Women Patient Stories Archives

Love is Not an Ember Going Out: Parenting with Metastatic Cancer

When cancer is malignant, fluid can build up around the lung and heart, or inside the abdomen. One to ten liters can accumulate which can make it hard for organs to function. The diaphragm, lungs, heart, pleural spaces get annoyed, irritated, and inflamed. Sometimes they are stretched and expanded to make room while other times the same fluid compresses and causes restriction. The discomfort which might be termed as ascites, pleural effusion, or pericardial effusion can go from quite minor and needing monitoring, to incapacitating (i.e. stabbing pains) and dangerous. Luckily, there are medical procedures that can drain the fluid and alleviate the strain.

But what can one do about the stress, angst, and worry that fills a parent patient’s heart? What do we do when flooded by fear? How do we keep questions about our disease and mortality manageable to appreciate the time we have? How do we navigate a life-threatening diagnosis, disease, and brutal treatments while also remaining a rock for our children? For many of us with advanced cancers, helping our children face a possible future without us is the hardest part of a cancer diagnosis.

“I’m so out of my depth,” I’d said to Paula Rauch, the founder of the Parenting at Challenging Times (PACT) program at Mass General Hospital in Boston where I get cancer care.

I’d shared that both my daughter and I were struggling with my ovarian cancer recurrence because it not only means I must do more chemotherapy but that the treatment is palliative as I can’t be cured. My daughter is a senior in high school. Though she’s not a baby, toddler, or young child – and each age and stage comes with particular challenges, it’s not easy for any child to face adulthood knowing a parent may be gone.

And it’s not easy to be the parent either!

“It’s going to take a mosaic to step in for you,” Paula said. She knows because she has talked with hundreds if not thousands of parents in my situation. She has just the experience and perspective I need and I hope her words help you as much as they are helping me.

Back Story

My daughter was 16 when I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Though the odds were slim that I could be cured (about 15%) I was hopeful. I was in my early 50’s and except for cancer was quite healthy. I’d never been admitted for an overnight stay at a hospital and took my good health for granted.

My first focus was on getting cured and putting the business of cancer behind me. I tried to protect my daughter from details about my disease, treatment, or prognosis so she could have a normal-ish high school experience.

Sometimes I was scared and shocked. Sometimes I was also activated, motivated, and determined to fight. Sometimes, I tried to speed up my parenting. I tried to force my daughter up as quickly as possible – just in case I didn’t make it. I rushed her into adult readiness so she would know how to drive, cook, budget, bank, work, and reach out to other adults in her world besides me.

I tried tough love parenting as if I were a gardener trying to weed, compost, till the soil, and make a flower blossom as quickly as possible knowing we might not have all the seasons of life we’d counted on. I couldn’t afford the patient and organic approach. I couldn’t wait for the way seeds take root, explore the soil underground, and find a dark and safe place to gather nutrients before pushing out into the world. I tried to quicken, speed up, and hasten her childhood and turn it into adulthood and fast.

While my intention to push her hard and fast towards independence was understandable, it was abrupt and sudden, and a huge departure from the attachment style parenting I’d always practiced. I regret how little I communicated about why I was pulling away and pushing her so hard to gain mastery with practical adult tasks and skills.

My oncologist noted, denial is a real defense mechanism and remains strong for patients and families. However, he warned, it’s common for recurrence to cause more distress than the original diagnosis because it means that there is no longer any hope of being cured.

For the rest of my days, I will be a metastatic mama and my parenting and priorities have changed. I must actively consider how to parent in a way that prepares my daughter for my possible decline and death.

Who the heck knows how to do this? Not me. I don’t. And while my daughter is a young adult, she is still a teenager, and figuring out if, when, and how much to share and not to share is hard.

I don’t know what I’m doing or how to do this,” I told Paula, confessing that I had already made mistakes.

“Talking is key,” Paula told me and that doesn’t just mean talking with professionals, she said because therapy isn’t “everyone’s cup of tea.” In fact, she said, when parents push kids into therapy the kids sometimes think it means ‘you can’t talk to me’ or ‘I’m not comfortable with that and need you to take it to someone else.’” The goal, Paula said, is to make sure our kids have support, from us, or from other people in her world that she already trusts, or it a new form of support as new situations arise.

She also shared the following gems.

  • “Can you support her in gaining a skill set of who to talk to about important things – and it doesn’t have to be with the tagline of – because I’m going to die.”
  • “Can you share, as a parenting value, that taking time to pause and get perspective, with other adults, is normal, helpful, etc?”

“When I’m talking with people with a shortened timeline,” Paula said, “it’s helpful to think about a living legacy and people who know you well she can connect to in the future. It’s hard to make a checklist of things to say and do. It’s hard to figure out how to preload, for life. Some parents are like a hallmark special will write a bday card for every future year or future event, and while it’s well-intentioned it can be mis-attuned – because if you’re writing now it is to a future her at another age and maturity.”

  • “Can you support her in figuring out who to problem solve?”
  • “Can you help her find people in sync with your values?”
  • “Can you help her be more confident in her connections and her ability to survive challenging things?”

“Most parenting is on-the-job training,” she reminded me, “and it’s fine to say, as you have, ‘I’ve never done this before.’ Show her how you are reaching out to other people, get support, and do perspective-taking of your own.”

  • “Share with her, ‘I may talk to a therapist,” and ask her who are the people she looks for guidance.
  • Tell her, “I asked so and so about this. I love this person’s advice.”
  • Leave her with the message that it would never be disloyal to you if she attaches to others,” and support and encourage her connections and relationships.

“I literally encourage people to have a list of people your daughter can turn to for a coffee or a meal,” Paula said, if she has questions and to make sure those people do not “turn you into a saint” but to give her a sense of things she can learn about the real you, new things she can continue to learn as relevant to whatever stage she is living.”

She helped me anticipate strategies that can support my daughter throughout her adulthood and understand that bereavement can be a lifelong process. She helped me to normalize grief without minimizing the loss of a parent.

“It can be frightening for children, and really anyone, to bear the existential sense that the person that’s watched me grow up, who has known me my whole life and always been there – might be gone. It’s a gravitational pulling-off axis” She shared what we all know – losing a parent is hard. However, she helped me reframe thoughts of my death.

“Try to think of your life and death – not as an ember going cold,” she said, but as an active and continual process which includes new relationships, learning, and insights, and which can keep the mother-daughter connection alive even if I die.

I’d never considered that before and it comforted me deeply because I know Paula has had far more experience supporting families through grief than I have. Even though I have loved ones I still think of, love, talk to, and feel loved by – who have passed – I forgot that love can be timeless, active, and present beyond life. I had focused on making new memories and preparing my daughter for loss and death, failing to consider the ways I could support and nurture our mother-daughter connection and her relationship with others in the future.

Paula’s words made the bones that had gone cold feel warm again. Her sentences served as blankets removing the chill and ache that nothing else had touched. Her perspective stopped my shallow breaths and made space inside so I could feel expansive again. After our discussion, I felt alive again as a mother. I was reminded of my own instincts and knowing, always available to me like water from a faucet if I just reach out to turn the tap on. Paula helped me to realize I can parent with presence amidst uncertainty and count on my loved ones to step in for me, in the future, if necessary.

“I started this organization more than 25 years ago and many of the kids I worked with are now grown,” Paula told me. “They have told me what is or isn’t helpful. Kids will often take adults up on chances to get new bits of info. and to flesh out a fuller piece of who that parent was through the age they are at. Tell your loved ones not to expect your daughter to be different than she is. She may respond more to an invitation to SO something, rather than talk or talking heavy. Remind adults that for most kids, and some adults, saying, “let me know I can be helpful,” is unlikely to be helpful. Take action instead.”

This advice immediately made sense to me. I realized the ways I had failed to support others in my own life who had grieved by offering platitudes and general statements rather than being more active and supportive. Paula wasn’t trying to shame me; she was just informing me what helps most.

“Make a plan. Issue an invitation – those are more useful,” she told me and encouraged me to share the information with others as well.

“Most people are reticent to follow-up or ask for something in response, to ‘let me know how I can help.’ For many, it is easier to connect while doing something –

  • Driving in car
  • Doing dishes
  • Doing other activities
  • Sharing events

“If it’s all about talking, it might not appeal to kids as that is not everyone’s cup of tea,” Paula said.

“You can also let adult loved ones know to let you know, and keep you in the loop if they feel she is struggling,” she told me, and while it’s important not to “intrude on her privacy you can let others know – if it seems she doesn’t want to trouble me – please trouble me,” she suggested by letting them know, “You want to know.”

She was aware of how much has changed as a result of the COVID pandemic. “So much of the other structures (in life) are gone,” Paula said, “but more family time is one benefit for some.”

She suggested I focus on what is coming next for my daughter and that is getting ready for college. “The transition to college is a big deal,” she said, and asked, “Are there ways to still process it together? What does she want for her dorm room? Imagine with her – what would she like/not like and join her in this fun and planning now.”

She reminded me that it’s impossible to plan for every possible life event, and that trying to do so can be misattuned, but that attending to what is near and soon is doable. “In this way, you are PRE-LOADING a shared experience so if your health is not robust enough to walk around the Charles River, for example, in the future she can remember stuff together that you both did and you can, even if not feeling/doing well, share photos and texts of that time,” she explained.

She told me I didn’t have to try to pre-plan everything, make videos, or buy gifts for all future life events, but instead make sure that the connections I have with loved ones continue for my daughter so that even if I die our relationship, though changed, can stay present and continue.

She also shared some of the lessons she learned over the years. “One last warning depending on how things unfold is that many people get into space where they think and say ‘ it’s not fair that my kid has to go through things,” or “This isn’t fair,’ Paula explained. “Try not to do that and instead try to talk about how many things she has thrived through. Not that it wouldn’t be hard – but convey that you have a lot of confidence in her and how she copes,” she told me.

“One of the things is not uncommon with families is a parent dies, the surviving parent gets controlling or tries to protect the adult child from more pain. Instead remind her, “I hope you get x,y, z – but even if you don’t it’s not the hardest thing you have been through and I have confidence in you,” she told me. “Remember to remind her of her amazing strength and that hard things are not just trauma but that, “really hard changes can result in beautiful things.”

