“Remission” – A New Perspective

A new perspective on “remission”

Remission

I cringe when I hear the word. I especially cringe when I’m asked, always in a high-pitched, much too enthusiastic tone,

“So are you in remission now?”

I know and understand why people ask. I also know that by asking in a gleeful way, it’s because they hope the answer will be a resounding “Yes!”

Personally, the question only forces me to immediately assess, right there on-the-spot how I’m going to answer every single person who asks. Do they want the truth? Are they simply asking because it’s what society has dictated we do when we see a young adult, who doesn’t look “sick”? Also, do I really want to go into the ugly details of it all? How much time do I/we have?


Some potential answers to the remission question include:

  • Yes! I am cancer free for just about 5 years now!”
  • Yes! I am cancer free for just about 5 years now… However, I’ve undergone a total of 7 brain surgeries in 6 years. I was initially diagnosed in 2014, but the cancer recurred in less than a year. So technically the last tumor was removed in 2015. Since then I’ve had: 5 additional surgeries; Umpteen hospitalizations; IV drug infusions; so much radiation that to this day, I’m still suffering the side effects; and, I have uncontrollable epilepsy.”
  • Yes! I am cancer free for just about 5 years now! However, I’ve undergone a total of 7 brain surgeries in 6 years. I was initially diagnosed in 2014, but the cancer recurred less than a year later. So technically the last tumor was removed in 2015. Since then I’ve: Had 5 additional surgeries; Umpteen hospitalizations; IV drug infusions; so much radiation that to this day, I’m still suffering the side effects; and, I have uncontrollable epilepsy…I cannot say I will ever truly be “cancer free” because the cancer combined with the treatment changed almost every single aspect of my life. I will never be the same after cancer. Not only do I have a multitude of scars to prove it, but I will never again be free to do the things I loved like swim in the ocean, scuba dive, hike, or even run, which frankly I never loved but having the ability to catch that subway just about to pull away or make it to the bus stop just in time to grab that last bus – nope, can’t do it.

So, while it’s confirmed there are no cancerous cells in my body, do I feel like I am “in remission”? Absolutely not!


I can’t even begin to list all the ways cancer remains with me, but ya name it, and cancer has affected it.

For example, just the most mundane, everyday things:

  • Getting up in the morning – for me requires immediately putting on sneakers with my AFO, or leg brace, for balance and stability to get out of bed and walk around. Not just that, due to the issues with my left hand, it takes at least 3 tries to even get my sneakers tied. (I tried elastic laces and they would not support my AFO properly)
  • Getting dressed in the morning – for me, it’s a chore! I have to pull a Macgyver move to get my bra on properly. I constantly put clothes on backwards. Anything with a zipper is a true challenge.
  • Already what would’ve taken a fully-able-bodied person to do in 5-10 minutes has taken me at least 20.
  • Looking in the mirror – I must mention that every time I look in a mirror, I’m reminded of cancer. I have a slight eye droop that isn’t even noticeable to others. I see it though! About 1/3 of my scalp is a graft from my stomach so I’m completely bald there.
    • During the last few surgeries: 1. A piece of skull was removed, so my skull has a noticeable divot. 2. The shunt that was implanted during my last surgery creates a noticeable bump towards the front of my head. Thank god I still have lots of hair and fantastic hair pieces!
    • Then, because I’m so thin, I can actually see the shunt catheter, which runs from my brain down near my heart and into my abdominal area. I have a massive scar from the skin graft running down my entire abdomen. Plus, now I’ve got two new scars from the laparoscopic surgery to insert that catheter into my stomach. Yay!Oh and my bellybutton is about 6 inches from where it should be.
    • Of course, all of this is hidden away underneath my clothes, but I have to look at it all EVERY SINGLE DAY and frankly, I hate it. I cannot embrace these scars, like so many survivors do. To me, they’re just constantly reminding me of the trauma.
  • Showering – I have to use a shower chair and utilize grab bars to get in and out of the bath or shower. I can’t get my left arm up high enough to use my left hand to wash my hair. So I have to use just one hand to scrub in the shampoo and conditioner. It’s also difficult to use that left hand to squeeze the bottles, apply shower gel, etc.
    • For whatever reason, hot water and steam make me extremely light-headed and dehydrated. So I always need a glass of water nearby, the door must be open to let the steam out and I can typically only shower at night because it makes me extremely tired and/or weak. Again, due to the problems with my left hand, I can never get the towel wrapped around me. So, I have to towel-off in the bathroom and put on a robe or my pjs.
  • This whole process takes at least 30 minutes, while an able-bodied person could be done in 5-10 minutes.

