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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

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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

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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.

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Legacy.

Last week, the world lost two remarkable women. Both impacted me greatly: one was a colleague and friend, the other, I never met. Grieving is hard. Being as I write to help myself process, I hope you’ll indulge me in reading my processing. I’ll try to honor these women with my words.

Stacy

My friend Stacy was my “room buddy” this past year at school. I needed a spot for my desk, and the first grade classrooms had a corner for me to tuck into. I had admired Stacy since I began working with her. She was effortlessly put together. It was not only her stylish and classic wardrobe (though she certainly had wonderful style), but also the fact that she was the embodiment of grace under pressure. It was a common running joke: when we, her co-workers, weren’t sure what to do in a given situation, we would all look to Stacy. That school year, Stacy and I grew closer, sharing stories over our morning coffee and emails, covering for one another when we needed to duck out of the room, and exchanging silent glances when one of our students said something hilarious.

This winter Stacy distinguished herself as one of those special friends to make a true impact on my life. A breast cancer survivor herself, she walked with me through those scary early days, when I was told to get more scans and tests and when a diagnosis was still on its way. Her text to me the night after my biopsy brought me so much comfort. “Thinking about you Christina and wishing you to have a peaceful sleep tonight. Then some answers soon and moving on the road to recovery!” She sent me another when I announced my diagnosis to my colleagues, telling me how brave I was to tell everyone.

Writing about her in the past tense is hard. It’s unfair.

I once heard someone describe grief as “love with no where to go.” I loved being Stacy’s friend and I loved her for her selflessness in offering support when I needed it most. Now, what am I to do with that love? It makes such little sense to me that my friend is gone. I think about the students she had yet to teach, the husband she loved so dearly, and the son they had only begun to raise. The only logical answer I have in response is to share that love she so freely gave, that love that’s stuck right now as grief.

I hope to someday be someone’s Stacy. I want to be there for all folks that need it, but especially other patients. I will to reach out to that person and remind her how brave she is, even when it’s not yet apparent to her or when she doesn’t feel it. I’m ready to cheer her successes with emojis in text messages and be there for the moments when she feels less than herself. I will pour hope into her when she has nothing left to run on. If I’m lucky, I’ll be half the friend Stacy was to me.

The reading at Stacy’s service included the line, “At night, her lamp is undimmed.” Her light is still shining, bright as ever. It’s just my job now to reflect it.

Shirley

The day Stacy passed, I received an email around lunchtime entitled “A grandma grateful for your gratitude.” It was written by a 95-year-old woman, Shirley, with the assistance of her aid.

Shirley found my old blog, Project Thankful Heart, as well as other gratitude blogs, and wanted to correspond with the writers. She tried to send me an email before, but it bounced back, given that I had de-activated the account a while ago. She was persistent and wanted to make sure the email found me, so her aide suggested various combinations until they found the proper account. Lo and behold, it worked.

Shirley’s shared, “I’m aiming to be more grateful for my life so I’ve been doing my researching for gratitude to feel inspired by others and I came across all of your wonderful ‘blogs’ (as I’m told they’re called). My oh my, what each of you have managed to do as young women astounds me, and how each of have managed to write, oh my heart… Thank you for filling this great grandma’s heart with so much wonder and love.”

And this was just a third of the email.

Naturally, I was in tears by the end and had to respond. I told Shirley how grateful I was for her email and how touched I was by her words. I shared with her the miracle of the email finding me, told her about my new blog, and let her know that I was, in fact, grateful for her.

She responded, “I’m sure your life has changed in a way that you never thought possible- but fear not!  I saw you are a theatre person as well (you can always trust a theatre person from my experiences, you can trust me on that 🙂 ) and if there’s any musical that will get you through this I believe it would be my favorite of all time- “The Sound of Music”.  I see a lot of Maria von Trapp in you and as she herself’d say, “I have confidence”.  I have all the confidence in the world in you, dearest Christina. The deepest of blessings and prayers, Shirley”.

I meant to reply to her and let her know how I played Maria once, that it was my first leading role and how I imagine that, were we the same age in the same class at school, we’d get in trouble with the teacher for talking too much. But the week, with its sadness and its events, got away from me until three days later, when I received an email from her aide letting me know Shirley had passed. The aide signed off, “I don’t know much but if Shirley taught me anything its to not let another moment go by without telling someone how I think and feel. Thank you and her for giving Shirley a great last few days- I know she was so grateful.”

Last week was filled with tears. Reading this email was no exception.

Shirley asked that donations to a local theatre company be made in lieu of flowers. I made sure to follow her careful instructions. I’ve been reminding people that I love them more frequently.

And I think she’d be tickled to see her own words on a real-life blog.

