What Doesn’t Kill You…

…makes you STRONGER?

Day 1 of CODEX=M/IVAC chemo, and my body is handling it pretty well.

Todays Chemo Specials!

Of course, the chemo drugs haven’t really been IN my body long enough to cause the brutal side effects they keep telling me I’ll be seeing.  AND the nurses are doing an amazing job of both explaining the prophylactic measures they’re taking to prevent bladder problems, nausea, headaches, dizziness, unexpected bleeding—if it is an undesirable side effect, the chances are it’s part of my chemo journey!

I can be relaxed about this so far because it’s only day one.  We’ll see how happy I am on day 7, when the side effects begin to come into their own.  For now, I’ll enjoy what I can enjoy, not that getting liters and liters of fluids pumped into me all day is terribly ENJOYABLE, but it’s not horrible.

Amusingly, one of the drugs can have neurological side effects that show up when the patient tries to write a sentence, so the nurses had me pick a sentence that I can write over and over through the day to make sure that my brain is working as we all want it to work.

There’s ALWAYS money in the Banana Stand!!

The sentence I chose?  “There’s always money in the banana stand!”  Neither of my nurses had heard of it.  There’s nothing quite like explaining an obscure cable TV joke, entirely out of context.  I probably should have chosen, “NO TOUCHING!” as my sentence.

Today Gerry was down at Mayo meeting with his new cardiologist.  I’m so excited about this, because we’ve put his heart health on the back burner since my own diagnosis, and it’s high time that he got a little attention paid to his health issues.  One of my dear knitter friends volunteered her husband to drive Gerry down, and he seemed happy to do it, so we are VERY excited and VERY grateful to Wilson for ‘volunteering’ to be Gerry’s driver, that was a gift!

Andy was taking care of getting me settled in my 5-day hospital room, so they weren’t available for the drive down.  I ended up needing some stuff from home that I forgot, so it was very good that Andy was nearby.

It feels a little surreal to be back on the same ward that I was in when I was diagnosed, now I have no hair, but still the nurses seem to remember me.  It’s a really lovely group of folks here, I feel like I’m visiting family a little bit!

We Start TOMORROW!

Today was lab day, the day we go to the Health East Cancer Center and get a line put into my port so they can draw blood for various blood tests.  Then an appointment with the nurse practitioner who works with my med oncologist, where we got the surprising (and VERY welcome) news that tomorrow morning I will begin chemo.

The regime that I’ll be on is, basically, the same one that Mayo wanted to put me on.  I’ll be in the hospital for 5 days, during which I’ll be receiving pretty strong, high-dose chemo which they will be monitoring (hence my 5 days in the hospital.)  I plan on bringing my own fan (it gets REALLY HOT in the hospital, I’ll need some fresh air.)

I’m eager to get started, and I’m also terrified, but definitely more eager than terrified.

In so many ways, this is the best of all worlds.

No, it’s not Mayo.  But I WILL be given the strong CODOX=M/IVAC chemo that Dr. T. was proposing, which should work better for my specific cancer and the way that it’s manifesting itself.  I’ll be in the hospital just 6 miles from my house, and when I’m out of the hospital I’ll be HOME (which is lovely!)

I don’t know if we’d even be talking about this stronger chemo if I hadn’t gone to Mayo for a second opinion, so even with the stress and heartache last week, it seems that going down to Rochester was, ultimately, a very positive move.

The stress of the travel and the stress of the insurance snafu last week have left me exhausted, though.  Absolutely shattered, just SO tired that I feel as though I’m sleepwalking.  My body and my soul need rest, so perhaps these five days in the hospital will be a bit of a respite for me?

I had signed up for a class at the Textile Center that’s due to start tomorrow; Wearable Art.  It’s a class for women over 55, but I know they were working to fill up the class, so I’m not certain how strict they’re being with the age limit.  If it’s possible, I’m going to see if Andy might be able to take the class in lieu of me.  Every Tuesday for the foreseeable future will have me undergoing some kind of medical appointment; chemo or testing or something along those lines.

And, of course, the most important thing is to get the chemo GOING, and to do well with my recover weeks between the chemo.  Time to stock up on salmon and spinach!

 

Respite

What a lovely weekend!

My first day at Denison I met Ellyn Shannon.  She was having the WORST allergic reaction to the Ohio Valley humidity and fall allergy triggers, she was sneezing and stuffy and could barely open her eyes.  I think for the first few days of college, she was prone on her bed, face down, suffering the torments of the damned.

Ohio valley has that effect on first time visitors from the east coast,
the weather + allergens + humidity can be BRUTAL.

Ellyn and I became very good friends.  The first time I ever visited New York City it was to stay with her family.  Her dad took us to my first Broadway show (Ain’t Misbehavin’) and I had my very first cannoli en route to her home in Rye, NY.

We traveled to London together after college, and had a BLAST!  As I’ve said before, if you can travel with a friend, then you can be FRIENDS FOR LIFE! 

Ellen Ponders The London Tube, 1983

She didn’t stay at Denison for her entire college career, eventually getting her bachelors & then masters degrees from NYU.  For whatever reason, Ellyn never entirely seemed to understand exactly how brilliant she is, which is true for so many women, but perhaps that is changing?  I hope so.

As friendships do, ours went in and out of various phases; sometimes we were so close, then there were periods when we were out of each other’s lives for long stretches.

But the mutual respect and love we have for each other hasn’t dimmed since that first weekend when I tried to relieve her allergy suffering, but didn’t do much more than hand her tissues.

Early Morning Chatter

Ellyn, Annie & a Yeomen Warder in London, 1983

For the past few weeks, since my Lymphoma diagnosis, Ellyn’s been up each morning early and we’ve been messaging each other.  Sleeping has been hard for me, but knowing that I have a friend in NYC who has to get up at 6am (5am central time) and who is happy to chat with me for a few minutes, has made my sleepless mornings easier.

So imagine my joy when, on Friday, Ellyn confessed to me that she’d booked a flight out to St. Paul and would be staying the weekend!!  She also booked into an Air BnB, but – luckily – her host contacted her on Sat morning to tell her that she’d have to cancel the reservation, so Ellyn was free to stay here, in Max’s room!

