Advocacy, Not Lunacy

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We live in a world where the word “advocacy” gets thrown around a heck of a lot. Me, I use it all the time. Lately, even more. For years, I’ve advocated for my older sister, who is severely disabled, and for my students, who are to varying degrees, also disabled.  Since September, I’ve had to add myself to the list of people I have to advocate for. Being diagnosed with cancer opened up a whole new world of advocacy. In all these forms, I’ve seen some pretty bad examples of what an advocate is and isn’t. Recently, I had the misfortune of being in a meeting for as student in which an advocate made it a point to stand up and yell at me. I was hardly her first victim. Her behavior prompted this blog post.

A couple of days ago I was witness to another poor example of advocacy. Now, I know I’m not supposed to be listening to the medical business of others. But it’s kind of hard not to when the “patient advocate” is getting hot under the collar in the reception area of a world famous comprehensive cancer center. It was all over an appointment with an oncologist that the young lady at the desk was trying unsuccessfully to help him with. Evidently, the patient in question wasn’t on the doctor’s appointment list. Who’s to blame for that? The receptionist? Probably not. But the “patient advocate” started kicking and screaming. “This is Stage IV lung cancer, a life or death situation!” he proclaimed, while the patient and his wife stood by, neither of them looking ready to keel over and die. I’m not making a joke here; I have Stage IV lung cancer, I know it’s no joke. What is a joke is that this “patient advocate” was getting himself in a twist and heightening the moment to a downright lie. Unfortunately, my dealings with advocates have been much the same as this. Furthermore, the “patient advocate” didn’t say anything that the patient himself couldn’t have said. Let’s be real here. Self-advocacy, if possible, is a lot more impressive.

I understand better than anyone that self-advocacy isn’t always possible. My sister is non-verbal, so I have to be her voice. Have I gotten into some tangles on her behalf? Yes, I have. Have I yelled at people? No. Have I lied for her? No. Have I been realistic about getting her what she needs? Yes, I have. And these are the real points of advocacy. Making respectful requests, being honest and open, and most of all, being realistic about what you’re asking for. I have not met too many professional advocates who stick by these rules.

Let’s go back to the student meeting. The advocate showed up wearing a dress with a severely plunging neckline, and bedroom slippers. The mother of the student in question didn’t say a word, but exhibited all sorts of nonverbal responses. Eye rolls and deep sighs were really big. When anyone tried to ask her a question or get an opinion, the advocate in bedroom slippers would cut in and say, “Mom is too upset to talk.” She was so upset, in fact, that she had to play with her cell phone while the advocate raised her voice, tried to make others in the meeting feel stupid, and made unrealistic demands for a student that misses at least half of the school year with questionable medical concerns. This folks, is not advocacy. It’s lunacy. Don’t get caught in this trap.

Here’s reality: not everyone with a serious disease is going to live. Not everyone with a serious disease is going to die. Not everyone with a life-threatening disease is ready to expire at any moment. (Take my word, cancer can be pretty boring at times!) Not every child is going to college. Not every child needs to go to college. Not every person with disabilities is capable of fulfilling lofty goals. Not everyone is going to get what they want out of life just because someone with a big mouth is speaking for them. Being the right kind of advocate is not about having a big mouth and thinking you can yell and accuse people of things they aren’t doing. Thing about it: when was the last time you got what you wanted by getting bent out of shape?

With that thought in mind, if you decide to hire an advocate for any purpose, for yourself or a loved one, remember: make respectful requests, be honest and open about your hoped for outcomes, and most of all, be realistic about what you’re asking for.  Otherwise, be prepared to be disappointed.

And please, please, please, look under the desk. If you see bedroom slippers, run.

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What You Must Do After a Cancer Diagnosis

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Happy New Year! 2020 has had a much better start for me than I thought it would. Getting a cancer diagnosis at the end of 2019 tossed me for a major loop and changed my life forever. But by the grace of some force much larger than me, and after learning a heck of a lot and making some pretty good decisions, it’s looking like life as I knew it isn’t so far away after all.

