On Monday, April 16, 2012, I will run in the Boston Marathon as part of the Dana Farber Marathon Challenge team.
While this will be my third Boston, it will be the first without Sarah cheering me on from the sidelines. I last ran in 2009, and I remember running through Wellesley close to the half-way point, seeing her there with our boys. I yelled out as loud as I could, “I love you, Sarah.” I remember the pride and love I felt as I saw them there together. And I remember my tears, knowing we had a battle ahead of us that was not going to be easy.
As I trained throughout this winter, I’ve thought long and hard about Sarah. I’ve thought of things we used to talk about, or things we did together. The way she used to encourage me. There were so many wonderful things she did for us. An integral part of our family that made us whole.
I’ve also thought of her strength and how she just kept going, on and on with all the surgeries, chemotherapy and trials to see if we could find something that would work. She never gave up. And this is a lesson that I take to heart. She’s with me every day. Every time I go running I find a deep strength knowing she is there.
I made a short film about running and training for Boston over the winter. But, it’s really not about me. It’s about Sarah and all she did for our family. It’s about that amazing strength she gave us.
When I run on Monday, I will be running for Sarah. I will be running for our boys. I will be running for all our friends and family. I will be running for our friends who have died from cancer over the past year. I will be running for our friends who are still fighting and surviving. And I will be running for a future without cancer. If you would like to support my run, please watch this short film. It’s only 3 minutes long. And if you can make a donation to the innovative research program at Dana Farber, please visit my donation page. 100% of funds raised go directly to cancer research programs.
Lastly, please share this with your friends. Let’s remember Sarah, the Carcinista, as we approach May 3rd.
When “R2D2” entered Casa Carcinista earlier this year to become a semi-permanent resident, oxygen entered our thoughts in different ways.
For the kids, it was an omnipresent-shiny-tin-can with a funny, 50-foot hose that was stuck up mom’s nose. Sarah’s Star Wars analogy helped them connect with it, and then mostly ignore it. An obstacle at times, the hose became something to trip over – or NOT – as doing so could evoke the wrath of Mommy. Sarah often joked about it with them, helping poke fun at the situation. The boys thought it comical to say “Mommy’s a hoser” or “Mommy, go stick a rubber hose up your nose.” Their laughter always brightened the room.
For me, it was scary. Like a stranger invading our home. An odd, noiseless, motionless machine with a coil of clear hose I could follow, like bread crumbs, to find my wife. Of course, R2D2 wasn’t the invader – just a shiny metal reminder of the real intruder that relentlessly conspired against our now fallen hero.
Ironically, my life has been riddled with oxygen woes as I’ve had asthma since I was 8. Hospitalized twice as a child, I experienced the terror, frustration and difficult struggle of breathing shallow, constricted breaths. But now, as an accomplished athlete with breathing under control, it was incredibly hard to see my dearest friend struggle.
For our hero, The Carcinista, oxygen simply meant: Energy. Function. LIFE. I believe she thought about this often, realizing the significance of the oxygen we all breathe every day. And thus, before she died, she asked me to tell this story about her “oxygen of life.”
On Thursday, April 28, 2011, Sarah put on her beautiful new party dress, ready for a night we had anticipated for more than a month. Our friends, A + S arrived. We loaded three portable oxygen tanks (not taking any chances) and were off to the Colonial Theatre in Boston to spend the evening in the presence of Harry Connick, Jr.
Over the years, Harry’s music had provided a consistent theme in our lives. It began with the first mixed tape Sarah sent me back in 1993. Then at our wedding, we danced a choreographed foxtrot to “She belongs to me.” Toward the end of the 90’s we enjoyed seeing him in concert. Seeing him again in April was special.
Throughout the concert, while Sarah breathed from her oxygen tank, she experienced another “oxygen” as she called it. She said, “music is the oxygen of life for the musician.” Sarah was a talented singer in high school, traveling with her a cappella group – and I suspect she had experienced this feeling even then.
But, this night in April was over-the-top. Harry was on his game; he even remarked, “Y’all are lucky you’re here tonight. You see, I’m feeling really good tonight. And if there was a night I was going to ‘win’ this week, tonight’s the night.” He was playing five shows that week, ours was the third. Maybe he says this every night? Not sure. But, he (and we) definitely “won” that night.
