This is the Hard Part: the Other Side of Advocacy

I’m not sorry to say good-bye to 2015.  It was a cruel year during which we lost several beloved patient advocates, who were wrenched away from their families, their friends, and so many loved ones by the monstrous, hydra-headed beast, cancer.   It was the year during which I learned that my first cousin had been diagnosed with brain metastases due to her stage IV HER2+ breast cancer. It was the year when I began to fear going onto Facebook, since I’ve now learned heartbreaking news about dear friends there far too many times. And it was the year when I began to dread receiving any emails whose subject lines simply contained the name of a fellow advocate with cancer—because it almost always meant the same thing, more tragic news, the loss of yet another dear friend and remarkable advocate.

In years not so long ago, when I was asked to explain what it meant to be a cancer research advocate, I welcomed the question. After all, I was being asked about my passion, what in many ways had become my raison d’etre. I could pinpoint with precision the very week when I stepped out of my role as a cancer patient and into that of a research advocate. After much difficult, fascinating, intellectually inspiring work, I was now sitting at the table as a partner with researchers, clinicians, and fellow advocates to drive the critical research questions that truly mattered to cancer patients themselves. I was an engaged, vocal participant at national cancer conferences, sometimes watching history being made as new treatment breakthroughs were being presented—and sharing deep disappointment with the oncologists, scientists, and advocates in the audience when novel agents that were followed with excitement ultimately failed to live up to their promise. And I was meeting highly passionate, intelligent, driven people from all parts of the country and, often, other nations, who were fellow cancer survivors and committed advocates, forming immediate deep friendships. It’s very difficult to describe how meaningful such friendships are. They involve an instant recognition of a kindred soul–one who knows first-hand just what you’ve been through from all aspects, including physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, spiritually, when cancer so rudely knocks at your door. These are folks who truly “get it,” to whom you immediately and without hesitation find yourself opening your heart and confiding the most private thoughts and concerns in a way you never could, nor wished to do so with your loved ones, in your reflex to protect them from your darkest thoughts and fears. Such friendships are life-changing, they are life-long, and they are one of the indescribable gifts that can give even the most difficult lives meaning. And yet. When your lifelong friend’s life ends far too soon—and due to the very reason that brought your life paths together when they otherwise never would have crossed—what then?

It’s now been more than 8 years since I’ve stepped into the role of an advocate. And with each year comes an increasing wave of devastating news. The terrible truth is that this should not have been unexpected for we who are cancer survivors and research advocates. For those of us affected by breast cancer, for example, we know that HER2+ and triple negative/basal-like breast cancer subtypes are associated with early relapse risk. And we know that ER+ tumors are associated with persistent late relapse risk beyond 5 years, with up to one-third of patients recurring potentially decades after active treatment. Yet every single time I learn that one of my advocate sisters or brothers has developed metastatic disease, I’m blindsided. And worse, when I receive the terrible news that a friend with stage IV cancer has passed, I still somehow allow myself to be blindsided yet again. After all, for my friends with metastatic breast cancer, I knew that they did not have curable disease. Each time, we prayed that their treatments would lead to “no evidence of disease” (NED) and that this would last indefinitely–or until additional, much more effective treatments became available. And for some friends with stage IV disease, they have remained with NED for several years. Others have sought new clinical trials after their cancer became resistant to their current treatment and were able to maintain stable disease for quite some time, sometimes for years—and if they became resistant to that agent, some were able to enroll on another clinical trial. And yet. There have been more of those times when, after seeing my friends year after year at the same conferences or grant review sessions, they suddenly were not there. Or they were, yet it was impossible to deny how frail they appeared, how very sick they were, that their cancer had become more adept at resisting treatment. And perhaps the most soul-shattering times were those when, after speaking with a friend who seemed to be doing extraordinarily well with her new treatment, we learned very shortly thereafter that she was no longer with us. Each and every time, I’ve been blindsided by their deaths; I’ve been lost, angry, completely unaccepting of their loss from this world.