Legacy

We are not guaranteed an amount of time on Earth – but we are challenged to do great things with the time we are given.

Shirley had nearly a century with which to make an impact, and make an impact she did, even up until her final days when she was writing emails to the bloggers she admired. Stacy was here for too short a time, but built a legacy of joy, of gentleness, of compassion, and love.

A colleague at Stacy’s memorial shared many beautiful words. I don’t remember them verbatim, but the sentiment is this: That feeling that we all felt, there in the room together, was love. She challenged us to allow it to transform us.

This past year has shown me how challenges can shape a person’s life in the blink of an eye. Last week was one of the hardest I’ve had in a long, long time. If you’re feeling a bit battered, you’re in good company, friend.

Join me.

Let’s sit with our grief, our challenges, our fear. Let’s make space for one another to cry until it feels ok to laugh again.

You don’t need to have cancer or to know someone who does to be in a hard place. As Anne Frank put it, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.”

Let’s keep telling the people around us how we feel about them. Let’s be there for one another when it’s most needed. Let’s see how this love transforms us.

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Quiet is Underrated

Hi, there – long time, no see!

Things have been quiet on the blog for the sheer fact that with life itself has been relatively quiet, for which I’m grateful. You truly learn to love quiet when you’ve been on a roller coaster for almost a year. The past month and change was a mix of good days and bad days, with the good far outnumbering the bad. Here are some updates on the important stuff – with other updates to come.

Fundraising

Back before my birthday, I asked for donations to the Desmoid Tumor Research Foundation. The DTRF is the only organization in the world dedicated to the research and treatment of desmoid tumors, and it’s been a critical resource since I was diagnosed in February. I set a team donation goal of $500 and shared the link here on the blog and on my personal facebook page.

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In a matter of days, I adjusted that goal to $1,000, then raised it again to $2,500. Here we are, three months later, and you have generously donated over $9,300. Never in a million years did I think I’d be fortunate enough to receive that kind of generosity and financial support.

I do not believe that money solves problems, but it certainly makes some issues more manageable. In this instance, your donations are primarily funding grants for research – some of which I’ll be able to hear about in September at the annual Patient Meeting. I mean it when I say that each dollar is one step closer to figuring out how we can treat this and be tumor-free once and for all. I can’t thank you enough.

Running for Answers 5k

The Running for Answers 5k in Fairmount Park is the day following the annual patient meeting in Philadelphia. I’ve seen photos of this event, and if I could design a 5k, this would be it. There is a “crazy socks” contest and post-run yoga. And to sweeten the deal a bit more, there’s free cheesesteaks and ice cream as well. If there is a more Philly way to do a 5k, I haven’t yet heard of it.

What I’m really excited to share is that I have been asked to be the Featured Speaker before the 5k this year (!!) I’ll be sharing a bit about my story, kicking off the race, and doing my best to put all those articulation exercises from years of rehearsal to good use.

I guess this opportunity officially makes me a motivational speaker! I will be drawing inspiration from one of my favorites, Matt Foley.

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Candid photo of me preparing for my 5k speech.

Our team, the Unicorn Squad, met the 15 x 15 challenge, which means that since we had 15 team members by June 15, all the team members will be getting a custom designed Unicorn Squad tshirt. I’ve picked out the color myself and am working with our graphic designer to come up with something fun and memorable!

Heads up: If you want to register for the 5k AND get the Unicorn Squad tshirt, you have to register by August 1. (That’s this Wednesday, in case you don’t have a calendar close.) You can sign up here by clicking “Join Team.” You’re of course welcome to register after August 1, but you won’t be able to receive the tshirt.

*Please note that when you register, a fundraising page will be automatically created for you. Please feel no obligation to raise additional funds. Just having you join us is gift enough!

Physical Therapy

With my treatment now stabilized, I asked my doctor for a script for physical therapy. My amazing PT, Alexandra, certainly had her work cut out for her. It’s hard to pinpoint what is realistic, since I’m not recovering from a specific injury. Since September, I’ve had a loss in my range of motion as well as little remaining strength in my rotator cuff muscles and arm. I felt like I was “picking up” my shoulder and putting it into its socket all day, which quickly tired out and aggravated the muscles around it. In addition to shoulder pain, I had a lot of tumor pain and neck pain as well.

Let’s talk anatomy for a second. You have a group of muscles that contribute to shoulder movement. My tumor is in my pectoralis major and has pushed my pectoralis minor out, towards my armpit. It measured on my last scan 2.2 in by 4.1 in by 2.8 inches. (As a point of comparison, that’s the size of the screen on an iPhone 7 – but 11 times thicker.) So my pectoralis major and minor can’t pull their weight – literally – when doing the work to help my muscles move properly.

