Uncategorized

Join Us for the 2019 Running For Answers 5k!

Several weeks ago, I went to see one of my favorite people, Glennon Doyle, speak about her life and career. Glennon is an author, activist, and the founder of Together Rising, an incredible non-profit which rushes in to help people in crisis. The house lights were nearly off in the theater, but I wasn’t going to miss my chance to take notes, so I scribbled in the dark with my notebook practically held up to my chin. One of the moments that will stick with me for a long time is when Glennon explained that she is asked, all the time, how to find peace and happiness. Her response is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard. She said (and I’m paraphrasing from my notes, which are a little bit on top of each other, so forgive me):

Peace and happiness? I don’t know what peace and happiness even means! I don’t know how to find them! But I do know how to find your purpose. Don’t ask me what brings you happiness. Ask yourself what breaks your heart. Be brave enough to go there. Rush to the places that break your heart. Stand there. You will find your people.

There are so many heartbreaking things in our messy, beautiful, broken world. There are so many places to rush to. But right now, this tumor’s breaking my heart… a lot. And the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation has been the place I have rushed to, since the night I was officially diagnosed, to find others whose hearts are broken by this disease too.

Running for Answers 5k

survivors.jpg
The 2018 Running for Answers Survivors Photo. Unofficially speaking, The Patient Meeting and 5k are the largest annual gathering of desmoid tumor patients in the world! 

This year will be the 10th Annual Running for Answers 5k in Philadelphia. Last year was my first year participating, and it was a blast. While this event may have been born of heartache and frustration, it has become a celebration of community, strength, and resilience. This event is one big morning-long party, and I like to think the presence of the Unicorn Squad has a lot to do with it! Last year, we were the team with the highest online fundraising amount- which was super exciting! I was the featured speaker, and once those duties concluded, I walked the route and ate ice cream. Then I basked in the glow of how lucky I am to be so supported.

If you missed out on the fun last year, here’s your chance to join the Squad this year! The 10th Annual Running for Answers 5k Run/Walk will be September 22, 2019 in Fairmount Park. For $35 you get race registration, music, free cheesesteaks, free ice cream, post-race yoga, and word on the street is that the first 400 registrants get a cool bandana as well. And if you register by tomorrow, August 15, you get a free Unicorn Squad tshirt as well! (I know, ack, this is late notice – I could have sworn I shared about it earlier. Sorry! Chemo brain! But if you register after August 15, you’ll still get all the cool perks, just no tshirt.)

Summary: $35 donation. September 22. Music. Walking. Running. Hug from me. Food. Massive fiesta feeling. My eternal gratitude.

Want in? Click here to register and join Team Unicorn Squad!

ice cream.png

FAQ’S

Q: Rats! I don’t know if I can make it that day! What can I do?
A: You’re still welcome to register by tomorrow, 8/15, if you want the tshirt! Your $35 registration fee will go right to the DTRF, and I’ll get in touch with you to give you the shirt at another time. If can’t register until the day before, that’s cool too! You’re always welcome to join!

Q: I can’t make it, but I would love to make a donation. Where do I do that?
A: Thank you so much! You can click on this link and make a donation by clicking on the “donate” button, under the image of the colorful unicorn.

Q: Unless I’m being chased by a rabid animal, I don’t run. Can I still register?
A; Absolutely! I walked last year. There’s always a solid contingent of walkers.

Q: I am a Very Serious Runner. Can I register?
A: Of course! This is a timed course and there are prizes in each age group as well.

Q: This is not a question. But my child is the next Wilma Rudolph. 
A: Wow! That’s impressive! You should register your kid – there’s a 1/2 mile fun run they can participate in right before the 5k kick-off!

Q: Can I bring my human baby and/or my fur baby?
A: For sure! The course is paved and stroller-friendly.  If your kiddo is of the four-legged variety, bring them on a leash!

Q: I have a question that’s not listed here!
A: You can probably find the answer on this Event Details website. You can also message me here on the blog!

drew crew
The amazing Drew University crew!

Can’t wait to see you there!

Uncategorized

Unspoken, Part 3.

This post is the third and final in a series I am writing on the subject of chemotherapy and fertility. It has taken me the most time, intentionality, and courage of anything I have written to date.

As always, the experiences and opinions voiced in this article are mine. My story is not the story of all women, but a tiny piece in the large mosaic of the complex issue of fertility. I wrote honestly and openly – mostly because I wish I had the opportunity to read another patient’s account regarding fertility treatment. The intent of this post is not to overshare, nor is it to cast judgment on others who would, or have made, different decisions. I believe that every person deserves the right to make informed choices about their bodies, and that includes reproductive health.

April 21-27 was Infertility Awareness week in the United States. 1 in 4 men and women struggle with infertility. I believe that the more we share our truths about the complex issue that is fertility, we can help mitigate the stigma and end the cycle of isolation, shame, and grief that is so often at the center of fertility struggles.


image1 (13)
A pile of my discarded medical waste from fertility treatments.

On the day of my egg retrieval, I arrived early to check in at the front desk. I had filled out the paperwork to appraise the medical staff of my history, and then sat down. A few minutes later, I was called up to the front desk and told to swipe my card as instructed for payment. I squinted, blinked, and looked again. The total displayed on the screen was nearly $500 more than what I had agreed to at the clinic. I explained this to the front desk attendant, who told me there was nothing she could do. I looked over to my Mom, and then down at the total again.

There was no going back. I couldn’t start the process again, and there was no time to try to contact the fertility clinic. Drawing my lips together into a firmly held line, I swiped my card and took a seat.

