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September 16, 2009 > Cancer: my amazing journey

Cancer: my amazing journey

By Randy Pinto

Life is funny sometimes. Who would ever guess that a traffic accident would turn into a cancer diagnosis? But that is what happened to me.

Three days after my accident, although I felt fine, I decided to get checked out by my doctor. She said that I was in fine shape, just minor bumps from the accident, but she found a lump on the back of my neck that she thought was "interesting." The next thing I knew I was in radiology undergoing Magnetic resonance imaging (an MRI).

Three weeks and two biopsies later, it was determined that I had low-grade lymphoma. Not only did I have the lump on my neck, but also I had a large lump about the size of a peanut shell in my cheek. Looking back, I don't know how I could have missed the lump in the cheek. Once I knew it was there, I could easily feel it just below my cheekbone.

February 1, 2008 I was back at the doctor's office for positron emission tomography - a PET scan. For lymphoma, the PET scan is the test that determines how widespread the cancer is. In layman's terms, I was injected with a radioactive material, which attached to the lymphoma cells causing those cells to glow. I was then scanned and the doctors were able to tell where the cells were accumulating and traveling. In my case, the PET scan showed the cells were present in my head, shoulders, chest and pelvis. The spots in my chest were of the most concern to me. The only time I allowed my imagination to get the better of me was when I was told about the cells in my chest. I found that this drained me emotionally. My oncologist put my mind at ease and assured me that these cells would disappear with chemotherapy treatments.

Prior to all of this, I did not have any idea that I was ill; I did not have any symptoms, or so I thought. At the time I had just turned 51 and experiencing some hot flashes, symptomatic of menopause. I also had some muscle pain, specifically in the shoulders. Since it was winter, I thought I was feeling the effects of bursitis or arthritis pain. Also, my energy level at the gym was not what it used to be. I figured I was getting older and starting to feel the aging process a little. All symptoms and pain were associated with getting older so I really was taken aback when the CT scan and PET scan confirmed a lymphoma diagnosis.

I had stage 4, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. In my case, stage 4 meant that it was widespread and in my bones. But, with the help of my brothers and sisters and my wonderful oncologist, Dr. Paula, I was educated about lymphoma and confident of winning this battle with cancer. Lymphoma is one of the most treatable forms of cancer and though at this time there is no cure, I am able to live a very normal, and barring any other illness, long life.

Unfortunately, my story is not unusual. I met and communicated with several individuals via the Internet and attended a seminar sponsored by the American Cancer Society, but basically just wanted to continue with my everyday life. I am a florist and all this came about during the busiest time of year for me, Valentine's Day. I had to put my anxiety aside and focus on getting the job done.

Realizing and accepting I had cancer was the first real challenge in my journey. Actually, I did not hear any of my doctors refer to my disease as cancer until three or four weeks into the process. For me, this was a brilliant move by my doctors.

Cancer is a very scary word and, prior to my illness, anytime I heard that someone I knew had cancer, I always felt anxious for him or her. Referring to my illness as lymphoma instead of using the broader term, cancer, allowed me to research my disease and become comfortable with the illness, diagnosis and treatment. I knew from the beginning that this particular form of cancer was very treatable and that I was going to be fine.
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About six weeks from the time of my accident, I was comfortably laying on a nice bed in the chemo lounge experiencing my first chemotherapy treatment. I could have started my treatments sooner but I was just going into my busiest season at work and chose to do treatments around my work schedule. Dr. Paula, my oncologist, assured me that my type of lymphoma was very slow growing and that I may have had this going on in my body for some time. Though Dr. Paula did not want me to wait too long, it was reassuring to know delaying my treatment for a little while would not change the successful outcome.

Prior to my journey, I did not understand that chemotherapy is different for everyone and we do not all react the same to medications used. My chemo cocktail was called RCHOP. The "R" stands for Rituxen. This is the miracle drug for my specific type of cancer. I had to have six chemotherapy treatments, but because of the Rituxen, after the first treatment, the lymphoma cells were 99% gone. Also, the day after my first treatment, my shoulder pain disappeared - a big boost to my morale. The lumps on my neck and in my cheek disappeared soon after.

The second challenge in my journey and the most liberating experience was the decision to cut my hair before it fell out. I was told that about 15 to 20 days after the first chemo treatment, I would lose my hair. I decided if I did not have any control over having this disease, I was going to control whatever factors were within my power.

It was hard to make the appointment to have my hair cut, but once the decision was made, I found it very easy and liberating. This is when I found the cancer became real for me. I was able to see physical changes that were forced upon me by this disease, changes out of my control. I attended a "Look Good, Feel Better" seminar sponsored by the American Cancer Society. For those who are destined to travel this journey, I really recommend that you research services and programs offered by your local American Cancer Society. They offer a lot of free services and the support groups and contacts that you can make are great.

As difficult as this time was for me, my husband also had a tough time dealing with my physical changes. Ed is very supportive and strong but seeing the results of the chemo, my hair loss, my lower energy level and sleepless nights, made him very anxious. Keeping a regular schedule was very important to Ed. In retrospect, I think Ed wanted our lives as normal as possible, I believe that was his way of coping with this disease.

When it was time for me to cut my hair, Ed wanted me to have a wig ready. I know he was thinking about how I was going to be able to handle losing my hair, but I also think that seeing me with no hair would be a constant reminder that I had cancer and that was difficult for him to face.

So I got a wig and wore it on the day I cut my hair and I wore it on occasion after that but I found that I was more comfortable in hats and scarves. Once Ed was used to me without hair, which took about a day, he became comfortable with my creative headpieces and never failed to tell me how beautiful I was; he made me feel that way every day.

Since the successful conclusion to this part of my journey with cancer, many of my co-workers, friends and family have told me that they admired the way I handled the chemotherapy treatments and the way I was able to go about my day and continue with my activities. Different types of cancer will utilize different medications and the chemo cocktail for breast cancer is different than the one for ovarian cancer and so on.

The side effects from my treatment were minimal. I did not have any nausea and I was able to continue on my regular schedule most days. There were a few days that I was a little "out of sorts". I had some mornings that my energy level was low and had a few stomach issues but all in all, I maintained my regular workweek. I had chemo treatment on my day off, and was able to attend the gym two to three times a week.

About six months after the accident that started me on this incredible journey I was through with chemo and partying with family and friends, celebrating the successful outcome to what my brother likes to refer to as a "minor bump in the road." I now know that with the support of friends and family, a great team of doctors, nurses and assistants and a positive attitude, if I have to travel this road again, I can do it. I will never again underestimate the power of positive thinking and prayer.

My journey does not end here. I will have several years of follow-up appointments and will have to be much more conscious of my body and what it is telling me. I still have the hot flashes and night sweats, but am now certain it is because of the natural aging process.

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