Taking The Reins

April 22, 2011 at 11:21 AM (after chemo, Energy, Family, friends, Palliative Care) (, , , , , , , , )

First, apologies to those of you who were greatly confused by my last post. I lost a few edits in the internets (can’t even blame it on Microsoft!), including the crucial little addition of “Last…” before “…Monday” in the first paragraph. So all of what you read about happened April 11th, not the 18th. Probably the distance from the event helped me look upon it with such a healthy dose of scorn; if it had been this week, my pride might still be wounded.

“So,” you reason, and correctly, “the meeting ‘Thursday’ happened a week ago and change; tell us what happened already!”

The visit itself went very smoothly (although you can bet that SuperMom and I found a wheelchair with a fresh O2 tank right away, and didn’t mess around with using my own portable liquid). If you’re looking for more slapstick fun, you’ll have to check back later and see if I’ve made a fool of myself again. Thursday was quite calm.

I was joined rather quickly by my oncologist, Dr. A, and the Palliative Care/Pain Management specialist, we’ll call him Dr. Feelgood. I asked about other treatment options beyond the Navelbine, and Dr. A mentioned IV Topotecan, which would bring with it the standard side effects of nausea, constipation, diarrhea, and fatigue. I asked about percentage of efficacy, and she told me that there would be a “5-10% chance of any effect” at all on my existing disease, and that “any effect” would mean maybe 1-2 weeks of additional life.

Wow, I thought, doesn’t sound like the teensy weensy percentage of results outweighs the potential of feeling even worse than I do now. What else you got?

“What else is there?” I asked, in proper English.

She said I could go on weekly Taxol, although as we all know and love, the #1 side effect of Taxol is baldness, and I’m sorry, but I promised myself a year ago that I wouldn’t go out without hair. Plus, there would be only the same very slight percentage chance of there being any effectiveness at all, and that would only extend my life by a week or two, all while lying in bed feeling crappy.

So with firm conviction, I said, “Enough. I don’t want any more treatment. If something miraculous-sounding comes up in the Clinical Trials department in the next few weeks and I’m still well enough to get accepted, I’d love to hear about new options, but these choices are not good for me. I’m declining any more treatment.”

Mostly, what I was thinking was that my tolerance levels are pretty low already; if I can barely handle my kids being around me when they get wild today, how will that go when I’m feeling sick and staying in bed because of chemo? I’ll be a royal bitch, that’s how that will go. I’ll have to ask someone to keep them away from me, and that’s NOT how I’m going out.

The percentage of happy is more important to me now than the number of days. Quality over quantity.

Dr. A cried. (!) Mom cried. I cried. Dr. Feelgood laid his therapist “I hear you taking control of your life and it’s a good decision that’s right for you” vibe all over us. There was lots of hugging. Then the fabulous N.P. came in and she cried, Mom cried, and I cried all over again. More hugging. Everyone told me how strongly they supported my decision, how they thought it was the right thing to do.

But for possibly the first time ever, I didn’t feel like I needed validation on my decision (no, seriously, ask my mom). I knew I had made the right choice. I’m TIRED. Tired of feeling rotten, of being stuck in the house, of not being able to do anything for anyone but myself (and even then just barely). I’m tired of switching horses mid-stream every six weeks. If there had been ANY response worth a damn from my lung mets since they showed up in 8/09, I might be more interested in fighting a longer battle. But there hasn’t been, not one. And I’m done.

I love how willing everyone is to pitch in, but I know it’s hard on everyone (especially the intimate family who sees me all the time) to have to carry this load. I want to go out in charge of my life, with a little dignity left. Blackmailing friends into coming to visit by making them bring offerings of Starbucks Chai Latte. Being able to sit at the dinner table and make my kids laugh.

So I’ll certainly keep posting, but from here it might take a slightly different direction. And I’m happy to answer any questions you might have – ask away! But I’m already feeling better without chemo on board, so unless you have a hotline to some pretty powerful folks, I’m going to let it ride.

And I’d love to give appreciation to those of you who envisioned me as a pit bull, one who would grasp at any straw to milk every second out of my life, for my kids’ sakes. Turns out what’s best for them is to have their mom AROUND and PARTICIPATING, not hiding inside all summer and watching their birthday parties on video at the end of the day. So I’ll fight while the fighting is good. And then I’m going to have a chocolate milkshake and a really killer nap.

