Balanced Living with Cancer

One young family’s quest to find balance while living with cancer

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Why Ask What

November 18, 2012 | 8 Comments

The clapping echoed through the long cavernous hallway.  No shouting, no hollering, just thunderous clapping.  Another wave.  Trying to find room 111b in the Philadelphia Convention Center I was reminded of Nicolas Cage in the movie National Treasure searching for the next clue.  There it was again.  Then the pink shirts, pink scarves, and caps.  The line was long, the excitement contagious.  Hundreds of women dressed in pink, walking, cheering.  Oh, yes – it was the first day of the Susan G. Komen 3-day Walk for the Cure.  Nationwide hundreds of thousands of women walking in support of someone they knew who had breast cancer.  Raising money for the cause.  Doing their part to help, or honor, a loved with a horrible disease.

I wondered how many of these walkers had ever stopped to ask the question, “What caused her breast cancer?” It is a natural question to ask.  What caused my Mom and sister’s breast cancer? What caused the breast cancer in five of my girlfriends and two of their mothers?

I once asked my husband’s physician what caused his lymphoma. Even though I knew it was not a question that could be answered about him specifically, I asked anyway.  Maybe it’s the epidemiologist in me, but I truly wanted to hear her thoughts.  Engage in a conversation.  After all, my husband was young, 39 years old when diagnosed with what used to be considered “an old man’s cancer.”  What I did not expect was her response, “We’ll never know and it doesn’t really matter. We need to focus on treatment to get him better.”   It became evident rather quickly it was not her job to ponder the possibilities of what caused his cancer; it was her job to make sure he received the best care possible and to watch over his safety through the treatments.   For that I was grateful.

As I approached the lady’s in pink, the words “it doesn’t really matter” from the physician a decade ago were as loud to me now as the walker’s thunderous clapping.  It dawned on me that with cancer we have stopped asking why and what.  We have settled in a very dangerous space – the acceptance of the disease as part of our lives. The common belief now is that cancer is conquerable, even curable.  The rock star cancer patient we see on billboards and in magazines denies or at least downplays the suffering that comes with the disease and in doing so makes it easier to avoid thinking too intensely about the causes.

But what if we never asked why a plane crashed or why clusters of people were getting food poisoning?  What if we just focused on treating those who survived the crash or the contaminated food without looking for and addressing the causes? Planes would keep crashing for the same reason and people would continue to get sick from eating the contaminated food.  So why do we seemingly, so readily, not insist on answers to the tough question, “what caused her cancer?”

What if each one of these persons walking for the cure insisted on finding out the answer to what caused their loved one’s breast cancer?  What if collectively we were not willing to accept “we’ll never know so it doesn’t matter” for an answer? I know what would happen.  We would force the medical community, scientists, government, politicians, non-profit organizations, industry, and the media to more openly and honestly engage in a dialog about the causes of cancer and, in turn, we would be in a stronger position to find the real treasure – prevention.

Copyright © 2012 Jeannie Moloo. All Rights Reserved.


When Bald Eagles Soar

August 2, 2012 | 7 Comments

This summer my kids and I visited Yellowstone and the Grand Teton National Parks.  My husband could not join us because of daily medical treatments.  The area holds special meaning for the five of us – a unique distinction – the destination of our last carefree family vacation, August 2007.  It was a road trip to Wyoming to visit both national parks.  At the time our kids were ages 5, 9 and 11 – Box Car Children books on tape saturated the car radio.   Two weeks after we returned, my husband developed shingles on his face and it was then we received the news his lymphoma had returned with a vengeance.

It was not an easy choice deciding to take the kids without him this time, and one I have since received criticism for making.  He is going on his 737th consecutive day of IV treatments for an infection he developed over two years ago, the result of a suppressed immune system.  What many fail to appreciate is children continue to grow up despite a parent’s need for medical treatments.  For the past four summers we have stayed close to home because of his hospitalizations, daily infusions, and the unpredictability of infections. Mixed with the guilt that seems to come anymore when I am forced to make difficult choices, I decided we would seize an opportunity and join my sister and her family in Wyoming.

On our fist day we saw a bald eagle – our national bird, once almost extinct.  In my 50 years I had never seen a bald eagle in its natural habitat.  Soaring high, hunting for food.  The white head and tail made its presentation distinct from the other birds.  My sister, a wildlife biologist, shared her knowledge of the eagle’s history.  To see a bald eagle was amazing, the implications inspiring.  Hope is the word that came to my mind as she described its comeback.