It’s been SUCH a lovely weekend.  A lovely, silly, boring, wonderful weekend!  I’m not able to do much, and this weekend my exhaustion and nausea levels were pretty high, but Ellyn was cool with just SITTING on the sofa and watching cooking shows while we giggled and ate ice cream with Baileys.

Bulb Life
Living in NYC, Ellyn doesn’t have a yard, so she happily did some weeding around our house, and also planted a bunch of bulbs, sort of as a gift for me, although she claimed that she was doing it for fun.  My intention wasn’t to use her for free yard labor, but as long as she was volunteering…  Now, THAT is a good friend!

Gerry and Andy and Ellyn have gone off to Lake Phalen to visit Kwan Yin and take the dog for a walk.  I’m sitting here on the sofa, too tired to go with them, but SO happy that my family seems to love Ellyn as much as I do!

Traveling out here from NYC was such a gift, such a kind and wonderful thing for Ellyn to do for me.  I am so grateful, and I’m also just a bit exhausted, but in the BEST possible way!  Thank you, Ellyn!

Fan Mail From Some Flounder?

Flowers From ???
Andy received a GORGEOUS gift of begonias and cyclamen from Bachman’s greenhouse, and they are SO lovely!  The only problem is, we have NO idea who sent them!  If you sent them, and you don’t mind telling us, we would LOVE to thank you!

Andy’s been growing several different varieties of cyclamen this Summer, she seems to have inherited a love of plants from Gerry’s parents, which is absolutely stellar.

I have NO ability to grow anything, but I can appreciate a nice plant!

Spinal Taps
After a bit of a hiatus, I’ll be jumping back into the chemo pool this year.  On Monday, and then again on Thursday I’ll be getting Spinal Taps (testing to determine exactly WHAT kind and how strong the next round of Chemo should be)

My doc from Mayo, who is no longer my doc, but is still a wonderful person, has been on the phone with my doc from St. John’s up here in Maplewood, and it sounds as though there may be some kind of meeting of the minds on the direction that my chemo might take.  I’m just anxious to have a chat with Dr. N, and get a feeling for exactly how much my cancer’s metastasized since my last chemo week.  Not knowing is hard, it leads me to imagine all sorts of unpleasant scenarios.  I just want to have a good idea of WHERE my body is in this whole cancer journey right now.

I know I have pain, and I know I’m experiencing incredible exhaustion, but I don’t know where I stand right now with the actual cancer and tumors that are growing in various places in my body.

NOW It’s Real

I have kept wondering, over the past 7 weeks or so, WHEN will this cancer thing seem real?  I mean, not that I’m NOT sick or anything, but sometimes when something is so life changing, it just doesn’t seem to sink in, doesn’t seem 100% real.

My cane matches my pedicure!

I figured I’d keep wandering around in a semi-fog, achieving moments of clarity as pieces of the lymphoma puzzle came together, until at last there’d be some kind of crystal clear reckoning when things fitted together and made perfect sense.

THAT hasn’t happened.  Some things are just as foggy as they have been, some things seem clearer, but suddenly the whole mess feels REAL.

The pain so far’s been real; the pain my body shoots at me through the tumors (large and small) and the other internal indignities that present themselves as recurring pricks of pain or deep seated aches.

I’m learning to deal with the pain, to figure out how to avoid it, or to meet it head on, or perhaps to sidle along beside it, dealing with it quietly, so it doesn’t even know I’m there.  Shhhhhh.

There’s also pain that comes from outside my body, the needle pokes, the sticks, the punctures. AND THEN there are the shakes, hunger pains & mental anguish which are hallmarks of  Dex.

Every human body deals with Dexamethasone (a powerful steroid) in it’s own way, but it’s been one of my hardest battles; Dex entirely changes my personality, turning me into a raging, raving, hungry, incomprehensible ball of pure emotion.  At the start of this trip, I was on a double dose of Dex and I thought I’d end up in federal prison instead of a hospital.

Heaven help my family, they’ve been amazing
in dealing with me and the Dex, I wish I were as gracious.

The fear has certainly been real.  Like anyone facing a serious cancer (is there a cancer that is NOT serious? What a silly phrase that was…) I have had my middle-of-the-night sitting-up-straight-in-bed PURE FEAR sessions.

Death is a fear every human has to face, no one gets out of this life alive.
But when you feel your time is shorter than you had anticipated, it brings up a great deal of unfinished business. There can be lots of baggage, and cancer has a way of leaving those bags in the foyer of your brain where you can trip over them at 3am.

But what makes the cancer seem suddenly VERY REAL is that I have a date that my chemo is supposed to begin at the Mayo, and it’s this coming Tuesday.  We got the call today from Dr. T, I’ll drive down with Andy on Tues morning (not too early, thank heaven!) and start the pre-chemo labs.

Then I’ll be admitted to Methodist hospital where I’ll receive the cocktail of drugs that will be VERY rough.  The way Dr. T described it, the chemo will really kick my butt, and I’ll be in such bad shape that they won’t be able to release me from the hospital until they’re certain that I WILL RECOVER from the chemo infusion.

Thats ME! Side view [long and thin] and front view [gingerbread cookie]

She drew me a picture.  Two in fact.  And I did NOT promise not to show them here.

I actually found them charming and helpful, and I don’t know that any doctor’s ever drawn me a picture before. 

The first image is me, a side view, showing my spine and explaining why it’s necessary for me to continue to receive chemo directly into my spine.  Hint: It’s where the CANCER IS.

The second image is also me, looking rather like a gingerbread woman, showing how the Methotrexate will kill the cancer, but will also try to kill ANYTHING ELSE in it’s path.

Because my tumors seem to REALLY like my spine and brain, Big-M (which is what I’m calling Methotrexate) is the best medicine to treat them. But it’s a dangerous med, and needs to be controlled.

This image demonstrates how Dr. T. will fight off the bad side effects of Big-M and until that is under control, I’ll be monitored at Methodist.

An extra bonus is that during my time at Methodist I’ll probably be overseen, at least a little bit, by Gerry’s hematologist, Dr. H, who has become a good family friend.  I almost feel as though I’ll be with family, and that feels amazing.

