What happens when the cancer researcher gets cancer? Stewart’s story and why there is hope on the horizon

Being diagnosed with cancer is awful. It’s probably the worst kind of news any of us will ever receive in our lifetimes. I know this because I’ve been there. I was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in 2016, and I took the news hard. After I had a bit of time to absorb my new reality, I reached out to a few other cancer patients to see if they had any advice on what might help me deal with my current situation. The best suggestion I got was to read Viktor E. Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a memoir written by a Jewish psychiatrist who spent time in four Nazi concentration camps. His parents, brother, and pregnant wife were all killed. Every day he dealt with the greatest indignities imaginable, with a very reasonable possibility that it could easily be his last. What does this have to do with cancer? He ultimately figured out, like cancer patients, that he was unable to make the thing that was making his life terrible go away. This led to an understanding that when people face these challenges, the only thing we can really change is how we respond to them. You can’t cure your cancer, but you can try to figure out a way to make the best of the situation. This, too, is not an easy undertaking, but you may find this book helpful in learning how to do this.

Despite the fact that you’ve gotten the same diagnosis as thousands of other cancer patients, your path forward will be a bit different from theirs. Part of this is because we all bring different life experiences into the doctor’s office with us. Another part is that your cancer cells are unique, like snowflakes. They will share many features with other people’s cancer cells, but they will be different at the level of the genes in your DNA. This means that your response may be similar, but will not be identical, to what other patients have experienced. The uniqueness of your cancer may actually prove to be a benefit as it may turn out to be more responsive to one of the new drugs targeted at these genetic changes.

Many cancer patients feel the burden of living up to some idealized image of the heroic and stoic patient. Someone who endures treatment without complaint, and somehow manages to emerge from the ordeal changed for the better. That’s a lot to ask of someone, and it’s not your responsibility to fit into that mold. If you take that path, that’s great, but it’s not a weight you need to bear.

You can find a lot of excellent information online about treatments for your specific cancer, but there’s also a lot of misinformation is well. I urge all patients to focus their attention solely on information from reputable medical resources, such as the National Health Service or that provided on cancer hospital websites. Ignore miracle cures and unusual diets touted by well meaning friends and coworkers, or pitched in online advertisements. These are designed not to cure you, but to separate you from your hard earned money. The people that hawk them do not have your best interests in mind.

While none of us wanted to be diagnosed with cancer, there’s no better time than now to receive this heartbreaking diagnosis. Why? Because scientists have made a number of advances in recent years that have been very helpful in treating a number of cancers. There are effective treatments for many throat cancers, especially those that are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). Depending on your particular situation, these will use some combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and/or radiation. Robotic surgery has been a big step forward in treating many cases of early stage throat cancer that previously would not have been treated with surgery. Why am I so confident that some of these new therapies being tested are going to work out for patients? It’s because not only have I been a throat cancer patient, I’ve also been a trained cancer researcher for decades. This is a very exciting time in biomedical research, and patients will eventually reap the rewards that arise from all of these new studies.

And for patients for whom these standard treatments are no longer an option, know that there are a large number of clinical trials one can turn to. New cancer drugs are being evaluated constantly for their safety and efficacy. Perhaps you’ve heard about some of the new immunotherapy treatments, but there are literally thousands of clinical trials taking place for different types of cancer. One big advance is the new treatments that focus on attacking very specific genetic mutations that are commonly found in different types of cancer. What this means for patients is that some treatments developed for lung or colon cancer or melanoma might also work on other types of cancer that share these same deleterious changes. Ask your doctor if you might be a candidate for one of these clinical trials. Part of their job is to help you find one that might be appropriate for you.

Being a cancer patient is a difficult journey, but it’s within your power to make this trip better. Develop a treatment partnership with your doctor, and take advantage of any of the help and support that friends and family members can give you. Keep in mind that there are many cancer survivors these days that have endured what you are going through and are still going strong. Never give up hope!

Stewart Lyman


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