During the show, there was a series of deeply collaborative musical conversations that carried from one instrument to the next. At one point, Harry abandoned the piano, to take in a trombone solo by Lucien Barbarin. As Lucien jammed, Harry began to tap a beat. Then stomp. Then got down on his knees, slapping and sliding his hands and wrists on the floor. The microphone captured the simple, beautiful rhythmic beats as he and Lucien carried on this intimate, delicious conversation. Music flowing, exuding this “oxygen” Sarah described. A musical story was unfolding, conjuring the struggle of the life of the New Orleans musician. Music in their soul. Music as life. Music as the oxygen of their lives. If the rest of the concert could have been the main course, this would have been the dessert to beat all desserts.
After the show, Sarah and I remained in our seats, allowing the majority of the audience to leave. The 20 or so who had “after show” passes were guided to a room. We found an armchair in the corner for Sarah to sit comfortably. A few minutes later, Harry entered the room. Sarah gasped. “Quick, take some photos!” she said.
A life-long dream. A man she had admired for his musical and acting talents, comedic abilities, humanitarianism and more, was no longer on stage, but right there in front of us only a few feet away. Ultimately, Sarah just wanted to have a conversation. To know what it was like to talk for a few minutes about something that mattered to them both.
Harry made his way around the room, talking to one or two at a time. Posing for photos. Signing programs.
Sarah was patient, but anxious.
After ten or fifteen minutes, Harry came to us, and lived up to all of Sarah’s (and my) hopes. He was a perfect gentleman, remaining focused on Sarah the entire time we talked. Sarah ask a few questions and discussed, quickly, her idea about oxygen and music and their importance in life. Harry seemed to pick up what she was saying, and liked the analogy.
She was smitten. I was happy. At this point in her life, physical gifts meant nothing, but this was a gift that meant so much. An amazing night together. And she was able to experience, and cherish what she dubbed “a real LIFE moment.”
We went to bed that night, holding hands as we always did. Both happy. Full of love. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was our last date. I look back now and just think, wow!
If you have the opportunity to see Harry Connick, Jr. in concert, Sarah would have said, “Do it!” If you don’t, you might still take a moment and listen to a song or two. While you listen, try to take it in. Feel the music in your soul. Breathe the oxygen. Enjoy.
I seem to have dropped off the face of the earth, rants about pinknausea notwithstanding. I’ve been trying to figure out why I don’t feel like talking right now, and it seems to come down to chemo. (Doesn’t it always?)
Starting actual chemo again (vs. a clinical trial or biologic or something) threw me for a loop. Apparently I’ve blacked out how crummy I feel after infusions, because when I collapsed into bed at 5:30 on day 3 of the last cycle, I was surprised. Mr. Wonderful said, “Don’t you remember? This is usually the time you start feeling like crap,” but I had forgotten it. Like how you swear immediately after giving birth that you will never, ever, ever do that again, then twelve months later you’re all, “Let’s have another one!”
So I spent day 4 and 5 in bed, me and the cat and the Compazine, and by the end of the weekend I started to feel like myself again. But apparently aging your body forty years in four years has some drawbacks, and I no longer rebound like I did in 2006. I’ve been having trouble just getting out from under the coughing courtesy of Estes Park’s elevation, and still haven’t resumed my exercise schedule. My lungs don’t like it, not one little bit – not even climbing the stairs, and last night Mr. W and I had a giggle at me huffing and puffing after pulling off a tight long-sleeved t-shirt.
Now I’m at The Cancer Factory for Cycle 2, and anticipating another week of feeling lousy. But why that has to send me into hiding for the next two weeks as well, I can’t figure out. I’ve turned into a terrible phone friend, forgetting to return messages and schedule dates. Some days I just drift along until it’s time to get into bed again, and that’s about all I can handle. But other days I’m doing my little suburban-mommy thing, driving and shopping and cooking and all, yet I still can’t manage to get my head out of my domestic bubble.
