cancer avenger

fighting for more sunny days


6 Comments

Caregiving: A love story.

November is National Family Caregivers Month. My Cervivor sister Erica’s husband JR, wrote a beautiful blog post here. Love does conquer all but that doesn’t make it less challenging or painful for caregivers. I won’t pretend to know what it’s like for my caregiving team but my husband, my children, my parents, my brother and my village do more for me than they may ever know.

After my second surgery left me with no bladder or colon, my then fiancé became my nurse. In the hospital, he recorded the Wound Nurse demonstrating bag changes. Then at home,*he* changed my poop and pee bags for months. While I screamed in frustration trying to do it on my own, he just held me and reassured me that I could do it. And eventually I did.

Pete has also sat beside me and held my hand each time my oncologist told us of my reoccurrence and metastasis. We’ve cried together, and apart. It is exhausting and overwhelming for both of us and that’s why I’m so grateful for him.

My children, who each moment provide me with love, are who I fight so hard for. My children may be adults but that does not make this any easier. This caregiving thing wasn’t suppose to happen until I became very old. I want nothing more than to continue to be here with them.

My parents and my brother, along with my chosen village, constantly support me. They are there each time I am hospitalized, they take care of our pets when we cannot, they lend a shoulder to cry on, they summon prayer warriors in my name, they have raised an insane amount of awareness and dollars for causes I care about, they never miss an opportunity to celebrate with me and they love unconditionally.

These people, whose love touches my heart so deeply, are MY HEROES. This life would not be worth fighting for if they were not here. You give selflessly; you are my joy, my peace and my strength.

“When you go out into the world, watch for traffic, hold hands and stick together.”

img_2120


5 Comments

A Girls’ Curls.

Like many of us, I started out this life with very little hair. My mom likes to tell the story of my first Christmas where she had to tape a bow to my almost bald head. What that woman wouldn’t do to add the perfect accessory!1965 – Version 2

When my hair did come in, my mom made sure to keep it long, very long – despite my protests when she’d use an entire bottle of No More Tears when combing out said unruly mane.

It was my mother (and grandmother) who instilled the worth of a good salon cut in me. Even as a struggling single-mom, when it was time for my first big hairstyle change, we went to a salon. I remember feeling so glamours and grown up. I was in the fifth grade and decided that I wanted a shag cut. It was all the rage in 1975 and I wanted to be super cool. But instead of cool, there were lots of tears, mine and my mothers.

me_fifthgrade

Once I started to see my hair as an accessory, it became fun. Aside from the shag and the Big Hair Experience of the 1980’s, I have loved my hair. I now have a personal relationship with my stylist (a dear friend) and going to the salon is still a glamours experience.

1983

 

So, what’s a girl to do when she’s lost her hair to chemo for the second time? First, I reclaimed some control by shaving what remained. Now I sport hand-tied head scarves (that I’ve given tutorials on during my infusion sessions) or I just go Full Monty with really fabulous earrings.

But sometimes being a proud, bald woman is hard. Some people give me the look. My Friends With Cancer know the look I mean; that well-meaning yet sad look on their face with the ultimate question, “How are you (really) doing?”

My response to this question: Today is amazing but tomorrow may suck. Yes, I still have cancer. Yes, my cancer is incurable but the chemo I am subjecting myself to is helping to keep the tumors from growing and spreading.

Sometimes I miss my hair but I’m STILL HERE and that’s all that matters to me right now. Say it with me…bald is beautiful!

img_1905

 


5 Comments

(Life) cha-cha-changes.

First, I was invited to participate in Cervivor’s Stirrup Stories: A Narrative Beyond the Speculum. Tamika Felder is the heart of Cervivor, a non-profit who’s mission is to educate, advocate and bring cervivor sisters together for support and love.

It can be difficult to open yourself up to the world, share intimate details of your life with complete strangers. Clearly, I’m okay with it because I write this blog. But it is still scary. People can be hurtful and unkind. But at the Stirrup Stories event in D.C., all fears subsided the moment I heard the first of thirteen other women share her story. That night, I was moved to tears and laughter, and love. Each story was a woman showing us that we are not alone – that taking control of our bodies is important. The world feels less scary and hope feels obtainable when you surround yourself with love and compassion. That night, I had the added benefit of my BFF sharing this moment with me. How wonderful was that?!

