Living Through Reality

My post yesterday was about gratitude, and also joy.

Today my post is about the days when I can’t seem to dig deep enough to find the gratitude I know is within me.  When I’m in so much pain, my mind is so muddled and my heart is so sore that I don’t know if I can — or if I want to — make it through another day.

In 2017 the USA had the highest suicide rate in 28 years.  It’s a fraught time for many of us, socially and politically.  Even folks who are agnostic politically can’t help but feel the blowback of their more passionate friends.

About 8 years ago I had a brush with suicide while on a drug, Lyrica, which caused suicidal thoughts and actions.  I haven’t seen that drug advertised much lately, I wonder if the I-have-no-pain-but-I-want-to-die issue is the reason.

After such a rough year, and especially after the loss of a life partner, it’s not unusual for folks to begin growing weary of life, fearing a lonely future, seeking an escape.  I’m not in that group; my two young-adult kids are reason enough for me to want to hang around and annoy help them through the next phase of their lives.  As I wrote yesterday, my life is pretty great, for what it is.

I do feel alone quite often, but that’s a function of my recovery.  It’s hard to get out and socialize; moving is painful, I get so tired, and being in a crowd (even in a restaurant) seems to unsettle me in a new way.  I don’t know if it’s because for 18 months I’ve essentially lived most of my life in a hospital room, a bedroom or my living room, but my Living with Loss group at Gilda’s Club (6-10 people) is about as large a group of people that I feel comfortable interacting with.

I see a therapist regularly, I interact with folks online through social media and my blog, and I have friends drop by on a fairly regular basis.  I am very lucky.

There are folks, though, who don’t have the resources I have.  They’re alone, they’re ill, but they can’t find their way to a path toward human connection.  You might know someone like this; a relative, a neighbor, a friend’s mom, who is living a life with little human interaction.

Once I was on a bus in NYC on my way to an appointment, and we passed a church bulletin board which read, “WE ARE ALL ONE”

Coming home a few hours later I saw that one of the letters had fallen off, and now the sign read, effectively, “WE ARE AL ONE”

If you have the resources and opportunity to help someone in your life, do it.  Help them figure out how to receive and send email, set them up with a protected facebook account so you can check in with them, ask them if you can take them out for coffee every now and then.

If there’s no one in your life like that, check out organizations like the ones below which can provide a structure to allow you to help someone whose life may —quite literally— depend on a kind word or a visit.  As the recipient of SO much love this past year, I can tell you what a difference it makes when you feel that folks really care how your day is, or if you’re feeling overwhelmed with life.

The list below is from the Prefer Home Website.  There may be other organizations in your area that aren’t listed here, but it’s a starting point.  Ironically, just before I was diagnosed I had applied to deliver food through Meals On Wheels here in St. Paul.  Of course, with the cancer and my continuing difficulties walking, this isn’t possible anymore.

The journey from active life participant to person needing help and company can be very short, I’m proof of that.  Pay a bit of love forward and reach out to help someone who may be feeling a tiny bit neglected emotionally in your community.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but it never hurts to help tip the scales of Karma when possible!

10 Charities For Older Persons

1. Honor Flight Network: flights for veterans

As a thank you to those who served, The Honor Flight Network takes veterans on free trips to Washington, D.C. Currently, they focus on escorting World War II veterans to the memorial created for them. The program also takes veterans who are terminally ill.

2. Meals on Wheels Association of America: nutritious meals

Local programs provide congregate meals (at places like senior centers) or deliver meals to homes. Some programs also distribute food for homebound seniors’ pets.

3. Independent Transportation Network: rides

A network of affiliates provides what the charity calls “door-to-door, arm-through-arm service” to people who are generally 60 and older. Adult children can even volunteer as drivers and store up transportation credits for their parents. Gift certificates are also available. The rides aren’t free, but there is a program to help low-income seniors pay for them.

4. SeniorNet: computer training

Volunteers teach seniors to use computers. Classes include “Internet and E-mail” and ”Buying and Selling on eBay.” There are also discounts on computer-related products.

5. Second Wind Dreams: dream granting

This charity grants dreams for people living in long-term care communities, such as nursing homes, assisted living communities and hospice facilities. The dreams range from simple ones like a dress for church to big ones like reuniting with family members or swimming with dolphins. Donors can choose the dreams they want to sponsor.

6. Oasis: active living

Oasis helps people 50 and older keep their minds, bodies and social lives active through a variety of programs. Some are intergenerational, such as the tutoring program in which volunteers help kids learn to read.

7. Alzheimer’s Association: support and education

If you have a disease, there’s probably a charity for it. The Alzheimer’s Association is one example. This large charity is involved in advocacy and research support. But it also offers a number of programs that directly help patients and families, including a helpline, support groups, education programs, and safety services for people who wander. The association also helps people find clinical trials.

8. Alzheimer’s Foundation of America: support and education

Not to be left out when talking about Alzheimer’s charities, this one offers a hotline, educational workshops and free memory screenings. It also provides services for people with dementia, such as intellectual stimulation programs and adult day services, along with respite care to give their caregivers a break.

9. The Pets for the Elderly Foundation: pet adoption

Pets can help combat loneliness, so this charity helps people 60 and older pay pet-adoption fees at participating shelters in 29 states.