Everyone I spoke with that day was as nice as could be, but it didn’t keep my heart from pounding as I was called back and got into a gown for surgery. My hands were shaking, my eyes watering, and no amount of yogic training could keep me in a steady rhythm of breathing. I had a pre-surgical meeting with the doctors and was told I was in great hands. I flinched at any reference made to how the anesthesia would be “the best sleep ever.” After what seemed like simultaneously hours or seconds, it was time. I was taken back to the operating room, where a radio was playing and everyone in the room was laughing and making jokes. It strikes me each time that I’m in a hospital that while this is a pivotal day in my life, it’s just someone else’s Saturday. With my palms sweating and my arms retrained for surgical prep, I struggled to keep myself calm. The anesthesia started through my IV, and then there was nothing.

I came into consciousness in a curtained room. I was sore and I didn’t see anyone I recognized. I hated not knowing how long I had been out or how I had been seemingly interacting with the nurse before remembering or realizing. As the nurse checked my pain level, I was told not to exercise for two weeks – which was news to me and another disappointment, as it eliminated any plans of getting in more normalcy before starting chemo. After a little while, my mom was brought back and we were released to go home. I was cranky and in pain. I had re-lived my most painful memory and paid more than I expected on top of it. I was tired. I just wanted to go home and watch Netflix.

As I lounged on the couch a few hours later, sore and tired, I got a phone call from the surgical center. A staff member informed me that they were able to retrieve seven eggs. Of those seven, three were usable.

My heart stopped. I had not prepared for this.

In the research I had done, numbers mattered. There was the possibility of 0 – 30 eggs during the retrieval, with the far ends of the spectrum being less frequent or likely occurrences. The younger you are at the time of your retrieval, the more eggs the doctors are typically able to retrieve. Of the eggs retrieved, 60% are usually viable for freezing. Most people about my age were able to have at least 12-15 eggs retrieved, and my doctor stressed in our consultation appointment that at 29, I would be happy with the results.

But I was far from it. They’d retrieved well under the number of eggs I had hoped for and fewer than half were viable.

The number game quickly continued. That meant that if I chose to go through IVF down the road, 70% of those mature eggs fertilize successfully. I’d have one to use and one as a backup. For my age and the number of eggs retrieved, there was a 16-38% chance of IVF resulting in a child’s birth.

16 – 38%.

That felt like nothing. If there’s a 16 – 38% chance of rain, I don’t bother to pack an umbrella. Hell, I’d get on a motorcycle if offered, and I’m pretty cautious.

I was crushed. I had convinced myself that undergoing these fertility treatments would secure my options, but in reality, I had paid a lot of money to secure another very expensive gamble in the future. I was crying and I wasn’t even able to name why. Was I crying for the children I maybe wanted and now felt were out of reach? Or was it because my body had failed me, betrayed me, yet again? In the days following, it was harder still was telling people who knew about the procedure and asked how it went. “Well, you don’t want more than three kids, do you?” “All you need is one!” “Three is better than nothing!” Well-meaning, I’m sure, but each remark smarted, the wound still raw. I wondered, for the millionth time, how much more heartbreak I could endure.

It’s been just over a month since my retrieval. I’ve had time to get a little bit of distance and perspective. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t. Regret is a tricky thing: I did the best with the knowledge I had, but it doesn’t stop it from hurting. I wish I had been prepared for the possibility of disappointment. Over and over again, people told me I was making the right decision and assured me it would work out fine. Looking back, I realize now that the majority of those people were mothers – those who both can’t imagine their lives without children – and doctors – those who can profit, exponentially, off of the desire and desperation of others to have a baby of their own. I am not saying that their words were motivated by anything other than comfort or assurance, but there’s an innate bias in their opinion.

I don’t think I’ll do anything with these eggs. I’ll probably donate them to research after the five years of freezing I’ve prepaid is up. Truthfully, I cannot forsee a future in which I’m willing to open myself up more to the potential heartbreak of pregnancy or IVF. I’ve already been hurt enough, and the process hasn’t even included an attempt at pregnancy. My fertility decisions were initiated in the interest of preserving choice and options. My heart aches for those who have endured this cycle hoping for pregnancy, month after month, and been disappointed. The emotional and financial stress of fertility treatments is staggering. One round of IVF, without medication, is $14,000 (national average, USA). These are rarely covered by insurance. The cost for surrogacy is between $70,000 – $100,000. Even if I find myself in a place where my emotions are changed, I cannot see a reasonable future for myself where that is not a shattering financial undertaking.

“The final stage of healing is using what happens to you to help other people.” – Gloria Steinem

In this narrative of loss, here’s what’s left, my truth and my story.

If I sound bitter, I am. If this all seems indignant, you’re right, I am. If this wisdom seems hard won, it is.

I do not understand why my fertility was never a topic of conversation before it needed to be decided upon, and fast. As I journey through this experience of having an orphan disease, a rare one in a million tumor, I am learning that my doctors know about as much as I do about my diagnosis. I’m also certain that in this country, women’s health – their pain, their instinct, their voice – is taken less seriously, or at the very least, with less consideration, by those who have the power to make decisions.

If I could do it all over again, I would take the money and go on a trip. Spend five days in the islands or maybe Italy, and come back with a clear head and a tan, heartache-free, ready to put those chemicals in my veins. If I could do it all over again, I would have asked my doctor about possible risks to my fertility when IV chemo was first mentioned as a possibility last year.

If I could do it all over again, I would hold the hand of the girl in the purple sweater who sat in the thoracic surgeon’s office. I’d wipe her tears and tell her that yes, it is a sarcoma. That yes, it will hurt, more than you ever thought imaginable. But, your heart will continue to fold in on itself, shatter, repair, and expand in more ways you ever thought imaginable.

Yes, I’d say, your body may have failed you, tricked you, deceived you, and betrayed you. But your magnificent, beating, hurting, growing, divinely human heart is intact. It will amaze you.

