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I’m writing this blog because I want to share my experience with cancer and some of the things I have learned about it thus far. I hope you never need to know any of this outside of your natural curiosity, but if you find yourself in a position with cancer, I hope this post empowers you and gives you a better grasp on the subject.
Let’s start with the basics:
What is Cancer?
Cancer is a relatively simple process. Normal cells within the body become damaged, and they reproduce with their new, abnormal DNA. They continue to reproduce until they invade nearby tissues, sometimes causing a myriad of problems and symptoms. Routine screenings and preventative care are critical in early diagnosis and treatment, because some cancers do not cause symptoms until a later stage in the disease process. Many cancers can be cured if caught early enough, and many others can be managed with the right medications and lifestyle changes.
Why Does Cancer Happen?
Viruses, physical trauma, inflammation, and toxins are some of the many types of damage that are capable of triggering cancer cell formation. Sometimes, a person’s DNA may be more prone to malfunctioning, leading to an increased risk of cancer. Research implies that 1 in 3 people will develop cancer at some point during their life, and it happens because of many different things.
Why Doesn’t Everyone Get It?
Our bodies are exceptional at noticing an abnormal activity, and most of the time, they are able to kill off any malfunctioning cells before they get out of control. A healthy immune system is a must in order for this to work properly. When a person is immunocompromised or has an over-taxed immune system (because of chronic illnesses, stress, environmental toxins, etc.), the body can’t keep up and cancer cells proceed unchecked. Some cancer cells are able to multiply regardless, simply because they are more aggressive and invasive, and the immune system is unable to detect their presence. People of certain age, sex, and ethnicity may be at a higher risk for certain cancers because of a genetic predisposition.
For Sophie (my pup), her cancer is most likely linked to genetics. Large, black dogs are at an increased risk for developing melanoma because they have more melanocytes (the cells that produce pigment in skin and fur). Being a Giant Schnauzer was another risk for her, so when I started seeing the deformities in her toe, I became suspicious of toe cancer.
Prevention, Symptoms, and Treatment
Is Cancer Preventable?
Some cancer risks can be reduced with appropriate lifestyle changes. Smoking, drinking alcohol, being sedentary, carrying excess weight, and poorly managing stress are all contributors to an elevated cancer risk. Cancers that are caused by infections (such as cervical cancers caused by HPV) may be avoided by regular screening for cervical abnormalities and pre-cancerous cells. Colorectal cancers may be prevented by avoiding foods that cause inflammation and damage to the gastrointestinal tract, and some lung cancers may be prevented by avoiding smoking and exposure to toxic inhalants.
What Are Some of the Symptoms of Cancer?
Cancer can cause a wide variety of symptoms that many other non-cancerous issues cause. Because of the vague, common symptoms that sometimes occur, some cancers are misdiagnosed as a benign illness, such as GERD or colitis. Routine screening with advanced technology can help providers in differentiating cancer from other illnesses. Breast exams, colonoscopies, endoscopies, routine blood tests, and pap smears are all ways that a person may be screened for cancer.
My dad didn’t know that his symptoms were related to his unknown tumor. He struggled with heartburn for many years after being in the Gulf War, and he ate Tums like they were going out of style. One day, he said it felt like a piece of food took a little longer to go down after he swallowed it. My mom told him to mention it next time he was at the doctor, and thankfully, his doctor ordered an endoscopy that ended up showing a 10 cm tumor. A tumor that large does not happen overnight, which is why I stress the importance of routine screening. Chances are, my father’s cancer could have been discovered years earlier, which could have made it curable with surgery alone. I still struggle with a bit of resentment for the lack of screening when he had a documented GERD diagnosis. That endoscopy was the first he ever had, even with years of heartburn and indigestion. Everyone with frequent heartburn should be screened for esophageal abnormalities, and the sooner, the better.
I found Sophie’s cancer while painting her nails (yes, I paint my dog’s nails and it may have even saved her life!). She had one longer toenail that appeared to be cracked at the nail bed. She has never cracked, split, or torn a nail in her entire life, and I couldn’t remember stepping on her foot, so I took her in to see the vet. After two rounds of antibiotics for the nail bed infection they diagnosed her with, she showed negligible improvement. I expressed my concern about it being cancerous, and the X-ray validated my suspicions. The cancer had completely eaten away at the bone in her toe, and they needed to amputate it in order to send it off to pathology for confirmation. Trust your gut, and be persistent until you get definitive answers. Although you may feel like you’re just being paranoid, don’t let anyone make you believe that. You don’t know what is really going on until you know what is really going on.
How is Cancer Treated?
There are numerous ways to treat cancer, but it depends on the type a person is diagnosed with. Surgical excision (removal) of primary tumors, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy are the most common treatments in western medicine. Many times, a person is treated with a variety of these, and outcomes are usually improved when these treatments are used in conjunction with each other. Newer technologies may involve stem cells transplants and hormone therapies, and modern medicine allows some cancers to be treated with drugs that can target specific cell markers. Genetic testing can also be done to check a person’s likelihood of responding to certain medications prior to administering treatment. In any case, maintaining a healthy lifestyle by eating healthfully and staying active can help the body handle treatment more efficiently and can also lead to a reduction in side effects commonly associated with treatment.
In my dad’s case, he tried just about everything with the exception of hormone therapy and stem cell therapy. He began with chemotherapy and radiation before having surgery to remove the tumor in his esophagus. After the recurrence, he began immunotherapy, and after that had ceased to work, he was started on a different type of chemotherapy.
In Sophie’s case, she was treated with surgery (amputation of her affected digit) and then immunotherapy with Oncept. She is currently doing well, and does not show any signs of metastasis. (yay!!). She also looks really cute with only three toes on her front right paw.
Resources and Support
How Can We Be Supportive?
Many people face some pretty bad days when going through cancer treatment. Certain medications come with heavy side effects that can affect the person’s ability to live a normal life. Sometimes, these symptoms disappear after treatment ends, but many times, a person will have long-lasting effects. It is important to be patient, reassuring, and accommodating for people in treatment. Having a strong support system is just as important as having the right treatment plan. Take the time to check in on people during their treatment, and offer to help with some of the normal responsibilities in their life that may have become too difficult or tiring for them to keep up with. Patience, persistence, and compassion go a very long way, and they are endlessly appreciated.
If you or a loved one is currently battling cancer, there are many resources available that I encourage you to use. I have included links to the websites that are recommended by oncology professionals because of their substantial research and accreditation, and I am always available if you ever need some extra support. As a caregiver, I recognize the challenges that come with a loved one being diagnosed with cancer. You will be told (abundantly) how important it is to make sure you take care of yourself, and this is true. It is also the first thing you forget to do when the going gets tough. The links below have some great information for caregivers as well.
Love to all of you,