National Cancer Survivors Day
Roughly 16.9 million cancer survivors are living in the United States. People of all ages and from all walks of life sharing a common bond. They fought cancer and won. For over 30 years, the first Sunday in June is known as National Cancer Survivors Day®. The event is a tribute to cancer survivors and supports individuals who have been recently diagnosed with cancer.
Millions of Survivors with Unique Journeys
According to the National Cancer Institute, over 100 different types of cancers affect millions of people across North America. Each person has their unique journey and their own survivor story. At Here to Serve, we have two volunteer blog writers Amanda Enciso and Chris Smith, who have been affected personally by cancer. In this week’s blog post, we learn about their cancer journeys and the road to survival.
I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma about 16 years ago. The initial shock and desire to deny such a thing could be possible dominated the early stages. As I sought advice from alternative medicine and physicians in traditional medicine, I walked a balance between the two for many years. I had chemotherapeutic treatments off and on over about ten years. I continued working and did not reveal my condition for fear of being discriminated against for employment. The truth is, I was able to perform my job very well throughout 90% of the treatments.
As a single mom, I could not allow this challenge to take over my life. So I navigated through the various obstacles it presented along the way educating myself, questioning everything, and developing relationships with my physicians as my co-patriots instead of all-knowing gods. The cancer transformed into an aggressive Diffuse Large B-Cell Lymphoma. The stem cell transplant would be the final hurdle up the mountain with my heavy pack. As a backpacker, I anticipated trudging up the steep mountain pass. What I did not expect was falling into a bottomless abyss before the climb. Complications placed me in a coma for a week to manage kidney and lung failure. When I woke up with tubes everywhere and an enormously barbaric catheter violently jutting from my inner thigh, I was angry. I wanted to rip it all off. If not for my beloved daughter to whom I gave birth at age 14, coming to my side, clasping my hand, looking into my eyes, I may have just left. I also had a younger daughter struggling in high school I had to help.
Six years later, thanks to a gracious young man in Germany donating some of his white stem cells, I am here today, seeing all of my children thriving. Determination has meant I will fulfill a lifelong goal and graduate with a degree I have been working on since I was eighteen in Behavioral and Social Science from Santa Monica College in June 2021. I will continue on to CSULB for my Bachelor’s in Psychology.
I still have issues from the transplant, like chronic Graft Versus Host Disease (GVHD). I see it as nothing more than another hurdle to overcome. I do not think of myself as a survivor, although many do. I think of myself as a navigator of challenges. I have overcome multiple challenges beginning very early in life. What drives me? I am not sure. I am inherently optimistic by nature. I am inspired, and one might say, compelled to help relieve the suffering of others by example through the demonstration of strength. I never asked myself, why me? I turn to God’s Strength, knowing it is present always and forever. I accept the challenges provided to further my growth, and I get that there will be a time I will no longer inhabit a physical body. The future and the past only exist within the confines of mental consciousness. We must live in the space of the here and now. A plethora of positive, creative, fertile seeds fill my conscious mind; thus, superseding those of doubt and fear. My biopsychology professor pointed out that positive thinking is genetic. Some “win the lottery” for that random biological, genetic expression. Perhaps this inherent aspect of my genetic make-up is what drives me to be here despite adversity.
In late 2017 my wife Kelly began to notice my loud snoring had become increasingly more frequent. Not wanting to have my wife continue to lose sleep, I went to an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist to see if they could find the cause of my snoring. The doctor discovered swelling in only my left tonsil. In his words, that was not normal. Soon afterward, I had a biopsy, and a few days later, an MRI confirmed I had stage 2 squamous cell carcinoma of the tonsil, or more simply, I had tonsil cancer.
My ENT doctor got the ball rolling and put me in touch with a care team at Stanford University. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was fortunate to have the medical center close to me. Unfortunately, surgery was not an option because the growth was too close to my carotid artery; chemo and radiation were my only options. The silver lining was that I had a care team in place for me, and everyone was proactive in helping me beat cancer.
My treatment started at the end of February 2018. Over six weeks, I would go through 33 rounds of radiation and three sessions of chemo. I had no clue what I was in store for and the trauma my body would endure: constant nausea, vomiting, weight loss, thrush, and mouth sores. The new normal was continuous fatigue and lack of appetite. The medication cocktail of Gabapentin, Fentanyl, Ativan, and so many others I no longer remember clouded my mind and made me constantly tired. I was no longer able to eat solid food. Due to mouth pain, I could only tolerate Ensure liquid nutritional supplements for nourishment. Over the next few months, I lost over 35 pounds. I did everything in my power not to use a feeding tube. I did not want to go through another procedure.
I assumed that once my radiation and chemo treatment ended, I would start to feel better, but I had not even hit my lowest point yet. For a few months after treatment, I was so severely dehydrated that I required daily infusion sessions to help build up my white blood cell count. My care team constantly reminded me that everything would take time, and I would soon emerge from this trauma. My body was still fighting cancer and also the toxins that the cure produced. Finally, by the summertime of 2018, I started to emerge from this haze of treatment. It slowly came in the form of decreased nausea, beginning to drink more liquids on my own, removing the PICC line, and finally eating “real” food. I truly enjoyed food again and savored every bite. And the best news occurred on July 24th, when my oncologist told me that there was no sign of cancer!
Having cancer did change me. I still have residual mouth and swallowing issues, but more importantly, it made me strive to be a better person, give back to my community, and appreciate the people who helped care for me. Family and friends, especially my wife Kelly, were there for me. My support group stepped up to help drive me to treatments, send care packages, or just sent texts or phone calls with encouragement. Those acts helped me make it through this ordeal. And what can I say about my medical care team, “thank you” will never be enough. From the friendly faces that greeted me by name when I entered the doctor’s office to the dedicated medical techs, nurses, and doctors, all are true angels that I will never forget. At my lowest physical and mental state, I saw the best of humanity, the selfless caregivers who constantly helped me get through this unbelievable journey.
Young Survivors and Their Future
According to the National Cancer Survivors Day Foundation, “A survivor is anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life.” Nearly 500,000 cancer survivors are people under the age of 20. Eighty percent of children diagnosed with cancer will survive at least five years after diagnosis. We hope they remain cancer-free. Still, we must be aware of “late effects,” a term used to describe medical, emotional, and cognitive problems many childhood cancer survivors face. We celebrate those children and young parents given a second chance. But cancer survivors need to keep up with regular follow-up care and maintain good health habits as they enter adulthood.
Here to Serve Young Cancer Patients Through to Survival
At Here to Serve, we focus on children and young parents with school-aged children in the home diagnosed with cancer who are bravely going through treatment. Many of our children and young parents will survive their cancer diagnosis. We are on their journey with them to ease the burden of daily life as they concentrate their energy on the fight. We understand that not every cancer battle will end in survival, but our hope is for survivorship so that young people can live and grow and celebrate. If you know a family with a child or young parent of school-aged children battling cancer, please have them Get Help from our Family Care Coordinators to provide information and assistance during their cancer fight.
By Chris Smith and Amanda Enciso