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Tanna Parker, 55, of Superior, a survivor of multiple myeloma, a bone marrow cancer, spends time with her dachshund Penny and granddaughter Mariah Parker, 15, of Superior at her home Thursday afternoon. Tanna did not know about “chemo-brain,” or how to cope with health costs during the two years before Medicare kicks in. Parker is enthusiastic about a free lecture series at St. Luke’s that aims to teach cancer survivors what they need to know. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

After surviving cancer, then what? Lecture series aims to answer questions

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Tanna Parker has learned to take notes about everything.

“If you weren’t a note-taker before, you will be after the diagnosis,” said the Superior woman, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2008. “You will find yourself writing everything down.”

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“Chemo brain” — thinking and memory issues that can occur after cancer treatment — is one of the issues Parker said she wasn’t prepared for as she fought her battle with the disease.

It’s to help cancer survivors better cope that the St. Luke’s Regional Cancer Center is launching a free lecture series this week called “Understanding Cancer: Survivorship.”

Parker, 55, is one in 14 million. That’s the number of cancer survivors in the United States today, said Dr. Anne Silva-Benedict, an oncologist at the cancer center who is spearheading the lecture series.

That number is expected to reach 18 million within the next decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“With the advent of new treatment and also appropriate screening and the early detection of cancer, we’ve seen more and more cancer survivors,” Silva-Benedict said.

Hospitals and physicians do a good job of treating cancer, but have not always done as well at preparing patients and their families for all that comes with it, she said.

The initial event, on Tuesday, will feature Silva-Benedict and psychologist Deb Viner talking about chemotherapy’s impact on the body and mind. Lectures will occur every three months, with subsequent topics to include legal issues, nutrition and physical education, and changes in daily activities.

Cancer survivors also face significant economic burdens, according to a CDC study released last week.

The study found that from 2008 to 2011, male cancer survivors faced average annual medical expenses of $8,000 per person, and productivity loss of $3,700. For females, the medical costs were $8,400 and the productivity loss $4,000.

An estimated 42 percent of cancer survivors had to make changes in work hours and duties, the study said.

Parker, a longtime nurse, had to quit work altogether.

“It affected my mobility, for one thing, and then the memory loss,” said Parker, who uses a cane. “Even when I got a little better, I don’t want to be in charge of someone’s meds and doing IVs and not remembering who did what.”

Her cancer journey started with double vision and other eye problems. An MRI revealed a tumor surrounding her parathyroid glands, and she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood disorder that’s related to leukemia.

“This was all new to me,” Parker recalled. “I was not an oncologist nurse, for one thing. Multiple myeloma, I had never heard of.”

She was enrolled in a research study at the University of Minnesota’s Bone and Marrow Transplant Clinic, receiving stem cell transplants in 2009 and 2012 and maintenance chemotherapy taken orally.

Not long after the second stem cell transplant, Parker was declared in complete remission. She’s still being treated with oral chemotherapy and an infusion of drugs every three months to strengthen her bones. She’s working, she said, to rebuild her immune system.

Along the way, she acquired knowledge that she’s eager to share with others. She’s part of a small support group — the others are her caregiver and another cancer survivor — who are developing a list of what she calls “general knowledge” to share with newly diagnosed patients.

They’re also in the early stages of putting together care packages to give to people who are newly diagnosed. They’ll include items such as hand sanitizer, tissue, lip balm, a notebook, lemon drops (for dry mouth), word books (for waiting in the doctor’s office) and a water bottle.

The lecture series was prompted by a similar concern for those newly diagnosed with cancer, said Silva-Benedict, who came to St. Luke’s in April 2013 after a 3½-year fellowship in Seattle.

“These are things we don’t usually talk about,” she said.

Parker, whose two children and three grandchildren live in the area, said that although memory and mobility issues persist, she’s feeling well now.

“I’m looking forward to living a long time and watching (the grandchildren) live their lives,” she said. “I wasn’t too optimistic about that for a time. But now it’s much better.”

One cancer survivor’s tips

Here’s some of the general knowledge that Tanna Parker says those diagnosed with cancer should be told:

* A good support system can save your life.

* Accept the loss of control over everything.

* Always have a second set of ears at your appointments.

* Get help with your depression and your anxiety.

* Isagel (a hand sanitizer) is your best friend.

If you go

The opener of the Understanding Cancer: Survivorship Lecture Series will take place from 5:30-7 p.m. Tuesday in the auditorium of St. Luke’s hospital, 915 E. Second St. The topic is “Chemotherapy’s Impact: How It Affects Your Body and Mind,” with Dr. Anne Silva-Benedict and psychologist Deb Viner. Cancer patients — regardless of where they are being treated — their caregivers and their families, along with anyone interested in the topic, are welcome. Time will be allowed for questions and a discussion.

The event is free and includes a light dinner and refreshments at 5 p.m.

Seating is limited, so those planning to attend should RSVP no later than today with Tina Roberts, social worker at the St. Luke’s Regional Cancer Center. Call (218) 249-5468, email troberts@slhduluth.com or register on the St. Luke’s website at slhduluth.com.

The event is sponsored by the cancer center and the St. Luke’s Foundation.

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