Monday, August 5, 2013

Carrying cancer with me on vacation

I recently went on vacation with my two sons.  Matthew was in California at a conference and Ethan and I flew out to pick him up and do some sightseeing.  We did all of the touristy San Francisco attractions including driving down Lombard street, going to Alcatraz and going across the Golden Gate Bridge.  I have only gone over it in a car.  Since I was there last it seems that it has gotten popular to ride bikes over the bridge.  It was a great way to see the incredible views.  As we started to go over I thought to myself that this defines what my friend Kim says we should do.  We were being participators in life.  Not spectators.   We were right in the middle of the action, not observing from afar. 

Shortly before I got to the bridge I had a thought that I hadn’t thought about cancer.  Even though I no longer have cancer it’s on my mind often.  Not in a way that I am worrying but in a way that it’s always just there.   I was talking with a friend and explained that for me, being a survivor is like wearing a backpack.  You know it’s there, it can be a little heavier at times, but it’s always with you wherever you go.  You don’t notice that it’s not there until you look for it.  Similar to a “wait, where did I put my keys?” feeling.

While I was on vacation with my boys I didn’t have my backpack with me.  I’m not sure where I left it, but it wasn’t with me and I didn’t notice that I wasn’t carrying it.   I still don’t know where I left it.  Was it at the hotel while I temporarily saw the sights or did I leave it at home before I got on the airplane?  It’s rarely far from where I am so I’m certain I left it at the hotel or maybe even at the shop that we rented bikes.   When I noticed I wasn’t carrying it, there wasn’t the panic that you get when you can’t find your keys or you purse.  It was more a of a thought, realization of feeling a little lighter and then seeing what’s in front of me for the moment. 

As I write this I wonder if those moments will become more frequent.  Will the time between wearing my backpack become greater? I have a feeling it will.  Between my second and third diagnoses it wasn't something I carried with me unless I was going to the doctor for a re-check.  It may possibly stay with me longer this time because my third diagnosis was my most significant.  Both in the sense that the survival rate was more of a concern than the past diagnoses and the treatment of my third diagnosis was the most challenging.   The chemotherapy really took a toll on my body.  I’m sure I carry the backpack as a burden that I might have to battle cancer again and undergo treatment.  Whatever the reason, my backpack is with me.  I look forward to the moments I notice that I have left it behind. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Encouraged about the advances in cancer research

When I was in Houston last week I had the honor of participating in a tour of MD Anderson’s campus and research facilities.   I learned about the many services available to the patients.  I now know that I did not fully utilize the services that were available to me.  The likely reason for that is simply geography.   I flew to MD Anderson for my chemo treatments and then home.  If I lived closer I would have participated in more of the many programs that I learned about.   Such as services offered by the Integrative Medicine Center through both the Group Clinical Services and the Individual Clinical Services which range from nutrition lectures to Pilates and yoga.  The patient services are endless.   Quiet rooms where you or your caregiver can sleep, a library where patients can research their specific diagnoses are the tip of the iceberg.  The goal seems to genuinely be to help the patient navigate through a forest with many tools in their arsenal.   

I recently read about the Cancer Prevention Department in the most recent Conquest magazine.  Our tour took us near the Prevention Center which includes the behavioral research center.   They are studying how certain behaviors have an impact on cancer prevention and recurrence.  I am most interested in the research they are doing regarding exercise and its impact on cancer. 

After a trip through the medical research library which contains MD Anderson’s institutional archives and special collections including oral histories, manuscripts, photographs, and rare books on cancer medicine we stopped to see  the model of MD Anderson.  The campus is vast and comprised of many buildings.  It was helpful to see the model to get my bearings as well as an aerial view of the numerous buildings. 

Our final stop was in an actual research lab specific to endometrial cancers which are defined as cancer that starts in the endometrium, the lining of the uterus.  We met with a brilliant post-doctorate fellow who is doing research on CD73 and its impact on cancer cells.  Please forgive my layman’s interpretation of what she is working on but from my understanding CD73 is a finger like membrane that covers the outside of our cells.  Without CD73 the cells don’t “stick” to each other and can divide quicker and move through our systems faster.  The cells that do not have CD73 create multiple nuclei.  When examining cancer cells that lack CD73 it appears that the ones that have multiple nuclei are the more aggressive metastatic cancers.  Cells that lack CD73 have been examined for other diseases and are responsive to drugs that are available.  If they can find a drug that restores (I’m not sure it’s a restoration) the CD73 to cancer cells maybe the drug will prevent the cancer cells from gaining strength and metastasizing while the cancer is being treated.

Hearing about the research that is being done to fight cancer is encouraging.  The many patients I saw may not be aware of the incredible things that are happening outside of their doctors’ offices and chemotherapy rooms.  If they knew I would bet they would walk through the corridors of MDA with confidence that advances in the fight are happening and that others may not have to endure what they are.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Cancer Patient?

This week I went to MDA for a follow up appointment.  I am 17 months past the day that I learned that there is no evidence of disease in my body.  I was not anxious for my appointment this time.  I felt different being at MDA.  I had feelings similar to those expressed in an early blog from when I was first diagnosed and didn’t feel that I looked like someone with cancer.    When people who I met on the plane or the hotel asked why I was in Houston I wasn’t sure how to answer.  I am here to go to MD Anderson.  Am I a patient? Not really, I’m here for follow up so does that make me a patient?  I don’t feel like a patient. 

