Saturday, December 31, 2016

Goodbye My Jet

I hate to see 2016 go since it has been one of the best years I have had in a while. My clean scans throughout this year have easily made it wonderful. My travels to Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Washington DC, the NC mountains, and Louisiana have made this my most traveled year ever adding to its grandness.

The end of the year was only eight days away when a decision I hated to make, but knew was coming, put a smudge on the month of December. Over the past year my border collie’s health was in decline. For the last many months he was no longer able to go up and down the steps of our home forcing me to carry him in and out—no easy feat since I am 98 pounds and he 50. On December 19th, he no longer could move his back legs making caring for him much more difficult. On the 23rd, my husband and I hesitantly took him to the vet. It is not a fun place feeling like your decision makes you an executioner.

He did not struggle as we waited in the room for the doctor. When the vet entered, my dog comfortably lay beside my husband. I chose to stand. She mentioned his breathing indicated he didn’t have long. She tried to comfort us with, “You are doing the right thing.” It wasn’t necessary. I knew we were.

The days leading up to his euthanization I rationalized the decision saying to myself: he is 14 years and 4 months old; he is not going to get better; he is in pain. My feelings of selfishness remain, though, as I knew my life would be easier as his struggles to get up during the night would no longer awaken me.

His euthanization also begged me to consider how people are often kept alive when the doctors and the patient's loved ones know the person will not recover. There is always that hope, though, that somehow the impossible might occur. I don’t believe in killing human life under any circumstances, but my disease and the extreme measures of which people attempt to keep the inevitable at bay make me question that belief.

My dog, Jet, did almost everything I ever asked of him except “come” on command when a car pulled into our driveway. Chasing a Frisbee, a ball, or even a cat or chicken if given the chance, were his favorite activities. He had some insecurity issues we never completely overcame, try though we did. His ears played tricks on me as they flopped and stood-up finally making their final display of standing erect permanently at around age 4. He was a rescue dog born to a border collie female who gave birth at a shelter where she was dropped off. I took him home at 8 weeks when he weighed 8 pounds. From the day I brought him home I knew he would become my competition agility dog. We trained for 5 years. Every competition I entered him--except one of which I disqualified us--he won 1st place. Those years were such fun.

Goodbye 2016 and goodbye my Jet.

Tire Jump

Weave Poles
See Casper "the friendly ghost" on his side? Casper might have been a good name, but Jet was what I wanted.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Death Be Not Proud, a book and a look at alternative medicine

My copy--published 1969
On a recent morning I awoke thinking about a story I read in the 6th grade. The book was written by a 1940’s journalist named John Gunther. He named his book, Death Be Not Proud, after a poem by John Donne. (You can find it at the end of this post.)

Wondering why this book has stuck with me for all these years led me to some questions: What word choices did the author use? How did he transition from one sentence into the next? Was it memorable for me because the main character was only 17 years old when he died of cancer? Maybe, it left an impact on me because my mother’s illness from ovarian cancer was still fresh in my mind.

Even as the pages of my edition (1969) continue separating from its binding and are now held together by a rubber band, I cannot think of ever throwing it away. There is such emotion in the pages of that book even though the writer tried not to let his be known. Grabbing it from the shelf, I revisited the story once more.

Death Be Not Proud--a memoir is about John and Frances Gunther’s son, Johnny, who has a glioblastoma mutiforme brain tumor. What is glio multiforme?  This type of brain tumor is as deadly now as it was then. The story tells the events from his treatments to his death spanning over 15 months. The first treatments involved surgery, mustard--liquid NH3--administered intravenously (a chemical compound found in the mustard gas used in World War 1--the first chemotherapy), and x-rays targeted at the tumor. All the doctors they had seen, some thirty-five or so, believed not much could be done, their child was dying.

While I read the first chapter and into the next, my initial plan to study why I considered this a good book changed. The change happened with one word, Gerson. No, this can’t be, I thought. I kept reading. My eyebrows came together enhancing the deep wrinkle between them. What, is going on? This book is about living until you no longer can, but it is also about the use of an alternative treatment called Gerson Therapy. 

In the summer of 1946, John conversed with a gentleman about an unorthodox doctor practicing in New York, a Dr. Gerson. What drew John and Frances to him was his experience with brain tumors. They discussed the idea of contacting Dr. Gerson with Johnny’s main doctor. He opposed it but soon softened as they all knew Johnny’s condition was in decline. Most likely he would not live much longer. With nothing to lose they set up an appointment. For a large part of the remaining time Johnny had left, he was a patient of Doctor Max Gerson.  

John Gunther writes in Death Be Not Proud that Max Gerson never stated that his diet would cure someone of cancer, but his patients hoped it would and patients of the present day that follow the Gerson Protocol share that same hope.

