How to Know if You’re Getting the Best Cancer Treatment (and Why it’s Likely You’re Not)

If you’ve found this via Google, chances are you’re just like me in 2016 – you’re “terror skimming” for facts. I don’t want to lose you, so I’ll get right to it. Below are 5 absolute necessary things needed to avoid going down the wrong cancer treatment road (I’ll save my reasons why / fun time gifs for the expanded portion below). STRAP IN, HERE WE GO:

1) Get a hard copy of your pathology report. Read it.
2) Ask your oncologist to send off a copy of the pathologist report and slides for a second opinion at a larger cancer hospital.
3) Look up clinical trials to see if you’ll have better odds than the standard treatment you’re offered. This is because…
4) Hospitals cannot tell you if there’s a better treatment offered with better odds elsewhere. Legally they cannot inform you/refer you out so they’ll stick you on their standard of care even if it leads to death.
5) Chemotherapy treatment also differs from hospital to hospital. The chemo regimen most effective for your specific cancer might only be available at certain hospitals.

Above all else, those 5 things are the most important. And you’ve made it here, so you’ve read them all!

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You might’ve had questions while reading the top 5 like, “Why?” so now I’ll expand and throw in some bonuses:

1) Ask for your pathology records. Physically read the pathologist’s details. I say this from personal experience. I was told my husband’s cancer was 99% angiosarcoma, yet when I asked for pathology records nearly 3 weeks later (I’ve learned my lesson) the report said “precludes diagnosis”. They weren’t sure at all, but by this point he’d already received 2 cycles of heart toxic chemo for a cancer he never had. Get your eyes on those records!

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2) Get a second opinion from a pathologist at a major cancer hospital. You can ask your oncologist to send the biopsy slides to a more experienced pathologist at MD Anderson or Memorial Sloane Kettering. This is free to you. It’s possible they’ll come back with another opinion, like it’s a different cancer or a different staging (which can require a different treatment). If your treatment feels extreme, get a second oncologist opinion.

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NOW THAT YOU KNOW YOUR DIAGNOSIS…

Find a cancer specialist. They might have access to clinical trials for your specific cancer. Trials are free to you. On the subject of trials…

3) You can find them here: https://clinicaltrials.gov/
Trials are only offered through certain clinics and institutions so where you’re being treated possibly won’t ever even mention them. Facebook groups for certain cancers are the best place to hear about these trials and see first hand how they’re effective.

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4) Many hospitals cannot refer you out, even if they know you have better odds on a treatment that they do not carry. For example, a UC hospital will put you on chemotherapy that only has a 4% survival rate and NEVER tell you there is a trial with an over 50% survival rate offered a 5 block walk away. Cancer patients can be worth millions of dollars to hospitals and they do not want to lose you. Many people feel that by getting a second opinion that they are betraying their doctors. It’s a matter of life and death so don’t be beholden to…

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5) Even hospital to hospital, the chemotherapy regimens differ. For example, MD Anderson is the only place that offers HYPER CVAD (because they came up with it). Hyper CVAD has shown the best outcomes for non relapse remission in the cancer Hepatosplenic T Cell Lymphoma (you can find this info in medical paper case studies). This is what led my husband and I from Los Angeles to Houston. If Hyper CVAD performed the best, we’d see if insurance covered and then move to have access to it.

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6) If you’re going through a cancer treatment like a stem cell transplant, you may have to deal with many side effects that can be life threatening. These life threatening side effects often have very few treatments (like steroids). Major cancer hospitals will also have access to trial medications for those side effects that other hospitals won’t have access to, like Jakafi. Jakafi is a medication that is still in it’s trial phase for Graft vs Host disease. It saved my husband from death resulting from GVHD – which was a 90% possibility before Jakafi because the other options did not work for him. Getting access to a trial medication like Jakafi is just the first hurdle. Next is insurance. Sometimes insurance covers the cost on the trial medications, but if they don’t you can look into Prescription Partnership, a resource to help with prescription costs: https://www.pparx.org/

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7) Pyramid schemes will come out of the wood work offering you miracle cures: Go vegan! Only juice carrots for 3 months! Buy these leaves! Essential oils! No. No. No. Do I believe in supplementing treatment with these things? Sure! But even if someone miracle cured their cancer with only carrots, that is the exception and not the rule. There are too many cancers, too many that are aggressive, and our bodies and these cancers are complexly different. Please do not rely solely on “jacking your immune system” to heal you.

