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Mindfulness, Communication and Humor: Navigating Remission

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Published on April 15, 2020

Key Takeaways

  • Cancer doesn’t have to be a solitary journey—invite a friend or family member to attend appointments and take notes. This can also reduce stress and anxiety, both of which are completely normal reactions.
  • Mindfulness, meditation and staying in the present moment are three effective strategies for helping patients cope with a cancer diagnosis or remission.
  • Doctor-patient communication is essential, even during remission. Your medical team can offer support, answer questions or schedule a blood test to address any concerns. Ask for the help and support you need.  

“I devised a lot of strategies that didn’t necessarily contribute to my physical survival, but they certainly sustained me as a person and not just a patient as I was going through this process,” says Steve Buechler, who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) in 2016.

Steve communicated the details of his cancer story with friends and loved ones using frequent emails, eventually published as a book, How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (with Jokes).

Watch now as Steve speaks with Dr. Eunice Wang, from Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, and Patient Power Co-Founder Andrew Schorr. Dr. Wang reiterates the importance of communication, mindfulness, and patient empowerment to outcomes and emphasizes the importance of continuing the conversation with your doctor even while in remission.

This is a Patient Power program. We thank AbbVie Inc. and Genentech, Inc. for their support. These organizations have no editorial control, and Patient Power is solely responsible for program content.

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Transcript | Mindfulness, Communication and Humor: Navigating Remission

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Andrew Schorr:

We've talked about Steve's diagnosis or people, almost with the assumption of the initial diagnosis but hopefully you get a remission, but then you're still on a journey. So, let me ask you, Steve. Right now, you go every so often to the doctor, but you're never really sure whether another shoe is going to drop, right? That's in the back of your mind somewhere.

Steve Buechler:

It is indeed in the back of my mind, although the further out I get, the more comfortable I am, but one of the tools that got me through this whole process was we're relying on what I learned about mindfulness and meditation and yoga and staying in the present moment and arriving at a place where I could get very anxious and very worried about the next test result or the next decision point or the next fork in the road. But unless I can influence it or control it in some way, there's no point in doing it. It's easier said than done, but I would simply tell myself, "Look, wait until you have the information that you need. We'll figure out what to do at that point." I felt I was in very good hands with my doctors, and I was able to achieve a fair amount of just calmness and peacefulness about that and some confidence that the people taking care of me would know how to deal with whatever eventualities might crop up.

Easier said than done, but I didn't lose a lot of sleep worrying about the long-term future just because I had these tools. I did a lot of physical activity. I was a proactive patient. I did a lot of writing, I used a lot of humor. I devised a lot of strategies that didn't necessarily contribute to my physical survival, but they certainly sustained me as a person and not just a patient as I was going through this process. The feedback I got from the people I was writing to was really, really crucial in that lots and lots of people supported me, and that's very powerful.

Andrew Schorr:

Dr. Wang, let's talk about this journey people are on. Steve has rattled off some strategies he said to help him post-double cord transplant and all that and the checkups. How do you talk to people about—let's say they're not in the hospital or they're out of the hospital or they're taking these pills, about just how to think about the future, knowing that maybe the leukemia hasn't been cured, but it's been knocked way back?

Dr. Wang:

I think it's important to have a good supportive network for these individuals. I think, whether it be caregivers or family members or even communities. We have a lot of patients that reach out online or through blogs or social media to feel like part of a community. We as physicians, we make ourselves available. I think communication is key with the primary oncologist. I tell my patients, "In between visits, you may have days that you wake up and you're certain the disease is coming back. If for any reason you feel, any reason at all, you want to call me, you want to come in and you want me to check your blood work. You want us to see you just to make sure, we offer that, okay?" to our patients, but we encourage them to, as they get farther out, to join survivor groups, to join blogs, to take meditation.

We offer at our center survivorship services. We have physical therapy, nutritionists and acupuncturists, people that help with psychosocial issues. I think that as you get away from the acute medical problems, taking care of yourself and taking care of these chronic things I think is really important and having a community and communication with your physicians I think is key.

Andrew Schorr:

Okay. Now, Steve, I know when you were going through all this, you were sending out emails like crazy to keep people informed and I'm sure your wife was part of that as a maybe a co-communications manager. Often when you're going through a transplant or chemo, it's tough for the patient to do themselves. What would you say as far as communication with others who want to know how you're doing and also accepting support, being open to support?

Steve Buechler:

What I learned fairly early on is that I thought I was trying to keep people informed about my situation, but doing that required me to understand my own experience and my prognosis and all the things that were going on much more clearly than if I hadn't been trying to communicate it to other people. So, writing for others really became therapy for me, and it forced me to grapple with "What's really going on? How do I understand this? How do I put it into words? How do I communicate it?" For me, as a social scientist, as an academic, if I can understand something, I can usually get pretty comfortable with it, and so that understanding arose out of that writing and the responses I got from people. So for me, that was a very, very useful therapeutic tool. That might not be everybody's cup of tea, but a lot of people will use CaringBridge.

You can simply report the medical facts, but I ended up engaging in a lot of reflections about what it meant to be a cancer patient and how it was affecting my identity and just a whole slew of things that I processed through writing for an audience. I've never been a journal writer, because it's too solipsistic. The same person that writes is the only person that reads. What's the point? But writing for others brought in a whole new dynamic for me and was very, very helpful.

Andrew Schorr:

And you wrote a memoir. How can people see that?

Steve Buechler:

It's available. The title is How Steve Became Ralph: A Cancer/Stem Cell Odyssey (With Jokes). Every email that went out had a joke at the end of it to buoy up my spirits and those of my readers. It's on Amazon, it's available from the publisher. Maybe we can attach some marketing information afterwards on this, but it's out there and people have found it pretty helpful. It's not that I'm a cheerleader saying, "You have to always be positive." In my case, the optimism is sort of in the facts of what happened to me. I just had an extremely good ride, a successful induction, successful engraftment, no graft-versus-host disease. Simply telling people that story, wherever they are in the midst of their journey, they find really very, very encouraging. I say, "Hey, test results don't guarantee future outcomes, but I had a really good ride. It's possible, and here's how I navigated it as best I could.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

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