Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Visualization and affirmation and cancer

I’ve always thought that mind and body are connected, but even without that predisposition, getting cancer naturally makes me more willing to look at possibilities I might have discounted before.

Could it make a difference to my treatment if I visualize a column of white light obliterating my tumors? Well, maybe. A friend of mine told me a remarkable story of a doctor whose patient imagined her tumor as a pie, from which she cut out a gradually expanding piece – and when surgeons removed that tumor, it was missing just that sort of piece.

Could it make a difference if I affirm that I’m getting healthier every day? Or that I am light, or that I am love, or that “All my feelings are trying to help me get well. I include them in love so that I may truly get well”? All of these come from a chapter on “Healing Affirmations,” from a book called “Opening to Healing Energy,” written by someone named Shepherd Hoodwin, whose website describes him as a channel to “Michael.” I have my doubts about channeling, to say the least, but I am ready to try to be as affirmative as I can, and actually saying or affirming these words may be a way to do that. I don’t mind trying; in fact I’d like to learn to employ all these techniques more fully than I currently do.

At the same time, I don’t always feel that affirmative. I’ve been fortunate that chemotherapy so far has not been more arduous, but even so it hasn’t been easy, and when my body feels lousy, so do my mind and spirit. So then the possibility arises that my failing to be more positive might be contributing to my illness; that it might be, to that extent, my fault. This, as my sister said, is really deeply unfair; to put it mildly, it adds insult to injury.

But what do you do when you really don’t feel positive? The best answer I know came from a very wise friend, who served in World War II. He said that fighting cancer is like combat. You don’t have to like it or feel positive about it or anything like that; you just have to keep fighting. You walk down the road, shoot at some enemy soldiers, then you walk down the road some more, shoot some more. It’s not fun but you keep going.

I found that prescription reassuring. All I had to do was to go to Sloan-Kettering for each treatment and say, “Hook me up, doc” – and then I’d be pushing forward. Now it strikes me that actually my mental image of combat is a form of visualization itself, even though the picture I’ve had in my mind’s eye is a far cry from a column of healing light. And the best thing about this way of keeping going is that once you know you only have to just keep going, maybe it’s easier for you to start to feel better too.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Cancer and connection

Cancer challenges you in every possible way. But it’s also a moment when you realize how good people can be, and how much you need them. This has been a central part of my experience over these past months, and I want to describe it well enough to do it justice; but before I start I have to say that the problem with giving examples is the risk, the inevitability, of leaving out many others. I am grateful to many, many people for their support, and I can only refer to some of them here. 

My students last fall gave me a giant get-well-soon card that they’d all signed (along with the professor during whose class the card was passed around). Meanwhile the school authorized me to give an all-multiple-choice final exam – which made my grading season vastly easier and also incidentally allowed me to learn about the potential value of this kind of exam compared to my usual essay questions – and my students accepted this change in exam practice graciously too. The New York Law School Law Review, patiently awaiting my edits on a forthcoming article, sent me flowers. Colleagues from every part of the school ask how they can help. 

Members of my synagogue have organized themselves to bring us a meal each week on the evening after we get back from each chemotherapy treatment in New York – and even on the off-weeks! We didn’t really understand how much of a relief it would be to not have to come home on these days and prepare a meal, or how deep a personal message we would feel from each of these families’ reaching out to us this way.

Other friends, near and far, have brought meals, sent food, gotten us books – from serious to frivolous, both appreciated – and come by to say hi or go for walks with me. Or they’ve called or emailed or messaged me on Facebook. Several, including friends from the law school, have shared with me their own experiences with cancer, either from earlier in their lives or from right now, and these discussions have meant a lot to me while also reminding me, again, how many people there are who have encountered this disease.

My family members have been at my side in every way. My three children have all accompanied me to chemotherapy sessions, traced the ups and downs of my treatment with me, hung out with me (always a pleasure, now even more so), and done everything we could think of to ask them to do. My sisters have travelled to see me, in the midst of their own busy lives. My in-laws -- what a formal term for my sisters' husbands, my older son's wife, and my wife's mom -- have all been loving and attentive. My cousins have offered all sorts of support, from good wishes to connections with medical experts. My niece is crocheting for me! And I could go on ...