Now, those few examples are just a taste, a sprinkling of what cancer has done to me physically, mentally and emotionally.

I love that other survivors can embrace the remission word, and I recognize the power that comes with the ability to say, “I’m in remission.” That’s just not the case for me.

Further, I wish I could say, “Cancer doesn’t define me!” like so many other survivors. However, for me cancer is and will always be present despite the fact that my physical body is “cancer free”.

Cancer is and will always be a part of me. It is a crucial piece of who I am today and who I will be in the future.

Plus, cancer will forever lurk in the darkest corners of my mind. Unless there’s some magical potion we discover one day, I will forever have to acknowledge/be aware that a tumor could indeed return at any time. It’s not something I dwell on, but shall I say, “it’s the nature of the beast.” Cancer can and does come back. I’ve already experienced a recurrence. So, I’m literally living proof of this awful truth.

If I had a Quarter for every dang time I’ve said this… well, I wouldn’t be rich because I’m constantly paying my medical bills!!!

The quote pictured at the top of this Post from ANITA MOORJANI on remission speaks to how I’ve internalized cancer in my life. Although I’ll never be able to say, “I’m done with cancer” I have indeed turned it into my “mission”. Hence, why I began writing this Blog, am working towards publishing articles on my experience, and ultimately a book.

Cancer also led me to finally find my passion working with various nonprofits to raise awareness about cancer in general, but mostly awareness about brain cancer; to serve as a patient advocate with the National Brain Tumor Society; and, to constantly fundraise for more research, treatment options and Dear Lord please, ultimately a cure!

Yes, it took two bouts of brain cancer to find it, but I found my passion-my mission! While every single day is a new challenge, every single day is also an opportunity to work on myself.

So, I believe I’ve found a new perspective on “remission”. It’s my mission.

To Learn more about ANITA MOORJANI, go to her website at https://anitamoorjani.com/. She has a fascinating story. In short, after four years of battling cancer, she went into a coma. Her husband was told:

“There’s nothing we can do for your wife, Mr. Moorjani. Her organs have already shut down. Her tumors have grown to the size of lemons throughout her lymphatic system, from the base of her skull to below her abdomen. Her brain is filled with fluid, as are her lungs. And as you can see, her skin has developed lesions that are weeping with toxins. She won’t even make it through the night,” the doctor told my husband, Danny.

https://anitamoorjani.com/

Anita, describes what occurred in the following hours, days and weeks. She had a Near Death Experience (NDE) and details how she chose to return to her body to spread her message-her mission! Obviously, she came out of the coma and left the hospital 5 weeks later with no evidence of cancer anywhere in her body!

ANITA MOORJANI

To Learn more about the National Brain Tumor Society go to their website: www.braintumor.org

Very Temporary Pause

Very Temporary Pause

I’ve been working on my next Post, but I’ve got to hit a very temporary “pause button”.

I’ve been suffering with migraines and major emotional issues. I’ll be back in a few days with my next Post.

Even after being cancer-free for 5 years now, the wicked side effects of so much treatment continue haunting my poor body.

Another Surgery Down! Now, Recovering In So Many Ways (Post Surgery No.6)

Since my diagnosis in 2014, I’ve had some type of brain surgery…every… single… year with the exception of 2018. So, in 2019 just to make up for it, I guess, I had to get 2 “surgery notches” under my belt!

I’m now one week out from my 6th brain surgery. It was something termed a “Burrhole Craniotomy”. In real-people speak, I basically had a GPS-guided needle inserted into my skull to drain fluid from a lesion/cyst that sat in my brain for years caused by the insane amount of radiation I received between 2014 (initial diagnosis) and 2015 (recurrence). When I met with my neurosurgeon’s N.P. before he came in to discuss our options, I basically ticked-off every box for issues related to fluid in my brain. Yes, including being “ticked off” at everyone and everything. Yet, she asked politely, “Are you feeling more irritable?”. My husband had a good laugh at that one. We both answered with an emphatic “YES!”

Prior to the surgery, I became extremely angry and depressed. I never really had those feelings for such an extensive period without them being caused by some horrid med… ahem, Keppra, Dexamethasone. Nope. This time it was all me. Facing a 6th brain surgery, admittedly, gives me some leeway to feel so utterly miserable. I am only human after all.

I know full-well going to that “dark place” isn’t just damaging to my mental health, it makes me physically weak. I need to go into surgery healthy in all aspects-physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, etc. Yet, I couldn’t pull myself out of the darkness.

The one thing I was 100% confident in was my neurosurgeon. If I ever turn this into a book, I will absolutely name him. However, for now we will remain anonymous. I know for sure he truly lives and breathes by the Hippocratic Oath, most especially

  • the duty to “do the least harm”; and,
  • “there is art to medicine as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug.