Someday, years from now, if my tech-savvy thirteen-year-old is reading a cached version of this blog, simultaneously cringing at the faintest hint at my reproductive organs and beginning to simmer an argument about being unwanted, calm down. You were wanted: very much so, so much so that something huge and wildly transformational happened to change my mind. Go clean your room.

And if no child of mine ever reads this, or no child of mine ever exists, and it’s seventy-year-old Christina reading this on some futuristic device I can’t yet imagine, hello. I wonder what you would want to tell me. I wonder how your heart has grown.

Uncategorized

Unspoken, Part 2

This post is the second in a series I am writing on the subject of chemotherapy and fertility. It has taken me the most time, intentionality, and courage of anything I have written to date.

As always, the experiences and opinions voiced in this article are mine. My story is not the story of all women, but a tiny piece in the large mosaic of the complex issue of fertility. I wrote honestly and openly – mostly because I wish I had the opportunity to read another patient’s account regarding fertility treatment. The intent of this post is not to overshare, nor is it to cast judgment on others who would, or have made, different decisions. I believe that every person deserves the right to make informed choices about their bodies, and that includes reproductive health.

Last week was Infertility Awareness week in the United States. 1 in 4 men and women struggle with infertility. I believe that the more we share our truths about the complex issue that is fertility, we can help mitigate the stigma and end the cycle of isolation, shame, and grief that is so often at the center of fertility struggles.


The next day at the fertility clinic, I was taken back to a tiny room with no windows. A woman who spoke very quickly and a touch too loudly put photocopied papers about in-vitro fertilization in front of me. She proceeded to draw all over them, numbers and figures and arrows zigzagging and punctuating the infrequent pauses in her sentences. I clung to the facts that I could. I would need to give myself injections for nearly two weeks and come to the office every day for monitoring. The egg retrieval would require me to go under anesthesia, something I deeply feared since my last surgery. Was I married? In a relationship? The doctor cautioned me against freezing embryos with donor sperm, because if I had a partner someday, they may not want to use them. I needed to have an ultrasound today, now, if I wanted to move forward. They’d also need to move my chemo date back. What’ll it be?

I didn’t talk and I didn’t move. Everything was happening on hyperspeed. I felt small and powerless. This was not a woman who knew what to do with an indecisive patient.

She and her assistant talked around me, to each other, to my mom, and suddenly, without any spoken on nonverbal consent from me, she left the room and started preparing the other room for an ultrasound.

I can’t begin to tell you how dehumanizing this was. I may not have known if I wanted an ultrasound or not, but I sure as hell deserved the dignity of being treated as an autonomous human being.

The day continued in tears. Everything was moving faster and faster. I was inconsolable, unable to think of anything else, and desperate for guidance or a sign of what choice I should make. A friend of mine who was navigating her own fertility decisions encouraged me to get a second opinion. She reminded me, gently and lovingly, that even if I did go through with the retrieval, I wasn’t obligated to use the eggs. This was a way to preserve choices and options, something I did not have otherwise. She shared the name of a fertility clinic closer to home, a half-hour away. Over email, the clinic gave me an estimate of cost, and it was a third of the cost of my first opinion. I didn’t want price to be a driving factor, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a consideration.

I went to get a second opinion at the clinic she recommended. This room had windows, which made me feel less claustrophobic, and I came prepared with my own tissues. I explained to the doctor the specifics of my diagnosis and my deeply held fear of surgery and anesthesia. She listened carefully, explained more about the process, and how they could, fortunately, start treatments at any time given my personal medical history, which was really encouraging. The number of days in the preparation and retrieval process varies as they monitor your hormone levels with daily bloodwork. The surgery would likely fall the second weekend of March, and any physical activity would need to be stopped in the days before the retrieval to reduce the risk of any complications.

I hesitated. I was in a production of Peter and the Starcatcher, and we ran for two weekends in March. I had been rehearsing since December, jumping all over boxes and platforms. I had no understudy, and more so, I did not want to miss the one thing I was looking forward to before my life changed for the foreseeable future. When I shared this, there was an undercurrent of judgment, likely a combination of both real and imagined circumstance. I understood that to someone else who knew that parenthood was what they wanted, it sounded insane to choose a community theatre production over having a child. But this was my source of joy, the thing I had to call my own before turning my body over to the imprisonment of chemicals and poison for a term of 6-13 months. I valued this artistic commitment and the fulfillment it brought me over undergoing a costly medical procedure that I wasn’t even sure I wanted.

The doctor proposed another idea. What if we waited, maybe another week? It would delay the retrieval until after the show had closed. I could delay chemo by one week, and I’d be in the clear.

I felt I had found my answer, and that maybe, this time, I could have it all. With tears of relief, I agreed to start fertility treatments.

IMG_7860
The contents of my fridge: raspberry preserves, quinoa, almond milk, spinach, eggs – and three bags of fertility medication.

After a blood test and another ultrasound, it was time to start fertility injections. I was fortunate enough to receive the medication completely free of cost from the LiveStrong foundation. When the box arrived, it was nearly too large for me to carry. I quickly stashed it in the refrigerator, where it would need to be kept to maintain efficacy.

