What About Those Other Cancers? Prevent What You Can, Fight What You Can’t


DDTTime to put on my skeptic’s hat.

The news has again been filled with various reports on cancer, cancer prevention, and cancer treatment. Some of this news has shown up in my mail – both snail and electronic. First came the plea for contributions from the American Cancer Society, with the optimistic headline that says “Yes, we are beating cancer!” This headline is backed up by statistics stating there’s been a 25% decline in cancer death rates since 1991, and that “more than 2.1 million cancer deaths have been avoided during this time!”

Their crystal ball must be pretty good to be able to see what *didn’t* happen during this time span. A decrease in cancer deaths, while great news, doesn’t tell you that cancer rates are expected to rise.

Then there was the email notice from the Cancer Prevention Institute of California (motto: “Preventing Cancer. Promoting Life.”) that includes an “infographic” (a.k.a., chart) of ways that you can reduce your risk of cancer by one third to one half. The list has the usual steps: eat a balanced and healthful diet, get exercise, protect yourself from the sun, get the HPV vaccine, and avoid smoking and eating too much red meat. This is useful – but not exactly cutting edge – information indicating that the 30% to 50% risk reduction relates primarily to cancers of the colon, lung, skin, and a basketful of general cancers not entirely specified.

Also in this email is a link to a press release about a study of triple negative breast cancer, which found that “women under the age of 50 who breastfed for at least 24 months over their lifetime had a lower risk of developing TNBC. For women with three or more full-term pregnancies, risk increased two-fold if they did not breastfeed or only did so for less than a year. No increase in risk was seen for women who breast-fed for more than a year.”

Feeling confused? So am I, and I even try to keep up with the research on TNBC. These latest findings still don’t explain why I ended up with that particular cancer. According to this study – and the fact that I generally lived by the tips on the infographic — I should have been at low risk for cancer in general.

At this juncture on Cancer Road, I’ve stopped thinking there will ever be a single cure for cancer, or even one cure for everyone with a single type of cancer. The more research is done, the more clear it becomes that the term cancer covers an ever-increasing number and variety of cell abnormalities. Though there may be cures for some specific cancers, this disease will always be a few steps ahead of science.

I am grateful for (and contribute to) the researchers who dedicate their life’s work to finding cures, and appreciate the various organizations that try to educate us about risks and prevention. Though I understand the need for optimism and see the value in charting progress, none of it explains why — if you do the math — 50% to 70% of cancers don’t seem to be preventable, at least not by controlling the factors listed in the infographic.

If we can control some of the risks that lead to certain cancers, there must be ways to prevent others as well. But the prevention information peddled to the general public doesn’t address how to do this. The information largely puts the burden of prevention on the individual – do this, don’t do that — and ignores the larger picture.

During this month, which honors cancer prevention, I’ve been reading a book that, at first glance, doesn’t seem directly related to the topic: Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson. Published in 1962, the book details the drastic increase in the use of pesticides and herbicides since 1945, and their catastrophic effect on fish, plants, wildlife and — it turns out — humans throughout the 1950s. This book is generally credited with advancing the environmental movement, though Carson herself died of breast cancer two years after the book came out.

Carson’s findings aren’t news to those who know her work or are active in the environmental movement. Reading Silent Spring reminded me of the environmental chemicals I was exposed to over the years (weed killers, insecticides, household cleaners, chlorine in swimming pools), some of which I had control over and most of which I didn’t (DDT wasn’t banned in the U.S. till 1972, when I was 12).

Connecting these various dots, I’d like to propose two steps:

  1. Prevent what you can: Along with eating well and giving up smoking – activities we have control over — we should give up using harmful environmental chemicals whenever possible. (Throw away those ridiculous air fresheners and welcome the weeds in the lawn.)
  2. Fight what you can’t: Petition the manufacturers of such chemicals to assign some of their scientists to cancer studies in search of a cure. After all, if they’re going to create cancer-causing agents, the least they can do is try to repair the damage.