10. Socks for Seniors: holiday gifts

This is a fun one for the holidays. Elderly people who are living alone, living in nursing homes or homeless get a visit from a cheerful volunteer and a new pair of socks—often bright, festive ones. The point is to let them know they’re not forgotten during what can be a depressing time of year.

To find more charities, or to evaluate these, here are three helpful websites: Charity Navigator, GuideStar and Independent Charities of America. And to check for benefits you or an elderly loved one may be eligible for, visit BenefitsCheckUp.org.

Grateful Every Day

To say this has been the hardest, perhaps worst, year of my life is an incontestable truth.

I’m still dealing with the pain and exhaustion of my disease, and with that comes fear (of relapse, future mobility, everything else!)

But in the middle of the discomfort and anxiety is a profound sense of gratitude.  Some days I feel it more than others, every day I struggle to make it stronger, but it’s always there.

No, I don’t have Gerry, but I HAD him.  I was so lucky to have 25 years with him.

No, I’m not perfectly healthy, but I GOT THROUGH Lymphoma and Severe Sepsis, and lived.

I’m certainly not rich, but I have all that I need, and a bit more.

Every day I wake up to a full pantry, hot running water, entertainment, and so much love.  I am, in all seriousness, one of the most fortunate folks I know.

And this weekend I’m even luckier, still!

Andy has been dating Evan for 9 months.  Evan’s dad and I are friends from college (crazy coincidence), his mom is a delight, and we’ve had lunch a few times, so we decided to do Thanksgiving all together in Wisconsin at a cabin deep in the woods this year.

We’re buckling down because a ‘once-in-a-decade’ storm is supposed to be coming, although at this point it’s six hours late (and it will probably be angrier for waiting…)  One friend is writing, his wife is making Swedish pancakes and the kids are organizing a board game for later in the day.

The dogs (3!) are generally pretty happy with each other, doing doggie things, and the lake is 5 different colors of grey.  I’m about to put the fire on with a flick of the wrist, and I contend that I’m the luckiest person in the world today.

An Arc

I can’t believe I haven’t blogged in a month!

It’s been QUITE a month.  I thought that by now I’d be writing about my adorable tutoring students, and how every day I could see in their happy, fascinated faces that I’d made a REAL DIFFERENCE in their little reading lives.

Unfortunately, Health ran interference on my Life, and Health is a hog about always taking center stage.

TUTORING

I realized a few weeks into the Americorps tutoring job that I probably didn’t have the stamina, but I was still hopeful that I’d be able to increase my strength day by day.

Then I fell last Saturday.  I was in the basement, I washed my hands (thereby getting a bit of water on the concrete floor) then turned to walk away and fell HARD right on my face.  My nose was bloody, my tooth was chipped, and my chest felt as though someone with huge boots had kicked me, HARD.

Getting up was hard, so hard, but I did it.  I got upstairs and cleaned myself up as well as I could, waited for Andy to get home from running errands, and decided to try to ‘sleep it off’ because I just felt so wiped out after my crawl upstairs.

The next day I hurt just as bad, so we went off to the ER so I could make certain that I hadn’t damaged my spine or any of my cancer-affected bones, and we learned that I had definitely bruised – might have broken (although it’s hard to tell…) – a couple of ribs.  They offered me some pain relief, but I told them in all honesty that I was already taking pain meds for my back and Tylenol was probably the best thing for the swelling that was causing the pain.

Upon returning home, and taking time for some careful consideration, I finally had to admit to myself that I wouldn’t be able to do the duties of my job for the next few weeks, and I couldn’t guarantee that I’d be able to do the work even AFTER those weeks had passed.  So I had to make the very, very difficult decision to back out of the Ameritrade tutoring job, which breaks my heart a little.  So many broken things all over the place.

PAIN CENTER

Tuesday I had a first visit with a pain clinic, which went – oddly.  I’m still trying to work out exactly what happened, here’s how I wrote about it on FaceBook:

My first pain management appt didn’t go well. Apparently I somehow angered the CNP, I’m still trying to figure out how.

One minute she was staring me down (unblinking, very odd) then when I mentioned that it made me uncomfortable, she looked away and said, ‘Well, since I’m not allowed to LOOK at YOU..!’ willfully misunderstanding what I was saying.  The appointment ended with her telling me that it was “a privilege for me to be seen at the pain center,” and she left abruptly.

I had a meeting with another nurse and the clinic manager, they’re going to try to hook me up with a different person – a doctor – for a future appointment. In the mean time I’m reliant on my PCP for my pain meds.

Maybe it’s better to just keep it that way, I got an odd vibe from this pain management center. I don’t have a camera or anything, I can’t ‘rewatch’ the interaction – I’m still trying to figure out what I did, or didn’t do, that seemed to anger the CNP so much.

I walked away with such an odd feeling about the pain center, I’d decided by the time I got to my car not to pursue treatment there.

Yesterday I met with my therapist, who deals with cancer patients and is affiliated with my cancer center.  She was able to pull up the notes from the CNP in my chart, (what was written after our very brief appointment) and I was startled by them.