Andy has been stellar through this adventure. Thank you, Andy!

So I’m scared.  I remember how hard this was for Gerry when he had the high dose chemo, and I’m wondering if it will be as bad for me as it was for him.

But I’m also cool with being scared, it’s part of this whole trip, and I’m feeling strong enough to get through this.  Hopefully in one piece.

The chemo I had two weeks ago here at St. John’s in Maplewood was called  R-EPOCH (not R-CHOP, as I previously mistakenly said) 

It was a 5-day infusion that I carried around with me in a bag type mechanism that pumped the chemo into my chest for four full days, Tues through Friday.  I didn’t really get very ill, the anti nausea meds were great, and it wasn’t until the following week that I suffered the exhaustion and mouth sores that came with R-EPOCH.

This chemo that I’ll be getting at Mayo is called CODOX=M/IVAC, and although it has similarities to R-EPOCH, it’s an entirely different beast.  I wish I knew what that alphabet soup of a name actually meant, but what I DO know is the M=”Big M”=Methotrexate and the IVAC means I get more needles inserted into my spine.  Huzzah.

3am; Nitro, the softest kitty in the world, and me.

But, it’s an important step in getting this cancer OUT of my spine, so I’ll not complain!

Okay, maybe I will complain just a bit.  Andy can give you all the gory details of my complaining when this adventure is finished.

Tumors?
Folks have been asking, “If you have Lymphoma, why do you have all these tumors in your spine and back and neck? Isn’t Lymphoma a blood cancer?”

Yes, that’s true, I have a blood cancer.  I’ve been told by my docs that lymphoma is a cancer that can produce some amazing tumors, and I’m one of the lucky folks who seems to have a very fertile ground within my nervous system to grow these tumors.  Why that is, I don’t know.  But getting rid of the tumors is a large part of my treatment.

I’m not an oncologist, and I’m not reading as much about this cancer as I probably should.  I know many folks facing an illness like this prepare themselves with education, that was Gerry’s way of dealing with Multiple Myeloma.  But I am lazier than that, and I know that my comprehension of the disease will probably have no material impact on what my doctors choose to do.  I’d rather spend that time reading a novel, knitting or watching some cooking show. Or baking.

Any chance I have to show off my cookie, I will SHOW OFF MY COOKIE!

Location Details
So this weekend I’ll get myself square away, packed up, ready to head down to Mayo. Andy’s booked into Days Inn (next to Methodist) and then later in the week she’ll move to the Staybridge Suites (a better choice for us when I’m released from Methodist, but need to stay down in Rochester.) 

I honestly believe that if there had not been the AMAZING response to the GoFundMe to raise money for our accommodation in Rochester, this chemo would NOT be happening. 

Thank you to everyone who helped out along the way, I am VERY grateful to each of you!  You have made a huge difference in my recovery.

And now I will go nap. My exhaustion has taken over my days and my nights, I slip into sleep so easily I barely even know whether I’m awake at any given time.  I’m certain it’s because I’ve been keeping a pretty rough schedule the past few days. Who knows?

Maybe my days at Methodist on CODOX=M/IVAC will be just the rest cure I need..?

Or maybe I’ll just bake something at 3am.

Calm Before Thursday

Here’s a partial list of what the past seven days have entailed;

  • A trip to the Mayo Clinic
  • A meeting with Dr. Gita Thanarajasingam
  • A high fever & heart rate led to an admission to St. Mary’s
  • A hard ride home (car rides have become difficult…)
  • Hair loss = Head Shaving
  • Increase of pain due to metastasis of back tumor
  • Decrease of pain due to increase of pain meds
  • Mouth sores = Thrush = new meds = healing mouth!
  • A fall in the rain = twisted ankle = no big deal!
  • A decision on where to get my chemo treatment = Mayo!
  • Realization of true auxiliary costs to be in Rochester for treatment
  • GoFundMe to raise funds for accommodation during treatment
  • GOAL ACHIEVED of GoFundMe (Thank you, everyone!)

As you can see, it’s been one of the busiest weeks I’ve had since my initial diagnosis on July 23, 2018.

Six Weeks
Which was six weeks ago.  Which blows my mind.

I know it’s an old saying that life can change in an instant, and a diagnosis is NOT a life change.  The change had been happening slowly over the past months/year as the tumor in my spine had been growing, as the Lymphoma had been blooming like a forsythia branch across both sides of my chest.  And the past six weeks has been more than an “instant,” it’s been — well, six weeks.

Six weeks have never felt both as long, and as short, a span of time as I’ve experienced.  This week feels like a change in my recovery, though.  It feels like a point where I realize that I MUST take the reins, that I must be the captain of my own ship, and this makes me a bit scared, but also very strong.

Who knew that fear and strength could live so comfortably together.

New Direction
So today, with my early morning appointment to double check whether I will require a transfusion THIS week at St. John’s Cancer Center, will be a kind of ‘rest’ day.  It will be a chance to see the Chemo nurses who have been SO amazingly wonderful, to thank them, to discuss with them that I may be getting my Chemo down in Rochester.

I know that no one is invested in my staying at St. John’s, I know that the most important thing is that I get the absolute BEST treatment for my own body.  Avoiding a future relapse is my #2 priority. (#1 is beating this Lymphoma and going into remission)

I think Mayo will give me the best option to reach outcomes #1 & #2.

Break Up?
Yesterday I discussed this with my Radiational Oncologist at St. John’s, and she assuaged a bit of my — guilt? — at my ‘breakup’ with St. Johns.  I know this is the wrong way to consider this decision, but it does feel as though I’ve spent six weeks with one team, who has worked hard to get me to a plateau stage where I can even consider beginning chemo, only to move on to a different care team.

No, I definitely don’t feel GUILT, but I DO want St. John’s to know how grateful I am, although at times it was a rough gratitude, for their care and hard work for me.

Worry
I try hard NOT to be a worrier. I try to deal with worries in an intelligent manner, working through what it’s possible for me to affect, and what is beyond my power, and just deal with what can be dealt with.  It’s the same way I try to deal with guilt and shame, my mother used to say, “If you feel guilty, fix it. If you feel ashamed, apologize.”