Maybe then we’ll see a decrease not just in cancer deaths, but in the rates of those other cancers too.

For a list of top 116 cancer-causing chemicals and activities, click here. See how many of these you can remove from your life.

For Jo and John: Let’s put an end to the caricatures

According to the American Cancer Society, more than 15 million people in the United States have been designated as cancer survivors in 2016.

A few days ago, I met one of those survivors, a woman I’ll call Jo, at the gym when I was meeting with a staff member there. Jo came over to say hello when the staff person called her over for an introduction. She too worked at the gym.

As she leaned over to greet me, I immediately noticed Jo’s bald head and knew instantly, in the way we sometimes just “know,” that her hairless condition was not a fashion statement. Unlike that of the male staff member I’d been talking with, a bald head on a woman is often a telltale sign of cancer treatment.

Jo looked vibrant, was energetic, and seemed happy to chat for a few moments. In our short conversation, the staff member noted that Jo was being treated for cancer, at which point Jo interjected “breast cancer,” and quickly summarized the treatment she’d begun: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. The too-common triumvirate of cancer treatment.  When she mentioned that she had just finished her rounds of Adriamycin, was moving on to Taxol, and would then have radiation, her words raced down the circuits in my brain, which arrived at the conclusion: triple-negative.  The same type of cancer I had.

I didn’t confirm whether this was in fact what she was dealing with, but I did nod in recognition, explaining that I had gone through that same treatment and, holding up crossed fingers on both hands, was doing fine. She grinned, turned to the staff member, and joked about how someone had given her a breast prosthesis that squeaked. The staff member commented that Jo’s dog would certainly like that, and they both laughed. The conversation, brief as it was, was filled with laughter and jokes, and Jo went off down the hall in good spirits.

The last few weeks have also brought attention to another cancer survivor: Senator John McCain. His scenario is vastly different, not just because of his age or his previous diagnoses of melanoma. The glioblastoma discovered in his brain will, not too long from now, take his life. Nonetheless, he rallied and returned to Washington to cast a vote on the current proposals for revising our healthcare system.

These are the public faces of cancer patients — the ones that we, the public, expect, even demand, to help us conquer our own fear of a frightening illness.

Despite their outward appearances, however, we can’t pretend to know what either of these people – or any of the other 15 million cancer patients — look like or feel in their private moments because those aren’t the moments we see – or want to see. Those moments would render us fearful and helpless. In my own slog down Cancer Road, I can tell you there were many moments of terror and times when I just had to sit down and cry. But in public, I was that smiling, upbeat woman, making jokes about how the glow in my skin from the Adriamycin probably meant I was radioactive.

Are there moments of despair for Jo and John?

Very likely.

Will we see them?

Probably not.

What we also see is the public’s reaction to people given a cancer diagnosis. Well-meaning attempts at encouragement and humor in the case of Jo. Demands and expectations of performance by Senator McCain.

I admit to being slightly put off by the dog-toy joke, as it seemed to make too light of what I know to be a terrifying situation. But Jo didn’t seem bothered; she was even engaged in the joking. But that was her public face. As she walked away, I wondered how quickly the smile evaporated from her countenance.

I found myself angry at the responses to Mr. McCain’s announcement, which were of two varieties. The media focused on the theme of the soldier returning to battle and therefore deserving of the spotlight, which burdened McCain with having to play the hero. Many people posting on social media, however, were quick to disparage him for his stance on political issues, which seemed a version of kicking the man while he was down.

In both cases, the cancer diagnosis erased the individual and the focus became how each one was behaving in light of it. What society expects from cancer patients is the caricature – the upbeat smiling woman, makeup in place, chattering brightly about how well she’s doing. The upright and serious man, carrying on heroic business in the face of adversity.

Contemplating the Crystals

IMG_2162Pay close attention to the small things. Like the crystals on the light fixture you see here. This is the light that was hanging in the corner of a hotel room in Portland, Oregon, where I happened to be when I got the news about the death of Brian Doyle. Like most fixtures in hotel rooms, it was easy to overlook once you’d seen it – aglow in the corner, unobtrusively emanating light through simple pieces of glass.

