In the past month research has been published that suggests that chemotherapy may cause cancers to return. The news is all over the internet, of course, and is presented differently by various groups according to their interests.
For several days I refused to read any of the articles. I don’t want to know about that, I thought. But this is important information, you have to read about it. Well, let me just say this: nobody HAS to read about anything if they don’t want to and no-one can make you. But this research is something that I feel needs to be discussed, and in order to write about a topic with any degree of credibility I must at least have some basic level of knowledge.
So I have read several reports (here, here and here are some of them). The upshot appears to be this: Chemotherapy causes DNA damage. That damage causes fibroblasts to over-produce a protein called WNT16B. The more WNT16B is produced during chemotherapy, the more likely the cancer is to come back after treatment. Additionally, the presence of this protein causes cancer cells to become more resistant to chemotherapy. Given that the problem exists and that there is currently no credible alternative to chemotherapy treatment, understanding this mechanism may be the first step in developing ways to mitigate it. (Please do speak up and leave a comment if you’ve interpreted the research differently).
My hands are actually shaking as I write this. It’s a fraught subject, not so much because it is academic and hard to understand but because it is difficult to know what to DO with the information. I mean, I’ve already had the chemotherapy.
I could rail against the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. I could take to my bed. I could ring up all my friends and demand ‘Why does this always happen to ME?’ I could go out and get blind drunk. None of it would change the facts. I’m reminded of the mental anguish that I went through when I first had to make a decision about undergoing chemotherapy and subsequently about taking Tamoxifen.
And that makes me think… really this is no different to all the other shocking news that we all receive at some time during the course of our lives, from ‘We’ve discovered a tumour…’ to ‘I’m sorry, she died this morning…’ to ‘We’re going to have to let you go…’ to ‘I don’t love you anymore…’ Such information, when imparted, throws us into a maelstrom of conflicting emotions because it abruptly and fundamentally changes the outlook of our lives. It seems that everything we had grown comfortable with – our level of prosperity; our daily routine with a partner; the humdrum of our job; how long we might walk on this earth – may now be different to how we always thought it would be.
Suddenly we are traversing what Elisabeth Kübler-Ross described as the five stages of grief:
Acceptance, in my book, is the key to freedom. Where it gets intolerably painful is when I get stuck in any of the stages prior to acceptance. So, how do I move through the stages?
Denial feels comfortable for a while but it is a position that only a fool can maintain in the light of hard facts. I’m no fool and neither are you. I find that the best way to tackle denial is to face the issue head-on. In this case, read the reports. Weigh the information up for myself.
Anger feels justified at first: I was tricked. Those bastards are only looking out for themselves, they don’t care about me. But it soon seems that anger may be a righteous mask for self-pity. Do I really believe that my doctors and nurses, professionals of moral integrity who have taken oaths to care for others, have colluded to ruin my life? The answer is no.
Bargaining is a way to feel that I am in control of the situation, for example: If I eat cabbage, brown rice and chia seeds every day I won’t be one of the ones who relapse. Do I eat healthy food because I hope that God or Tinkerbell might reward my virtue with a cancer-free future? Or do I eat it because I love it and it makes me feel great? Definitely the latter. I resolve to eat up my veggies and enjoy my life today. As I’m continually told in my 12-step groups: ‘Take action and let go of the result.’
Depression knocks when I allow myself to believe that what is happening to me is somehow my fault. Stupid, stupid, stupid. You shouldn’t have had the chemotherapy. Now look what you’ve done. You should have gone with the baking soda and mushroom cure. These self-punishing opinions are always very plausible but can often be identified by a high incidence of the words ‘should’, ‘should not’, ‘must’ and ‘if only’. They are a parody of reality. The truth is that I made the best decision that I could make, for me, in the light of the information that I had at the time.
Ultimately I will come to a point of acceptance. I will accept that things are not always how I want them to be. I will accept that life is valuable and worth living right now. And I will breathe easier.
If you too are worrying about the after-effects of chemotherapy, you could do worse that to read this article by Dr Kathleen T. Ruddy. I found it helpful.
Do you have a useful technique for dealing with life-shocks? Please share it.