What is it like when two muscles have been hijacked and can’t function normally? Imagine you hire a bunch of people to move a piano. They’re all pros, they’ve been in the business for nearly 30 years. They come highly recommended – “the only ones to do the job right!” – and move that baby grand expertly every time. But when they show up to your house, two of the movers have anvils strapped to their backs. The other movers have to try and compensate, get tired out more quickly, and can’t move that piano as well as they did before. Lots of pinched fingers and toes, and maybe a couple of drops. Ouch.

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Let’s just say there were some definite moments I felt like Wile E Coyote.

Yet in a little over a month, the gains I’ve made have been extraordinary. I’m now able to reach my right arm up over my head almost as fully as I normally do on my left. It’s my latest party trick! (This may seem small, but getting dressed just got a heck of a lot easier! I can lift my arm out to my side with less pain and just more of a “click” in the joint. My neck pain is virtually gone. My need for painkillers has decreased immensely, with the stretches and strengthening exercises now helping with feelings of soreness and pain. I’m now able to manage the pain effectively with ibuprofen and the heavy duty meds around once a week, at most.

These small gains make the ordinary seem extraordinary. Before I got out of bed earlier last week, I did one of those big stretches where I stretched from my toes to the tips of my fingers. And it actually felt satisfying. Not like I was holding back or tiptoeing around, hoping not to be in pain. It was the stretch my body had been needing since September.

I think I actually laughed out loud before promptly bursting into tears.

Perspective

After 28 years of normalcy, my life has been thrust in a different direction. It’s easy for me to look around and see the missing pieces. There’s the empty space on my calendar which used to be filled with rehearsals and plans crossed out on days I wasn’t feeling well. I’ve got a pile of wrappers in the trash from ginger candy, which I rely on to get me through days full of nausea. As I cheered my friends who were nominated for Perry Awards this year, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of sadness that I wasn’t able to perform this past season.

But what’s left is important. It’s not the kind of triumph I’ve celebrated before, but the stakes have changed.

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of Mary Oliver – she’s one of my favorites.  This poem, in particular, spoke to me on a recent morning:

The Gift

Be still, my soul, and steadfast.
Earth and heaven both are still watching
though time is draining from the clock
and your walk, that was confident and quick,
has become slow.

So, be slow if you must, but let
the heart still play its true part.
Love still as once you loved, deeply
and without patience. Let God and the world
know you are grateful. That the gift has been given.

I lose my way and I keep my head turned to the past. We all do, sometimes. I will stare at my empty plate and ignore the bountiful table set before me. I need to walk slowly when I used to run, and I fill with sadness knowing there might not be a day when I can run again.

But then I catch sight of fireflies in a field, or a sunset in its full glory, or someone will say something so funny I will laugh until my stomach hurts.

I have slowed down. But I am grateful.

experience, reflection

To Build (and Re-Build) a Home

I’ve been living with my diagnosis for just over four months now, and I’m continually surprised at how my experience of the news has evolved. I recognize within myself the changing landscape of emotions day to day, minute by minute. Now that I’m not purely on survival mode, this diagnosis has settled into the fabric of my identity. It’s not who I am, but it’s certainly a large part of my human experience.

Being diagnosed with cancer didn’t just change my relationship with myself, it changed my relationships. The way I interact with my coworkers, family, and friends has shifted in ways both subtle and dramatic.

If you’ll allow me, I’d like to explain what I mean using the analogy of a house fire. I chose this because it’s ostensibly imaginable and involves a lot of help. (Well, okay, the other reason being I’ve been watching a lot of This Is Us recently. ) It’s not a perfect analogy, but it communicates my point well enough.

Catching Fire

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When a house catches fire, hopefully someone alerts the authorities early enough and firefighters show up. My uncle was a volunteer firefighter, and I have fond memories of hanging out with him in the firehouse when I was younger. Here’s what I know: firefighters are unfathomably brave. They walk into blistering heat knowing their hat might melt to their scalp and they may leave needing medical care of their own. Without firefighters, buildings would burn right to the ground and leave so many without a place to call home.

Eventually, when their job is done, the firefighters leave. After an appraisal, some guidance, and lots of complicated insurance steps I don’t understand, contractors and workers come in to help re-build the house. Anyone who has ever had remodeling or construction work completed can tell you: it takes a long time. Deadlines are set and then pushed back. Calendars are changed. Plywood frames seem to stand bare in the cold, unchanging and without progress. But construction workers are undeterred. They’re hardworking, show up day after day regardless of the working conditions, and stick it out so that someday, somebody can move back in.

