For Anne Pirrera, dealing with one cancer turned unexpectedly into being treated for two different kinds of cancer. Already in treatment for throat cancer, she was then diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL) — a cancer that affects the body’s white blood cells.
The 76-year-old Pirrera talks about how she was first diagnosed, what kind of challenges she sees during treatment, and what gives her the resolve to keep fighting in an interview with HealthCentral.
HealthCentral (HC): When did you first begin to suspect that something was wrong? What were the symptoms you had that led you to go to the doctor?
Anne: In 2012, I had surgery for throat cancer, and since then, I’ve been going every year to be checked for recurrence. When I experienced a mild sore throat that wasn’t going away last summer, I went in and they did a biopsy that showed my throat cancer had returned. In the course of treatment for that, I had a PET scan to see if that cancer had spread, and it lit up with this other cancer that turned out to be lymphoma.
I didn’t know anything about lymphoma, I didn’t have any symptoms at all, even though it was in a couple lymph nodes. They did manage to catch it early because of that scan, so I was staged at 1B, which means it hadn’t spread beyond the lymph nodes.
HC: What kind of treatment are you receiving, and how does it affect you?
Anne: They did chemotherapy first for the lymphoma, I had six cycles of that at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in November. Then in January and February, I had 35 radiation treatments for the throat cancer. Currently, I’m back to undergoing chemotherapy for the lymphoma.
The biggest side effect is that I have a complete lack of appetite. I don’t have a problem with the physical aspect of eating, I can swallow fine, but emotionally and psychologically, it’s very difficult to force myself to eat. I don’t experience hunger and I find food repulsive. But I’ve lost a good amount of weight, so I know I need to make myself do it — I make a lot of smoothies with protein powder and have pudding and ice cream just to get the calories.
HC: What has been the most challenging aspect with having these two different cancer diagnoses?
Anne: I’d say it’s making sure I don’t slip into self-pity or depression. I dismiss those thoughts as much as I can. I’m just mastering the art of slogging now — I slog through everything, from radiation and chemo to getting through my days, and basically, I just tell myself to be here today, to do the treatments I need to do. I’m just trying to do this as gracefully as possible, while understanding that there’s no guarantee that it will be worth it in the end.
HC: How do you deal with the emotional challenges that come up during the slogging?
Anne: My friends and family are helpful, and I find that it’s very enriching to meet other people who have lymphoma and are dealing with treatment as well. Like anything else in life, talking to others who know what you’re going through can help you feel like you’re not alone.
HC: What advice would you give to other people who might be facing a cancer diagnosis?
Anne: Get as much information as you can, do your research, ask questions all the time. I’ve been fortunate to be getting treatment at a place where I meet regularly with a nurse practitioner and I can ask her anything. That really helps me to feel like I’m not crazy. It’s a totally free-for-all discussion, where I can express any concerns at all. Finding just one person who will really listen to you can be so helpful and wonderful.