I never met Brian Doyle — the American writer, not the Canadian one (or the baseball player) — in person. But I know now how prolific his writing was. And I’m just the next in a long line of people writing about him after his death last month.

I never met him face-to-face, but I first met his writing in a short essay called “The Slather,” which was published in Orion magazine some years ago.  The essay is about a father and his small child in a park on a random afternoon. I have that essay tacked up in my cubicle at work. I tacked it there as a reminder to regularly reflect on the wonders to be found in the small things of the world. For that’s what Mr. Doyle wrote so beautifully about – the small wonders to be found in the world, with all its mayhem and mystery, flecked with humor and depth and, yes, grace.

I looked for that essay online just now, so that you too could share in the delight of reading it, but I can’t find it. Still, there are many of his short essays posted in cyberspace, like this one or this one.

I never met the man one-on-one, but I was once in the same room as he, during a reading he did at the college where I work. Well, it wasn’t really a reading, but more a “telling” as he didn’t read from his work but created it spontaneously, conjuring stories from the very air before him. His presentation that evening was spectacular precisely because of the conjuring. It was the morning of that conjuring when I finally connected the dots between the essay tacked to my wall and the man unleashing his glorious stories upon us that evening.

But I didn’t meet Mr. Doyle then either, although I could have. After the presentation, he was swarmed by audience members and I had to get on home. But I did buy a couple of his novels – his first, Mink River, and its sequel The Plover.  I am still reeling from the human (and animal) beauty described in those pages.

And like the many others now recording their memories of him, I am still reeling from his death.

As I said, I never met the man in person, but I did introduce myself via email last fall, when the word came to campus that he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Because of my work editing neurosurgical articles, some about the type of tumor he had, I knew too well that Mr. Doyle’s conjuring would end too soon. Once again, cancer stole the heart and words of another one of us. Mr. Doyle had himself written about its heavy impact, among his hundreds of essays, having lost a brother to the illness as well.

So I met him at last through that email, compelled to tell him of the effect that his first essay had upon me, neither asking for nor expecting a response. The treatment for that particular cancer can be especially debilitating, and I knew there were many others more worthy of his attention than I. But he answered, in a single and solitary statement: “Julie, how kind, thank you.”

As it turned out, I was in Portland, where he lived, the weekend of his death. A friend informed me through an email, which I read while sitting on the couch in that hotel room. I spent much of the evening contemplating the sad news, as I contemplated the crystals on the light fixture in the corner. Like his words, the crystals were mesmerizing – strings of dazzling transparency, revealing and enlarging the light within.

Pay close attention to the small things, he said, for they have a story to tell. That is the singular, powerful effect Brian Doyle’s words have had on me – revealing and enlarging the inner light in all of us, bound up together as we are.

Godspeed, Mr. Doyle.


To Soy or Not to Soy

Edamame_with_saltMy apologies to Shakespeare for the skewed headline, but that’s the first thing that came to mind when I read the results of a recent report on a perennially confusing topic for those of us who have had breast cancer: whether eating soy products is helpful or harmful.

Some studies show that, because of its estrogen-like properties, soy products should be avoided by people with hormone-positive breast cancer. But there’s evidence from East Asian countries that eating soy might actually be protective, as the rates of breast cancer there are considerably lower than those in the U.S. So which is it?  Is soy helpful? Harmful?

The study came to  my attention in the March email newsletter from the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, whose name tells you exactly what their mission is. Their slogan: Preventing Cancer. Promoting Life.

The newsletter reads:

Eating a soy-rich diet found to reduce mortality for women with more aggressive breast cancers

Consuming more foods rich in isoflavones, a compound primarily found in soy beans, was found to decrease the risk of death of women diagnosed with some types of breast cancer. For all breast cancers combined, mortality was reduced by 21 percent. When considering specific types of breast cancer, lower mortality was found only for women whose tumors lacked estrogen and progesterone receptors. Mortality was 51% lower for women with hormone receptor negative breast cancers which are more aggressive and have poorer survival. Lower mortality was only seen in women who didn’t receive endocrine therapy as a treatment for breast cancer.

