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Dr. Caroline Cicero

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Forget Cancer: I Am a Chemotherapy Survivor

Posted: 10/14/11 02:47 PM ET

When I was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, lots of well-meaning friends suggested that instead of chemotherapy, I try alternative remedies and cures. While I was grateful for their interest and acknowledged that chemotherapy's origins are toxic, I responded that I was confident in my course of chemotherapy because it has a 95 percent success rate. Also, as a 35-year-old mother of two small children, choosing a less effective and unproven method of fighting cancer was not an option for me.

Cancer itself is no picnic, but surviving chemotherapy was by far the hardest thing I have ever done. Some people keep working and exercising, looking normal, and getting by without too much change in their lifestyles. Some drug therapies are harsher than others, and I am told ABVD for Hodgkins Lymphoma is a rough one. However, I am sure many patients are tougher than I am. I didn't have a lot of extra energy to pretend I was feeling fine or to invest in cooking, cleaning, exercising or my graduate studies. Any energy I could muster was spent trying to be a mother to my two small children. I didn't want to be a superwoman, just a mom.

When I told my 6-year-old, first grade daughter that my hair would be falling out, she said, "If you are bald, who is going to take me to school?" I suggested I could wear a wig, and she said, "They'll know." My 3-year-old son thought my wig was funny, and he would just rip it off my head. I pretty much stuck with hats and was thankful I started with an abnormally large amount of hair. I always expected one of the more outgoing first grade classmates to ask me about my hair, but none ever did.

After chemo Fridays, I usually felt like ants were crawling all over my body for the first day or two, and then I would basically crawl into a debilitating and nauseous cave for the next 5-6 days, coming out only to hug, smile at, and occasionally feed my family. During 6 months, I had 12 sessions of chemo -- every other week. I would feel better after 10 days, in time to go back for more.

A few things helped me survive chemotherapy. My community of women in the megalopolis of Los Angeles was amazing. Other moms I hardly knew would leave food and gifts on my doorstep, play with my kids, clean my house, hold prayer circles for me and even offer me medical marijuana to reduce my nausea. (My doctor advised me not to smoke anything as lung problems are a side effect of my chemotherapy drugs). Friends and family from all over the country came to help out. My husband received random phone calls from people around the world who sensed we needed help. We did, and learned to accept it with a grateful heart.

Two days before each chemotherapy session, I had a blood test to be sure my body could handle the next onslaught of drugs. Incredibly, my blood cell counts never went too low and I never needed a booster shot to reduce my risk of infection. My oncologist told me I had "miraculous blood", which I found ironic since I was battling a blood cancer. "Just keep doing whatever you are doing," she said.

Apart from the community that surrounded me, I had three personal practices to help me survive. One was a weekly trip to an acupuncturist, Dr. Julian Lange. Using alternative medicine helped my body with energy and blood counts. My oncologist advised me not ingest any herbal remedies that could alter the chemo drugs, so Dr. Lange stuck with needles only.

The second ritual that helped my mind was a trip to In-N-Out Burger after every blood test. Since it was always 12 days after my previous chemo round, I could enjoy my Double Double Animal Style enough to keep me going. A few weeks into my ritual, I noticed the bottom of the paper wrapper had Nahum 1:7 on it. I was encouraged when I looked up the verse upon getting home: "The LORD is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him."

My third ritual for surviving chemotherapy was exactly what the burger wrapper advised -- helping my spirit. My church sent two amazing women to pray with me every week, for six months. Whether or not you believe that God heals people, research has found that the practice of prayer during the course of chemotherapy treatment -- and also during chronic illness and pain -- improves patients' emotional well-being, depression, and anxiety.

Being diagnosed with cancer is scary, especially for moms. Living through it and chemotherapy are difficult too. Accessing treatment, developing coping strategies, and accepting help make survivors.