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Old 09-21-2015, 09:25 AM   #1
Join Date: Sep 2015
Posts: 7
I have cancer, but Iíve learned to live with it

Whitney Archer, has a brain tumor that she has been living with for five years. She is shown on September 16 with her son, Nate, in Gainesville, Virginia.

The last time someone reminded me I have cancer was at a funeral. A woman I barely knew walked up to me, arms open wide. “Whitney, you look so good!” she said, fawning over me and assuring me that I was on her church’s prayer chain.

I stood there, blinking and drawing a blank. What was she talking about?

Then I remembered: Oh yeah, I have brain cancer. I carry a malignant tumour around everywhere I go. I’m 31 years old and have had brain cancer for five years. The doctors say I might live two years or 18. They have no idea. It’s entirely possible I will die of something else before my tumour kills me. Maybe.

As medical advances and oncological therapies continue to progress, more cancer patients are living longer, even somewhat normal lives. More people are discovering that their diagnoses may not lead to an eventual cure or a death sentence, but an unknown future for their lives and their diseases. We’re on a third path: We have cancer, but we’re mostly okay. For us, cancer begins with a traumatizing diagnosis but eventually becomes a regular part of life, with the occasional MRI squeezed in between kids’ birthday parties and dental appointments. And soon we realize that, not unlike asthma or diabetes, cancer can be a chronic condition. As time passes, a slow-learned truth begins to reveal itself: It is possible to live and die at the same time.

I sit in the MRI waiting room next to a woman in a wheelchair. Her torso and arms are covered in a black, fuzzy blanket. She stirs when her husband gives her over-the-counter pain medication, and I catch a glimpse of her limbs: bird-like, with sagging skin. Her slim knit turban overstates the obvious. She’s a cancer patient.

We’re both here for the same reason: to see if we are losing the so-called fight. I know from the worn-out hospital bag, the refusal to take off her metallic earrings until the last second, the bleariness, that her story has more treatments, more suffering.

I forget that I’m a member of this club. Despite the cancerous tumour, called an astrocytoma, in my brain, I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been. I have no visible scars, no baldness. I weigh 15 pounds too much. I go to work, save money, chase my red-headed son. I eat too much junk food and do penance with organic salad. But every four months, my butt is in that MRI waiting room, surrounded by people who are dying.

It was a fluke, a mistake that they found the tumour at all. An over-the-counter medication for vertigo would have stopped my headaches, but an overly cautious doctor saved my life. The tumour was partially removed, but 60 percent of it remains. It just sits there, divided, on my brain stem, causing no headaches or seizures but forcing a new life on my family.

Cancer is as much a part of my life as the carpool line and grocery shopping.
Today I’m a cancer patient again, heading back to Exam Room No. 2. A cute technician (normally, I would appreciate this detail, but when he’s staring at my brain tumour for an hour, it’s slightly awkward) hands me earplugs and industrial woodshop-style headphones.

He lowers a metal cage over my head and inserts foam wedges in any leftover spaces. “Don’t move,” the technician chirps as he hands me a panic button. Then the barrage of sounds begins. It goes like this: A crazy person forces me into a plastic barrel, which is then shoved into a metal one. Then, an army of lightsaber-bearing toddlers attacks. Zing! Next, a horde of crazed bees stings in perfect synchronization. Zap! Zap! The whole thing is sent down a waterfall, then surprised by a rib-jarring bear attack. The world’s biggest spring is bounced off the top, over and over. Boing! This goes on for an hour. Just as I’m about to scream, there is silence.

Despite the actual test, I enjoy MRI weeks. They mean a day off work for me and my husband. We drop Nate off at school and brave rush-hour traffic to drive north to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Breakfast in hand, we happily chat in the car, not about work and not about doctors. How many times have we done this? Fifteen? Twenty? “It’ll be fine, right?” I ask. He assures me that yes, this scan too will be good. It always is.

The second a doctor walks into the exam room, she shakes my hand and says, “Your scans are fine.” They always are.

Cancer is as much a part of my life as the carpool line and grocery shopping; close friends are used to my casual references. They’ll even tease me about playing the tumour card for the last slice of pizza. But sometimes I forget that most people think of cancer as the last stop before imminent death. I’ll look up and notice everyone else standing there, shocked that I mentioned the C word over beers and chips. I’m a total hit at parties.

While admiring some low-priced Swedish object at IKEA a couple of years ago, I turned to my friend. “Oh, I need that like I need a hole in my head,” I quipped. It took three seconds for us to realize how that line no longer applied. There we were, two grown women in the kids’ section, bent over in gusts of laughter and tears next to the LILLABOs and the DUKTIGs.

After my surgery, I spent two years holding my breath, waiting for the next MRI to show growth, for me to sit on the crinkly-papered patient bed and listen to bad news. But it didn’t happen. And slowly, minutely, I began to live more and to realize that I felt, well, healthy.

I have received no treatment other than surgery, and there were no complications. I have no side effects. There is only a scar underneath my hair. The doctors ask me if I have tremors or have lost any speech. No, I say, and go back to my reading. You’re not taking any medication, they marvel. I’m checking Instagram.

Finally, the doctors sigh, “Go live your life.”

