Journeys with Cancer. Choosing Treatments, Choosing Hope

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This started out as a story about treatment options for cancer patients.

It remains, largely, a story about treatment options, told by five locals with cancer who’ve made hard and often highly creative choices while fighting for their lives. Most have mixed conventional and alternative therapies, from chemo, radiation and surgery to experimental drugs, green tea and meditation. All are unbelievably brave soldiers, survivors who so far are winning the war.

The message: If you have cancer, consider all your options. Sometimes the best of both worlds is best.

The larger message: There is hope—and that’s what this story is really all about.

Norma Anderson, 61

Type of cancer: Breast

Chosen treatments: Conventional and alternative

Norma Anderson spent most of her life helping others fight cancer. An oncology nurse for 25 years, she also assisted many of her own family members who succumbed to the disease, including her husband. But last year, the tables were turned when a biopsy revealed a malignancy in Anderson’s right breast, with nodal involvement. Although chemo and radiation were the cornerstones of her treatment at Mercy San Juan, culminating in bilateral mastectomies and reconstructive breast surgery, Anderson knew the value of complementary therapies and used them to ease the way, including meditation and energy work. “I’ve learned over the years that relaxation techniques can help,” she says.

With treatment behind her, life is starting to get back to normal now, says Anderson during an interview at her Carmichael home. But when you’re fighting cancer, it consumes your life “because all you’re doing is doctors and treatment—you can’t get away from it.”

With cancer all around you—at home, at work—were you always afraid you might be next? Yes, and when my kids were young, I was especially worried that I’d get sick. I knew I was high risk because of my family history.

Between that and being an oncology nurse, I’m sure you were diligent about getting mammograms and other checkups. I was. I had multiple breast masses in my 40s, but nothing showed up on my mammograms. Nothing showed up on my mammograms when I had cancer, either, but I knew something was wrong—I had a “pulling” feeling I’d never had before. So I continued to pursue it and finally a biopsy came back malignant. By the time it was diagnosed, it was in my nodes.

The lesson is to listen to your body. Yes. I guess my message would be if you feel something is wrong, pursue it. Find a doctor who listens to you.

What was treatment like? Even though I’ve given lots of chemo over the years, I still wasn’t prepared for the fatigue I experienced with chemo. I had a terrible loss of energy. I also had stomatitis, where the tissues in your mouth and GI system start to break down, and nausea. Even though I knew about these side effects, having them myself gave me a whole new respect for people who go through this. It takes tremendous courage to endure the therapies.

How did the complementary therapies help? Meditation got me through radiation. While I was on the [radiation] table, I visualized myself in Hawaii, which helped me to relax and to lie still, as you have to do when you’re undergoing radiation. I also have a friend who does energy work, which is a kind of meditation where you open your charkas to release negative energy, and that seemed to help when I was having pain or loss of energy. And then I started yoga, but that was more to improve my range of mobility and regain strength than for relaxation.
How are you feeling these days? I’m feeling well. I don’t feel sick. I have my energy back—I’m back to walking four to five days a week. And I’m still continuing to do the meditation and yoga.

How has having cancer changed your life? Family became much more important. Things I used to get upset about are not a big deal. The stock market, for example—at one point I would have been worried sick, but now it’s not so important. I like myself better. I feel attractive still. I feel very full of life. I don’t worry about “Oh, my God, I have a wrinkle here or there.” I think cancer makes you tough, too.

Pam Lent, 47

Type of cancer: Melanoma, metastasized to the brain

Chosen treatments: Conventional and alternative

When a doctor told her she had two years to live, Pam Lent walked out and just kept going. Another wanted her to go through massive chemo. She said no. She’s since found an oncologist at Sutter Roseville who believes any approach is a good approach, as long as it’s working—and for Lent, that includes everything from juicing and supplements to meditation and Reiki.

A Rocklin resident and working mother of two—she’s a real estate director for Borders—Lent sips green tea during our interview (“it’s part of my regimen”) and is amazingly upbeat for someone who just had an MRI moments earlier (that, too, is part of the regimen). But, as she says, “I look at every day as a gift. I’m just happy to be cancer-free.”

Tell me about your original cancer—the melanoma. It was just a small mole on my back. After it was removed and tested “clear,” I really didn’t focus on it much. I made sure to have regular body checks with my dermatologist, and everything seemed to be fine.

And then? Three years later, in 2006, I started getting sharp pains in my forehead, and I would get dizzy—like when I would stand up to get out of the car. I went to an ear doctor, and that doctor sent me to my eye doctor, and he noticed that an optic nerve was swollen. An MRI showed that the melanoma had metastasized. I had two small tumors in my brain, but fortunately, they were operable. So I had the tumors surgically removed, followed by the Gamma Knife, which uses very high-powered radiation to target the cancer sites.