Impact of the PACT Interaction

This one conversation helped me shift my focus from trying to plan for every possible thing that could happen and instead to focus on skills, support, and strengths that my daughter already has. It helped me to hold on to and trust that my daughter is a person who is strong, skilled, capable, competent and that I can even imagine her as o.k., well, and getting her needs met in the future and also helping her find ways to stay connected to me – her mother – even after I am gone. It helped me encourage her to find people and love and nurture and care in multiple forms, to hope and expect for that for her, but also to stop pushing her from the nest and instead to connect and parent with all my heart for as long as we have together.

My soul has been deeply soothed. Even if I decline, get sick, and die, it is possible to imagine a future where my daughter not only experiences pain, grief, and loss but one in which she will happy, well, and whole.

I can encourage and convey confidence while staying connected, and I can help others who love me know how best to love my daughter no matter what happens to me. This is advice that is valuable for all parents not only those of us with life-threatening illnesses.

More about the PACT Program

PACT stands for the Parenting at a Challenging Time program founded and directed by Dr. Paula K. Rauch to offer support to cancer patients who are parents of children who are twenty-fours old or younger. It is “build on the belief that parents are experts on the strengths and needs of their children.” The support is free to all parents treated at Mass General Hospital in Boston. PACT is made up of a five-person team providing parent-driven psycho-educational support.

The PACT parent guidance consultation model is to help parents to support children’s adjustment to different stages of a parent’s medical diagnosis, treatment, illness, recurrence, and when necessary, to prepare children for a parent’s anticipated death.

As Paul said to me, “We have the belief that confusion is the enemy of coping and that having someone quickly accessible at the time you need it is better than every Tuesday. at 2 p.m.” is what parents need. In addition, all of the support is free. Parents need not be diagnosed, labeled, or billed. Paula shared that when She said that when a parent makes contact, a PACT program clinician remains available and responsive if and when things come up.

To contact the Mass General Hospital Cancer Center’s Marjorie E. Korff PACT Program in Boston, MA, and directed by Dr. Paula Rauch:

To contact the Pappas PACT program, available for parents who are being treated at the Mass General Cancer Center at Newton-Wellesley, in Newton, MA and directed by Dr. Jennifer Koch, M.D.:


Note: While the PACT program is only available at these two Mass General Hospitals hospitals, the PACT website is available for parents treated anywhere, and has some helpful resources. In addition, the PACT program founder, Dr. Paula Kasch, has a book entitled, Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child When a Parent is Sick.

Dying Ain’t Dead

“Can I toss these?” my guy said grabbing the vase of wilting daffodils.

“No,” I shouted. “Please, no. I’m trying to find the beauty in dying,” I said.

I’ve been taking pictures of these flowers since I got them. First, they were tight and closed, then blaring yellow in open-hearted pride, and then, slowly they began to brown and shrivel up. But they are still alive, like me, and that is worthy of notice and celebration.

I’m not ready to add them to the compost bin, not ready to empty the water around their green stems. I can still see the beauty they are as what they were fade. Yes, it’s true, they are not as bright or healthy as they were. But on the planet still and with some life left in them yet, they are. Can I pause to appreciate this not only in myself but in others?

I’ve had a few shit-my-pants scared kinds of nights. It’s not just that recurrence means I can’t be cured, the crap news no one wants but that most of us with ovarian cancer will indeed get. I’ve mostly wrapped my heart and brain around that. I’ve grieved and mourned the old woman I am unlikely to become. I’ve realized there’s no guarantee I’ll be around for graduations, weddings, births, and even the death of others.

“The chances are 50/50 you will be alive in three years,” my oncologist said when pressing me on doing more chemo and maintenance therapies.

“But how much of that time is dying?” I asked, somewhat dismissively.

“None of it if you are alive,” he said. And here, it is important to share that my oncologist is both doctor and minister and though I’m not religious, it is one of the things I love most about him, that and his kindness and responsiveness. Once, when I was fretting, he said, “Never worry alone.” I love a doctor who invites you to share your worries and concerns, and who means it as well. I also have his cell phone and email and he texts me almost immediately after scans. This is invaluable and generous and rare, from what I have heard.

But, in the last few months, I’ve had trouble breathing, exercising, and exerting on any level. I spent a day in the ER ruling out a pulmonary embolism, getting cardiac work-ups, follow-ups, and a specialist appointment to see if I have a right atrial enlargement. The thing about cancer is that it’s not even the cancer that causes most of the problems, but the cancer treatments including chemo, immunotherapy, maintenance drugs as well as all of those in combination. And that’s after surgery, for most, and for some it also means radiation treatment.

The longer I live with cancer, the more often I go to the doctor’s office. I kept saying, “It feels like I’m on chemo but I’m not on chemo,” as though this should be a red flag, an alarm, and mean something significant. It didn’t.

And then, the breathing got even worse, and there was pain that made it hard to sleep, stand, walk, workout, or be. Sometimes the pain was heavy, like a hardness in my chest, or like a weighted blanket on my back. Other times, when I sneezed or hiccupped or breathed in deep it was more like a shooting pain beneath the ribs in my back and was like a bad back where the times you find comfort are far outnumbered by the hours when everything hurts.

Sure enough, there was fluid in my right pleural space beneath my lung. My back got “tapped” like a keg, and it looked like a pitcher of beer was drained from me. Immediately, I felt better – not so much in terms of pain relief but in energy, ability to walk stairs, stand upright for hours, and clean the house. I felt sort of like myself and it made me realize how bad it had actually got. It happened slowly and I thought I was just lazy and out of shape.

I wanted the fluid in my lung to be from the Moderna shot or even maybe a past case of COVID, but the most likely thing, malignant cells and cancer as the cause were indeed what it turned out to be.

Even when I think I’ve sort of realized I might not get to 58 or 60, then it occurs to me that I might not even make it to my next birthday. “Whew,” my oncologist texted when I told him that the pulmonary embolism the PA said meant would require immediate blood thinners and hospitalization, was actually not a pulmonary embolism but a pleural effusion.

How does a mistake like that happen? Is it just from a quick glance of someone in a hurry? Pulmonary embolism and pleural effusion sort of look and sound alike and if you aren’t used to treating cancer patients maybe seem more similar than different.

I don’t know I only know that it’s terrifying to Google pleural effusion and cancer and so I’m not even going to Google pulmonary embolism and cancer. I’ll trust my oncologist’s “whew” and try to think of this as better than it could have been otherwise news.

But, when my oncologist called me about a week later with the cytology and said it was positive, I said, “not as in good news, but positive for cancer, right?”

“Yes,” he said, “Positive for cancer so negative news.”

“Got it,” I said.

“The lymph node growth is small,” he said, “but the recurrence is real.”

Somehow I still feel optimistic. I don’t know if I’m in denial, if it’s all my loved ones lathering me with prayers, calls, and kindness or a bit of both. I am exploring low-dose chemotherapy combined with off-label drugs. I’m not so keen on clinical trials as I used to be given that I wasn’t able to be unblinded when I had cardiac, lung, and even Moderna vaccine related questions about it and when I was (or was not) on PARPs or immuno or both or just placebo.

All I know for sure is that dying is not dead, though I was irritated when my oncologist first said this. I am alive. I am living. This is the way my life is right now and maybe it gets better and maybe it gets worse. I don’t know that yet. And neither, really, does anyone!

“I’ve lived with someone with ovarian cancer,” I told my oncologist, “And dying isn’t the same as living – and can include a lot of misery as well as closeness and intimacy.”

He may treat hundreds and thousands with ovarian cancer but I have the disease and loved and lived with my Nana when she did. I can’t help but think of what those who love me will go through if I get worse, and worse, and worse, and worse. Is there any way we can all see this as life and living? I don’t want to waste my time worrying about death which will come for each and every one of us. But sometimes I do.

I’m trying to savor all forms of beauty and life, including honoring and acknowledging the shifts, changes, and even the breaking and withering. That too is part of life and is why I am glad my oncologist sometimes talks like a minister. Sometimes it takes me a minute or even months to hear and listen and trust and believe him.

Today, I walk the beach with loved ones and furry companions. Today, the sun is shining. Today, I have no horrible or distracting pain. Today, I am aware and awake and have had an exceptionally good week.

Today, I love these daffodils. Today, I can see they are not yet dead while also knowing they are dying. Dying is a also a kind of living and one I’m learning how to appreciate. And if I get more days and times, if my bloom and color returns, I will appreciate it even more. If it doesn’t, that too is a way of life and one we should all learn to notice, accept, and even embrace. We all know, “No one gets out of here alive,” but how many really integrate that knowledge into our way of living? I didn’t. And I hope you don’t have to get cancer to do so.

See below. The same flowers. Two types of beauty.

 

Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor: Taking Control of Your Quality of Life

Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor: Taking Control of Your Quality of Life from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

 Stage IV metastatic breast cancer survivor Lesley shares her story of taking control of her care. After her oncologist chose aggressive treatment that would include 8 rounds of chemo, bi-lateral mastectomy, and radiation, she experienced a severe emotional toll along with extreme nausea, fatigue, bone aches, low blood counts, neutropenia, gasping for breath, and then sepsis. After receiving an emotional response when asking for a second opinion, Lesley was able to get an appointment with another oncologist, took control of her own life, and decided to stop treatment until she achieved her goal of climbing Mt. Whitney. And after summiting the mountain, she chose a new treatment with her oncologist based on side effects and quality of life.

Lesley’s advice,

“We have this one life, let’s live it to the best of our ability. These actions are key to staying on your path to empowerment.”

See More From the Best Care No Matter Where You Live Program

Patient Profile: Vanessa Steil

“PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate.” – Vanessa Steil, thyroid cancer survivor and patient advocate.

When Vanessa Steil recounts how she was first diagnosed with thyroid cancer, you can tell it is a story she has told many times. The dates, the terminology, and which doctor told her what and when are all precisely chronicled in her memory. Yet it took her reflecting on her story as a survivor to process just how crucial all of the details were. Now, she’s passionate and committed to helping others, and she has dedicated much of her time—and career— over the past eight years to doing just that.

