Saturday, 12 April 2014

What is Cancer?

Cancer happens when cells divide uncontrollably and are able to invade other tissues. Malignant cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the bloodstream and lymph systems. This is known as metastasis, a word no cancer patient wants to hear. There are over 200 known cancers and more being discovered. Most cancers are named for the organ where they started or after the type of cell. Not all tumours are cancerous, benign tumours do not invade tissues and they do not spread.
All cancers begin in the basic unit of life, cells. Typically, cells grow and divide to produce more cells, and when they are damaged or die, they are replaced with new healthy cells. Sometimes though cells go out of control and they produce mutations that affect normal cell growth and division, they do not die but form a mass of tissue called a tumor.
There are four main categories in which cancer types can be grouped in. Myeloma and Lymphoma begins in the cells of the immune system. Central nervous system cancers begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord. Carcinoma begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs, subtypes are adenocarcinoma, basal cell carcinoma, transitional cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma. Sarcoma begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels, or other connective or supportive tissue. And finally Leukemia, cancer that starts in blood forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal cells to be produced and enter the blood. Immune system cells come from the bone marrow as well, that's incongruous.
The causes of cancer are diverse and complex. I seemed healthy. There was no history of cancer in the family. At the chemo ward I have seen healthy looking young men go on the treatment. I couldn't fathom being the face of cancer when I was first diagnosed, but seeing these young men and women get cancer, I know no one's exempt.
Your immune system is what you have to look after when you get cancer and when you don't as a preventative move. What is the immune system? It is a complex network of cells, organs, tissues, and the substances they make that help the body fight infections and diseases. They include white blood cells and tissues and organs of the lymph system, such as the thymus, tonsils, spleen, lymph nodes, bone marrow, and lymph vessels. They are your security guards. They ward off the bad things you put in your bodies. When your immune system fails to do its job, you get sick, or worse, you get cancer.
Now, if you ask me what cancer is, I would say Cancer sucks! Yes I do advocate finding the good in every situation, but let's be honest, no one wants a nasty, dreadful disease like cancer. Nobody wants to be sick, nobody wants to impose caregiver duties to family. You don't want to be stuck to a wheelchair with oxygen. Cancer can make you stronger or it can break you, but you have no choice but to face it. Cancer puts your life on hold, it affects not just you but the whole family and everyone who cares about you. I'm a planner, I even said I'm going to make my daughter's wedding cake, now I can't even plan her next birthday. Cancer can put you in a good place, it can give your life a renewed perspective, but I believe you can get that some other way too, getting cancer to wake up and to realize what you want in life is a bit harsh, don't you think? But, it's here, and I'm not one to meet this with anger and bitterness. It's been given, and it's up to me to squeeze out the goodness I can from it. I buried my head into research when I got the news, they say you have to know the enemy to ensure victory. But, is cancer really the enemy? Cancer just told me I have to look after myself more. Cancer just told me to slow down. Cancer just showed me what is important. Cancer taught my family about love. Now, that doesn't sound like an enemy does it? 

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Clarity and Acceptance

Cancer. Why me? I had a good cry when I found out my unfortunate fate. I did go there, I asked, why me? I never smoked, don't have vices, I look after myself, I never hurt anyone intentionally. I have got enough to deal with, why is life so unfair? Then I thought, why not me? Who am I to say I should not be sick, who am I to say who should be. When faced with adversity, I always tell my kids to step back and look at the bigger picture and surely, I say, you will find something to be grateful about, and something to learn from and if you find that, then all is not lost. Crying and getting mad was a normal reaction but I knew I can't stay there, so I stood up to face it.
Cancer came to me like a slap in the face, it's like in the movies where someone goes into hysterics and delirium and needs to be slapped back to his or her senses. It took cancer to make me see my life clearly, not that my life was in pandemonium but it was not as orderly as I want it to be, let's put it that way. When my world got shifted, I was transported to this special vantage point where it was easy to see what really really mattered. All of a sudden, certain things become just trivial, and my attention turns to what is important. By having cancer, I found the clarity that I've been searching for. Clarity in my life. Paradoxical almost, but I will take it. It's what I'm being given in return. It's so amazing that with cancer, I found peace in my heart and mind. Cancer showed me what I wanted in life. I'm finding more time now that I see what I should be spending it on.
I know I can't go on without acceptance, and that's where I turned my focus on, accepting that this was given to me. In accepting my fate I can turn things around and maybe this does not have to be unfortunate but instead, dare I say, a blessing. Getting news that you have cancer is devastating, being told you have 2-3 months to live puts you in panic mode. Whatever happens, I know my time could not be more precious than now. I knew I don't have time to lament for so long. Accepting it sooner gets you that time to do what you need to do to face this challenge. This will not go away and I need to face it with my whole body, mind, and soul in unison! and in full capacity. It was a process, but hanging on to that clarity makes me want to fight this even more. With this newly acquired calmness, I want to reach that place that I see from that special vantage point, I want to go there and stay there.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Missing the Signs

