My wife had been receiving regular chemo (every one to two weeks) after it was confirmed that her cancer had returned, this time in her left chest wall, and it was stage IV. The medical world gives cancers a stage rating (I, II, III, and IV). Stage I meaning an isolated cancer and at the other extreme, stage IV, designating a cancer that has spread “to the limit of what the assessment measures” according to Wikipedia.
Despite the best that local medicine could throw at her illness, I felt that at most the drugs were only slowing down what increasingly seemed inevitable. Eventually the cancer spread to her lungs to form about 30 lesions. Things seemed to go downhill faster and faster from there.
She started to cough every five to ten minutes. This greatly concerned me because the cancer had spread to her lungs. I was advised by a nurse to get her a lung spirometer–a lung exercise device to slow what to me looked increasingly like the inevitable collapse of one or both of her lungs as the disease progressed.
She was experiencing tingling in the fingers of her left hand and numbness in that whole hand. From reading I found out that this was at least possibly a sign of neuropathy (nerve damage) from extended chemo use.
During one four-day stay at the local hospital in August 2012 her regular physician read through her charts and came to the conclusion that she had suffered a minor heart attack. Chemo and other cancer drugs are toxic and extended use take a toll on the body’s organs and systems which must regularly fight to rid the system of the toxins. This is why patients can’t be given chemo every day but must space them out to give the body a chance to recover. The unintended consequence is that the cancer also uses this time to recover.
Then some symptoms started appearing that worried me the most. My wife started losing a significant amount of weight in a short time. She dropped 32 pounds. She had excess belly weight which one of her oncologists advised her to lose. But I knew that this was not the way to do it. She also completely lost her appetite. A final symptom of concern was that she became very weak. She could do one minor task and then she had to lie down or sit down to recover her energy. From further reading I found that these were possibly signs that she was starting to slip in a state named cachexia.
Cachexia is a wasting syndrome which occurs at a certain stage of advanced cancers (and other some other diseases) in which the patient starts to literally waste away. This is why so many advanced stage cancer patients lose a lot of weight and don’t eat enough. Eventually it can lead to such weakness that chemo must be discontinued because the patient is so weak that he can’t tolerate the drugs. The cancer then has freedom to grow without anything to inhibit it.
According to Dr. Patrick Quillen in Beating Cancer With Nutrition about forty percent of people who die after being diagnosed from cancer don’t die from the illness but from malnutrition. Cachexia is a life threatening state if not addressed and should not be ignored.
The combination of the above symptoms made me realize that I could no longer sit passively by. I had to find something we could do to slow down the progression of the cancer or very soon my wife was going to die.
(Continued in the next blog post)