It all started in March 2013 during a routine visit to the gynecologist. The doctor, who performed a neck check as part of the exam, felt a lump on the right side of Vanessa’s thyroid. “I was taken off guard by the whole thing,” she says. She tried to convince herself that the lump was nothing serious, but she followed the doctor’s advice for further testing, and a month later was diagnosed with papillary thyroid carcinoma: thyroid cancer. She was 26 years old. “My whole world changed with just three words. In an instant, I went from feeling like a normal person to having to absorb all this new medical jargon,” she says.

It was a difficult time for Vanessa. She was young, she didn’t know anyone else her age who had cancer, and she didn’t know anyone with thyroid cancer. While she had support from friends and family, at the end of the day she felt very much alone. As the weeks passed by and her mind raced on, she began to second-guess her diagnosis, question whether she should have surgery, and considered having another biopsy. “I had to work through the emotional aspects of my diagnosis, including coming to grips with the fact that I had thyroid cancer and the fear I felt about the outcome,” she explains. “You have to be in a positive place when you are going to have surgery.” Fortunately, her cancer was not overly aggressive, and she was able to delay the surgery until she felt more prepared.

By June 2013, she was ready for surgery and had a total thyroidectomy that included the removal of six lymph nodes, one of which was positive for cancer. The surgery was successful, and so far, she hasn’t required any radiation therapy, a common follow-up treatment post thyroid cancer. While in 2017 her antithyroglobulin levels, a marker that can be used to monitor a possible cancer recurrence in those with an autoimmune condition, went up and remained that way, she continues to be monitored. Her bloodwork and scans are done twice a year, and once a year she has a neck ultrasound; each time she experiences what survivors call “scanxiety” until she gets an all clear from the results.

When Vanessa was diagnosed, her endocrinologist gave her a key piece of advice that she didn’t completely understand at the time, but it stuck with her, and the meaning soon became clear. He told her, “Don’t turn this diagnosis into a research project.” As someone who is naturally curious and was eager to learn all she could about her disease, as soon as she was diagnosed, Vanessa took to “Dr. Google” looking for information and answers, but she wasn’t always finding helpful information. “While online, I was landing on horror stories,” she says, adding that while it is important to be knowledgeable about your disease, it is imperative to get accurate information and to be careful about choosing which sites or social media outlets to use as resources. “The Internet can be a scary rabbit hole, and it can cause unnecessary worry,” she says. “Finding a reputable site, like Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), that’s done a lot of the legwork for you and has comprehensive resources available is invaluable,” she says. Vanessa especially appreciates that PEN helps prepare patients for doctor visits by providing a list of questions to ask and offers relevant insight to caregivers, and survivors. “I was impressed with the PEN content, because it helps the patient from diagnosis to recovery,” she says. She also recommends sites that offer a sense of community where you can interact with other patients who have had similar experiences. “PEN builds community and empowers you to be your own advocate,” she says. “You have to know your body and speak up for yourself. That’s where the community aspect comes in. As a survivor, I try to provide that sense of community for others.”

After her surgery, Vanessa found a creative outlet that allows her to provide support for others and helped her through her own recovery. She created a lifestyle and wellness blog, Living in Steil (pronounced style), where she shares her personal journey and favorite resources as well as beauty, food, fitness, and health and wellness information. She says she was inspired to start the blog in February 2014, while recovering from surgery and trying to put the pieces of her life back together. “You don’t often process the emotional aspects of cancer until later,” she says. “It’s been cathartic to blog about my experience and have the site resonate with so many other patients and survivors.”

Her work as a blogger has led to many more opportunities to share her story including being asked to participate in a book, Tough: Women who Survived Cancer by Marquina Iliev-Piselli and collaborations with other advocacy groups in the healthcare space. In addition to her blog, Vanessa is a health coach and Board Certified Patient Advocate who also works for a pancreatic cancer foundation where she manages public relations and social media. She credits her diagnosis with helping her find her career niche and a meaningful role that allows her to make a difference in the lives of patients every day.

As far as her cancer is concerned, technically she is in remission, but says she is vigilant about staying on top of her health. “I have never taken my survivor status for granted,” she says. She continues to be her own advocate and has found that sometimes means she needs to find new doctors. If they are not listening to her or are not open to communication, she knows it’s time to move on. “It’s important to find a doctor who takes your concerns to heart,” she says.

Through Vanessa’s own experience with cancer, she’s learned a lot about advocating for herself and others. Vanessa has experienced firsthand what works and what doesn’t, and she is grateful to be able to share her knowledge. “If I can bridge the gap for people with a cancer diagnosis and make it easier for them to get the resources they need, then that is rewarding for me,” she says. “I had a difficult diagnosis, but I learned from my challenges and now I can share that knowledge with others. I can’t think of a better way to pay it forward than that.”

Read more about Vanessa and follow along with her journey at www.livinginsteil.com or on social media at @livinginsteil.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part V

This completes a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. (Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV) In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story. In Part Five Lisa concludes her advice to newly diagnosed cancer patients through example by sharing her own experiences, connecting to readers, and offering hope for herself and others.


Share

Not in a million years did I think I’d post an open, raw account of my cancer experience. Not one to share personal trials, other than the occasional “it’s been a long week,” I still find it surprising that I yearn for an hour to post on a website dedicated to people sharing stories about health challenges.

My decision to share came quickly, as my kids were in middle and high school at the time of my diagnosis. My diagnosis, paired with the word “incurable,” frightened me and my family. Rather than questions directed at them, I chose to notify their schools and my close friends and family about my diagnosis, requesting that questions come to me. In exchange for our daughters maintaining a normal school routine, we decided to share details by posting to a secure website, to keep those close to us informed.

Choosing to unveil your journey is deeply personal. Besides a gratitude journal, I’ve never been one to document my activities, thoughts, feelings. While in Houston, Lance set up a CaringBridge site. Prior to the first journal entry, I methodically moved in and out of appointments, listening, and absorbing the words. I was shocked, scared, numb, and out of my body. It only took a few keystrokes before emotions were unleashed. Journaling and sharing allow time to reflect. Not all entries are shared publicly. It can be highly cathartic just to write. Share with your journal alone or share with others. Occasional sharing with others is both unifying and comforting, as friends and family find a common thread to tie your diagnosis with their experiences. Sharing provides connection, and leaves you feeling less alone.

The degree to which you share your trials, tribulations, and triumphs, and when, is up to you.

Connect

One of my favorite books is The Blue Zones, by Dan Buettner. Buettner first released an article in National Geographic, then published his book on the “blue zones.” I’m summarizing this in my own words, but the blue zones refer to geographic regions around the globe that have the highest percentage of centenarians, who also have a good quality of life in their later years. These locations include Loma Linda, Sardinia (good reason for a trip to Italy), Ikaria (reason to visit Greece, too), and several other locations. In his research, Buettner discovered that the culture in these areas integrate physical and social health as parts of everyday life. Things like unintentional exercise (like walking to the market or cleaning), eating native/local foods, and at the top of the list, strong social connections. It reminded me of my grandma who used to have “coffee hour,” more like 3 hours, with her neighbors each week. They loved their weekly gatherings, often bonding over their health ailments, as they aged. I believe that each of them had a better quality of life because of those regular visits.

Upon diagnosis, a friend sent an email that ended with, “Lean hard and lean often.” He wanted us to rely on our network to get through the challenge ahead. Depending on others is incredibly difficult for many people, including me. When a neighbor set up a meal calendar, I was overwhelmed with the response and felt guilty about the possibility of burdening others and their time. She explained it like this: do it for others; let us cook meals; to allow others to provide something to you alleviates their feelings of helplessness. I am so grateful I accepted. As the fatigue swept in, my ability to cook, let alone stand for more than 2 minutes, vanished. My family loved the meals, and we’ve since collected recipes and voted on our favorites (all meals were excellent) that we fix monthly. Though a note on the sign-up sheet advised the chefs to place meals by our front door, as not to disturb us, I anxiously waited by the door every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Swinging the door open and greeting our friends was the highlight of my day. My energy lasted about 5 minutes, on a good day, but it felt so powerful and good to collapse on the couch after experiencing that connection.

Connection with others is important; however, connecting to anything can uplift: your animals (dogs, cats, birds, horses etc.,); your environment (sitting outside or gardening); your routine (sipping a warm cup of coffee in the morning or an evening walk); your faith/beliefs/thoughts. We are wired to connect. To belong, love, and be loved is on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a theory in psychology made up of a five-tier model of human needs. Connection is key to improved well-being, both physical and emotional. Who knows? You might conquer cancer and join the circle of Buettner’s centenarians. It’s worth the effort to connect.

Hope

While reading this same book, I was introduced to the concept of “ikigai.” (Icky-guy). Ikigai is a Japanese term that roughly means a person’s “reason for being.” As Buettner discusses in his books, TED talks, and articles, Ikigai is bigger than just something you want to do as a service; a person never feels obligated or forced into the purpose. It is something that gives value to a person’s life, as it gives life meaning. It is the reason you get up in the morning. When I began each of my cancer treatments, I wondered why I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and why I had to endure biopsies, radiation, surgery, chemo, and stem cell transplant (collection). Each new treatment comes with a renewed sense of fear and uncertainty.

Hope is often elusive, during a cancer battle. As a myeloma patient, the word “incurable” was the vacuum that sucked the hope from my spirit. Infusions were a part-time job, as I spent half a week in the chemo suite for six months. I appreciated the openness of the chemo suite, chairs side-by-side and few closed curtains. I loved going to chemo. It felt safe. It was in the chemo chair where I heard stories of both hopelessness (from failed chemo, metastasis, fear of pain, suffering, and death) and of hopefulness (seeing family, a chemo break, a provider sharing a new study showing dramatically improved outcomes, a new drug approval, good test results, a random stranger saying, “I believe,” and connecting with friends). Hope is found in comments from your care team, friends, family, and strangers. Hope is in your experiences (“manufactured hope” from steroids counts, too). Hope is in your faith, however that manifests in your life, and in the belief that something bigger than you can help you fight cancer. Relish moments of hope…of yours and of others. Write them down when you can and, on occasion, reread them.