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Do you still feel like something isn’t right? Send me an email, Instagram DM, smoke signal and I’ll do my best to help.

GIFS ABOUT STEM CELL TRANSPLANT

WHEN FRIENDS SEE YOUR STOCK PILE OF DRUGS BUT YOU DON’T WANT TO BUM THEM OUT WITH THE REALITIES OF TRANSPLANT

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WHEN YOU’VE ONLY BEEN AWAKE FOR 3 HOURS AND THE FATIGUE HITS

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WHEN THE DOCTOR SENDS YOU HOME AFTER UPPING YOUR PREDNISONE DOSE

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WHEN SOMEONE TRIES TO SELL YOU ESSENTIAL OILS TO HEAL GRAFT VS HOST DISEASE

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WHEN YOU FIND OUT YOU’RE NOT ABSORBING AS MUCH PROTEIN AS YOU WERE PRE TRANSPLANT

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WHEN YOU GET A SURPRISE CALL ABOUT PAST DUE MEDICAL BILLS

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WHEN YOU’VE BEEN INDOORS WITH NO IMMUNE SYSTEM FOR WAY TOO MANY WEEKS STRAIGHT

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WHEN YOU’RE FEELING FINE BUT HAVE A LOW GRADE FEVER AND HAVE TO GO TO THE ER TO BE ON THE SAFE SIDE

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WHEN SOMEONE ASKS WHAT IT’S LIKE TO BE A CAREGIVER 

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WHEN YOU FIND OUT IT TAKES DAYS TO GET BIOPSY RESULTS BACK

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Two Months In, One Out, Right Back In

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A post shared by Jessica Blackwell (@jessicarblackwell) on

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MY CURRENT LEVEL OF CASUAL EVERY TIME A NEW HEALTH ISSUE ARRISES

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Back in February I had to call 911 when Jeff was having chest pains. I went downstairs to let the EMT’s in and they thought I was the landlord because I was super chill opening the door for them like, “just bring that stretcher right in here.”

More Gifs About My Husband’s Cancer

The first time you witness chemo induced nausea:

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The 10th time you witness chemo induced nausea:

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What it feels like the first week of 24/7 inpatient transplant:

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What it feels like halfway through inpatient transplant:

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What it feels like the last week of inpatient transplant:

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When nurses wake you up for 4am blood draws:

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When you’re in a group of people and all you can think about is neutropenia:

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When you ask a cancer patient if they need a wheelchair for the first time:

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When you ask them if they need a wheelchair for the 10th time:

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When you spend hours on Web MD and Symptom Checker before seeing your doctor:

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When you scramble to the ER and forget to pack your own bag:

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The ICU

There’s only one thing people want to talk about less than cancer and that’s the ICU. Shortly after my last blog post in February, my husband ended up there. I always thought being sent to the ICU was the “beginning of the end”, but I was wrong. The Intensive Care Unit saved Jeff’s life. Now I want to sing their praises. Literally, with ‘Private Eyes’.

“I.C.U. and you see me… They’re watching you.”  How comforting! They’re watching out for you. So closely. 

Let me back up and tell you how we got there.

Something no one warns you of is how, post chemo, your veins can get a little…leaky. I don’t want to be too graphic (novel) here but did you see the first X Men movie? Do you remember what Magneto did to Senator Kelly? Do you know how much I hate myself for using this reference? Senator Kelly went from 70-ish% water to 100% water and that was the end of him.

Chemo can cause fluids to go to places they aren’t supposed to go. Sometimes the fluid will cause your legs and feet to swell. It can also end up somewhere dangerous, like in your lungs. Sometimes the water will go straight past your kidneys and your body will believe you’re dehydrated, causing you to drink more water. The cycle continues.