It’s a cliché to say that a grave illness forces you to take stock of what’s really important, yet it’s true. So certainly all of this human kindness makes me understand better how important people are to me. But that sounds very abstract. Maybe this is more to the point: in a way I feel that I have more family and more friends than I did before, not because the actual numbers have changed but because my sense of our connection to each other has.

I haven’t yet spoken about Teresa, my wife. But really she and I have battled this disease together at every stage. Teresa keeps track of my medications (I have about 8 different ones now, all in one way or another easing the impact of the cancer or the chemotherapy). She makes our meals – though at least I can report that I do some of the dishes again, after slacking off entirely in the first month or so of my treatment – and each day devises a protein shake that supplies energy that I very much need. She studies the information on the Cholangiocarcinoma Foundation website, so she knows more about my disease than I do. She sings songs and does cheers. And she is with me every step of the way. As we’ve gotten more used to the disease and its treatment, we’ve both begun to return to our offices more – but actually we’ve spent more time together, day by day, in the months since we began dealing with my illness than we’d ever been able to do for so long before. That’s been sustaining, therapeutic, and … fun!

I wouldn't want to fight cancer alone. I couldn’t imagine having gone through these months without the love and affection that all these people -- and others! -- have given me, and that I’ve felt for them. I wish I didn’t have cancer, of course, but having cancer has not made me unhappy. Actually, it has made me feel connected and loved.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Cancer and money

At Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSK) the question of money rarely comes up – but not because it isn’t an important question. From what we’ve learned so far, MSK is prepared to back up its medical judgments by paying for treatment that it considers necessary even if an insurer refuses to pay for it, and it also covers the costs of treatment for patients in its clinical trials. These are the kinds of decisions only a well-funded, and conscientious, institution can make. But even though MSK’s fundraising must cover some of its costs, it’s in no position to provide care without charge.

My care so far has come partly from New Jersey providers whom I saw before we went to MSK, and partly from MSK (plus an emergency room visit during my first week of chemotherapy). The total charges up till now are well over $26,000 – all accumulated since the end of October, 2015. Actually I think that number may be low; the bills come quickly! Fortunately, very fortunately, my insurer (Cigna) has covered almost all of this – often by paying discounted rates far lower than the original charges.

Of course these bills are going to go up and up. The providers have to be paid, and few people without health insurance will be able to pay. I assume that people whose health insurance is limited will be in difficulty as well. If you are fortunate enough to have good health insurance – for example, as my wife Teresa has pointed out, if you’re part of a public employee union that has successfully negotiated for this benefit – then you may have ready access to institutions like MSK. But if you have, for instance, a “bronze” plan now available on the Obamacare www.healthcare.gov site, you may face potential uninsured spending of up to $13,700, a lot of money. My own plan, through my employer, is not unlimited, but I’m very grateful for how inclusive it is. It’s really expensive, for individual patients and for society as a whole, to have cancer.

One more obvious point about cancer and money: The people in the waiting room at MSK are a diverse group, but they are not as diverse a group as the people of the New York area. There seem to be fewer African-Americans; probably there are fewer low-income people of any race. Those who aren’t there are probably absent partly because of the cost of treatment and of insurance. Perhaps they are also absent because of the whole network of personal connections, support and resources, the personal capital, that lead some people to reach for the care available at institutions like MSK while others do not.  (All of these factors also play out geographically; it is a great advantage to live near a leading cancer center.) None of this is really surprising; in a society as shaped by inequalities of wealth and race and other factors as ours is, every social good including medical care will be unequally distributed too – despite the best efforts of the dedicated physicians and others who make up our medical care system.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Being called into the chemotherapy treatment suite

Naturally each step in the chemotherapy day may feature some waiting. I’ve already written about the Memorial Sloan-Kettering (MSK) waiting room, but the moment the waiting ends also is worth discussing.

When the time for your chemotherapy session arrives, the call doesn’t come over a loudspeaker. Instead, you hear a voice calling your name. You look up and see, typically, a young and friendly face scanning the room. You wave, this person comes over, and he or she escorts you and your companions to the chemotherapy suite. Usually the escort has a smile and some friendly chat to make the transition as pleasant as possible. I think it works well, and that, like many features of the treatment process, it reflects careful thought by the people at MSK about how to make the patient experience as supportive as possible.

But it does raise a couple of questions about privacy. Obviously, when your name is called in a roomful of people, everyone there hears it and can put your name and face together. For some people – celebrities of one sort or another – that might be a real breach of privacy. My guess is that there are special procedures that can be arranged so that people who are really objects of public fascination make their way to treatment unannounced.