It sounds simple — and I guess on one level it is — but it’s not EASY
Nothing about this has been easy.

I have worry about Gerry and his heart.  Right now his OWN cancer treatment is kind of on hold while we deal with his two heart attacks in March, and it seems the way that we’re ‘dealing’ with the heart condition is to — just sit and watch it?  He stopped his cardio rehab after another heart pain incident this Summer, and it hasn’t been started again, but it’s something that really WAS doing him a great deal of good.

So on Thursday when we return to the Mayo we’ll be there for TWO reasons.  As discussed above, I’ll be meeting Dr. T to discuss chemo treatment for my own cancer, and we’ll be visiting Dr. H (Gerry’s Hematologist) to talk about his OWN Multiple Myeloma, where he is with his numbers, how HE’S looking and what the next step is in HIS recovery.

I will always be Gerry’s caregiver.  Gerry WANTS to be mine, but his health isn’t allowing that.  Every day I’m so grateful that we have Andy to step in and fill in the gaps Gerry and I are leaving in each other’s lives, but that is NOT a fair place to put Andy in for a long haul.  And I’m hoping this is NOT for the long haul.  Thursday will be a big day for all three of us.

Thank heaven for Andy.

Resting
Aside from my appointment today, and some yarn wringing out that I’m going to wrangle Andy into doing for me, today is a REST day.  No walking, no trips, nothing but sitting on my butt, knitting, watching some TV and RESTING.

Yesterday I attended a support group meeting, a very lovely group of women who all have Stage 4 Cancer diagnosis.  However, I don’t feel the group is right for me at this time — I’m a bit ‘group shy’ right now and want to avoid the chance of infection
(several of the group members were coughing and sneezing yesterday.)

With two doctor visits and the support group, I was absolutely SHATTERED with exhaustion yesterday, today is Resting Wednesday.

I need this.

The Complexities of Gratitude

Happy Pumpkin Head

Thank you.

It took me SO long to learn how to say those words.

MUSIC MAN
I remember high school as years of pain, I was the poster child for “outcast” and ate my lunch just about every day up on the stage in the auditorium, surrounded by paint buckets and canvas flats, usually alone, happier than I would be at any other time during the day.

But a magical thing happened near the end of my last year in high school.

I became, briefly, popular (in a vague sense of the word…)

I left high school a year early and went to college at 16 (I turned 17 my first day at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio)  My last year of high school was my Junior year, and that was the year our Theater department put on The Music Man.  I was cast as Mrs.  Paroo (Marilyn’s mother) and I was damned good.

Let’s face the fact that character parts are WRITTEN
for overweight outcast high school juniors.  It’s simple truth.

So there I was, extremely funny; hilarious, even!

The day before the all-school matinee performance I couldn’t walk through the halls without being assaulted with cries of “BIG RED!” or “MOOOSE” (did I mention I was overweight…)

…and then the tone changed, and the cries I heard were, “Hey, it’s MAMA PAROO!” or “DAMN, GIRL, YOU ARE FUNNNNYYYYY!”

…and I had NO idea how to respond.

My first response was to flee.  To run.  To head to the bathroom and hyperventilate into my lunch bag.

My second response was to cry.  Publicly.  After all, “If you do something well, you should do it often!” (my mother used to say…)

But I did neither.  I found that the best thing to do was to simply say, “Thank you!” and smile.  So I did.  And I learned a lesson that most folks learn when they’re 12, when they’re not hiding from school bullies and/or their father, just being “normal” kids, trying hard NOT to draw attention to themselves while at the same time CRAVING that same attention.

I learned to simply say “Thank you.”  Two simple words.

And that’s what I say to all of you right now – THANK YOU!

MAYO GO?
Yesterday, faced with the fact that if I didn’t find a way to come up with money for lodging while undergoing my chemo at the Mayo clinic I might possibly NOT be able to actually GET the chemo, I became overwhelmed with frustration.

This “Cancer Road” has had both good days and bad, there have been many more good days, but yesterday was a very bad one.  It was my birthday—a happy one—but I was plagued with fear about NOT being able to go to Mayo for my chemo.

Mayo is where Gerry was treated 12 years ago for Multiple Myeloma.
An expert in my type of cancer has agreed to take on my case,
and there’s a chemo protocol she’d like me to enter into that I can’t get anywhere else.
Going with the Mayo Clinic seems like a no-brainer.

However, an oddity of Mayo is that most patients are treated as out-patients, which reduces the stress on their staff taking care of admitted patients, and also reduces the chances for cross-contamination or infection.  We discovered this when Gerry was being treated, and it makes sense when you think of how many infections and diseases are ‘picked up’ at the hospital these days.

This means, though, that food and accommodation must be figured into the budget of any Mayo patient.  There is a whole sub-economy of apartment and house rentals, and there are SO MANY HOTELS in Rochester (just about all of which have a discount plan in place for patients) that there should never be any question of being able to FIND a room.

The problem comes with PAYING for that room.

My own chemo will be on an odd schedule; a week on, then two weeks “off” when I can return to St. Paul and be monitored by St. John’s Cancer Center (where I’m currently being treated with a less strong chemo regime) 

This is different than most Mayo patients, who come and stay for a period, then go home.  I’ll be coming and going, but the overall time frame will be at least 4 months.

CHARITY HOMES
None of the charitable homes run by the American Cancer Society (or other helpful organization which hold rooms open for folks) in need have ANY vacancy.  These are amazing resources, and I wish that I had the luxury of a clear schedule to arrange these kind of accommodation a few months out.  But I don’t.

I have a very fast-moving cancer, it’s already changed SO MUCH in the short 6 weeks since my diagnosis, it’s not something we want to play with.

AIR BnB
All but the priciest of Air BnB’s are booked up during the weeks when I’ll need them (obviously folks would MUCH rather book someone in for a month instead of a week or two each month!) 

Air BnB can be an amazing bargain, but only if you can find the accommodation to fit your needs at the right time.   I’m looking for a small 1 or 2 BR apartment, hoping one will open up for the dates I need, but right now all that’s showing up during my proposed chemo rounds are upstairs apartments (I’m no good with too many external stairs right now…) or larger full houses which are too expensive.