The Gerson Institute’s website gives a brief history of its founder, Max Gerson. He was medically trained in Germany. After finding success in treating leukemia and tuberculosis of the skin by changing the diet of his patients he expanded the idea and brought it with him when he emigrated from Germany to the US. He made other claims of curing type II diabetes with his diet and eventually other diseases were brought into the mix including cancer. After his death in 1959, (he had lost his medical license two years prior) his daughter, Charlotte, took over eventually running the Gerson Clinic in Mexico. It continues to operate today. 

If you happen to be someone who has been in the cancer world for a little while most certainly you are aware of the Gerson diet. If you have not been introduced then let me provide you some information. The diet that Johnny followed contained no fats, or salts, only vegetables. Today, the diet involves lots of juicing: carrots, a concoction of green plants, apples, oranges or grapefruit. The foods eaten are plant-based only. Supplements are an integral part of the program.    

Early in the book, there is a brief mention of enemas as part of Johnny’s treatment. This is the most troubling part for me of Gerson therapy. The book did not describe the use of coffee in these enemas although I am guessing, like today, it is the main ingredient. The brand used is of course completely different from the regular coffee sold in grocery stores. Wonder if the feces used to make a very expensive specialty coffee would be accepted by the coffee enema experts. (Kopi luwak (Indonesian pronunciation: [ˈkopi ˈlu.aʔ]), or civet coffee, refers to the coffee that includes part-digested coffee cherries eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). Reference:]) The answer most likely is no.

The reason for the enemas stems from the belief that the liver and kidneys work inefficiently in removing toxins from the body and need some help from some good ole ground coffee beans. Come on now! Don’t people ever wonder how an enema is actually going to cleanse the liver? This is where alternative practitioners like to throw in some science that seems plausible but is not. Brace yourself because what I think is crazy is about to begin.

The coffee is held in the rectum for several minutes. (Takes practice, so I read.) While held, the important chemicals from the coffee seep through the membranes of the colon and enter a portal vein that enters the liver giving aid where the digestive system needs it allowing for this cleansing to take place. I hope all of you reading are thinking what I was thinking the first time I read this explanation: What kind of lunacy is that! Today, it is well known that too many enemas can cause a malfunctioning of the digestive tract. Cancer patients have enough trouble with their digestive system so please, let’s leave that part of our anatomy alone. And, do not try this at home or at the Gerson Clinic.

John Gunther believed that Gerson thought cancer to be misplaced cells that happened as an embryo develops. These misplaced cells might be destined to become a liver cell but are found in a different organ instead. Some environmental trigger inside or outside the body causes the cell to begin growing and from there cancer develops. Since the cell is in an environment that it is not supposed to be, it begins to destroy or eat-up all surrounding tissue. This idea I admit would seem plausible in a time when knowledge of cellular functions related to cancer was mostly unknown. Something like diet seems harmless and maybe believing there is truth that toxins need cleaning from our digestive tract is forgivable of someone who isn’t aware that our kidneys and liver are fine detox organs that don’t need help unless you are terribly ill; by then it is too late. That is why, before a patient does anything, they need to speak to their doctor. Add desperation to the equation and it becomes clear why people try this unconventional approach to treatment. Today, thankfully, science has revealed so much about cancer and how it works.  Alternative medicine peddlers love an uneducated or unquestioning cancer patient. I get it. When all is lost and only hope remains, people want to follow hope and Gerson was the only one offering it even if the hope had no basis in science. Here at The Cancer Classroom, if I help anyone with anything, I hope that it is for patients to always ask questions.

Alternative treatments do have stories where the patient improves and thus is the case of Johnny. For a measured amount of time during his 15 month ordeal after diagnosis, he experienced some improvement with his motor skills and possible shrinkage of the brain tumor while on the therapy. Some of Johnny’s conventional doctors believed it was the latent result of the mustard, surgery and the x-rays. Because of Johnny’s improvement, Gerson proclaimed “Your son is saved.” The “bump” on Johnny’s head still remained but Gerson worked to convince everyone that “the tumor was dead, killed by diet.”

Two neurologists told Johnny’s parents that the diet had nothing to do with any reprieve that he was experiencing while on Gerson’s diet plan. Still the family remained steadfast in their desire for Johnny to continue the treatment. When things no longer were improving, his other doctors thought he should try mustard again and that Johnny would benefit from another surgery, but Gerson’s word was powerful when he said the anesthesia would kill him because it conflicted with the diet. There was no mention of how this was known; I am guessing anecdotal evidence.

My shock at finding out Johnny had been on the Gerson Protocol did not change the way I felt about the book. I have a different view of it but it is still what I consider a "good" book. The final pages, “A word from Frances” written by Johnny’s mother touched me emotionally. Her writing for me may have been why my memory of this book has lived with me all these years. Her words flowed into me and I drank it all in, never to be separated. She writes of regret in sending her son to boarding school at a young age. Seems natural when reflecting on life to wonder if relationships or events would have turned out better if things had been done differently.

