Stage 4 Cancer – We all remember the day of our diagnosis. Many of us refer to the date as our Cancerversary. The diagnosis of Stage IV cancer is particularly difficult. While we may not understand how cancer is staged, we all know that Stage IV is the worst.
Whether we have progressed or this is our initial diagnosis, this is a shocking moment. Some of us cry, and some of us sit quietly trying to digest what our doctor is telling us.
I always refer to my day of diagnosis as “the day that time stood still.” My colonoscopy confirmed the source of my rectal bleeding was rectal cancer. The colorectal surgeon explained to my husband and me that I’d have CT scans and an MRI and see him again in two weeks. I was anxious. I Googled rectal cancer even though I knew that I shouldn’t. It didn’t look encouraging.
My CT scan experience was horrible – inept staff, lots of waiting after drinking the yucky contrast, and 3 attempts to visualize my bladder. I had a melt-down afterward, confessing my fear to my husband. He held me and admitted that he was afraid too.
The MRI was at a different facility, and the staff was professional and compassionate.
And finally, the day arrived to learn the extent of my rectal cancer. I was a nervous wreck. My surgeon came into the room, and we exchanged niceties. And then, he quietly sat down on his stool and pulled up in front of us. The air was charged with electricity. I waited.
He said, “I’m going to cut to the chase. Your cancer has spread to your lungs. There are multiple nodules in your right lung. The MRI shows there are numerous pockets of cancer cells in the fatty tissue behind your rectum.”
Stunned, I remained silent. He continued, “We have two choices – call hospice or fight.”
Without consulting my husband, I said, “We’ll fight.”
We sat and discussed the options for treatment. All that I remember hearing was that I’d probably have chemo before surgery. I selected the chemo center based on that center’s statewide reputation. And he told me it would never offend him if I got a second opinion.
As we walked out, he put his arm around my shoulder, and he gave me a scrap of paper scribbled in his handwriting that said, “NCCN.org.”
He said, “I know you want to learn more. This is a trusted source of information. My office will call you with your appointment date for the oncologist.”
The Value of a Second Opinion
Little did I know that when my husband suggested I take a copy of scan disk to the oncology appointment that I would get a second opinion.
The oncologist came in and offered her hand to both of us. She was pleasant and upbeat. She asked me lifestyle questions and said, “I wish that I could look at your scan and see those tumors for myself.”
“I brought the CD.”
She returned in about 15 minutes with a small smile on her face. She explained that she disagreed with the opinion of the first radiologist. She believed that I only had one 10 mm tumor in my right lung, and that with aggressive treatment, a cure might be possible.
I honestly couldn’t believe that she had just offered me hope and the will to fight. I resolved at that moment that I would endure whatever was necessary for a chance to be cured. She outlined a treatment plan and gave me literature from ChemoCare.com about my 4-ingredient chemo cocktail. I logged in to NCCN.org, and their recommended treatments for rectal cancer confirmed that her suggested chemo was the first line chemo for my diagnosis.
Second opinions are exactly what the two words say. We are seeking the “advice” of a skilled medical professional based on their experience. Since a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis creates a complex medical puzzle, getting a second opinion is critical so that we receive the most effective treatment. A good surgeon or oncologist will never be offended if you want a second opinion.
We, as patients, must have trust in our oncologist and other medical team members. Being treated for cancer requires trust because the stakes are high.
Remain Hopeful in the Face of Adversity
Once we’ve decided on our oncologist and committed to a treatment plan, it’s time for us to hunker down for the duration. We must realize that there may be setbacks, but they don’t mean we’ve lost the war.
We can use visual imaging to help us through our treatments. Imagine the chemo as little Pac Men seeking out and destroying every cancer cell. Envision those radiation beams pulsating and zapping that nodule in your breast or lung.
Live in the now. Find something positive every day. Laugh every day – subscribe to a daily joke via email or follow an Instagram animal personality. Embrace being grateful every day – we often ignore the small stuff that goes right in spite of our cancer treatment. Be grateful that the sun is shining or that the chocolate pudding tastes yummy. We need to remember to hug our spouse because they are scared too. Say thank you to everyone. A positive mindset sprinkled with happiness strengthens our immune systems.
The Value of Positive Thinking
There is disagreement in the medical community about the “power” of positive thinking. I remained positive throughout my yearlong treatment which included chemo, 2 types of radiation, a complex surgery and more chemo. Why do I embrace the power of positive thinking?
Stage IV cancer treatment is a long, drawn-out and tedious process. It requires endurance and stamina. Remaining physically active (walking every day) helps reduce the fatigue and achiness of all those hours in the chemo chair and remaining still for radiation treatments.
Our Stage 4 cancer diagnosis is not an automatic death sentence. Staying positive in the face of reality provides the strength to persist until we attain NED status.