So, You're Gonna Do Chemo?
When I was diagnosed at the end of 2011, and before I knew what stage breast cancer I had or what size the tumors were and all that jazz, I hoped it was at the very worst stage one and that I'd get away with some surgery and no chemo. I had been pretty darn healthy or so I thought; a reasonably good eater, non-smoker, etc. Of course I was in a total tizzy and couldn't imagine that I had something worse than just a little "bout" of cancer. As the news rolled in after the biopsy, I was told that although it was more like stage two, what I had was aggressive and had a high rate of recurrence. This changed everything.
My oncologist "recommended" chemo. I was given the option of surgery either before or after treatment but it was explained that doing chemo first would help to see how the two small tumors were responding. I was told that with treatment, which, according to the team at UCLA would be difficult but that I would get through it, had a success rate of 94 percent for what I had. I wanted at least one person to reassure me that I would recover 100 percent, but alas, there is no such thing as 100 percent in anything. I could walk outside right now and face the odds of getting injured or worse. You get the idea.
Since the release of my book in December about my breast cancer experience one of the most common questions I have been asked is "Did you look into other types of treatment?" to which I typically and maybe a little meekly reply, "Um, no." I've imagined that some folks might have said to themselves "tsk, tsk, what a shame she's choosing to put those poisons in her body." Yes, I guess I did choose that. And I don't even like to take aspirin.
Ultimately, various cancer treatments from all over the world should be available and put into practice. Not for one minute did I want to do chemo, obviously. But within the span of one year something totally undetected became very palpable indeed. Not all cancer is this way. Some of the best progress in cancer treatment in the past couple of decades is understanding those differences.
My usual answer when someone asks me about whether I had considered alternative methods, or begins to tell me about their aunt so and so who got rid of her nasty breast cancer the natural way (which is totally awesome -- and I mean it), is to explain that not only did I not feel I had time on my side for months of research, but also that I trusted my doctors while they provided mini medical lectures to me and my husband as we listened intently and took notes.
What I'd like to know is where would I have made the distinction? Is a mastectomy okay even though anesthesia can be toxic to the body? Is a chemo pill better? Of course, no one wants to have a compromised immune system from the very medications prescribed to make them well. This same discussion applies to radiation, which seems counter intuitive and boggles my mind. And what about drugs being used for other serious diseases like AIDS? As much as I hated the thought of chemo, these are the drug options that for most people will be effective in stopping a disease from escalating.
The great news is that treatments are more targeted than ever and some people won't even lose their hair. Hopefully one day cancer will be a) preventable, and b) easy as fixing a broken foot.
Fortunately I was able to tolerate the onslaught of drugs pretty well (as do many people). I never even caught a cold while I was being treated. But I can't say for sure what I'd do if faced with the decision again. For now, this breast cancer statistic chick is grateful for being alive (with some side effects I could do without) and I know I did what I was capable of doing at the time and have no regrets.
A breast cancer survivor friend of mine who did in fact choose alternative treatments and later also incorporated western medicine, once said to me that ultimately what matters is that you are at peace with your decision based upon your best ability to understand your options. It was sage advice and it was then that I knew that even though I was terrified and disgusted at the thought of chemo, for me it was the way to move forward based upon the science I understood.
I wish a one sized solution fit all. But it does not. Once I went through my checklist of healthy solutions to my cancer problem, I would have stood on my head and counted to 1,000 while blowing bubbles if that was going to get me through one of the most challenging times in my life. Huff Post blogger Joanna Montgomery lists the numerous suggestions that she was offered, and some striking (and downright mean) comments made by others while she was going through traditional treatment.
Science is helpful, until it is not, I guess. When you face your own cancer crisis, only then do you know, based upon the exact type of cancer you have, how you will go about treating it.