Still, what about the rest of us? I think the answer is that our privacy is protected pretty well, by three things. First, we’re all pretty anonymous (the celebrities having been taken care of in some special way). Second, most of the people in the room are more concerned with their own or their loved ones’ situation than with who else might be in similar straits – so they’re more focused on waiting to hear their name than on who else might be getting called. Third, I think there is a fellowship of cancer patients. We share a misfortune, and the nature of the room means that we, inevitably, recognize each other as people with a major illness. That we share, but only with each other, and it would be a breach of that shared fellowship to tell people outside the room.

I imagine that MSK thought about all this too – and concluded that the modest risks to privacy were outweighed by the benefits of the personal touch and the smiling face that patients encounter when they hear their name called as they do now.

Friday, January 8, 2016

In the chemotherapy waiting room

We register, and then we walk a few feet past the registration area into the waiting room. It’s a large area, perhaps 30 feet wide and 70 or 80 feet long, with couches and chairs arranged to provide lots of little areas which you can feel you’ve made somewhat your own for the duration of your wait.

When we arrive, early in the morning, the room is quite empty. By later in the day, it gets pretty full, and that makes sense, because there are about 20 separate chemotherapy cubicles, and the actual process of receiving a chemotherapy infusion takes (at least in my case) about 3 hours. So in a day that begins around 7 AM and ends around 6 PM, it’s probably possible for 3 patients to get infusions in each of those 20 cubicles: perhaps 90 people every working day, just on this one floor of Sloan-Kettering.

There’s another difference between early morning and mid-afternoon, or at least it seemed that way to me one afternoon when we spent a long day there: by mid-afternoon there are more people waiting who are obviously very, very sick. Cancer, I’ve been realizing, is quite unlike the usual diseases of daily life: when you get the flu, you lie down until you’re better; but when you get cancer, if you’re fortunate, you don’t lie down. You continue with as much of your normal routine as possible, even though you are actually much sicker than if you had the flu. But of course cancer can ravage its victims, and my impression was that more of the people who have really been through a wringer are in the waiting room later in the day. That too would make sense: it probably takes these patients, and their caregivers, longer to handle all the logistics of getting to their appointments, and their appointments are set up with those logistics in mind.

But while 90 patients are having chemotherapy every day, the waiting room is large enough to hold something like that number of people at any time. The reason the room is so large is that few people go to chemotherapy alone. Cancer treatment, it turns out, is a social process. There are exceptions, certainly, people who come alone and people who come planning to work, and the waiting room offers a few desks at which people can work if they’re so minded. But most people seem to arrive with family members (and some, I know, with friends).

There are medical reasons for this, certainly. Actually getting chemotherapy is (at least in my experience so far) uneventful, but it’s a long day and it’s a great help if someone else is there to help you get home. There may be important conversations to be had with the medical team, moreover, and a spouse may be able to report on symptoms, or aspects of symptoms, that the patient would miss. Sadly, that must be increasingly true the more weakened the patient becomes.

But I don’t think the medical reasons are the full explanation. It seems to me that most people with cancer naturally want the company of their family or friends. The disease is so formidable that it is good to be with the people you love and trust.

At the same time, my impression is that the groups that form – the patient and his or her companions – are rather subdued. Again, there are exceptions. On our first day at MSK, for instance, we sat near a man who was engaged in nonstop cellphone conversations. In a later visit, we watched as two patient/family groups began talking with each other – though it seemed to us that the patients in each group were the quietest, while their companions were chatting vigorously. But by and large it seems to me that each little group sustains itself, whether by talking or simply being together, but quietly.

The room itself lends itself to this. The main decoration in the area is a metal sculpture or screen dividing the registration area from the waiting area. The design of the screen is of a tree, and the screen also includes words (from Ezra Pound, my sister Maud tells me): "I stood still and was a tree / within the wood / knowing the truth of things unseen before". Those suggest reflection, quiet, even solemnity. And the room as a whole does too: patients are not in despair, and they are not alone, but they and those with them face something very profound.

PS: But there are some exceptions! Yesterday the waiting room was full most of the time we were there, and some people were talking vigorously -- and in the chemotherapy cubicles on either side of us folks had a lot to say, including one patient who was working his cellphone at length. Fortunately I slept through most of this.