Medical Monday: Cancer Awareness Day, A Survivor’s Story

By Dann Pickens

First and foremost I am a cancer survivor. I was born at Fort Lawton, Wash., where parts of “An Officer and a Gentleman” was filmed. I am a son of an Army corporal so I guess that is where my Army career starts. I am a retired infantry sergeant first class with 24 years total time in the Army, and I was among the last draftees being drafted Jun 20, 1972. After my retirement from the Army was official, I was hired by the Department of the Army working at Fort McNair in Washington DC. We have been with DoD as a civilian family, still stationed at Fort McNair for an additional 14 years bring our combined service to just a hair over 38 years.

Wikipedia defines a cancer survivor as an individual with cancer of any type, current or past, who is still living.  That would be ME!

My trek began officially on my birthday in 2008 with confirmed diagnosis of esophageal cancer (adeno-carcinoma, stage 4).  Metastasis had occurred with growths in each lung, the liver and throughout the lymph nodes of the torso.  At that point in time, my prognosis was rather dim and I was not a candidate for either radiation or surgical treatment of the myriad of tumors so we went into chemotherapy right away.

Now, how have I gone from a prognosis of just weeks to well over two years and still going strong?  Well, pull up a seat.  I believe I’m here due to an extremely competent medical support team which is a combined effort from National Naval Medical Center (Bethesda) and the National Institute of Health and just a few other very important concepts.

Throughout my entire treatment, I have depended very heavily on my family, friends, and workmates for understanding, compassion, and moral support.  My medical team asserts that my positive attitude is a key factor in this fight and I cannot underestimate the value of the above support in making that happen for me.  Do take advantage of any support groups that are available to you and don’t leave out your outer circle of friends from extended family ~ you would be surprised at who all really cares.  Now, this is also a product of your willingness or reluctance to share aspects of your health with others.  I started a little irregular “update” email to just my family to keep them in the know (I’m not shy) and it works wonders for me.  A great outlet for my few frustrations.

Another key ingredient is be involved in your own health!  You know your own body better than anyone else and you will be the first with an inkling of something amiss with either the chemo or the palliative efforts.  I found that I am one of a very small group that reacts negatively to a common anti-nausea drug much to the chagrin of my team.  Just like everybody else, I get to the clinic early and process through triage and labs and the fellows then on to the attending physician then on to the treatment room.  There I add on a bit more effort, I do my best to make sure no one waits for me, be ready for time saving opportunities.

Lastly, I started a journal.  Originally, I had been tracking kidney function as losing sixty pounds had initially created some hydration problems but the book grew from there.  Now, this book, though not a diary, contains comments about what resulted from what, who I saw, what things we discussed, and reminders of future questions at the next meeting.  Not only is it a knowledge compendium and reminder but is another catharsis as an outlet.

Above all else, know that you are not in this alone!  We are all on your side.

***For more information about cancer and cancer prevention, read this Defense.gov News article, and watch Around the Services today on the Pentagon Channel.

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