There’s another group, too. It contains a wide range of people who aren’t as apparent at first. As the house is burning, there are some who aren’t quite sure what to do in an emergency, or they don’t think it right to intervene, since it appears everything is being taken care of. Maybe some people feel it’s best to stay out of the way and say some prayers that everyone gets out safely and or that rebuilding goes according to plan. Fires are pretty terrifying, so it’s understandable it strikes a chord of fear in some and they don’t want to get too close. Or maybe one of the pipes just burst in a neighboring home, and that person needs to get on it before their basement floods and their possessions are lost. And I’m fairly certain there are some people who are just staring at the moment, still shocked at the fire happening just down the block, on their very own street.

The Afterglow

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Image courtesy of deviantart (psychonoir)

In case you haven’t caught on by now… I’m the house. And the homeowner. (I warned you this wasn’t a perfect analogy.)

When I was diagnosed, I was astonished at the number of people who rushed to help through their words, gestures, and thoughts. I received flowers, cards, text messages, and food. People offered me excursions to distract me from my circumstance, a place to stay in the city, their beautiful stories, their platelets: you name it, I received the offer. It was absolutely critical so soon after my diagnosis. If I didn’t have this outpouring of support during the first few days, I probably would have melted down completely. I’m so lucky to have these first-responders in my life.

In the weeks since, I’ve received less of the “emergency” response and moved into the builder experience. There’s not as many daily offers of help now that the smoke has died down, but a committed group shows up to check in and make sure things are on track. They’re the ones sending a text once a week, just to say hi. They’re the ones messaging me funny memes. Let it be known: these people are just as important the firefighters. They recognize that I’m not in a dire circumstance, but they can see that I’m currently down to the studs, and at times, in need of an extra pair of hands. I’m so lucky to have these foundation-layers in my life.

The third group is tough to describe at times because it’s less of a vocal and visible role. (I myself am not sure who’s entirely in it.) It could be that someone doesn’t feel it’s their place to reach out, or they’re more comfortable stepping back and sending some good thoughts my way. For many, there’s a good chance I haven’t heard that someone I’m otherwise close to is experiencing recent hardship or emotional trauma, and by all means, I WANT you to take care of yourself so you can be all that the world needs you to be. Just as I am lucky to have the firefighters and the contractors, I’m lucky to have the quiet support from people who want the best for me: I swear they are knitting and re-knitting the invisible wings I reach for and strap on my back on the hardest of days.

Truth Telling

What pains me most to admit is that there are people in my life who I expected to show up, and they haven’t. I don’t know why they aren’t able to be around (at least not yet). It’s embarrassing to admit because the number of these individuals pales in comparison to those in the other categories. But to omit this fact from an honest recording of my cancer experience would mean I’m not telling my full truth.

It doesn’t in any way detract from the volume of love, support, and good thoughts I’ve received from others. It’s just as though I expected someone to help me with a task, then something happened and they couldn’t make it, and I never got word. “Well, okay,” I think, and I try to make peace with it and not to take it personally. Because here’s the thing: despite them not being there when I expected them to arrive, I’m lucky to have them, too. Each of them had a role to play in my life in some way. I wouldn’t be who I am without their influence. Besides, who’s to say they won’t show up later?

I try to operate on the hypothesis that everyone is doing the best they can. It may sound spiritually enlightened… but it’s also just an easier way of getting through life without dramatizing too much. I believe deeply that it’s best to leave room for grace and generosity. I fully support giving people the benefit of the doubt. And regardless of whether or not they’re around now, no one is more worthy of that generosity then the incredible people who are part of my life.

A Housewarming: All Are Welcome

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I’ll take any excuse I can to share a Fixer Upper dining room photo.

Here’s what I want you to know: very, very few people can be both a first responder and a foundation-layer, and that’s the way it is supposed to be. Your true, authentic response, whatever it may be, is perfect, valid, and absolutely necessary. There is no need to change who you are or how you respond.

Stop trying to be a builder if you’re a first responder: if you didn’t send me that text that first week after I was diagnosed, I may have not gotten through my first week of living with cancer.

Don’t guilt yourself because you weren’t a first responder and you’re here to build: your support now, in the quieter moments, is so, so needed.

And I promise you, it’s okay to sit this one out, my friend: you may need to be an observer in my experience so you can be the first responder or builder in someone else’s life. Go. I’ve got this. And they need you.

There are very few individuals who have the emotional bandwidth and stamina to show up day after day after day for my needs. I myself get exhausted with my own drama at times. I consider myself inordinately blessed to have more firefighter/builders than I can count on one hand, and I hold them close and try to tell them every day just how much I love them and appreciate them.

