Picking Up The Pieces:
Cancer is without a doubt one of those entities that can destroy everything in its path. It does not discriminate. It can strike any gender, age or nationality. It takes loved ones, friends and strangers. It is the worst thing we can imagine and we pray we never have to experience the impact of the deadly disease. Knowing that cancer comes in all shapes and sizes, we have become very proactive in taking precautionary measures for early detection. We have mammograms, colonoscopies and skin biopsies to help detect suspicious findings because the sooner we find malignancy, the greater the chance of survival. However, survival doesn't always mean life the way it was before cancer reared its ugly face. I wanted to share the miraculous stories of two locals who I am fortunate enough to call my patients. Judith and Sean were classic examples of how cancer can dramatically impact your life, even after the cancer is eradicated. This month I will share Judith's story and next month we will look at the impact on a young man's life.
Judith is a 56-year-old female who is a survivor of thyroid cancer. The cancer was removed along with part of her thyroid gland and she underwent radiation therapy. The good news was the cancer was removed and there was no sign of advancement to other areas of the body. Although the cancer was taken care of, Judith's life was far from being the same. The radiation therapy had adversely impacted her salivary glands. Most people take it for granted how important normal saliva production is in our lives. Judith was not one of those people. She was a survivor of two years, but life was far from normal and she feared it would never be again. Judith developed Xerostomia, a medical condition characterized by severe loss of saliva production. Simple things like swallowing, eating food and talking become labored and painful. For two years, Judith was unable to enjoy a normal diet. Liquids and shakes became her main meals because she was unable to break down and digest most foods. She was unable to taste food and beverage because her taste buds were desensitized with her cancer treatments. Judith would have to have a glass of water with her all the time because she was unable to go more than three or four sentences without having to add moisture to finish her statements. Sleep became an issue because she would wake up 4 or 5 times a night because her mouth dryness would wake her. Imagine the inconvenience of this for one day, let alone 2 years.
Judith was at a loss because she was told very little could be done for her. Unfortunately in healthcare, the main goal is to rid the greatest danger and we tend not to talk about the accompanying problems to reach that goal. You could equate that to a fire. The goal is to put out the flames and keep it from spreading. How often do we discuss the damage caused by the water? With that said, Judith was certain that her inability to produce saliva was a by-product and the price to pay as a cancer survivor.
I met Judith at the Prospect Fall Festival. She told me her story and was curious if acupuncture could help her. She found an article stating that is helped some people with her condition and was hopeful that alternative medicine might somehow help restore life to what she once knew. I was honest with her that I have never treated anyone with her condition. I told her that I would do the research and see if we can find a suitable treatment plan for her. She knew that she had nothing to lose by giving the acupuncture a chance. The worst-case scenario would be that it would have no effect and she would continue life as she has grown to know it. However, if it worked we would give her something back that has been away far too long.
Several weeks after that conversation, Judith underwent her first acupuncture treatment. I placed the acupuncture needles along specific points on the body related to the mouth, salivary glands and the lower palate. We treated her twice a week to see if we could increase saliva production. After her second treatment she noticed that she felt a different sensation in her face and throat area. Then she noticed that she felt less dry during her treatments, but returned to her usual dryness soon after. By week two, she stated that she was getting up less during the night and drinking less water during the day while speaking. She was astounded that she was actually producing saliva again after a two-year hiatus. The saliva production was lasting longer and longer between treatments. The impact was felt when she told me that she ate 3 scallops one weekend. To most of us, this feat isn't worth mentioning, but to see the joy on her face and hear the excitement in her voice was indescribable.
Judith was starting to enjoy a normal life again. She was sleeping, talking and eating like she once remembered. Judith was able to eat Thanksgiving dinner with her family this year rather than a poor liquid-substitute. Recently her taste buds have started to wake up from their 2-year hibernation. Looking back, it seems that we have come a long way in a short amount of time. All of this started from a spark that was created from an article that eventually led to a glimmer of hope from a short conversation at a small town fair. It would have been easy to give up as she was left with little hope from her physicians. She explored acupuncture on her own and it restored more than just salivary production. We often fail to measure quality of life or think about it unless it is taken from us. In health care we see so much and sometimes forget to appreciate the little things. As a physician, you are trained to alleviate symptoms, but no one ever tells you how to give someone back part of their life. There is a difference.