Bald eagles were officially declared an endangered species in 1967, after growing public concern over their dwindling numbers.  The eagle’s demise has since been attributed to chemical exposure, namely DDT, used heavily post World War II.  Fish, the primary food of eagles, were heavily exposed to the chemical run off into the rivers.  Bald eagles ate the fish that concentrated the chemical, which ultimately prevented calcium from being deposited in their eggshells.  The thinning shells would not protect the unborn birds and so the population declined to near extinction.   The eagles started down the path to recovery in 1972, when the Environmental Protection Agency banned the chemical.

Later in the week we did a scenic float trip on the Snake River.  As we wound through the high mountain dessert of Wyoming, the Tetons our backdrop, the kids started counting the number of bald eagles.  One, two … eight … thirteen … sixteen eagles and three nests.  Wildlife biologists estimate one of the nests we saw weighs over 1,000 pounds.

Seeing bald eagles in their natural habitat is a declaration of hope – that we can correct the damage done by the chemical intoxications to our environment.  If we can save a bird species from extinction by eliminating use of a chemical that contributed to its demise, can we not correct our pollution of yesterday that is causing cancer in people today, and prevent further contamination of our environment to prevent our children and grandchildren from getting cancer tomorrow?

I believe many people who are getting cancer midlife are the canaries in our coal mine, signaling to us the effects of cumulative toxic exposure, no different than the bald eagles of yesteryear.  We can pay attention to the information and do something about it, or ignore the signs and watch more of the fall out.

The science is strong showing many of the chemicals we use to make our clothing, bedding, food, perfumes, lotions, and cleaning agents are absorbed by our body, challenging our cell’s check and balance systems, and taxing our immune system.  No doubt in my mind, dose makes the poison.  No doubt in my mind, we are all taking in daily a large assortment of chemicals.

For many of us, tackling the environmental issues seems overwhelming, often leaving us feeling a sense of apathy.   I know first hand that hope is critical when all else seems to be failing.   It is the feeling that what is wanted will be had and that things can turn out for the better.  With hope there is life.  Without hope there is despair.

This week the media has been reporting the sightings of the first bald eagles in the California Bay Area after more than a 50-year absence.  Wildlife biologists are saying their return is proof that the food the eagles are eating is cleaner and contains fewer pesticides.  They are citing the occurrence as a true environmental success story.

I saw my first bald eagle in nature at age 50, my children at the ages of 9, 14 and 16.   That is hope.  Returning to Yellowstone and the Grand Teton for my children without their father was difficult.  I have hope that we can do a better job of pulling back on our reliance on chemicals.  We’ve done it before.  And look what we gained.




April 29, 2012 | 0 Comments

“What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”  One of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Our teenage daughter has had the opportunity over the past eight weeks to be part of a national fundraising effort for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society (LLS) whose sole purpose is to raise funds for blood cancer research and education.  I remember when my husband was first diagnosed and the reassurance LLS provided us knowing we weren’t alone.  That my husband’s cancer was being paid attention to and people were already on it, researching and working diligently to find cures.  We took part in the Society’s many educational conference calls, signed up for Webinars, and picked up their pamphlets wherever we found them.  I even had thoughts early on of joining LLS’s Team in Training as a way to keep fit with people who shared a similar interest, helping to stop blood cancers.

Then life took over and instead of Team in Training, I’ve been running my own marathon keeping our kids, my husband, and all that goes with a young household moving forward.  I often think how rewarding it would be to cross that finish line knowing I had managed to pull off a physical feat such as a ½ marathon or century ride and the satisfaction that must come knowing through fundraising efforts I was also helping others trying to keep their lives moving forward while dealing with cancer and it’s craziness.  One day, I still promise myself.  One day.

In the meantime, our daughter and her friend are participating in LLS’s Student of the Year competition.  It’s similar to the 10-week Man and Women of the Year campaign, one of the Society’s largest annual fundraising events.  The girls have been working diligently since March 5th to raise as much money as they can for LLS.  They have until May 9th with the culmination and announcement of the winners at the Society’s annual gala on May 12th.  The theme of the gala – RELENTLESS.  How fitting for so many reasons.