She wanted to create a human being that would make the world a better place and she did as seen in the letters from people who wrote about her son. I have wanted to do the same with my own children. Parents have a huge responsibility to teach their children to treat others with kindness. We must each play our part to bring civility and goodness to our world.  Then maybe there would be less chaos and violence. Our children are a sign of those efforts. There needs to be more work in this area.

I love her words left on the end pages of this book and the ones scattered throughout. “Life is a myriad series of mutations, chemical, physical, spiritual . . . that law of life which out of infinite mutation had produced Johnny, that law still mutating, destroyed him. . . . Loving life, everywhere and always” are just a few.  

I started on a quest to find out what made this book memorable. I accomplished that goal as it is clearly a combination of so many things—the words, the emotions, the subject matter. This book resonates beyond its pages since all of us will face death. Beyond those elements, what is missing from several lesson plans that I found on-line neglect to talk about the subplot: the use of unconventional verses conventional treatments. Each of us will at some point face illness and need to be aware that pseudoscience exists and educating yourself about your illness and the treatment practices that work or don’t work is so important.

Because I think 6th grade is too young to fully appreciate this book, I did a little digging. I found out that in 1975--I read it in 1976--the book was turned into a movie starring a popular teen star at the time, Robby Benson. I never saw the movie though. Popular culture does influence what is taught in classrooms and this small piece of my life proves that. A lot of books I think are read too early in the education of a student. This is one of those books. I am going to guess that this is yet another case of too many books, too little time.

As promised, here is the poem from which the story of Johnny Gunther was named.

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death; not yet canst thou kill me.
From Rest and Sleep, which but they picture be,
Mush pleasure, then from thee much more must flow;
And soonest our best men with thee do go—
Rest of their bones and souls’ delivery!
Thou’rt slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke. Why swell’st thou then?
    One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
    And Death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die!

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Another Happy Birthday!

November is one of my favorite months. Why? Because . . . it’s my birthday month! On the 19th, I turned 52 years old!

Some people have anxiety about turning 50 and beyond. Yes, I hate the bagging skin that time has been supplying me generously with, but birthdays bring joy to me not depression.

I love getting older. The fact I am having another birthday makes all the nausea, intestinal issues, lymphodema struggles, surgeries, radiation, UTI's, and my numerous infusions worth it. Five months from now I will have lived with the knowledge of my metastatic disease for four years. In the beginning, I thought I would be dead within a year, but here I am. If I am lucky enough, celebrating my 53rd will be even more awesome.

The weekend before my birthday, my youngest daughter and I traveled with my in-laws to Beech Mountain, NC where my husband’s sister, Becky, lives. Thankfully the weather was beautiful as we moved away from our familiar flat-lands to the winding mountain road leading to her home.

Her new home is beautiful. Every home Becky has ever lived in could have been on the cover of the Better Homes and Gardens magazine. This one is no different.

Recently, she and her husband expanded their living area adding an enormous garage, master suite, and guest bedroom. They will be living in comfort for years to come.

It was evident that Becky had been hard at work not only on her home but in the kitchen. There was a red velvet birthday cake waiting for us. I say “us” because my mother-in-law’s birthday is in November too. She’s74!

In other news . . .
Thanksgiving is almost here. As is tradition, my husband’s family gathers together at his parent’s home. People bring food of all kinds. Since there are so many good cooks on my husband’s mom’s side of the family, there has never been a need for me to cook anything. Instead my contribution involves boiling some water, steeping some tea bags, pouring it into a pitcher, adding some sugar, and I'm done--hmm, sweet iced tea. I like it that way; cooking is not how I like spending my time.

This year Thanksgiving is going to be different for me. I am going to be spending time with relatives on my father's side.

This change from my usual plan began one afternoon a few weeks ago when my sister telephoned.  She had some news to share about our father's sister. We both knew our aunt has been going through some difficult times. Her health has been troubling, and in July her life changed dramatically just as she was turning 80. Her husband--my uncle--died. He didn’t live long enough to see his birthday which was the day before hers. The conversation began with my sister telling me of her plans to visit our aunt and asked, "Is there any way you can join me?"

My immediate thought was there is no way.

Then one evening, my sister-in-law and I were chatting on the telephone about all the different happenings in our lives. I began telling her about what my sister was planning to do and her hope that I could meet her in Louisiana. She listened as I explained the cost comparison I had done between renting a car and flying. The best price I had found so far was for me to fly there on Thanksgiving Day at a ridiculously early hour and fly back on Saturday at another ridiculously early hour in the morning. I was struggling with whether I should just hold my breath and go and hope I don't regret it later or to not go and possibly regret that too. At that point she made an unexpected gesture. One I will never forget.

