Cancer lessons

I’ve learned a lot about cancer since my diagnosis in September 2014. Based on the questions I get from others, I realize that there are lots of aspects to cancer that are a mystery to the masses. I thought I’d take a minute and share some of the most common misconceptions I hear.

Lesson #1: Cancer in the liver may not be liver cancer (and other related mysteries)

If cancer is found in a person’s liver, it does not mean the person has liver cancer. If a person has cancer in his brain, it does not mean he has brain cancer. Bet you wouldn’t have expected to hear that!

Cancer type is determined by where it originated. I know of a 30-something woman who has breast cancer. She has had breast cancer in her breasts, in her brain and in her lungs. The cancer originated in her breasts, and spread to other body parts, but it is all considered breast cancer. The cancer cells have distinct characteristics that indicate they are from breast cancer. (She has stage IV cancer, which is the worst stage for any kind of cancer, but by the miraculous grace of God she is in complete remission!)

If a person is found to have liver cancer, a biopsy is done by the doctors to see what kind of cancer cell is actually present in the liver. If it is an actual liver cancer cell, then the cancer originated there and it is possible that the cancer has not spread to other body parts yet; it might be stage one cancer. But if the liver biopsy shows a breast cancer cell, it means the cancer started in the breast and has spread throughout the body until it got to the liver; it is stage IV cancer.

When I found a lump in my neck, they did a biopsy to find out what kind of cancer it was. Somehow, they knew it was not lymphoma immediately. They found the cancer cells to be HER-2 positive, which means it had to originate from either breast cancer or stomach cancer. HER-2 positive cells can also come from other parts of the body, but for it to “present” in the neck as it did, it had to come from the breast or stomach. Both body parts were checked extensively and nothing was found. That’s why my situation is considered rare and strange. My symptoms were most consistent with breast cancer, so that’s what I was treated for. My main medicine is Herceptin, which is aimed at treating HER-2 cancer cells regardless of whether they came from the stomach or breast.

(Extra credit bonus information: Stomach cancer that spreads to the neck most often spreads to the left neck lymph nodes, not the right neck nodes.)

Lesson #2: Not all the same cancers are the same

Women who have breast cancer do not all have the same kind of breast cancer. Most have hormone receptive breast cancer, some have HER-2 positive breast cancer, and some have triple-negative breast cancer.

Women who have triple-negative breast cancer have the worst situation, because there is no good medicine to combat their cancer. Doctors “throw the kitchen sink” at these patients, hoping something will work to save their lives.

HER-2 positive breast cancer used to be the worst kind. Fifteen years ago, there was no medicine to fight it, and now there is. I was told I was fortunate to have this kind, although if I had it 15 years ago, I would have been among the most unfortunate.

Lesson #3: Cancer spreads in a certain pattern

If a woman has cancer in her right breast, it won’t usually spread to her left breast. It will spread from the right breast, to the lymph nodes in the right underarm, to the lymph nodes in the right clavicle/neck area, and then enter the bloodstream to be carried throughout the rest of the body.

Lesson#4: Four Stages

There are four stages in cancer. Stage 1 and 2 are considered early stage. Unfortunately, due to lack of symptoms, most people don’t find out they have cancer until they have a later stage of it.

Yearly cancer screenings (including mammograms, breast ultrasounds, abdominal ultrasounds, etc.), along with colonoscopies every few years, may be good to obtain, but a doctor’s clean bill of health doesn’t mean you don’t have cancer. I religiously had annual cancer screening exams at a highly-reputable hospital, and got a clean bill of health a mere nine months before I found the knot on my neck. Get the exams, but also pray for God’s protection regarding your health (I recommend meditating on Psalms 91).

Lesson #5: Surgeries and what they mean

Two women have breast cancer. One has a mastectomy, one does not. Which woman has a better prognosis?

Most think the woman who had the mastectomy has the worse situation. After all, part of her body was amputated, and she has suffered greatly through a drastic surgery!

But in fact, the woman who had the mastectomy has the better prognosis. The doctors believe that the cancer has not spread beyond the breasts and can be completely contained by surgically removing the breasts, leaving the woman with an excellent chance of removing the cancer from her body forever.

If the cancer has already spread beyond the breasts, there is no benefit in having a mastectomy, because such a surgery will not contain the spread of the disease. Chemotherapy and radiation are the best medical hope for these kinds of patients.

Almost all (not all, but most) cancer patients have surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. If a cancer patient has surgery as the first step of their treatment, that’s a good sign. It usually means that the doctors hope to be able to contain the cancer before it spreads.

Lesson #6: God has power over cancer

I have found that Christian people who haven’t battled a serious illness have not usually investigated or thought long and hard about what the Bible has to say about illness. I hadn’t either before I got my diagnosis! But I sure have now! The Bible is chock-full of teachings on health, healing, and God’s attitude about it all (which is helpful so you know how to pray for someone who is ill). God is on our side, He has healing power, and in the Bible He spent lots of time putting it to use. Illnesses in the Bible came from different root causes, but had a spiritual resolution. Never take the doctor’s report as the final word as so many of us are conditioned to do! Dig deep to know the heart of God and turn it over to Him.

Do you feel smarter now? 🙂 Class dismissed.

(Please excuse any oversimplifications I used while trying to explain a complicated topic.)

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