So, You Have Cancer (Part 2) – Living with Cancer

Written by Steven Burns
From his column To Your Health

When I was in training, the model for cancer almost seemed to be “fix it or die.” That type of thinking is so incorrect as to be nonsensical. In medicine, we now use a “chronic disease” model for treating cancer. This is because, although some cancers can be cured with treatment, many are chronic, similar to diabetes or heart disease, which you can live with for a long time. In many cases, patients will pass away from old age or some other disease process, not from the cancer.

I have one patient who was diagnosed about 15 years ago with metastatic breast cancer. She is now in her mid-80s, and lives a full and active life. Occasionally, she starts a short round of chemotherapy that, so far, has always put her back into remission. Currently, she has no signs of the disease.

Whenever one of my patients is diagnosed with cancer, my approach is similar to the one I normally take with other serious diseases. I let my patient know I will be available, will work with their specialists to make sure their health needs are met, and that I will not abandon them to the “medical machine” that some are so afraid of. I know I am not unique. Most primary care physicians do the same.

Adjusting to Treatments

During treatment, it is common for body changes to occur. Surgeries leave scars and can cause us to change how we live life. I have a patient with a rare cancer who is now learning to live with a colostomy (He’s doing great!). Radiation can cause skin changes or burns, although newer procedures often minimize such side effects.

In many cases, patients will pass away from old age or some other disease process, not from the cancer.

Chemotherapy seems to cause the most fear for cancer patients. They’ve heard stories of others who suffered severe side effects or died from the treatment. And then, there’s the hair loss! While chemotherapy can be uncomfortable, today’s protocols are designed to minimize nausea and the possibility of infection. For those who lose hair, Medicare even covers wigs, which can be extremely high quality. You can go out in public without fearing people will stare.

Maintain Overall Health

Once you start therapy for cancer, you must continue to pay attention to living a lifestyle that promotes good health: appropriate diet, exercise, and controlling weight, as well as keeping diabetes, high blood pressure, and cholesterol under control. Chronic medical problems do not suddenly go away or become unimportant when someone develops cancer. It is tragic for a person to be treated successfully for cancer, and then have a stroke or heart attack from ignoring their overall health. You should continue to see your primary care physician, who can guide you in the lifestyle and medications needed to keep you healthy while undergoing treatment.

Beware of Advice

Now, a word about the advice of friends. With the advent of the Internet, just about everyone with a computer or smartphone seems to think they are qualified to opine about other people’s medical problems. You will be happier (and better off) if you gently ignore friends’ advice. They mean well. And while it is not impossible they might have valid information, whatever happened to their friend, mother, or brother-in-law does not apply to your situation. When people start to share such stories (and they will), gently disengage by saying something like, “That’s interesting. Thanks for sharing.”

Much more dangerous is the “advice” of so-called alternative practitioners. People who have some sort of credential, almost never an MD or DO, may try to convince you that their mix of vitamins and herbs, chelation, minerals, ozone, and myriad strange concoctions, can heal your cancer—without the need for medical treatment. I implore you: Do Not Listen! They are the modern equivalent of snake oil salesmen. I have known people who avoided curative medical treatment in favor of pursuing weird therapies only to die of an otherwise curable cancer.

Stay Positive!

Last, but most importantly, as much as is possible, keep a positive attitude. Rest in the assurance that we have a God who cares and is with us through difficult times.

The late Ira Stanphill was a minister, evangelist, and musician, who wrote over 500 Gospel songs, such as “Room at the Cross for You,” “Mansion Over the Hilltop,” and “Suppertime.” Stanphill was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in 1976, but, with treatment, lived another 17 years. One of his most memorable songs includes a line that all of us, whether healthy or suffering from chronic illness, should take to heart. You’ll find a nice rendition of “I Know Who Holds Tomorrow” here.

Dr. Steven Burns is board-certified in family medicine and has been in practice for more than 30 years.