In the comments I am “She”

She notes that she feels forced to come the [sic] pain center and has no other choice according to her oncologist.* . She also notes that OxyContin is really an “8 hour medication not a 12 hr”*^, she also notes that she will not wean off of her opiods because she has tried and the pain was too excruciating,** she has receiving [sic] medication from her oncology provider at this time.  initial consultation did not go well.  The patient reports to the provider that she was offended because the provider was “staring intently” while listening,^ an apology was provided to the patient^^ and she asked for the clinic manager.  The visit has since ended abruptly.  No charge from the provider at this time as this is not a complete visit.

It continues ominously

Previous to the visit her oncology notes were reviewed – it appears that they have tried to reduce her use of opiods as her oncology diagnosis is in remission.**

Addendum – patients case will be brought to case review for evaluation, as the clinic manager has discussed with the patient, no prescriptions will be provided to her from the pain center.  No UDT was taken today.  Clinic manager aware and involved.
_

* This is not true, I was the person asking for the appointment, I asked my oncologist AND my Primary Care Physician for a referral to visit the pain clinic.  This is a lie.

*^Articles re: 12-hr/8-hr OxyContin problem, it’s a real thing, and I discussed with her that my husband had taken Oxy for over 12 years and this was something he had researched.
          LA Times, May 5, 2016
          Practical Pain Management, July 2016

** I started at 90mg of OxyContin/day in January, and twice I’ve been weaned down successfully (once to 60mg/day, then to 40mg/day) and with my full cooperation.  Recently, my doctor had me step down from 40mg/day to 20mg/day, which I blogged about, and that was very difficult.  My doctor and I decided that it was better to return me to the 40mg/day after a two week trial at a lower dose.


^ It was very odd.  The CNP just sat and stared at me for a considerable length of time, I’d never had a caregiver or anyone stare at me so intently.


^^ It wasn’t.

Now, I’m probably being overly cautious, but I want to get this in print because I feel like the end of her comments on our visit sound as though she’s planning on taking this to whatever committee addresses these things, and in my worst nightmares she might try to get me declared a pill-seeker.

All she had to do was look at my file and see the scans of my cracked vertebrae to understand the need for ongoing pain relief.  Oy vey.

Game Of Alones

.I’ve done a lot of things alone in the past six months, since losing Gerry.

I eat most of my meals alone, in my room, since stairs remain so difficult.  I sleep alone, I am learning to walk again, alone.

Andy is with me quite a bit, but, as a percentage of my days, I see very few folks on a regular basis.

And, of course, I never see the one person I really want to see,
and won’t ever see him again.

I miss Gerry.  It seems painfully obvious to write that, but it’s the strongest thread in this difficult year; I miss Gerry.

I miss walking, I miss good health, I miss the ease of my previous life, I miss cycling, but most of all I miss Gerry.

I miss having someone around who would know, intimately, the pain that I’m feeling in my back (he had several crushed vertebrae from his Myeloma.)

I miss Gerry’s fastidiousness, the house seems shabby and in an odd state of disrepair since he’s been gone.  Andy lacks the time and energy and I am not physically able to keep things as nice as they used to be.

I miss Gerry’s humor, although I swear that I hear his laughter many times throughout the day.  We’d become such a comedy “duo” over our 25 years of marriage that I can almost write his jokes for him, in my mind, when the opportunity arises.

I miss his hugs.  He was small, but strong, and I miss him surprising me with a hug from behind while I’m reading or writing or just sitting outside.

It feels so weird, though, that the times I’ve missed him MOST since his passing have been while watching this final season of Game Of Thrones.

In our modern world, one of the activities that brings couples together is watching a favorite show.  Gerry and I both loved television, unashamedly, but we didn’t agree on every show (of course!)

One show we absolutely loved was The Americans.  We would save up episode and watch them together on Roku, for hours at a time, binging, and we’d love it.

I feel a special note of gratitude to The Americans for closing the show so beautifully,
and doing it in time for Gerry to appreciate the ending.

Game Of Thrones, though, is continuing on, sans Gerry, through it’s last season.

Gerry and I loved GOT.  We loved the plot twists, the bizarre theories, the wild fans and all of the videos.  Gerry especially loved listening to one YouTube channel with amazing theories (most proved correct!) while he was puttering around in the kitchen, his domain.

Sometimes I think I can hear him in there, making a grilled cheese sandwich,
but alas it’s the cat doing something catlike.

I put off watching Game Of Thrones this season until plot reveals on Facebook made me chose between tuning in, or having the season spoiled.  I didn’t want to watch alone, but I didn’t want to watch with anyone else.  So I watched, alone

It’s a good season of GOT, Gerry would have loved it.  I’m loving it.  It seems a lovely farewell to a beloved TV series; I wish I had had time to give Gerry the same kind of farewell.  I still wake up in a cold sweat from dreams about Gerry dying with no one around him but medical staff, no family, no me.  I was functionally immobile from my reaction to strong chemo, but that doesn’t lessen my guilt at not being WITH him at the end.  Just because you know something’s out of your control doesn’t necessarily lessen the guilt.

Neither of the kids are into the show, and I hate to drag Andy into the final season just so I’m not watching alone.  Besides, it’s cathartic in a way that nothing else has been, to watch – and cry – and watch.  Sleep is so much a part of my recovery that I’m usually snoring by 8:30pm, which means I catch up on GOT on Mondays.