So I guess this column is a sort of apology, to those I owe phone calls to, or to those with whom I made tentative plans and then never followed up. It’s not you, it’s me. It’s taken me two years of therapy to be able to accept these words and feel comfortable saying them: I’m doing the best I can.
Photo courtesy here.
Jeez, just when you think life is getting a little predictable.
Week 4 of Cycle 2 snuck up on me. I was pleasantly surprised to discover, at my Monday appointment last week, that it was my week off of the Magical Mystery Drug. Skipping home an hour earlier than expected, with food in my tummy and a song in my heart, I anticipated a light and relatively carefree week of getting back into shape, tasting my food and drinking cool fresh water, spending time with my boys, and a long-anticipated family reunion weekend on the beach full of champagne, good company, and steamed fresh lobster.
Ha ha, said the universe, guess again.
Monday night at around 9:30, I started feeling like I was getting a fever. That’s weird, I thought, I don’t get sick. (Well, apart from the obvious.) Checked with the thermometer: yep, 101. Tylenol PM, bed. Tossed and turned all night, but by morning, it was gone. Felt better Tuesday morning, although not well enough to make it to yoga. No sign of fever, until about 5pm. After checking in with the team, they said if the fever went away that evening with two Advil, I was okay, but if not I should come in to see them Wednesday. Which of course I wanted to avoid like the plague.
Wednesday dawned sunny and fever-free. The boys and the dog and I spent the better part of an hour and a half in the woods hiking, feeling pretty smug. Until I lay down for my nap, and felt the fingers of fever starting to creep up my neck. I ignored them and tried to go to sleep, but I knew it was futile. Called the team and they said, “Come on in.”
Which is always fun with two kids. But they were fed copious amounts of bagged snacks and watched the Cartoon Network while I saw everyone, peed in a cup, gave blood cultures from port and periphery. I stumped everyone with my lack of symptoms, but that night the fever was back again.
And Thursday night. Good news: Mr. W makes dinner and cleans up from it. Bad news: Friday morning I get a call that I have a UTI. A UTI? With no symptoms? Oh, yippee, back on high-grade systemic antibiotics again. And they do nothing to kill the fever.
So I muscled through Friday and Saturday with nightly fevers, the usual fallout from antibiotics, and no energy. It was great to be on the beach and see family members from far and wide, but I wish I’d felt well enough to enjoy it.
And when I’m sick-sick, not just chronic-sick, nothing else gets done. No reading, no exercise, and as you might have noticed, no writing.
Let’s hope this… whatever is gone by tomorrow, so I can deal with a day at the hospital, the fallout from CT contrast, and more Magical Mystery Drug. And write about something a little more interesting than boring crap like my internal temperature.
Last night my husband and I were watching that new Tony Robbins series on NBC. The episode featured Tony helping a couple break out of their ruts: at their wedding reception in Mexico, the exuberant groom had dived into the shallow pool to swim over to where his wife and her friends were dancing, and broken his neck. Quadriplegic since that day, they had ceased to be newlywed husband-and-wife, and become nurse-and-patient. During the course of the show, Tony had the excited husband and terrified wife skydiving over Fiji to show them that there’s no limit to what a paraplegic can accomplish but his imagination. (It was a pretty great show, and I’m a cynic. But I dig transformations. Jillian’s my homegal.)
At one point Mr. Wonderful and I were talking about the wife and the role she’d settled into, and how she was paralyzed herself by her fear of losing her husband altogether, her sense of injustice at having to suffer through a life so different than the one she’d imagined. In mid-sentence, Mr. W started to well up, and as I grabbed his hand, he broke down. He said he was remembering the night of my first surgery, and how he’d been feeling all the same things: angry with the doctors; helpless at my illness; terrified of our new future and what it would bring; sad for me and what I would have to go through.
After a long hug, we moved on, but I realized that in addition to cementing our dedication to each other, the moment represented just another stop on the wild ride we’ve been on since 2006. Cancer diagnosis? Down. Find the right oncologist and a plan of attack? Up. IP chemotherapy? Way down. Finish treatment? Up. Nine months of remission and a big thank-you party? WAY up. Recurrence? Doooooown. You get the picture. Cancer patients and those who love them learn an incredible amount in the simple task of waiting: waiting for test results; waiting for scan results; waiting for the surgery date.