There’s a great passage in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love where Elizabeth describes the difference between her sister and herself through a short anecdote, which I’ll attempt to capture accurately here for you. When her family received the news that another family experienced a tragedy, Elizabeth’s first thought was “my goodness, that family needs such grace right now.” Her own sister responded,”that family needs casseroles,”

Whoever you are, no matter what you bring to the table (grace, casserole, or company), thank you for being part of my journey. I’m lucky to have you here.

appointments, experience, treatment

An ER Visit and a Chance Meeting

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Fabulous rainbow image courtesy of pinterest.

I spent last night in the emergency room. On my list of things to do during the last week of school, this ranks far down towards the end, perhaps just above “give my kindergarteners espresso.”

First, some background. With my medication, I’m nearly always experiencing some form of nausea or loss of appetite. I’ll eat very little at a few meals, unable to choke down foods I previously loved; then I’ll be hungry a few meals later and try to eat as much as I can to take advantage of that window of opportunity. I have to eat even when I don’t feel like eating, which for anyone who has experienced it before, is a complicated issue. I’ve had people comment to me, “I’d love to have that problem!” or “It must be nice to feel like you can lose some weight.” These statements are really hard to hear. If I had my choice, I’d rather feel strong and healthy over sick and skinny, desmoid tumor or not. I suppose the “weight loss” impact might seem appealing, but without nutrition, my body doesn’t have the fuel it needs, which is exactly what happened this week.

At times my nausea is improved by eating (counterintuitive, I know) or at least subsides after a little food and a lot of rest. I spent Sunday laying low in my apartment: I did not feel great upon waking, but I managed to eat some oatmeal by the early afternoon, took a nap, finished a book, and felt better. On Monday, little appealed to me at lunch, but I made one of my go-to dinners: a falafel wrap with spinach, cucumber, tomato, and goddess dressing. I got to bed a bit early and decided I’d discuss the nausea with my oncologist the next day at my monthly appointment.

I never got to that appointment, because I was soon experiencing what I assumed as Stomach Virus Number Three of the past 30 days. I sent a text to my sister Jenna, who was scheduled to attend the appointment with me and is currently in nursing school. When it was clear that the virus was not letting up, she and my mom drove up to my apartment in the early hours of the morning. (I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: my family is the greatest.) They took turns caring for me for the ten hours I was actively sick, looked after my super confused and anxious dog, and tried to catch some sleep ON THE FLOOR and on my couch. (Seriously, who does that? I can’t say enough how lucky I am.) When I was well enough to be in the car, they brought me to my parents’ house.

For two days, I had the ultimate recovery fake-out. I’d be fine during the day, eat a piece of toast and drink Gatorade, and send an email to my boss saying “should be good for tomorrow!”, only to end up sick that night. Finally, my oncologist’s office offered to get me a spot sometime the next day for an infusion of fluids and anti-nausea medication. They called in an oral anti-nausea medication and an anti-spasm prescription for my stomach cramping. But when I couldn’t even keep that down, my Mom went into “Mama Bear” mode and gently, yet insistently, offered to take me to the ER. We have an agreement: both of us always respect the other’s choices, but there will be times when we can straight up insist on having the final call. I knew I was in no place to make decisions about my care, so she googled which emergency room had the shortest wait, and off we went.

So, that’s how I ended up hooked up to an IV bag with fluids to hydrate me, anti-nausea to ease my belly, and morphine to take the edge off the pain. I finally felt some of the relief I deeply craved, and I remarked to my mom that it was the best choice I’d made in days.

Shortly before I was discharged, I would discover the full truth of that statement. One of the attending nurses on duty walked in and introduced herself. She had read about my medical history and said she had to meet me. Why? She herself had a desmoid tumor. I was floored and blinked twice to make sure this story wasn’t crafted by the morphine I’d been administered. As she worked on my discharge paperwork, she shared with me about her diagnosis, her surgery, and about her life five years later without a recurrence. Having only met one other Desmoid Tumor patient before (hi, Dakota!), this unscheduled and unorchestrated meeting was completely out of left field – and confirmed my belief that the ER was the best choice.

What’s next? Good question. I don’t really know. I’ve got another appointment with my doctor to discuss changing my medication. Since my white blood cell count was good on my latest labwork, it could be that these bouts are not actually stomach viruses, but a side effect of my medication. My oncologist advised me to stay off my medication until we can discuss it in more depth.

For now, I’m happy to be back on the couch with Fixer Upper reruns, water to drink, and slices of banana to snack on when I feel up to it. It’s been a wacky week, but as I’m continually reminded, living with this diagnosis means nothing that ever goes according to plan.

reflection

Living Out Ultreia

A Memory

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Savoring guava juice and a peach at a stop along the Camino.

Once upon a time, when I thought the lump by my collarbone was a lipoma, I walked 500 miles from France to Spain.