I am deeply grateful to Tamika and all the beautiful Cervivor sisters I had met. They are forever in my heart.13248496_640762232740773_1188351187142129509_o

Secondly, this month I learned a new phrase: “salvage chemotherapy“. Kinda clinical and harsh sounding I know.

My oncologist and I, who I have had a close relationship with for the past five years, decided we should ‘remove our rose-colored glasses’ (as I put it). Due to the progression of my tumors while on the Opdivo trial, treatment with that drug ended. I have started back on Taxol and Carboplatin — which we hope will shrink the tumors that may be causing intestinal blockage. There is no curative treatment at this time. The salvage chemo option *is* my option.

I have been living on and occasionally off my cancer for five years. And yes, I call it my battle. But the key word is ‘living’. I live my life my way; my ‘bucket list’ is simple: spend as much time as I can with my family/village and embrace the little things that make me smile.

I think my Great-Aunt Anna used the ‘more sunny days’ saying as a way to avoid telling her age, but it has become my daily mantra. I no longer count my years but only count my sunny days. In my case, a sunny day doesn’t have to be void of clouds or rain, just void of keeping me down forever.

“It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain! I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.”

“I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.” ~ Oriah Mountain Dreamer


16 Comments

Up Your Nose…

… With A Rubber Hose.

I spent five days in the hospital because apparently cancer is a real drama queen.

In the wee hours last Wednesday morning, Pete was trying to pry me off the bathroom floor as I clenched the porcelain goddess. My abdominal pain level and nausea were off the charts but thanks to Zofran I made the one-hour ride to the hospital barf-free.

The CT scan showed an intestinal blockage so they shoved a nasogastric tube THROUGH MY NOSE, down my throat and into my stomach. There it stayed for two days. Kids, don’t try this at home.nu205004

Why the blockage you ask? The theory is that with my pelvic surgeries (radical hysterectomy & exenteration), the Scar Tissue (That I Wish You Saw) from the radiation and my new tumor pushing things around down there, (shit) blockage happened.

I dislike being rushed to the hospital. It scares the people I love and it completely sucks. But during all of my hospital stays at El Camino’s 4B Cancer Unit, I received the most amazing care. The men and women who have chosen a caregiving profession here are some of the kindest.

Never has it been more apparent that I am living with cancer; a cancer that is no longer silent (“No one puts Baby in a corner!”). I have accepted that cancer has interrupted my so called normal life with things like lymphedema, doctor’s visits, blood draws, chemotherapy and managing ostomies.

I am living with cancer. Fact: Cancer looks and feels different on everybody. People tell me “you look so good” and “I’d never know you have cancer”. What do they think cancer should look like? I do a forehead slap to myself when these words come out of my own mouth. Perhaps it’s just human nature for some to want to say only kind things. I appreciate the kindness fer sur but please do not displace the struggles I, and all cancer patients and their caregivers face on a daily basis. If you don’t know what to say to us, a smile, a hug or “I care” speak volumes.

#canceravenger

This is me on cancer, leaving the hospital.


14 Comments

In Stability.

I had my second scan after 12 weeks on the Optdivo™ trial train. After we saw reduction in the small tumors and lymph nodes, I vowed this scan would be ground-braking.

What we found was that everything remained the same. No growing tumors. Nothing shrinking (we want shrinkage). I’m now labelled with ‘stable disease’… doesn’t this kinda sound like an oxymoron? Tumor stability isn’t bad cuz I’m a reoccurring, metastatic cancer patient — I just prefer N.E.D. (No Evidence of Disease) or what the media darlings call “cancer-free”.

This means I get to stay on the trial which is good because systemic treatment is good for lymph node ‘involvement’. I will check in with my radiation oncologist in January to see what other options I might have to fight this bastard. Because I fight. I fight hard.

Next week I start my vacation. I will enjoy the heck out of preparing for our upcoming holiday festivities. I will cuddle with my luvva by the fire. I will bake cookies and make Christmas cocktails. I will play tour guide to two of my favorite people. I will tell my village how much I love them (I love you!). I will hug my kids. I will be altogether living in the moment. Merry Everything and A Bright New Year!

IMG_0799


12 Comments

Trials and Tribulations

Avastin and I broke up. We had a good ride but our ideas on a long-term relationship differed. Cancer was the bitch that got between us.

