Category Archives: Steve’s Odyssey

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 8: Writing My Story

In prior posts, I identified several coping strategies I used during my treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. I’ll never know if they contributed to my positive outcome, but I’ll always know they sustained me through some harrowing times.

That was certainly the case with my final, and most important, coping strategy: writing my story. It began within a week of my diagnosis and initial hospitalization when I penned a long email to some neighbors to update them on my status. Over time, my recipients grew to over fifty people and the missives ballooned to over sixty reports narrating my cancer odyssey.

My ostensible goal was to keep people informed, and I was rewarded with supportive feedback from many who responded with kind words, timely advice, heartfelt prayers, and good wishes.

It eventually dawned on me that my story telling served an even more important purpose for me. Each day in the hospital brought a new and dizzying array of personnel, medications, tests, scans, side-effects, cautions, and complications. While I received excellent care, it was an overwhelming initiation into the world of cancer treatment that left me feeling highly vulnerable and utterly dependent on the care of strangers.

The best way I could make sense out of it was to write about it. Composing these reports became a psychic survival mechanism.

Story telling can take many forms and serve many purposes. For me, translating inchoate emotions and unpredictable circumstances into a coherent narrative tamed my fears and preserved my identity.  At a time when there wasn’t much I could control on this roller coaster ride, telling my story allowed me to be the author of my own life.

It was many months later that it dawned on me that there could be a wider audience for the story I had been telling. The result was my memoir “How Steve became Ralph.”

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. Learn more at Steve’s website.

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 7: Medical Miracles and Good Luck

In prior posts, I described coping strategies that sustained me during my treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.  More recently, I noted factors beyond my control that nonetheless worked in my favor, including a privileged status, excellent care, and social support. Here, I describe additional factors that contributed to my survival.

One was generational timing. Put another way, my parents picked a good time to bring me into the world. As a baby boomer, I lived into my sixties before contracting a life-threatening disease that was incurable throughout much of the twentieth century. I am humbled by the fact that the stem cell transplant procedure that saved my life has only been available for a couple decades.

A brief history. The first successful bone marrow transplant occurred in 1968 at the University of Minnesota Hospital. A further advance came when French researchers transplanted stem cells from umbilical cord blood in 1988. The first successful cord blood transplant in the U. S. followed in 1995. The Blood and Marrow Transplant Unit at the University of Minnesota Medical Center has since become a leader in umbilical cord blood research and transplants. In the fifteen years before my diagnosis, they performed almost 1,000 such transplants and were routinely achieving successful outcomes.

As a beneficiary of this medical progress, my procedure began with a week of high dose chemotherapy and full body radiation that destroyed virtually all my diseased bone marrow and white blood cells. That paved the way for a genetically matched, umbilical cord blood transplant. The “transplant” is not a surgical intervention; it is simply a transfusion of donor blood that introduces new stem cells into the body.

Once there, the stem cells just “know” where to go to begin producing new bone marrow and all the cells needed for a healthy immune system. The umbilical cord came from one of the donor banks that have only been established in recent decades but are now available world-wide for patients seeking a cord blood donor.

In addition to this medical miracle, I also benefitted from some old-fashioned good luck. As a poker player, I have often pondered the parallels between playing that game and making life decisions. Both require acting with incomplete and imperfect information, and the stakes can be quite high.

If we draw on our rationality and intuition, we can assess the risks, calculate the odds, check our gut, and make the best decision at the time. In the case of my transplant, the “house” was offering odds any poker player would relish, but the downside was a 15-20% mortality rate from the procedure itself. So, I could expect to “win” at least 80% of the time, but otherwise, it would be game over.

That sobering scenario led me to take my time, do my homework, examine my options, get second and third opinions, and reach a measured decision to go ahead with the procedure. As good as such decisions may be, however, outcomes in poker and life are still subject to unpredictable and unknowable factors. For all our proactive efforts to control outcomes, it’s healthy to retain some humility in a universe that can still roll dice with our fate.