I have to be honest with you, most days I forget it happened. That speaks so much to the human condition, doesn’t it? You accomplish a dream, you finally get the material object you want, you finally end up in that happy relationship that you want – and its meaning slips away. You begin to wonder what’s next.

For several years, that 500 mile journey called the Camino de Santiago was my dream. Then I did it, my life radically a few months later, and now it seems like a part of another person’s life. It was not even a year ago when I set off from St. Jean Pied-de-Port with one of my dearest friends and embarked on over a month of walking. There are days when I do not recognize that strong, healthy woman smiling, sunburnt and dust-covered in those photos. It was hard, but despite being only partially aware at the time, I was experiencing the vibrant fullness of being human.

I read recently that the experiences of our elders, our generations past, live in our DNA. Isn’t that wild? Somewhere, encoded in the basic scientific cells that make up our bodies, live the heartache, the loss, the beauty, and the striving of our ancestors. It puts in mind another amazing phenomenon: when individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia are played music from their past, and suddenly, though this person may not have even spoken coherently in years, lyrics start to ascend from lips to the heavens.

We know, deep down, who we are. The world will try to tell us otherwise, but if we try hard enough, we can remember.

Forgetting

I’m fairly certain social media is a black hole that launches us into forgetfulness. It’s a vortex that pulls you through and flips you inside out until you forget what time it is as you look at pictures of better meals than the ones you make, someone better looking than you are, adventures that are better than those you’ve had. It’s not all bad: Instagram and Facebook have been a lifeline for me in the wake of my diagnosis. I’ve made “friends” with desmoid patients from all over the world, despite never having met a one in person. But the negative force of the vortex is strong.

After the news that my tumor had not grown, I was shocked at how quickly I fell into that pit of jealousy. Comparison is the thief of joy, and I was bereft of any excitement in less than 24 hours. I sat bitterly staring at this tiny phone screen, watching as friends and peers and people I’ve lost touch with share that they were cast in shows, starting families, or doing ordinary things like going on a run. These people had done nothing to offend; they were simply living their lives. Still, I found myself filling with resentment and seething with jealousy.

I’m aware I project a pretty positive attitude in public. It’s no less real or valid or “me,” but it’s only half the story. I am grieving in some way every single day. Some days, it’s the flinching recognition that my yoga mat is collecting dust in a corner. Others, my restless thoughts spin inside my head. How did I pull the short straw? Why do I need to focus on just living when others are thriving? My life was once that easy too. What the hell did I do to end up here?

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A self-portrait: two weeks after being told it was a sarcoma, two days prior to my official diagnosis.

Remembering

One day before our final walk to Santiago, I was sick – really, really sick. Other pilgrims walking the Camino had been walking in and out of the room until well after midnight, and when they finally slept, it was a symphony of snoring. I had oily spinach and eggs the night before, poor fuel for a vegetarian completing a day of waking in August heat. A fever was brewing that would rage on well into the next day. I was determined to get into Santiago, even if it meant crawling on my hands and knees, but I seriously doubted that I had the strength to do it.

There’s a rush of pilgrims, or as they’re called in Spanish, peregrinos, who join the Camino only for the last 100 km. While everyone has a right to their own Camino experience, those of us who had already been walking for four weeks could get annoyed at these “tour-ogrinos” pretty quickly. Many of these latecomers were inclined towards drinking heavily, talking loudly, treating this religious pilgrimage as a holiday.

Around 10 AM, my walking partner and I stopped at a bar to get a Coke and hopefully a tortilla, a hearty Spanish frittata, to fuel the rest of our day. The bar was crowded, and judging by the cleanliness of most of their boots, they hadn’t been on the trail for long. I was feeling awful and the expression on my face warned anyone within several yards to stay far, far away. So naturally, one man who had just ordered a round of shots for himself and his friends came up to us at our table. He lunged his head forward, alcohol and smoke on his breath. He smiled and piled on the bravado, announcing, “You see, my friends and I, we will smoke and drink all day, and we will still get to Santiago before you!”

When I spoke, it was without pause, with a voice I did not recognize. It was thunderous in tone, yet restrained. This was the voice of a fierce warrior, one who pulled no punches and took no prisoners. This was the voice of someone who had nothing to prove. I stared him down, my nausea and fear cast aside, and responded unwaveringly.

“Yes, you may. But I walked here from France.

I can’t remember what his reaction was. I believe it was something akin to a half-sneer, half-smile, perhaps a smug chuckle as he sauntered back to get his drink. It doesn’t matter what his reaction was. What mattered was that I found this new, steady voice that I didn’t know I had within me.

I arrived in Santiago two days later.

