Monday, August 11, 2014

Mark’s Cancer – What We Learned


In January 2014, Mark fell on a winch on our boat in the Marquesas. His chest hurt way more than expected, but the pain eased after a few days. Then, he felt a bump, which he attributed to the injury of the fall. Two months later while we were in the Tuamotus, the lump was still there, and we started to worry, so we sailed to Tahiti for a check-up. Upon arrival, we immediately rushed to the main hospital in Pape’ete, with subsequent visits. The ultrasound didn’t conclude anything, a biopsy suggested cancer, and in the beginning of May, Mark jumped on a plane to Boston. The tumor was removed in Newburyport, breast cancer was diagnosed, Mark was referred to Dana Farber in Boston and the fight against cancer started.  Another operation removing the sentinel lymph node followed with lots of talks to doctors and four weeks of radiation. After months of heavy emotions, meltdowns, disbelief, fear, anger and treatments, Mark should be cancer free at the moment, but there is no way of telling.

Male Breast Cancer Awareness!

MEN CAN GET BREAST CANCER. It is not something we ever thought of or imagined happening to Mark. Usually, male “victims” notice the bump themselves. We hope with Mark’s story, we have pointed out the possibilities of male breast cancer to our (male) readers. Although the chances are very small (1 out of 1000), or as Mark says “With me being the one guy to have breast cancer, none of my friends should have to worry about it anymore!” – be aware! As for women, and this is a shocking fact to me as well, the chance of having breast cancer at some point in your life is 1 out of 8; that is 12.5%!!! The breast cancer reoccurrence rate is 20%.

BRCA Gene Mutations

When Mark’s sister Dru passed away a year ago, after a long and brave fight against ovarian cancer, we knew she was a BRCA1 carrier. But, knowing that this gene mutation presented a higher risk for breast and ovarian cancer – both female diseases, so we thought – we were only worried for Dru’s daughter, who, fortunately, does not have the BRCA1 gene. Little did we know that Mark was a carrier of the gene mutation as well and a year after his sister’s passing, it would cause havoc in the family again. If you have a lot of breast and ovarian cancer in your family, it might be wise to look into the BRCA1 and BRCA2 history. The statistics are horrendous. Women carrying the BRCA1 gene have a 50 – 85% risk of developing breast cancer (and > 50% chance of a second one) and a 20 – 40% risk of developing ovarian cancer (which has a high mortality rate, because by the time it is diagnosed, it is usually a stage 4 cancer!). For men with the BRCA1 gene mutation, the risk for breast cancer is 1% (yes, Mark is a rare case) and there is an increased risk for prostate and skin cancer. Men and women with this “gene” also have a higher chance of developing pancreas cancer.

The Importance of Healthy Food

It is common sense that eating healthy is important, but we didn’t realize just how important it is – in relation to breast cancer - to cut certain foods and drinks out of our diets. In Dru (who ate incredibly healthy vegetarian and organic food for most of her life) and Mark’s case, the bad genes ignored the healthy food approach, but Mark and I still believe that eating healthy might decrease the risk of (breast) cancer reoccurrence or of the development of new cancers, as it would in the general population. The big no no’s are sugar (which “feeds” cancer cells), fried food, processed meat and alcohol. But, non-organic and genetically modified food are also not good for you, and one should be careful with certain oils (especially palm oil, which is awful for the health and the environment), red meat and canned goods. 

Unfortunately, following this advice is basically impossible with the current attitude of the food companies and with what is available on the market. The only way to live a healthy life in this culture and this time is to grow your own food, which is only partly doable for most, or buy all organic produce, which more and more grocery stores offer. The GMO foods are a toughie for everyone (yell at the FDA!). And, if you add living on a boat in the middle of the Pacific with limited food availability to that tidbit of information, following a certain diet becomes hard. But, we will do our best and try to stick to chicken (with no added hormones, and ideally antibiotic-free), vegetables (especially cruciferous ones: broccoli, cabbage, bok choy, spinach, sprouts …), olive, canola and peanut oil, fruit, whole grains and tea. Phytonutrient-rich foods and anti-oxidants are recommended.

The Experts

Mark and I cannot thank our medical team of Dana Farber and Brigham and Women’s hospitals enough for their knowledge, help, time, understanding and compassion. Thank you to medical oncologist Dr. Jeselsohn, radiation oncologist Dr. Harris with nurse Mary, and surgeon Dr. Carter. We also appreciated the professionalism and care of Newburyport doctors Dr. Jackson and Dr. Bentley.

The Support

And, while we are at it, we would like to show gratitude to all our friends and family for their support by emails, phone calls or in person. We are very fortunate and grateful to have found a personal retreat in the house of Mark’s parents Stan and Carol and in AstraZeneca Hope Lodge in Boston during this ordeal. And, last but not least, we thank our good cruising friends Leo and Gesina of SV Seluna, Fabio and Lisa of SV Amandla, and Birgit and Christian of SV Pitufa for keeping an eye on and taking care of our floating home Irie in Tahiti during the last 3.5 months!

The Future

Who knows about our future? Who knows about any future? In the short term, Mark and I will go back to Irie and spend more time in French Polynesia (Societies). As of now, Mark’s chest is still red from the radiation and a lot of the hair has to grow back. He will take the hormone drug Tamoxifen for 5 years (depending on possible side effects) and needs a check-up every six months. We will never know whether the breast cancer is totally defeated, or whether it will reoccur, or whether another cancer will develop. Cancer is part of our lives now and forever, but so is our love for each other and the realization that medical discoveries and cures will keep improving…

One of the "bridges" between Dana Farber and Brigham and Women's

Walking through one of the "bridges" between the main hospitals

Mark and his surgeon, Dr. Carter

Mark and the helpful Darlene of Dr. Carter's office

Weekly check-up with Dr. Harris and nurse Mary

Thank you to all our friends and family for their support

1 comment:

Lisa Dorenfest said...

Thank goodness that Mark was in such good hands and surrounded by so much love #nextstoptahiti