I try to have at least one full physical check up annually. Ironically, the year I was diagnosed was the year I missed having one. If I had done the check up, would they have found it? The last physical I had in Vancouver Canada, three years ago, I complained about breathlessness. My GP said I just needed more exercise and to eat better.
I can’t go back and dwell on what could have been, but I’m sharing this so we can be vigilant about our health. It's not enough to be told we're good, at the back of my mind, I knew something's amiss.
One year before being diagnosed, my vision drastically changed. I did get specs three years before, for reading. This change in my vision though was different. I had to really work hard to focus, like adjusting your camera lens until it’s all clear. I got new prescriptions, but it seemed really odd that the change was overnight. I thought this may be what aging is like.
When medical students came in to talk to me, they asked to look at my nails. They said cancer patients’ nails tend to widen and protrude out from the nail bed. I have noticed these changes, but I just dismissed it as getting old and that it may be because of all the housework and crafts I do.
I used to take our dog out to Hyde Park everyday with my daughter. It’s a 10 minute walk. To avoid crossing the busy roads in Knightsbridge, we go through the underground station to cross to the park, that means stairs and uphill pavements. For months I did not have a problem doing this until February 2013. I would struggle to get up the stairs and stop to rest a bit. I would slow down when I get to the uphill pavements. We run and play with him when we get to the park, but this time I would just sit down and watch. Again, I thought I am getting older, and I should seriously change my diet.
I’ve always had problems with my gut. I’m the type who can’t just drink any water, or eat anything off the streets. My tummy’s always been sensitive which is why I thought the frequent diarrhea is just me eating junk again. I drank very strong coffee as well. I usually take a break from eating, drink some herbal tea and that usually does the trick. In the days leading up to the diagnosis though, the diarrhea became severe, I got worried I’m not getting any nutrition in.
I wouldn’t call it irrational per se, as there are legitimate reasons to be upset. The difference is the way I react to the challenges. I would always be calm and collected but I noticed I can’t keep it cool anymore. I would shake uncontrollably when I’m mad. I’m not my tolerant self. My tears are shallow. I was not myself.
Eyes and Face
I look deep into my eyes and I know something’s off. I just can’t figure out what. My eyes don’t have that sparkle, it seems inexplicably dull. The shape and size seems different. The expression of my face looks tired. Again, I dismiss this as a part of aging.
The past 3 or so years I have been searching for products and diy recipes to restore my hair’s luster and texture.
Persistent Coughing
It was eventually the persistent cough that made me finally see my GP. It’s been more than a month I’ve been getting involuntary cough with clear sputum. I don’t get coughs longer than this so I went.
As a mother, you don’t want to get sick, you don’t want anything stopping you or slowing you down from your mommy duties. I psyche myself by reciting “you’re not allowed to get sick”. I thought I was doing really well. I’ve never had a fever in maybe a decade. I would get colds and coughs but they only lasted days. Not having fevers was not necessarily a good thing. Being able to produce fevers is proof that your immune system is working, it is a defense mechanism.

We should all be proactive with our health. I dismissed my symptoms as aging. You know yourself and your bodies more than your doctors ever will, if you notice and feel something’s awry, check it out, it may be nothing but at least you know it is nothing. All of my symptoms had one denominator, they signal that my immune system needs help. If I looked at them as a group and not individual conditions, I would have probably seen how they are all related and how I could have helped myself, or I could have demanded to look deeper. I missed the signs. I missed the signs that could have paved the way to early detection. Time is key to fighting cancer, the earlier you catch it, the bigger your chances of overcoming it.