Friday, July 20, 2012

Dirty Little Secret

I'm going to let you all in on something we, in the medical field - and American culture as a whole, do not like to talk about very often:

Even with the best possible medical care - diagnostic tests, expensive medications, high-tech surgeries and the latest and greatest in whatever science has to offer - all we can ever do is put people in the best possible position to heal themselves.

Here's lookin' at you, Paula Deen.
As a culture, we are constantly looking for a magic bullet when it comes to our health.  We embrace the Paula Deen fantasy of a pill that makes us lose weight and stave off diabetes - all without an ounce of effort. We lead high-stress lives, eat fast food, refuse to give up (insert favorite vice here) and then when our health inevitably fails - we look to medical science to "fix" us.

 Preferably by prescribing another very low cost pill which works immediately, yet has no risk or side effect whatsoever.

 And, because most of us in the medical field tend to be "fixer" personalities, we play along - mostly because we like to believe that we have more control of the situation than we actually do.  We give medications, tend wounds, schedule surgeries, run labs and run about - all the while trying to avoid the truth:

We can't "fix" anyone.

At the very best, all we can be is a strong supporting staff.

My faith in my own body was shaken when I was diagnosed with cancer. I had done everything that I was "supposed to do" - never a smoker, not obese, had children before I was 30 and breast fed both of them.  In fact, by the books, my only risk factors for developing breast cancer were:

1.  Being female
2.  Occasionally drinking wine (but hey I'm a nurse and it's not like I'm pouring it on my cheerios in the morning!)
3.  And yes (because this is usually the first thing people ask me after saying "I'm sorry to hear that"), I do have a family history of cancer- though not significantly the mammary varietal. 

But despite all this, I was diagnosed with cancer. (And I don't mean to be Debbie Downer here, but chances are the majority of you will too - at some point in your lives.)  Truth is, none of us are really "safe" from having some catastrophic event occur, cancer or otherwise.  But, I do believe attitude does matter when it comes to overcoming it.

Being a participant counts - and not just for an end-of-year ribbon from those gym class relay races (just me, huh?).

I can't tell you I subscribe to any of the myriad philosophies floating around (and there are plenty of them out there) which state some version of "chemotherapy is poisonous (it is), doctors are trying to kill you (they're not - trust me.  Their malpractice insurance would be through the ROOF) and there is a proven cure that they don't want you to know about if only you do _____ (Insert bizarre diet/bowel protocol/life philosophy here).

Sorry.  Not buying it. There is a reason cancer survival rates have improved dramatically over the last 20 years and if I had to bet on it, my money is going to be on improved science and early detection - not a pure alkaline diet and ritualistic cleanse (whatever that means).  I'm not saying there aren't exceptions to the rule. I'm quite certain there are.  I just choose not to gamble my life on it.  To each his own (and with a subject as emotional as cancer, there are as many "his own's" as there are people touched by the disease).

However, I feel just as strongly that it is important to take an active role in ones own health and healing.  It is not my doctors responsibility to heal me - though they play an integral role.  We're in this together.  And part of that means being realistic about what I am or not doing right in order to help my body along in this process.  Am I taking in as much fruit, vegetables and water that I should? Getting the exercise I need? Sleeping as much as I should? Using sunscreen every time I walk outside?


Probably not.

So, how am I any different than the patients I often grow frustrated with, who request back or knee surgeries when they really need to lose weight, are hospitalized for a heart attack or uncontrolled diabetes whose family members bring them hamburgers or milkshakes because "It's their favorite"?  Or even the COPD patient who sneaks downstairs for a smoke - while still attached to an oxygen tank?!

I'm not.  We all make life choices - and like it or not they eventually catch up to us.  And yes, I know genetics are a factor.  But there is also a great deal we can all do to even the deck (in my family this is labeled as "acceptable cheating protocol" when playing cards - but I think it applies here too).

One of the beautiful aspects about cancer is that it allows you to reflect on - and make necessary life changes.  Forces you to rather - your life depends on it.  And maybe it's not technically cheating - but here are a few of the things our family has decided to do to help even our odds against cancer:

*  The generous people from Community Roots - an amazing Coeur d' Alene based non-profit organization committed to helping people obtain affordable locally grown organic produce - has offered to sponsor our family this year. This means that once a week we will receive a box of seasonal produce - all the way into October. It also means I'm going to have to figure out how to eat kale and swiss chard so if you have any great recipes, throw em at me!   ( - seriously, if you don't know about them already, check it out.)

*Sunscreen is now purchased in the "value pack".

* And in a total leap of faith, I've committed to going paddle boarding with my friend Kym Murdock who owns Coeur d' Alene Paddleboard Company at 512 E. Sherman Ave.  Kym is as easygoing as she is capable with a paddle - or a pair of heelies for that matter (just ask her!).  But, due to my own coordination skills rivaling that of Liz Lemon (from 30 Rock - I'm also trying to cut back on Netflix) she will have her work cut out for her in order to teach me how to stay upright on a board - heck, rumor has it we might even do a little yoga.  I'll let you know how it goes in a couple of weeks - once I'm officially "cleared" by my surgeon.  Her website is if you'd like to come join us.

There you have it.  Cancer changes everything - but it doesn't all have to be bad.  I'm actually excited about the changes we are making in our lives.  And as absurd as it may sound - It probably wouldn't have happened BC (before cancer). But hopefully you won't need to wait for your own diagnosis to make the changes you've been putting off.  Today is a good day - trust me.

So, in short, thank you to all the scientists and chemists out there who are developing new technology and ways of helping my body fight the good fight.  And to the doctors who spend countless hours reading over boring medical journals and attending tedious conferences to educate themselves on best practice - it is not unappreciated.  I know there are no magic pills out there, as much as I'd love to take one (preferably a very low cost pill which works immediately yet has no risk or side effect whatsoever).  But I am thankful for "better living through chemistry" - even if it means going through something as miserable as chemotherapy.

And I promise to do my part to make sure we win this battle, together.