Thursday, October 31, 2013

November--A Month of Celebrations

In October we are surrounded by a sea of pink reminding us of breast cancer’s impact on the women of our community. Although I, along with millions of others, have reaped the benefits of the successful breast cancer awareness campaigns, I must admit I am a bit jealous that there isn’t corresponding hoopla when November rolls around. National Lung Cancer Awareness Month will arrive with no such fanfare for the disease that kills more women annually than breast, ovarian, and colon cancer combined.

Lung cancer remains the number one cancer killer among women—and men. Yet, when the pink ribbons disappear, when the pink coffee makers are gone from the shelves, when the pink wigs are put back in the closet, lung cancer’s colors won’t replace them. Lung cancer’s ribbon color is “clear”—like the disease itself unobservable, unnoticed, and without recognition. When attending cancer events where we are supposed to wear our colors, I am tempted to show up in cellophane. Bet that would draw some attention to the cause.

November has always been an important month in our family with several birthdays and Thanksgiving ushering in the holiday season. Since November 15, 2002, we have been marking another life changing event—my husband’s cancerversary. On that day, our lives were forever changed. Jim was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer; and I became a cancer caregiver.

I don’t like the term caregiver. I prefer to think of myself as someone who loves a person with cancer. With every cancer diagnosis, a cancer caregiver comes into being. There are millions of us across the nation providing varying degrees of care and support for a spouse, child, parent, or friend fighting the disease.

In addition to being Lung Cancer Awareness Month, November is the nationally recognized month that seeks to draw attention to the many challenges facing family caregivers, to advocate for stronger public policy to address family caregiving issues, and to raise awareness about community programs that support family caregivers. It is a time to thank, support, educate, and advocate for the more than 65 million family caregivers.

If you love someone with cancer, you are a member of this ever-growing group. Your contribution to your loved one’s recovery is vital but in the treatment process your feelings and problems are frequently overlooked. Watch for my blog entries over the upcoming weeks as I share my thoughts about loving and living with a cancer patient.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Fight Cancer with a PET Scan and a Pet

He’s a fat old cat with a dowager’s hump like an osteoporotic female. Since his owner’s death five years ago, he has been my faithful companion, following me from kitchen to computer, his flaccid belly swinging from side to side as he lumbers along. As did my mother before me, I’ve derived immeasurable pleasure from his presence. More importantly, he is contributing to my health and Jim’s cancer recovery.

Animals not only provide unconditional love, they may contribute to our healing. The simple act of petting an animal can take the focus off the pain and depression that comes with a chronic or terminal illness. Studies have shown that pet owners have lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of heart attack, lower anxiety, reduced pain, and less need for pain medication. A recent study found that time spent with pets decreased anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Animals can make treatment less stressful.

When the day promises to be difficult, a pet gives its human reason to get out of bed in the morning. A walk with the dog not only helps the dog but gets the dog-owner out in the fresh air for exercise and provides the possibility of increased social interaction as you meet up with other walkers and dog lovers. The attention directed to the dog can be a welcome diversion from unrelenting discussions of your health.

If your fur baby is not a dog, don’t despair. Yes, you can take your cat for a walk. When my mother moved to Memphis, I reasoned rightly that walking her cat would be good for her. Because it is difficult to teach an old cat new tricks and this one had not ever been on a leash, I bought a cat stroller. No kidding. It is a light weight, vented, kennel on wheels—much like a fold up baby stroller. Unfortunately neither Mom nor Puddy cottoned to the idea. Mom was afraid the new neighbors would think she was a lunatic if they stopped to peek at the “baby” in the stroller. And the cat…well who knows what the cat thought? Although, his disdain was obvious.

It is true that with compromised immune systems there is the risk of contracting an animal borne illness, but the risk can be minimized, according to the CDC, if certain precautions are taken. Have someone else clean the litter box or wear gloves when cleaning out cages, kennels, or performing clean-up tasks. If scratched or nipped during play time, give the wound immediate attention with soap, water, and antibiotic.

The benefits of pet ownership for cancer patients far outweigh the risks. If you have a pet, you don’t need to be convinced of the therapeutic value. If aren’t a pet owner, you might want to give serious consideration to joining the ranks of the 72 million American households that include a pet. Why not complement your chemo with a prescription for a pot-bellied pig? Go for a kitty-cat cure or a rooster remedy? Maybe get help from a hedgehog? I can’t guarantee a longer survival, but I’ll wager your survival time will be greatly enriched.