When you glance at the homes on Air BnB, it may look like there are SO MANY BARGAINS! And there are.

Spam Wellington. You will NOT get this at fine dining establishments in Rochester.

But there are also SO MANY FEES, and by the time you’ve found a place where the available
dates mesh with chemo and physical needs, the price has easily crept up into hotel costs,  but without the convenience of an elevator, cooked breakfast, shuttle service, covered parking,  or any of the other things that make such a
huge difference in the life of a cancer patient.   
Having been through this with Gerry,  I know how much those silly little things really matter.

HOTEL
This leaves hotels as the best fit.  Hotels also tend to be more sanitary, with new towels each day and daily cleaning.  For the most part, the hotels in Rochester are aware of their special role in recovery, and take hygiene very seriously.  Also, because Kathleen and I travel so often for business, we are signed up for several mileage programs, which can get me an extra night here and there, and will make a difference.

Doing a cost work up (thanks, Deb!) I realized that for a four-month round of chemo I would need approx $2,000/month to cover expenses for myself and my caregiver (Andy)

So I did what I was loathe to do.  I set up a GoFundMe.

It bothers me that GoFundMe presents themselves as part of Caring Bridge, gets a ton of good press for being so pro-patient (over 70% of GFM campaigns are for medical expenses) BUT they also take a cool 5% off of each fully funded campaign PLUS additional fees.  I know they’re a biz and have to make a living, but that’s steep.

Almost FUNDED!

GoFundMe
Part of me wants to run and hide; after all, it’s a bit shaming to have to go, cap in hand, and beg real and cyber friends for money to be able to embark upon life-saving treatment for a deadly cancer.

Part of me wants to be all blown up with pride: LOOK WHAT MY FRIENDS DID!  But that is a terrible response to such kindness.

And it would be, in itself, unkind to those who aren’t lucky enough to have the large circle of folks I’ve lucked into!

WALK UNDER LADDERS
I happen to be among the luckiest folks I know (money issues not withstanding)

I am lucky because I get to do what I love, and in so doing it, I get to make hundreds of friends each year (otherwise called “Students” and “Customers” and “Fiber Biz Owners”) and, even FURTHER, I am so DAMNED lucky that I get to actually MEET these folks again and again at fiber shows and in classrooms.

Freelancing; owning one’s own income, this is not an easy road to walk in our American society.  We talk about loving independence, but our entire financial system is set up to reward ‘Company Men’ who throw in with a corporation in exchange for a low-wage paycheck and any kind of health insurance.

I’ve chosen a different route; creating my own business, and in so doing creating a couple of extra jobs in our community.  Living in Minnesota where the ACA hasn’t been dismantled makes this possible, but it’s never easy.  I know exactly how lucky I am to be here, and I am VERY grateful to the legislators of MN who help make this possible.

But self employed means, generally, skimping on things like Disability Insurance.  Or very good supplemental insurance for things like lodging when seeking treatment.  This is just one of the truisms of life.  Health insurance; check. Car insurance: check. Disability insurance? We can live without that.

OVERWHELMING WEEKEND
It was, overall, an incredibly overwhelming weekend.  Unexpectedly, I’d had to spend 2 days at St. Mary’s hospital in Rochester (part of the Mayo campus) because I had a pretty high fever and very high heart rate when I had my consultation and my new doc wanted to admit me.  It took 2 days to get my numbers back to ‘normal’, and it was a very stress-filled weekend.

Bye, Bye, Hair!
Then my hair started falling out in MASSES.  I can take a bit of hair-fall, but when it began clumping into my lunch, I was over it.  I knew it was time for the head shaving, and Andy and I made a fun video of it, but it was STILL one of the more stressful adventures in this journey.

Then there was my birthday to consider.  Yesterday I turned 57, the age my dad was when he passed, and in a yearly fist-shaking admonishment to his memory, I have sworn to OUT LIVE him, live beyond 57.

The irony of having THIS cancer during THIS birthday hasn’t been lost on me.  I can see Dad shaking his fist right back at me.  But he missed me this time!

FALL DOWN
And then there was a fall that I haven’t talked about.  I fell on Sunday morning, in our driveway, while I was out for one of my walks.  It was raining horribly, just pouring down, and I lost my footing at a very slanted part of our narrow drive.  I feel backwards, twisting my ankle pretty badly, but not doing any other damage.  I fell right into an incredibly soft bank of earth, so I was dirty, but fine.  Except for the ankle.

By Sunday evening the ankle had swollen pretty badly (it’s MUCH better, now, thank you!) and that was in my head.  I did NOT want to go to another hospital just to be told, “Ice it, elevate it, you’ll be fine!”  Besides, tomorrow I’m seeing my doc, so if there’s anything untoward I’ll be right at St. John’s, close to the ER or anywhere else.  That added a good amount of stress to the weekend.

So by the time I fully realized that my ability to accept the gift of a Mayo treatment plan hinged on my ability to pay for a hotel, I was ready to fall to pieces.  In fact, when Kathleen came over to drop off a lovely ice cream birthday cake, I was in quite a state.  Weeping, sad, scared, all of the emotions that are so difficult, but so necessary, to get out.

Perhaps because of this need to deal with the emotions, I finally decided to start the GoFundMe I’d been secretly afraid of, and it looks as though I’ll be fully funded very soon.

Spam Wellington, because you cannot get too much of a good thing.

Which is insane. AND amazing, AND which truly feels like an out-of-body experience.

Which leads me to pure gratitude.  THANK YOU.

And, apropos of NOTHING, I give you a dish I whipped up this past week. Spam Wellington. 

Because it was my birthday.

Cancer Gives Me Hope

Lymphoma is a blood cancer.  So much of my recovery is wrapped up in blood, and blood products, that I realized early on I can’t allow myself to be too squeamish about this whole process if I want to write about it with anything approaching honesty.

As I’ve mentioned before, blood cancer is not a stranger to our home.  Gerry’s been dealing with Multiple Myeloma (a bone marrow cancer, a sister cancer to lymphoma) so in a weird way this experience is NOT as foreign to us both as it might have been.  Once again, Gerry goes ahead and quietly forges a path for us both to walk.

