Five years ago, I was living my dream life. I was under contract as a commentator on Fox News, which necessitated commuting weekly from my home in Los Angeles to New York, and was building a new home in Palm Springs with my partner, Matt Lashey. Not only was my career and personal life going well, at age 47, I was also in the best shape of my life. By then, I had been a vegetarian for more than 15 years; I was running faster and longer than I had ever before, easily clocking in 5 to 6 miles every day, and felt great.
Richard A. Grenell
My only complaint was some minor fatigue, which I immediately chalked up to frequent cross-country flights, coping with the maddening details of building a new home, and the general busyness of my day-to-day life. Even the slight tickle in my throat and nagging sinus infection failed to raise any red flags. I just needed some rest to let my body heal, I told myself, and looked forward to a week off from my news show during the upcoming Christmas break to relax and recuperate.
But then my life took a drastic turn. Suddenly, a lump popped up on the left side of my neck, which I initially attributed to my body’s way of fighting off an infection. A trip to the doctor and the results from an imaging scan confirmed that I had “nothing to be concerned about.”
“You probably just have a cold,” my doctor assured me. However, over the next few weeks, the lump continued to grow and became uncomfortable. A consult with another physician and an additional imaging scan showed that the lump was actually most likely malignant. A tissue biopsy later confirmed that I had stage IIIA diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Unforgiving Side Effects
ALTHOUGH THE news was shattering, I resolved to learn what I could about my cancer and do whatever it took to get rid of it. Because of my age and otherwise good health, my oncologist recommended an aggressive treatment protocol of six rounds of the R-CHOP regimen (rituximab, cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, and prednisone). The therapy was brutal and knocked me out. However, despite the overwhelming side effects I experienced, including severe constipation and nearly uncontrollable nausea, I continued my on-air reports on Fox News, praying that I wouldn’t vomit while on camera.
Perhaps the most devastating side effect of all was losing my hair and the drastic change it caused in my appearance. The social media scrutiny public personalities get about even the slightest alteration in their looks can be withering, and I braced for the onslaught. Fortunately, the unflinching support I received from my Fox News colleagues and Matt helped me get through this scary and vulnerable time.
Life After Cancer
THE TEMPORARY side effects from my treatment were worth it. In September 2018, I reached the greatest milestone I could hope for: 5 years cancer-free. I continue to see my oncologist every 3 months for checkups and monitoring to make sure there are no signs of a cancer recurrence. But, aside from a few anxious moments during those appointments, I’m no longer consumed by cancer, although the experience has definitely changed me.
“It’s incumbent upon both oncologists and patients to engage in shared decision-making to ensure that physicians are aware of any cancer-related difficulties patients are having early in the course of their treatment.”— Richard A. Grenell
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It sounds a bit cliché, but every day I wake up with a greater sense of purpose and feel the sheer joy of just being alive, but I’m also more comfortable with the other end of the spectrum—death. Accumulating more material possessions has lost its appeal, and relationships with my family and friends have deepened.
Having this cancer experience has also led me to a more successful career in public service, because I’ve become much more authentic and compassionate in how I approach problems affecting the United States in my role as Ambassador to Germany. I have greater humility—and humanity—in my dealings with colleagues and the constituencies I serve, because it’s impossible to know what difficulties people may be going through and the effect they may be having on their lives.
I’m also more willing to take risks both in my personal and public life. I’ve learned the rewards can be so much greater when you take yourself out of your comfort zone.
Defining Precision Cancer Care
HAVING CANCER has also taught me how to be a better patient advocate and the importance of being proactive in one’s own care. As a cancer survivor, I recognize that every person’s experience with the disease and its side effects is different and needs to be managed individually. One of the biggest challenges of coping with cancer is the absolute sense of loss of control you feel, which can be debilitating. Having a system in place that allowed me to track my side effects, so I remembered to discuss them with my medical team at my next appointment, helped me regain some semblance of that lost control.
With the aid of a phone app Matt developed (chemowave.com), I was able to chart how an antiemetic I was taking was causing my severe constipation. A change in medication brought me immediate relief and taught me an invaluable lesson: patients often have choices in the medications they take for their cancer management but are rarely aware of their options.
I understand that oncologists have limited time to spend with patients, and their main concern, of course, is curing their patients’ cancer. But patients’ quality of life while undergoing treatment and throughout survivorship is also important to consider when devising a treatment protocol.
It’s incumbent upon both oncologists and patients to engage in shared decision-making to ensure that physicians are aware of any cancer-related difficulties patients are having early in the course of their treatment. This way, they can better manage side effects and patients are empowered to speak candidly about any physical, emotional, or financial problems they may be having. To me, this collaborative effort between oncologists and patients is the true embodiment of personalized cancer care. ■
Mr. Grenell is the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. He lives in Berlin.
Editor’s Note: Columns in the Patient’s Corner are based solely on information The ASCO Post received from the survivors interviewed and should be considered anecdotal.