Monday, January 25, 2016

Tomorrow there'll be sunshine and all this darkness past...

There's really nothing quite like watching a frozen river during a snow storm.  Seeing  massive chunks of ice creep along in front of the Pittsburgh skyline is a very dramatic sight, especially from inside, where it's warm and toasty.  

A few of you received advanced notice that my options have run out and I've decided to take advantage of the services that hospice provides at home.  My last post talked about a few possibilities that I was going to pursue.  These didn't really work out.  The doctor in Virginia who specializes in proton therapy turned out to be a disappointment.  About a week after returning from that very long road trip over the busiest travel weekend of the year (Thanksgiving), my breathing took another dive and I could not walk and breathe at the same time.  I spent about a week in the hospital while the doctors tried to rule out some obvious causes for the problem -- blood clot, infection, collapsed lung, excess fluid, etc.  The verdict was the same as it was when this first became a problem in the summer:  my lungs are shot from progressing cancer and over 30 local treatments to control it over the past 15 years. Any additional radiation or ablations would do more harm than good and I'm not strong enough for more whack-a-mole attempts to stay ahead of this.

I had some tumor samples from the lung surgery in 2012 tested for genetic mutations to see if any experimental drugs might help slow things down.  This also turned out to be a dead end.  Even if there is something that might help prolong the inevitable for a few months, I've had more drugs to fight leukemia from 2009 through 2011 than anyone can expect to withstand in one lifetime.  

We knew this day would come.  I've been lucky to have made it this far with my history of 3 serious cancers.  I'm now on oxygen 24/7 and I can't leave my apartment on my own two feet.  My breathing problems make it difficult to talk, so I've limited my communications to email.  I'm also not the type of person who wants people around when I'm sick, so these factors have led me to request that people not come to visit.  It's easier on me in about a dozen ways, so I thank those of you who have respected these wishes.

I spend my day managing my symptoms, watching DVRd TV shows with Mary, as she works hard at being the world's best caregiver, and petting Sadie as much as she will let me.  Watching the news and the ridiculous political campaigns keep me pondering what kind of world I'm leaving.  I hope I'm around to see Donald Trump go down in flames. Hey, my blog, my opinion, my last wishes!  

Along with Mary's daily visits to keep me sane, the hospice team comes almost everyday too and they are all wonderful.  I wish they didn't have the reputation of call-only-when-the-person's-about-to-croak.  I feel that hospice workers are misunderstood.  They can provide help that no one else can and with experience and compassion.  Knowing I will no longer receive any treatment, I don't have to worry about doctors' appointments, medical tests, or decisions about where to go next.  I'm very grateful for my team here and the care I'm receiving.  The goal of hospice is to make me feel as comfortable as possible.  

It may take several months for my body to call it quits.  Or it may not.  I feel like my body deserves a rest and I'm not at all afraid of dying.  I will leave this life knowing that I have given it my very best shot -- chasing down doctors, medical techniques, research, and advice from the amazing community of ACC patients all over the world.

I know that most people fear everything about death and dying -- even talking about it.  Much more destructive than death, in my opinion, is denial.  Denial will wreck you.  When someone tells you that they've made a decision about how to live or die, don't deny them your support and unconditional love.  Most people, in their grief and anticipated loss, just don't know what to do or say.  It's hard for everyone. But it's mostly hard for the patient.  Here are a few dos and don'ts when it comes to things to say to a cancer patient (or about me):    

1.  "She lost her battle to cancer."  (Read here.) The implication is that I just didn't fight hard enough.  Nothing could be more offensive.
2.  "God never gives you more than you can handle."  This is another annoying cliché.  The God I believe in would never test people to see how much they can handle.  How mean would that be?
3.  "Everything happens for a reason."  Really?  Bullshit.  This is one of the most insulting things a cancer patient can hear.  Classic Blame The Victim.
4.  "What is your prognosis?"  Well, if it's not good, you've just made the person feel like crap having to explain that they're in bad shape.  
And the list goes on....

The problem is that people don't have any good examples of helpful, loving ways to express support instead of these unhelpful blunders.  A better approach would be to ask them what they need and how you can help.  Then listen to what they say and do it, whether you agree with it or not.  It's their illness, not yours.

And now that I've rambled on and on, I can't say for sure if this will be my last blog post or not.  As with everything in life, we should assume that this moment is our last and cherish what we have right now.