I’ve had nausea and dizziness for the past few weeks so I saw my general doc, my eye doc and had a brain scan. Brain is good and it’s not vertigo so let’s do a full PET scan! Low and behold, there are three masses, all about 1.5 to 2.0 cm and one pushing against my pancreas and bowel, giving me that lovely ‘morning sickness’ feeling and other unpleasantries.

There we were again talking about new options with my oncology team. I am very thankful for options but this sucks! My oncologist and radiologist were both very excited about a clinical trial for Nivolumab. She sounds pretty badass… a human programmed death receptor-1 blocking antibody. Nivolumab and I are going to get close, every two weeks close for 46 doses. I’ll get scans every eight weeks and if improvement isn’t seen, then I’ll jump on some targeted radiation. 22 of us will be in the study and since this is a second tiered trial, we all get the drug for free in the name of science. The side effects are very similar to Avastin, minus the chance of heart failure – so I got that going for me, which is nice.

And because life continues to move forward, we made two *huge* changes: we bought our dream home and sold a well-loved home. Selling a home is stressful but it actually became comical in our household. Picture two grown ups running around before an open house, hiding cat boxes, ‘staging’ rooms with the ‘good rugs’, shoving FOUR CATS into individual carriers (don’t forget the DOG!) and either driving around or drinking wine on our friend’s patio while the dogs circle the caged cats. I never want to sell a house again. I’m staying in this one forever… good thing I love it.

Life seems to be a series of good and bad. I keep thinking about a secondhand saying another cancer fighter said, “cancer may take my life, but it will not take my day”. Most days, cancer doesn’t exist in my world and other days the only thing that gets me through is my hatred for cancer. I love my sunny days, even the days I scream obscenities at the universe. Hope is still a household word that I find a great deal of comfort in. Each day I am hopeful, grateful, thankful and just full.

On the topic of feeling full (of love), as an American Cancer Society Hero of Hope, I had the great honor of sharing my story at several Relay For Life’s throughout the Bay Area this summer. Here’s me at the Relay For Life of Marnia — they were such a welcoming group. I tear-up with admiration every time I speak to Relayers, fighters. We all hate cancer and collectively we become a force for good.


8 Comments

HOPEology

I like the word hope. Yes, it’s used to push many agendas and sometimes it can feel unauthentic. But if the cause/event/moment is something you are passionate about then hope feels right and true.

My six month MRI showed nothing… No Evidence of Disease (N.E.D.)! There is always a rush of tears that follows the news, good or bad; the build up of tension and then the overwhelming release. More times than not over the past four years, the outcome has not been what I’ve wanted to hear. My oncologist has a strong belief that Avastin (and I have to agree) is the reason for my clean scans.

The decision to return to a once a month “maintenance” treatment after a four month break, gave me pause. I owe my oncologist and Avastin (and the researchers/funding who pushed to test this on other cancers after it failed in breast cancer trials) a well-deserved ‘thank you very much’ — but staying with chemo, like some relationships, is complicated. There are the immediate side effects which can be icky and worse, debilitating, at times. Then, there’s the possibility of creating a secondary cancer or other serious health issues. It’s not a decision anyone takes lightly. The bottom line is that we do what we have to to stay on this planet, with the people we love, for as long as we can. I am hopeful. Being hopeful feels better than being hopeless.

Since I’m on the topic of hope, let’s talk about Relay For Life. My first experience at Relay was so positive that it became the topic of my first blog entry. It was an incredibly hopeful event for me, connecting with other survivors and honoring my loved ones. My family & friends have celebrated with me each year and we have crazy fun.

Each year the American Cancer Society chooses Heroes of Hope from across the country to be a voice of hope. So how honored was I to have been chosen this year?! I get to share my story at Relays all over California to build cancer awareness. Screen Shot 2015-04-05 at 12.44.40 PM

Opening a dialog about cancer, certainly below-the-belt cancers, hasn’t always been socially accepted. We can finally talk about breasts, prostates and colons without fear of hushed giggles. But chatting about anal, cervical or ovarian cancers still makes some people uncomfortable. And we know that when people fear something, they are not motivated to make change. But cancer is cancer and its sole purpose is to kill. It starts a ragging fight inside our bodies and we throw medicine down its throat hoping to choke it to death. The thing is, we do survive every damn day we are here. So, yes, hope it what motivates me; the hope that I will continue to be on this planet to love, cry, scream and just be.

“Let’s talk about cancer, baby. Let’s talk about you and me.                                                                                                            Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.”