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Let The Wild Goose Chase Begin

November 30, 2010 at 11:19 AM (Research, Treatment) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I'm comin' for ya, dude.

Hey! How was your Thanksgiving?

Really? That sounds nice… oh, mine? It was lovely, thanks. Yeah, everyone’s still speaking to each other… yep, kids got along and no one threw mashed potatoes. We missed the traffic by coming back Saturday night. So great to see everyone, but nice to be home.

What?

Oh, the scan results, right…

Um.

Yeah, those didn’t come out like we hoped. Like, really not like we hoped. Lungs: measurably worse. Pelvic tumors: growing. Hydronephrosis (back-up in my kidneys) worse. New lesions in sacrum and pelvic bones.

You see why I’ve been avoiding you.

On the “Action Items” side of the page, however, we have now two solid Phase I trial options (thank you, cancer research funding), one of which I’ll be starting next Wednesday. Pending my visit with the PPMD (urologist) tomorrow and scheduling my stents. Yes, lucky me, I’ll be getting ureter stents again so I can pee. (Jeez, now I’m not only like an old woman but an old man, too?) The study (Option #1) is an oral drug, taken (yea!!!) with food daily, so no fasting, no infusions (looking hard for the silver lining)…

As opposed to the study drug from last summer, this one attacks signaling proteins on multiple pathways at the same time, so there’s a higher chance of success. The study worked well for an ovarian patient (she was on it for ten months) at The Cancer Factory already, although eventually she progressed and has now moved on to another study (my Option #2). So there’s a reasonable hope that this will give me some more time.

Another bonus is that Option #2 has openings forecast for a few months yet, so if Option #1 doesn’t show results, I can slip right on to Option #2 after about three months or so.

What? Well, we don’t know what else is out there yet. That’s the problem with studies. There are new ones coming down the pike all the time, but we can’t really predict what or when.

So, yeah. That’s where we are today. No, I’m handling it okay. (Just don’t talk about the kids.) I haven’t started buying plane tickets yet, but I’ve stopped shopping for high-end, life-long couture, since I’m not sure I’ll get my money’s worth out of it. And no, I will NOT bequeath it to you new-with-tags, so quit asking.

God bless black humor.

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Catching My Breath

September 27, 2010 at 7:49 PM (after chemo, Energy, Faith, friends) (, , , , , , , , , , )

Of course I didn’t sleep well on Saturday night. What with the day being exhausting and the nervousness about missing my flight and the excitement about First Descents finally being here, I maybe strung together three hours of sleep. Just the way to start four days of exhilarating physical exertion, right?

Our group of thirteen campers found each other at the baggage claim area of the Denver airport in two shifts with the help of the very enthusiastic camp director and EMT volunteer. By the time I rolled up, some of the campers had already nailed down their nicknames and were admonished to use them exclusively, but their first stabs at a name for me (“Starfish!” because of my earrings) didn’t feel right. I wanted a perfect fit; there is a chance I’ll be using this nickname for years, and just-okay wouldn’t do. I knew it would have to come up organically, so I waited.

First Descents camps assign everyone a nickname upon arrival to distinguish the camp experience from the real life that many of us would like to forget. Camp is the opportunity to rise above your definition of yourself as “cancer patient” or “cancer survivor” and simply to be the person you are that week. You don’t have to be anyone’s mom, kid, wife, husband, sister, friend, co-worker; just yourself, an incredible sense of freedom. Not to mention a really easy way to remember the names of twenty new people at once.

Six of us plus Patch, the FD EMT volunteer, made our way to the short-term parking lot and a rented van in which we’d ride the hour-and-a-half to Estes Park. I’m not sure where the immature urge came from, but my competitive-sibling gene forced me to shout, “SHOTGUN!” by the side of the van. Hey, if no one else was going to call it… The nickname was found. (And, when discovered later by members of my family, confirmed as unassailably perfect.)

The first night, following my well-deserved nap, included an up-to-the-minute personal medical review with the staff and medical team (during which I filled them in on my fevers, lungs, and failed clinical trial), a delicious vegan organic dinner with the other campers, staff, and guides, and trying to remember everyone’s names. After icebreaker games (flashbacks to freshman orientation) and a rundown of the next morning’s plans, everyone drifted off to bed.