I feel less alone watching the show during the day, although in this insanely
dark season I have to close the curtains or I can’t actually SEE anything!

So every Monday during the GOT season here I am, curtains drawn and iPad glowing, weeping, missing Gerry, loving the show, finding a way to deal with widowhood.

Back In The Hospital

Yesterday I was admitted back for more scheduled chemo, this time a HUGE bag of Metheltrexone (?) was administered after some other chemo drugs, and now I stay at St. John’s for at least 3 days while they monitor me to make certain I’m handing the new chemo well.  THIS is the high-power stuff (40 ml of it) that is the scary part of M=CODEX/Ivac (if I’m writing that correctly…) and I’ve been fearful of it.

Well, now it’s al in, they have me back on fluids (which make me pee like there’s no tomorrow) and I’m back on high dose dexemethesone, too, which has made my blood sugar SOAR up to 500 (I didn’t even know that was possible!) so I’m taking insulin, too.

My entire family has had Type2 Diabetes.  I say, “has had” because my entire blood family – those who haven’t passed from cancer related stuff – has passed from diabetes/heart disease related stuff.  The curse of the hillbilly-high-fat-and-sugar diet, and the curse of living in a cancer cluster (Parkersburg, WV) has taken it’s toll on my family.

I’ve never been thin, but compared to many in my family I’m absolutely svelt.  Right now I’m round as a steroid-pill and bald as Uncle Fester, but when I’m not pumped full of dex I tend to be a bit thinner looking than I am now.

I made the choice when I was 16 to leave the Ohio Valley/WV area and go to college, then to NYC, and not to return.  I knew that living with so much chemical input into the drinking water, so much coal dust in the rivers, and so much deep fried food would play hell with my health, so I chose to live where I could express myself artistically and be the person I always wanted to be – a New Yorker.

I was strongly affected by Television, my first role model was Anne Marie on THAT GIRL!  Later my role model tendencies switched to Rhoda (and I DID work in costuming!) which made it SO ironic when eventually I moved to the Twin Cities.

Am I now channeling my inner Phyllis (post Lars, now…) and will I eventually end up in San Francisco?  Is this part of the blog entirely senseless to those of you born after 1970?  Sorry, childhood role models will remain childhood role models.

I’m not dealing with Gerry’s loss right now.  I’ve made the decision that I will address it in full, with all of the emotions that entails, when I am better able to allow myself to.  I’m not ignoring it, I cry, I’m sad, but I can’t give myself up to the grief and continue with my recovery as I need to.

I hope this doesn’t sound heartless.  It is hard, like missing his memorial service, or not circulating with the dozens of folks who came to the house after the service.  I promised my doc I wouldn’t put myself into close proximity with more than a dozen folks for infection’s sake, and I physically just couldn’t make it to the service. But more to the point, I don’t think, emotionally, I could have extended so much of myself and would have been able to keep the strength I need to get through this chemo, which is so damned hard.

The kids, I’ve been told, did a stellar job.  Max taped it using professional equipment from SPNN, and he’ll be editing it together with some lovely family video that Andy fortuitously had transferred to DVD just a few months ago.  When I have that edit, I’ll post it here so you can all see how amazing my kids are to have put something like that together.  Amazing.

Max will return to college this well, probably while I’m still in the hospital.  It’s been amazing to have him home, exactly what we all needed; a bit of normalcy.  If this current chemo round goes well, I may be starting my FOURTH and FINAL chemo sometime around Nov 12, and then we shall see…

I have no idea, when this whole “cancer” thing is done, whether my body will be as it was before.  I’m getting a growing sense that, like Gerry, I will ALWAYS carry the pain of the tumor in my back and the damage done by it’s growth into two vertebrae.  Will I always be on pain meds to deal with the constant bone & spine pain?  I guess these are things that will be revealed I I continue with my recovery/remission.  Which are lovely words.

Bad Trip

FOUR bags of chemo, hanging on a pole.

I think everyone’s had at least ONE bad experience with chemistry.  Generally the chemical is alcohol, and the experience is drinking too much, getting too sick, and then feeling way too remorseful.

My mother, who I think of as perhaps the most Perfect Methodist To Ever Walk The Earth (except for the smoking thing…) had one foray into the land of the grape.  Several years into their marriage, at a party, she drank some wine.  Knowing my mom, it was probably all of two glasses, and she got sick as a puppy.

Dad took her outside and walked up and down the snowy streets of Toledo, hoping the fresh air would revive her.  It ended, as most of these episodes end for folks, with one person retching into the gutter and the other person holding their hair, the definition of love and friendship for many relationships.

That was the last deop of alcohol my mother ever touched.
My brother and I were mom’s unwilling audience to this tale every time we left the house in our late teens and twenties, and we would recite it along with her.

My first experience wasn’t far off my moms, and involved a frat party, a walk home by a guy I had a sort-of-crush on, a quick hug-and-kiss on my doorstep, and a well timed slide into the suite bathroom (no gutter for Mabel’s daughter) where I expelled the several glasses of “punch” I’d imbibed earlier that evening.  I’d like to say THAT was the last drink I ever had, but I wasn’t as wise as my mother.

New chemo slogan for Cream of Wheat: “As easy going in as it is going out!”

