Living with Neuroendocrine Cancer – 8 tips for conquering fear

8 tips for conquering fear

Opinion:

Before I was diagnosed with cancer, my health was in reasonable condition. I had minor irritants that seemed to come back now and then, nothing that was going to kill me. So I just put up with most of it and time was frequently a good healer. Occasionally, I would use medicine to speed up the healing or ask a doctor for advice. Even leading up to my diagnosis, this was my strategy despite some strange things going on.  Luckily for me, the ‘system’ picked up something suspicious and I am where I am today. It’s amazing to think a cancer can grow inside you for years causing a lot of damage but without a grand announcement.

Stabilised

Following diagnosis, I got quite a lot of attention in the first 2 or 3 years as I went through various surgical and other types of treatment, and I eventually earned the accolade of ‘stable’.  Not cured, not in remission, not totally free of disease, just ‘stable‘. I guess I’m one of millions of people who now have a condition to live with for the rest of their life.

I may be stable but I still need support and surveillance!

But I haven’t really been left alone, I have meetings with my specialists every 6 months plus routine surveillance testing. I have my GP (PCP) on tap via same day appointments. Thankfully, my tumours are slow growers and the biochemistry results that check their growth and function have been normal for some years now.  I also have my specialists’ telephone numbers in the event of an emergency.  The other great thing is that I’m lucky to have a direct line to a specialist Neuroendocrine Cancer Nurse for routine stuff.  So I can sit back and relax, right?  ……… Sounds good but not really the whole story.

I’m in tune with my body

I can honestly say I’ve never been more in tune with my body – there’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis to force you into a change of attitude. Not just about how you look after your body but learning how to read the signs and assess risk. However, the difficult area with this disease is that many of the side effects of treatment can mimic the symptoms of a recurrence or further spread and vice versa. And sometimes there can be no rhyme or rhythm (or logic) when patients experience these things. I once wrote about the “Neuroendocrine Cancer Jigsaw” where patients had pieces called Signs, Symptoms, Side Effects, Secondary Illnesses, Syndromes, Comorbidities and Coincidences.  I also include the proverbial ‘missing piece’ as part of the jigsaw! However, I do think the ‘missing piece’ can sometimes be a metaphor for an instantly contactable NET expert or even some experience and education by the patient or a trusted advocate.

Sorting out the symptoms

The comorbidity and coincidence pieces were belated add-ons to the list because sometimes it not all about the cancer – even cancer patients get regular diseases and ailments. The difficulty is working out if there is a connection or not. Take my 2017 issue of back/hip/leg pain for example. I analysed all the timings in my diary (…top tip, keep a diary), there were no common connections to any particular occurrence or activity for all occurrences of the pain.  I got some pain killers and decided to tough it out.  After 14 days, I got fed up and saw my GP (PCP). I also ran it past my NET Specialist Nurse for assurance.  After 22 days, I was still doing pain killers, waiting on a physiotherapy appointment; and doing back exercises at home. Why is my back pain suddenly a lot worse?  My Calcium and Vitamin D are checked regularly and everything is in range. I’ve been receiving somatostatin analogues for over 6 years, so that might be a factor.  I also reminded myself I’m no longer 21 (so did my NET Nurse!).  Three months later, after seeing a physiotherapist, things improved. However, I would be lying if it didn’t cross my mind that the problem could be bone metastasis.  I studied the symptoms of bone metastasis and concluded that I have none of those other than the pain. I analysed my recent scan which said there were “no bony lesions”. I also registered the fact that my biochemistry results are rather good and have been for 6 years.

And then there were the 3 episodes of constipation where the possibility of a bowel obstruction floated around in my thoughts.  However, time was once again a healer (along with some quick advice from my specialist NET Nurse!).

A couple of years ago, I thought I felt a lump on my right clavicle by the sternum.  However, an MRI later dismissed it as nothing.  Due to a piece of metal in my body, to be honest I was more scared about the MRI than the potential lump!

I always remember a great quote from Dr Eric Liu Even NET Patients get regular illnesses“.  He’s right.  But it’s also right that people living with a long-term cancer can live in perpetual fear of a worsening state of health or a recurrence of the cancer. For the incidents I highlighted above, the fear that these things were related to cancer growth or recurrence did go through my mind.