As long as I can stay in the present, I can honestly say that I am happy that this will soon be over.  It's hard for my ego not to make a mental wish list for my next lifetime.  My faith is in the Higher Power that resides in all of us, so I'm good with whatever comes next.  I'm hoping that if I end up on Earth again, I'll have better hair and dimples, but who's to say that would make me happy?  For now, I'll watch my DVRd TV shows (suggestions for binge watching are welcome), enjoy Sadie and watch the river just outside my door.  My energy comes and goes, so please forgive me if I take a while, or can't, respond to your messages.  Know that they are received and appreciated.

I want to thank all of you for your love and support when I've been sick and when I've been well.  I'm a very lucky person to have known all of you, even those of you I've never met in person.  Take care of your bodies, take care of each other, take care of the planet.

I love you all.



Sunday, January 24, 2016

Lucky or unlucky?

Hey folks,

I know I owe many of you email replies to all your generous wishes, and I'll get to them, I promise!  I will also post an update about my current health status shortly.  But for now, here is an article that I wrote for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The publication is called HEADWAY.  Here is the link to the article (see page 2), in case you can't read the small print.



Sunday, October 25, 2015

Hard times come, and hard times go... Yeah just to come again

I'm a nester.  It's all about comfort for me.  My massage therapist, Marty, begins each session telling me to imagine a place that makes me happy.  He suggests a beach, the mountains, a favorite vacation spot.  I imagine lying on my new couch, with the softest throw ever made and Sadie sleeping on my lap.  It's the best Happy Place I could ever hope for.  Comfort is serving an important role in my life these days.  It buffers what most would see as bad news.

I received the Hopkins interpretation of the scans I had earlier this month in Pittsburgh.  They show new areas of cancer in my lungs, some old areas that have grown, and some that have stayed the same.  The most dangerous tumor in the hilar region that has already been ablated and radiated seems to be stable.  But because it is still active, it's still very dangerous.  Also, it was reported that some tumors in the lining of my lungs (the pleura) are infiltrating my chest wall.  Other scary things are described to the point of being overwhelming. However, everything that's growing isn't growing super fast and nothing is measuring too big to treat. The problem is that there is too much to treat.  

I can't really say that this is a surprise.  I've had bad scans before and somehow my doctors have managed to address everything one crisis at a time.  But now that I have such trouble breathing, the risk benefit analysis of continuing with the Whack-A-Mole approach becomes questionable, as Dr. Georgiades wrote to me.  Every ablation requires a 1 cm. margin that kills healthy tissue to ensure the ablation is successful.  Every radiation plan also kills some healthy tissue and creates scarring as the beams travel to and from the targeted area. Considering all my past procedures, my remaining lung mass needs to be preserved as much as possible (I lost about 30% over 3 surgeries).  

With the shortness of breath and wheezing I now have, I have to consider the impact on the quality of life that more Whack-A-Mole would have.  I'm reminded of Joe Biden.  If I'm going to be in this race, I need to decide if I have what it takes before my window of opportunity closes.  Time for more opinions.  Many ACC patients go to radiation oncologists who offer proton beam radiation. Standard radiation is with photons.  One is just as precise as the other, but proton therapy is a newer technique that eliminates the "exit path" of the beam. "Higher doses of radiation can be used to control and manage cancer while significantly reducing damage to healthy tissue and vital organs."  Hopkins is building a proton center, but it won't be ready until 2017.  There are 15 proton centers in the US and a couple of them have seem many, many ACC patients.  Looks like I'll have a road trip or two to talk to the doctors who have treated so many of my ACC brothers and sisters.

In the meantime, I am having my tumors genetically profiled by two separate labs to determine if I have any cancer mutations.  If I do, there may be a clinical trial open that targets that particular mutation.  I should know the results of these tests in a month or two.  Having one or more mutations doesn't give me more options per se. But it would get me closer to the possibility of finding a drug that might stop my tumors from growing -- or, best case scenario, shrinking them -- for awhile.  Most trial results so far only show that the drug works until ACC finds a way around it.  This disease is a monster.  But it's still a hopeful time for us.  Science is moving so fast, cancer is being redefined by genetic research.  Since there's a lot of money to be made from this, innovation is moving at warp speed.