The point of my chemotherapy  (R-Chop is the term used to describe the cocktail I’m being given) is to throw some VERY powerful drugs at my cancer until it yells “Uncle!”

Hopefully the cancer will give up before my body does!

Here’s a brief explanation from The American Cancer Society’s webpage on R-Chop and a cancer similar to my own diagnosis.  It gives me a vague idea of what I might expect going forward:

Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma

Diffuse large B-cell lymphoma (DLBCL) tends to grow quickly. Most often, the treatment is chemotherapy (chemo), usually with a regimen of 4 drugs known as CHOP (cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin, vincristine, and prednisone), plus the monoclonal antibody rituximab (Rituxan). This regimen, known as R-CHOP, is most often given in cycles 3 weeks apart. Because this regimen contains the drug doxorubicin, which can damage the heart, it may not be suitable for patients with heart problems, so other chemo regimens may be used instead.

Stage I or II

For DLBCL that is only in 1 or 2 lymph node groups on the same side of the diaphragm (the thin muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen), R-CHOP is often given for 3 to 6 cycles, which might be followed by radiation therapy to the affected lymph node areas.

Stage III or IV

Most doctors will give 6 cycles of R-CHOP as first-line treatment. After several cycles, doctors may get imaging tests such as a PET/CT scan to see how well treatment is working. People who have a higher risk of the lymphoma coming back later in the tissues around the brain and spinal cord may be treated with chemo injected into the spinal fluid (called intrathecal chemotherapy). Another option is to give high doses of methotrexate intravenously. (This drug can pass into the spinal fluid.)

For younger patients with a higher risk of the lymphoma coming back based on the International Prognostic Index (IPI) score, high-dose chemo followed by a stem cell transplant might be an option. But it’s not yet clear if transplants are better as the initial treatment. Most doctors feel that if a transplant is done as part of the first treatment, it should be done in a clinical trial.

If the lymphoma doesn’t go away completely with treatment or if it recurs (comes back) after treatment, doctors will usually suggest another chemo regimen.

Several different regimens can be used, and they may or may not include rituximab. If the lymphoma shrinks with this treatment, it might be followed by a stem cell transplant if possible, as it offers the best chance of curing the lymphoma. Stem cell transplants are not effective unless the lymphoma responds to chemo. Unfortunately, not everyone is healthy enough for a stem cell transplant.

DLBCL can be cured in about half of all patients, but the stage of the disease and the IPI score can have a large effect on this. Patients with lower stages have better survival rates, as do patients with lower IPI scores.

The Mighty Hemo
One of the best indicators of the success of my therapy can be found in my labs (the tests that they put my blood through to see how well I’m holding up.)  Three of the main tests that my medical team looks at are Platelet Counts, White & Red Blood Cell Counts and Hemoglobin.

Back in October/November, when I was beginning to feel SO exhausted that I started to lose hope that I’d be able to continue working on ModeKnit Yarn much longer*, I discovered that my hemoglobin was hovering around 11.  While that’s not bad, it’s not great for an otherwise healthy woman, and it WAS an indication that something might be up.

But at this point in my chemotherapy 11.2 is actually quite good for my hemoglobin, and I’ve been able to keep that level up.  I think it’s dumb luck, I really don’t think I’m doing anything so much better than anyone else, but I HAVE been trying to eat a lot of good protein (salmon, yogurt, eggs, nuts) and iron rich foods (spinach, raisins) and that might be helping.

My platelet count is 228, not stellar, but not bad at all for someone who has just undergone a week of chemo. White Blood Cell and Red Blood Cell counts are 3.4 ad 3.94, respectively, which is also not bad.

This will change, I’m certain.  As my recovery progresses I’m sure I’ll have weeks when the numbers aren’t as good as this, and I’ll probably need a transfusion at that time. But the BIG NEWS THIS WEEK is that I do NOT require a transfusion.

Well, not today.  There’s always a chance I’ll need one on Friday.

SUCCESS!
The Nurse/Practitioner was very happy with my numbers, and so was I!  Because it’s August, everyone is on vacation, so he is a fill-in from Woodwinds Hospital in Woodbury, but he was a very nice guy and we had a great visit today.

So as exhausted and in pain as I was, dragging my sorry butt into St. John’s Cancer Center for a blood draw through my port, and came out feeling exhausted, but a bit victorious!

I need to caution myself, though, that if when I DO need a transfusion in future, it will not be some kind of failure, but simply the need to do for my body what it requires.

* This was a fear I lived with, quietly, for the past 9 months or so.  I would refer to my exhaustion every now and then to Kathleen, but mostly what I felt was shame that it seemed that I was unable to keep up my part of our work agreement. 

Of course, NOW I know that my body was battling Cancer, but at the time I thought I was just ageing very quickly, or maybe being lazy. 

I discovered during this period that sometimes, when I felt at the nadir of my strength, along would come a chilling fear that I’d NEVER have more strength.  A feeling like, “I will NEVER feel better than I do at this moment.”  It felt like the very definition of hopelessness.

As scary and overwhelming as the word CANCER is, it’s far LESS terrifying than the abject fear that I would NEVER feel any better than I did last November.  The diagnosis of Cancer has given me a bit of hope, and that’s worth gold.

THIS is why I feel lucky.  I feel that I’ve been given a chance to see the horizon, where before the diagnosis it was just a foggy bank of pain over in the distance.  Now I have a direction where I can look, and dream.

Some Days

Today is a pure exhaustion day.  It’s 9:17, I’ve been up and down since 2am (hip pain makes it hard to stay level, so I’m up, then down, then up, etc.  You get it…)

I just walked to the dining room, moved a very small watermelon to the kitchen, cut it open, chopped 1/4 of it into a bowl, and I feel as though I’ve worked a full day on the factory floor.

Jobs I thought I’d be able to do are slipping from my hands, and the gratitude I feel toward Kathleen and Layla for picking up the slack is larger than I can explain or ever return!