Here’s how a day on fertility treatments looks: I’d have an appointment between 7 and 8 AM almost every morning. They would draw blood, which would be tested for various hormone levels, and perform an ultrasound to see how the eggs were developing. Following the results of the blood test, I would be called, usually by 2 PM, with instructions for that evening. I’d have at minimum one shot to self-administer, usually two, at the same time each evening. It sounded scary, but there were videos to watch online, and soon, they became routine. I would swab a spot near my belly button with an alcohol pad, use either the pre-mixed pen (easy) or would quickly mix and fill a syringe with the hormone shot needed. Soon, my stomach was full of tiny pea-sized bruises as souvenirs of my courage.

image2 (5)
You know the saying: another openin’, another show, another injection.
image3 (2)
The beard really completes the look.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since I had rehearsals most nights, I’d duck out of running a scene, grab my insulated lunch box with my medication inside, and give myself the injections. Mind you, I was playing Smee (of Peter Pan fame), so I was doing this all in costume while wearing an artfully applied beard. There was an evening that I was a passenger in a car when the time came to give myself the shot. I politely shielded myself from my friends in the backseat and injected at a red light. I even administered the final timed, intramuscular “trigger shot” on a New Jersey Transit train, which thankfully had stopped at Secaucus at 10:31, just sixty seconds after the prescribed and water-tight time of 10:30. I joked to friends that, god forbid, I ever had to do this again – I should start a youtube channel and give myself the shots while skydiving.

Fertility treatments are not insane by any means, but not what I’d call a comfortable process. I constantly felt bloated and like I had basketballs in my stomach. In addition to the emotional weight of the chemo situation and telling my students that I wouldn’t be returning to work, I was pumped sky-high full of hormonal as well. In the final scene of Peter and the Starcatcher, I had to deliver the line, “until one night, many years later, she watched as Peter flew off, with her daughter in tow.” Its emotional significance was not lost on me.

As the end of the process neared, I knew the next hurdle would be preparing to undergo anesthesia, which filled me with fear. The last and only time I went under for surgery was when I thought my tumor was a lipoma, and this nightmare road to diagnosis had begun. In the time since, I have experienced nightmares in which I black out and wake up presumably hours later with no control over what had been done to my body. But through a stroke of luck, one of my best friends who is an OB-GYN works at the center where my retrieval would take place. He promised to get coverage so he could be there to hold my hand as I went under.

As we neared the “any day now” territory, I waited for the call each day that meant my retrieval would take place two days later. The call finally came and the nurse told me it would be two days later, on a Friday. I called my mom and asked her to take off work so she could drive me to the surgical center. Unfortunately, I had called her too soon – just a few hours later, I got another call from the fertility clinic. My retrieval would be Saturday instead. I sent a text to my friend so he could arrange for coverage at work. “Oh no,” he responded. “I can’t be there then, I have a meeting I can’t get out of.” He promised to talk to the anesthesiologist and find out who would be on surgery that day. I understood, and I was so grateful for his help, but I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

I would face the operating room alone.


To be continued.

Uncategorized

Accomplished.

It’s been about a month since my last update, and a lot has happened since then. Here are a few updates, which, in an effort to re-frame my personal productivity, I’m calling my accomplishments.

Accomplishment #1: I started a girlmeetscancer instagram!

insta.png

I’ve started documenting my chemo journey via instagram. I’m treating it like a mini-blog of sorts, with photos from my infusions, some chemo experiences, and insights I hope can help others. I’ve followed accounts with a similar focus in the past and they’ve been really helpful in making me feel less alone. Already, it’s put me in touch with so many other patients and has served as a great resource.

Accomplishment #2: I survived my first infusion of Doxil!

image2 (4).jpeg

The days leading up to the first infusion were worse than the infusion itself. I was an anxious mess: tossing and turning at night, jolting awake multiple times in the middle of the night, constant racing heart and sweaty palms, the whole deal. I was itching to go ahead and get it over with.

I started my Infusion Day with bloodwork followed by an appointment with the nurse practitioner with the Sarcoma Program. She went over possible side effects with me, took my height and weight (update: I’m still 5’2″) and then sent me upstairs to wait for an infusion chair. After waiting for a while, I got a primo spot for the infusion: a corner location with the sun shining through the window.

The nurse came over and gave me a round of three pills: an anti-nausea, a steroid, and (per the nurse practitioner’s suggestion, and my welcome approval) an anti-anxiety med. They gave those about 20-30 minutes to enter my system before finding a vein for my IV. Unfortunately, an abundance of scar tissue has formed around the veins at my elbow crease, and I’m a “tough stick.” After hemming and hawing and consulting a few different nurses, they went with a vein just below my left wrist: a super awkward and slightly painful spot, but if it keeps me from having a port, I’m all for it.

I’m not going to lie, an anti-anxiety med is a marvel of modern medicine for moments such as this. I felt a bit more ease enter the picture, enough to give me a clear perspective and make me feel almost normal again. To any patients considering it, please don’t hesitate to ask for something like that. It can make an extremely overwhelming situation a bit more tolerable. I wouldn’t have thought to mention I was anxious unless a cancer survivor friend of mine suggested it and the nurse practitioner straight up said to me, “I can see how anxious you are. We can do something about it.” Reminder: it doesn’t make you less strong to ask for help, it makes you human. (If you need me, I’ll be repeating that to myself until it sticks.)

And then, I waited. When the infusion began, I got a super metallic taste in my mouth and a heavy feeling in my chest for a few moments, so they stopped the drip until the weighted feeling past. Once it dissipated, I was back as planned to the drip. I read on my Kindle and spent a lot of time talking to the nurses, who were extremely helpful in giving me an overview of the Infusion Suite and its resources.  It took about 90 minutes for the infusion to finish, and when it was nearly finished, I was hungry for the first time all day. Mom and I ordered food and ate it in the park before driving home. It was a fairly long day – my bloodwork was scheduled at 10:45 and I got home around 4.

In the weeks since, I’ve had a laundry list of side effects: chills, fatigue, no appetite, and body aches in the week following, and since, more fatigue, hives, mouth sores, and a metallic taste in my mouth. The biggest one is the fatigue: I’m unable to get out of bed until 1 PM on most days. Some of my side effects, such as hives and the bad taste in my mouth, are triggered by exercise, so I have a theory that I’m sweating out the poison and chemicals. (I’ll make my thesis title sound much more professional than that.) Being on Doxil hasn’t been easy, but it feels more tolerable than the drugs I was on previously, probably because I’m on disability.