Today felt like I’d visited a different kind of frat party, one where the drinks and drugs weren’t imbibed, but were dripped into my veins, drip, drip, drip, and with each drop I felt less like a human and more like some kind of biology experiment / human sponge.  How much can I absorb?  What exactly AM I ABSORBING?

Every time they’d change the hanging bag of clear fluid, the nurses (who are the real heros of this tale) would describe to me WHAT they were giving me, HOW it might affect me, and WHAT I’d be receiving to offset the effects of the chemo drugs.

Better living through chemistry!

So although I’ve had chemo before, a few weeks ago, I can honestly say that R-EPOCH was a walk in the park compared to my foray Thursday into CODOX=M/IVAC.  And I didn’t even have the hardest part of it Thursday!

There’s no need to go into gory details, but the hardest parts of the day was the overwhelming nausea (yes, I was ill several times — I feel as though I’ve REALLY had chemo now; Bald Woman Throwing Up? check!)

Even more difficult was the IVAC portion, which involved me moving onto a skinny bed and being wheeled down to a sterile room (watching the ceiling fly by while nauseus is – nauseating…) where I was moved on to a SKINNIER table—I swear it was 9″ (it wasn’t 9″) and a needle was inserted into my spine so meds could be delivered, a lumbar puncture.  A spinal tap.

My happy place involves an early autumn walk on a sunny morning, the light, the shadow, it takes me away to a more beautiful space.

And this time it hurt, when it hasn’t before.  Hurt like hell.  But there is NO SQUIRMING ALLOWED because I have a goddamn needle in my spine and I’m lying on a 9″ (it wasn’t really 9″) plank.

You squirm, you could become a worm. 

I just made that up, but it could
be the tagline for a spinal tap. NO MOVING.

We have children for many reasons.  For me, one of the reasons has become clear through this whole episode in my life.  At the best of moments, the love I get from my kids is the closest thing as the LOVE I would feel from my mother when I was sick.

All I wanted when I got back to my room after the spinal procedure was to see Andy, but today was a terribly, rainy, pain-filled day for Gerry and Andy had other parental duties to discharge.

So back in my room, more hanging bags of clear liquid, more pokes and prods, more nausea (but no more vomiting, which was an incredible mercy – the anti nausea drugs they have now are amazing!) and just more exhaustion.

I never had any idea how exhausting just laying in a bed could be.

I couldn’t bring my self to actually eat anything.  All I wanted was a milkshake, and when Gerry and Andy arrived I sent Andy out immediately — into a terrible rainstorm — to get me one. Bad mommy.  And Andy brought it back to me. Good  Andy!

And that milkshake was the best thing I’d ever drunk.

One of the side effects of a chemical I’m being given is that it will effect my hand writing and my gait.  I was WAY too sick to walk around today, but at least twice a day I am supposed to write a sentence that proves that my handwriting hasn’t changed and that part of my brain isn’t being affected negatively.

Handwriting looking about the same…

I SHOULD have started by writing really badly, so I could say my handwriting has IMPROVED, but I didn’t think of that.

The sentence I chose? “There’s ALWAYS money in the banana stand.” No one, not ONE person here at the hospital, got it. I feel so old, was Arrested Development REALLY 25 years ago? No, it wasn’t.  But it feels like it…

So, finally, at midnight (Hello Friday – WHAT JOYS will you bring me today?)  I’ve had enough time away from chemical drips that I am able to sit up without nausea, and I’m able to write back to friends and family and catch up on the blog.

I have a taped-on heart monitor to make sure my heart rate doesn’t speed up too far, which greatly inhibits my typing skills, but it’s a sacrifice I’m happy to make.

My goals are to stay put. To get through this thing in one place, mentally and physically. TO just BE HERE, to be present, and to GET THROUGH IT.  I would give anything to run away, but that’s not possible, you cannot outrun cancer.

Part of staying put will be trying to keep my good numbers up; good platelet counts, good hemoglobin, just GOOD numbers.  And to keep the bad numbers down; heart rate below 100.

If I can succeed in this, I will be deemed ‘healthy enough’ to continue with the CODOX, and for me that means STAYING in one place, staying with the “hard” chemo.  For once in my life reaching for the toughest rung on the monkey bars

Low arm strength vs high body weight =
notorious NON reacher of far off monkey bars.

If I don’t succeed in this I’ll need a transfusion.  That DOESN’T mean that CODOX is out, but if I slide too much farther backwards then it might be.

I’ll be going home on Sunday, huzzah, and THAT means I’ll be able to have salmon and spinach again, my own home made yogurt and other foods which I feel have been able to keep my numbers on the good side of the equation.

The food here at the hospital is – well – it’s hospital food.  Not great, and kind of flavorless unless it’s too salty.  Of course, that could be my own sense of taste, which is being affected by the return of the chemo mouth-sores.

Tomorrow I’ll ask Andy to bring me a bunch of my ice pops, they’re one of the few things that I can eat when my mouth is so much in pain.

I wonder if we keep them in the freezer here they could remain unmolested..?

Aaaaaaaaaaah!

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.

I’ve Been Heard

Yesterday Gerry, Andy and I went to “Chemo Class” and learned about things to watch out for during my chemo (which starts on Monday, Aug 20 – our 25th Wedding Anniversary…) and get details on the average Chemo day, tips on dealing with the nausea, etc.

