An unfolding journey with cancer: Part III
Editor's note: Dr. Lepisto presents the first in a series of columns on cancer. The following story is revealed with the consent of the patient and family, and is consistent with HIPAA regulations.
This is the ongoing journey of my best friend, Zachariah Walker, in his process of dealing with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML) beginning two months ago.
“The days have been a slow motion kind of blur, but they're passing fast. It's late Wednesday and the next bag of chemo is currently dripping at 190 mL/hr into my veins. Tightness in the chest, I think due to liquid overload in my system… I've been dripping steroid eye drops into my very healthy eyes to protect them from possible adverse effects. My vision has always been great and I covet my sight, very nervous dripping chemicals into my eyes. So much trust is necessary through this process.” — Zachariah Walker, 5/3/12
Trust. Have you ever considered the faith that we place in medical professionals to do what is always in our best interest? You may take that for granted, just like we do when power comes out of the light socket. The truth is, dealing with cancer is often such a scary and heavy diagnosis, that the pure shock can be overwhelming. Conventional medicine has become so technical and detailed that you may not even understand what is being recommended to you or your loved one. But that is not to say that you are powerless on the journey.
Dave deBronkart, a survivor of kidney cancer, has said: “The most underutilized resource in all of health care is the patient.” Dave advocates for people taking a more active role in their treatment and getting informed about choices. One of the greatest tools that people have is information, and that means reading, watching, consulting and questioning.
A good place to start is local Grand Valley author Leigh Fortson, who has authored a fantastic book on dealing with cancer titled, “Embrace, Release, Heal.” Leigh details her own survival story with cancer, and her process of receiving conventional and complimentary therapies. The internet is also a valuable resource, although it certainly requires discernment and sorting through all the sawdust and sand.
If you don't mind technical reading, Google Scholar is a good place to find evidence-based research on what works and what doesn't. If this is too much for you, then I suggest finding a medical professional that you trust to help you sort through the information. Sometimes it is enough to just come to your provider with questions. Be willing to ask the tough ones as your life could depend on it.
Many people create a “dream team” to help them through the process. I have witnessed Zachariah create a team of family, friends, medical professionals, social workers, massage therapists, yoga teachers, hair stylists, web designers, chefs, cleaners, musicians, fundraisers and more, all helping him to deal with his innumerable needs. It is inspiring to watch what action he has taken, and what others are doing for him.
Support groups can be incredibly helpful, no matter what form they take. According to cancer expert Lise Alschuler, ND, FABNO, support groups “provide a social support/network, emotional outlet, an opportunity to face fears (i.e. fear of death), [and] guidance regarding practical issues of daily living.”
Zachariah completed his second round of chemotherapy Saturday, May 5. He has said that this round is different from the first, in that the initial “buzz” around his condition had faded, and that less people are directly involved in his day-to-day life. This has brought with it some natural feelings of solitude and introversion. And in a nuclear sense, there is no one else who can walk his path. It is a journey of fundamental aloneness.
Clearly, this is not that others cannot support him, but that there are many decisions about his care that only he can make. The success of his two rounds of chemotherapy is unknown at this point, and the unknown waiting for anyone undergoing medical treatment can be agonizing.
For the patient, a cancer diagnosis naturally comes with many emotions such as distress, depression and anxiety. Dr. Alschuler notes a direct correlation between cancer outcomes and patients who feel great distress. In other words, the more distressed the person feels, the less chance they have to put cancer into remission. This probably has more to do with how well someone is dealing with the fear of death, anger, despair and hopelessness.
Another huge consideration for many people is the amount of financial burden that they face with a diagnosis of cancer. Conventional treatment is expensive, especially for the uninsured. Zachariah is fortunate to have had all of his conventional therapy covered outside of his deductible, but none of his naturopathic or complementary therapies are paid. Like every patient's right, he has chosen to pay for holistic treatments that he wants, despite the costs. Until we have a health care system that covers this on a regular basis, many people choose to get alternative care on their own, even if it means they have to pay for it out of pocket.
There is no one right way to deal with cancer. There are countless paths, convolutions and decisions. Family and friends often offer up advice based on their own experiences through people with cancer. What we can do is investigate, explore and distinguish what is truthful for us.
Perhaps J.R.R. Tolkien said it best in “Fellowship of the Ring” when Gandalf the Grey said to Frodo, “All you have to do is to decide what to do with the time given to you.”
Dr. Christopher Lepisto graduated as a naturopathic doctor (ND) from Bastyr University in Seattle, Wash. He is a native of Grand Junction and opened his practice here in 2004. Previously, Lepisto lived and worked in New Zealand, where he developed a special interest in indigenous herbal medicines. Lepisto practices downtown near Fourth and Main. For more information, visit www.grandjunctionnaturopath.com or call 970-250-4104.