I’d love to say that a zen-like patient peacefulness is the result of all of this unpredictable change. But our reactions to the ups and downs have yawed wildly as well. Sometimes I’m able to accept a recurrence notice with resigned determination, while my mother bursts into (prohibited!) tears. Sometimes I come home from a simple office visit and a blood draw and snap at everyone in the house and Mr. Wonderful calms me down and gives me needed space. Other times he rages against his lack of control and we argue about something stupid like taking the last cold Diet Coke out of the fridge (a hanging offense).
I’ve had a busy month in the up-and-down department. From the down of intractable lung mets and decreased physical activity, I sprang back up with the great PET scan results, confirmed by CT last week. But not all the way up, because my left leg swelling kept increasing, and everyone (including me, in tears on Monday) feared it was another blood clot, which would mean blood thinners, which would make me ineligible for the trial that was saving my life (way down). Yesterday I had an ultrasound that showed no trace of a clot, meaning I am cleared to receive lymphedema massage and continue the trial (up Up UP!)
Which brings me back to my post on Friday about good support. By talking openly and honestly, and patiently listening without judgement, Mr. W and I have been able to weather the vagaries of this unpredictable odyssey. It’s definitely been a long learning process, with exemplary moments and embarrassing blow-ups. Often, the patient-listening-without-judgement has had to come in the form of an outside party, namely our therapist, who I maintain is a priceless aid in my recovery. But the result has been the smoothing out of the rough places that used to trip us and send us (and by “us” I mean our whole support team) spiraling off in different directions – now we hold each other up and ride on together.
Certainly the clichéd “fullness of time” has lessened the height of the peaks and the depth of the valleys. I prefer to think of it as a mosaic, or a Seurat painting: up close, each tile or spot of paint seems powerful, distinct; but with distance, the whole image becomes easier to see, the emotional shapes easier to recognize, the cohesion and strength of our family more visible.
I’ve never liked roller coasters. Too fast, too scary, too much stomach-in-the-throat. Since I have to be on this one, I’m glad I have reliable hands to hold onto. Who are yours?
The trial continues. Week Two of taking the fabulous drug daily, all nine capsules of it, and I’m beat. Possibly from the effort required to swallow nine capsules at once. I’ve never had a problem taking pills in the past, but this really frosts the cupcake. Why, in our era of superb medical advancement and death-defying technology, is this pharma company incapable of cramming 450 mg of my mystery drug into five capsules? Or three?
Aside from increasing my snark quotient, said mystery substance is wearing me out. Maybe it’s all the peristalsis, or maybe I’m just getting old. Or possibly since I’ve been actively fighting this beast for over eighteen months now without a break, I’m losing my elite-athlete-like (ha) endurance. I’m a lover, not a fighter. And I don’t think four weeks off to wash the Avastin out of my system counts as a break. Every time I stop to examine my alternatives, though, I realize: they suck. So back at it I go. But I’m really sick of:
- Flirting with nurses to make sure I’m the favorite
- Peeing in a cup
- Repeating my last name and date of birth to prove I’m really me (who the hell would pose as a cancer patient?)
- Sleeping with my support stocking on
- Having the inside of my mouth taste like an ashtray and not getting to smoke first
- Being too tired to play tennis, swim, ride a bike, walk up the stairs, cook dinner, host a playdate
- Short hair
On the bright side, I am not bald, throwing up, peeling, recovering from an abdominal incision, or dead. I can still drive, give directions, boss my kids around, surf the internet, and laugh at a dirty joke.
I think I need an attitude adjustment. Possibly an expensive spa treatment. Fortunately, I have one scheduled for Thursday morning. Hope I can drag my sad old carcass in there.
Thanks for listening. We now return you to your previously scheduled Eastern Seaboard Inferno of a day.
With apologies to the layperson, this post is full of advice for patients.
I was never a product junkie. While I like makeup as much as the next girlie-girl, I can’t bring myself to pick up the latest eye shadow colors every season, nor to drop serious coin (which could be better spent on clothing or leather goods) on department-store or boutique cosmetics. Basics are really all I need, and a few hair products.