She said, “Hey, let me pay for your plane ticket.”

“No, you don’t have to do that.”

“But I want to.”

“Oh, my god! Really?” I said.

I was going to Louisiana. My cousins and their families will be there. And, my aunt will be smiling. Thank you, Becky!

My best friends from high school. (I am on the right.)
My life is far different than I thought it would be 3 ½ years ago. I have spent time with people I haven’t seen in years and now I am going to see family members that I haven’t seen since 2009 or longer. I am a little apprehensive about the plane ride, but so looking forward to a different Thanksgiving this year.

A few members of my high school graduating class.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Hardships of the Financial Kind

My husband and I fought the other night. Not physically of course, but it felt like it when it was over. Money is never an easy topic to talk about when there is not enough of it. It is even more difficult when the main reason for the hardship being brought upon my family is directly related to me. No, I didn’t buy a fancy new car or book a lavish vacation. Our hardship is my medical bills, and the only way to fix it--to put it bluntly--is to quit treatment, let cancer take over and die. I am not ready to do that.

When my husband and I were first married, our wants for our lives were similar: a house, kids, pets, and a future free from financial stress. Along the way, there were a few set-backs in his career, but we knew we could recover from those things, eventually. I patiently waited for the day when I could spend $200.00 at the grocery store without thinking and worrying about it all the way home. It finally happened but only briefly. Eleven years ago we were first hit with the financial trauma created because of my disease. The third time ripped away any fantasy we had of ever recovering. Medical bills from the past and present arriving in our mailbox are a real threat to our current way of life.

We have employee provided insurance and so far it has never denied a claim. Since many participants in this insurance plan are able to pay their premiums—at least I assume--there has been enough money to allow me to continue receiving treatments. For that I am grateful, extremely. But presently, our 10,000 dollar a year deductible arrives too quickly and our bills are beginning to overwhelm us.

My treatment center believes my husband makes too much money therefore won’t consider lowering our payments. The first time a payment was submitted below the minimum required, the call came threatening to send our account over to collections. We are not looking to not pay our bills. They are OUR bills. But, a lowering of them would help reduce our stress from this monthly financial burden.

Because I didn’t pursue a career, instead opting to stay home and raise our children, my income earning potential is low offering little to no relief from the enormous, ever-increasing debt looming over us. I simply have no way to generate enough income for us to recover. Adding to this conundrum, I have fears of starting a job and then having to quit because of side-effects or the worsening of my disease.

I often try to make myself feel better about the situation saying, “I would rather be poor than dead.” It is a true statement, but financial struggles can suck happiness out of you almost as much as the cancer can. There is another saying I often think about: if you don’t have your health, you have nothing. Never has a statement been truer and is relevant no matter what your income level.

After I was diagnosed stage IV, I questioned why I chased the dream of a big house with some land. As a young person I found there to be something marvelous about a spacious house with large windows spilling sunshine throughout its rooms, crown mouldings adding those finishing touches to at least some of those rooms, a whirlpool bathtub in the master bath with an adjacent tiled shower, a wrap-around-porch, and double-stacked ovens with two sinks in the kitchen. At that time to have those things seemed to be a grand accomplishment. Surely having them would make life better. I never considered I might one day become too sick or too old to take care of it.

Although I didn’t obtain the huge house nor those grandiose household items, I did obtain a house. A house with a front and back porch, one oven that works now intermittently, one kitchen sink and no whirlpool bathtub. The crown moulding was never considered since the added cost was deemed unnecessary and those super large Anderson windows found in the pages of the housing magazines of which I gazed, never brought the sun into my home.

I wanted nice expensive furniture. We did manage to buy a nice couch and bed many years ago. The bed remains nice, but the couch is falling apart. Other items in my home are either hand-me-downs or cheap crap I bought in my twenties. Our books are held by Walmart bookshelves which I am thankful to have since what is life without books? Instead of a home filled with expensive décor, we filled it with four kids and a variety of pets; a decision I never will regret.

Often, our house didn’t feel big enough with so many people living in it. The closet space is inadequate and the upstairs bathroom shared by three of our children is ridiculously small. Today, with the kids beginning to find their place elsewhere in the world, it is starting to feel bigger.

The carpet upstairs is the same carpet that was first installed 16 years ago--carpet really shouldn’t be around that long. The paint on our walls is dull and dirty. It too is old. The shutters on our outside windows are faded, and the screen on the back porch is either missing or needs replacing. With all of its flaws, it provides us protection from the weather. I do so hate being cold. Please don't take my complaining to mean I am not thankful to have it cause I am.

As you may know or can imagine, any conversation that involves not enough income to cover the bills can leave a person feeling helpless, afraid, and without solutions to fix the problem, lost. I have searched on-line and there are no organizations that I have discovered offering help to people with high medical costs who have an income above a certain level of which we fall.