Now that I’m further along in my cancer journey and in pseudo-remission, I contemplate: Why…what is the purpose of this? What am I supposed to do with everything I’m learning from this? How can I use this to do something productive or meaningful? I don’t know the purpose yet, but when Lance and I talk, we know there is something more to it. This search for purpose is what gives me hope, now. I know there is a purpose in this experience that we will figure out. My ikigai. Our ikigai. I hope we can do something good.


Read more patient stories here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part IV

This is Part Four in a five-part (Read Part I, Part II, and Part III) series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story. In Part Four Lisa continues to share poignant and powerful advice based on her experiences one breath at a time.


Breathe

“You have cancer.” It takes your breath away, this phrase. Personally, the “limbo window,” from diagnosis to commencement of treatment was the most challenging. Uncertainty debilitates, terrifies, suffocates. One day at a time is too much to fathom. Take one breath at a time. Work up from there.

Feel

As I stood up from the exam room stool to leave, Dr. Mike handed me two papers. A prescription for anti-depressants and a prescription for anti-anxiety medications. “You’ll need these,” he said. I didn’t feel depressed or anxious, just numb and hollow. My only thought was whether or not I’d be around to see our daughters graduate. Given the prognosis and life expectancy for myeloma, that prospect seemed unlikely. No anger, no sadness. Just numb and breathless…again.

Shock was the first emotion. Each visit with a new provider, first the neurosurgeon, then the radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, stem cell oncologist, amped up the shock. The final cherry on top was the financial coordinator. The stem cell transplant price tag is $350,000 to $600,000.

A cancer diagnosis and accompanying uncertainty surrounding treatment, prognosis, and outcome, result in overwhelming waves of shock and fear. As the shock begins to wane, denial and questioning swiftly ride in, followed by anger, frustration, and sadness, in no particular order.

The grief cycle, usually reserved to describe feelings associated with losing a loved one, can also be applied to a cancer diagnosis. With a cancer diagnosis you lose your life routine as you knew it, and often lose hopes, dreams, and expectations. Cancer is terribly disruptive. Cancer patients feel shock, denial, anger, despair, depression, and acceptance, often sliding quickly from one feeling to another. There is no timeline for grief. Don’t feel obligated to create one. Just let yourself feel. No judgement, no time limits, no guilt, no apology. It’s okay to feel.

Live

I bought a self-serve ice cream machine in July. It’s a full-size, commercial grade machine on wheels and is parked in our garage. Not sure if it was the chemo or Covid isolation or the less-than-good news appointment I had that day that led me to pull the trigger on purchasing a used machine. Maybe it was the resulting desire to live every moment that cancer patients feel as we struggle with medication side effects, endless appointments, and the loss of life’s routine. Or the desire to deeply inhale every breath of life.

Anyway, the money spent on the machine was only a fraction of what we would have spent on a cancelled vacation. Once a week, we sanitized, set up, and filled the machine with vanilla and pineapple soft-serve mix (yes, it has a “twist” option, too). On our driveway, we could socially distance while enjoying ice cream with friends and neighbors. Ironically, chemo side effects seemed to lessen each time we started the process of setting up. I can’t wait for the weather to warm again.

When you’re feeling well, think of things that energize you. Past or present. Mine was memories of Dole Whip at Disneyland. It can be anything. Watching movies, sitting on a beach towel with a picnic, watching kids run around the neighborhood, going for a walk, writing, the ocean…the list is endless. Identify at least one activity that you can do and make it happen even if it requires soliciting the help of others and making some adaptations.

Live. As often and as big as you can.


Read Part V of Lisa’s story here.

 

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part III

This is Part Three of a five-part series (Read Part 1 and Part 2) from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part Three Lisa uses her experiences to provide valuable advice about becoming an empowered patient through a willingness to learn and be open.


It’s true, knowledge is power. And it is empowering. There are so many ways to learn about your cancer, which allows you to feel that you have some control over your diagnosis. Learning from others is a great way to start, as we did with “R”, a stranger we met on an elevator at our local cancer center.

We met R a couple days after diagnosis. She was maybe five feet tall, give or take a couple inches…probably take. The elevator carried us one floor, from the main floor to the basement (I understand that radiation areas are better shielded in the basement, but it’s an awful locale for an oncologist’s office…dark, depressing, and deathly). This 20-second ride changed our lives, and quite possibly the length of mine.

My husband and I were obviously exhausted. Trying to determine the order of treatments (radiation, surgery, chemo, stem cell transplant) had us feeling like ping pong balls, bouncing back and forth, all the while worrying that my spine and spinal cord could fail at any moment. We wanted someone to tell us what to do. Information overload and miscommunications among providers left us too tired to think. We’d been mulling the idea of going to MD Anderson, but that task seemed much too daunting; not to mention that leaving our kids for a week (which morphed into a month) worried me. They were afraid, too; I needed to comfort them.

This random stranger, R, thanked us for holding the door. As the elevator door sealed shut, R gave us a stern look, “Which of you is getting zapped today?” Maybe this petite but fiery woman had some words of wisdom. Clearly, she had been going through something herself, as a large, patchy scar was evident on her neck. I explained that neither of us was going for radiation, just a radiation consult for me. Our quick elevator conversation extended for several minutes after we deboarded the elevator. She did have something to share: her story, and her words of wisdom. “Go,” she said…no, she demanded…we go to Houston for an expert consult. It was absolutely, the best decision we made during this entire journey. We were open to listening and learning as a result of desperation.

I am a researcher, and once I was under the influence of powerful steroids, I researched myeloma all night long (thank you, dexamethasone). Support groups for cancer patient and caregivers provide not only support, but educational opportunities. We’ve made lifelong friendships with our local myeloma support group and have found that it’s more a social hour than a support hour.

Learn from the entire care team. Oncologists are the cancer care “quarterbacks,” but the chemo nurses see much more of the side effects, standard and atypical, to know when to be concerned. Pharmacists are more likely to understand your bowels and digestive issues. Upon starting infusions, the oncology pharmacist introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Greg the pharmacist. I talk to people about drugs and poop. We talk openly and freely about poop. Let’s make that normal right now. How is pooping currently?”


Read Part IV of Lisa’s story here.

 

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part II

This is Part Two in a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield (read Part I of Lisa’s story here). In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) as a resource, and she uses her experience to offer her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part Two Lisa emphasizes the importance of being an informed patient and discusses how she values the power of PEN.


Education is critical to anyone diagnosed with cancer. A cancer diagnosis is overwhelming; it’s okay to ask for help. Having an advocate, whether it’s the patient or another person, can change everything from treatments to outcome. As an example, we quickly learned that our local oncology community does not include a myeloma specialist. Seek an expert opinion. For myeloma, hematologists are well-qualified, but a myeloma specialist is top-notch. We researched, asked around, and discovered several centers with myeloma departments. Fortunately, we scheduled quickly and summoned the resources to travel. Like us, many patients do not live near a specialty center for their type of cancer. Financial resources, and logistical resources, such as finding care for children, pets, house, etc., can be daunting to consider. Friends and family want to help. Accept the help. Educating yourself, or having another conduct research on your behalf, can change your prognosis and outcome…and your outlook. It changed mine. My overall survival (a.k.a. lifespan) potentially increased from two to four years to eight to ten years, based on access to newer treatments and information from my myeloma specialist. Education empowers and boosts hope.

Cancer is hard. Treatment can be harder. Understanding your treatments and their accompanying side effects is critical. Living with pesky, sometimes debilitating, side effects is a significant burden to carry.

In addition to asking questions of your provider, consider participating in a support/education group that includes members with your same or a similar diagnosis. We belong to a local myeloma group and meet monthly with others battling myeloma and their family members. Relief from severe, drug-induced muscle spasms is the result of after-meeting conversations with a fellow “myeloman.” I’ve learned as much from them as I have from my care team. And we’ve made lifelong friends.

Lastly, take advantage of steroid-induced insomnia and spend sleepless nights perusing the internet, but be thoughtful with your sources. Forums, blogs, articles, clinical trials, medical journals, and testimonials are at your fingertips. I enjoyed searching clinical trials and peer-reviewed medical journal articles while on high-dose steroids, in the wee hours of the morning. Now, I prefer bedtime reading of blogs and patient forums, particularly those with inspirational accounts in the midst of adversity. The supply seems endless, from general cancer topics to specific.

Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) and other cancer-related websites have helped me achieve a better outcome by publishing information specific to my diagnosis. The articles provide basic information for the newly diagnosed and identify a methodical approach to dealing with myeloma, including how to access treatment and important information regarding treatment decisions. The staging of myeloma includes “risk categories” for different genetic mutations. Prior to treatment at MD Anderson, my risk category had not been addressed, and I only knew to ask about it from a cancer website. Identifying the risk category is important when determining the appropriate chemo regimen. My regimen changed once my risk category was assigned, and I believe that my good outcome (remission) is a result of having this knowledge and addressing it with my specialist.

PEN also publishes patient testimonials. I find these stories inspiring and comforting. I’ve also identified, with my doctor in Houston, new drugs to try at relapse (myeloma patients anticipate relapse and often work with the specialist to determine the next round of chemo) from patient stories. Knowing we are not alone and having a common bond, eases stress and fear. Alleviating some of the negative emotion surrounding diagnosis helps with overall well-being, and hopefully improves outcome.


Read Part III of Lisa’s story here.

Patient Profile: Lisa Hatfield Part I

This begins a five-part series from empowered multiple myeloma patient Lisa Hatfield. In Lisa’s candid and compelling telling of her cancer journey, she shares her story from diagnosis in 2018 to how she lives well with cancer in 2021. Lisa provides thoughtful feedback about becoming an empowered patient and the value of Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) as a resource, and she offers her advice to anyone newly diagnosed with cancer: Learn, Breathe, Feel, Share, Live, Connect, and Hope. In Part One Lisa tells her story.