It was a good and helpful 40 minutes given by a pharmacy student and a nurse, very well done.  Thanks, HealthEast!

THEN my nudging and — yes, complaining — reaped the benefit of a meeting with two of the head honchos from the St. John’s Cancer Care Center AND my navigator (who is worth her weight in gold!)

We discussed the issues that had been bothering me, and to their credit they didn’t just pass along, “Oh, yes, we will DEFINITELY FIX THAT!” happy talk, but we had a REAL discussion about how the dynamics of the center are changing since the merger with Fairview, the drawbacks of staff shortages (and why it’s hard to just go off into a private room with a scheduler to comfortably set up my appointments.)

The discussion was good, honest, and I’m hopeful that if immediate results aren’t forthcoming, it won’t be for lack of notice or trying.  All I really ask is that they begin to SEE what could make the experience better for the patient, and seeing, begin to act.

So I WILL be getting my Chemo next week at St. John’s.  Then I have 2 weeks “off” during which time my doctor seems to think there’s a very good chance that I’ll need transfusions (the chemo I’ll be on is going to be pretty hard-core, Gerry found an article about it where it’s called, “R-CHOP” and it looks – daunting.

Gerry’s hematologist at Mayo, Dr. Sue, has become a personal friend of ours over the past 12 years.  We LOVE seeing her, we share a lot of sensibilities of East Coast Jew-adjacent folks and we laugh like nuts when we’re together.

Last November when I was absolutely knackered Sue picked up on it, and was a bit concerned when twice in a row I was permitted to give blood (my habit had been to give blood every 3rd month while Gerry was getting his own samples drawn) because  of low hemoglobin levels.  Instinctively, Sue knew something was up.

Sue has ALSO had her run in with Lymphoma.  The fact that our cancers intertwine between each other now seems bizarrely natural and familiar.

So Dr. Sue very much wants me to get a Mayo 2nd opinion, especially now that Stem Cell Transplant has been mentioned as a therapy to prevent return of the disease WHEN we are able to stop this nastiness in its tracks.

So during my two weeks off we’ll try to get me into Mayo for more testing.  We’re still looking into what this means in terms of insurance, and places where I might stay while in Rochester.  Financially we’re in a VERY different position than we were 12 years ago. At that point Gerry’s insurance, through his amazing union (IATSE Local #1) covered so much of our auxiliary costs (hotel room, food, etc.)

We’re NOT in that position this time, and 12 years of Gerry being disabled and me earning never quite as much as I’d hoped each year has put us on the back foot.  So we’re looking into Hope Lodge and other places/schemes whereby I could stay in Rochester for my one week on with Chemo, then back to St. Paul for my 2 weeks off.

And THAT is scary, too.  What if, while I’m home in St. Paul, I get complications.  This is all too big right now to take on in one swallow, I need to cut it into bites and digest it, which I will.

Gerry, who is the best human being I could ever be married to, has been thrown for a loop by this.  He is so helpful, so wonderful, but I also find that he’s oddly paralyzed by the idea that I have a disease that will be rocking his world and perhaps shattering it, too.

So I look to him for help that he is having a hard time giving.  And I have to realize this; Gerry is NOT Superman, even though he’d like to be.  Andy is wonderful, but learning the ropes.  The navigator at Health East is almost magical in her ability to understand and help, would I be able to find a social worker in Rochester who could fill this role?

All this is part of breaking down the problem to make it manageable.  Who knows, maybe Mayo will say there’s nothing they could do that HealthEast isn’t.  Maybe they won’t want to take me on.  Maybe my insurance makes this whole thing moot.

Stay tuned.  I hate having this cancer, I hate it like poison.

But I do love a challenge.

Diagnosis Update, And A Decision (?)

Today we met with Dr. N, my Medical Oncologist, who had the results of all the tests I was given last week (with the exception of the bone marrow biopsy results, which are still outstanding)  My new diagnosis is a bit more daunting than the original.

High grade b-cell lymphoma with MYC and Bcl-2 arrangements.

Doctor M called it a “Double hit lymphoma” and said that it is a “Particularly aggressive b-cell lymphoma.”

I’m still working my way through this, mentally, and have asked my doc to send me any written information that I can study.  He is a lovely man, and will take as MUCH time as I need and want to discuss it with me, but I don’t feel I can 100% connect with the information until I can read a bit about it.  We all learn differently.

The chemo is going to be more aggressive than originally envisioned, and this is the part where I think I may need to take my care into my own hands in a way.

So far St. John’s has been good, if a little uneven, with the quality of care.  But one thing that’s been a constant is the confusion on the 2nd floor, the main Cancer Center where I’d be receiving chemo treatment.

The staff seem to be loud and a bit aggressive with each other, but I may be misreading the room.  I don’t like loud noises, or loud voices, when I’m trying to work through something.  I don’t know how difficult it will be for me to insert myself into this environment each day for chemo.

Also, there seem to be odd misunderstandings. For instance, as I checked in today one of the reception staff asked if I had a port. I said, “Yes.”  Somehow that got translated to the nurse taking my blood thinking that I had requested that my blood be draw from my port, which I definitely did NOT request.