Today is the first time I’ll be able to get in to see the Cancer Psychiatrist, and this is a visit that is LONG overdue.  We were supposed to see her last week, but that visit was cancelled (it makes me sad because I wanted Max to have a chance to at least MEET the doc before he returned to school)

But I’m VERY grateful that it’s happening, and I’m going to try to
have the energy I need to make the visit really matter.

Couldn’t Come Too Soon
I’ve been so—stressed—over the past few days that I feel as though I’m coming out of my skin.  Small things, totally microscopic and inconsequential things, drive me up the friggin’ wall, and I’ve screamed more in the past few weeks than I have in the past 45 years.

I leave my first 11 years out of that because heaven KNOWS
how much I screamed during THAT period of my life…

So I’m hoping that there will be some strategies that will allow me to be a nicer, better person around my family (who are going through hell right with me…)

AND I’m wondering if there might be some kind of drug that would help me relax…

The Ol’ MJ
Of course, that drug COULD be the Medical Marijuana for which I’ve been approved, but I’m STILL waiting for my Pharmacist interview I have to go though to actually get PRESCRIBED anything.  Dang.

Mouth Of Sore
Aside from the mental wilderness into which my brain has wandered, physically the week of Chemo is catching up on me.

My mouth is one huge sore.  All along the edges of the mouth, in the palette and tongue and along the sides it feels as though there’s a constant fire going on all the time.

Ice, jello, ice pops and cold drinks are my friends.  Unfortunately, the more ice I take in, the more I have to make my way up to the bathroom for more good times, and the more exhausted I get.  A vicious ice circle.

Swallowing is becoming very difficult.  I think I need to start using straws, because even a small mouthful of ice water (or any beverage) makes it SO difficult for me to swallow.  I fear choking, or at the least a coughing fit because THAT really hurts my chest so badly.

The only foods that really go down smoothly are ice cream type of foods, ice pops, mochi, kulfi, all kinds of iced dairy treats!

On a side note, due to the kindness of my neighbor, Kristen, I’ve been able to make a bunch of YoNaNa frozen banana dessert, which helps me get potassium to fight the leg cramps (another side effect haunting me all night) and allows me a creamy treat without a great deal of dairy, which can play havoc with my digestion these days…

My hair is starting to fall out (not a ton, but it’s very obvious in the shower) I KNEW that would happen, I was told by my doc, and it’s not something that troubles me too much.  I’m cool being bald for a bit, and if my hair never grows back I think I’d be fine, too. I think…

The exhaustion has reached a whole new level.  Just getting OUT of a chair takes me as much mental preparation as getting ready for the first leg of American Ninja Warrior*

Sitting up takes more effort than I can muster some days, and THAT is a very frustrating and frightening aspect of this recovery.  I was prepared in part for the exhaustion, but I was NOT prepared for the weakness I feel in every aspect of my physical being.  I can’t sit with my legs up and cross them without help.

This is — hard.  That is the best word for it. Hard as a rock.

Audio hallucinations seem to haunt me before bed and when I first wake.  Sometimes visual oddities pop up, too; feeling that I’m seeing — someone — out of the corner of my eye.  It’s weird, but it’s also comforting in a way, as if I KNOW the voices I’m hearing and they’re just in the other room, laughing and having fun.  This is weird, I know, but Gerry used to get the same sensation (and I think he still does sometimes) so I know I’m not alone in this.

SO here I am, whining and bitching, sitting and inviting all of you into my stream-of-consciousness moan about my health.  Today is a rough day, let’s hope tomorrow is a better one!

*No, I haven’t actually PARTICIPATED in ANW, I’m just going by how impressively the contestants psyche themselves up before that first round… 

Japanese Milk Bread

I love baking.  A year ago I was all about the cake, this year I’m more about bread.  It makes sense, bread is slower, there’s less timing involved, and it’s easier for a person with pain and exhaustion issues to plan out a loaf and deal with it ON MY TERMS.

I can move slowly through a bread recipe, feel I’ve made something special for my family, and NOT knock myself out trying to make something special and memorable.

There are SO many excellent bread resources out there that I’m not going to even TRY to list them.

Right now my favorite source of recipes to try for bread items is the King Arthur website.  In full disclosure, I’m a member of their baking club. I pay a certain $ each year to get free shipping on my orders and other little treats.  

It’s a luxury, but when I break down how cheaply I can whip up a loaf of bread for the family, and how much they enjoy it, it actually makes good sense, financially.

Bread + Pain Strategy
So this morning, waking at 2am with intense pain (2 is when my 8-hour Oxycodone wears off, and at this point I could set my clock by the pain) my strategy has become to

  1. Take my 2am pain pills (short lasting Oxycodone for breakthrough pain)
  2. Get up and take care of nature’s call
  3. Try to stay in bed for at LEAST 1/2 hour
  4. Read a bit from my current bedtime book

If all of this leads to me falling back asleep, then I am what’s known as le Happy Camper.

The kids won’t have hot, fresh bread waiting for them in the morning, but they WILL have a well rested, happy, mom, and that’s worth EVEN MORE!

However if, like this morning, pain won’t abate until I move a bit, I get up and wander the ground floor of the house, putting stuff away, emptying the dish washer, trying to do anything that isn’t too noisy.

If I’m still awake at 6am, I can take my entire pain pill regime (three times a day, 6am, 2pm, 10pm.)  To my list this morning I added, “Make Japanese Milk Rolls!”  Because – why not?

Soft Bread
I like soft bread, and I cannot lie.  Recently I like it even more.  When approaching a chewy crust of bread, I tense up a bit as hard chewing can really bother my teeth these days.  I’m such a sensitive flower…

I love this recipe from King Arthur Flour because it uses a warm milk starter, called a

Sometimes I like to bake my Japanese Milk Bread Rolls with an egg wash & sesame seeds.

“Tangzhong Starter” which really does seem to make the bread soft and easy to eat.  When I was a kid my dad used to buy a loaf of bread called, “MIlk Toast.”

I don’t know if this was an Ohio or WV thing, but we’d get this special bread at A&P, in a blue wrapper, sliced VERY THICK.  I remember it was a soft and comforting bread, and my dad would toast it, then cover it in cinnamon and sugar and warm milk and eat it like a pudding.