While in the waiting room of the Gyn clinic I chatted with a 36 year old woman and her mother.  The daughter is battling cervical cancer for the third time.  She lives in another city and travels to MDA to participate in a clinical trial.    We talked about changes that we have each made in our lives as a result of having cancer.   She was optimistic and confident.  She was hoping that day would be her last round of chemo.   We talked about the feeling she gets just getting on the plane to come to Houston.  It’s a sick feeling that I remember well.  For me it was a feeling that I had never experienced before and haven’t since I finishing chemo.  It’s different than anxiety.  It was truly a sick stomach as I anticipated why I was going to Houston.   Routines, smells, patterns that are all triggers of what lies in store for the next few days.  When I told her that I knew exactly what she meant she turned to her mom and said “see, it’s not just me”.  When she was called back to see the doctor I got up to say goodbye.  I asked if I could hug her and she said “absolutely” and gave me a big hug.     There are so many patients at MDA.   Some are noticeably very sick.  Others look ok but you can tell they are the patient.  It’s that group of people that that I have noticed a subset.  Some look and act miserable.  They are miserable, rightfully so.   There is another group of people who are patients and in the middle of their battle who have a bounce in their step.  They make eye contact and say hello.  They seem noticeably aware of their attitudes and refuse to give cancer an inch.  I think I noticed it one other time but there were a lot of really sick people this time.  I know, they have cancer, they are very sick.  I don’t know why it was so noticeable to me this trip.  I texted Barbara about it.  It was a comment that I felt I could only share with her.  She has walked the halls with me so many times that I knew she would understand what I was seeing. 

During my treatment and time at MDA with Barbara I appreciated the comedic relief that she provided.  Although I was there alone this time, it was no different.  As I was waiting to be called to see the doctor another patient in the waiting room was eating hard boiled eggs.  I personally think that there is never an acceptable time to eat hard boiled eggs in public.  The smell is so unpleasant.    I texted Barbara to tell her.  Her response was simply “pic” meaning, take a picture of the woman.  I covertly got the picture and we laughed via text with several “hahahahahahahaha” texts back and forth.    Then it was my turn to go back for my exam and meet with Dr. Westin.   As I was sitting on the exam table it brought back the memories of my first time sitting there when I was extremely nervous.  At the time the only thing I knew to do to calm myself was to pray.   My prayer on this visit was shorter as I thought about being in a similar exam room on March 15, 2012.  My thoughts went from nervous thoughts to happy thoughts within a matter of seconds.  It was in the exam room that Dr. Westin told me that there was no evidence of disease.  That was an incredible feeling to hear those words.   After my exam Dr. Westin she said that she thinks I’m doing great.   I got tearful when I heard her say it. It will never get old for me to hear.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Receiving a compliment

Why is it so difficult for so many women to receive a compliment?   It seems to be most people’s natural reflex to put themselves down when paid a compliment.  Think of how many times you have heard someone or been that someone who did not receive a compliment well.

I was recently paid a compliment about my sons.  They were volunteering at Vacation Bible School at our church.  My older son, Matthew was a crew leader while my younger son, Ethan was his assistant.  Ethan was one year too old to be a participant at bible school so he opted to volunteer with his brother.  I saw the woman responsible for the volunteers on the fourth of the five days of VBS.   She told me how well Matthew was doing as a crew leader and that she didn’t have to worry about him.  She said that he was mature and doing a wonderful job and that she thought of him as an adult in the group.    I responded by saying thank you and then said, because I’m his mother, I’m not sure that I am objective but I think he is great too.   A short while later she said “I really like how you received that compliment”.  She is a mother of four young children.  She said that she finds herself not accepting the compliments of her children well.  I am sure it’s because she has the knowledge of how they can be at home.  My grandmother has often said that having children who are “street angels and home devils” is what you want.  They save their best behavior for the public.  They can’t be perfect all of the time! 

During my chemotherapy treatments people often said “you look great”.  I think people were shocked that I didn’t lose my hair and saying “you look great” was a way of trying to verbalize that.  When I was out in public I guess I did look good for a cancer patient.  My hair wasn’t visibly falling out, I was dressed in normal clothing, my coloring was what they remembered so yes, I looked great.   Similar to the analogy with children, my appearance was “street angel, home devil.”  For the week after chemo I’m sure I looked anything but great.  I was confined to my bed for days, was lucky to have the strength to shower, certainly wasn’t styling my hair, makeup was a definitely not being applied and on my best days I was able to brush my teeth.  Yes, I looked great. 

It actually became source of humor for me with a woman I met because of cancer.  She had metastatic breast cancer and she too, looked great.    She recently passed away.  Although I did not know her well what I remember most about her was her beautiful smile.   To me, she looked great because her smile radiated.  It had nothing to do with her hair, makeup or clothing.  It was her smile. 

I am forty five years old and people tell me that I look great.  I don’t know if it’s a compliment because they think I really do look good for my age or if they think I look good because I am a three time cancer survivor and maybe I should look broken.   Now when people tell me I look great, I say thank you.  I am working on refraining from launching into the thoughts that are lingering in my head about what I think about my hair or my skin or the outfit that I might be wearing.  I am working on accepting the compliment gracefully.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Exercise and cancer

MD Anderson's most recent article and video from Cancerwise.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Just a check-up and the anxiety that accompanies it

My latest blog entry that I wrote for MD Anderson.   I am happy to report that my appointment went well and everything looks good.  I am 1 year cancer free.