A Reckoning

This recollection surfaced at just the right time, as I was neck deep in my present-day social media binge. I stumbled upon the honest reflection of a fellow peregrina who had arrived in Santiago on a Camino facebook group. The post was translated from German courtesy of an auto-translator, but the words ring true in any language.

I don’t know how many steps I’ve gone physically, mentally and psychologically on my way. However, in the last few years I have learned so incredibly much about me, living, incredible, wonderful, sad and fulfilling stories and experiences, which fills me with deep gratitude.

The Camino never ends in Santiago – the actual journey takes place to a large part in the interior and begins afterwards. My truth, my experience. Don’t believe me a word, feel it, take something for you and leave the rest. Trust yourself and the way. It’s all there. Always.

To all the people who have supported me for the last few years, all camino angels and also all the ass angels who have often made me mad. Thank you, because through these experiences I grow. And I’m here for that. I don’t cry tears of grief.
I shine. I’m happy. I am.

— @wild_one_walking

It took reading this post to remind myself that it’s all there. Always.

I am no longer in Spain. Hell, I am not able to lift a full Brita pitcher without two hands and take off a tshirt without getting caught in it, let alone audition for shows or run a 5k or walk across a country. Most days I make myself a smoothie and then drive in traffic, trying to get to work on time. I give my students as much heart as I can muster, then come home to walk my dog, make dinner, do dishes, and maybe watch Netflix. It’s not the existence I am accustomed to or one I’m particularly proud of.

But I am still here. And though I forget the significance of that very fact as I trudge through this new normal, after a while a voice inside fiercely whispers the truth. The words cut through the anger, fear, rage, bitterness welling up and spilling over: I walked here from France. I walked here from Spain. I walked here after being told it’s a soft tissue sarcoma, from a conversation about taking out bones and muscles and tissue and sinews, and from a discussion of how I would be stitched up and pieced back together like a jigsaw puzzle. I walked here on chemo. I am walking through hell and some days I feel transcendent, one of those spiritual firewalkers, and others the embers burn my feet so badly I cannot imagine going forward one more step.

And yet, here I am. Isn’t that something.

The word “ultreia” is seen often on the Camino. It’s an old, old word, mentioned in the 12th century Pilgrim’s guide called the Codex Calixtinus. It’s something pilgrims would say to one another in greeting, meaning “keep going” or “beyond,” encouragement to head onwards to Santiago, or perhaps, further.

When I said this word on the Camino, my eyes were on Santiago. Now, my destination is unclear, a blurry spot on the horizon or even somewhere past. But I must keep going and go beyond. It will not be easy. I am bruised and battered and broken. I can’t do the things I once took for granted. But here I am, continuing onward and beyond.

Ultreia.

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treatment

Zero to Eighty

 

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Photo by Angie from Pexels

 

The past two weeks have been an absolute roller coaster. There were highs and lows- even a few actual nausea bags, thrown in for authenticity.

Let’s recap.

May 3rd – Setting the Bar Low

I had my root canal. Even though it was unofficially ok’d in a message, the oncologist’s office never sent the forms over to the dentist, so I spent 35 minutes playing Nancy Drew trying to find someone to write a letter stating I was approved. The office was none too pleased.

* This is an important thing to remember if you know anyone with any kind of chronic health issue: we spend LOTS of time on the phone tracking down doctors, paperwork from doctors, or obtaining authorization to see doctors. Please give us a pass if we get off the phone and seem irritable and/or frustrated.

Thankfully, my mom reached someone at UPenn around 9:30 and an official approval letter was sent via email. (My oncologist, who is great, later sought me out to give me an apology over email and in person. ) As soon as I let the staff know “the letter’s on its way!” they stuck the numbing QTip on and got to work.

The root canal was exactly as you expect it would be: painful and awkward. Let’s not spend too much time lingering on this event, lest we conjure up any memories of dental work past.

I left and was back at work by lunchtime to run a rehearsal for our fourth graders.

May 4th – Climbing to New Heights

I watched my fourth graders take the stage in The Lion King KIDS. Let me tell you, it was remarkable. (I don’t consider this a biased stance, because I had very little to do with it. The way I see it, if you do the right kind of work as a director, you mostly pose questions or considerations and run away, leaving the actors to find the right solutions.)

I mean, c’mon, look at these photos!

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The Circle of Life continues!
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Visiting the “Elephant Graveyard”.

They made me very, very proud, and I was very, very happy.

May 5th – Still Ascending

May 5 was my 29th birthday. I checked on the DTRF donation page and was blown away. My little $500 goal had been met – seven times over. 

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It’s pretty safe to say I’m still in shock.

I don’t have the email addresses for everyone who was generous enough to donate, nor the time to thank each of you as personally and as thoroughly as I’d like. Please believe me when I say, each and every donation means so much to me. I just don’t have the words to thank you enough for all you’ve given. I am eternally grateful and indebted to your generosity.