Monday morning, excitement made it easy to wake up and get ready to go; my new gear was shiny-clean and primed for action, and the two-hour time difference meant I had even had a decent night’s sleep. The altitude was having an impact on my breathing, though – at 8,500 feet the atmosphere contains about 35% of the oxygen it does at sea level, and I huffed and puffed climbing a flight of stairs or completing a sentence. Being winded made me nervous about the rock-climbing: how much would I be able to do? Would my fitness level and push-ups training make any difference?

The training climbs were planned for a rock formation not far from the lodge, within walking distance (coolers of food and drinks! folding chairs!) from the parking area, and the campers scrambled up to the base, eager to get started and afraid of how we’d do. The gusty wind made it hard to hear the instructors’ careful lessons on knot-tying, belaying, and checking our gear – I found out we’d be belaying each other; somehow that made it more scary than if the instructors had been directly involved. I hadn’t grasped the importance of the trust between teammates, the one climbing up and the one keeping watch at the bottom – when I climbed, I was in control, even though the belayer was watching my every step and keeping me safe from falling. But once it came time to belay back down (to lean back at a 90-degree angle from the rock and hang by my harness from the rope and pulley controlled by my belayer on the ground) I was terrified. You want me to what? Walk backwards off this cliff hoping that my brand-new best friend is paying attention and holding on tight? All the 40 feet back to terra firma? Holy crap, what was I doing here?

BAM, the magnitude of where I was and what I was doing hit me. I was up on the side of a rock, in a city and state I’d never been to before, surrounded by people I’d only known for eighteen hours cheering me on and hanging my butt, literally, in the balance. Cancer patients put their trust in doctors, nurses, family members… people we’ve known for years, interviewed carefully, background-checked. Who were all these campers? Ultimately, I think it was this overwhelming unfamiliarity that helped me sink into the new, delicious abandon of trust, tip myself over the verge and bounce backwards to the ground.

The cheers and support of my new best friends made all the difference that day – they helped each of us to climb past our personal insecurities and to back down to earth again over and over. As we rooted each new climber to the top, as we spotted belayers and checked everyone’s gear before a new climb, our reliance on each other and our shared triumphs hitched us all to a common purpose that WASN’T cancer, and that felt really, really good.

After lunch in the sun I tried a tougher climb, but about halfway up the altitude and the fresh air and physical efforts conspired to stop me – other campers later spoke of watching me “hit the wall” on the side of the rock face – and I cried, “I’m done!”, belayed down and headed for my chair for a nap; I knew I was finished for the day. I dozed in my chair for an hour or so, then the concerned doctor gave me a ride back to the lodge and my bed around 2PM. As I slept more, my headache grew. I wanted to take some Tylenol to kill the headache (it couldn’t be dehydration, as I’d had about two quarts of water since we started climbing), but was feeling nauseous and knew I needed to eat first so I wouldn’t get sick. Vicious cycle – I dozed off and on for about two hours until Clover came to check on me and I asked her to get the doctor. Hack finally showed up and gave me some Zofran for the nausea and some Diamox for the altitude acclimation, and forced me to eat yogurt. The food helped me get down some Tylenol; that and some more napping wiped the headache clean. Turns out all that water is nothing for a day of exertion without some salt: should have been Gatorade and a bag of chips. Lesson learned.

By 6:30 I was able to get up and have dinner with the crew, and felt better enough to join the after-dinner “campfire” session to talk about the day and how much fun we each had had, and how proud we were of our accomplishments. And to enjoy the dynamic that was developing – the personalities were linking, meshing, overlapping, and we were getting comfortable enough together to start making fun of each other, the true test of friendship. Things were starting to get good. My addition to the evening’s observations was that FD staffers and volunteers are TOTALLY as cool as the hype I’ve heard about them – their enthusiasm was contagious from that first moment at the airport.

Next: Overestimating my abilities…

Photo courtesy: Wildflower

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Too Many Chiefs

September 3, 2010 at 4:31 PM (Research, Treatment, WTF) (, , , , , , , )

I’m getting tired just thinking about explaining all of this, but I know you all wanna hear it.

Last week… no, wait, back up.

Two weeks ago, when I had my last CT scan (and waited FOUR HOURS for the results), Phase I oncologist (we’ll call him Dr. B) said that I should set up an appointment with my medical oncologist, the one who’s overseeing my case (we’ll call her Dr. A) as soon as possible, since she’d probably want me to stop taking the Magical Mystery Drug (the one that was no longer suppressing my lung metastases) and go back on chemo. So, like a good little girl, I ran home and made the appointment.