Back to Marty.  When I shared my news with him, he asked me how I'm coping with it all and if I'm okay.  I really am, for two reasons.  1.  I'm getting used to this roller coaster.  My stomach still lurches as I plunge downward.  But I don't puke with fear like I used to.  I think this is because I have recovered from circumstances that appeared hopeless. Statistically, I never should have lived through leukemia in 2009 or the many ACC battles since then.  2.  I'm focusing on comfort.  My nesting nature is in high gear.  As I slowly taper off steroids (given to see if they help my breathing), my mind spins with ideas for increasing comfort.  I decided to buy an adjustable bed. I often have to prop myself up in the middle of the night to help me breathe, so it made sense. And since I was headed for a hospital bed at some point in the future, why not get a plush, super comfy memory foam bed now, while I can enjoy it? Normal people are getting them, according to the commercials, so I don't feel like a cancer-patient-hospital-bed person.  My new Happy Place, with all its bells and whistles, was delivered on Friday, it fits perfectly in my bed frame, it is beautiful, and my sleep is amazing!  With a wireless remote to control the head, feet and massage features, I'm too happy to be depressed.  Sadie was very suspicious.  I watched with evil curiosity to see if, upon raising the feet, she was cat-a-pulted as a projectile to the top of the bed!  (Thanks, Laura, for the pun.  I'm sure Cheryl will appreciate it.)  

I've found that Retail Therapy is good for my psyche.  Comfort through consumerism.  As I look forward to Thanksgiving with Mary and her family in Pittsburgh for the first time, I can't be anything other than grateful for my new life, regardless of what the next chapter reveals.  As much as people deny it, we're all living on borrowed time.  I just have a little more information on the time I have left than most people do.  Make every day Thanksgiving. Find comfort in your life.  Buy an adjustable bed.



Friday, August 28, 2015

Hello from Pittsburgh!

It's been a while, I know.  This year started out with a bang with the breast cancer diagnosis, the cryoablation to a mystery tumor in my left side, the chaotic recovery that that caused, and the hunt for an apartment in Pittsburgh.  My plan was to post once things settled down after the move, but I'm having some trouble breathing and I had hoped to report a resolution to the problem in that post.  Now we're ending what has been a beautiful summer and I'm still looking for that resolution.

Mary found the perfect apartment complex for all my needs and Sadie and I are enjoying it very much.  It's a small one bedroom, but perfect for us with big windows in each room overlooking the Allegheny River and the Three Rivers Trail about 50 feet below.  Beyond the river is the Pittsburgh downtown skyline and the Convention Center.  Last night there was a massive fireworks show from the Rachel Carson Bridge (what I call "my" bridge), and I only had to walk onto my deck to enjoy it.

Less than a mile down the trail is PNC Stadium where the Pirates play, and beyond that is Heinz Stadium where the Steelers play. Since my lungs are limiting my physical activity these days, my deck is a great location for people-watching, on and off the river, as people run, bike, kayak, boat, jet ski and walk their dogs.     

Speaking of my lungs, I've seen doctors in Pittsburgh and at Hopkins and I've had every test to determine what is going on.  It seems that this may just be the result of cumulative scarring from the many surgeries, radiation plans and ablations over the past 9 years since I began my battle with metastatic disease.  I suppose it's the price I pay for playing Whack-A-Mole.  I'll see my pulmonologist next week and maybe he can think of a test I haven't had yet or a drug that can help me.  The good news is that I don't have an infection, collapsed lung, blood clot, heart issues or an obstruction.  There's also positive news on the research front. The National Cancer Institute just launched a huge project and both my hospital in Pittsburgh and Hopkins are participating facilities.  My new oncologist is submitting my name and I'm hopeful that I qualify, in spite of all my other cancers.  

The goal is to identify various immunotherapy agents that will jump start the immune system to fight cancer on its own.  You may have heard of some studies where researchers are using viruses such as measles, polio, even HIV, to accomplish this.  There has been enough success with some cancers, that researchers are starting to think that cancer will no longer be identified by the body part where it begins.  It will be identified by the genetic mutation(s) that cause a given cancer.  The first phase of the MATCH program is to genetically test a person's tumors for mutations.  Then the patient is matched with the immunotherapy agent -- which is not chemotherapy -- that will stimulate the immune system to respond and fight the cancer.  If I qualify, I may be in a trial with all sorts of non-ACC cancer patients.  The common denominator will be the genetic mutation, not the "type" or initial location of the cancer. The key to getting accepted into the one of the studies is having a mutation for which there is an agent that is currently being tested.  Now that I have a new immune system, courtesy of my donor, let's see what it can do!

The great thing about this project is that 2,400 facilities are involved, and patients will no longer have to travel several times a month to the trial city to get their medicine.  And since drug costs are covered by the trials, the financial hit that people take is substantially reduced.