Melinda Winchester 1 Year cancer survivor and Tudie
"She has been by my side through this whole fight. During chemo weeks, I would be in bed for about 48 hours straight and she was right beside me in the bed! She would go downstairs periodically for someone to let her outside and then she'd be right back upstairs. It's like she knew I was sick and she felt like she had to be on guard. We laughed and said her white coat is her nurses uniform!"

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Survival Secrets for Caregivers

I have come to know many survivors and co-survivors (caregivers) over our eleven year journey with lung cancer. Those in both categories who survive well share certain qualities, the most important of which is resilience—the ability to recover quickly from illness, change, or misfortune; buoyancy. Some lucky people have built in resilience from innate personality traits or learned belief systems. But what if you’re not one of them? Is it possible to develop resilience?

When applied to caregivers the word “survival” has a different meaning than for cancer patients. You are not in danger of dying from your loved one’s cancer. But like the patient, you can benefit emotionally and physically from building resilience during your family’s battle with cancer.

Five Steps to Greater Resilience

1. Release. Admit you are powerless. Let go of the past. Let go of guilt.

2. Reframe. Psychologists call this step restructuring your cognitions. Build positive emotions. Search for meaning in your suffering. Practice gratitude. Exercise “benefit finding”—the ability to find positive meaning in a traumatic life event.

3. Reprioritize. Often this happens with no effort on your part. Sometimes with the onset of catastrophic illness, your priorities automatically realign. Your circumstances offer you new look at what is important. Others need to make a conscious effort to regroup.

4. Reconnect—spiritually and relationally. This is the time to make friends with God. You’ve heard it said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Likewise, there are few atheists in oncology waiting rooms. Restore and strengthen family relationships. Strong support systems are crucial to recovery.

5. Recharge. Rest. Relax. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself to grieve and give vent to your very real emotions.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Sing Your Way to Health

I am a singer. This is not an appraisal of my ability or a fact about my profession but rather a description of my nature. Although none of my immediate family was musical, my grandparents hailed from Wales, the “land of song,” where according to my grandmother, everyone could sing. She said that before I could talk or walk, I hummed with her when she sang me lullabies.

Singing makes me happy but I didn’t know that it also makes me healthy. Recent studies have shown that singing has psychological and physiological benefits that help people cope with cancer. Researchers looked at a small group of cancer survivors who participated in choir singing for a period of 3 months. During that period survivors noted an improvement in:
• Vitality
• Social functioning
• Mental health, and
• Bodily pain

Survivors who participated also had a trend toward less anxiety and depression and improved lung function. Singing can have the same benefits as exercise—a release of endorphins resulting in stress reduction. Additionally, if you employ correct breathing techniques, you have the benefit of increased lung capacity. You can enjoy these benefits even if you sing alone—though group singing has the advantage of increased social interaction.

If you like to sing, look for opportunities to join a group—a church or community choir, Sweet Adelines or Barbershop Harmony Society. How about taking some voice lessons that you never had time for when you were younger? Not ready for the big time? Turn on the radio and sing your heart out in the privacy of your car. "Remember if it's not good enough for anyone esle to hear, just sing. Sing a song. Sing out loud. Sing out strong.”

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Fourteen Ways to Know You are a Cancer Caregiver

1. You view a trip to an out-of-town cancer center as a mini-vacation.

2. You have a chemo day wardrobe.

3. Your Vera Bradley jumbo bag is packed for infusion days.

4. You sleep nude because your spouse is always freezing.

5. Sleeping nude has absolutely no effect on your spouse's libido.

6. You know all of the restaurants within a three mile radius of the cancer center.

7. The first words out of your mouth in the morning are “How do you feel?”

8. You have become adept at giving injections.

9. You don’t have to make a return trip to the vet to have the IV removed from your cat’s leg.

10. Your kitchen counter looks like a Walgreens pharmacy.

11. Your mastery of medical jargon causes people to assume you are a registered nurse or physician.

12. You wish your spouse was NERD-y (NERD-no evidence of recurrent disease)

13. You use more acronyms than the federal government. (CT, PET, EGRF, K-RAS, PSA, IMRT, NED, BMT, ABMT)

14. The “L word” strikes fear in your heart and it has nothing to do with homophobia. (Lump, Lesion, and Lymph Node)

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cancer Treatment Side Effects--The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Jim was diagnosed in 2002 with lung cancer. In 2008, he had a recurrence outside the lung which was treated with radiation. In 2009 he had another recurrence, this time to the bone. For that metastasis , in addition to four therapeutic chemo agents, he took Zometa, a bisphosphonate (like the drugs given for osteoporosis) used to build the bone in cancer patients.

