June 24, 2013 | by Wayne Lewis
One in a series of stories asking former patients to reflect upon their experience ...
Cancer interrupted the path of Ben Teller’s life at a critical milestone.
Just as he was starting college five years ago, the West Hills, Calif., resident received a diagnosis of Hodgkin lymphoma.
Teller’s immediate response was to set up an emotional shield. The then-18-year-old leaned on his family, particularly his mother. He didn’t want to know too much at first, so he came to view cancer as a series of tasks, something to be overcome “because it was in my way and I didn’t have a choice.”
His journey brought some disheartening lows. Although the lymphoma went into remission within six months thanks to chemotherapy, he faced a pair of recurrences. Each was countered by a blood stem cell transplant at City of Hope, requiring weeks in the hospital.
Teller also experienced redeeming high points. He recalls the day, months after his second transplant, when he got the news that he was cancer-free “the best day of my life.”
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Teller recently graduated from the University of California, Irvine. Now he wants to continue with his life as if cancer never happened — although he’s grateful for the hard-fought wisdom he gained along the way. The path was difficult, but he’s filled with hope for the future.
“I’m a testament to, ‘It does get better,’” he says. “We’re about eight months since my transplant and I feel fantastic.”
We asked Teller to look back at the time of his diagnosis and to ask himself what he knows now that he wishes he’d known then. What wisdom, soothing words, practical tips or just old-fashioned advice would he give his newly diagnosed self?
1. Be kind to your veins.
I spent six months undergoing chemo without a PICC [peripherally inserted central catheter] line, and it was painful. Then when I got the PICC line, it was a sigh of relief. The line in my arm didn’t bother me — I didn’t even know it was there.
If I could tell myself two years ago that my veins would be shot from all the chemotherapy, I would have got a PICC line in a heartbeat.
2. Let your doctor’s caveats about side effects guide your expectations.
When you have a matched unrelated donor bone marrow transplant and they tell you that you’re probably going to go back to the next three months with a fever, expect to come back.
When I got a fever and I had to go back within 30 days, I was upset. I thought I was done with the hospital. If I had set my expectations appropriately, I wouldn’t have been as upset.
3. Do your PT.
I didn’t do physical therapy after my first transplant, and I faced muscle fatigue and muscle loss.
After my second transplant, I did physical therapy every day and it made a huge difference. It brought my energy up. It made me feel a little bit better.
4. Your mojo will return.
Cancer treatment can sap your sex drive. At 20 years old, I was honestly scared that it was never going to come back. My doctor told me it would — and he was right.
5. The nurses are there for you.
When you’re in the hospital, don’t be afraid to ask for the nurses’ help. There were times when I felt as though I was calling them in too many times in an hour.
But you can’t ever really burden those nurses. If they’ve just seen you for five minutes, don’t be afraid to call them 10 minutes later to tell them you’re not feeling well. They really do care about you and your well-being.