Thriving With Cancer

Rather than considering myself a cancer survivor, I think of myself as a cancer ‘thriver.’

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Getting to know the personal side of my medical team has increased my confidence in their professional skills, and I’m so grateful for their dedication to their patients.
— Meredith Baker

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Seven years ago, at age 44, I was the picture of health. I played tennis every day, went bike riding and lifted weights several times a week, and made sure I ate a healthy diet. The closest I had ever come to cancer was caring for my mother during her 2-year illness with esophageal cancer. As it turned out, that experience proved to be a lifeline when I was given my own devastating diagnosis of stage IV colorectal cancer in 2009.

What made the diagnosis especially shocking was that I had no symptoms to warn me I was ill. I had no tell-tail signs of the disease, no changes in bowel habits, no abdominal pain or bloody stool, and because of my age—screening for the cancer was still 6 years away—colorectal cancer was not even on my radar. In fact, the cancer was found by accident after a viral infection sent me to the emergency room and a chest x-ray picked up a spot on my right lung and a biopsy determined it was colorectal cancer. Although I didn’t know it then, the cancer had already spread not just to my lung but to my liver as well.

Adjusting to Life With Cancer

Once the diagnosis was confirmed, my life—as I would now know it—changed very swiftly. I had a lung resection to remove the metastasis, followed by colon surgery a month later to remove the primary tumor, which is when the tumor in my liver was discovered. Several months later, I had a liver resection for my colorectal metastases.

In just 1 year, I had had three surgeries, suffered a pulmonary embolism following the liver resection, and started the first of what have become continuous infusions of chemotherapy—over 120 and counting. First, I was on a regimen of FOLFIRI (leucovorin, fluorouracil, and irinotecan), which initially worked, but the cancer recurred. Then I was prescribed a regimen of FOLFOX (leucovorin, fluorouracil, and oxaliplatin) plus bevacizumab (Avastin), which was not effective.

Since 2011, when a genetic test found that I have the wild-type KRAS mutation, I’ve been receiving a combination of cetuximab (Erbitux) and irinotecan every 2 weeks, and my cancer appears stable.

Living a Different but Still Fulfilling Life

When I was first diagnosed with colorectal cancer, I would go outside and scream “I will not give up,” and I haven’t. Instead of just surviving cancer, I’m thriving—and I am not being a Pollyanna when I say that. I know what I’m up against and acknowledge all that I have lost, including my job, some of my friends, my hair, and an active lifestyle that I loved. But I also recognize all that I have gained, such as a greater level of compassion for others living with chronic illnesses, a deeper faith, and gratitude for a wonderful medical team that is keeping me alive and has become my extended family. My life is different now, but it’s still fulfilling.

The Human Side of My Medical Team

By coincidence, or maybe fate, the same nursing staff that provided care for my mother during her illness is caring for me now, which has given me such a high level of comfort; living with chronic cancer is perhaps less frightening than it might have been if I hadn’t had the experience of being the main caregiver for my mother and establishing such a close relationship with her medical team. And I have that same comfort level with my oncologist.

Over the past 7 years, I’ve seen him go from single to married life and saw the joy in his face at the birth of his two children. Allowing me to share in these life-altering milestones gave me a glimpse into his humanistic side. I no longer see my oncologist as simply a great scientist who has been keeping me alive for 7 years, but as a human being I can relate to. I’m not just some experiment to him, but a real person with a life and the same hope for the future as everyone else.

Getting to know the personal side of my medical team has increased my confidence in their professional skills, and I’m so grateful for their dedication to their patients. Patients might not express their gratitude often enough, but they feel it every time they step into their doctors’ office.

Staying Strong

About a year ago, a computed tomography scan found two small spots on my left lung. Thankfully, they haven’t grown, and there is no indication that my cancer is progressing. Although I’m not able to be as physically active as I was before my cancer diagnosis, I try to maintain a regular exercise routine and eat a healthy diet to keep my body strong for each chemotherapy onslaught. I rely on others for emotional support, keep a sense of humor about living with cancer, and pray and meditate every day to keep my spirit strong. I need every area of my life—physical, emotional, and spiritual—to work at their optimal level to thrive with cancer.

And, who knows, maybe all my efforts will keep me alive long enough to see the day my colorectal cancer is cured. ■

Ms. Baker lives in Rockland, Massachusetts.