Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"If Not Now, When?"

There hasn't been that much to report lately. For the past month I've been focused on getting stronger, waiting for my counts to climb high enough to schedule the next chemo treatment. Today Dr. Forte and I agreed that it's time to get this show back on the road. I'll go back to Englewood on Monday morning, getting treatments on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and then come home on Saturday. Since I've felt much better the last couple of weeks, I've been seeing friends, running errands, going to yoga classes, and I've been reading.

I just finished a book by Colonel Jack Jacobs called, If Not Now, When? Duty and Sacrifice in America's Time of Need. Jack is my friend Elissa's brother. Elissa, by the way, is not just a friend. She is a really good friend. Anyone who brings you home made soup at the hospital, picks up your dirty laundry and delivers it the next night all clean and folded is a good friend.

Jack is one of less than 100 living recipients of the Medal of Honor -- the nation's highest decoration for bravery and valor in battle. He was decorated by President Nixon for saving over a dozen soldiers during a fierce battle in Vietnam after sustaining numerous head injuries. Jack is now a well known military analyst for NBC/MSNBC who has appeared on countless news broadcasts and in documentaries. You would probably recognize him if you saw him. It seems that he's on TV every 5 minutes, as the media tries to make sense of the numerous military actions in which we are involved.

[I know what you're thinking: Kathy read a book about what? I never, for a nanosecond, thought that I would ever read a book about war, the military, or patriotic service. If I had a nickel for every anti-war protest I attended, participated in or actively helped plan during the 80s when I lived in San Francisco.... But hey, this is a book by my friend's brother, and she said that it was peppered with humor. So I downloaded it to my new Kindle, which Elissa and her husband gave me shortly after I got sick.]

Jack is an understated, wise, friendly guy with a sense of humor that is both charming and irreverent. His story of perseverance and courage in the face of fear and overwhelmingly bad odds, speaks to the core of the cancer patient's battle to survive.

The obvious parallel between cancer and war - the luck of the draw as to who escapes death - is perhaps the one that haunts me the most. I'm in my third battle against cancer. Yes, I'm in remission, but it’s a never ending battle. Metastasis is forever. And remission is a state that can change at any time. Nevertheless, I plan on winning, like every soldier who is drafted into war. But again, it's the luck of the draw, and cancer is arbitrary.

Although I am determined to win, I’m not unique. Most cancer patients with a fighting spirit say the same thing. Yes, it takes courage to adopt a fighting spirit in the first place. But, to steal a quote that Jack uses in his book:

Courage is the art of being the only one
who knows you're scared to death.
--Harold Wilson

Is it luck, fate, the will of God or some other unidentifiable force that determines who wins or loses? Since there's no simple answer to such a loaded question, our efforts are better spent celebrating all that we have, rather than letting a war mentality become our frame of reference. But I think that Jack would agree that war changes a person. We're never the same after a major battle, and hopefully we're stronger and wiser for making our way through it. Each day becomes a gift and hopefully we remember the big picture, as expressed in another quote from Jack's book:

There is no cure for birth and death,
save to enjoy the interval.
--George Santayana



Sunday, February 7, 2010

Wasn't Expecting That!

On day 21 of consolidation treatment no. 1, I crashed, hard. I woke up on Sunday, January 24th feeling weak and full of aches in my legs and back. I called the weekend on-call doctor, who said to come in. Shortly after friends brought me to Englewood, I became quite sick and began treatment for an oral infection and a fever that signaled what soon blossomed into pneumonia. That began a very difficult week of incredibly strong antibiotics that kept me from eating for 5 days and gave me some pretty creepy hallucinations. It was a bad week. By the next weekend, I had turned the corner on the infection and pneumonia, but within a few days I gained 23 pounds in water weight, which was exceptionally painful for someone who had barely eaten and weighed 100 pounds when admitted. Medical knowledge of antibiotic side effects is still at the most elementary, experimental level. No one knows what causes what, especially when drugs are combined and are being switched out as treatment goes on.

The good news is that my bone marrow, which was totally empty when I crashed, recovered fairly quickly and I was able to come home last Tuesday. I've had a lot of muscle pain due to low potassium, so my recovery has been slow. But I'm getting better every day. Thankfully my cousin, Mary, came from Pittsburgh again to be my advocate, cat sitter, personal assistant and overall angel. She helped me get home and settled before going back to her busy life. Once again, everyone rallied for me and I believe this played a huge part in getting through this set back.

Dr. Forte said that there wasn't anything I could have done differently to avoid what happened. In spite of the carefully calculated dose of chemotherapy for my height and weight, the dose was just too much. Treatment no. 2 will be significantly less, which will give me a better chance of getting through the crash without another hospital admission. Although I had visited with some out of town friends in the days prior to getting sick, infections from a suppressed immune system don't usually come from other people -- they come from my body's inability to colonize white cells to defend against bacteria within my own body.

On the bright side, any lingering leukemia cells had to have taken a major hit with this last adventure. Dr. Forte said that my slides look perfectly healthy, and no one would be able to tell that I ever had leukemia. Looking at the big picture, he said, we're winning the fight for permanent remission. I can't ask for anything better than that.

When I go for treatment no. 2 depends on how quickly I recover. I'll know more on Thursday when I go in for a check up. Now I'm just looking forward to getting back on track and watching a good Super Bowl game tonight. I'll be routing for the underdog, the team whose city has been through hell and back. I guess that goes without saying.

Thank you, as always, for your love and support.