Ah, disability. There are days when I’m feeling really good, and being away from work seems foolish and unnecessary. But then a super lousy day will strike, and the side effects circle back… and I know now, three weeks in, that there’s no way I could be the teacher that I want to be if I went into work five days a week. I miss my students and my coworkers daily, but I’m really fortunate to be able to make my health my full-time job.

I’m due for my next infusion on Monday, and already, I feel more relaxed knowing what to expect.

Accomplishment #3: I went to Denver!

image3 (1).jpeg

… Wait, what?

Yes! You read that correctly. I went to Denver for an incredible conference called CancerCon.

Here’s how it all went down: remember that instagram account I mentioned? Well, one of the features of Instagram is that it will suggest accounts for you to follow based on “likes” you’ve made, searches you’ve done, and accounts you’ve previously followed. Think of it as low-key algorithm stalking with a purpose. One of the suggested accounts was for an organization called Stupid Cancer, which I’d never heard of before. Stupid Cancer is a group for young adults with cancer, and their instagram account had a post about something called CancerCon 2019 from April 11-14 in Denver. Coincidentally, they invited any new attendees who were not registered to send an email and be in the running for a partial scholarship to attend. I sent an email and made a deal with myself: if I got the scholarship, I’d splurge on the flight. Sure enough, 14 hours later, there was an email congratulating me on my partial scholarship in my inbox. I booked the flight and got my packing list in order so I could leave the following week.

It’s impossible to describe the CancerCon experience without having been there firsthand. It also deserves far more attention and space than I can give it in this overview; I’ll probably return to it for another post later on. So here’s what I want you to know: it felt really, really good to not need to explain myself. I spent four days with other patients and caregivers who also had their lives interrupted by a devastating diagnosis. They were people I had never met, but they were far from strangers: they were the community I’ve been searching for and didn’t know I needed. I won trivia with my team. I placed a respectable third in the scavenger hunt. I listened to people’s stories of pain and struggle and shared my own. I attended breakout sessions and discussions on really meaningful topics. I shared insights, meals, dance moves, tears, and many, many laughs. I made friends who I’ve been texting since the moment I left for the airport. I am overwhelmed with gratitude at having this incredible network of people that I can count on when I need it. If you’re a young adult cancer patient in need of a community, check it out. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

What’s next?

I’m still here, and the weather’s beautiful. I plan on taking lots of walks with Daisy. I’ve been reading a ton of books and expect I’ll do more of that. I’m spending Easter with my family this weekend and I’ve got an infusion coming up on Monday. If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that my expectations will always be challenged in some way, sometimes for the worse, but also for the better. Even if it’s just for today, I’m at peace.

Uncategorized

Everything & Nothing.

If you’ll indulge me, I have yet another Camino story for you.

20953571_1906999126208055_2262739617955742669_n

When you walk the Camino Frances from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela, there’s a stretch called the Meseta. It gets its name for the Spanish word for table, mesa, but it’s not notable for much. It is flat and dry, geographically a cross between a desert and Kansas, 220km of nothing to look at. It takes about five or six days to traverse on foot, and if you’re walking in July, it’s fiercely hot. For that reason many people opt to skip it completely, but I did not.

Not much happens on the meseta, but it’s here that the Camino starts to work on your brain. With nothing to entertain yourself, you learn pretty quickly where your mind goes when left to its own devices.

October was my own mental Meseta.

At the end of September, when I last saw my oncologist, he took a look at my routine bloodwork and declared that it looked “stone cold normal.” He also let me know I could book my scan in November and my follow up for the day after – leaving me with an “appointment-free” October.

Originally, this seemed like a well-earned break from the routine. No substitute plans or coverage would be needed at school, which was great, since I always say it’s more work to be out than just go in myself. My mom and permanent appointment co-pilot didn’t need to take time off work.  I could put it out of my mind and coast until just after Thanksgiving.

But in reality, the absence of any medical check-ins during October means that I had more alone time with my thoughts… which is not a good thing when you have dialed up side effects, a big scan looming, and diminishing hours of light in the day. We (myself and my oncologist) acknowledged that this upcoming scan will be a game changer: we’ll see that either this medication has stepped up its game, and we can stay the course, or it’s time for something more aggressive.

With nothing between myself and this immense, looming possible change, I’ve been pulled between the desire to do everything and nothing at all.

Everything.

I burst into tears on the way to work on October 1. I was just driving along, listening to my (rather upbeat) music, minding my own business, and bam. I’m at a stoplight and tears are stinging my eyes and I have absolutely no idea why. As I sat at that traffic light, I had one clear thought amidst all the confusion: “everything’s just happening so fast.” 

It hit me later that it had to do with the date. The first day of October: one month further into treatment and the next month would be my scan. I have been busying myself with directing one production, choreographing another, teaching a class at a local regional theater, and curating a final performance with those students. In an effort to outsmart my own feelings, I’ve been determined to stay as busy as possible… to mixed results. While the logical part of my brain knows to take one step at a time, I get caught off guard in moments where the date, season, or time in general hits me hard. I feel as though I’m at the mercy of a ticking clock, grasping at all the things I wanted to see, accomplish, or achieve, while trying to manage my side effects and keep up my other obligations.

I’m pretty sure this panic over the passage of time is also why, a few days into October, I found myself obsessing over Halloween decorations. I placed an order on Amazon, made things to put on the walls, pulled out the skull-print pillows I made last year, even suspended battery-operated candles from the ceiling to look like floating candles. A few of my coworkers asked if I was having a party, and self-consciously responded that I’m not. I wasn’t even sure why it was so necessary that I decorate.