Fear can actually be a side effect of cancer

I think all those living with cancer need to be alert and be proactive via education and communication with their medical team and GP (PCP).  However, stopping yourself thinking that anything wrong with your body is somehow connected to the cancer, perhaps needs a different approach, particularly if you have a higher than average risk for recurrence. Fear of cancer relapse or recurrence, is said to be associated with poor quality of life, greater distress, lack of planning for the future, and greater healthcare utilisation.  However, if you do suffer from this type of fear, you’re not alone.  A recent study stated that 50 percent of all cancer survivors have moderate to high, or clinically significant, fear of cancer relapse, which could persist over the whole trajectory of their illness.  Younger patients might have a bigger challenge on their hands as their future is uncertain.  Patients with young children have an additional concern, that’s another fear area and a very difficult and tough one.  And those on the older side who initially thought they might not see grandchildren, or see them growing into adults, that is something I personally found tough.

Even ‘warriors’ can be fearful.  Are you a warrior or a worrier?

WORRIER OR WARRIOR (2)

Psychological problems – another unmet need? Probably.

Conquering fear is difficult and no one size fits all. However, in the most general terms I would suggest the following 8 tips:

  1. Accept your diagnosis – you have cancer, it has the potential to change your life, you most likely need to make adjustments. But this is not to say you also accept that improvements cannot be made and things will not get better …. because they can. This is particularly important for those with incurable cancers needing treatment for the foreseeable future. I accepted my situation very early on and I think that has been helpful in the long-term. Prognostic detail is a worrying thought and a difficult one. However, no-one really knows for sure. After 8 years with an incurable metastatic cancer, I’m still here and continue to be heartened by comments such as these here (click here).
  2. Accept that your road will probably not be straight and smooth.  There will be bumps and bends and you will need to deal with them as and when they arise.  Don’t try to second guess what the bumps and bends might be and then worry in case they happen. No-one really knows for sure and they might not happen.
  3. Identify your triggers – what is it that is triggering your thoughts? For me it’s more physical things like the lump, constipation and back pain. Other triggers for some might simply be an anniversary of a diagnosis or a treatment etc (or both), or an upcoming treatment. Think about how you can get past these obstacles. For example, on ‘cancerversaries’, plan to be doing something that’ll take your mind of it. For physical things including upcoming treatment, it’s all about what I said above, education, risk management and communication with your medical team ….. put yourself in control. I also have great sympathy for younger patients and those with young dependent children. I can’t put myself in their shoes and all I can suggest is that these tips are still relevant in some way.
  4. Talk about it. Family, friends, other patients, your medical team. I don’t have any issues talking about it – writing posts in my blog is also really therapeutic for me (even this one!) and I hope others appreciate it too. Patient forums can be frighteningly good but …. be careful, many can also be good at frightening and stressful.
  5. Social Media and the Internet. Although talking about your cancer can be a stress reliever, clearly social media can actually be fraught with danger. As I said above, patient forums can be frighteningly good but also good at frightening.  You can extend this issue to the entire internet, which is full of false claims of internet cures spreading false hope, out of date prognostic data causing unnecessary fear and anxiety. Pick your social media and internet sites carefully, fake news, incorrect healthcare news, and bad advice is very easy to find.
  6. Focus on Wellness.  This is a huge area and it’s pretty much up to you to resolve. Yes, some willpower is involved and it includes both physical and mental wellness. For me I try to do exercise when I can (mostly walking) and I try to make sure I get 8 hours sleep (this is a fairly recent tactic which is really helping with fatigue). With diet, I try to avoid anything that greatly exacerbates the side effects of my treatment. Travelling, family and visiting places with fantastic views is most definitely a tonic for me (and that normally means exercise to get there). Anything that makes you relaxed!
  7. Be patient.  Fear of your condition taking a downwards movement will probably never completely go away but perhaps as I said above, time is a healer.  It took me over 3 years to become more relaxed about my own future.
  8. If all the above doesn’t work, perhaps professional counselling is required?  There are specialists who work with cancer patients to help them accept that fear of recurrence/relapse is a normal part of the cancer experience. They can help you develop strategies to cope with your fears and move forward with your life.

If you think your psychological issues are unmanageable, I strongly encourage you to talk with your doctor or a counsellor.  In fact, you may appreciate this excellent video from NET Patient Foundation presented by Kym Winter, a qualified Psychotherapist and Counsellor – click here.

I also liked this video by Dr Michael Burke, a Psychiatric Oncologist – click here

Remember …….. “Googling your symptoms when you’re ill can sometimes be the most efficient way to convince yourself you’re dying”. Anon

Join my group – a helpful bunch!