As is always the case when debt accumulates, the rich can pay, the poor get help, but the middle continue to struggle leaving them thinking their only option will eventually be bankruptcy if that is even a possibility. We prefer not to do that. We take pride in our ability to work and pay for what is our responsibility. Unfortunately, it does appear our situation is slowly becoming more than we can handle.

As sad as the idea seems, I can't help but wonder if the time has come to consider a smaller place. Should we consider selling our house and moving? While selling our home might seem like it would give us the money needed to pay my medical costs, there would still be a monthly payment for housing of some kind so in the end, would it help? And, though my material desires have lessened immensely, my husband would suffer, something I do not want. Our home is more than the money it took to build it or a desire to have a nice place to live. Keeping it or not keeping it is not just about me. There is another person, my husband. Separating himself from it would not be easy.

The construction of our house began in 1999. Since my husband and his father participated in its construction, it has great personal value attached to it. His literal blood, sweat, and even tears went into its creation. The frustration of working with the difficult personality of his dad has been thrust upon every nail driven by him into the wood that keeps it standing.

Before the framing began, he worked every weekend cutting, chopping, and carving out a place on that wooded property for us to raise our kids. It was to be our special place on this earth for us to share, to enjoy our lives, to grow old.

He continues to tame it when hurricanes named Matthew blow winds strong enough to uproot the trees that were planted 10 years ago and had reached a height of 30 feet or more and now must be cleared away. He dug holes in dirt so hard one summer it was more like concrete than soil. In each hole he placed fence posts eventually surrounding the house keeping our children, our dogs and our goats safe. There is also a chicken coup behind our house that he built during a chicken hatching project the kids and I did. Those particular chickens are no longer living, but others have taken their place and provide us with fresh eggs almost daily. In the back of the property, we buried beloved pets. My border collie who I trained for five years in agility winning several blue ribbons will be joining those pets in the near future as his health continues to decline.

In this house we watched our three and four year old children turn into adults. We carried our last child from the hospital into this house to begin her life. It is the only one she has ever known. This land this house sits on is not just a small spot on an enormous planet to my husband. His now ailing father and his mother gave it to him, separating this tract of land from their farm where cows continue to grow on their fields of grass. His father has a fantasy too: the land is to stay within the family, always. All of these reasons are why my husband cannot bring himself to consider the possibility of leaving it.

I look at this house as the place I cry in, love in and laugh in. It is home. I walk out onto the front porch and feel the cool breeze blowing from the north and love the fact I cannot see my neighbors because of the trees surrounding me. I love that our animals have a large fenced yard of which to roam and explore. I love when I walk out on the back porch I get to enjoy my plants growing in their pots while listening to the roosters crowing and the hens squawking loudly. The voices of our goats take note and begin talking to me, asking me to bring them food scraps from our leftover food in our fridge. I remember our past; the birthday parties held here; his sister and my sisters, sitting here in the rocking chairs conversing and laughing. I know how hard we both worked to make this place a home, how we still do.

As time moves along, our inability to pay our medical debt may end with our losing our home. If we cannot pay, the hospital will have no choice but to take action against us taking the only thing that we have of financial value. It saddens me greatly as it represents another kind of acceptance that I must face; one that everyone must face: change happens; nothing ever stays the same; in the end, we must let go of the things we love.

Our conversations concerning money are weighted with too much emotion allowing angry words to seep in. We both see the situation in different ways. Being financially strapped makes a house seem less important to me especially since I am thinking about the end of my life and focusing on what I need to do before it ends. He on the other hand sees his life extending into his eighties. He could spend those many years in this house; this house, our home, the one with so many memories attached, memories inside and outside the walls that hold it together.

So, here we are, facing the very real aspect of what increasing medical debt can do to a family and not knowing what to do about it. The hospital financial counselors where I receive treatment are following their guidelines concerning who can receive help and who cannot. I have no idea how high our debt-to-income ratio must get before they deem it necessary to reduce our monthly payment due. We have provided all our information but have yet to see any relief.

No matter the reasons, when people don’t pay their bills, hospital costs increase along with insurance premiums. The burden of those costs will always be on those people who have the means to pay. It doesn't seem right, but it is the way it is. I don’t have a solution of how to give relief to families like mine who have medical bills beyond their ability to pay. No one who lives with a terminal or even a chronic illness for any length of time that does not earn a great deal of money can avoid the financial impact of it.