A few days later, when I was explaining to someone that some of the treatment options that are on the table are lengthy – over a year – it hit me. I guess somewhere subconsciously I decided that if I may not be up for decorating next year, I should do two Halloweens worth of decorations. I didn’t get to all the ideas I had in mind, but that’s mostly because my side effects left me feeling diminished in energy and motivation,

Nothing.

Back in March or April, I wrote that I was protesting the word sick. When I wrote that, I didn’t know what sick could feel like. The most impactful side effects didn’t take effect until a few months into treatment. The increased dose of my medication has built up in my system since the end of August, and nearly everything seems harder now. It’s hard to eat in a way that agrees with me, to get myself out off the couch, to walk my dog in the morning, and just to keep my apartment clean. I had no clue how much I took for granted before.

I was sick for a full weeks in October. I spent one day completely in bed all day, canceling the appointment for a massage I’d excitedly made a few days earlier. I slept for 11 hours for two nights in a row, napping during the day. I’m luckily on the other side of it now, but it hasn’t been without sacrifices. I am not drinking any coffee or alcohol. Raw vegetables leave me feeling nausesous, as do many roasted veggies, so they’re largely out – a bummer for a plant-based vegetarian. I’ve given up most dairy.  What’s left? Well, I have been eating a lot of carbohydrates, with a far amount of juicing in an attempt to keep up with my nutrient intake.

It is a struggle not to measure my days in terms of productivity. I look at the dishes in the sink, the unopened mail, my growing Netflix “Watch Again” lost, and I don’t recognize myself. My time has never been spent this way in the past – I didn’t even own a television until last December.

There’s also someone different in the mirror. My body has grown soft, no longer the physical expression of my love of yoga, running, choreographing, and movement. My hair appears normal, but running a brush through it offers a slightly different narrative. I try to remind myself that I’m just getting stronger in a new way, but it’s hard not to feel your self-esteem shift when your body that you once knew so well is a stranger.

Between Extremes.

So what is one to do?

As I tell my students, you “practice your patience.” You feel what you need to feel, and you get up and go to work in the morning. You savor the moments of in-between, when things seem normal and almost like they were so many months ago. You remind yourself of what’s still there, unchanged, beneath the evidence that piles up and shouts a different story. You snuggle with your dog. You listen to Queen on the way into work and try lots of different harmonies on lots of different songs. You decorate for Halloween.

You find whatever it is that gets you through the day. You hold on tight. And you remind yourself that the sun still shines.

21034572_1906999049541396_4885242661417597445_n

Uncategorized

The 11th Annual DTRF Patient Meeting and the 1st Annual Unicorn Squad Takeover of the Running for Answers 5k

Hi! It’s been a while.

I’ve been meaning to sit down for a few weeks now and get my thoughts on paper, but there simply hasn’t been the time. Since I’ve written last, I started the 2018-2019 school year, cast two productions, began to choreograph one musical, started on directing a full-length play, and started teaching a musical theater class at a local regional theater- all while adjusting to my new daily medication dose. (So, you know, staying busy.)

In all the semi-controlled chaos, there’s been some notable events along the way.

2018 DTRF Patient Meeting

Saturday, September 22 was the 2018 DTRF Patient’s Meeting in Philly. It’s a time for doctors, researchers, and patients to come together to discuss new treatments, studies, and personal experiences. I learned about the patient meeting shortly after my diagnosis and was excited that it was so close to home.

The day before the meeting, I started to feel unwell. I had a cold brewing and the zinc tablets which I normally take to shorten my cold inadvertently made me nauseous. Shortly after lunch, I left work and went home, where I promptly laid down on the couch. I stayed for the rest of the day, only getting up to take Daisy out and fill my water bottle. My stomach hurt, my feet were throbbing, and I felt as though my bones had been replaced with lead pipes. The next morning, I dragged myself out of bed and headed for the meeting. I couldn’t believe it: the one day a year I actually get to meet other patients, and I was in absolutely no mood to socialize. I arrived feeling less than chipper, but miraculously, I turned a corner by the first break. (I’m convinced it was the bagel I was able to eat on the ride over.)

During the presentations, I was learned about recent advancements in treatment. Unfortunately, many of the presentations didn’t apply to me. The most promising study in the Desmoid world is on Nexavar, the drug I’m currently taking. The researcher said that the marker for success is when tumors have shrunk by 30%. Sitting there, I couldn’t help but feel defeated. While it’s exciting for so many others, after 6 months mine has only grown. I’d be happy with only 1% shrinkage, or just for this thing to stop taking over my body! I kept myself from falling into a sour mood with soft pretzels and passing notes to my mom to make her laugh. (Both worked wonders.) There were other two studies which seemed promising on treatments called HIFU and cryoablation, but the researchers mentioned that tumors over 10 cm were usually too large for treatment. In addition, tumors needed to be at least 1 cm away from major nerves for HIFU, and mine is next to my brachial plexus. There was one presentation on a clinical trial that’s coming to Sloan Kettering for which I may be a candidate. The medication works on beta catenin, which is one of the main proteins in the body, through weekly infusions. That trial isn’t launching until next fall, but could be something to consider.

What was most interesting was how even the researchers differed on their approach to desmoid tumors things and their categorization. There was a whole “is it cancer?” segment where one doctor was clear on how these are benign and can be harmless. Another doctor who presented shortly later rebutted with photos of patients with extremely large desmoids and that, while desmoids are “by pathology, benign, they are effectively clinically malignant.” My mom’s assessment: “They’re just so weird!” When I saw my oncologist the following week, he agreed. “After this time of treating them, nothing surprises me about these anymore. They’re completely unpredictable.” We left armed with more information… which, if possible, seemed to make this diagnosis even more strange. I got to see a few people I’d only met via email and get some hugs that were a long time coming! All in all, it was cool to be part of a day that was just about this usually undiscussed diagnosis.