When undergoing my active cancer treatment for Hodgkin’s and, later, for breast cancer, I often worried about my oncologists and the oncology nurses who spent so much time with us, who supported us at the scariest times of our lives, who provided comfort and strength not just to we as patients but to our families as well. Both of my oncologists and their oncology nurses essentially became honorary family members, as they did for so many others whom they treated day in and day out, year after year. How were they able to form such powerful, caring relationships, yet learn how to cope with their patients’ deaths, the deaths of far far too many patients? Fortunately, in more recent years, there has been increasing discussion and recognition about the impact of such repeated losses and the need for improved resources and support for oncology professionals. As noted in Cancer Therapy Advisor, “Everyone who enters the field of oncology knows that many of their patients will die, but foreknowledge is not protection against the cumulative effects of loss.” I would argue that the same is true for cancer research patient advocates, particularly for those of us who have been actively engaged for several years and are experiencing what has been described as “cumulative grief”–the compounding emotional, physical, and spiritual responses to repeated exposures to profound loss. Just weeks ago, upon learning of another friend’s death, I shared with a fellow breast cancer survivor that I was still reeling from the terrible news (and the awful news before that, and the devastating news before that)—and her response was direct, simple, and wise: “Deb, this is the hard part.”

That it is—and during this past year, the sheer weight of it was sometimes more than I thought I could bear. Yet it’s during those times that I try to remind myself: in addition to being advocates for cancer research, we’re here to advocate for one another, and the support we provide to our fellow advocates during these devastating times is crucial. Oncologists and oncology nurses have appropriately stressed the need for greater institutional and professional support to help them cope with their grief due to their patients’ deaths. It could be extraordinarily helpful if we, too, as dedicated cancer patient advocates, similarly received such supportive and educational resources through cancer organizations and professional societies on topics such as cumulative grief, end-of-life care, pain management, and palliative care. After all, as we know so well, knowledge is power and often provides the tools and the strength to transform even the most difficult, painful problems and emotions, including grief, into truly positive outcomes.

In addition, every time we experience these terrible losses, it serves as a stark, powerful reminder of why we became advocates in the first place. As cancer patients and advocates, we are the ones who bring a critical sense of urgency to identifying the cancer research questions that truly matter, that will have the most impact, that will ultimately lead to more cures. By working to support one another and to transform our grief into remembrance and renewed commitment to our advocacy efforts, perhaps that is the most appropriate, necessary, and powerful way to honor all of those we have lost.

peaceful

“Grief starts to become indulgent, and it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person.”

~Patti Smith

A Postscript

It pains me to say that just 5 days after the new year, our cancer patient advocacy community has experienced yet another devastating loss.

Ellen Stovall was the Senior Health Policy Advisor at the National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) and a founding member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM)’s National Cancer Policy Board.  As I posted on Ellen’s wall on Facebook, she was a shining light to so many of us, and it is impossible to articulate the profound difference she has made for cancer survivors in this country. She spoke profoundly and powerfully on the need for further knowledge about the very serious late effects that can result from cancer treatment. Though I never had the honor of meeting Ellen face to face, I was and will always be inspired by her remarkable accomplishments in cancer survivorship advocacy.  As I’ve written about here in my blog, like Ellen, I was originally diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and I also went on to develop potentially life-threatening late effects of my treatment, including breast cancer and cardiac disease. It is absolutely devastating that Ellen passed away 2 days ago due to sudden cardiac complications secondary to her cancer treatments. Her passion and commitment touched so many lives, and her legacy will continue–a legacy of ensuring that cancer survivors are able to become true partners in their medical care and that shared decision-making with their medical team will help to prevent or mitigate such life-threatening late effects for many cancer patients. My first major focus as an advocate was the need for improved cancer treatments that minimized the development of serious acute and late effects while continuing to ensure optimal efficacy and positive patient outcomes. Going forward, my efforts in this critical area will be in tribute to Ellen, one of the true pioneers of the art and science of cancer survivorship.

Ellen Stovall

Back in 2002, Ellen shared the following thoughts when speaking during a National Cancer Institute (NCI)/American Cancer Society Survivorship Symposium in Washington, DC, called “Cancer Survivorship: Resilience Across the Lifespan.” Fourteen years later, her words resonate just as deeply:

“So, my closing thoughts to you are, as you leave this room today to go back to the very, very important work of writing grants, reviewing grants, and helping people in your communities day to day deal with their personal journeys of survivorship, please know that the cancer advocacy community, represented by scores of organizations that were founded by and for cancer survivors, stands ready and eager to tell you our stories of survivorship with the belief that while grateful for the blessings of survivorship, for the increasing length of days, months, and years added because of new and improved therapies for cancer, that this diagnosis is filled with many punishing and adverse consequences as well as joy for living each day.

