A little dose of reality

Something strange happened to me on my visit to the Cancer Center in Morgantown last week. Well, maybe strange isn’t the right word. Maybe I should say that I swallowed a big dose of reality on my last visit.

Oh no – it’s not THAT kind of reality. My PET scan was once again clear – no evidence of disease. The reality I’m talking about is that for the first time in a very long time, cancer felt “real” to me. It wasn’t some kind of distant entity, or something that I just merely spoke of in the past tense. On that day, the reality that cancer ravaged my body on more than one occasion (four, to be exact) found itself at the forefront of my thoughts.

I’m not suggesting that previous visits to Morgantown were like skipping down a golden road lined with furry puppies and kittens. Every prior visit for a PET scan, regardless of how good I felt health-wise, was always wrought with terrible anxiety, always the dreaded, “What if it came back?” I learned to put this out of my mind until just before “scan day” so I wouldn’t drive myself crazy thinking about it. On the day of the scan, I feel edgy until Dr. Craig tells me everything looks fine. After that, I breathe a sigh of relief and then commence filling Dr. Craig in on the last six months of my well-being.

This recent appointment went just like all the others have for the last three years. Nervous tension in the morning, followed by a long day of waiting (and more waiting), until I finally got to see Dr. Craig. He told me the scan looked good, and to be honest, I expected that. I feel better now than I ever have before, and I would have been absolutely stunned if he would have told me the scan looked suspicious. We chatted for a while, and my mom even brought my wedding album for him to check out. (As a side note, I have been so blessed with two extremely wonderful oncologists throughout my treatment – Dr. Nadeem Ikhlaque, who has since left the area but was with me from the beginning and up through my very last chemo, and Dr. Michael Craig, who has one of the most compassionate, attentive bedside manners of any physician I’ve ever known. Both always listened to what I had to say and answered any questions I had, but even more, they both took the time to get to know ME the person, not me the cancer patient. So for Dr. Craig to take time and look at my wedding album really was no surprise at all.)

As my visit was winding down with Dr. Craig, I felt pretty great about how things went. But then he mentioned he wanted to see me back in six months, and for some reason, my stomach deflated. I sort of expected him – well, hoped anyway – to tell me I didn’t need to come back for another year. How long would I have to keep going back every six months? That thought in my head somehow found its way to my lips and I managed to stutter it out as a question.

“When you get to five years, if everything still looks good, then I’ll decide if I want to stretch you out to a year,” Dr. Craig answered very matter-of-factly.

I didn’t think I liked that answer. I also didn’t like how he said he’d ‘decide if he wanted to stretch it out,’ as if he wasn’t sure if he’d even want to do it then. “I thought I’d heard that if you go five years in remission, you are considered cured. Is that true?” I wondered aloud.

Dr. Craig shook his head. “Not with lymphoma or leukemia.”

Ugh. Another yucky answer. So, does that mean it just hangs around and decides it wants to come back five, seven, 10 years down the road? Would I ever really be cured? I didn’t ask that question. I didn’t want to know.

But then something really inspiring happened. The discussion turned to a new drug that had just been approved for Hodgkins Lymphoma, the first therapeutic advance approved for this cancer in almost 30 years. What makes this drug even more special is that it specifically attacks the cancer cells, binds to them and then allows the body’s own immune system to destroy the cancer. Healthy cells are left alone. Standard chemotherapy regimens cannot differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells and everything is obliterated. Dr. Craig looked at me and said, “If you were to relapse again, this new drug would be the course of treatment I would recommend. I wouldn’t even suggest another transplant at that point.”

In that single moment, I felt like everything I’ve had to deal with, all the fighting I did to get to this point, all of it was totally worth it. Three years ago, after I finished chemo, Dr. Craig suggested I have another stem cell transplant, but this time use donor stem cells instead of my own. We even had my sister checked and discovered her to be a donor match. However, I wasn’t interested in another transplant (I wasn’t even a year and a half out from my other one), so I chose to just “watch and wait.” At the time I’d made my decision, I inquired about other available treatments. Dr. Craig assured me that, along with the transplant, I still had “lots of options.”

To hear that now I have even MORE options gave me chills – but in a good way. While I live with the thought of another relapse in the back of my mind, I know that every day, every month and every year I am alive that more and more treatments are being developed for all cancers. A treatment that’s not even developed yet could save my life years from now. Look what happened in just three years – I added another weapon to my cancer-fighting arsenal, should I need it. How awesome is that?

The longer I go without any evidence of disease, the better my chances of being around long term. I’ve said all along that there is absolutely no reason to panic until Dr. Craig looks me in the eye and tells me that he has nothing left to try. But with these new advances, I don’t feel like I’ll be at that point anytime soon, if ever.

But still, I don’t take anything for granted and I know how quickly things can change. So, even though I let myself slip into the scary world of “what if” that day, I let it digest for a while and then moved on. A dose of reality can do you good. It can help put the important things back into perspective, and that’s just what it did for me.

So what if I have to go back to the Cancer Center for a PET scan twice a year. And so what if for some reason I come face to face once again with Hodgkins. I’m not afraid of it, and I’ll beat it again. I’ve got a great secret weapon – a positive, no quit attitude. Oh yeah…and a new drug.

OK then. I have TWO secret weapons.