Goshen News, Goshen, IN

December 22, 2013

WHOLE FAMILY: Navigating the dark and scary waters of cancer

Goshen News

---- — Columnist’s note: Writing about people’s health care can be tricky and requires clear permission, careful consideration and, frankly, great tact. I confirmed with my grandma on several occasions her permission to write about her journey with advanced lung cancer. When I snapped pictures of her, I made sure the nurses knew what I was up to, and I respected the privacy of those around her.

As a long-time journalist, I have lived much of my life with the mindset that most everything is “on the record” and material for a good story unless otherwise specified — and even then there are ethical and legal ways to publish information someone would prefer were private. In health care, my new profession, it is just the opposite. We are taught to assume everything is absolutely private unless given permission to view or, certainly, to share in any way. Everything is “off the record.” Without their expressed permission, people’s health care is confidential, private, NOT part of my storytelling.

Going from the town crier to living with sealed lips has been challenging for me — a hard and high learning curve on which I have stumbled a time or two. As I write about my grandma and her experiences, I likely will focus on my own perspectives, for one, and maintain a heightened awareness of her wishes for privacy such as they are. However, with her permission, it is my hope my grandma and her stories can touch others. That’s the goal of good journalism, no?

My grandma has cancer. Probably not an uncommon thing to hear. People get cancer — lots of people. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), about 13.7 million Americans in 2012 had or had had cancer.

About 1.6 million new cases were expected to be diagnosed in 2013. My grandma was one of them.

Her name is Claudia Rose, and she turned 80 on Dec. 4. Two days later, she received the first half of her first round of chemotherapy infusion — powerful, poisonous drugs aimed at the 8-cm tumor on her right lung.

I saw that tumor on an X-ray — a big, white, fuzzy mass where only healthy lung tissue is supposed to be. Even my untrained eye recognized it as ominous.

I have read that most every human has potential cancer cells — simply, “abnormal” cells — in his or her body at any given time. It’s when those cells aren’t cleaned up by our immune systems or they’re fed by whatever fuels them — thus they grow and reproduce – that they become cancer.

“Growing out of control and invading other tissues are what makes a cell a cancer cell,” says the ACS.

According to her oncologist, my grandma’s tumor is likely about 6 months old. She had no symptoms to alert her to its presence save the one that earned her a chest X-ray: pain near her right scapula that she attributed to a decades-old shoulder injury.

After the X-ray, she was off for some body and brain scans and a biopsy of that tumor. I attended none of those tests with her, but I hear she handled them like a champion and tickled the nursing staff with her funny antics. Eighty-year-old grandmas say the darndest things. No doubt you’ll read some of them in columns to come.

And then, the diagnosis: lung cancer. Words no one wants to hear.

Presently there is no recommended routine screening for lung cancer like there is for prostate, breast or cervical cancers. But after breast cancer, lung cancer is the most common cancer in women, accounting for about 52 percent of all cancers in women, according to the ACS.

Cancer is caused by carcinogens, or, in layman’s terms, agents that make cells go wacky: chemicals found in cigarettes, chlorofluorocarbons, radiation, whatever else. Genetics is a factor in about 5 percent of all cancer diagnoses, according to the ACS, with about 1 in 20 cancer patients citing a parent had cancer.

My grandma was a smoker for a long time but quit more than a decade ago after getting mad at paying higher taxes on her Pall Malls.

Most of her life was characterized by good health — the solid, sturdy kind of health fueled by percolated pots of coffee, hard work, fried hamburgers and indoor and outdoor household building projects of all manners.

My grandma is the caliber of lady who would push through colds, the flu and accidents and long, hard days in a factory, the caliber of lady who would amaze doctors that she did not die — or even pass out — after massive, childbirth-related blood loss during which her second baby died.

Save a couple of medications to keep her blood pressure in a good range, she’s been amazingly prescription-free for an 80-year-old. Until now. Now she has a cancer diagnosis, an intruder on her lung for which she’s getting plenty of medication.

At first, she said, she could not believe the diagnosis. “Cancer!” she’d breathe. “Cancer?” After her initial chemotherapy treatment, which was her choice to take or not to take, she was pleasantly surprised, as was I, how well she tolerated it.

It’s that solid, hearty constitution serving her well, I told her.

She’ll be headed for chemotherapy round two in early January. Then a scan to see what her tumor has done. Has it shrunk? Has it grown? And the question with a more crucial answer: Has it spread to anywhere else?

As my grandma and our family navigate these new waters — the waters of cancer and chemo and scans and whatever else is ahead — we have many thoughts and questions, many concerns and worries, many hopes and bright spots and desires.

I plan to share them with you as able, knowing there are countless others — 14 million? — whose lives have been kissed by cancer.

Goshen News columnist Stephanie Price is a wife, mother, teacher, childbirth educator, doula, midwife’s assistant and student nurse pursuing a minor in complementary health. She is from Elkhart. Contact her at wholefamily@goshennews.com, 269-641-7249 or on Facebook at the page “Whole Family Column by Steph Price.”