April 30, 2018

Two hours after the MRI, my doctor, having received a call from the radiologist: “Lisa, it’s Mike. I just received the results from your MRI.” This didn’t sound good. “You have a tumor on your spine. These types of tumors are almost always malignant,” he said. “In fact, I’m just going to say, it’s a malignancy. Can you and Lance come and see me first thing in the morning?” My world stopped.

Backing up a couple of years, I’d been battling a variety of aches and pains. Usually brushing them off and attributing them to aging, improper body mechanics, being out of shape, and garden-variety stress from the busy-ness of life, I got along okay. Until I couldn’t. The year prior to diagnosis, I had suffered from a frozen shoulder on my left side, then right. I maxed out my physical therapy sessions in an attempt to alleviate a weird hip pain that occasionally felt better after PT, but progressively worsened over time. Walking and attempting daily tasks (like crawling into bed) resulted in significant pain. I was not thriving.

Back to d(iagnosis)-day, 2018, we met with Dr. Mike and continued the week with a dizzying schedule of appointments, phone consults, procedures, tests, and communications with various other medical personnel.

I had a plasmacytoma (tumor) that had “eaten away” at my spine at the T-12 level. My diagnosis: multiple myeloma. Multiple myeloma, myeloma for short, is a blood cancer, originating in the bone marrow. The first radiation oncologist we saw described myeloma as a “liquid” cancer. I thought it was an odd explanation. I later learned that “liquid” is in contrast to a “solid” cancer, such as breast cancer or colon cancer, which typically involve masses or tumors. This didn’t matter much, other than the notion that I had both a liquid and solid aspect of myeloma. My treatment required managing the plasmacytoma (solid) and the actual cancer in the bone marrow (liquid). Myeloma develops in the plasma cells of the bone marrow, the soft, spongy center of the bone. Plasma cells are a type of white blood cell and are important for producing antibodies to maintain the immune system. In myeloma, for reasons yet determined, the healthy plasma cells turn into malignant cells (myeloma cells). These myeloma cells replicate and “crowd out” the good cells. This transformation results in fewer “good” antibodies, which is why many myeloma patients complain of frequent infections prior to their myeloma diagnosis.

Myeloma is incurable.

I live in Boise, Idaho. A nice, small city with good, reliable health care but no myeloma specialists. The best decision we made regarding my diagnosis was to seek a second, expert opinion. Two weeks after that dreadful call, we were at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

My myeloma diagnosis was confirmed with a bone marrow biopsy. For anyone with myeloma, you might be curious to know that I was diagnosed with monosomy 13 and translocation (11;14). These are genetic mutations found on the myeloma cells. I have Kappa Lightchain Myeloma.

The most pressing issue was the plasmacytoma, as the location and growth had compromised my spine. My doctors indicated the cancer was secondary to the spinal cord compression. It didn’t feel secondary to me, as they described “scattered lesions”, or holes, throughout my skeleton, including my skull. I wanted to know about the cancer more than the spine damage. The team at MD Anderson worked closely, one specialist often conferring with another, as I sat in the room listening to their conversations. It was quickly decided that I would begin radiation immediately. Radiation served to shrink the tumor and destroy malignant cells. Radiation was a bit difficult, as the tumor and surrounding area became inflamed and swelled, creating significant pain, but that was short-lived, lasting eight days. On the last day of radiation, I was wheeled into surgery for spine stabilization. The partial vertebra was not removed, as this was deemed too risky. The procedure did stabilize my spine and prevented further collapse and spinal cord injury. After five days in the hospital and a couple nights at a nearby hotel, we flew home.

My medical oncologist in Houston devised a “chemo cocktail,” which included a drug only accessible to specialists. For six months, I went to our local hospital every Wednesday and Thursday to have this cocktail administered intravenously. I have great memories of those six months. Truthfully. Meeting people each day, seeing the weekly “regulars,” and spending several hours with my girlfriends is one of the most memorable periods of my life. Funny how the mind works. Those moments are deeply embedded and overpower memories of the lousy side effects.

Standard of care for myeloma patients is chemo, followed by an autologous stem cell transplant (ASCT). Transplant is not a cure for myeloma, but research has shown that it can lead to a longer remission if it “takes.” Due to multiple factors, I chose to have my stem cells harvested and stored, rather than harvested and transplanted. Once the six months of chemo was complete, we traveled to Seattle for three weeks for re-staging and stem cell harvest. My stem cells are securely frozen and ready for future use.

Bilateral bone marrow biopsies (one in each hip bone) confirmed that I had an excellent response to chemo, and I’ve graduated to maintenance chemo. Thankfully, my current cancer drugs are oral, so I only report to the cancer center once a month for labs and an oncologist visit. Because there is no cure for myeloma, I’ll be on these drugs forever. They’re not fun, but they’re tolerable. They keep my myeloma numbers down so my body doesn’t have to fight so hard. My spine is healing and there is a possibility that some of the bone could grow back. My neurosurgeon recommended limiting activities to walking and swimming forever, but I’ve snuck in a few easy hikes with my family.

I’m hoping for a cure, but in the meantime, I’m enjoying life as it is. It’s really good.

Present Day

Until there is a cure, I’ll always have cancer. It’s a part of me and a part of my story. My biggest takeaway is that it’s a new life. It’s not a new normal. With daily reminders, such as pill-taking, side effects, and scars, nothing feels “normal.” It’s a new life. In addition to the daily reminders, I have deeper friendships and connections, I understand the importance of slowing down and not letting the “white noise” of life overwhelm me, and I feel so grateful for each new day. The greatest takeaway is that over time, the triumphs grow bigger than the scars; and this new life, though not without stress and suffering, would not be possible without cancer. It’s the best life I’ve ever had.


Read part II of Lisa’s story here.

Patient Profile: Sandy Peterson

When she was diagnosed, Sandy Peterson had never heard of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), a type of blood and bone marrow cancer, so she got to work learning about it. “I really appreciate the organizations who do research, provide support, and make it easy to access,” says Sandy an avid user of the Patient Empowerment Network (PEN) website, powerfulpatients.org. She says she likes to be able to access the resources whenever she wants or needs to revisit something she learned or read. Sandy follows several other organizations specific to her disease, and says each organization offers something a little different that she can benefit from. “PEN stands out with the activity guides,” she says noting that she especially likes how the PEN-Powered Activity Guides are formatted: like a book, where she can flip the pages and not have to scroll through them. “It’s fun,” she says.

Sandy says she learns a lot from the pages about understanding cancer, but she says she also likes the inclusion of articles that focus on lifestyle. “What I have enjoyed most are the recipes,” she says. She appreciates that they aren’t wild and fancy and that they include ingredients that she usually has on hand or can easily pick up at her local grocery store. Sandy also likes the fitness and the coloring pages and says they provide a pleasant distraction. “I look forward to that activity guide,” she says.

Sandy also values the webinars PEN provides. “The webinars are just wonderful. You can look at them again and do it at your leisure. It’s wonderful, and I’ve learned so much,” says Sandy who says she has gotten familiar with a lot of the presenters in the webinars and she looks forward to them because she appreciates their method of explaining things. Sandy has found that the key to putting her mind at ease and escaping fear about her disease is to understand it, which she says isn’t always easy, especially in the beginning. “Everyone knows what they’re talking about, and you don’t have a clue,” she says. “It’s the alphabet soup of a cancer diagnosis. It’s intellectual overload.”

On top of the intellectual overload that comes with being diagnosed with cancer, Sandy was also recovering from major surgery. It was in February 2011 and Sandy was just shy of turning 70 when she had to have emergency brain surgery. It still makes her emotional to talk about it, and Sandy says she doesn’t remember anything about that weekend, but she does know when she came out of surgery and they told her she was going to be fine, they also told her she had cancer. “I was worried about recovering from the brain surgery and was told it could be years before CLL became a problem for me,” she says. She was assigned to an oncologist, got an overview of her disease, and didn’t think much more about it. She had no symptoms, so she says the word cancer didn’t seem scary. However, she does say she was frustrated that her oncologist kept changing. She started with a hematology oncologist, but after a couple staffing changes, she ended up with a breast cancer specialist. “I didn’t complain because you kind of take who they give you,” says Sandy, but she said it just didn’t feel quite right.

By this time, Sandy had fully recovered from her brain surgery, and she started to do some research about her CLL. She started by looking online for reputable websites. Her tip is to avoid .com websites. The .com stands for commercial, and Sandy says she didn’t want to get her information from anyone who was selling something. “You have to do a little bit of searching to find the resources, but there’s a lot out there to support people who have cancer,” she says.

It was through her involvement with online support communities that Sandy learned she needed to make some changes in her cancer care. She says she kept seeing CLL experts and other patients refer to having treatment teams. “I realized I needed a team,” she says. She had her primary care doctor, and the breast cancer specialist, but she wanted a CLL specialist on her team. She had to go out of state to find one, but she did. After ten years with CLL, Sandy continues to have no symptoms and remains in the watchful waiting phase. Her most recent blood test was in mid-October 2020, and her numbers were essentially the same as they were a year ago. “It’s not going away, but it’s not progressing,” she says. “I am very, very fortunate.”

While Sandy is asymptomatic now, she’s concerned about the eventual progression of CLL. She says she’s not to the point of worry yet, but she wants to be prepared. “If it begins to progress and give me trouble at any time, I want to plan for a less healthy me.” She thinks about the logistics and expense of managing house and lawn care and wants to simplify her life so that if the disease progresses, she has a plan in place for managing those things. “It doesn’t have to be depressing, and you can do it while you’re still in control of the situation,” she says. “We not only want to simplify things for our own benefit, but for those who are going to help us.”

Sandy says she also thinks about what will happen if she ever needs treatment. “I’ve heard horror stories about the costs of treatment, and I don’t know how people pay for it,” she says. She stays on top of the latest CLL treatments and pays attention to the laws being passed about covering medications, and she says she’s open to doing a clinical trial if she has the opportunity. “The treatment picture for CLL is constantly changing,” she says, adding that new treatments are emerging, and more clinical trials are opening up all the time. “It’s really exciting.”

In the meantime, Sandy continues to find enjoyment by accessing yoga or tai chi classes online, staying up to date about her disease, and finding support from her trusted online communities like PEN. “It’s a lot to learn, and it’s changing all the time. The understanding is growing, the treatments are improving, there’s always something new,” she says.