Years of visits have taught me that they don’t say much. They can’t tell me how long I have, what treatments will work in the future, whether I will develop seizures. I have begged the nation’s best oncologists for information, details. But they all shake their heads. They don’t know.

“Nobody knows the future,” one told me. Funny, that’s what my mother said.

chemotherapy is administered to a cancer patient via intravenous drip at Duke Cancer Center in Durham, N.C. A 17-year-old was forced into chemo by the courts after she refused it.

And that’s just it. Last year, one of my son’s first-grade friends lost her father to terminal cancer. “Why do people get cancer?” he asked from the back seat of our Corolla. I waited, terrified, for him to connect that outcome and mine. But he never did. “Cancer makes people die,” he concluded, and I tried to explain that no, not always. Some of us live.

It’s difficult for some people to understand that I’m not cured and I’m not dying. Like my son, many seem to have a binary understanding of this universally feared disease – either you’re cancer-free, or you’re Stage 4 and at death’s door.

If cancer has taught me anything, it’s that how we talk about something informs how we see it. Susan Sontag famously wrote in 1978 about how military terminology is used, wrongly, to discuss illness. With increased survival rates since her own diagnosis, and more people simply living with cancer rather than “battling” it, the metaphor is even less helpful. But the vocabulary persists: Cancer is an invasion; patients wage war against an army of rapidly multiplying cells. The words don’t square with my experience. How am I a conqueror if I’m both sick and healthy? How can I stop an invasion when my disease isn’t on the attack but lying in wait? And if cancer devours my mind, is it because I was a poor general?

After my diagnosis, the only metaphor that made any sense was dual citizenship: belonging to both the world of the hale and hearty and the land of death and despair. I may not be fighting for each new day, each new breath, but I’m something of an expatriate from my former life. You could say that I was shanghaied from health five years ago in a cold hospital room in Manassas, Va. Those of us who have been transported step back and forth, with different degrees of agility, between this world and that of illness, while we strive for a regular life. I nearly lost the chance to watch my son learn to read, to go to work five days a week, to paint my bedroom Dew Drop. I revel in normalcy. I haven’t conquered a damn thing.

With increased survival rates since her own diagnosis, and more people simply living with cancer rather than “battling” it, the metaphor is even less helpful.
But being a cancer patient means inevitable loss. I’m more impatient than ever. My son mentioned me being a grandma, and I realized that I don’t picture myself growing old anymore. My timeline has inexorably shrunk to the next MRI and, if I’m being optimistic, next year. Despite my present health, the future holds both hope and terror.

The night before an MRI, I usually find myself in my holey pajamas, crying over work, over something stupid. What’s going on, I wail to my husband. Why do I just want to eat junk food? What kind of mother am I? He reminds me that I am allowed to grieve again and again, that if I feel down for three 48-hour periods every year and that’s as bad as it gets, I’m one of the luckiest ones. He buys me chocolate and pizza.

My son begs for a sibling, but for now, I can’t offer an alternative other than stuffed animals and best friends. Medical research suggests, ever so slightly, that for someone with my medical history, a pregnancy could be fatal. I feel no guilt, no wavering in my decision.

Still, there are nights when I watch my son sleep, snoring while classical music plays quietly. Those are the nights I wish I could watch other children sleeping beside him, watch my grandchildren decades from now, and be amazed at the stillness and silence. And standing there, in between the light of the hallway and the shadows of the bedroom, the sorrow comes back, sitting on my chest, and I can’t breathe.

Whitney Archer is a writer and school librarian living in Gainesville, Virginia.

Lukhach is offline   Reply With Quote
Old 09-21-2015, 10:39 AM   #2
Senior Member
Join Date: Mar 2014
Location: UK
Posts: 563
Re: I have cancer, but Iíve learned to live with it

So true. I can identify with a lot of this!
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Old 10-28-2015, 08:30 PM   #3
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Join Date: Jan 2010
Location: Edmonds, WA
Posts: 202
Re: I have cancer, but Iíve learned to live with it

Beautifully written. It reflects feelings that many of us who are in remission have I think.
Diagnosed June, 2006 HER2+++, ER- PR-, Grade 3, Stage IIB. Modified radical mastectomy, radiation, chemo, Herceptin, Tykerb 1 year. [*]In remission until 2/2010. Small tumor detected on chest wall during routine scan. 2/2010 surgery to remove tumor, started Herceptin/Tykerb, follow up radiation. [*]12/26/2010 - Off Tykerb due to allergic reaction[*]12/16/2014 - Have continued on Herception for almost 5 years now and remain NED. Discussion with onc re adding Perjeta to the Herceptin as another way of preventing recurrence. Still in discussion phase. 12/26/14 Onc applying for approval for Perjeta.
Perjeta approved and I received one infusion. It had an immediate impact to my lungs and I experienced difficulty breathing so.....I'm going to be sticking with just Herceptin. Still looking for a good vaccine program to enroll in.

Debbie K
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Old 12-27-2015, 08:50 PM   #4
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Join Date: Jul 2015
Posts: 2
Re: I have cancer, but Iíve learned to live with it

Great post. The most important thing is to have a positive attitude towards life. No matter what we encounter. But on other hand. Nowadays, more and more people are suffering from kinds of cancers. We indeed should pay more attention to this serious issue. Do more exercise everyday.
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