My goal is to keep breathing long enough to take advantage of all this new science!  I am impressed and relieved at the care that I've received so far in Pittsburgh.  The doctors here actually read my cover letters and my 4 page Medical Summary, which is a commitment right off the bat.  Generally speaking, people here are extremely nice.  Maybe it's because of all the social and community events going on all the time. July brought Picklesburgh to my bridge, complete with live bands.  Maybe it's the crazy food.  They serve French Fries on salads, sandwiches and even pizza!  

I can tell by the foot traffic on the trail that there's a Pirates game tonight.  I have to say that this is a big improvement over my New Jersey neighborhood in the corner pocket of Maplewood, Newark and Irvington. And having Mary close by is like having a best friend, caregiver and personal assistant all in one thoughtful person. I never could have settled myself in without Mary's help.  And on the New Jersey side of the move, I owe a lot to Jim, Laura and all those who helped me downsize, pack, drive through Pennsylvania and reinvent my material self.  I threw away or donated at least 2/3 of my belongings, and this continued as I unpacked in Pittsburgh. If you ever want to leave a smaller footprint on the world, or just feel productive, call for a donation pick up.  It's a win-win for everyone. 

I hope everyone had a great summer.  Thanks so much to everyone who remembered my birthday.  It was so moving to know that I haven't been forgotten.  Here's to a new season of changes and opportunities.  I promise to do a better job of keeping you updated.



Sunday, March 22, 2015

Changing Times

Goodbye winter!  I had to laugh as I watched spring roll in after an entire day of slow, steady snow last Friday.  This winter wasn't as brutal and violent as last year, with crushed bones and several trips to the ER, but it was long and cruel.  January blew in with a breast cancer diagnosis and out with one less boob.

February greeted me with tumors in random places that forced my Hopkins doctors to come up with yet more creative treatment plans.  I had a left side tumor in the soft tissue that holds my abdominal organs together that grew under the radar into a rather large monster.  And I had a small right side tumor that was tiny but very painful, close to the surface of the skin, also in the soft tissue.  Dr. Hong performed a cryoablation to the left side monster at the end of February.

March greeted me with uncontrolled pain and swelling after that ablation -- the first time I've had trouble after any of my 11 ablations.  It wasn't a complication of the procedure, it was a complication of me.  I have pretty bad scoliosis and the monster tumor just happened to be in the area where my crooked back was the most crooked.  There was no place for the expected inflammation from the ablation to go and it shocked my abdominal organs into, well, not working.  I eventually ended up in the hospital for a few days of tests and fluids, which got things working again, but I still have a lot of pain in my left hip.  It feels like someone dropped me on the floor, hip first, while I was under sedation in the OR.  Dr. Hong assured me that this did not happen, but who knows what really goes on in those ORs?  On Grey's Anatomy they all just gossip and don't really pay much attention till the patient is coding.  But I believe Dr. Hong.  He would have noticed if someone threw me on the floor.

Last Thursday Dr. Hales gave me a strong dose of radiation to the small pea sized right side tumor, and by the time I got off the table, the pain in that spot was gone.  I'm now free to roam about the cabin till the end of June, when I will have another PET/CT and find out what this crazy, unpredictable cancer has in store for me next.  I'm hoping for a long period of stable lung tumors and no more random tumors outside my organs, where they don't belong!

April will keep me busy preparing for my big move to Pittsburgh.  The date has been set for April 30th and I'm very excited.  Mary found a super great apartment for me in a swanky complex where I'll have covered parking (for the 9 months of snow) and a beautiful view of the Allegheny River and downtown Pittsburgh.

Because of the timing of my move, I will not be able to attend the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation (ACCRF) survivor events this April in Boston.  I will miss meeting other survivors and caregivers and the research update from the Executive Director of the Foundation, Jeffrey Kaufman.  The organizers decided to go green this year for the fundraising portion of the events.  Instead of their usual fundraising efforts and silent auction, ACCRF is holding a stay-at-home, cyber fundraiser to reach more people in an effort to further their research in finding a cure for this insidious disease.  Rather than me telling you how horribly disfiguring and awful ACC is, I'm just going to ask that you trust me on this.  ACC usually attacks glands in the head and neck and most people suffer tremendously from its slow, cruel assaults.  The more ACC survivors I meet, the more amazed I am at what the human body can endure.  Please consider supporting this effort, and me:  

In the meantime, I thank you all for your continued support over these long 14 years.  Here's wishing you a wonderful spring, full of health and happiness.  Come and visit me sometime in Pittsburgh!