By Casey Young
“I have cancer.”
I will never forget the way the words sounded as they spun themselves from my mom’s mouth. It was almost as reality balled itself into a knot in my head. My sister immediately began to cry and my dad tried to hold back, even though he had already known before. I just sat there, no reaction, thinking of what to ask next. What do you even say when someone you love tells you they have cancer?
“Are you going to be okay?” I managed to push from my gut, my dinner almost spilling with the question.
“I’ll be okay.” My mom now began to cry with my sister. Not an emotional person, I walked up to my mom and patted her back “It’ll be fine.”
One of my biggest regrets was not being softer during this time. Everyone copes in different ways, and I wasn’t dealing with it at all. My sister and dad were so loving and supportive, and I found myself in the background, biting my nails, trying not to say the wrong thing. At the same time, though, I barely even tried to say the right things. The next few months were spent tiptoeing around the c-word. I’ve learned that if you say the same word over and over again, it loses its meaning. I hope I never become numb to what cancer means and how it’s impacted my family’s life, my life, and so many others in the world.
I only went to my mom’s chemotherapy twice while she was in treatment. I always made excuses, but I couldn’t bare going. When I did go, we’d have an almost silent thirty minutes drive to the hospital. The first thing I noticed when we’d get there were these big plastic recliners (probably plastic for easier cleaning) and in them were other patients attached to machines and being pumped full of poison. They all looked tired and as if they could pass out at any moment. Most of all, I couldn’t stand the nurses. They knew my mom’s name as soon as she walked in the door and sat her down. They’d smile as they described the dosage and duration, knowing full well that by the end of the treatment the chemicals would go to my mom’s brain and she’d have forgotten everything they told her. It made me mad, the nurses trying so hard to be optimistic and friendly when they had no idea what we were going through.
That August, 2014, I had to go back to college to start my sophomore year. Before leaving I asked one last time “Are you sure you don’t need me here? I can stay. School can wait.” I knew I wasn’t a huge help. I was emotionally distant because it was easier than crying, which I thought made me look weak. I knew staying around wouldn’t have accomplished anything, and so did my family, so I left. I began calling home more often. My mom wouldn’t always remember what I had told her the week before. I would get so frustrated and had to constantly remind myself it wasn’t her fault she had what she referred to as “chemo-brain.” My dad couldn’t always get time off from work and my mom was too weak to drive herself home from treatment, so my sister began to skip school to drive her. At one point, the principal called to ask my parents why my sister had missed so much school. If I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to visit, my parents reluctantly asked if I could come home a different weekend. With a weakened immune system, it was too risky for my mom to be around someone who was sick.
As difficult as it was to experience watching someone you love going through chemotherapy and surgeries, there were some moments of recovery that made it more tolerable. When my mom’s hair started growing back, we started making bets on whether it would be gray, white, or salt-and-pepper colored (she dyed it up until she shaved it). My sister’s high school graduation was one of the first times she went out without a wig on when it was growing back. The first time she looked happy healthy, and vibrant (one year after diagnosis). We started taking family time, trips, and moments more seriously. Our diets, in the house, have changed dramatically, as well. Before being diagnosed, we always had soda and junk food lying around. These choices have all been supplemented with healthier options and now we eat more organically. My mom now goes for regular walks and spends more time writing (she is a published author). My relationship with my mom, dad, and sister has grown so much. I appreciate them way more than I used to, and I don’t know what I’d do without them. I talk to my parents pretty much every single day and my sister as frequently as I can. Things that used to upset me and my own problems seem more trivial. I’ve realized the importance of spending more time with people I care about because I understand, now, how fast things can change.
My mom is one of the lucky ones. She survived with minimal complications. She suffers from neuropathy in her feet from the chemotherapy and this summer I witnessed exactly what that meant as I saw her fall down the bottom of the stairs because “She couldn’t feel where the step was.” My mom has always been one of the most kind and sweet people I’ve ever met. Before this I never noticed just how strong she is, too. Every day I aspire to be as warm, persevering, optimistic, and show as much courage as she did. My mom is, truly, one of my heroes.
Dr. Lee Ann Sporn is a biology professor at Paul Smith’s College who is knowledgeable on the topic of cancer.
CJLY: Could you please explain, biologically, what cancer is?
LAS: I think, in my mind, it’s cells that don’t play nice with other cells and what we don’t realize is that in multicellular organisms, every cell, sort of, the drive for it is to survive and reproduce. When you’re an organism that has many cells, they have to perform their own specialized function and stay within their own tissues otherwise you wouldn’t have a functioning multicellular organism, right? And so there are all these breaks and controls on cell growth we take for granted. It all seems like everything is fine in our bodies and our cells and one cell’s not out-competing another, but they, really, are sort of doing that and there are all these mechanisms built into cells to prevent them from doing that. So, if one of those gets mutated, then suddenly the cell’s growth becomes uncontrolled and it stops correcting the mistakes. What seems to happen, in my mind, is when a cell transforms into a cancer cell, it uses all of its evolutionary strategies to be this amazing thing in the world, this living cell and it sort of uses it to take over. If anything in this world is sheer evil, it’s cancer because all of the beauty of evolution sort of turns on the organism that has it. And tumor cells are so smart, they evolve really quickly and so they don’t play nice with other cells anymore.
CJLY: In your opinion, is there any way our bodies can evolve to be smarter than the cancer cells?
