“I’ve been through so much - the [Second World] War, losing my parents, starvation, and, now cancer, but you have to keep going,” says Brigitta. At 85-years-old, she had already endured melanoma when, earlier this year, she received a lymphoma diagnosis. A diverse disease group that impacts the lymphatic system – which protects against infection – lymphoma takes various forms and can require different treatments.
This most recent cancer journey began when Brigitta discovered a lump in her groin and sought advice from her doctor, who had her undergo a biopsy. “I thought it was cancer – I wasn’t surprised when I found out the results,” she recalls of the diagnosis.
Fortitude, Treatment, and Coping
No stranger to adversity, Brigitta was born in Germany in the 1930s, and faced immense hardship throughout the War and beyond before emigrating to Canada with her husband and young daughter in 1966. Once here, she built a vibrant, fulfilling life. Ultimately, her experience and the fortitude it required has shaped her view of cancer and her approach to treatment.
“I am not afraid,” she notes. Instead, she is determined. Immediately upon diagnosis, she turned to her strong support system, including her two daughters. Together, they began to research the disease, speaking to various specialists and exploring treatment options. Given her specific type of lymphoma, non-hodgkin lymphoma, or NHL, that meant embarking on a regimen of chemotherapy this past April. She has another round scheduled for the autumn.
Throughout, she has experienced fatigue, some pain, and a bit of hair loss, although her response to the latter encapsulates her overall positive outlook: “I still have very thick, curly hair; so, that’s good,” she points out with a smile.
Symptoms notwithstanding, she continues to stay active. When an injury forced her to give up running in her sixties, she resolved to keep walking, which she has done every day, even as she underwent chemotherapy. Moreover, as a voracious reader, she stresses the value of escaping and travelling through the written word.
Advice for People Living with Lymphoma
While Brigitta feels grateful for the assistance she continues to receive from friends, family, and healthcare workers, she recognizes that not everyone living with lymphoma has the same network and encourages them to speak with support groups and maintain a positive attitude.
In Canada, groups such as Lymphoma Canada and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada can provide information and support to patients with all types of lymphoma. Brigitta has one sub-type of NHL and there are many additional subtypes of the disease which include mantle cell lymphoma, follicular lymphoma, and diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL), among others. Lymphomas can be indolent, meaning slow growing (e.g. follicular), while others can become more aggressive. Though many lymphomas are curable, there remains an unmet need in aggressive B-cell NHLs, including DLBCL.
Unlike Brigitta’s sub-type of NHL, which lends itself well to a variety of therapies, DLBCL can be more difficult to fight. Typically, patients with DLBCL have had few treatment options. There have been advancements in care, though more work needs to be done.
Forty per cent of patients with DLBCL do not respond to initial measures and/or relapse, in turn leading to short survival rates. Moreover, the disease is increasingly common, accounting for up to 30-to-40 per cent of NHL diagnoses in Canada each year, and approximately 150,000 annual diagnoses worldwide.
DLBCL can occur at any age, however most diagnoses occur in people in their mid-60s, with a slight majority of cases in men. Until recently and despite meaningful progress, treatment options remained limited, especially after a relapse, resulting in a poor prognosis and a median survival rate of six months. But there may be increasing reason for optimism.
New advancements in research and treatment could give DLBCL patients more options and renewed hope. Outside of these new developments, DLBCL and other NHL patients can also find strength from support groups and others who have faced similar adversity – people like Brigitta.
“We’re not alone [with lymphoma]; talk to people in your community,” Brigitta advises. She also encourages patients to acknowledge the positive things in their lives. “I’m 85, I can still drive, I walk every day, I have incredible friends, an incredible family, a good life; I’m staying positive and I’ll fight this cancer.”