 

Stay well all

Thanks for reading

 

“You must be doing OK, you’ve not had chemotherapy”

chemo

If there’s a word which is synonymous with cancer, it’s chemotherapy.  It’s what most people have in their mind when they are talking to a cancer patient…… ‘have you had chemotherapy‘ or ‘when do you start chemotherapy‘.

I was nonchalantly asked by a friend some time ago ‘how did you get on with chemotherapy’ – he was surprised to hear I hadn’t had it despite my widespread disease.  Cue – lengthy explanation!  I wasn’t annoyed by the question, I just think people automatically assume every cancer patient has to undergo some form of systemic chemotherapy.  If you read any newspaper article about cancer, they do nothing to dispel that myth, as many articles contain a story about a cancer patient with no hair.

Sure, chemotherapy is not the nicest treatment to receive and it does have pretty awful side effects for most. I watched my daughter-in-law go through 3 or 4 months of this treatment where she was literally confined to a combination of her bedroom and her bathroom.  And it did shock me to see her without hair.  I would never want anyone to go through that and it really brings it home when it happens to a close member of your family.

Despite its bad press in regards toxicity and it’s awful side effects, chemotherapy is widely used in many cancers.  Statistics show that it does work for many patients (….. my daughter-in-law is still here looking after two of my four grandsons and my son still has a wife ♥).  However, I suspect it has a limited future as more efficient and less toxic drugs and delivery systems come online downstream.  Immunotherapy is often touted as a replacement for chemotherapy but this may be a while yet.  So for now, millions of cancer patients worldwide will continue to be prescribed chemotherapy as part of their treatment regime.

However, for some cancers, chemotherapy is not particularly effective. Neuroendocrine Cancer (NETs) is one such cancer. In general, NETs do not show a high degree of sensitivity to chemotherapy. For example, it’s often inadequate for the treatment of well-differentiated tumours with a low proliferation index but can be more effective in particular anatomical locations. The one exception is for high grade tumours (known as Neuroendocrine Carcinoma if poorly differentiated) where chemotherapy is much more likely to feature.  I’m not saying that the lower grades will never receive chemotherapy – that door is always left open for those with progressive cancer who perhaps have run out of treatment options.  Putting Grade 3 to one side, I’ve heard people say that NETs is the ‘good cancer or the ‘good looking’ cancer often citing the chemotherapy thing as some justification. That is of course a stupid thing to say.  I accept that not everyone will lose their hair and not every chemo will cause hair loss.

Here’s the rub.  Many other treatments come with pretty challenging side effects. Moreover, the side effects and the consequences of these other treatments can last for some time, and for many, a lifetime. For example with NETs:

Surgery can be pretty extensive, in some cases radical and life changing.  Many cancer patients receive surgery for NETs which is still the only real ‘curative’ treatment, although for most, it’s cytoreductive or palliative in nature.  If you lose bits of your small intestine, large intestine, liver, spleen, cecum and appendix, gallbladder, stomach, rectum, lungs, pancreas, thyroid, parathyroids, pituitary gland, adrenal gland, thymus gland, ovaries, oesophagus (…….I could go on), this comes with various side effects which can present some quality of life issues.  There can be huge consequences of having this treatment.

Other ‘consequences’ of cancer surgery include (but are not limited to), pulmonary emboli (blood clots), lymphedema, short bowel syndrome, gastrointestinal malabsorption, diabetes.

Somatostatin Analogues do a great job but they do add to some of the effects of surgery (mainly malabsorption).

Even the so-called ‘silver bullet’ treatment Peptide Receptor Radio Nuclide Therapy (PRRT) can have pretty severe side effects and presents some risk to kidneys and bone marrow as a long term consequence.

I’ve not had chemotherapy and I would rather avoid it if I can. However, as I’ve hinted above, there are other harsh (….perhaps harsher?) treatments out there. Moreover, whilst hair normally grows back, your small intestines, lungs and pancreas won’t.  Many people will have to live for the rest of their life with the consequences of their cancer and its treatment.

It sometimes appears that every other cancer article involves someone undergoing chemotherapy.  I just wish someone would write an article about my lack of terminal ileum and ascending colon, the malabsorption issues as a consequence of that, my missing mesenteric lymph nodes, my retroperitoneal fibrosis, not forgetting to mention my diseased liver, my left axillary lymph nodes (and the mild lymphedema I now have after their removal), my left supraclavicular lymph nodes, my suspect thyroid lesion and my hypothyroidism which may be due to that, my small lung nodule and my pulmonary emboli which after nearly 6 years of daily injections means my abdomen looks and feels like I’ve done 12 rounds with Mike Tyson.  However, it just wouldn’t be a good picture nor would it be as powerful as one of a person with no hair.  Just saying!