The port hasn’t been used yet, I have NO IDEA if it’s entirely healed, I wouldn’t have requested that.

But there it was, THE PATIENT HAS REQUESTED THE PORT BE USED. So the nurse tried to use the port, it didn’t work, she couldn’t get the needle thing in and it hurt like hell.  The nurse seemed put out with me, upset that I had my family with me, and the second nurse who came in to draw the blood from my arm was a bit abrupt, too.

Whether this is just ‘their way’, whether I was ENTIRELY misreading the situation (very possible) or whether there was some underlying reason for the oddness are scenarios I’m going through in my mind.  Suffice to say, the vibe of the place seemed odd to me.

But, then again, I just heard that my cancer is more serious than I thought. I’ve learned that it has to be treated more aggressively, and EVERYTHING seems odd to me.

I would be VERY happy to be proven wrong.  It may be that I’m just terribly oversensitive right now because of the change in the diagnosis, but it feels as though the needs of the patient may not come first in the Cancer Care Center at St. John’s.

Appointment Madness
I don’t know where the disconnect is, but I’m hoping that when I go back on Thursday for my “Chemo Class” I’ll get a better feeling about the place.

After my meeting with my doc, when ALL I wanted to do was crawl home, write a bit, do some research and contemplate what I’d just been told, I had to spend an hour standing up, leaning on a high counter, while one of the receptionists scheduled appointments.

Making a woman with so much cancer pain stand at a reception desk for an hour scheduling simple appointments just seems cruel.  At the least it seems they should have a dedicated scheduler on staff where a client can SIT DOWN with office staff and work through setting up appointments.

More to the point, I believe these appointments could have been scheduled very easily without me even being there!  I mean, I have nothing else on my agenda right now except for getting better.  If they’d just schedule the infusions, appointments and possible transfusions, I’ll just show up (or let them know if I can’t make them, and change them)  It seems a perfect use for the MyChart portal.

A Different Center?
I definitely want to continue my treatment with HealthEast, but an alternative would be to move my chemo to a different Cancer Center within the network.  Woodwinds is the center where I had the Bone Marrow Biopsy, and would be an alternative to St. Johns. But would it be any better? What makes me think one center would be more caring than another center?  It’s farther away, and it could/would make things more complicated with my Med Oncologist, which is not something I relish.

I don’t really want to change, I just want to feel better about St. Johns.  And that might not be possible, and I will just have to live with that.

HealthEast and HealthPartners are always sending out surveys for patients to fill out, I have two in my bag right now.  But do they REALLY want to know about issues, are they REALLY interested in making the experience of healing cancer as good for the patient as it could be?

Am I just being difficult to ask these questions?

I think I need to sleep on a lot of stuff.  In all honesty, once I get going at ANY Cancer Care Center, I think I’ll just be on auto pilot as I fight through however many Chemo sessions I end up needing.  I may just be grasping at silly details to keep my mind from focusing on worst case scenarios.

Farther Along
The phrase, “Stem Cell Transplant” was used as a possible prophylactic measure against return of the disease.  Having been through that with Gerry, and not really knowing what that might mean in terms of insurance, etc., I’m just leaving that alone right now.

It’s scary, though.

Strategizing

When Gerry was diagnosed wth his OWN blood cancer (Multiple Myeloma) in April, 2007, we were new folks in a new state (Minnesota!) with a couple of great kids who were newly placed in their brand new schools.

Max was a 4th grader at Randolph Heights elementary, where he quickly found a place with new friends (our neighborhood was LOADED with boys just his age, and he created some wonderful friendships right off the bat.)

Gerry Gazes at Scotland

We felt lucky to get Andy a place at the Linwood A+ school, which had an arts focus, and she did okay there.  Few things are perfect, but it was a lovely school at a tough time in all of our lives, and it was nearby and filled with active, caring parents and teachers.  Really, what more could one really need?

Giving Care
And me? I felt like was running, running, running.  Every day more running, never finished with what needed to be finished, learning to let things go that simply didn’t matter as much as what might be on the horizon.

And THAT was our default mode for years.

Trying to find joy and opportunities for growth for the kids, seeking as little pain and as much hope for Gerry, and me? Just chasing down freelance gigs and jobs that would dovetail with my own duties as Gerry’s caregiver and pay our mortgage was enough of a daily grind for me.

The spotlight that I knowingly focused on my family at this time has been debated online, folks have opinions about the wisdom/good taste of me writing and blogging about Gerry’s illness.

I took heart from the fact that Gerry seemed to love the blog, he was very happy with the book I wrote (basically the blog, plus extra bits) and I think he was proud of me.

We haven’t discussed it in so many words, but after 25 years of marriage, you have a sense of how your partner is accepting something, if you allow yourself to hear with your whole being.

Giving Joy
I was dedicated to not just getting THROUGH Gerry’s cancer journey, but to doing it with love and growth, passion and, yes, Joy.

A few years into our St. Paul adventure I signed up for a workshop at our local Public Access TV Station.  Max had been involved with them through an after-school-work program that the City of St. Paul had set up. Have I mentioned yet today JUST how livable and amazing our adopted town is?