 

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. Learn more at Steve’s website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 6: Privilege, Care and Support

In previous posts in this series, I described several coping strategies that sustained me throughout my prolonged treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. Here, I describe how my healing and recovery occurred in a larger context that was unusually privileged and highly favorable for my successful outcome.

First, my employer provided excellent health insurance that covered virtually all my major expenses. My longevity in my position earned me a year of paid sick leave, covering the period from the onset of my disease to my retirement date.

After retiring, I maintained a version of this same good health insurance and began receiving a significant pension. Thus, I had the good fortune to not have to worry about financial constraints on the decisions I made and the care I received. (My privilege should be everyone’s right in an “advanced,” industrial nation, but that’s a whole other talk show.)

There was an interpersonal aspect that worked in my favor as well. As a highly educated, professional white male, I was taken seriously and treated respectfully by everyone I encountered. When I responded in kind, all my interactions with medical personnel were congenial and productive. This helped give me the confidence to be my own advocate.

My self-advocacy reminded me of a friend (who is a registered nurse) who believes every hospital patient needs an advocate to represent their needs while navigating the complexities of hospital care. If they are unable to play this role themselves, a caregiver advocate should be assigned to them.

Another positive factor was the quality of care that I received throughout my treatment within two major hospitals. There were, of course, too many forms to complete, some silly bureaucratic impediments, and some truly awful hospital food. But when it came to the important things, the care I received was superb. My doctors and nurses consistently combined skill and expertise with compassion and empathy in ways I will never forget or could ever repay. Suffice it to say, my stereotypical views of the medical profession have been forever transformed into a profound appreciation.

Alongside that care, it would be impossible to overstate the benefits of the social support I received from my spouse, relatives, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Through their hospital visits, phone calls, emails, get-well cards, gifts, and the key lime pie my wife and her sister smuggled into my room, I was continually reminded of how many people were pulling for me, praying for me, thinking of me, and sending me positive vibes.

I am deeply grateful for my privileged status, excellent care, and social support. And I’m acutely aware that others without my privileges may not receive the same level of care. For me, these privileges made it much easier to implement the various coping strategies outlined in previous posts. But the inequalities of privilege are also a reminder that however much we may try to control our destiny, outcomes are always intertwined with larger forces beyond our control.

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.

 

 

 

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 5: A Secular Mindset

I composed the post below before reading Diamante Lavendar’s powerful paean to spirituality on this site. The benefits of spirituality that she describes are undeniable, but I believe they are also available through other means and without reliance on a supreme being. Here’s my take on one such alternative pathway.

In previous posts, I described some strategies that sustained me during my prolonged treatment for acute myeloid leukemia. Here, I add one more item to that list. While many people rely on religious faith in a medical crisis and while I respect such beliefs, I followed a different road.

It didn’t start that way. My parents were nominal Catholics and I was raised in that tradition. I was baptized, took first Communion, was confirmed, and attended Sunday Mass with my family into my early teens. With the onset of puberty and a teenager’s classic sense of immortality, however, Catholicism lost its relevance for me. I fell away from a religion I had never fully embraced.

After drifting through my teenage years, I enrolled in college and became enamored with philosophy and sociology. I found their emphasis on scientific observation, logical reasoning, and rational explanation to be much more compelling. I became a “child” of the Enlightenment, a practicing sociologist, and a secular humanist.

One benefit of this world-view is described in Philip Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. He notes that secular-minded people may actually weather challenges such as a life-threatening illness more readily than someone who is religious. For the latter, such an event may precipitate a crisis of faith and a quest to restore that faith while also dealing with their illness. For the secular-minded, there is no crisis because there was no ultimate faith to be shaken in the first place.

This could allow secular-minded folks to more readily adopt a pragmatic, problem-solving attitude toward life’s misfortunes. This attitude was certainly reflected in the pro-active stance that I brought to my treatment. Whenever possible, I sought to act and solve problems in ways that would foster my recovery. When that wasn’t possible, I learned new levels of patience and non-judgmental acceptance from my practice of mindfulness. And finally, I also accepted that there was an irreducible element of luck or random variation that would determine the outcome of my treatment.