For those of us who are middle income earners, bankruptcy may be the only relief we can find so we can keep our home. It does not feel good to me because bankruptcy also takes money from people in the form of higher interest rates on the loans they receive from banks. Like everything surrounding cancer, choices are few. The only choice we may have will be to file bankruptcy. For now, I am an unwilling participant knowing my death is the only thing that will bring any of it to an end. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

My October Surprise

Yesterday, after a night filled with anxiety not offering much sleep, I pulled myself out of bed, got ready, and headed for Chapel Hill. For reasons no one I asked at the hospital could explain, all of my appointments flew by with only a minimum amount of waiting, so unusual.

After my CT scan -- yes it was THAT kind of day -- I couldn't stop my tears. All my fears were surfacing. All I could think about was: there is no way my scan could be good; my luck surely was coming to an end.

Well . . .

As unbelievable as it may seem to me, my scan was clean. Nothing new to see!

As I type this, I still can't believe it. For another four months I can put that monster into its closet and hope it suffocates. I am free today to live my life. Today, I am one happy cancer patient!


Sunday, September 25, 2016

Real Breast Cancer Awareness

Pink merchandise
Me in 2010
in October seems fun.
Cute little trinkets
to display, and to wear,
promoting Breast Cancer Awareness.

By spring there’s the tintinnabulations of joy.
People donning pink boas,
pink shirts and pink socks.

Walking and running,
raising money for research
racing to end this disease.

Celebrating survivors,
the months passing quickly,
some 5, 10, or 20
years in remission.

Year after year
the excitement continues.
You can beat this!
You’ve got this!
Encouraging words
for each new diagnosis. 

Mastectomies, lumpectomies,
radiation and pills,
chemicals rushing through veins,
will this save me?

Treatment now ending,
nurses harmonizing in song,
“Hey now, hey now,
the chemo’s all done.”

Smiling while taking
the balloons you are given,
ending the hugs,
heading for home.

Releasing balloons
sending them into the sky
lightening a burden so heavy,
saying goodbye to your cancer.

Saving the ta-tas,
touching your tits,
sexualizes, trivializes
your cancer--it hurts!

Harming the cause of
Breast Cancer Awareness.
Down-playing how serious,
making people complacent,
keeping their money instead of donating,
paying little attention to tax payer funding,
thinking breast cancer is no longer killing.

The hushed, dying voices
of those now stage 4,
ruining the party,
knowing the reality,
not everyone is saved.

Education, elucidation
must be an integral part
of the awareness campaign.

Reaching and teaching,
so everyone knows,
more money is needed
spurring research ahead
creating more drugs,
allowing more living.

Please know that breast cancer
is not always a lump,
could be dimpling,
a firmness or thickness of skin,
any redness, nipple changes,
or discharge of yellow.

Thousands upon thousands
will die every year.
Not only women, men too!
of all different ages,
suffering—mentally, physically,
unimaginable pain.

Mechanisms inside,
mechanisms outside
of breast cancer cells
untamable, unexplainable.

Groupings of ER’s and PR’s
and HER 2 neu’s
-- estrogen, progesterone,
human epidermal growth factor 2.
Positives, or negatives, and combinations thereof
providing fuel
for an unruly beast.

Ducts and lobules, receptors,
proteins, hormones and genes,
inflammatory, Paget’s, Papillary,
breast cancer is not one disease.
It is many, you see.

Mutating cells from the breast break away
taking a ride on the river of life,
delivering their package of death.

Landing in organs where conditions are right
to grow, to mutate, to reproduce, to sleep.
Not dying
--like normal.

Outwitting, outmaneuvering,
unstoppable it seems.
Check point inhibitors,
immune system trickery,
blocking, resisting,
the chemicals infused.
Indefatigable, unreachable, undefeatable,
it thrives.

Breast cells in livers, in bones, in lungs, and in brains,
consuming each organ ‘til no longer working.
It’s still breast cancer;
it is always the same.

Metastatic, late stage, advanced cancer,
whatever the name,
killing all of the people
caught by surprise
--de novo—
stage 4, from the start.

Despite what is thought
early survivors don’t always survive
this wretched, disfiguring,
debilitating, insidious bane,
becoming a part
--like me.

Hope floating away
with the helium balloons
falling and crashing,
back down to the ground,
when hell came knocking
upon my front door.

Life derailed from its course,
stepping into the darkness,
causing memories lost,
by the merciless disaster
of metastatic cancer.

Rendering me sightless,
the pain deep within,
my tears will be falling
for the rest of my days.

When earth opened up,
I stood on the edge,
falling into despair.
The party of pink
for me is now dead.

I’m terminal now,
death found in my lungs.
Threatening to take
my unfinished life.

As the disease spreads,
it continues to change
into millions of cells.
Some working one way,
others another,
in the same tumor.

Which drug will work?
Is anyone’s guess.
Why one patient responds
while another advances
is a scientist’s torturous affair.

The happiness thief,
stealing mothers, fathers,
daughters, sons,
brothers and sisters.
Killing the body
loved by another,
in one to three years.
Sometimes it takes longer
--if you’re lucky.

