No, I’m not talking about the baseball team, as I am more of a hockey girl. Although I have to say that it’s pretty embarrassing to be a Toronto Maple Leafs fan nowadays. Let’s just put it this way, I think I have a better chance of surviving metastatic cancer than the Leafs have of winning the Stanley Cup anytime soon. I can’t believe I just said that.
Which brings me to the real topic of this blog….metastatic cancer! Something that needs to be talked about and not pushed aside.
In ‘Cancer World’, “mets” refers to metastatic cancer, or metastasis. For instance, I have lung mets. In simple terms, my original cancer has spread to my lungs; it is not lung cancer. Metastatic tumors always start from cancer cells in another part of the body. For me, “Oscar the Osteosarcoma,” originally in my neck, managed to find its way into my lungs, giving birth to “Mildred the Metastases.”
The cancer cells in the new tumor are the same as the cells in the primary tumor. As I mentioned earlier, if the cancer cells go undetected by the immune system, they travel via the blood or lymphatic system to form a new tumor, which is why it’s very important to keep our immune systems strong. Although cancer can spread virtually to almost any place in the body, the most common sites are: bone, brain, lungs, and liver.
There are many factors to consider in why some cancers metastasize and some do not. These factors are: the type of cancer, the grade of the cancer (i.e. higher grade cancer cells are more aggressive, therefore more likely to metastasize), the length of time the cancer has been present, and the cancer cell’s ability to create a blood supply in the new location.
Cancer cells are pretty sophisticated buggers, as it takes a lot of work to spread to a new location and set-up shop there. First, the cells have to break away from the original tumor and travel through the lymphatic system or the bloodstream, then they have to attach themselves to the wall of a blood or lymph vessel, then they need to be able to avoid detection and attack from the immune system, and lastly they need to be able to thrive in the new location they now call home. A tumor in the new location must form its own blood supply in order to survive and grow (this is called angiogenesis).
Seems like a heck of a lot of work, doesn’t it?
This is why it is so difficult to treat metastatic cancer, as these cells have gone through a lot of trouble to find their new home and they are not going to be evicted without putting up a hell of a good fight.
But cancer cells need help to grow, which is why it is so important to keep our bodies very healthy. I can’t stress enough how important our immune system is in all of this. (I’m starting to sound like a broken-record, aren’t I?) If working properly, the immune system can help kick cancer cells to the curb, as opposed to becoming their real estate agent and helping them find a new home.
So why is everyone super freaked out when they hear the words, “your cancer has metastasized?” Well, because pretty much all cancer related deaths are due to metastases. In general, metastatic cancer is incurable and it is rare for someone to live more than 5 years with metastatic cancer, especially in certain areas such as the lungs. Generally, when an organ is involved, the results are not very good, as our organs are vital to our existence. Nearly all metastatic cancer patients are given a pretty grim prognosis or chance of survival (20% seems to be the norm). However, it is important to note that statistics do not reflect reality, as each and everyone one of us is unique.
Some of the factors that indicate a poorer prognosis are the number of metastatic nodules involved, the location of the metastases (for instance, metastases that are concentrated to one area of the organ are easier to resect than those that are pervasive throughout the organ), as well as the number of areas/organs involved (with lung metastases, bilateral metastatic disease, which is the involvement of both lungs is worse than when only one lung is affected).
This is why I urge everyone to take a stand against metastatic cancer! It’s critical that cancer patients (especially those facing a stage 4 diagnosis) and their caregivers educate themselves on their choices and options. They must advocate for their health and well-being. To put it bluntly, no one cares as much about your health as you do. It’s that simple. You need to be the champion of your cause.
Although I think it is important for anyone facing an illness or health condition to be an informed patient, I find this to be especially true in cases where the medical system and conventional medicine doesn’t seem to offer many options or much hope.
Enter in the metastatic cancer diagnosis…
Having had the bad luck of facing multiple cancer diagnoses, I have seen the various sides of the cancer coin. I have been the glorified first-stage cancer patient – the patient whereby all doctors flock to your side and offer countless options and assurances (making you feel secure and confident about your treatment plan).
Then we turn to the fourth-stage cancer patient – the black sheep of the cancer world. This is the patient the medical system walks away from, in a way. This patient represents everything that doctors fear; a patient that in many cases will not survive; a patient whose treatment is unclear and uncertain (ultimately representing a shot in the dark).
Let me be very clear, medical professionals do not purposefully walk away from these patients, it happens in a more subtle and unintended way. It is natural for all doctors to want to save all of their patients, but with metastatic disease, this becomes increasingly difficult. It’s almost as if this distance between the doctor and the patient is needed as a coping mechanism for the doctor. The closer a patient is to death, the harder it becomes for the doctor to face this patient and their grim prognosis.
The metastatic cancer patient represents everything that is wrong in ‘Cancer World.’ These patients allow doctors to face all of the failures and shortcomings of oncology and the medical system. Everything doctors have spent countless years studying in medical school is generally not enough to save the majority of patients with metastatic disease. These patients are not an easy-fix. There are no certainties with these patients. And in many cases, treatment options simply do not exist for this group.
This is why it is so important for these patients to take an ACTIVE role in their care. Ask all the questions you want to (no matter how many), do your research on your options, trust your gut and intuition, have faith, ensure you feel comfortable with your medical professionals and treatment plan, and most importantly, do whatever feels right for you. Additionally, if feasible, it is often beneficial to have an integrative approach to your care – one that combines traditional and non-traditional treatment options.
But what about the “Miracle” survivors?
Despite these grueling statistics, there are also the “miracle” metastatic survivors! (You are probably thinking, finally, there is a glimmer of hope here.) Remember, there is always some light at the end of every tunnel. These are the spontaneous or unexpected remission cases, those individuals who have defied all the odds and survived their metastatic cancer (even when everyone thought they wouldn’t). Not everyone is fortunate enough to be a part of this group, however. For those that are though, how did they do it? This is precisely what I have been researching over the last several months.
So, who are these “miracle” survivors? They are ordinary people like you and I. These individuals either refuse conventional medicine, or they try conventional medicine and when it no longer works they then switch to alternative treatments, or they use both conventional and non-conventional treatments at the same time.
Sometimes a person responds extremely well to conventional medicine and their cancer goes into remission, but many times in the case of metastatic cancer, conventional medicine is not always an option.
Sometimes these “miracle survivors” survive due to sheer luck (their cancer just goes away), leaving medical and non-medical professionals alike completely baffled.
And sometimes these individuals survive due to a combination of factors such as: diet/nutritional and lifestyle changes, vitamins and supplements, spirituality, meditation, alternative medicine, a positive outlook, and a strong support system.
We are not truly able to comprehend why some people heal from their cancer in these unexpected ways and some do not. However, we are able to make a conscious effort to try and include some of these factors mentioned above in order to try to shift the odds of survival in our favour. And we are certainly able to fight for our health at every cost.
Despite the odds, others have survived, and so can you!
In future blog posts, I will expand on these factors mentioned above and how I am incorporating them into my metastatic cancer battle plan. I will offer my experiences, tips, and updates along the way.
Onwards and upwards! xoxo