“The physician Victor Sidel once said that statistics are people with their tears wiped away. That is the way NCCS views cancer survivors, and on behalf of all of us at NCCS, thank you for your attention and for all you do for cancer survivorship.”

Thank you, Ellen, for all you have done for so many.  Rest in peace.

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Sharing My Perspective as a Cancer Survivor with Cardiac Late Effects – in the June Issue of the “Evidence-Based Oncology” Journal

A few months ago, I received a message on LinkedIn from the Managing Editor of the journal Evidence-Based Oncology.  She explained that she had read my blog and was writing to ask whether I would consider contributing to their upcoming June issue.  The issue would be dedicated to the growing field of Cardio-Oncology, and she was requesting my contribution to provide a patient’s and advocate’s perspective as one who has personally experienced cardiotoxicity secondary to cancer treatment.  (Evidence-Based Oncology is a publication of The American Journal of Managed Care, a peer-reviewed journal dedicated to disseminating clinical information to managed care physicians, clinical decision makers, and other healthcare professionals in its aim to stimulate scientific communication in the continually evolving field of managed care. It serves as a platform for research, news updates, and opinions in the world of oncology that may impact healthcare access as well as coverage decisions.)

I greatly welcomed this wonderful opportunity to contribute to such a well-respected journal, particularly concerning the serious risk of developing late effects due to cancer treatment, a critical area that is at the heart of so many of my advocacy efforts. You can see my article on the American Journal of Managed Care (AMJC) website, and it was also posted today, June 1st, with the newly released June issue of Evidence-Based Oncology. I would be honored if, as a follower and/or reader of my Musings of a Cancer Research Advocate blog, you would take a moment to read my article on the Evidence-Based Oncology website and share it with your friends and colleagues, such as through Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, to help increase awareness among patients themselves, their primary care physicians (so many of whom still know far too little about late effects of cancer treatment), and other healthcare providers concerning the very real risk of developing collateral damage from cancer treatment many years, often decades, following cancer treatment.  I hope that in some small way (or, even better, in a big way) that my and the other articles in this Cardio-Oncology series will truly make a difference in increasing understanding concerning this critical area for cancer patients and in reducing misdiagnoses / late diagnoses of and increased mortality due to these serious conditions.

On Self-Advocacy and Paying It Forward

This week, I’ve had the privilege of contributing a Guest Blog column for Jessie Gruman’s important series on “What I Wish I’d Known Earlier About Cancer Survivorship.”

This is a topic that resonates with anyone who has received a cancer diagnosis, regardless of age, cancer type, or stage.  And as a five-time cancer survivor herself, Jessie thought it important to share the many lessons she learned over the years concerning the unique needs of those who have been diagnosed with and treated for cancer.

Jessie is President and Founder of the Center for Advancing Health (CFAH), a nonpartisan, Washington-based policy institute that is committed to increasing patients’ engagement in their own healthcare.  The CFAH actively engages with and listens to patients and translates what they learn into resources that help all of us participate fully in our own healthcare and that enable clinicians and policy makers to better understand and meaningfully support these patient-centered efforts.

The Center’s website and its blog, called the “Prepared Patient,” are valuable resources for patients, family members, clinicians, policy makers, and all those concerned about ensuring optimal, evidence-based healthcare. Appropriately, the  CFAH’s motto is “Evidence, Engagement, Equity.”  

These 3 “E’s” form much of the core of my advocacy efforts, so as soon as I began reading the resources on the Center’s site, I was hooked.  And then, when I read about the new series that Jessie was establishing for the Center’s blog–one that so openly and honestly shared the hard-won lessons many of us have learned as cancer survivors–I immediately found myself writing part of my story, where I took my initial steps toward self-advocacy and on the critical road toward paying it forward.

