was tough,” she says. “To everyone in our society, your hair is a part of your identity. It was hard to see such a physical ramification of what I was going through. I did opt to wear a wig, which I was told would be less traumatic for my children. To them, the consistency was important.”
Remembering the impact of family and friends who rallied around her, Lufkin, pictured above with daughters Schuyler and Aster Lee, became a support for others with cancer. “It can be a life-changing experience to be told first that your life may be ending and then have that turn around to where you’re going to be fine,” Lufkin says. “There’s a healing power in gratefulness, and in envisioning a wonderful life with your children and family.”
Karen Radwin, senior managing executive with the American Cancer Society’s Hope Lodge, a free lodging and support environment for cancer patients in New York City, says Lufkin “is such a strong advocate of the roles that mind, body and spirit play in the recovery process. She’s truly an inspiration to our patients, caregivers and volunteers.” Last February, Lufkin was named the ACS’s 2008 Mother of the Year.
Working with Evelyn H. Lauder, senior corporate vice president of Estée Lauder Companies, Lufkin and her husband have funded the second floor of the new Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, the integrative medicine department that includes the Cynthia Lufkin Center for Nutrition and Fitness.
Lufkin has found her role as a cancer coach fulfilling. “It’s helpful for others to see someone who’s survived cancer, and is healthy and happy and has long hair again,” she says. “Cancer is one of many chapters in your life; it doesn’t define your life. And I’m grateful for every second of every day.”
Chris’s Story: Environmental Exposure
On reflection, Chris Hall is amazed that he survived both combat and cancer. “They taught me a lot about resilience and the absolute will to live,” says the 58-year-old physician assistant at Kaiser Permanente, in Portland, Oregon.
In January 1994, Hall noticed a swollen lymph gland in his neck; a biopsy was inconclusive. Then Hall made a connection—Vietnam, where he served as a navy medic and was exposed to Agent Orange. “It takes 25 years for lymphoma to develop from environmental causes. No more waiting.” It was Hodgkin’s disease: Two painful bone marrow biopsies were followed by radiation every day for a month. “I had a terrible burn on my face, and my neck hair fell out. Because my salivary glands weren’t protected, my mouth was very dry and I lost all sense of taste. The radiation also destroyed my thyroid gland.”
Hall worked mornings, got radiation at midday and then went home to rest. “My employer accommodated me, completely.” So did his family, though his wife and two young children were afraid “because we didn’t know where this was headed,” says Hall. His mother had died of cancer that year, and his father had recently beat lymphoma. Hall was driven. “At all costs, I was going to make sure I got rid of my cancer.”
Hall’s friends rallied to his side, too. “They were always calling and coming by, offering their support,” he recalls. “My wife helped me organize a Native American Blessing Way ceremony. Forty people came to our home, and they each brought a bead to express their feelings about me and my illness and submit a blessing. I accepted the beads and now I have a Blessing Way necklace.”
Hall stuck to a sensible diet, drinking lots of water, and from diagnosis to two months after radiation took dozens of herbal and homeopathic supplements a day, drank Chinese herbal tea and received acupuncture three times a week to support his immune system. Edyth Vickers, ND, director of An Hao Clinic, in Portland, says Chinese medicine is a very supportive therapy for cancer because it helps reduce the chemotherapy’s side effects, such as nausea and lowered red and white blood cell counts. Further, says Vickers, the herbs help protect your bone marrow and alleviate stress, as does acupuncture. The latter treatment relieves nausea by stimulating endorphins, the body’s own painkillers. Acupuncture also increases blood circulation and decreases inflammation.
After radiation Hall felt fatigued for a month, but continued his half-time schedule until he could go back to working full days. “I built up my strength by walking, even when I felt weak, and spending time with my family.”
Not everyone with cancer can, or should, push their bodies the way Hall did. “Nutrition, exercise and lifestyle recommendations vary, depending on the cancer and the phase of treatment,” stresses Timothy Birdsall, ND, vice president of integrative medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America in Zion, Illinois. “In general, I recommend a rainbow-colored assortment of organic fruits and vegetables, for their variety of phytochemicals, which have strong anticancer properties. And I prefer fish over poultry and poultry over beef,” says Birdsall, who also points to green tea (as a standardized extract, for potency) and omega-3 fatty acids (or fish oil). “For everything, it’s important to get individualized advice.”
It’s also important “to be your own advocate,” says Hall. “Get as much information as you can, and be honest and open with your healthcare providers. Don’t wait until cancer hits you before you take care of yourself.”
Judy’s Story: Three Bouts with Cancer
How many more cancers could Judy Macon possibly get? At 18 it was thyroid, at 31 breast, and at 35 skin. “Every time somebody mentioned ‘tumor,’ I burst out crying. Hearing it the third time didn’t make it any easier,” says the 56-year-old manager of Cancer Outreach and Education at Suburban Hospital Cancer Care Program in Bethesda, Maryland.
Her first cancer began with flu-like symptoms and a visit to the college infirmary. There, the doctor felt a nodule on Macon’s thyroid gland, but told her there was no need to rush for surgery. Over summer break, she went in. Doctors found cancer and, as was common in that medical era, removed her entire gland. She was put on thyroid medication for the rest of her life.
Little did Macon know that the ante would go up 13 years later. When she was 29, she felt a breast lump. Again, the professionals told her not to worry. “Young women don’t get breast cancer—or so they thought back then,” she says. After a biopsy at age 31, she had a lumpectomy. Radiation and chemotherapy finished the job.
Four years passed when Macon spotted a tiny, dark dot on the back of her calf. Her breast surgeon plucked it out, and the lab turned up melanoma. Fortunately, it hadn’t spread.
Macon never faced cancer alone. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” she says, “those who can’t handle the diagnosis and those who come through for you. I personally think it’s better to tell people around you what’s going on. It allows them to help you and explains any change in work habits to your boss.” And if people are too overbearing or not helpful enough, let them know. “You shouldn’t be a caretaker of the person’s feelings. And you needn’t be around people who can’t help you.”
For months after her recovery from breast cancer, “every headache or bone pain was cancer, I thought. Having time pass, without it popping up again, really did help,” says Macon, who continues to eat well and exercise regularly. “You do everything you possibly can, but some of it is luck.
“Now that more people are surviving cancer, there’s a whole new outlook about it that considers the short- and long-term issues,” Macon adds. “You may be through with treatment, but you’re still healing. You may need to see your doctor, to check for symptoms, or join a support group. Surviving cancer is a phase in itself.”
Struggling with cancer—and thriving in spite of the challenges this disease brings—has taught Macon, Hall and Lufkin to appreciate their lives in ways they never would have otherwise. As Macon puts it, “I take delight in the little things—a beautiful sunset, a delicious meal, rainy days. And if there’s something I really want to do, I may do it sooner rather than later.”