Any cancer patient will tell you that this just can’t be. Whether you’re stocking your medicine cabinet with countless orange bottles to counteract the side effects of your side effects, or piling on makeup to cover your ghostly pallor, the best home improvement dollars spent in my house would be to supersize the master bathroom to hold all my crap. (In my defense, it is only slightly larger than your average phone booth.) And while it may be hard to keep track of all the funny names on the orange bottles, and remember what product to apply to which body part and when, some of the jams and jellies I have found to be real lifesavers.
Depending on which treatment you’re receiving, your skin can be sensitive, ashy, dry, flaky, greasy, or broken out. I was lucky enough to encounter all of them, often simultaneously, which made amelioration a sophisticated juggling act. For my extra-dry body skin, I was given a sample of LindiSkin Soothing Balm. LindiSkin is a company that offers a range of products specifically created for cancer patients. Light on chemicals and gentle on sensitive skin, the Soothing Balm restored my so-dry-I-itched-til-I-bled skin last spring with a gentle scent and no trace of irritation. They also offer a range of facial products, although the rich Serum was too rich for my face. But the lotion is delightful, cancer or not, and the company’s dedication to cancer patients is impressive.
I also found solace for my cracked feet in a tub of good ol’ Bag Balm. Yes, sleeping with the air of lanolin issuing from your cotton socks may put the damper on romance, but so does having ogre feet. A week of regular shower-pumice-plus-lotion-under-socks, morning and bedtime, dials back the winter feet to survivable levels.
My fingernails are so weak that I can’t even squeeze a zit, but the short length gave me the courage to try some wacky colors for fun. Pedicures are practically a medical necessity, and I find that lying in bed staring at your feet is much more fun if your toes look cute. Treat yourself.
When you’re pallid and ashy with those tell-tale red rings around your eyes, there’s really no way to avoid catching sight of yourself in the mirror and feeling sick. So when you have the energy to stand up in front of the mirror for five minutes, I highly recommend painting some life back into your cheeks. Start by evening out the discoloration (age, sun spots, all heightened by hormonal fluctuations) with a good tinted moisturizer. I love the combination of age-fighting and sheer color in the Olay Definity Color Recapture. One step takes half the effort of two! Add a gel blush (powder just emphasizes the ashiness of chemo skin) and some mascara, and you look twice as alive as you did before you started.
Brows and lashes gone? I wish I had a magic-bullet solution, but there’s really trial-and-error required to find what works best for you. My first round of bald-face, I got a comprehensive eyebrow kit from Anastasia and used the stencil-powder-wax combo, which does a pretty good job of staying on all day (until naptime, anyway). Last summer I used a perfect-taupe eyebrow pencil from Sonia Kashuk, but for some reason my eyebrow sweat glands (who knew we had ’em?) kicked into overdrive and I reapplied about six times a day. The pencils are sprinkled all over my house and car and purses. For my lashes, I compensated with a tapered line of dark-brown eye pencil on the top lid, since there was no way I could make a line of falsies look like anything other than a caterpillar parked up there. I like the Revlon ColorStay because it lasts most of the day, but really, there’s no way to hide the lack of eyelashes. I missed them the most.
I’ve heard lots of anecdotal stories that chemo hair grows back in curly on nearly everyone. It certainly has for me – I’m trying to decide if I like it better than baldness. Anyway, I have an enormous collection of different hair products for the many lengths my hair has been over the past four years. Gel for the slicking-back of humidity-one-inch ‘fro; waxy pomade for a little control of the two-inch-straight-up-not-quite-curls. The gold standards for all styles, though, are the Frizz-Ease line. I use the shampoo and conditioner, but use your favorites. Start post-shower treatment with the serum no matter what the length; it keeps down the frizz to manageable levels. I’ve got long-enough hair now that I can use the Curl-Perfecting Spray, too – it definitely make the curls cool instead of Napoleon-Dynamite crazy. NO HAIRBRUSH in the curls, EVER. Got it?
Next, we’ll talk about lifesaving products for your innards. Got any favorite skin/hair/face products to share?