In 2010, after nine months of treatment, which thankfully eradicated the metastasis, Jim developed osteonecrosis of the jaw—one of the less frequent and more unpleasant side effects of Zometa. We had excellent oncologists—none of whom had seen osteonecrosis resulting from Zometa treatment. While uncommon, it does happen. It was I who suggested to them the possibility of a connection.

Unlike menopausal women who have the option of taking bisphophonates to prevent osteoporosis, cancer patients don’t have much of a choice. They have to weigh benefits verses risks and if you have bone cancer the scale tips in favor of the benefits.

Osteonecrosis is painful (Amen) and difficult to treat (Amen again).

In Jim’s case, exposed bone around the back molars led to painful infection resulting in loosening of the teeth and necessitating a root canal. The oral surgeon and other experts whom we consulted predicted the eventual loss of the treated tooth and possibly surrounding teeth. Because healing problems would likely occur with the cancer-compromised immune system, the doctors decided against extraction of any teeth but warned us they would probably fall out on their own eventually.

Unfortunately the soothsayers were right. Three years forward and the prophecy has come to pass. Jim can’t chew on the affected side where one molar is giving up the valiant fight to retain its rightful place. Saturday night, he was awake for hours with an excruciating tooth/jaw/ear ache. We applied hot compresses, gave him oxycodone and finally dilaudid before he got any relief.

If you are taking Zometa:
1. Visit your dentist or prosthodontist on a regular basis.
2. Your cancer center may employ a dentist who specializes in treating cancer patients. Make an appointment.
3. If you have any pain in the jaw, face or teeth inform your oncologist immediately.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Anti Cancer Diet

After ten years of research, personal experience, and interviews with cancer patients I have concluded that cancer cannot be prevented or cured through diet alone. I have read or “heard tell” of some cures but personally am aware of only two such cases.

Gail had done three rounds chemo—none of which succeeded—for non Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They were trying unsuccessfully to harvest her stem cells for a transplant when Gail decided she’d had enough of conventional treatment and sought alternatives. She settled on a Qi Gong, a probiotic diet, and other lifestyle changes. She rallied and has been cancer free for eight years.

Jess Ainscough, The Wellness Warrior, was diagnosed at twenty-two with epithelioid sarcoma, a rare cancer that attacked her arm and shoulder. The only cure offered by her doctors was amputation. Instead she chose the Gerson Therapy which she followed rigorously for two years. Today she is healthy.

You may disagree with the opinions in this blog entry.You may know of more success stories from people who chose alternative healing methods.I am not here to debate or argue or dissuade you from the path you have chosen. My only purpose is to share ideas which worked for us.

There is no doubt in my mind that changes in lifestyle help—both in prevention of cancer and survival. And better all round health makes your survival more enjoyable. As Mickey Mantle said, “If I knew I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself.”

If you are taking care of a cancer patient now isn’t the time to try some radical diet like Paleo or Gluten free whose benefits are debatable. Instead modify your diet gradually in ways that may not “cure” cancer but will be a step in the right direction.

Of course, you will try to increase your consumption of fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains. Everyone knows that. But here are some more specific, nearly painless changes you can make in your diet to start you on your way to better helath.

1. Switch to whole grain bread and cereals.
2. Buy organic milk.
3. Use real butter—no butter substitutes.
4. Switch to steel cut oatmeal. If, like Jim, you hate oatmeal, at least go with a less processed, low sugar cereal (Cheerios or Rice Krispies).
5. Use olive oil.
6. Cut back on sugar laden foods.
7. Make your own desserts, cookies, snacks and eat them with a meal—not alone.
8. Buy organic when possible especially for the Dirty Dozen.
9. Limit restaurant and fast food eating to once a week for each.
10. Avoid processed foods—which unfortunately for the time challenged caregiver are also the convenience foods.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cancer Fighting Foods

One of the most difficult parts of caregiving is planning and preparing nutritional meals. After Jim’s first surgery in 2002 I was diligent about preparing fresh vegetable juice for him three times a day. He drank twenty-four ounces of organic carrot juice daily for three months to appease me but balked when I added greens or beets. I was hopeful that the nutrients would prepare him for the brutal chemotherapy he was to begin when he healed from the surgery. I don’t know whether the juicing helped but the chemo was successful and Jim tolerated it--the chemo not the juicing :)-- better than expected.

During chemotherapy we gave up juicing; I was happy for him to eat anything—nutritious or not—when he felt so miserable. When chemo and radiation were completed, we gave up juicing but did make other dietary changes I believed beneficial—reduced sugar, increased fruits and vegetables, and eliminated processed foods. I admit I did this in periodic bursts of good intentions interrupted by four recurrences of lung cancer and a bout with prostate cancer.