Why did you start using alternative therapies? Surgeries and conventional therapies save lives. The surgeons who removed my tumors saved my life. But I was cancer-free and did not want to go through chemo. I wanted to build my immune system instead of tearing it down. So I went through months of asking myself, “What do I need to do next?” I felt like I needed to do something more preemptive. I also went through a lengthy search for the right oncologist. I did a lot of research. I became somewhat obsessed.
What did you find? Today, there are so many things you can do. Through a mutual family friend, I found a nutritionist out of the Salt Lake City area who specializes in cancer, specifically brain cancer, and she looked at my records and put together a plan for me. That’s been the biggest change—the diet change. I juice daily, mostly vegetables, and my intake of greens and fruits and vegetables has probably tripled. But I still indulge in the occasional good red wine and chocolate, because you have to live, and to not enjoy food, to me, would not be living. I love food too much.

How are you feeling? I have great energy—much more than pre-cancer. Exercise helps, too. I tried the gym, but I like being outdoors in the sunshine, so I walk three to four miles a day, if I can, and do my little floor exercises—yoga and stretching, relaxation-type exercise. That’s also the No. 1 recommendation from my oncologist: Exercise every day.

And you’re doing other things, too, right? I probably take 20 different supplements a day—my kids laugh at me. I take melatonin, a green-tea pill . . . if I could choose a second career, I would teach people how they can make themselves feel better through nutrition and exercise. And I do Reiki—that was part of what I did immediately, before my first surgery, and now it’s once a week. It helps me to relax, keep stress levels in check. It’s kinda my therapy. Massage helps, too.

Any words of wisdom for others who have cancer? The biggest thing I would say is: Have hope. There are so many things you can do. It’s not a death sentence at all—nobody knows. And I do think the mind-body connection is the most powerful thing. There will be days you’re going to have tears, but you’ve got to have a positive outlook, because the alternative . . . if you think you’re doomed, you’re probably doomed.

Ruth Mary Harrop, 61

Type of cancer: Breast, metastasized to the spine, lungs and lymphatic system

Chosen treatments: Conventional and alternative

After an oncologist told her, “You’re going to have the heaviest chemo we can find and all your hair is going to fall out,” Ruth Mary Harrop decided, “No, it’s not—because I’m not doing it.” That was the start of her cancer journey 2 ½ years ago, when a lump in her right breast was discovered (and removed); the disease has since spread to her spine, lungs and lymphatic system. Sounds bad, but there’s good news: Harrop’s tumor markers have dropped, indicating she’s responding well to therapy—which, for her, marries conventional and holistic treatments from practitioners in both camps. And she’s still got a full head of hair.

Alternating between two drips—one with Herceptin (that’s the conventional part) and another with Iscador, a form of mistletoe that has been shown to support the immune system (and is widely used in cancer care in Europe)—Harrop says she’s resigned to the fact that she’ll be dripping with drugs for the next seven years, the timeline given by her doctors. Still, she considers herself lucky. “I’m a very lucky person to have this kind of care,” she says. She continues to put one foot in front of the other, all the while working as a music teacher and band director in the Nevada City School District.

The first step in your treatment was having the lump removed from your breast. Did you think that was the end of your battle with cancer? After my lumpectomy, I was declared “well.” My oncologist advised against radiation—I have rather large breasts, and she said with breasts like mine, radiation generally can’t be done with accuracy—and that I only had a 2 percent chance of recurrence. But just five months after the lumpectomy, a mammogram showed six tumors in my breast. As I looked at the X-ray, tears rolled down my face.

Is that when you started seeking alternative approaches? I had actually started Iscador from the moment I was diagnosed. When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, they said three months, maybe six months, but he lived 7 ½ months, and he was only in bed the last few weeks because the Iscador helped him to feel so much better.

How is Iscador helping you? It helps me feel that I am working through the cancer in the right way—that I am dealing with the cancer so I can truly heal. It’s a feeling of well-being. It makes me feel like I can get back into life again.

Are you using other alternative treatments? I’m taking a lot of supplements, including a vitamin for breast cancer people that has no iron, no copper and no boron. I’m taking large doses of CoQ10 (Coenzyme Q10). But I don’t want to give the impression that I’m just hangin’ out with “the alternatives.” I’m also taking Aromasin, prescribed by my oncologist, and the Herceptin, which is really expensive—$4,000 each time.

Whoa—$4,000? It’s really expensive. But my insurance covers it completely. Because I’m a teacher, I have really good insurance. Like I told you, I’m a lucky person.

David Lopez, 60

Type of cancer: Chronic myelogenous leukemia

Chosen treatments: Conventional and experimental

Arsenic or experimental drug: Which would you choose? For David Lopez, it was a no-brainer—and, he believes, a lifesaver. “We were astounded that they were using arsenic as a cure for cancer,” he says. “It didn’t make a great deal of sense.” Instead, he enrolled in a clinical drug trial at Kaiser Permanente in Sacramento and has responded so well that he is optimistic that he’ll be around “a good long while.” His original prognosis was eight to 10 years. He’s now in year 11.

A devoted family man—he frequently refers to his wife and daughter during our interview—Lopez has tirelessly sought alternatives to traditional treatments, urging others to do the same. “If the traditional medicines are not working, take a risk and seek out clinical trials,” says the North Natomas resident. “I’ve been through two different clinical trials, and it’s been a lifesaver for me.”