To conduct this study, researchers analyzed data on 6,235 American and Canadian breast cancer patients from the Breast Cancer Family Registry, a National Cancer Institute-funded program that has collected clinical and questionnaire data on enrolled participants and their families since 1995.

To their credit, the CPIC took part in the study and one of their researchers collaborated on it. Their report can be found here, with a link to the study published in the journal Cancer.

The study doesn’t entirely solve the riddle of whether soy can help cause or prevent breast cancer for everyone. But for those of us in the triple negative group, it appears eating soybeans can be helpful. The golden words from the summary are: Mortality was 51% lower for women with hormone receptor negative breast cancers.

So break out the edamame. And while you do, listen to a blues singer I just discovered, who puts her soul into this piece for a cancer fundraiser:

Chain Reaction

chainlinkIf you’re unfortunate enough to have to go through chemotherapy, the oncologists and nurses who support you through the ordeal are pretty good about telling you what to expect. The infusion nurses, especially, know the realities of chemotherapy and are wonderful supports.

Hair loss, nausea, fatigue.  The list of side effects can be pretty lengthy.

They may even tell you how each chemical dripped into your veins can affect different parts of your body. Doxorubicin is hard on the heart and taxol, if it doesn’t cause an immediate and deadly allergic reaction, can lead to neuropathy, which appears as tingling, numbness, or even pain in fingers and toes. Fortunately (pain-free fingers crossed), I seem to have dodged those particular problems.

In general, the reports tracking the side effects of chemotherapy stop at about the same time the clock stops on tracking survival after cancer – 5 years. I haven’t yet investigated why 5 years is the magic interval, but if patients make it to that point without a recurrence of cancer, they are usually considered to be in long-term remission and the oncologists turn their attention to those just entering CancerLand. Follow-up visits to the oncologist might cease entirely, and your health care reverts to your internist or primary care physician.

But that doesn’t mean that cancer, or its aftermath, is done with you. The reason we speak of remission, rather than cure, is that, for many cancers, there’s no guarantee you’re cured until you die of something else. And even if you are cured, remnants of the experience – like ongoing neuropathy or fatigue – might remain. New problems might also arise many years later in a maddening, slow-motion chain reaction.

That’s where I find myself now, addressing the next link in the chain. The first links were the tightness in the chest muscles from surgery and radiation, the random pains that still shoot through the scars, and the numbness under my left arm. Then came the transient bouts of lymphedema in the arm where numerous lymph nodes were removed. And now, a diagnosis of osteoporosis, which will likely lead to the ingestion of more chemicals, this time to bolster the bones.

To be honest , I can’t blame it all on the cancer and treatment as I have several of the risk factors for bone thinning – Caucasian background, family history, and low body weight. But I’ve also been careful to follow the guidelines about weight-bearing exercise, calcium and vitamin D intake, and a healthful diet. So how is it that, instead of maintaining or increasing bone since my first bone-density test 5 years ago, I’ve seen a decrease?

There’s only one answer to that question – chemotherapy.

As it turns out, there’s a bit of research showing a connection between chemotherapy and osteoporosis. But except for my naturopath’s oblique mention of a potential “degenerative process,” I heard nothing about what chemo can do to bones.

Knowing about that connection wouldn’t have changed my mind about treatment. And I know other cancer survivors who are dealing with much more than I am, for a much longer time. We would all choose our same treatments again because that’s what saved our lives. Like any other major life decision, you never really know what it is you are choosing. There’s never a guarantee of how things will turn out.

But every time a new problem comes to light, one that can be directly related to the cancer or the treatment, we cancer patients stumble and sag, carried back to the days we hoped we’d gotten beyond, when the darkness was constantly visible, not a shadow in a far-off corner.