LAS: I think our bodies can. If you look at some of the recent developments in cancer therapy, I mean, we can hit them with poisons and toxins, but usually the cancer cells win because they can become resistant to those. They’re evolving, but our immune system can be smarter. So that’s what’s happened. The cancer cell tries to block the immune system from seeing it, but if we can block the cancer cell from doing that, then we can give the immune system and our body an edge. So our immune system is constantly patrolling for cancer cells and eliminating them, so if we can give our immune system an edge, then I think that’s going to be the wave of the future. Our bodies are smarter than we are, so you just nudge it along a little bit. Like you could almost consider it like you’re vaccinating yourself against cancer. That’s a little far-fetched, but that kind of an idea.
CJLY: How far into the future do you think we’ll find a cure using this method?
LAS: It’s already being used. I don’t know all of the details, but […..] I’ve heard a few TED Talks, that are very legitimate where people have been cured of the cancers and it is undetectable in their bodies using these immunotherapies using the immune system. Which is remarkable, to fight cancer in someone’s own body.
CJLY: So, we’re right on the edge of eliminating it?
LAS: Maybe. But, you know, the way cancer treatments work, someone wouldn’t qualify unless all other treatments failed because there could be side-effects you don’t know about. Sometimes these therapies only work in a few different types of human cancers, and the immunotherapies could be like that. The cancer cells just evolve so quickly. Sometimes, they win.
CJLY: Basically, we just have to outsmart cancer?
LAS: I don’t think we ever will. I don’t think human minds ever will. I think we can match our bodies to fight it better. And I never would’ve believed twenty years ago if someone would’ve said, “Do you think your thoughts and emotions could cause you to get cancer. Could you use positive thinking to cure cancer?” And, now, I would say, I would be surprised if it wasn’t true because now we know that stress and negative thoughts do suppress your immune system. So, who’s to say that it couldn’t cause you to have cancer if it weakens your immune system. I wouldn’t discount anything.
CJLY: Thank you.
Linda L. Young is a mother, wife, author, and cancer survivor.
CJLY: When were you first diagnosed with cancer and what form were you diagnosed with?
LLY: I had an abnormal mammogram on April 15, 2014. I was told not to worry, eighty-five percent of the time it’s benign. I had biopsies done, and was told by the end of April that it was cancerous and a mastectomy had to happen as quickly as possible. I was diagnosed with two forms of cancer, infiltrating ductal carcinoma with an additional lobular carcinoma. After surgery, a third small tumor was identified, with another tumor in a lymph node that was removed from the left side of my chest.
CJLY: What was your first reaction?
LLY: Shock. It was hard to process. My life was going to change and it wasn’t by personal choice. I was having trouble understanding why everything felt so rushed before I could mentally process, and put the surgeon off for a few weeks. A family friend knowledgeable with these matters came to the house the day I found out. He drew diagrams, explained different types of breast cancer and explained what the options were. I started feeling better, that perhaps there were choices which gave me some perception of control. I called my OB/GYN who gave me names of surgeons, plastic surgeons. With a long relationship, I trusted everyone’s opinions of doctors. After I met them, I knew I was with the right doctors. I worried about how my family would react.
CJLY: How did your family react?
LLY: You and Bec (my sister) handled it well. Your dad told me we’d get through it together and he would not let me give up. However the future was going to be, we’d remain positive. The rest of the family was shocked and was upset. They wanted to come, I said “No.”
CJLY: What was your treatment plan?
LLY: The plan was to have a left-breast mastectomy, followed up with chemotherapy, radiation, and 5 years of hormonal therapy after. I eventually opted out of the radiation.
CJLY: How did chemotherapy effect your mind and body?
LLY: I had to have two forms of chemotherapy. The first was Adriamycin along with Cytoxan. When that was completed, I had Docetaxel. The day after the latter, I went back for a shot of Neulasta. All were given intravenously through a chest port. I suffered through brain fog for more than two years and have neuropathy in both feet, as well as tingling in the tips of my fingers and in my lips. During treatment, I worked through constipation, trouble with the taste many different foods. Fatigue and stamina are things I continuously work on and is getting better. And of course, I lost all of my hair at the time. I am grateful it came back. I know some have alopecia from breast cancer treatment.
CJLY: Can you describe a moment during your period of treatment that changed you forever? Something you realized or something that you had never thought about before.
LLY: I never realized how many people were willing to take time out to be supportive. I was so grateful.
CJLY: When were you told, officially that the cancer was gone? How did that feel?
LLY: No doctor has been able to tell me that the cancer is gone. My friends that have been through it told me it was gone the day I had surgery. I go to my appointments and trust that if something is wrong, it’ll show up somewhere. I work on lifestyle changes to insure good health and boosting my immune system, plus work on old emotional grief to insure I stay healthy now.
CJLY: How does being a cancer survivor change the way you look at things?
LLY: I am more apt to attend to my needs. Whether is was a perception before or not, I always felt like everyone else had to come first. I enjoy pursuing things that make me happy, mainly my family and my writing.
CJLY: Being your daughter, I’ve noticed when other survivors come up to you it catches you off guard. Is it something you don’t always think about or something you don’t like thinking about?
LLY: If I am prepared, I love to share. Perhaps it may help others or someone they know. There was so much I didn’t know about breast cancer. I don’t dwell on the fact that I had it. I refuse to let it control me. I treat it mentally as something that came up, I got through and handled it and now I’m better for the experience. It takes a year out of your life, a year to reflect, make changes, honor who we are and be the best we can be.
CJLY: If you could tell anyone who is currently going through cancer treatment one piece of advice what would it be?
LLY: Read, talk to others. Gather your support system of others who have been there. Learn from their experiences. Look into available help and programs. Know you have options and choices. Don’t be rushed into anything unless you understand the doctor’s explanations. Do what’s right for you.
CJLY: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
LLY: I’ve learned so much about cancer treatment, and the kindness of others. I have fun learning about alternative treatments to stay healthy. But I always check with my oncologist first.