My beliefs allowed me to arrive at a good place during a bad time. The secular world view I had nurtured my entire adult life was like a comforting companion on the roller coaster ride that was my diagnosis, treatment, and eventual recovery.  Standard disclaimer: I have no idea if my secular practicality had any direct bearing on my successful outcome, but it certainly sustained my sense of self over the long haul.

 

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 4: Humor

My previous posts have described how mindfulness, physical activity, and a pro-active stance sustained me during my treatment for acute myeloid leukemia.  Alongside these strategies – and not to be underestimated – was maintaining my sense of humor.

To be sure, cancer is no laughing matter. Nothing about it is easy, and it’s certainly not funny. That is precisely why I found it essential to retain my sense of humor upon my diagnosis and throughout my treatment.

Doing so became an antidote to the somber reality of what I was facing. It was a quiet form of resistance that kept the cancer at arm’s length. In my mind, humor was a way of saying you may make me sick and may eventually kill me, but I’m still going to enjoy a good (or bad) joke along the way.

In my interactions with doctors, nurses and staff, I routinely used humor to break the ice and lighten the mood.  It was not a denial of my situation as much as a way of transcending it, and they seemed to appreciate the respite it provided from the gravity of my condition and the details of my treatment.

In my periodic, written reports to family and friends, I concluded each message with a joke. They weren’t necessarily great jokes. They weren’t necessarily new jokes. Some might even say that I favored quantity over quality. But the process of finding and composing them was a welcome diversion that elevated my spirits even on dark days.

For my readers, I suspect they lightened the impact of my often-dire news and let people know I was not losing hope.  And it let them know they could connect with me as the person I’ve always been and not just as a cancer patient.

The standard disclaimer in this series of posts still applies. I have no idea if my reliance on humor had any direct bearing on my successful outcome, but it certainly sustained my spirit over the long haul.

And so, in closing, I would just like to say:

An agnostic, dyslexic, insomniac walks into a bar.

The bartender serves him a drink and says, “Hey pal, you look really tired.”

The guy says, “Tell me about it. I lay awake every night wondering if there really is a Dog.”

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 1: Mindfulness

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 2: Physical Activity

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 3: Being Proactive

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 3: Being Proactive

My treatment for acute myeloid leukemia required four separate hospital stays.  They began with a 37-day stint for initial treatment and concluded with a 25-day stay for my actual transplant, with two, one-week stints in between to keep my disease under control until my transplant.

From my first days in the hospital, it was evident that there was very little I could control in my new circumstances. Rather than indulging in despair or frustration, I resolved to focus on my immediate environment and be as pro-active as possible in that small world.

Toward that end, I took charge of my room by making my bed every morning and fastidiously keeping everything neat and tidy throughout the day. I began the exercise routines and mindfulness practices described in previous posts.  I wrote regular reports to keep people informed about my status. It wasn’t much, but it still provided some sense of agency and control within my new “home.”

I also brought a pro-active attitude to my medical care. I looked forward to my daily consultations with the doctors whenever they happened to drop in.  I always had questions ready about my treatment, medications, and progress. Their willingness to entertain my questions and concerns felt very supportive, and our consultations came to feel like a synergistic collaboration.

For example, there were at least two occasions when I experienced unwelcome side effects from my medications. As they speculated on the causes, I would add my own observations about the dosing, timing and effects of various drugs.  Through these collaborative discussions, we successfully resolved some problems that had perplexed each of us individually.

My most frequent and prolonged interactions, however, were with my nurses. From the start, I sought to create some rapport as they tended to my needs.  This began as a conscious strategy on my part, but quickly evolved into a genuine appreciation for all they did and a grateful acknowledgement of their challenges throughout the day.