Read more patient stories here.

In this moment

“Is there a pressure to be positive all the time?” my friend Kathy asked.

It’s a good question. I said, “No,” and then “Yes,” and added in a “Maybe.”

But it’s not a simple yes, no, or maybe. It’s actually Yes-No-Maybe all at the same time. My kid is on Facebook and so is my family. My friends are on Facebook and they want the best or at least to know I’m not suffering. I’m aware of that and of them. But that doesn’t mean I show up fake or put on fronts. I don’t.

The pressure to be positive isn’t external. I am safe to be real with SO MANY people and that luxury is a gift beyond measure. The desire to be positive comes from within but it’s not motivated by pressure. It’s real. In general, I ACTUALLY FEEL positive.

And also, when my oncologist asks how my partner or daughter are doing, I say:

“Well, I’m cranky, lethargic, have chemo-brain, and obsessed with recurrence so that’s fun for them…”

That’s also real.

Real is positive.

So, when people say I’m strong, a rock star, a warrior, and a fighter, I can’t say I feel I am any of those things. My day to day to life has been changed and though I feel 100% half-ass as a mom, partner, friend, relative, and employee – I also know I’m doing the best I can.

I don’t even have much time to think of how I’m doing because I’m so busy doing, if that makes sense.

It’s like I woke up after surgery standing in the middle of a highway I didn’t drive myself on. The focus is dodging the cars going 75 m.p.h. on my left and right while feeling groggy and confused. When I manage to make it to the sidewalk or the rest area, the relief I feel is real. I’m happy to be alive and out of danger. It’s a genuine and consuming experience. I’m relieved any time I’m not in the road and also aware I could be dropped back on that highway in another minute, day, week, or year.

That’s the complexity and reality of living with cancer (#ovarian, high-grade serious, stage 3) that, even when it’s effectively treated, still recurs 75% to 85% of the time. To have no evidence of disease isn’t the type of blessing I’ve been in the habit of counting.

For decades, I have had the luxury of physical wellness and had never stayed overnight in a hospital. Health isn’t something I take for granted anymore but that doesn’t make me a warrior as much as it makes me someone changed by cancer more than by choice.

I used to think people were sick with cancer, and either mounted a “successful” fight and returned to living or lost “the fight” and died. It seemed either/or and as those were the two extreme outcomes.

I knew my mother HAD cervical cancer in her early 20’s and survived. I knew that my Nana and her two siblings had cancer in their 60’s, and did not. They died.

I know cancer is always a full-on fight for the person with cancer and those that live with and love them (us), but fights are won or lost and that is the problem with the “fight cancer” narrative. It’s way too simplistic for the complexity of cancer, cancer treatment, cancer survivorship, palliative care, and grief.

It omits the vast amounts of time that many of us live with cancer. We live with it in active form, or in remission, or in fear of recurrence, and sometimes with recurrence after recurrence. That way of living may last one or two years or one or two decades. We may have years we seem to be “winning” the fight and years we seem to be “losing.”

But winning and losing is far too simplistic. Some live and have loss. Some die and should be counted as winners.

I’d never known some fight the same cancer repeatedly, or “beat” it before getting another kind and another and another. I didn’t know that people cancer can be a lifelong disease and that some kinds are genetic time bombs in our bodies and families that can put us at risk even if we never smoked.

I didn’t know that one can have or five surgeries, that the side effects can start at the head (loss of hair, headaches, chemo brain, no nose hair, dry mouth, hearing loss), for example, and go all the way to the feet with lymph edema, joint pain, neuropathy, and that all the organs in between can be impacted as well.

I didn’t know that most cancer side effects are not from cancer but the treatments to fight, eradicate, and prevent more cancer.

I didn’t know that in addition to chemo, one might contend with liver or kidney issues, with high or low blood pressure, with changes to the way heart beats, the digestive symptom works.

I didn’t know that cancer surgery might include a hysterectomy and removing some or several organs, lymph nodes and body parts I’d never heard of. I didn’t know how it’s impossible to know what is from cancer, chemo, menopause or the piles of pills one is prescribed.

I didn’t know how much the body can endure and still keep going. I didn’t know I’d have a body that would have to learn and know all that I was mostly ignorant about -even though cancer is a disease not unknown to my own family members.

I am still learning and knowing and going. I hope what I learn keeps others from having to have first-hand knowledge of the cancer experience.

And even as I say that I know the ways I’ve been changed are not all bad, hard, or grueling.

I didn’t know that at, even in the midst of being consumed by all things basic bodily functioning (breathing, heart beating, eating, pooping, sleeping, and staying alive), one can also be grateful, satisfied, and appreciate life and loved ones.

I know it now and feel grateful daily.

Five months after my diagnosis, I’m what’s called NED (No Evident Disease). It means that after surgery, and then 5 rounds of chemo, a carbo/taxol combination every 3 weeks, there is no sign of ovarian cancer. My CA 125, a cancer marker in the blood, is back to normal. Things are looking better today and I’m grateful, optimistic, relieved, but also know that my life is forever changed, and I’ll never be out of the woods.

Despite my NED status, my chances of being alive in 10 years are 15%.

Despite my NED status, my chances of being alive in five years are less than 30%.

Did you know 70% of those with ovarian cancer die within five years of being diagnosed?

I’m not a statistic, but a person – still, it’s hard not to do the calculations.

5 years from my diagnosis I’ll be 57, and my daughter 21.
5 years from my diagnosis, my partner will be 62.
Will we get to retire together, ever?  Will I get 5 years?

It’s hard not to wonder if some or all of those five years are what most would consider “good” years and how I will manage well no matter what? And how my loved ones will fare…

So I focus on moments, days, and now.

My new mantra remains, “In this moment….”

It’s how I approach all of my days.

I do think and worry about the future, and even plan for the worst while also planning for the best. Because the best is always possible.

What if, I’m the 15% and live for 10 or more years? What if I make it to 62? What if a new way to detect, manage, or treat ovarian cancer is discovered? What if I discover some synergy in remedies and medicines not yet combined?

Maybe I will see my kid graduate college or start a career. Maybe I’ll help her shop for furniture in a new apartment. No one knows the future. No one guaranteed more than now.

Maybe I’ll get to go to Europe with my partner, elope and return married, or stay forever engaged.

Maybe I’ll attend a mother-daughter yoga retreat with friends like I’ve always wanted to do.

Maybe I’ll spend a month at a cabin writing and eating good food with my besties?

Maybe I’ll be able to be there for my family members and friends the way they have been there for me?

Maybe I’ll get to walk my dog at the same beach and park, with my guy, my brother and sister-in-law, and our dogs and kids?

I don’t know how much time I’ll get or what life holds.

I know when my Nana died in her mid 60’s it seemed way too soon. I know that now, if I make it to my mid 60’s, it will be miraculous.

I don’t put as much into my retirement savings.

I think more about how to spend time, and money, now.

These are not negative thoughts they are the thoughts of someone contending with cancer and wide awake while pondering my own mortality.

“You won’t die of this,” some have said. “Cancer won’t kill you.”

But no one knows that for sure. It’s not an assurance the oncologists offer.

People mean well when they say such things but I no longer bite my tongue when I hear these words.

I say, “I might die of this,” (and I think, but don’t say, and you may as well).

I do remind people that we are all going to die and few of us will get to choose the time or place or method. It’s not wrong to acknowledge mortality. It’s not depressing and it does not mean one is giving up. I want to be responsible, and quickly, as I don’t have the luxury to be as reflective as I used to be because cancer is all-consuming.

I’ve barely had a moment to reflect on the past five months never mind the last five decades. I am trying to stay on top of the bare minimum requirements of being alive. I can’t yet keep up with emails or phone calls or visits. Projects and goals and plans of all kinds have shifted, paused, halted, or been abandoned.

My energy is now a resource I have to monitor and preserve. My will is not something I can endlessly tap into or call upon to motor me and keep me motivated. There’s no resource I have yet to tap into or call upon. Each day, I must consciously and repeatedly work to fill the well. And now, when friends and family who work while sick, I no longer think they are tough or strong. I think of how we routinely punish and ignore our bodies. I notice how often we run on fumes, require more of ourselves than we have as though we will never tire out.

I think of all those who must or feel they must keep going no matter what, without pause or rest, oblivious to the toll it will take or of those who have systems that can’t fight their germs. And I think of employers who sometimes require it because they offer no paid time off.

I used to run myself ragged. I used to say, “I’m digging deep, into my bone marrow if I have to.” I wasn’t being literal.

Now, when my iron and my platelets go low, I think of my old words in new ways. Now, even my bone marrow isn’t what is used to be.

I’m entirely who I always was and completely different.

It’s both.

I am more and less of who I was.

My life and days are simple and structured now and also heavy, layered, and complex. Who and what fills my day, by choice and not by choice, is radically different.

Cancer changed my life. That’s irrefutable and will be whether I live or die in the sooner or in the later.

I speak with and interact with doctors, nurses, life insurance and disability insurance and pharmacists more. I spend more money on supplements, clean eating, and make more time to walk, exercise, and sleep. There’s so much less I am capable of.

But sometimes, even without hair, I feel totally like myself.

Sometimes, like this week, my daughter caught me in the middle of life, reading a book, petting the cat, on my bed in my heated infrared sauna blanket. I was relaxed and at ease.

I shared this photo and someone commented on how my “cat scan” was quite feline, – the image brought a whole new meaning to the “cat scan” image.

I laughed and laughed and laughed. I’m still laughing.

In this moment, in many moments, I’m humbled by the enormity of all things cancer and being alive. That’s real. That’s there. It can be intense.

But also, in this moment, I’m laughing.

And laughing, it turns out, is my favorite way to live.

Living With CLL: Christina’s Diagnosis Story

Living With CLL: Christina’s Diagnosis Story from Patient Empowerment Network on Vimeo.

After chasing a diagnosis for almost a year, Christina Fisher shares how she was finally diagnosed and how she lives well with CLL.