This is what happened to Jeff. He hadn’t been eating well post transplant yet he also hadn’t lost any weight for weeks which was confusing. We didn’t know he was carrying around 20 pounds of water weight around his organs. They warn you that transplant patients can lose or gain weight because of changes in metabolism, so we chalked it up to that. It’s an incredibly insidious thing. More insidious than the amount of Insidious sequels that exist (give it a rest Hollywood). Even now, with Jeff no longer retaining fluid and eating enough to feed a family of four, he’s still losing weight. Most of our conversations are like this now:

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So, one morning Jeff wakes me up with chest pain that’s a 5 out of 10 and it quickly progresses to an 8 out of 10 and I call 911. When we get to MD Anderson they do some scans and his lungs are full of fluid. They do a thoracentesis, which is just a Harry-Potter-mythical-creature-sounding word that means they took the fluid out of his lungs. They did this by – how do I explain this technically – punching a hole in his back and putting a suction tube in it. They got a couple of liters (!!) out and he was able to breathe without the chest pressure… temporarily.

That’s when his lab results showed abnormal kidney function. It suddenly plummeted. Our doctor came in to tell us he’d like to send us to the ICU but that it was “precautionary” – not that he needed it immediately, but better safe than sorry. I remember thinking, “this is what they tell everyone I bet”. I was numb. Jeff wasn’t protesting. I knew that was a bad sign.

Let me be honest – the walk to the ICU feels BLEAK. It’s always tucked away from the higher traffic floors. There’s even a special elevator to get to them. There are less windows, if any. The rooms are small and cramped with all sorts of machines. There’s only a recliner, unlike on the regular floors there’s at least a bench to sleep on. I’m actually still confused by this, considering the ICU seems like the place you’d be much more likely stay overnight as a caretaker.

As a side note: I am a terrible sleeper and I can’t sleep unless I’m completely flat. In the ICU I ended up shoving my suitcase in between the recliner portion and the ottoman so I could lay down. It worked perfectly. I highly recommend.

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It was around midnight when they transferred us and I couldn’t help but pay attention to every single detail. Patients hooked up to breathing machines, unable to move. The doctor asked me to go to a waiting room while Jeff had an arterial blood pressure line placed in his wrist. It seemed painful and he seemed so out of it (they wouldn’t give him pain medication for fear his blood pressure would get dangerously low). I was so worried that I lasted in the waiting room for about 10 minutes before I was right back outside of his room. He could look out at me through the glass doors while they did the procedure, but I knew I was blurry to him without his glasses on. I just kept making a heart with my hands at him like I was in a stupid Taylor Swift music video.

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It was all I could do and I LOST IT. I moved around the corner where Jeff couldn’t see my blurry figure and collapsed on the floor. His nurse happened to just be coming out of the room to check on the dialysis machine when he saw me. He stopped, knelt down and said, “Everything is going to be okay”. He got right back up, helped me into the room, and then assisted another nurse in lining up the 100 or so clear bags needed for the dialysis machine (I wish I could explain what these were for, but I have no idea. Still today I’m convinced dialysis machines run on magic).

I found the nurses in the ICU to be the most empathetic, strong, tactful people in the hospital. They were always aware, walking a fine line with their interactions: not too jovial because the place is a constant reminder that people die, but also not despondent because people are trying to cling to any trace of hope. This just a small layer on top of their many daily actions that make a difference between life and death.

I don’t know how much time I spent thinking about the lives of ICU nurses. It’s amazing what the brain does when simultaneously in trauma and void of stimuli. I don’t even remember Jeff looking as sick as he did at the time. I was like the Shallow Hal of health. I’m pretty sure this was my brain’s way of protecting itself.

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Jeff remembers very little of any of this. I had spent most of my time worried about the amount of pain he was in to later find out that his brain was also protecting him. The extreme stress on his mind and body took him to a dream like state where all he remembers is thinking he was on a train with me.

Over the next two weeks Jeff had:

  • a groin catheter placed for dialysis
  • a drain placed in his heart for pericarditis
  • his picc line replaced
  • an endoscopy and biopsy to check for GVHD
  • around the clock breathing treatments

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 I made a lot of Top Gun references. It was my excuse to call him Goose.

After his kidneys normalized, we were transferred back to the transplant floor where we spent another two weeks. We were discharged from the hospital in mid March after a full recovery. What transpired was something known as Multisystem Organ Failure and when it happens after transplant it is, more often than not, the cause of mortality. We’d been on the lookout for something like sepsis, not something as simple as excess fluid. We now know how important it is to carefully monitor fluid intake and output after chemo, but especially after myeloablative conditioning.

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Jeff and I celebrated with a big ceremony on May 13th – it was the goal line we’d set at the start of transplant. Because of MD Anderson’s ICU team’s care, we made it. We are day +160 post transplant.