Sign In | Create an Account | Welcome, . My Account | Logout | Subscribe | Submit News | News | Local News | Contact Us | Home RSS

ON THE SCENE: 18 months with cancer and never happier

June 15, 2018
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

A year-and-a-half ago, Dr. Josh Schwartzberg learned that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, then confirmed as stage four. For many, such a diagnosis is akin to learning they have months to live, generally between three and eight months. Schwartzberg is very much alive.

He feels that he has his cancer in a tight headlock and that it's squirming and doing everything it can to get out from under his grip. As a consequence, he and his medical team are continually adjusting his treatment to keep the cancer tightly constricted.

Cancer is usually described as to where it's discovered, such as in the breast, colon, liver, lungs and in Schwartzberg's case the pancreas. Stage IVA pancreatic cancer is locally confined but has involved the adjacent organs, and stage IVB has spread to distant organs, typically the liver. Schwartzberg has IVB, also called metastatic, which is not removable by surgery. Even so, he's not only blown past the life expectations of others with a similar disease; he's gone back to seeing patients two days a week, goes on periodic fishing expeditions and spends as much time as possible with his friends and family, especially his grandchildren.

Article Photos

Dr. Josh Schwartzberg
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

"For those who have the wherewithal not to be overwhelmed and terrified, living with cancer provides an opportunity for living in the moment," said Schwartzberg. "Many of the day-to-day things that one concerns oneself about all of a sudden don't seem to matter so much anymore. It may seem bizarre, but in a certain way, I'm thankful to be living with cancer because it facilitates being in the present. The path has been delicious, the future is unpredictable and the present is just magic."

Doctor means teacher, from the Latin, docere, to teach. Schwartzberg feels that he is experiencing learning on an enhanced level and that when he has conversations with friends and patients, he has the opportunity to use the wisdom gained from his experience with cancer to empathize and teach. His patients know that he understands what they are going through. Schwartzberg has always had a great relationship with his patients and friends. He has always set as a priority extra time to be with his patients, but he feels now the time spent with them, his friends and family has been enhanced.

In my 20-year experience meeting women living with cancer through Creative Healing Connections, none would wish cancer on anyone, but all have said that it's been a remarkable learning experience. Schwartzberg feels that as we go through unexpected turns in life, a crisis of different levels, that with every crisis there is an opportunity.

"You don't see the opportunity when you go through the crisis because it's overwhelming," he said. "It's 'Oh my God, I'm drowning!' But every crisis is a ying and yang thing. There is always an opportunity. First comes the crisis, a tidal wave, and once it passes over, then you see the opportunity. The opportunity for me is the enhanced awareness, especially living in the Adirondacks and surrounded by this beauty."

In short, Schwartzberg is enjoying life to the fullest spending his time doing what he loves best; in many respects, he's never been happier.

"I haven't stopped squeezing the juice out of the orange," he said. "At this point in my life, I'm very happy, which puzzles some people. How can you have cancer, have pancreatic cancer, and be very happy? How can you not know what the future holds and be happy?"

Happy he is. It's been 18 months since his diagnosis. He feels that he's still alive is a combination of luck, having world-class treatment at Beth Israel in Boston, a Harvard-teaching hospital, a positive attitude, and great support from his friends and family.

His treatment is cutting edge and includes using an organoid platform wherein they take a biopsy, grow the tissue in the lab, and then apply agents of chemotherapy to see what happens, what's most effective. In the past, such treatments were tested in people participating in a clinical trial, in this case, the tests are done outside the body which allows them to develop a customized treatment.

"Look at (President) Jimmy Carter. He was very lucky with his metastatic melanoma," said Schwartzberg. "He had melanoma in his brain, which is usually fatal, and he's cured at 90-something. Immunotherapy is making great advances, though not in every cancer. I'm just about to start on a clinical trial that includes immunotherapy, which as a sole treatment for pancreatic cancer has not proved effective, but in combination with other things has the potential of being very effective. I've been through chemotherapy, which is not for sissies.

"I am so lucky to be now in my 46th year of practicing medicine and have an understanding of every decision, every option, every side effect, and why it's happening and how to deal with it. As I go through this perilous journey, I hear the rapids ahead, and I can say, 'Ok, I can get through this. It's a matter of balancing side effects with efficacy. You chose what is likely to work."

In the past 17 months, Schwartzberg has been through several tough moments, which includes two significant episodes of gastrointestinal symptoms. Now he feels he is in smooth waters again. He knows it won't last, but he also knows that's part of cancer treatment. Every day he wakes up knowing he's living with cancer. That hasn't gone away, nor does he expect that it ever will. He says you can feel sorry for yourself and feel pessimistic, or you can have a positive attitude, which is understands isn't easy as it doesn't come naturally to many people.

"Attitude matters, a positive attitude enhances the immune system," said Schwartzberg. "In the past 17 months, I have felt more love coming my way. It's delicious. It's nourishing. It's provided me the opportunity to have more intimacy with people. Intimacy is essential to the healing process. Family and friends who visit often say, 'Oh you're going to be fine. You look great.' There is this kind of deception that takes place. I've always counseled, 'The truth will set you free.' Acknowledge the diagnosis. Acknowledge that you have a little time left so that you have more opportunity for intimacy, so you can make intimacy a priority."

Toward that goal, whenever the time comes, which he doesn't intend to be soon, Josh wants to have his funeral before he dies.

"I'm going to invite everyone to come to my funeral because when people come to someone's funeral, they say great things about the recently departed," he said. "I don't want to be dead; I want to hear those things! So, while I can still hear, put me in a casket, I don't care. Use a loudspeaker, I want to hear it all. This is the approach I take to living and dying."



I am looking for:
News, Blogs & Events Web