Transcript:

Andrew Schorr:

Andrew Schorr with Patient Power here with Christina Fisher from near Portland, Oregon, diagnosed in 2013 in an odd way with a consultation with an ENT specialist who did a biopsy basically or an excision of your swollen lymph node, and then it turned out to be CLL.  Shocker, right?

 

Christina Fisher:

Yes.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  And so that had you go on a journey to different oncologists and ultimately CLL specialist, and so you’re doing well now with some of the latest medicines, in your case venetoclax, Venclexta, with Rituxan and delivered with Rituxan (?) high cell as kind of a quick infusion.  How are you doing?  Are you doing well?

 

Christina Fisher:

I’m doing well.  It’s been a little bit bumpy over the holidays for the last four months or so, but I’m emerging, feeling well.  Thank you.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  But it was also bumpy in getting to a diagnosis, getting to the right specialist, right? and knowledgeable team, so what is the lesson for people to be their own advocate?

 

Christina Fisher:

Be dogged in your determination.  Do not give up.  Be your own advocate.  Do your research.  Have your questions ready ahead of time.  Just don’t give up.  I had so many obstacles trying to arrive at a diagnosis, and the frustration was insurmountable, but I didn’t give up.  I knew something was wrong.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Being in your mid‑40s and having weird symptoms when CLL is often a disease of people older, your doctors were saying, oh, you’re fine.  I mean, the idea of leukemia never came up early on, right?

 

Christina Fisher:

My primary care physician was flip about it and had actually made several comments such as you are way too fit to have cancer, your blood isn’t displaying anything in particular, almost to the point where he made me feel like a hypochondriac.  But I had a large lymph node swollen over my collar bone that would not recede, and I went through a year of asking him for a biopsy, asking him for further tests, to the point of tears in frustration, and I received no answers.

 

Andrew Schorr:

And it was ENT specialist, a different doctor, who finally said, let’s take a look at that lymph node.  That’s what led to the pathology report, and that’s when‑‑you got a call a couple of days later.  Tell us about that.

 

Christina Fisher:

Well, initially my eyes had swelled shut.  I went to an ophthalmologist who was roommates with the ENT, and it turned out that their other roommate had removed my swollen gallbladder as well.  They started talking about me.  And so they sent me to the ENT, and she was extremely efficient and tuned in, and she saw the lymph node over my collar bone, and she had done other things that ENTs do during the exam but ultimately stated that something else is wrong with you.  Do you have a moment?  Let’s step into the surgery room and we’re going to extract a lymph node right now.

 

So that caught me off guard, but I was game.  And she removed a small lymph node from my neck and said it will be about a week to do the pathology, but, yes, called me in two days.

 

Andrew Schorr:

And said, what do you think you have?

 

Christina Fisher:

She said, what do you think you have?  And I‑‑she said, you know you’re sick.  What do you think you have?  And I said, I think I have leukemia or a form of it.  And she said, you’re right.  Would you like to sit down and talk about it?  So it was kind of hard to hang onto the phone at that moment, but I wanted to know what kind it was.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Now, Christina, you found your way to a CLL researcher.

 

Christina Fisher:

I did.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Specialist.  So what is your advice to people when we know there’s this whole changing world of treatments and combination therapies and clinical trials.  You’ve been in some clinical trials.  What would you say to patients about at least getting a consultation with a CLL specialist?

 

Christina Fisher:

You must.  You must seek out a consultation with a specialist.  It is up to you as a patient to seek one out and obtain that appointment.  No one is going to come to you and say, hey, maybe you should make an appointment or I’m going to give you a referral.  You need to make that appointment and see a specialist that you’re comfortable with.  And if your personality or maybe the information doesn’t quite deliver in a manner that you prefer, find another one.  There are many in the country now for CLL, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted into a program at OHSU where‑‑

 

Andrew Schorr:

Oregon Health & Science University.

 

Christina Fisher:

Yes.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  So you’ve gone from having your eyes swollen and shut and a big lymph node on the side of your neck, and at one point I think even being weak and being in a wheelchair to doing well.

 

Christina Fisher:

Yes.

 

Andrew Schorr:

So what’s your outlook for the future?

 

Christina Fisher:

Well, I feel like I’ve been released from a cage recently, and that’s something that I’m considering, and so my husband says he knows I’m doing better when I nag more, and, believe me, I’ve been nagging.  So I’m feeling so much better just recently, and I feel like that I have hope for life.  I have hope for a future.  I have hope that there’s just a chronic condition or a cure.  I feel fantastic right now, and so I’m looking forward to a very active summer, definitely.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Good for you.  Christina Fisher, wish you the best, continued better health, and I’m glad you have the right team working with you now, and thanks for speaking up and telling others to speak up.

 

Christina Fisher:

Thank you, Andrew.

 

Andrew Schorr:

Okay.  Andrew Schorr, and you can see personal advocacy and knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

Deceived But Not Defeated

I never felt any symptoms. I mean, I was tired, but what young 20-something who had just started graduate school while maintaining a full time job wouldn’t be? It happened during a physical. A lump towards the top of my throat was felt by my doctor. “I would go and have that scanned,” he said. I wasn’t worried; he had never mentioned cancer. So I went and had the ultrasound. “Well, we see what your doctor was talking about, and it appears to just be a cyst,” the doctor said, “but there’s another spot on the right side of your thyroid. You have two options. You can wait to see if the spot grows or we can perform a biopsy to see if it’s cancer,” he explained. “Now, the chance of it being cancer is anywhere between 10-15%, a very very low chance,” he reassured me. “I want the biopsy,” I said, not wanting to take any chances. The biopsy was performed, and within minutes, the doctor returned saying he had bad news. “Unfortunately, it’s cancer, but the good news is that it’s very treatable. I recommend you having surgery.” And that was it; although, it hadn’t hit me, at least not as hard as I thought it should had – at least not immediately. I went to my car, called my mom, and asked her if she was sitting down. I told her the news, still shocked by the ordeal I was just handed. In an instant, my life had changed forever. I heard those three words no one ever wants to hear, “You have cancer.”

I wasn’t sure how to proceed. How advanced is my cancer? What doctor(s) do I go to? How quickly do I need surgery? I just started school – do I need to drop-out already? What about my job. All of these thoughts raced through my mind. However, the support of my family and, luckily, not having any symptoms kept me going. I was working in a hospital at the time, and I spoke with a few of the doctors I worked with. “Oh, the good type of cancer. You’ll be just fine,” one said. “‘Good type?’” I thought. What is good about having cancer? He gave me the name of a surgeon who specialized in thyroidectomies. It was a five month wait to get in.

When I eventually saw my surgeon, he gave me two options. The first, he explained, was a partial thyroidectomy. “We’ll only remove the lobe of the thyroid where your tumor is. The benefit of that is that the other lobe will continue producing enough of the hormones that your body needs so you don’t have to take a medication for the rest of your life. The second was a total thyroidectomy, rendering me to that medication, literally, for a lifetime. I went with the former, and had a successful surgery. Of course, it didn’t end there.

Two days after my surgery, my doctor called. “We performed pathology on some of the lymph nodes that we removed from your neck, and unfortunately, almost all of them had cancer. What this means is that we need to have you come back and perform another surgery to remove the rest of your thyroid. Then after, you’ll have to undergo radioactive iodine to rid your body of any residual thyroid tissue.” My heart sunk. My world was crushed yet again. Another surgery? What was radioactive iodine? I didn’t how to process the emotions that I was feeling as tears streamed down my face. “It never ends,” I thought.

After my second surgery, I was thyroid-free. Later, I went through the radioactive iodine procedure where I had to be a specific diet for approximately 3 weeks. I could consume very little to no iodine, or salt, which was essentially in every product. As I went up and down the grocery store aisles reading every nutrition label, I found myself frustrated finding almost nothing that I could eat. Don’t get me wrong, this was a very healthy diet, as I was essentially restricted to meats (without seasonings), fruits, and vegetables. But it wasn’t my favorite. I went to a nuclear medicine center where I consumed a pill that would make me radioactive. I was to stay physically away from people for approximately one week, slowly decreasing the amount of feet I could be within others as each day passed. I then had a whole body scan that showed that the cancer hadn’t spread, or metastasized, to any other place in my body, but there was still some residual thyroid tissue that the radioactivity would hopefully kill.

The journey continued. I would need to be on a medication for the rest of my life. I would need to see a specialist, an endocrinologist, for the rest of my life. They would decide the dosage of my medication based on a variety of factors, including how I was feeling emotionally and physically. It wasn’t until after I had my thyroid removed that I realized how much it does for our bodies. “It will take some time before we find the right dosage for you,” my endocrinologist explained. In other words, sometimes I would be hyperthyroid, other times, hypothyroid. My symptoms may be all over the place, including my metabolism rate, my body temperature, and even my mood. As a patient with chronic depression and anxiety, I could only hope that the “right” dosage would be found quickly.

Fast forward two years later from my diagnosis, and I have been deemed “cancer free,” no more thyroid tissue. While I am incredibly thankful for this result, I can’t help but feel survivor’s guilt. I often think, “Why me? Why did I get to survive and others don’t? How did I get by so easily?” Despite this guilt, I have used my cancer diagnosis and journey to become stronger both mentally and emotionally. I have unashamedly shared images on social media and written stories that have been published in the hopes to inspire others and to be an advocate for those who don’t feel like they have a voice. Yet, I don’t pretend to know everything. I still have questions that remain unanswered. How likely is my cancer to come back? Why do I keep losing so much hair? Why am I always so tired? Despite having the “good” type of cancer, there is nothing that great about it. Although I never had symptoms, I still went through two surgeries and a radioactive iodine procedure, which had its own side effects.