Can we all be survivors
wearing of pink if we choose?
Can side-effects lessen
from treatments not ending?
Can remissions remain,
no longer fearing progressions?

Our stories continuing
stepping out from the darkness,
no longer invisible,
no longer dying,
but living, YES LIVING!   
with cancer
no longer out of control.
And, maybe, just maybe,
one day living

Saturday, September 3, 2016

1,800 Miles of Summer

Sometimes cancer sits in my mind quietly. Those are the best of days. With my scan results bringing good news at the end of June, my summer hopes became plans.

Kay and I
Before launching into my biggest plan of the summer, I took a short trip--well, two hours one way--to see a friend who was staying in North Myrtle Beach. Our history goes all the way back to the late 80's. Shortly after she moved into my apartment, we became friends. Sharing the same birth date in November was a bonus to our relationship. On the day we turned 21, we waited till 12 am to go to a bar and have our first legal drink. That day would not have been the same if Kay had not been a part of it. Our recent time together was short. Nevertheless, I enjoyed every minute.

As the end of July approached, I had everything in place for our grand trip taking us through several states. The reason for this trip came as a result of my daughters, having just graduated from college, heading to their first post-college jobs. They were moving far away from home, and I was determined to take part in it.

Leaving the men at home to work and take care of our many animals, the girls and I embarked on this whirlwind of a trip. Before going directly to the places my daughters needed to be, we took a few detours. One to see an old friend and another to spend some time with my sisters and their families. First, we headed southwest to Atlanta, GA then north to Georgetown, KY, on to Cleveland, OH, east to Washington DC, and finally, we traveled south toward home. With dozens of hours passing and many miles of road under us, our journey was executed with only a few unexpected events along the way.

Since my van's odometer shows a number close to 330,000 miles, we decided to rent a car--a brand new black Kia Sorento. The pick-up when I pressed the gas pedal was appreciated, but this old body of mine was wishing I had the familiar seat of my van putting me at just the right height for the sun visor to keep the blazing ball of fire in the sky from hindering my ability to see all that was before me.

Our first stop, Atlanta GA, is the home of a woman I met during my first chemotherapy infusion in 2009. She was a fantastic walking partner—fast was her only speed. As we walked she lent me her ear while I lent her mine. We shared our fears, struggles, and laughable moments through chemo and beyond. Almost a year ago, she moved away from Wilmington, and I had not seen her since.

After an evening of pizza and conversing, we settled in for a good night sleep. The morning brought hopes of a good day for travel. Meredith prepared coffee, and we spent time enjoying the morning air from her back porch. Her breakfast sandwiches were eaten and time passed too quickly. A few pictures were taken, our farewells were said; Kentucky was waiting.

As we drove my youngest daughter saw unfamiliar landscapes that brought awe to all of us. Living near the coast, land is mostly flat so mountainous views bring lots of oooh’s and ahhh’s. Such amazing work has been done by people constructing roads and buildings on the sides and over the tops of mountains. We marveled at the beautiful fields that could be seen for miles upon miles. Where we call home there are miles and miles of farm land, but it is not always easily seen. After a few acres, without the benefit of being atop a mountain, trees eventually obstruct our view.

Debbie and I

We reached my sister’s home about an hour behind schedule—not bad I thought. Upon arrival our adrenaline raised a little as we prepared for what we were about to do. My sister and her family live on the side of a hill with a waterway below—actually just one continuous mountain if you consider how high we were above sea level. The decent of her driveway is quite unnerving if you don’t do it often. The small hump at the top sent our vision over the treetops. Then the nose of the car began to point downward—yikes! Thankfully, our brakes were in peak condition so we didn't slide into her garage.

Debbie took the picture.
Trevor was at work during these pictures.
Dinner was prepared that evening and good conversations were had by all. The following day we went into town to see my sister's dog grooming shop. It was beautiful. Funny way to describe a fur-cutting assembly line I know, but it was BEAUTIFUL!—clean, organized, ready for business.

Throughout that day our children were getting along splendidly making this visit one of the better ones.

Next, as was planned, we moved all our things from this sister’s house to my other sister’s house so we could spend time with her and her family. She lives in the same Kentucky town so it was an easy transition. We had plans to go to the zoo, but with the temperature in the upper 90’s and the threat of rain we stayed inside. That evening everyone moved to her backyard for some good fun playing corn hole--basically horse shoes with bean bags.

Donna and I
The following evening my sister treated the kids to roller-skating. I sort of regret not participating, but I had a nagging thought, What if I break my leg or worse. So I refrained. Instead my sister and I chatted while watching the kids and her husband cruise along on their wheels. Well, most everyone cruised. My youngest daughter had never been skating before so her cruising was stop and go. That didn’t prevent her from enjoying herself despite the many bruises inflicted to her knees with each fall.