When time permitted, we would chat about relatives, crack some jokes, commiserate about politics, or share life stories. Each of these conversations reframed their clinical care-giving into a more human and personal interaction. The small efforts I made to establish rapport were repaid many times over in the care I received.

In all these ways, I sought to be an active subject in my care rather than a passive object receiving medical ministrations. Now for the standard disclaimer. I have no idea if my proactive stance had any direct bearing on my successful outcome, but it gave me a significant role in my medical drama that was rewarding in itself.

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 1: Mindfulness

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 2: Physical Activity

steve bSteve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 2: Physical Activity

Alongside the practice of mindfulness described in my last post, I also coped with my prolonged treatment for acute myeloid leukemia by doing as much physical activity as possible.

My induction chemotherapy and initial recovery occurred during a 37-day hospital stay.  I arrived with no debilitating symptoms, so I was restless right from the start. I began doing some isometric exercises and stretching to go along with my evening yoga. My routine was enriched when physical therapists gave me additional exercises and some resistance bands to tone various muscle groups.

But my most valued activity was walking the halls.  I walked in the late morning, late afternoon, and before bedtime, pulling my IV pole alongside like a faithful companion.  I followed a serpentine path down the main hallway and every side corridor, repeating it three times on each outing.  They tell me I was walking about five miles a day, which is ironically more than I ever walked in my pre-cancer days.

When I was feeling adventurous, I would hop on the elevator and go down to the main floor and mingle with the civilians.  I would also go out a side door to visit a garden area and feel the sun on my face.  And sometimes I would march out the front door to drop a utility bill in the mailbox.  I was once playfully warned by a nurse that if I had taken one step further, it would have triggered a “code white,” meaning a runaway patient. But like a dog respecting an invisible fence, I never strayed beyond my permitted perimeter.

It felt great to move, but my walking also brought an unexpected benefit.  On my strolls, I would encounter nurses and staff all along the way.  They would often greet me, and we would chat for a minute if time allowed.  It gradually dawned on me that this was the most rewarding part of my walking routine: that I was seen, recognized, and acknowledged as a person and not just a patient.

When I moved to my transplant hospital for a 25-day stay, I was confined to my room for the duration to minimize the risk of infection during the transplant process. I did get a treadmill in my room as a poor substitute for my prior hall walking, but it never could match the social benefits I previously enjoyed roaming the halls.

Standard disclaimer: I have no idea if my physical activity had any direct bearing on my successful treatment outcome, but it sure maintained my spirits during a difficult time.

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 1: Mindfulness

Steve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.

Surviving Cancer/Sustaining Self 1: Mindfulness

During my lengthy and ultimately successful treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, there were several practices I deliberately engaged in to sustain myself throughout the ordeal.  These will be the subject of my next few posts.

The first thing that sustained me was mindfulness.  It helped me bring a rich, non-judgmental awareness to each moment as it occurred and realize that everything else – ruminating about the past or worrying about the future – is just noise that detracts from the present moment.

Throughout multiple hospitalizations, prolonged treatments, and gradual recovery, mindfulness reminded me that although I could not control what I was experiencing, I could control how I experienced and responded to it.

My hospital days thus followed a routine of mindful morning stretching and exercises, deep breathing and meditation during the day, evening yoga poses, and a bedtime body scan that led to a peaceful sleep interrupted only by the inevitable intrusions that punctuate every hospital night. The cumulative effect of these practices was a calm acceptance of my situation alongside a serene hope that all would work out for the best.

As I noted in a previous post, I will never know if there was a causal connection between my practice of mindfulness and my recovery and survival. But I do know that this awareness kept me grounded, preserved my identity, and sustained myself through some harrowing times. That in itself felt like a major accomplishment.

 

Steve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing. To learn more visit Steve’s website.

Who Survives Cancer…. and Why?

When people are diagnosed with cancer, the question “why me?” looms large.  For those fortunate enough to survive, the question arises again. While definitive answers to who gets sick and who gets better remain elusive, the questions remain.