This Tuesday, when I met with Dr. A, the first words out of her mouth were, “So… what can I do for you?”

I was a little surprised that she wasn’t already aware of what Dr. B had thought, so I said, “Dr. B said that since the trial isn’t keeping down my lung mets, you’d probably want to pull me off it and put me on chemo.”

“Oh… from the email he sent me I thought he wanted you to keep going with the trial?”

::crickets::

“No, he told me you’d want me to do something more aggressive about my lungs.”

After a little back-and-forth, and telling her how crappy I’d been feeling for the previous ten days, she got on board with the chemo idea and came to the conclusion that since I hadn’t done carboplatin for a year, we could do that in combination with Alimta, and start on Tuesday (because I will NOT reschedule another First Descents trip!). Dr. A told me her scheduling coordinator would call me about appointment times for Tuesday, and shook my hand. I left her office pleased to be ending the nasty pills that have started giving me day-long nausea and still taste like dirty ashtrays, ready to switch tactics and get back to the business of kicking cancer’s ass.

Once I got home (of course), I realized I hadn’t asked whether to keep taking the Magical Mystery Drug for the rest of the week until starting chemo on the seventh. I called first thing (at the crack of 9:00) Wednesday, then airily skipped through my day waiting for a callback, without the pills, loving the taste of a glass of water and my freedom from being close to indoor plumbing.

Wednesday night at 8 I discovered a message on my answering machine from about 4:30 in the afternoon that said, “Please keep taking your study drug indefinitely.” Uh, what? I thought I was starting chemo.

Yesterday as I was waiting at school pickup for the boys, I got a phone call from the Phase I nurse practitioner, I’ll call him Angel, who asked how I was doing. I told him I felt lousy, and explained the mixed messages I was getting from the two different departments, and that no one seemed to know quite what the heck was going on with my plan. I told him, “There are too many chiefs here.”

He said, “Well, this little Indian is going to get to the bottom of things and I’ll call you as soon as I know.” Sweetie, you’re the best.

This morning, I left a message for Angel, just to check in and remind him he was working on something for me, since I could totally see the holiday weekend creeping up and not hearing from anyone until I just showed up on Tuesday at the crack of dawn. By the time I got home from the dog park, I had a message from the Phase I trial coordinator with my schedule for Tuesday’s appointments, which sounded a whole lot like my regular trial schedule. Grrrr… I waited for a call back from Angel.

At 12:45 he called and told me that we’ll check my CA-125 on Tuesday morning, and if it’s dramatically higher again (from 74 to 90-something at the last check) they’ll pull me off the trial and start chemo that morning. But if the CA-125 is stable, I’ll stay on the study drug. At least I knew what was going on, and that everyone was now on the same page.

Does anyone else think that with all the money being generated by and donated to The Cancer Factory on an annual basis, they might be able to spare the time for slightly more thorough inter-departmental communication? As opposed to, say, f*cking around with my life and my schedule like government employees?

God, I hate waiting. Have I mentioned that before?

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Finally.

July 17, 2010 at 10:29 AM (Energy, Mood, Treatment) (, , , , , , , , , , )

For those who aren’t on facebook (I understand, really), you might have missed my jubilant post-blog update on Monday: THE TRIAL DRUGS ARE WORKING. Those nasty little grey capsules that make my mouth taste like a dirty ashtray are actually worth the loss of my taste for chocolate. (Sad but true.)

I climbed out of the PET scanner on Monday and (after a brief trip to the cafeteria for my first food in over twelve hours) went straight to the Phase I doctor’s office. His preliminary read of the scan thirty minutes later showed a “marked decrease” in the metabolism* of the cells in my calcified tumors and lymph nodes, the ones that we had pegged as stable. While he offered no opinion of the new mets in my lungs, and I’ll have to wait for a full radiologist’s report on the scan for that, he was very excited about the “dramatic” change in my tumors. He said that the trial had shown the best results for ovarian patients, and that they were thinking about designing a Phase II trial for ovarian patients based on the good results. Including mine!

I’m beyond thrilled to get some good news for the first time in eighteen months, and REALLY glad that all of this rigamarole that they (Big Pharma) are putting me through for this drug might actually have an impact on other patients of this crappy, insidious, sneaky-ass disease.