Believe me, folks, I’d much rather be writing about road trips and adventures in Sri Lanka right now and not having to worry about this cancer stuff. And I will be getting back to those posts and those travels. But after taking a three month road trip to hell and back, I have to share the knowledge that I’ve gleaned, and I must use it in a positive and helpful way.  I swore from the beginning of this journey that I was going to make good things come of it, that I was going to find the silver lining, and I have, in more ways than one. So allow me to share what I’ve learned. If you can’t use my advice for you, please use it for a friend or loved one. Everyone is touched by cancer in some way, even if they don’t have it. And one other thing: I am no expert, but the learning curve has been extreme.

Gather the Troops

Don’t fight the battle alone, and don’t push people away who want to pray for you, send “positive vibes,” or stand by you, even if you might not have the same beliefs they do. Likewise, if someone thinks they know what you’re feeling, claims to know you were ill before you did, wants to tell you what to do, or, heaven forbid, is jealous of the attention you’re getting, say good-bye. (Yes, all the above happened to me!) More people will stick by you than you can possibly imagine, and there will be surprises. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the sheer power of a whole bunch of positive energy coming your way.

Do Your Research

This should be a no-brainer, but take my word, it isn’t. I’ve met too many men and women in the past three months that put their lives into the hands of doctors and believe everything they’re told. I’m not saying that doctors lie. No one becomes an oncologist without studying long and hard. But we’re talking about your life here, this is serious business, and you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to get any knowledge you can about your condition. Some good places to start are the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. Read, take notes, start a binder of information, and bring it to every appointment that you attend. There will be a lot of them. Arm yourself with useful information, weed out the bull. Learn the difference.

Don’t Place Too Much On Statistics

Of course you’re going to read them. I couldn’t get enough of them, and believe me, the stats for lung cancer are not encouraging.  But understand this: current statistics are old, and they don’t reflect breakthroughs in treatments. They don’t even take into account the fact that a particular patient may have died of something else other than cancer, only that they died, and so are included in the number. Furthermore, if you look five different places you’ll come up with five different percentages. If you have to believe one, believe the highest one! Better yet, think of your case this way: you are an individual, you are different than everyone else. Your journey is going to be unique and cannot be represented by a number on a piece of paper. Move on.

Advocate, Advocate, Advocate

This one goes hand in hand with research. Once you’ve learned the facts, don’t be afraid to use them. If your medical team doesn’t want to answer your questions or hear your voice, get a new medical team. If you find they aren’t telling you everything, get a new medical team. If you feel they aren’t working hard enough for you, get a new medical team. If they aren’t spending enough time with you…you get it. No one is going to advocate as hard for you as you are for yourself. Unless you are physically unable to, find your voice and use it. If you are physically unable, find the strongest person you know with the biggest mouth and the most common sense and let them front your business for you.

Know Every Option

Especially when it comes to treatment, you must research and know every option. If you think that chemo and radiation are the only choices when it comes to killing cancer, you have a big surprise coming to you. Do yourself a tremendous favor and ask your oncology team about biomarker testing, as well as immunotherapy. If you have specific mutations in your tumors, you could be in line to receive targeted therapy, a pill, to potentially shrink your cancer or even eliminate it without destroying healthy cells. Or, you could receive immunotherapy, which trains your immune system to attack cancer cells. If you choose to believe that “Big Pharma” has made no advances with cancer treatment, think again. I’m receiving targeted therapy, and within a few days I saw a staggering change in my visible tumors. Thanks to my magic orange pills, I have been able to resume hiking and will soon start traveling again…three months after a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer!

Get a Second Opinion

And don’t go just anywhere, get it at a comprehensive cancer center, as seen on this map provided by National Comprehensive Cancer Network. These facilities have all the latest, cutting edge treatment and technology, as well as access to clinical trials, any and all of which have the potential to extend, or even save, your life. If you think that your local hospital is your only choice, or that traveling to one of these centers is too much of a burden, take it from me: the day my sisters drove me to Dana Farber Cancer Center in Boston, eighty miles from home, may turn out to be the most important day of my life. The second opinion turned my world around in ways I need a separate blog to describe. Particularly if you’re in an advanced stage of cancer, working with the best in the country must be an option.

I hope that what I have learned is of assistance to at least one person. The silver lining grows!

Oh, and one other thing: NEVER ask a person with lung cancer how long they smoked for. For many of us, that isn’t what caused our disease. THANKS!!

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