Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The “Good” Cancer

Hodgkin Lymphoma, what I was wrapping up treatment for exactly eight years ago, is sometimes called the “good” cancer. If you get it, and can get medical treatment for it, you have about an 86% chance of living five years. Compared to most other forms of cancer, these are pretty good odds, and if you are in the 86% group, as I was, then it does seem like the cancer to have. It is one of the few cancers that doctors use the word “cured,” I think, if indeed you do survive it and go into lengthy remission. Although I know anything can still happen, after eight years of being in remission, I would be considered in the cured group.

Every year, about 8,000 Americans will be diagnosed with Hodgkin’s, and every year, over 1,000 Americans will die from it. If you are one of those 1,000 plus people, then it is decided not a good cancer. It is horrible, painful, and life-ending, and devastating to the family and friends. Yesterday, I learned of one such person.

Jennifer Willey of Kennebunkport, Maine was just 31 – so young - when she died last week from Hodgkin Lymphoma. She was diagnosed on May 26, 2005, which was nearly exactly three years after my diagnosis and just weeks before my first marathon for Team in Training. I am sure that when she was diagnosed, she was told that she had the “good” cancer and had the same high hopes that I had to continue living. After all, she had an 86% chance of surviving. She finished treatment in November that year, but unlike my last chemo in November 2002, it was not to be her last treatment. She relapsed, got more chemo, two stem cell transplants, and fought the horrific effects of graft vs. host disease as a result. Her lungs were ravaged and she spent her last days in a wheel chair on oxygen. Technically, she was a five year survivor since she made it past last May, but that is a pretty hollow victory. From all accounts, she was a remarkable young woman, and I cannot imagine how devastating her death is for her family and friends.

I wish I could have known of her while she lived so I could have sent her some encouragement, and also told her that her name will be on my race shirt for my next Team in Training event. She had a website where she collected information about Hodgkin’s and also stories of others she had met virtually along the way who had battled this terrible disease.

Jennifer’s story, and her ultimate fate, is a sad reminder of how much work there remains to be done even with a “good” cancer like Hodgkin Lymphoma. The dirty little secret is there is no good cancer. Yes, with this cancer, medical researchers have figured out if you inject four very toxic substances (Adriamycin, Bleomycin, Vinblastine, Dacarbazine) into the blood stream every two weeks for several months, more people will live than will die. But many will still die, and all will suffer considerable misery. We really haven't figured out even a cancer like Hodgkin Lymphoma, despite the high survival rate. What makes it tick? Why do some people live, and others die? How can you really defeat it, without nearly killing the patient in the process?

So much more work remains in the war on cancers. It is staggering and overwhelming at times, especially when you consider how many people are suffering from various cancers at this exact moment in time. It is a disease that never rests, never tires, never takes a coffee break, never goes into recession. It is remorseless, pitiless, and relentless, and some times – as in Jennifer’s case – the best available medical technology, courage, and grit are not going to be enough. Even “curable” cancers are not really curable right now. If you are out there doing Team in Training, or taking some other action to raise funding for cancer research, and you happen to come across what I wrote here, thank you for helping to get us one step closer to a true cure.


Hopesrising said...

I have read Jennifer's blog for a long time. Knew of her through Patients Against Lymphoma (PAL)and several other forums. She was an exceptional young woman and a warrior in all sense of the word.

I get so tired of hearing this is the *good* cancer. Its affecting to many young people. Most younger people with it have such aggressive disease that its hard to deal with it.

I wish people who not say its the *good* cancer. I agree with you no cancer is good. It is said it is treatable so it makes it good. Still those of us with it have to deal with treatment just as harsh as other cancers and that is grueling. So good in my eyes is just wrong to say as such.

My thoughts and prayers are with Jennifer's friend and family.

Racn4acure said...

She sounds like she was a wonderful person, and I was saddened to read her story. You are right on with your comments. Even if you are lucky to survive cancer, you go through a lot of misery along the way. And way too many will go through that misery and not survive.