Maintaining changes in diet are difficult—especially when living with cancer. Food shopping and preparation takes a big chunk out of my already busy schedule.
Last week we got the news that Jim has a fifth cancer recurrence in the T3 rib area. We are not sure what or when the therapy will be but in the mean time, I am once again attempting to clean up our diet.

Changes to be made:
1. Less eating out
2. Less processed food
3. Fewer desserts (only made at home)
4. Smoothies (Jim has lost weight and has muscle wasting.)
5. More water

I’m not sure how long this effort will last. We’re at day three and I’m finding it taxing. I spent three hours yesterday planning menus, shopping at two grocery stores, and putting groceries away. A smoothie for breakfast today, a quinoa dish for dinner tonight, and sandwiches for lunch took a chunk out of my day. In between I did washing, some yard work, took care of my ailing cat, and went for a short walk with Jim to get him back into some form of exercise.

Going out for Mexican or a hamburger, as we usually do on a Saturday night, would have been much easier—and more fun. Hope I can stay motivated to see this through—at least until he starts treatment again.

I am posting one of the recipes I used today. Surprisingly, this dish appealed to Jim during chemo. The quinoa, a mild tasting grain-like seed, is high in protein as are the beans. We eat this as main dish with a whole wheat cheese quesadilla. Bon App├ętit.

Black Bean-Quinoa Salad

15 oz can black beans drained and rinsed
1 1/2 T. red wine vinegar
1/4 t. kosher salt
1/4 t. cracked pepper
3/4 C. quinoa
1 1/2 C. water
1 large red pepper, roasted, seeded, & diced
1 small red onion diced (2/3 C)
2 T. pickled jalapeno chilies, diced
1/2 C fresh cilantro, chopped

4 1/2 T. fresh lime juice
1/4 t. kosher salt
3/4 t. ground cumin
1/3 C. EVOO (extra virgin olive oil)

Toss drained beans w/ vinegar, salt & pepper. Let stand for 30 min.
In another bowl wash quinoa in cold water, drain into a coffee filter or fine sieve.
Bring 1 1/2 C water to boil. Add quinoa. Lower heat and cover; cook 15 min. Set pot off heat and let stand for 20 min to finish absorbing water.

Transfer to large plate or bowl and allow to cool. When the quinoa is room temperature, put in large bowl and add the drained beans, red bell pepper, red onions, jalapenos, and cilantro. Toss gently.
In small bowl whisk the lime juice, salt, and cumin. Add oil in a stream whisking continuously. Add dressing to bean mixture.

Makes 6 servings, 1 C each.
260 cal.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Caring for a loved One with Cancer

Thanks to guest blogger Faith Franz with the Mesothelioma Center for today's post.

Caring for a Loved One with Cancer

When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, life changes. It’s a given.

It’s not just the patient, though, who has to adjust. Friends and family members often take on various caregiving responsibilities, and the patient’s health and wellbeing becomes a primary concern. For some caregivers, it becomes the primary interest – which can quickly take a toll on their own health and wellbeing.

It’s normal to want to do everything in your power to help your loved one. The average caregiver spends 20.4 hours per week providing care – roughly the same as a part-time job.

But providing medical care (i.e. transportation to doctor appointments and pharmacies), physical care and emotional support can become all-consuming. Roughly 70 percent of working caregivers say they’ve struggle in the office because of their caregiving duties, and 17 percent say their role has caused their own health to deteriorate.

On the flip side, one in 12 caregivers says their health is improved by caring for a loved one. And in caregivers who have sought support for their new role, their perception of their role is even more positive.

Emotional Support for Caregivers

Caregivers can find emotional support from a number of different avenues. Hospice programs and cancer centers often extend their counseling services to caregivers, while cancer support groups often welcome caregivers as members. Internet-based email groups and chat forums offer a virtual way to connect with others who understand what you’re going through.

Support systems address a wide range of topics. They often focus on caregivers’ primary concerns, like:

• Keeping their loved ones safe
• Managing stress
• Coming up with easy activities to do with their loved one
• Finding time for themselves

These groups serve as an invaluable source of mental and emotional support. They teach caregivers how to balance their own needs with the patient’s – which ultimately puts them in the position to provide higher quality care.

Author bio: Faith Franz has spent nearly two years researching and writing for The Mesothelioma Center. As an advocate for alternative medicine, she encourages patients to explore all of the treatment options that could potentially save their life.

Family Caregiver Alliance. FCA: Selected Caregiver Statistics. (2010). Retrieved from