As a result of what I went through and my never-ending passion for helping others, I believe that my diagnosis happened for a reason – to lead me to a career in patient advocacy. I have a background in health administration, policy, and communication. I have worked at doctor’s offices and hospitals. I feel I had an advantage in having the knowledge that I did/do, and access to physicians. However, I still get confused when I ask my doctor a question, and I receive an answer that’s in medical jargon. I think, “I can’t be the only one who feels lost, who feels confused.” Plus, I know that there are patients who are going through worse situations than I did. There has to be a way to mend the physician-patient relationship that is currently suffering. There’s not enough time dedicated to each patient, to hear what they’re going through each day. Physicians also need to make sure that what they’re saying/explaining makes sense to the patient, especially when it comes to taking medication(s) (patients with chronic conditions usually have multiple, which can be hard to keep track). There are solutions coming to the forefront, such as pill packs, patient portals, and support groups. But I believe this is just the beginning. Every cancer is different. No two patients are the same – indifference is ignorance. It’s time to combine research, health literacy, and ultimately, compassion for a patient’s story, to provide the best care and create better health outcomes.

Singing Through Cancer Helped Me Survive

I was not very curious about the nuances of singing and producing pitch during my younger adventures in a choir. A solid chorus member, I enjoyed the demands of music acquisition, the camaraderie, and the chance to conjure my inner diva, when appropriate.

My perspective changed when I heard the words “You have cancer.” That year, those four syllables cracked me and my beautiful, imperfect, 45-year-old life wide open and handed me the dramatic role no woman desires. I found myself memorizing not Latin and French lyrics, but malignancy’s bewildering status symbols: grade, stage and node, hormone reception and recurrence. I donned drafty hospital gowns instead of costumes or robes, and summoned the diva, not to perform, but to confront a relentless, faceless villain. When offers of support poured in, I learned “Yes“ and “Things will be OK” were the only lines I needed.

I completed my transformation, from ordinary woman to infiltrating breast carcinoma patient to survivor, in just eight months. During the harrowing passages, I felt scared, boxed-in, smaller than before. Carrying the role of cancer patient sometimes left me gasping and utterly out of tune. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

Facing a life-disrupting disease didn’t give me special gifts, but it reminded me that strength and healing come from unexpected places, and it deepened my appreciation for the restorative powers of singing and music. I’ve never regretted the nights I showed up to sing when I was too weary to speak or even stand.

– – –

Singing in perfect pitch tests professionals and amateurs alike. It’s an acoustical feat of mathematics, physics and human anatomy. We climb musical scales powered by our vibrating vocal folds. The higher we go, the faster the vibrations. Those frequencies are measurable, but how our ear perceives pitch is subjective and more complex as we approach our voice’s upper limits. It’s tough for one accomplished soloist to stay the course. That challenge expands exponentially when many differently gifted vocalists attempt the crossing together.

Diabolical phrasing, chords that don’t resolve, inadequate breath control, nerves and the winter’s chill lead us astray. Sorrow enters our rehearsal spaces, announcing itself with drooping shoulders and sagging tones.

When the choir drifts off-key, directors “tune” our voices with exercises to improve pitch accuracy. We might vocalize in sections over a major chord or focus on creating an elusive, well-tuned third and then, at the director’s signal, migrate to a lower one. Interesting things occur as we’re sustaining our notes. Vibrations collide, blanketing us in an exhilarating cloud of sound that helps us recognize if we’re hovering under or over so we can recalibrate. If our tone flattens, we brighten it together, modulating up in barely-perceptible increments until all singers land on a near-perfect third or triad.

The instant when 10 or 20 choir members lock into magical harmony to sing as one voice defies description, like a ballerina’s floating, a perpetual string of fouettes. It isn’t buzz, scream, or reverb, but when an ensemble gets it right, the air celebrates with us.

– – –

I was hitting my mid-life stride when those four syllables knocked the wind out of me. I had a loving husband, amazing sons, good friends, interesting work, and meaningful volunteer pursuits. I’d even forged a delicate peace with painful childhood circumstances that bled into adulthood, and I was envisioning my next chapter.

In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, I came under bombardment. Dad and I were saying reluctant goodbyes. We knew he was running out of options and precious time. Many afternoons, I held his hand, saw his battered body succumb to cancer’s onslaught. I returned home at dusk to quietly plot my own body’s defense amid an escalating campaign of biopsy and MRI results and five-year survival projections. I had just reassured Bob and our kids (and myself) that, after my treatment, things would be okay when we were called to gather at Dad’s hospice.

On his final night, Dad’s chest labored with every subsequent breath until we watched him draw in and hold onto his most important one. The air patiently awaited permission, then transported my father to his next home. Dad died of cancer four days before my surgery; I attended his funeral, in a haze, five days after.

Amid the pandemonium, I refused to abandon the singing and ballet that anchored me in other storms, but my positive outlook didn’t spare me the progressive toll of chemotherapy, radiation and estrogen-destroying medications. Cellular warfare punished my stamina, spirit, and untrained, lyric soprano. Amid brain fog, hobbling myalgia, crushing fatigue and disappearing hair, my suffering soprano seemed like cancer piling on. What was clear and steady became temperamental and prone to croaking or evaporating mid-larynx. The diva went into hiding.

I smiled when people said, “You’re so strong.” Making peace with vulnerability was harder; it required a system override or an existential re-tuning.

I noticed the subtle, curative powers of music-making, how it awakens emotions and gently moves us into community. I soaked up the beauty of silences and admired how we stagger breathing in torturous passages to support the sound and one another and how a lush, alto line sends descants floating to wondrous heights.

There were some bruising remarks and sour notes. One regretful solo I should have refused, accomplished with sleep-inducing quantities of antihistamines. Yet I mostly recall how gracefully my musical community tuned me. Changing seats to accommodate scary side effects. Steadying arms when emotions overtook me. The kind diva passing me missing choreography, instead of scowling, when I accidentally trampled on her solo.

Friends raising a glorious roar when I could barely chirp, reminding me we belong to something mightier than any hardship or disease.

Singing through cancer punched up my playlists for the blessedly ordinary and terrible days and taught me to treasure songs that speak directly to our broken places. I count on the haunting, intersecting supplications of Renaissance master Victoria and Bach and Coldplay to calm the MRI chamber’s mayhem. It’s Prince, Bowie and Jackson Browne inviting me to dance in my kitchen. I memorized those melodies that carried hope and faith back to me when they went missing for a spell.

– – –

I’m still okay. Gratefully, still a lucky one. I reclaimed my diva and, shortly after our move to Connecticut, joined a lovely women’s chorale. I’m discovering anew how routine vocalizations can realign not only discordant notes, but our anxious minds. At a recent rehearsal, I could almost see all our invisible burdens yielding to the room’s overtones, then evaporating in the swirling, ephemeral soundscape.

I believe the best choirs accept our offerings of exacting diction, buttery timbre and angelic tones, along with our heartaches, to grow something of honesty, tenderness and majesty. Sing long enough and you’ll one day find yourself harmonizing with and holding up someone who’s making her way out of a dark or lonely valley.

The fragile heart and unpredictable, faithful voice rising with the descant (and missing an entrance or two) were once my own. People said I inspired them by sharing my voice while my body was so visibility under siege. It was uncomfortable, almost as unnerving as cancer itself.

Looking back, I think that was the point.

Patient Profile: A Follow Up with Meredith Cronin

Meredith Cronin

Breast Cancer

You may remember Meredith Cronin from our three-part breast cancer series in October. She shared her experience of being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer seven years ago at the age of 37. She had three young children at the time and remembered being grateful that she was so busy with her family that she didn’t have time to become weighed down by her illness. “Attitude is everything,” she told us. Meredith wanted as much time as possible with her family so she did everything she could to combat the cancer and make sure it wouldn’t come back. She had a double mastectomy, she did chemotherapy and radiation, and she got a second opinion from a research hospital. When her treatments wrapped up, her doctors told her they didn’t expect her back. She was cancer free.

Coincidentally, the same week Meredith shared her story, she had surgery to investigate a lump she’d found under her arm. The lump was malignant. Her cancer came back. Needless to say, her doctors were all very surprised. The lump was in a tricky area near blood vessels, nerves, and scar tissue. She had a second surgery to make sure the margins were clean and then she began, what will ultimately be, 30 radiation treatments. The radiation is precautionary and preventive. “The doctor says I’m cancer free at this time,” she says, but Meredith and her doctors want to be sure the cancer is gone for good this time and doesn’t come back again. She goes for treatment every day and twice on Fridays so she can have it finished by the end of this month.

Despite the intense radiation, Meredith says she is feeling good. She doesn’t have a lot of fatigue and her skin is holding up. Her two youngest children have even been able to come to treatments with her. She says it helps them to see that she’s okay so they feel better about what’s going on. Her recurrence was pretty upsetting for all of them, but they’ve been able to keep a positive perspective. She says her husband summed it up pretty well when he said, “The short term sucks, but the long term looks good.” And, so far the kids all seem to be focusing on the long term and supporting their mom. “They like to wear their pink,” says Meredith.

Much like her first round with cancer, Meredith is being thorough and aggressive in her treatments. In addition to radiation, she is eating well and working out every day. This week, she is going to a research hospital for a second opinion on whether or not she should add more therapies to her current treatment. “The second opinion is more about doing chemo or if they have another suggestion,” says Meredith. Her doctors now aren’t recommending chemotherapy due to the risks associated with it. Long term effects of chemotherapy can include lung, heart and kidney problems as well as the risk of developing a second cancer.

Meredith has also started taking injections to force menopause as another preventive step. Once in menopause, she’s able to take a more effective medication than the one she has been taking. She says she doesn’t know what to expect from menopause, but she’s willing to do whatever she has to in order to keep the cancer from coming back. She’ll do the injections until maybe spring 2019 when she’ll have a hysterectomy and possibly an oophorectomy, where both ovaries are removed. That’s always been part of her preventive plan someday. “I’ve been putting it off for years,” she says. “I’m kind of kicking myself now.”

Vigilance about staying on top of your health is the message that Meredith most wants to share. Even when you’ve been told you’re cancer free, you have to check out every lump, every change that comes along. “Stay on top of it. Keep following up with it,” she says. Meredith says she’s learned that even though her cancer is gone, she still has a lot to do to make sure it stays that way. She’s cancer free, but not necessarily free from cancer. “I’m just going to keep doing what needs to be done,” she says.

You can find the three part series on breast cancer featuring Meredith and five other women on the Patient Empowerment Network blogPart IPart II, and Part III.