Daily Herald American Cancer Society
Hope and courage

Celebrating cancer survivorship on the local front


Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"I've learned to integrate cancer into my life and much like those with heart disease or diabetes, now treat it as a chronic illness. I don't dread the monthly check ups, rather look upon them as yet another chance to reaffirm I'm in remission and doing well."
— MARILYN WELLS, CANCER SURVIVOR

Marilyn Wells, multiple myeloma survivor, says there is life after cancer.

For some 10.5 million cancer survivors across the country and around the world, Sunday, June 1, will be a banner day as they celebrate life and survivorship during National Cancer Survivor Day celebrations (NCSD) in more than 700 communities throughout the United States, Canada and other participating countries.

The 21st annual NCSD observance is the world's largest cancer survivor event, celebrating those living with a history of cancer — from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life. Statistically, in the United States, more than half of all men and one-third of all women are expected to be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their life.

Marilyn Wells, a Schaumburg resident and former real estate management professional, is one of those 10.5 million survivors who say there is life after cancer.

"Changes are happening so fast in medicine and research that you simply have to stay educated and informed," says Wells, who was diagnosed in 2004 with multiple myeloma, a type of cancer formed by malignant blood plasma cells.

"I was sick for almost an entire summer with various sinus infections and flu-type symptoms before discovering the real cause," recalls Wells. "The key was a blood test which yielded surprising results. I had cancer. I never really dreaded the diagnosis but rather simply wanted to know what was wrong."

From the moment of her multiple myeloma cancer diagnosis forward, Wells says she was resolved and exemplified a "let's go" attitude.

According to the American Cancer Society, when plasma cells grow out of control, they may produce a tumor. These tumors generally develop in the bone marrow. If there is only one tumor, it's called plasmacytoma. Usually, as in Wells' case, the cancer cells attack long bones, the spine and skull causing lesions and are called myeloma or multiple myeloma.

'I was a fully vested member of the team'

Treatment for Wells included three rounds of standard chemotherapy and a March, 2005 autologous bone marrow transplant at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

"When the idea of transplant came up, I was a fully vested member of the team — doctors, medicine, God and myself — and was resolved to doing whatever was needed," she recalls. "The time after my transplant discharge was especially difficult. During treatment, you're watched and cared for diligently by nurses and I was hovered over by my husband, daughters and other caregivers. Then, one day you're on your own."

Wells says it was almost two full years before she regained her strength and endurance and began to feel more like herself. Three years later she's cancer free, yet continues to face long-term survivorship issues associated with her cancer battle and transplant.

Monthly blood tests and 24-hour urine collections help doctors keep tabs on her health and daily chemotherapy maintenance pills help keep recurring cancer at bay.

She still has the tingling of neuropathy in the bottoms of her feet, a common treatment side effect, and mucositis is a cause for concern whenever eating hard foods, crusty breads and crackers. Minor hand tremors, now noticeable only to Wells, continue and instances of "chemo brain" wax and wane as she occasionally struggles to recall memories and find the precise words for which she searches.

Lending a hand as a volunteer

Wells says she has been though much, only now realizing how fortunate she is. She joined various programs at Wellness Place, a Palatine-based cancer resource center, 18 months ago. Recently she began lending a hand with a number of special projects and now volunteers weekly at the front desk.

At Wellness Place, she also joined a yoga class, enjoys massage therapy and became involved in their leukemia-lymphoma-multiple myeloma support group meeting at 6:30 p.m. on the first Tuesday of each month to share experiences, concerns, tips and camaraderie.

She occasionally attends a similar multiple myeloma support group at the Cancer Wellness Center, Northbrook.

She and her husband, Tom Jenson, are the parents of five and say they stay abreast of ongoing research efforts by attending special educational offerings through her multiple myeloma specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Her husband's work fielding new patient inquiries at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America also means awareness of and access to new programs and research.

This winter she enrolled in the Buehler YMCA's "Average Joe" triathalon that she heard about through Wellness Place. The program, a part of the American Cancer Society's "Palatine Great American Health Challenge," is designed to encourage residents to develop healthier lifestyles by tracking individual activities such as walking, exercise, cooking and housework.

After earning 183 points, well beyond the 140 point goal, Wells decided to make increased activity a permanent goal and joined the Schaumburg Park District's health club, which she visits three times a week.

"It's amazing to see things from yet another perspective and inspiring to hear the stories of so many survivors and their families," she admits.

"I've learned to integrate cancer into my life and much like those with heart disease or diabetes, now treat it as a chronic illness. I don't dread the monthly check ups, rather look upon them as yet another chance to reaffirm I'm in remission and doing well."

Helping survivors understand and cope with cancer

Wells' experience with long-term survivorship issues isn't uncommon, says Kathy Hill, a clinical specialist who has been helping clients better understand and cope with cancer for more than five years.

"It's extremely empowering and encouraging when others who have faced similar experiences can empathize and offer support or suggestions," she explains. "The uncertainty and fear of recurrence is a common bond."
- KATHY HILL, Clinical Specialist, Wellness Place, & Cancer Survivor


Kathy Hill


"Emotional needs do vary depending on the type of cancer, treatment and individual concerns," explains the nurse, therapist and thyroid cancer survivor. "Survivors attending one of our special support groups for those with metastatic, recurring cancer say it's frustrating to hear from friends and colleagues how good they look when the words themselves can be most disconcerting. For instance, she says, there's a huge difference between being diagnosed and treated for early breast cancer and someone who has stage 4 breast cancer. Concerns are vastly different."

With many survivors viewing cancer as a chronic disease and dealing with ongoing recurrence, it's not uncommon for survivorship issues to last well beyond individual surgery, chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

"Things change after a cancer diagnosis," she says. "Patients are vulnerable, they have to learn a new language, there may be family dynamic changes, fatigue may make work and daily activities more challenging, side effects may be debilitating and physical appearance may change."

However, Hills says it's the ongoing survivorship issues that may be most surprising.

"Many are shocked at the extent and duration of post-treatment fatigue," she reports. "Others may face new health challenges including changes in their immune system, heart problems caused by some chemotherapy agents or osteoporosis."

The Wellness Place counselor says individualized counseling and shared support group participation both can augment coping skills, help survivors learn to work around issues and normalize lives disrupted by the disease.

"It's extremely empowering and encouraging when others who have faced similar experiences can empathize and offer support or suggestions," she explains. "The uncertainty and fear of recurrence is a common bond."

Hill says because men and women often approach challenges differently, she believes a multi-faceted approach to supporting survivors is imperative.

"Whether it's art therapy, stress relaxation, tai chi, yoga, exercise, hypnosis, individual or group therapy, it's vital for each cancer patient and survivor to find the means to express themselves, share and learn."

 

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