I look well, I still have all my hair – but you should see my insides!

insides
(you may also like this blog – click above)

I’m not playing ‘Cancer Olympics’ with this post as I wish all cancer patients, regardless of type, regardless of treatment regimes, the very best outcomes.

Thanks for reading

You may also enjoy these similar and related articles:

Things not to say to a cancer patient – click here

Shame on you! – click here

I look well but you should see my insides – click here

Things are not always how they seem – click here

Not every illness is visible – click here

Not the stereotypical picture of sick – click here

An Ode to Invisible Illness – click here

Poker Face or Cancer Card – click here

Thanks for reading

Ronny

I’m also active on Facebook. Like my page for even more news. I’m also building up this site here: Ronny Allan

Disclaimer

My Diagnosis and Treatment History

Most Popular Posts

Sign up for my twitter newsletter

Read my Cure Magazine contributions

Remember ….. in the war on Neuroendocrine Cancer, let’s not forget to win the battle for better quality of life!

 

Not every illness is visible

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I personally don’t see myself as ‘disabled’ but I do have an invisible illness. I’m fit, can walk for miles, I even look quite healthy.  However, I live with the consequences of Neuroendocrine Cancer. These consequences differ from person to person but I know that some people with this disease have even met the criteria to be officially classed as ‘disabled’ through government schemes.  Judging by what I read, I have less debilitating issues than others, so I feel quite fortunate. That’s not to say I don’t have any issues at all – because I do!

toilet-sign-wall-of-china
Situation normal, right? 

I was therefore delighted to see news of an initiative supporting invisible illnesses by Asda (for those outside UK, Asda is a major UK wide supermarket chain).  Asda have now recognised that many conditions can be classed as ‘invisible disabilities’ and this need is now recognised in the availability of toilet facilities (see picture below). This is particularly relevant to my own disease, all types of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (Crohn’s, Ulcerative Colitis) or anyone who has issues due to the consequences of their cancer or treatment (e.g. GI surgery, Chemo, Radiotherapy).

asda toilet

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Check out the associated blog Read blog “Things are not always how they seem”

I wrote an earlier blog on this subject called Things are not always how they seem.  This was a great ‘invisible illness’ awareness message in the form of a reference to a newspaper article about a lady who had Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) and was ridiculed by someone who saw her use a disabled toilet clearly unaware of her invisible illness.  This is definitely worth a read!

I also wrote a blog about my own concerns focussing in on the issue of ‘Stomach Cramps’.  This is something that causes me issues from time to time and I dread a painful occurrence if I’m ‘out and about’.  I generally don’t let Cancer stop me doing stuff.  Consequently, I will still visit remote places as I have done so for the last few years and have intentions of continuing to do so in the future.  Fortunately I have been lucky with my experiences to date.  If I’m out and about including on holiday, I have no reservations about waltzing into hotels or restaurants where I know there will be toilet facilities. I’ll also use a disabled toilet if others are not vacant.  My worst and most painful experience was in 2014 whilst I was walking along Hadrian’s Wall in remote Northern England – this is covered in my blog “My stomach sometimes cramps my style“.

I have not yet been challenged in my use of toilet facilities (without being a customer) but I always carry some ‘Get me out of jail’ cards just in case.  I have two, one from NET Patient Foundation and one from Macmillan Cancer Support.  You can order these online (links given) and I’m sure other national advocate organisations do similar things.

NPF Toilet Card Backmacmillan toilet

 

I applaud Asda for their initiative.  Lets hope it catches on anytime soon!

I may look well but you should be my insides!

insides

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks for reading

You may also enjoy these similarly related articles:

Shame on you! – click here

I look well but you should see my insides – click here

Things are not always how they seem – click here

You must be doing OK, you’ve not had Chemotherapy – click here

Not the stereotypical picture of sick – click here

An Ode to Invisible Illness – click here

Poker Face or Cancer Card – click here

Thanks for reading

Ronny

I’m also active on Facebook. Like my page for even more news. I’m also building up this site here: Ronny Allan

Disclaimer

My Diagnosis and Treatment History

Most Popular Posts

Sign up for my twitter newsletter

Read my Cure Magazine contributions

Remember ….. in the war on Neuroendocrine Cancer, let’s not forget to win the battle for better quality of life!

patients included

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