Meta Max

SPNN, St. Paul Neighborhood Network, is an amazing resource, and given Max’s Television DNA* a perfect fit for him.  Watching him grow, and then seeing him learning to lead and teach other young people, THAT was the most amazing part of being a Mom during Max’s journey.

Andy moved in a direction totally new to any of us, which is exactly as it should be!  Once we were able to get both kids involved in the Breakthrough  Program, they found their places and just continued to grow.  We had to FIGHT to get Andy in, her teacher at the time was under the assumption that because, quite frankly, we were white, we had no place in the program.

So she withheld Andy’s application, and didn’t even send it in.  When we discovered this, I spent a few busy afternoons chasing down signatures and talking with program directors, and they promised that Andy would definitely be considered for the program.  Then we heard she was in, and we were so grateful!  It was the start of a very good chapter for both Max AND Andy, setting them up for success in high school and college.

Andy Draws On Her Love of Nature

At it’s heart, Breakthrough St. Paul (BSP) is a program designed to help kids who might fall through the cracks get on the right track and get into college.  Because of the topsy-turvey cancer life we’d been living, some days just feeling BARELY able to keep it together, the assistance that BSP lent us made a huge difference.

For Andy, perhaps the biggest milestone was a week-long canoe trip in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota.  This was arranged through BSP, the kids left from YMCA Camp Menogyn and happily paddled about for a week.

If I’d previously thought of Andy-and-the-outdoors at all, it was taking a bike ride, or a walk through the South Mountain Reservation (back in NJ.)  I did not expect the strong, formidable, brave and beautiful canoe goddess that began to emerge in place of my child.

Beautiful, Fierce Becca!

Each year Andy’s canoeing exploits grew longer, until by high school’s end Andy and 4 other women embarked on an amazing 52-day, 2-canoe trip through the Canadian Arctic, led by brave and resourceful Becca (who eventually became our first “payroll” Part Time Dyer at ModeKnit Yarn!  We’re one big family!)

Each child growing so differently.  So much joy that brings.  Andy went to canoe camp, Max went to debate camp, and life is always an adventure.

Care Taker?
In the same way our kids grow independent, part of a family but also vastly different, Gerry and I have cancer journeys that seem to diverge into a yellow wood.

We’d debated the term—and kicked about the role—of caregiver between us.  When Gerry was at his low point, I was there.  But a few years later when I seemed struck with Fibromyalgia** our story turned inside out a bit and he cared for me SO beautifully.

Now that I’m fighting my OWN blood cancer (Stage 4 B-Cell Lymphoma) my ability to be a care giver is in question, and with the return of Gerry’s cancer last Fall (and the complications from his latest drug therapy, 2 heart attacks in March) Gerry caring for anyone other than Gerry is out of the question.

Gerry’s caring strength rests in comprehending and explaining the ins and outs of our insurance, and he does that VERY well. Ever family should be so lucky to have a steward like him watching out for the asshattery of Insurance Companies as they try to find ways to screw us maximize profits.

<Rant>
We are DAMNED FORTUNATE to be living in Minnesota, where the government really DOES care whether it’s citizens have decent health coverage and, for the most part, refuse to play political games with our health.

This means that I don’t just have insurance, I have DAMNED GOOD insurance. When a state will allow it, the ACA WORKS!  When folks try to throw wrenches in the works simply to prove how much they hate Barack Obama, they do nothing but hurt their own citizens.  What on earth could be LESS patriotic that hurting American Citizens simply to win a political argument?

What I have is what EVERY AMERICAN deserves.  Freedom to pursue the healing plan that my doctor feels is right for me, and the right to question that, augment it, or change it.
</Rant>

But back to our family’s strategy for CANCER II, MOM’S TURN.  We’re still figuring it out.

Enter Andy
Fortunately I have a loving and willing caregiver in the form of Andy, just out of college, not yet employed, filled with love and capability!

In my condition, requiring help with several personal, intimate duties, I will most likely be permitted a PCA (Personal Care Assistant) and, if possible, I’m hoping we can make Andy that person.  I’ll get the help I need, Andy’ll have a paying job, and the school loans can start to get paid back!

It's ALIVE!

Time To Care For Me, Now!

Max will be returning to college soon, and I will miss him.  But at the same time, it’s got to be impossibly difficult for a young man to see his mom in such a physically debilitated state.  Moms & Sons, such a wonderful, yet delicate dance we do.

I don’t have a ton of pride, I’m more of a self-respect type of woman.  The nurses at my various procedures are constantly trying to tie up my gown, or throw another robe on me, scandalized by my milky white rear end  floating like a moon around my bed.

But I will cop to a certain pridefulness in front of my kids when I want to appear to be strong.  Once Max is back at school, I think I’ll be able to relax the standards a bit, not hold myself up quite so high, and I’m glad he won’t be here every day to see my fight through the chemo.

It’s a sad day when simply being CLOTHED is considered a high standard.

Tears
And now, just because I think it’s important for YOU to have a good, relaxing cry this Sunday morning, I bring you a lovely TV ad which features dogs, knitted dolls and love.  You’re welcome.

*Gerry and I have both worked in television, he as a producer-director, me in art & wardrobe departments. It seems we’ve passed this love on to Maxie.

**Did I have Fibromyalgia? DO I have it? Or was it this nascent tumor making itself known EVER THEN?