I’ve reposted my blog for the series here.  But I also encourage you to link directly to this posting on the Prepared Patient blog, so that you’ll have the opportunity to also read the many other blogs that have been written for this important series and to learn more about the Center’s resources.

“Advocacy: The Road We Decide to Walk on Today”

Debra Madden

Road toward advocacyThis post was contributed in response to Jessie Gruman’s What I Wish I’d Known Earlier about Cancer Survivorship series about the unique needs and responsibilities of people who have been diagnosed and treated for cancer.

The year was 1986. It was a cold, frosty day in December, and it had just become clear to me that my father simply couldn’t take it anymore. I was living with my parents, having graduated from college earlier that spring, and every morning, my father woke up to the sound of my coughing—coughing that had gotten progressively worse. I’d had a terrible cold shortly before my graduation that I just couldn’t seem to shake, so I attributed my coughing to that. But the fact was that for more than a year, I’d also been fighting terrible exhaustion, drenching night sweats, and, strangely enough, unbearable itching. I’d gone to a number of doctors, looking for some explanation, but none of them could seem to find anything wrong. They each assured me that it was probably “just stress.”  After all, I was soon graduating and was probably worried about finding a job, right? And as a young woman who otherwise seemed very healthy, what else could possibly be wrong? In fact, during my last doctor’s visit, I was actually led to feel embarrassed: why would I think there was something wrong if the doctors themselves couldn’t find anything? So I gave up and resigned myself to thinking that I was simply worn out from my last year of college and that I’d gradually begin to feel better.

But I didn’t get better: I simply got used to feeling pretty terrible and essentially ignored or repressed it, depending on the day. My “newest” symptom was the relentless coughing. Every morning like clockwork, I began to have a coughing attack that seemed to last a little bit longer than the one the day before. Then at breakfast each morning, my parents expressed their worry, and I repeated the fact that I’d been to doctor after doctor who couldn’t find anything wrong. Then, on that morning in December, I stepped out of the shower, started coughing — and couldn’t stop. I wasn’t able to catch my breath, I was gasping for air, and I was truly frightened.

As I made my way shakily to my bedroom, after ensuring that I was okay, my father asked me whether any of my doctors had ever taken a chest x-ray. When I shook my head, he told me firmly to call work and tell them that I wouldn’t be coming in today. He was bringing me to a doctor now, and in a tone that broached no argument, stated, “And we’re not leaving there until they give you a chest x-ray, a complete exam, and an explanation of what on earth is wrong.”

And when the doctor placed that x-ray on the light box, it was clear that I was in terrible trouble. My coughing and all the rest of my symptoms were due to stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

So at the age of 22, my world changed.  When looking at that chest x-ray, I became a cancer survivor — and by their insistence that I receive that x-ray, my parents had already become my advocates. Yes, I had initially tried to get answers concerning my symptoms. But I was young, unworldly, and self-conscious and simply didn’t have the confidence to question my doctors. Unfortunately, I was much more apt to question myself, and that lack of persistence as much as anything resulted in stage 3 cancer at my diagnosis.

Fortunately, however, today I no longer question myself. I question my doctors. And if I hadn’t learned that very difficult lesson, I wouldn’t be here today writing this essay for you—because my Hodgkin’s diagnosis was just the beginning.

My cancer treatment took place in 1987 – 1988 and consisted of a very aggressive protocol, including eight cycles of chemotherapy (alternating MOPP/ABVD) followed by six weeks of high-dose radiation. In the years since, I developed what is now termed as numerous “late effects” due to my previous radiation. When I was in my 30s, more than 15 years after my initial treatment, I once again found myself in a role where I was “too young” to be exhibiting certain symptoms, but this time I had absolutely no reluctance in questioning any doctor’s “conventional wisdom.”

It began on a typical day where I worked as a transcriptionist at a local neurology practice. I was moving a few patient charts before leaving to go home. Although I wasn’t doing anything physically taxing and wasn’t feeling particularly stressed, I suddenly became unaccountably aware of my heart—it seemed to be racing. I could feel it pounding and almost galloping in my chest. I sat down for a few moments until the sensation stopped. When I was on my treadmill a day or so later, I involuntarily raised my left arm. It was then that I felt a heavy sensation in my chest. I got off the treadmill, and the feeling went away immediately. But when I laid down in bed a bit later, I inexplicably felt short of breath though I was obviously at rest. The next morning, I immediately called my PCP and explained my troubling symptoms. I was told they had an opening in a few weeks. It’s important to note that at that time, there wasn’t a great deal of discussion or understanding of late effects due to cancer treatment — that was to come a few years later. But a little voice in my head insisted, “Tell them about your radiation and chemotherapy now.”