Of the five competing student teams, the one that raises the most money is designated Student of the Year.  But as my daughter says,  “We all win no matter who wins the competition.”   Ten teenagers, one cause, one goal and many friends and family showing their love and support through their donations.

I wouldn’t normally use this blog as a means for fundraising.  But in this case, it seems fitting.  The girls are in the home stretch.  We have personally benefited tremendously from the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s research, which has saved my husband’s life through their supported clinical research trials.  If it were not for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, there would not be the many blood cancer treatments he has had to rely on to survive.  If you are interested in donating to the girls’ campaign, 100% of which will benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and its efforts to help families living with blood cancers, you may do so at the official LLS website for Sarah&Amanda’s campaign.

Thank you for your generosity.

Copyright © 2012 Jeannie Moloo. All Rights Reserved.


The Race to Stand Up to Cancer

November 17, 2011 | 7 Comments

Our daughter came home from school the other day and asked if she could buy a sweatshirt to support a classmate who was recently diagnosed with lymphoma.  “Lymphoma?  Are you sure, honey?”  “Yes, Mom.  She sits next to me in my English class.  I mean she did, she hasn’t been there for the past few weeks.”

The family is struggling with medical bills and the students at the high school have decided to sell sweatshirts to raise money for her care.

The unknown for the family must be driving fear, anxiety, and sadness.  This is a time when their daughter should be going to homecoming dances, shopping with friends, staying up late at sleepovers, and visiting colleges to help decide where she wants to apply for the next phase of her life.  Hopefully, treatment is a success and she becomes a positive statistic.  One of those numbers that we take comfort in, showing us we are making headway, standing up to cancer.

With current treatments, more than 80% of children and adolescents with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma will survive at least 5 years, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The conundrum – the personal costs for cancer are not always shown in the statistics.  The physical and emotional pain, the side effects of repeated treatment, the decreased ability to be productive, the stress on family and loved ones, the loss of income and life goals, and the reduced ability to contribute fully to their communities – these are not part of the statistics we use to gauge our success in “fighting” cancer.

If this same child were tragically hit by a car and critically injured or killed, we would be aghast, outraged, and angry.   We would want to know how did such a horrific accident happen?  Who did it? Was the person driving under the influence? Were they distracted using their cellphone? Simply and honestly we would want to know what caused the accident?  I doubt many of us would be pacified with the recent advances in trauma care.

I have noticed recently I don’t hear the same outrage or questioning when someone is diagnosed with cancer?  Sure, I see despair and sadness, confusion and shock, but very rarely do I find people asking – why?  Why does this 16-year old have lymphoma?  Instead, I see comfort taken in the treatments being more successful today – a reassurance that life will eventually get back on track for this child.  As if cancer is an inevitable and unfortunate part of life.

Have we become desensitized to the disease?   Have years of campaigns such as Race for the Cure, Stand Up to Cancer, and LiveStrong, raising billions of dollars to “fight” cancer, encouraged a false sense of reassurance that if we get the Big C odds are good we will be cured?

I am grateful for the efforts made by the many organizations working diligently to improve screening and advance medical treatments to end cancer. My family has benefited tremendously.  I don’t, however, subscribe to the belief that chasing the cure is where the answers lie.  Identifying the causes and minimizing their influence is where the real impact is going to be made in ending cancer.

Maybe the causes feel too mysterious, numerous, and overwhelming for us to address, so we choose not to push the questions why or how did a 16-year old develop lymphoma?

Maybe it’s easiest to take stock in genetics.  As the thinking goes, some people are just more at risk because of their genes.  Certainly heredity plays a role, however, if heredity were a main cause we wouldn’t see incidence rise rapidly over the course of a few generations.  Our genetic pool doesn’t change that quickly.  But our environment, that where we grow up and live, has changed dramatically over the past few decades.

In toxicology the reigning phrase remains – Dose Makes the Poison.   We have more than 50 years of research buried in libraries throughout the world showing many of the chemicals we spray on our food and use to make our clothes, children’s toys, and packaging of our favorite purchases, have the potential to cause cancer.  For some people, the dose of these chemicals has become their poison.

If we want to end cancer – I believe we need to seriously and collectively acknowledge how and where it starts.   Along with racing for the cure, we should be standing up and racing to slow and eliminate exposure to the causes.


Copyright © 2011 Jeannie Moloo. All Rights Reserved.