In 2016, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. I didn’t spend much time asking “why me” because it didn’t seem like a healthy road to go down. After being successfully treated and recovering, I have the luxury of pondering the second question.  Why did I survive while others did not?

In transplant support groups, I often hear people say that everything happens for a reason. I think that is true in a narrow, probabilistic sense. Personal medical history, comorbidities, environmental factors, and genetic abnormalities can dramatically alter the chances of getting and surviving cancer.

But when people say everything happens for a reason, they usually mean that there is a larger, metaphysical reason for the differential survival of patients. As a sociologist, I understand the quest for meaning in the face of life-threatening illness and I respect belief systems that provide comfort and reassurance.

But I just don’t buy it. I don’t think there is an overarching rhyme, reason, or plan that explains life’s most fateful outcomes, whether “miraculously” good or horrifically bad.  Despite our impulse to find larger meanings in such events and after acknowledging how medical interventions can improve our odds, I think there is an irreducible randomness when it comes to surviving a lethal illness.

These thoughts were triggered when people gave me “credit” for surviving my disease. I have always felt uncomfortable accepting such credit.  Part of my discomfort stems from the coupling of credit and blame and the unintended consequences of such thinking.  For example, does crediting survivors for their “positive thinking” imply that non-survivors just weren’t positive enough?

As a patient, there were several coping mechanisms I relied upon throughout my treatment. But I will never know if there was any causal connection between those practices and my positive outcome. What I do know is that they maintained my sanity and preserved my identity during the most challenging experience of my life.

While acknowledging that outcomes may be unpredictable and somewhat random, sustaining ourselves along the way is a worthy goal in itself.  And if it does enhance our odds of survival, so much the better. My own story of what I did to sustain my self will be the subject of posts to follow.

 

Steve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing.

Doctors as Detectives

During my prolonged treatment and recovery from acute myeloid leukemia, I spent many weeks in the hospital with a severely suppressed immune system as a side effect of chemotherapy. This condition is an open invitation to any infectious agents who happen to be in the neighborhood, and I had my share of them.  They included colitis, E-coli, the cytomegalovirus, and several others that were never definitively identified.

I was also on numerous medications, including prophylactic antibiotic, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-rejection drugs as well as other drugs to blunt the side effects of these initial medications.  These drugs nonetheless produced some nasty side effects on their own or in interaction with each other.

The upshot was that on any given day, I would experience symptoms that included fevers, headaches, intestinal indignities, rashes, blurred vision, light-headedness, muscle aches, bone pain, and even persistent hiccups. It was on these occasions that I became acquainted with one of my now-favorite medical specialties known as infectious disease doctors.

I’d only known them as heroic figures in melodramatic movies about plagues threatening all humanity.  But on a more mundane and realistic level, they were also everyday heroes who often provided me relief from a myriad of infections and side-effects.

Their visits would be prompted by my report of unpleasant symptoms or obvious signs like spiking fevers. They would then begin looking for clues like detectives on the trail of a suspect.  They would consider all the medications I was taking as well as their doses and scheduling.  They would listen carefully to my recitation of symptoms. They would prioritize which medications were necessary and which could be eliminated or replaced with others. And they would order blood work, stool samples and other tests to nail down the culprits.

It would often take several days to grow and identify infectious critters in the lab, and sometimes a definitive diagnosis remained elusive.  Even so, their experience, their listening skills, and their hunches often led to solutions that relieved not only my symptoms but their underlying causes.

While it was unpleasant to weather so many infections and side-effects, I came to welcome visits from these doctor/detectives who so often cracked the case, identified the villain, and brought me relief so I could focus on healing and recovery.

Steve Buechler is a recently retired sociology professor and cancer survivor.  In 2016, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia and successfully treated with chemotherapy, radiation, and a stem cell transplant. He has since become a big advocate of writing stories as a survival strategy in the face of life-threatening illness.  His own story is available in “How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes),” his memoir from Written Dream Publishing.

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