2018 Running for Answers 5k

The next morning, we awoke for the 5k. It was a miserable day, cold and rainy, but I was so focused on my speech and not making a fool of myself that I didn’t pay the weather much attention. I packed my Unicorn Headband, tutu, put on my unicorn socks, and off we went to the race.

umbrell

We arrived early, and I was due to speak a bit after 8 AM. I got hugs from friends and new friends who traveled to be a part of Race Day and paced nervously around until it was my time to get on stage. I hit the stage and left my notes in my bag. I don’t believe in them, unless you’re delivering the State of the Union or needing to quote historical research. I brought mine as a security blanket, in case I panicked. I decided to swallow my nerves and make the speech happen.

42922249_1884857014962617_924909499112751104_o
This is the face of a Very Serious Motivational Speaker.

“I don’t remember much of what I said and didn’t say, really. I’ve copied and pasted my speech below so you can read it for yourself – just be sure to imagine the thunderous applause after I’m introduced and the chants of “CHRIS-TI-NA! CHRIS-TI-NA!” once it’s concluded.

Thank you so much for that introduction! I’m Christina. I’m 29 years old and I am a desmoid tumor patient. I’m also an elementary school teacher, director, and choreographer. I’m used to standing in front of groups of people, but usually they’re under four feet tall. Please forgive me if I ask you to sit criss-cross applesauce and give me listening ears.

I started my desmoid journey months before I was actually diagnosed. I went into surgery a year ago next week and when I was out, the doctors told me they didn’t find anything. I started pinballing back and forth from doctor to doctor. On January 30, the doctor told me he believed it was a sarcoma. And he sent me the next day for a biopsy and an MRI. Two weeks later, I found out I was a desmoid tumor patient.

I got the low down from my doctor on how rare this was and scheduled a lineup of appointments, but hadn’t yet found the DTRF. At one point, I even joked to my friends that it was so rare, there probably wasn’t a 5k! That a 5k would just be me, running down the street.

But then I started doing more googling on desmoid tumors and the DTRF came up. I’m so grateful I found it in those early days. I meticulously poured over each and every page. I was thrilled. And there WAS a gathering for people like me! As agonizing as it was to wait the nearly two weeks for a diagnosis, I finally had a name to rally myself behind. I had my first answer. And I like answers. I’m a teacher – when I ask questions, I expect answers.

That’s why I truly love the name of this 5k. This name tells you exactly what we are all about. There’s a million reasons we could say we are running.  We are not running for hope – we’ve got that. We heard about advances in research yesterday at the patient meeting. We are not running to make a community – we’ve got that too, as anyone who’s been on the Desmoidian Facebook group will tell you. We are running for answers. The answers we have are not enough. Ask any patient here and they’ll tell you the same thing. We listened yesterday at the Patient’s Meeting to how the answers are showing more promise, but we’re not where we want to be.

I love imagining the answers we are running for in the future. A future where, when a patient asks how we treat these things, a doctor can reply: “Here’s exactly how we’re going to beat this.”A future where, when a patient asks if these tumors come back, a doctor says “no.” Even a future where, someday, when someone says they’ve never heard of a desmoid tumor, we can say: “I know. That’s because we found a cure.” You are contributing to finding those answers by being here today.

If you’re here and didn’t know what a desmoid tumor was when you showed up, THANK YOU. If you’re here because you like to run, and you heard about the cheesesteaks, THANK YOU. Because as great as those are, you could get them elsewhere. Your decision to be here is making a difference.

If you are here because you love someone with a desmoid diagnosis, THANK YOU. You drive us to appointments, sit with us during treatments, make us toast when we’re nauseous, and hold our hands when we tell you we are scared. Because of you, we are reminded of why we fight.

And if you are here as a desmoid tumor patient, THANK YOU. Thank you for not letting fear run your life. You are not just a diagnosis. You are a parent, a child, a friend, a coworker, and so much more than just a pathology report. You are a warrior.

Together, we are the ones we have been waiting for. We are the answer to facing this disease.

Thank you!”

With my speech happily over, it was time to walk in the rain. Everyone who walked and ran or just came to hang out was a true champ about it! Once upon a time, before Nexavar started to kick my butt, I had hoped to run the race, but walking it meant that I could chat with my friends who had moved mountains to be there. The route itself was rather pretty, and I’ll be back on Saturday (hopefully this time with sunshine!) for the Lisa’s Army 5k.

42514399_10100242027172599_6931105440738574336_o
The incredible Drew University crew!
42430201_10156089298323409_4923751186739232768_o
Stacie and I, in our usual state of laughing uncontrollably.

After the race, it was time for awards. I had been tracking our fundraising page, so it came as no surprise to me that we won the award for the highest total raised. With $20,551 as our total, we raised 10% of the entire foundation’s goal for the weekend! It was truly incredible to see the fruits of our efforts – truly more yours than mine – become such a spectacular achievement. I’m so grateful to all of you who donated, shared the link, or have been talking about Desmoid Tumors. The more awareness we raise, and the more funds we can allocate for research, the closer we are to finding a way to make the lives of us rare disease patients better.

43066036_1884857121629273_4211844822530523136_o
This year’s patient and survivor photo. All these unicorns in one picture!

When it was all said and done, I felt a bit like I was a part of a wedding. I hear from my friends that are married how the day you’ve been planning for ages can go by so quickly.  That was definitely my experience – I was so focused on making sure other people were happy or knew where to go that I forgot to take a moment to soak it all in. When I realized this at the end of the day, as the stage was being taken down, I smiled. “Thank goodness there’s next year!” I said out loud to no one in particular, and I shuffled off to get ice cream, satisfied that my work there was done (for now.)

ice cream
Make mine a vanilla with rainbow sprinkles.
Uncategorized

Six Months – And A Modern Girl’s Emily Post Guide to Navigating Unfavorable Scan Results

Tomorrow marks six months of treatment on my oral chemotherapy, Nexavar.