Cousins (and one boyfriend)

Bing Images--Cleveland's Chandelier
Cleveland, OH was our next destination. It would become the new home for my eldest--by 20 minutes--of my twin daughters. As the miles increased on our odometer, the sites of the Cleveland area came into view. Gone were the rolling hills of Kentucky and Ohio. What we saw were acres and acres of concrete roads and buildings rising out of the land. Steel production and other industry were evident everywhere. All of that was forgotten though when we reached the district where she would be working. The efforts to bring theater to Cleveland and energize the city were visible. One odd attraction is an enormous outdoor chandelier in the middle of the theater district. It is certainly unexpected but eye-pleasing nevertheless.

While taking in the sights of the rest of the city, two billboards caught our attention:

Bing images--Donald Trump and Ted Cruz
The bottom line says:
We are not going to live forever
so why should the earth.

The Republican convention had been held there just under a week before we arrived so billboards such as these should not have been a surprise to me. But, I was surprised.  I don't believe I would ever see billboards such as these where I come from. We had to drive pass them one more time to make sure what we saw was ACTUALLY what we saw.

Excited is one way to describe how my daughter was feeling as we toured her new home. The living accommodations, I found were beyond my expectations. I felt comfortable leaving her there, but I couldn't hold back a few tears as we said our goodbyes on her new front porch.

After moving her things into her new home which she will share with 15 other people also working for this theater production company, we headed to our nation’s capital. Despite some rain limiting our visibility, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia were beautiful from the viewpoint of the roads we traveled. The greenery of the farmland was spectacular.

My second daughter was due in DC the following day for training in preparation for her new job. The group would fly to Japan the day after to spend the next year helping Japanese children learn English. There was no way I could take her to Japan, so I had to accept that Washington DC was my stopping point.

As we were approaching our exit for the hotel we had booked in Virginia, we heard the sound of metal scraping against metal on the right side of our car. Feeling a jolt, our car was pushed slightly left. It took me a few seconds to adjust my brain to what was happening. We had been hit. The gray Toyota Camry that side-swiped us sped up and moved in front showing no sign of stopping. My daughter sitting next to me called 911 while I pursued the car to get the car’s plate number. I blew the horn hoping to get some kind of reaction from the driver. Mostly I blew my horn because I was mad. I had done my best NOT to damage this car and this person changed that. How careless and all in an effort to not have to get behind me as a line of orange barrels forced traffic to merge into my lane.

As I followed the hit-and-run offender my daughter read the tag number to the operator. The 911 operator insisted we stop following and pull over, so we did. Our location was relayed to an officer who arrived quickly. Behind him another patrol car parked. The first officer gathered all the information. Then after asking me to follow him to a safer area to park, he asked that we wait. He and the other officer left to find the driver. There we remained going over in our minds and to each other what had happened. Once the two men returned, I was given the driver’s insurance information and a few other details that my insurance company would need--incidentally the driver lived close by. I asked the officer what the driver said about the accident. His reply was, “She doesn’t remember hitting you.”

“What? How? I said.

“Around here a lot of people say they aren't aware they hit someone." Based on our conversation prior to my question, his response suggested to me that where he once lived, in South Carolina, people didn't drive like that. The officer ended our conversation by telling us to be safe. I closed my window, put the car in drive and began listening to the familiar voice of the GPS guiding me to the hotel.

Although I was determined to give the car back to Enterprise Rent-A-Car unscathed, this incident again proved that most things are out of my control. For now my insurance company will be investigating the accident. Hopefully they will find her responsible, and her insurance company will pay for the damages.

Weary, hungry, and thankfully unhurt, we made it to the hotel parking lot as the midnight hour approached. It was much later than we planned, but we made it.

On the final day of our trip, we went to Dulles International Airport to see my daughter spend her last few hours on US soil; for now Japan would be her new home. As she was walking to greet her group and my youngest daughter and I were walking back to the car, she turned in our direction. We turned at the same time finding her smiling face and her hand waving goodbye. Those moments when goodbyes are necessary, I try so hard to make them a permanent visual memory. Because living is fraught with uncertainties, the "what ifs" pounded inside my brain. It was hard, but we waved back.

My youngest and I, settling back into the car less weighted down with suitcases and people than when we started, began our drive home. Movement for a long while on an interstate in Virginia was slow. We never saw an accident, but there must have been one. Traffic was inching along on another roadway as well making sitting exhausting. This was all unexpected since it was not rush hour traffic. It was a Saturday for crying out loud!

Once we were in North Carolina we sailed home. “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina”--to use a line from an old Dean Martin tune--describes exactly how we were feeling. A familiar world met our eyes. After nine days of traveling and approximately 1,800 miles later, we made it home.