Next week: further results of the PET scan; CT scan and results, and a week off the drug. Rash? No rash? Increased energy? We’ll see.

But you can quit mentally divvying up my couture for the near future. Vultures.

*PET scans work by reading the rate that your cells metabolize an injected radioactive sugar solution. Cancer cells metabolize sugar at a much higher rate than healthy cells, so after sitting with the solution in your bloodstream for an hour, they run you through a scanner and read the “hot spots” that have metabolized the most radioactive solution. These are measured by the amount of radioactivity they emit, and the rates are compared from scan to scan.

Photo courtesy images.

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The Silent Treatment

May 27, 2010 at 8:51 PM (Energy, Family, friends, Mood, Treatment) (, , , , , , , , )

It’s so unusual that I haven’t posted anything this week. It’s not as if cancer has been far from my mind – quite the opposite, as I’m sure you can understand. It’s been hard to think about anything else. And yet, I haven’t felt like there’s been a post worth sharing kicking around in my brain.

Whenever I share bad news, I sort of hole up for a while. It’s not that I don’t want to talk to anyone, but I feel so BAD having to draw everyone’s attention back to me and my ridiculously persistent illness. I’d rather talk to you about Sex and the City 2, long weekend plans, chicken recipes, oh, ANYTHING else besides my effin’ lungs. I’m not sticking my head in the sand. I certainly don’t mind talking about it, but I hate knowing that my illness is causing distress. Which it is, don’t lie to me.

I know I’m not the center of the universe. But I can hear it in people’s voices, see it in their faces when they bump into me — they’re bummed I’m sick. I hate that. Not that you’re not allowed to feel your emotions around me, but I have a “no crying” rule for a reason. And I’m not past the angry-pissed-off-frustrated part of the bad-news-reception emotional cascade, so I’m not ready to cheerlead for myself yet. I’ll get back to you.

Have a great long weekend – maybe some time in the pool will cheer me up. Gotta get my Vitamin D, ya know.

Photo courtesy Edward Feather.

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Insult, Meet Injury

May 21, 2010 at 10:16 PM (Energy, Mood, Treatment) (, , , , , )

I think I’ve been pretty reasonable during this hideous process. I’ve accommodated last-minute schedule changes, long-term expectation rearrangements, physical limitations, radical downgrades in physical appearance. I’ve taken it all on, maybe not smiling but resigned, and kept on going, because, really, what choice do I have?

Consider the camel’s back broken. Wednesday’s CT bad news led to this afternoon’s phone call from the clinical trial coordinator for my PI3K trial, and after a little dithering back and forth, she said that my onc wants me to start on the 21st of June. And the joys of clinical trials include really frequent office visits, which will start on the 21st and continue for the 22nd, 23rd, 24th, and 28th of June.

Astute readers (Cheesesteak) will note that that coincides with my not-widely-broadcast trip to Washington for a First Descents kayaking trip. I was really, really, really excited for this adventure; it’s totally unlike me to take on a physical challenge of this nature, and I was beyond excited to meet and make friends with the other under-40 cancer survivors on the trip. Alumni tend to refer to their “FD Families”, and I want one.

But I have to cancel. (I keep writing “cancer” – damn you, Freud.)

A quick email check-in showed that they have no other kayaking spots available for this year, although they could put me on the wait-list. I might be able to get a spot on a climbing trip in September.

Right now I’m so hopped up I can’t even conceive of this change. I booked plane tickets; bought an inordinate amount of the suggested “non-cotton” clothing. Was making peace with the fact that I’ll probably end up upside-down under my kayak and hoping I’ll have the wherewithal not to drown. I WAS EXCITED.

This is really over the top. I’ve been good; I’ve taken my lumps and (mostly) not complained. I’ve missed events, given up hope of starting a meaningful career; foregone chaperoning field trips. Gotten used to looking at the middle-aged lady who lives in my bathroom mirror, and the fact that she can’t wear high heels for more than thirty minutes. Accepted that my left leg is a whole pants size larger than my right. I’ve abandoned plans for a 5k, or the thought of becoming a decent tennis player. But I wanted cancer to give me something for all the stuff it’s taken away, and I thought that five days of kayaking and bonding with other like-minded cancer ass-kickers was an appropriate and reasonable expectation.

Apparently not.

Photo courtesy http://www.firstdescents.org

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