Anne Granlund, Survivor, Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma (ALCL)
“Cancer isn’t fair and doesn’t play by any rules. But you can gain back control - become your own advocate, get informed and be a part of the decisions you make with your doctor.”
Solving The Mystery: Unexplained Symptom
After a night plagued with night sweats in 1997, Anne Granlund paid a visit to her doctor. Despite her age – 43– her doctor dismissed her symptoms as perimenopause and she returned home. A year later in February 1998, she noticed a painful lump under her arm while showering. Her doctor attributed it to an infection and sent her off with antibiotics. But over the next three months, Anne's symptoms became progressively worse. She became more and more tired. The painful lump under her arm remained. Her doctors ruled out cancer in their diagnostics because cancerous lumps are not typically painful. At the time, Anne was employed as a senior analyst at Chevron Corporation and adept at diagnosing and solving “problems” in her professional life. Yet her health scare remained a mystery that was only worsening.
One evening, while commuting home from her San Francisco office, she became overcome by her exhaustion. Unable to find an available seat on the train, she sat on the floor exasperated and wanting answers. The next day, she mustered the energy to attend a Warriors Basketball Game during which her arm began to swell – reaching twice its normal size by the next morning – Easter Sunday. Her husband took her to the emergency room, where she was given a shot for cellulitis. Again – the assumption was that she simply had an infection.
Anne felt in her gut that something was wrong and continued to seek answers. She underwent an endless number of tests including needle biopsies and the removal of a lymph node for biopsy. Many of her tests were inconclusive because her specific kind of blood cancer often presents as other cancers and can be difficult to diagnosis, but she and her doctors persisted and she finally received an accurate diagnosis– Anaplastic Large Cell Lymphoma.
You Have Cancer…Now What: Accepting the News
Anne wasn’t surprised. Cancer seemed to be the only answer left given the number of tests she had done. She faced the news head-on.
“You’re going along and your life seems like it is on a defined path. Suddenly you’re told you have cancer. It is very disorienting. I found myself in a situation where I had no control – and I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive. I was overcome by this uncertainty for two or three days after hearing the news. But my attitude changed quickly. My son, who was 9 years old at the time I was diagnosed, was a great motivation to do whatever it took to survive. I decided I was not going to allow my son to have to tell people" my mother died." Then and there, I decided I was going to take charge of my treatment journey. That is the first step toward regaining control of your life. Be informed about your treatment, advocate for yourself,, have a plan…I realized I could do something proactive to try and survive this. And that’s exactly what I did.”
Becoming Your Own Advocate: Taking Back Control
After her diagnosis, Anne immediately partnered with her doctor to take action and start treatment. Her first course of chemotherapy helped to get rid of most of her cancerous tumors, which made a tremendous improvement in how she felt over a short period of time. She continued with chemotherapy for a year in preparation for a stem cell transplant, which she received in September 1999 at Stanford University Medical Center. She was already in remission, but Anne and her doctor decided the stem cell transplant was the best decision for her personal case.
While she trusted her doctor’s judgment implicitly, she also knew that part of being your own advocate was asking questions. Anne conducted research about new treatments and studies. It gave her confidence that whenever she asked her doctor about what she had learned, her doctor was already aware of it.
Learning to Live with Uncertainty
Over the course of her treatment, Anne often wondered whether she was going to survive. Among the most profound lessons she learned during this time was learning to live with uncertainty.
“My experience with cancer taught me so many life lessons…the kinds of lessons that we resist until we are perhaps forced to learn them the hard way. Live in the present. Be thankful for the day you have. Reconcile your fear of death…because you are alive today…and you will probably be alive tomorrow…so don’t worry about death right now.”
Anne’s experience offered many other lessons that she shares with those who are newly diagnosed through her volunteer work, which she has been doing for many years since her remission.
“Ask for Help: When you have cancer it is a roller coaster – it’s a natural thing to blank out when you have bad news. To counter this, I often brought a family member with me to be another pair of ears.”
“Regain Control: Regain control by becoming informed and being part of the decision your doctors make about your treatment. They are your partners. Come prepared to your meetings with your doctor – prepare a list of your questions and concerns ahead of time and ask your doctor if you can cover the list together before the end of your appointment.”
“Seek Support: After I was diagnosed, I joined a support group. Having never attended one, I wasn’t sure it would be for me. My group included people with all different kinds of cancer which allowed the group to focus more on the emotional aspects versus our individual diagnosis. It wasn’t at all what I expected. There was so much more laughter than tears. I gained perspective because I was able to focus on others instead of myself. Some weeks, I took satisfaction in offering emotional support to someone else. Every week was different but I could also count on gaining something valuable from the session and something I couldn’t predict.
“Self Care: Learn about relaxation techniques. They can help. I did visualization throughout my chemotherapy, picturing the chemo going through my blood stream and attacking the cancer cells. Meditation also helped during my treatment.”
“Keep Perspective: The Internet can be a wonderful source of information, but it can also scare you. So it is important to keep that information in perspective. If you read that your diagnosis gives you only a 5% chance to survive – remember, there is nothing that says you can’t be in that 5%. Only use statistics if they are helpful to you. “
Life Today: Recalibrating Your Outlook
After treatment you can feel like you have a sword hanging over your head and you worry about every little sign or symptom. I had to remind myself when I was a bit under the weather, that sometimes a cold is just a cold. It is important to regain a grounded and balanced perspective so that you don’t waste a precious minute of your life.
“The best part of life today is being alive and being with my family. I try to say a little prayer of thanks every time I see a beautiful sunny sky. I came through my cancer journey and survived. I take gratitude in the here and now – the present. And birthdays…I used to dread getting a year older, but now I know that birthdays are precious.