I wish I had better news about the results.

I had an MRI last Thursday.  It took three nurses four attempts to get an IV in my wrist for my contrast line. As I was rolled into the machine with headphones over my ears blasting Disney music and instructions to “breathe in, “hold,” and “breathe out,” I could feel my heart pounding and my toes curling. Perhaps you’ve heard the term “scanxiety”? This was it, for sure.

My oncologist was due to call me the next day with results. I left a message in the morning reminding them that I would be waiting for a call. By 4:30, knowing it was a Friday in August, I called again. Perhaps I was walking the line between persistent and annoying, but I was on edge. I had already cleaned every surface in my apartment and run through a good deal of my Netflix list by 3.

When the nurse practitioner called back, it was the news I didn’t want to hear. My tumor has grown. Not significantly, but it’s grown. I would later find out when reading the report they uploaded that it’s now in the periosteum, or tissue covering, surrounding my top two ribs. Surprisingly, they still call this type of tumor growth stable.

Let’s just say I was less than thrilled.

pity

Throwing Yourself a Pity Party

I think pity parties get a bad wrap. When you get a diagnosis like mine, people will often tell you to keep a positive attitude. I get that. I agree. I really try to live it. But it’s impossible to do 100% of the time. You can keep a positive attitude all you want, but you’ve also got to feel what you need to feel without letting it destroy you as you deny it’s there.

When hosting a pity party, as with all parties, you’ll need to carefully consider many factors. Please, allow me to be your guide.

The Location

Make sure you’re in a location where you can be yourself. Your yard, pool, bedroom closet, or bathtub are all great choices. Pity Parties in public places should be avoided at all costs. We’ve all seen these so I don’t need to tell you what a disaster they are.

I often prefer my own home, so I can wear my pajamas.

The Start and End Time

This is arguably the most important factor in hosting a Pity Party. You need to put a firm start and end time on the event. If you do not, your risk walking through the rest of your day, week, or life making other people miserable. The goal is the catharsis, or the release of emotion, NOT to bring the rest of the world down with you. 

When the party is over, you must clean up as though it were a soiree for a dozen friends and move on. If any further clean up is needed, you can reach for Netflix, some art supplies, a meditation app, or my preferred method: call a friend who may be experiencing a tough time of their own. Nothing takes you out of your own head more than being fully emotionally present for another person.

My pity party was in stages. My goal was to get it under control before going back to school on Monday. It went on longer than usual, but it was honestly my first in six months – and well overdue.

The Guest List

pity-party-2

This is critical: pity parties are best-attended solo, or with one or two wisely selected guests. You must inform your guest(s) of the occasion, receive their agreement to the requirements, or go it alone. Make sure these are your tried and true, seen-you-in-worse-situations friends who have fantastic empathy or who would bail you out of jail. Their main responsibility will be to listen, though they may also need to offer you a tissue or an adult beverage.

In this digital age, do not hesitate to phone or text your guests instead of hosting in person if your guests were gracious to agree to your previously discussed terms. A phone call also gives your rockstar friends a great excuse to cut out if need be. Pets also make excellent party guests, due to the fact that they exemplify unconditional love… and can’t respond when you talk to them.

My mom came over, and she was a rockstar about listening as I yelled, cried, and changed the subject every 5 minutes. Daisy was, as always, an excellent sport. I saw a friend Saturday night and a few more on Sunday. All listened extremely well and graciously let me whine.

The Activities

Let it out. Talk about your feelings. Rage if you have to. If you’re going this solo, journaling or doing something physical like deep cleaning a bathtub can be helpful. (Bonus: clean bathtub!) Put on that Coldplay track and cry if you want.

If you’re going to eat or drink, decide what it will be ahead of time- so you don’t find yourself looking at the bottom of a Ben and Jerry’s container after 15 minutes. If you’re needing an adult beverage, stop before you think you should.

Friday, I had some leftover soup, which had ginger in it- perfect for the stomachache I developed waiting for the news. I watched a crafting reality show. Saturday, I watched my favorite: true crime documentaries. Sunday, I went for a walk.

Send a Thank You Card

thank-you-for-attending-my-pity-party-1b964

Thank yourself (and when applicable, your guests) for taking the time to attend to your emotional needs. Remind yourself you are only human, and once your pulse slows a bit, notice what a gift it is to be alive.

Thank you to those of you who helped me get through the last week. You are rockstars.

So, What’s Next?

I met with my oncologist on Tuesday. He agreed with my treatment philosophy, and he didn’t want to settle for “stability” of this tumor either. We discussed our treatment options to hopefully shrink it, and ultimately we decided to try the plan I proposed: to increase my dose back up to 400 mg/day and scan in three months. After my scan results come back at the end of November, one of two things will happen: either I’ll stay on my medication if the tumor’s shrinking, or it will be time for more aggressive care. We talked about some of those more aggressive options. I’m relieved I don’t have to rush into them tomorrow, but I also feel prepared in knowing they may be down the line. I have to say, since everything else is largely unpredictable, it felt really good to be a partner in determining my own care.

Truth be told, I’m more optimistic now than I was even a few months ago. Meeting with my oncologist for the first time since May reminded me that I’ve got an awesome care team who is ready to help me fight, whatever the terms may be. Aside from that, the people who listened to my ranting over the weekend are proven champions who I know are here through the good, bad, and ugly. Both of those things are ultimately more important than the millimeters and centimeters my tumor has grown.

Living with a rare diagnosis is a constant battle. There are challenges at every turn and it’s exhausting. But I am here to fight. With an incredible backing of support, a care team I feel confident entrusting, and a determination to not lose who I am in the chaos, I’m armored up to win.