This time, I didn’t question myself for a second. I cleared my throat, took a deep breath, and explained that I’d had radiation to the chest and chemotherapy with Adriamycin about 15 years before. I knew that what I was experiencing was not normal, and I was terrified that my heart had been damaged by my treatment. By advocating for myself, I was taken seriously, and I hung up with an appointment later that same day.

Surprisingly, my EKG results were normal. But I carefully outlined my history for the APRN who was examining me. I explained that although I was only in my 30s, I had serious concerns that my symptoms could be due to cardiotoxicity secondary to my radiation or chemotherapy. She agreed that heart disease was indeed rare in women my age, but that my history very much had to be taken into account. She thanked me for being so candid and specific about my previous medical history and the cancer treatments I’d had. She then explained that she wanted to make a few phone calls to have me seen emergently by a cardiologist.

The test results from my new cardiologist confirmed my fears: coronary artery fibrosis (scarring), stenosis (narrowing), and 90% blockage secondary to radiation.

My case was reviewed by a team of cardiologists due to the location of the blockage and the distinct risk of another coronary artery collapsing during an angioplasty. After conferencing, their overall recommendation was to conduct an angioplasty with stent placement. But they also stressed the need to have a team of cardiac surgeons on hand to perform a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) should a second artery indeed collapse, leading to risk of a heart attack during the procedure. And it was 100% my choice: deciding to go with angioplasty or going directly to a CABG. It was one of the most agonizing decisions of my life. But I ultimately decided to go with the angioplasty—and a second artery did in fact collapse during the procedure. But the team was able to immediately do a second angioplasty for that artery and place a second stent. And thanks to my two cardiologists, the procedure was successful.

Years later, my APRN—the one who had listened to my story so carefully as I stepped into my role as a self-advocate for the first time—shared something with me that I’ll never forget.  She asked whether I remembered that she’d spent a great deal of time on the phone to ensure I was seen by a cardiologist emergently. I assured her that I recalled all too well. She told me that when she finally got a cardiologist on the phone, he listened to everything she outlined about my case, and his response was, “Why are you calling me about this patient?  She’s far too young for her symptoms to be caused by coronary artery disease.”  She told me that she then went over my case again, stressing my history of high-dose radiation to the chest area, my chemotherapy with Adriamycin (whose most dangerous side effect is heart damage), and why it was therefore so critical for me to be seen right away. He listened as she advocated for me, minutes after I’d finally advocated for myself.

And now, he too is an advocate: I was the first patient he’d seen with cardiotoxicity as a late effect of cancer treatment. Just months later, he emergently treated a young man who had also had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and developed the same cardiac symptoms I’d exhibited; he has given grand rounds on treatment-induced cardiotoxicity; he now advocates on the critical need for specialists, PCPs, and patients themselves to be aware of the potential for late effects of cancer treatment for all cancer survivors, no matter their age.

The words that author Catherine Ryan Hyde expressed in Chasing Windmills can be likened to the choices we make concerning self-advocacy and advocacy on the behalf of others:

“I keep telling you the future isn’t set in stone. It’s not all decided yet. The future is just what’s down the road we decided to walk on today. You can change roads anytime. And that changes where you end up.”

More Blog Posts by Debra Madden

Debra Madden lives is Newtown, Connecticut, and is a 2-time cancer survivor: Hodgkin’s lymphoma as a young adult and breast cancer 20 years later as a late effect of her original radiation treatment. She is an active cancer research advocate who serves on several national grant review committees and panels, including for the FDA, the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Research Program (BCRP) and the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI). You can read more of Ms. Madden’s blogs at Musings of a Cancer Research Advocate and find her on Twitter at @AdvocateDebM.

Ms. Madden’s photo is by Nancy Crevier at “The Newtown Bee.”