May 6 – The Peak

I threw myself a ridiculous unicorn-themed brunch to celebrate what I’d like to call the “Victory Lap” of my 20’s (aka, age 29). I wore an outrageous unicorn crown that I made, ate unicorn cupcakes and other rainbow-themed food, and felt the love of being surrounded by family and friends.

 

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A peek at the outrageous, wonderful crown that happened.

 

May 7 – Freefall

Overnight, I caught a lousy stomach bug. After a few hours, it passed, but I woke up feeling tired and irritable. I had arranged for a substitute teacher so I could take the day off work and attend a follow-up appointment with my oncologist.

On the way to the appointment, my Mom voiced her concern that my tumor appeared larger. I honestly have little way to gauge the size of it: I see it every single day. During my appointment, my oncologist agreed that it looked slightly larger. He agreed that I needed to get an MRI, preferably that week. The doctor also said I had a decision to make. Either stay on Nexavar if I could manage the side effects, find an alternative oral medication, or head to surgery.

This made my stomach drop. Really? We were still talking about surgery? The tears began to make an appearance when I told him, under no uncertain terms, did I want to try surgery before exhausting my other options. Thankfully, he wholeheartedly agreed. I decided to stay on my current medication and adjust my expectations for my lifestyle. I’ll take tired, sore, and nauseous over cut open, please and thanks.

The ability to hold to that decision, however, was contingent on the results of that week’s MRI. My insurance required pre-authorization on the request, and once that was in, I’d be good to go.

May 8 – Another Drop

Tuesday started as a normal day. I went back to work, had a normal breakfast and lunch, but by the afternoon, I was locked in a heated battle with my insurance company. They directed me to an outside company which handles authorizations, and that company rep claimed that they did not have the information needed to process the MRI request, even though UPenn had already sent over office notes. I then made numerous calls to both the authorization company and UPenn. It was infuriating.

*Remember what I said earlier? Please be patient with your family and friends who have chronic or severe health issues. They make these phone calls weekly, if not every day.

By Tuesday night, I was feeling tired and not too hungry. By midnight, that “not too hungry” became violently ill. This thing took hold of me by the ankles, shook me violently, and left nothing but the good sense to send a text to my mom.

 

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I call this one, “Still Life: The Virus.”

 

May 9 – Leveling Out

My mom arrived on the scene by six AM, with cleaning products, Coca-Cola, Gatorade, and bread on hand. She gave me a bit of flat soda to make sure I could keep down liquids, then drove me back to my parents’ house where I could rest and not worry about taking out the dog on my own. (Valuable, as I couldn’t stand straight.)

I don’t remember too much about that day, other than my family taking care of me. I won that family lottery, in case I don’t say it enough.

The only silver lining of that day: I got an appointment for an MRI the next day.

May 10 – Beginning to Climb Again

I had my MRI. It was quick and relatively easy. I listened to some Michael Jackson on a Pandora playlist and held my breath when the technician told me to, and then it was over.

I kept down a few pieces of sourdough toast, some water ice, and by evening, even some rice and beans. (My sister, the insightful nursing student, stopped me from adding sour cream.) I got back to my apartment that night for another solid night’s rest before heading to school the next morning.

May 11 – Another Peak

What a beautiful day, right? I was feeling able to eat for the first time in a few days and put on my favorite dress to celebrate.

I kept myself busy while I waited for the phone call with the results of my MRI. At 3:30, as I was leaving work, it arrived: my oncologist confirmed there has been no significant growth of my tumor. (Cue the confetti!) He said while it may have grown a hair, it’s essentially still the same, so his recommendation was to stay the course with my current medication and get scanned again in three months. I happily agreed and said I’d see him for my monthly appointment in June.

For those of you without great calendar skills, three months of treatment puts me as due to be scanned in the middle of August. Other desmoid patients who have been treated with Nexavar have seen results between 6-9 months, so this scan might not show anything significant, which would still be OK by me. Let’s be real: is this truly great news? To a cynic, probably not. (I see your point, I’d rather not have this tumor, quite frankly.) But after the low bar of achievement was set, on top of thinking I was headed to the operating room, this was like finding out I had won the lottery.

Exiting through the Gift Shop

I’m still making sense of this whirlwind of two weeks. For now, here’s what I’ve got in hand:

  • A fundraising campaign that’s far surpassed all my expectations
  • Another musical production under my belt
  • Reassurance that my family and friends are not going anywhere
  • The knowledge that my tumor’s just fine, for the time being

This weekend, I think I will celebrate. My body’s not quite ready for champagne, so for tonight, it will be some of my other favorites: a great book, some self-care, and my pup at my side.