How did your journey with cancer begin? My original symptom was tremendous headaches—I’d never had headaches in my life. I went to my doctor and, unfortunately, I’ve always been portly, so the message has always been the same: Lose weight, stop smoking and exercise. But that didn’t cure any of the problems, and I was feeling more and more tired. Then I changed doctors and found an excellent new one who was personable and very dedicated to his work. He sent me through a variety of tests and that’s when they found out I had an abundance of white blood cells, a massive amount. Unfortunately, as I picked up the blood test, I looked at the lab slip and it said “life-threatening.” I was hoping for fibromyalgia—something that wouldn’t be as drastic as this. He called me into his office and informed me in a very professional manner that I had been diagnosed with leukemia.

I can’t imagine confronting that kind of news. It was a highly devastating blow, but I took it in as professional [a] manner as I could. I was an [educational] administrator. I was strong; I was solid. But the weight of the information was so tremendous that it could have melted me into a cube of butter.

What made you decide to try experimental drugs instead of traditional treatment?  When I first started the treatment process, a variety of chemotherapies were tried. Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to have a positive response. At that point, I was continuing to deteriorate, so I went online and started looking for alternatives. I looked up clinical trials and there were a variety of them, though the majority were for other cancers, not what I had. Finally, I did find a program under way at Oregon Health & Science University, and I was accepted into the trial.

So you went to Oregon for treatment? I had to fly to Portland every 12 weeks for treatment. At the time, the drug was code-named STI571, but now it’s called Gleevec. I was involved in this trial a year and a few months, but then I became intolerant to the drug and was dropped from the program.

And then you switched to the clinical trial at Kaiser here in Sacramento? After the Portland trial, we went back to a cocktail of interferon and Gleevec, but I continued to deteriorate and, eventually, we needed to find something else for me to take, or die. At Kaiser, I was given two choices: arsenic or this new drug. I wasn’t about to take arsenic. I received my first dosage of the drug (Dasatinib, now FDA-approved) on my birthday—Dec. 15, 2005—and on Dec. 20, I had congestive heart failure because the dosage was too high. But now I’m in a stabilized place, my doctor keeps a very good eye on me, and I expect to continue on this drug as long as I’m alive—and I’m hoping that will be a good long while.

What would you say to other cancer patients? The willingness to risk is highly important. The whole premise of “now I’m a victim, do unto me” doesn’t really work.

Craig Van Steinburg, 42

Type of cancer: Multiple myeloma (cancer of the plasma cell)

Chosen treatment: Conventional

Sometimes there isn’t time to weigh treatment options. Such was the case for Craig Van Steinburg, who says he was in “so much pain” that he immediately agreed to his Sutter oncologist’s recommendation: outpatient chemotherapy and inpatient high-dose chemotherapy, followed by a stem cell transplant. These days, that’s the protocol of choice for patients with aggressive multiple myeloma. And that, for Van Steinburg, was a pretty compelling argument.

A foreman at Elk Grove Water Service—he hopes to return to work at the end of January—Van Steinburg makes his home in South Sacramento with his wife and two sons. He was preparing for transplant surgery at the time of this interview.

I’m told you originally thought you were having back problems—not cancer. I’m a duck hunter and at the end of duck season, I loaded my ATV trailer and was putting it up on the hitch of my truck and it seemed immensely heavy—heavier than normal, and I couldn’t get it up on the hitch. I thought it was a back injury for months, and all the X-rays looked normal, so my doctor decided it was probably just muscular and I went on muscle relaxants. Then I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes—I weighed 395 pounds; I’m a big guy—and it masked a lot of the symptoms, so my doctor wasn’t really looking for anything else. Eventually, when I got to the point where I could barely walk, I had an MRI and CT scan, and it looked like my last lumbar vertebra was bleeding. That’s when they started suspecting cancer.=

They did blood tests and then a bone marrow biopsy. My bones looked like Swiss cheese. The X-rays were scary to look at.

That must have been terrifying. My wife and I sobbed a little bit. I was scared, but at the same time I was almost relieved to have a diagnosis. Since I hadn’t been getting any real pain relief from medicine, it all made sense when the doctor told me that multiple myeloma is one of the most painful cancers you can have.

How are you feeling about your course of treatment? The initial chemo was mild, and I responded to it so fast that I felt good about the treatment. But the high-dose chemo that starts off the stem cell transplant is pretty horrible. But I guess the way they’re treating me is state of the art, so I feel good about that.

How are you holding up emotionally? At first I got pretty depressed and was crying, thinking I was a good person and wondering why I ended up with this, but I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel like we’re gonna beat this. If tomorrow’s my last day, I at least want to enjoy today. I want to enjoy every day I can.

The writer wishes to thank the following people for their assistance: M. Kelly Sutton, M.D., Raphael Medicine & Therapies in Fair Oaks; Cerise LaCore, The Center in Roseville; Michael P. Carroll, M.D., Sutter Cancer Center; Melissa Jue, CHW/Mercy Hospitals; Jeff Hausman, Kaiser Permanente; Liz Madison, Sutter Health.

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