Even Healthy People Get Cancer

When I was diagnosed with cancer in August 2021, the news came from out of the blue. I’d had a few minor symptoms that preceding summer—red, itchy eyes; a rash; and mild fatigue. But, as one of my oncology nurses joked darkly a few months later, it was one of those worst-case scenarios where you visit the doctor to treat seasonal allergies only to find out you have cancer.

I met with Molly, my PCP, several times during the two weeks she investigated the cause of my mild anemia. She ultimately delivered the news to my husband and me in an evening phone call. I took notes on a scrap of newspaper, hoping the strange terminology would make sense later. The latest blood tests showed high levels of monoclonal proteins, kappa light chains and creatinine. I had multiple myeloma, a rare bone marrow cancer where plasma cells churn out rogue proteins that crowd out healthy blood cells and stress kidneys. Tears welled in my eyes. Words caught in my throat. My husband and I were devastated.

That call turned my life upside down. However, during that call, my PCP also offered several crucial pieces of advice that were essential to navigate this strange, new world. I’ve reflected many times on how well her words set the stage for the journey ahead.

First, she was utterly straightforward, but also guardedly optimistic: “This is a serious cancer, but we caught it early. I’m looking at this as a curable disease.” As I learned later from my oncologist, this last part wasn’t exactly accurate. Multiple myeloma can be managed, especially if caught early, but it is not curable. Treatment—which typically includes multiple rounds of chemotherapy followed by an autologous stem cell transplant—can push the cancer into remission for years, but it almost always comes back. When you’ve just received a shattering diagnosis, however, you’re searching for any glimmer of hope. Her words of encouragement were exactly what I needed in that moment.

Second, she offered some practical advice: “You need a communication plan. Once you tell your friends and family, their concerns can completely overtake your life. They’ll have the best intentions, but you’ll end up spending all your time answering questions about your cancer.” I’d just retired from a 30-year career in corporate communications, so her advice resonated. I told only a handful of my closest friends, and I asked my mother to be the point-of-contact for her large extended family and my husband to do the same with his family. I drafted detailed updates every three weeks (or so) and promised that we’dnotify them if there were new developments. I did not post the news on my Facebook page. (I didn’t need 400-something acquaintances peppering me with questions, and I still needed time to process the news myself.) That elementary, but important, strategy put me in control of communication, rather than being engulfed with well-meaning phone calls, emails, and texts. 

Third, my PCP’s response was incisive when my stunned husband asked, almost indignantly, “But it seems impossible. How can someone so healthy get cancer?” Admittedly, I was thinking the same thing. I hiked, kayaked, biked, ate a plant-based diet, and had longevity on both sides of my family. I’d envisioned living well into my 90s. My PCP’s answer was simple: “Even strong, healthy people can get cancer.” Multiple myeloma is caused by a random gene mutation, not by lifestyle and it is not hereditary. Sometimes, cancer just happens. It’s no one’s fault. Her simple words relieved me of guilt—the last thing a new cancer patient needs—and it kept the focus on the disease. Yes, being relatively healthy helped me rebound quickly from some really difficult treatments, but I didn’t bear the burden for fighting the disease. It wasn’t up to me to “beat” cancer. I had a whole community of doctors and specialists to help me.

I’ve been fortunate. I have completed my treatment, including the stem cell transplant, and I am in full remission. I hope it lasts for years, if not decades. I don’t know what the future holds, but I try to focus on the moment—a golden slant of sunlight, the gentle ache while paddling my kayak on the bay, a loving touch from my husband. And I am thankful for the wise, thoughtful words from my PCP that helped me approach this disease with courage and hope.

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