This year, close to 40,000 Americans will be diagnosed with head and neck cancer. It is among the cancers thought to be related to the HPV virus; tobacco and alcohol use are also considered risk factors. Destination Cancer Free, by Barbara Bragg, is the resource she wishes she had had when her husband was diagnosed. It covers the couple's experience of diagnosis, treatment, and the first year of her husband's recovery. It's also filled with advice for caregivers about how to navigate the medical world cancer patients find themselves in. Though Bragg is not a medical professional, she considers herself an expert in caring for a loved one stricken with cancer.
Your husband was diagnosed with a fast-growing oropharyngeal (head and neck) cancer -- a type that you note is on the rise because of increasing rates of HPV-virus infection. What do you wish more people knew about this type of cancer?
Barbara Bragg: I wish that more people knew to be screened early, because early stages of this type of cancer are curable. Early cancer may only require a simple surgical procedure without having to undergo radiation and chemotherapy, which for this type of cancer is life altering.
Everything happened so fast. Are there things you wish you had done differently or known earlier about formulating a treatment plan?
BB: I wish I'd had the book/resource Destination Cancer Free, because I would have been more prepared as to what was to come.
What was the hardest part about being thrust into the role of cancer caregiver and patient advocate?
BB: The most difficult part was watching my husband suffer with the pain of treatment and watching him now as he tries to find his way to a new normal, navigating the aftereffects of treatment.
What's the top advice you have for spouses who suddenly find themselves in this role?
BB: Top advice: Have patience, and be there as the ultimate cheerleader. Positive reinforcement and support is critical to cancer patients.
You write a lot about grappling with guilt -- from the guilt you felt when there were setbacks to the guilt your husband felt for being sick in the first place. What's the best way to manage guilt in a health crisis?
BB: For me, I needed to understand that I ultimately had no control over what was to come. The treatment is brutal, and each patient will react differently. How I responded to the side effects is what ultimately mattered. I also believe that joining a support group is very helpful.
Why did you write this book?
BB: I wanted to first bring awareness to this growing type of cancer in order for everyone to be screened. And if a person is unlucky enough to receive this diagnosis, I wanted to provide a resource that would help both the patient and the caregiver survive this life-altering challenge.