These Milk Rolls give me the same feeling when I eat them.  There’s a pleasant density and softness to the bread that makes me feel like I’m 5 again.  This is wonder bread, x100 for taste and texture!

Japanese milk bread roll with jam!

Once I’ve created the starter (I do it 30 seconds at a time in the microwave) and mixed together all of the ingredients, I knead it in my mixer, then give a few extra kneads on my table and put it in a buttered, covered bowl to rise.

60-90 minutes later, the dough’s been raised and it’s time to shape it,

Versatility
At this point there are a number of ways to utilize the dough.  One of my favorites is to create the above rolls, which are very easy to make.  If I feel the need to fill them with spices or nuts or chocolate or cheese, it’s easy to do and makes a beautiful change up from plain bread.

Japanese Milk Rolls baked as a loaf

Other times I roll the dough out into a rectangle, fold it up in thirds (like a business letter) then turn under the edges and slip it into a loaf pan.  Once again, when folding the dough I can add fillings to different section of the bread if I feel so moved, and can make a sweet or a savory treat.

I’ve used this recipe as the base for a nice Babka, too.  It’s such a versatile dough!

I think this morning I’m going to make a kind of cinnamon roll using a nice mix of Cinnamon, Cardamom, Nutmeg and a bit of Vanilla. That sounds like it would be great with a cup of coffee (I seldom drink coffee, but this morning I might!)

When the bread’s had a second rise I’ll roll a Cinnamon-Spice mixture into the dough, then do some creative twisting and try to make something pretty.  Once it’s baked up, I may add a bit of icing and there’s Sunday morning, done and dusted!

What About The Gluten, Annie?
And, for those of you keeping score, YES this is filled with gluten.  But I’m using an organic wheat which should guarantee that a Monsanto product wasn’t used in the harvesting of the grain.

I was experimenting with using organic wheat vs gluten free, and felt that I was having some good success, and then the cancer happened.

I’m so full of various pain killers that I wouldn’t even FEEL the side effects that I’d been chalking up to eating gluten.

So I’m giving myself permission to eat a bagel every now and then, and I’m ESPECIALLY giving myself permission to eat a wheat product I bake at home using organic wheat.  So far I haven’t had any terrible side effects from this, the pain I feel tends to line up with the pain from my lymphoma and metastasized tumors.

So, whether you consider yourself a baker or not, I have found this recipe to be a VERY good soft-bread, and not really difficult to make at ALL!

I hope you’ll give it a try, and let me know how it turns out!  From start to finish this generally takes me about an hour’s work and a few hours of rising/waiting.  Perfect for a 2am wakening on a slow pain-filled morning.

SO who wants to come by and have some bread?

The Pain Drain

One thing about this whole cancer adventure is that I can’t really know what to expect on any given day.

It’s a huge mystery, and it seems that there are as ways a cancer journey can unfold as there are folks who’ve had cancer.

I had THOUGHT that once we got my pain settled with the 3x Oxycontin + as needed OxyCodone, I would be good to go.  And that worked for a few weeks.

But apparently because the tumor in my spine had metastasized again into my hips and tailbone, and it brings a whole NEW tenderness and sensitivity.  I wouldn’t have chalked it down as actual “pain” until today, when the sensation definitely grew into a pain situation.

My morning adventure was getting X-rays at St. Joseph’s hospital, then seeing my neurologist to discuss the X-rays, and then a drive over to St. John’s Cancer Center for a refill of my chemo pump medications and home for resting.

Unfortunately, St. Joseph’s is one of those old-type hospitals in a downtown area that is actually a series of buildings that have been cobbled together into one unit.  This means that there are very few DIRECT ways to get from one department to the next, so my walk from the entrance to Radiology, and then another walk to the Neurology dept were BOTH extremely long (involving several elevator rides and lots of walking)

And this caused me extreme pain.  It wasn’t the walk as much as it was the big brace I had to wear, which pushes down on my hips in a MOST uncomfortable way, and causes me to sweat like a Swede in a sauna.

Seriously, you could have WRUNG OUT the T-shirt I was wearing under the brace,
and heat causes my skin to bleed (I’m a redheaded weirdo)
and THAT causes a great deal of pain.

It was so bad that I got a special dispensation to only wear the brace for comfort reasons. I’ve been pretty good about wearing it whenever I travel in a car, or when I’m walking around outside, but with the advent of the hip pain I must admit I’ve been leaving it off as much as I’ve been wearing it.

I feel very fortunate that my neurologist is taking the fact that the brace is CAUSING me pain seriously.

But it’s been hard to climb out of the hole of pain in my hips that I slunk into this morning.  I know that after I’m able to get a decent night’s sleep the pain will begin to resolve itself, but right now it’s a cold, hollow pain that fills both hips, it’s probably time for a lidocaine patch, to be honest.

Pain is such a game changer.  It feels good to discuss it, but I also know how boring it must be to open my blog and read, “Pain, blah, blah, blah, PAIN!” But that’s my reality today.  Which is so weird after a few weeks of very decent pain control.

It also makes me wonder if the chemo pump drugs I’m on are having
some kind of effect on my pain meds, perhaps undercutting them in some way..?

Tomorrow I meet again with my Radiational Oncologist to discuss returning for MORE radiation treatments to deal with this pain, and to deal with the metastasis of the spine tumor.  This whole thing sounds so danged scary, but each and every nurse and doc and health professional I deal with has been NOTHING but hopeful that all of this is just part of my own, personal cancer journey.

I appreciate their hope, it gives me a lift, and makes my days a bit easier.  My nights, however, continue to be honeycombed with pools of pain and fear.

On a personal/work level, I am feeling terrible that I’ve not been able to swim above this pain to get more done on the website.  It’s like I can’t 100% focus on anything but — well — pain.  That’s what pain is, I guess, a big, fat element of life that steals all the focus from everything else.

And, by comparison, the pain I’m feeling is actually much LESS than the pain I was feeling for most of the Spring/Early Summer.  It’s just that now that it’s attached to the word “Cancer” it’s as if the pain has a deeper color, a scarier hue, and it can be alarming.