Fortunately, I’ve made wonderful connections within the brain cancer community since my diagnosis. I have no doubt some of those connections are why I’m still here. They’ve led me into the exam rooms of some of the most impressive physicians in this country. My neurosurgeon is one of those people.

So, despite all my neurological issues, including losing total use of my left hand, falling on the daily, constantly losing my memory or at least feeling such brain fog I literally forgot the year, I knew my doc would get me through this. And he did.

Without getting into too much detail, I had consulted with another surgeon first. Wait, I actually wrote a whole post about that experience. Oh well… “blame brain cancer brain”Totally off topic – Can we stop saying, “oops! Must be Mommy brain!”? No, like I’m literally missing a part of my brain that was infected with cancer – twice. Then, it got lots and lots of radiation beamed into it. We just forget shit! Mommies, don’t hate me, please.)

So, that other surgeon had proposed a much more invasive surgery. I was incredibly uncomfortable with his plan. I was very open that I was going for another consult at another hospital. The hospitals in NYC seem to compete with one another like spoiled school girls. I’m not too too concerned with that B.S. I’m trusting my brain with whoever is going to stick by that whole “least harm” idea.

My surgeon utilized the least invasive means possible, I only spent one night in the hospital. My left hand is working again. I’m walking better. The brain fog is still around, but I’ve been on Percocet the last few days. I’m not quite so “irritable “. My husband is very happy about that! I’ve got another surgery notch under my belt. Thankfully, I’m finding myself again too.

What’s a “Bur Hole” Anyway? (Surgery No. 6)

There are a ridiculous amount of medical terms you learn as a cancer patient.

There are about 130 different types of brain tumors alone. Never mind having to learn about the areas of the brain the tumor may affect, then what part of the body that area of the brain it controls, and on and on. I practically feel like we, as cancer patients, should be awarded medical degrees!

As an attorney, so much of my job involved research. Since my diagnosis nearly 6 years ago now, I raise issues with my doctors to the reply of, “Oh, that’s a very good point.” I’ve sent my doctors articles about new research, trials and information they admittedly were not aware of prior to me bringing it to their attention.

Yet, after receiving my discharge papers following my sixth surgery, I learned a whole new phrase, “bur hole craniotomy”!

Obviously, prior to the procedure I knew what I was going in for – a needle was going to be inserted into my brain to drain the lesion/cyst in my head that’s constantly filling with fluid, causing swelling and pressure to build up in my brain. That pressure then causes me to lose my balance and fall, causes unbearable fatigue, increases my seizures and makes me a prisoner because I cannot leave my home safely.

On December 5th, I underwent the procedure. Immediately after, I felt great. I regained use of my left hand. I walked around without my wretched cane. However, I experienced and am still battling intense migraines. The recovery was short-lived because the fluid has returned.

“Lucky Number 7”, or At Least I Hope So

As I write this, I’m laying here in ICU…Still. Thankfully, it’s not an isolated ICU, so friends and family can come and go. Most importantly my husband is allowed to be here everyday, so the days go by much quicker than the evenings. My “estimated” hospital stay of 1-2 days following surgery No. 7 is currently on Day 7 with a “possible discharge to acute rehab tomorrow”. However, I’ve been hearing this for quite a few days now. Unfortunately with my case, this is no surprise.

It’s a natural question to ask, “How long will you be in the hospital?” However, I have learned the hard way to take that “estimated” time period with a complete grain of salt. It’s NEVER what they estimate!

Something always seems to happen; be it a simple revision of my skin graft (Surgery No. 4) when they unexpectedly found 3 separate bacteria in my skull bone, and what was only meant to be a one-night stay turned into a full week vs. when I was released the same night after they removed a small part of my skull that was totally unconnected to the rest of my skull and excised a wound on my scalp (Surgery No. 5).

So, here I am, alive but not so well, after Surgery No. 7.

Yes. I thank God I’m alive, and that I’m coherent enough to even say that. I recall most details of my other surgeries. However, all I can recall from the first few days after this surgery was the horrific, excruciating pain. Mostly I was in and out of a painkiller haze. Yet, when I was actually awake, the slightest movement caused intense, shooting pains throughout my entire body. Now, this chick has got a serious threshold for pain! So, when they asked, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rate the pain?” and I could merely moan, “10” – you’ve got to understand just how severe this pain was.

Without getting into all the complexities of this 7th Surgery, I had a “shunt” or catheter placed into the area of my brain, where the tumors were removed and the radiation was beamed into where fluid would consistently flow. The fluid would sometimes cause increased swelling and thus, pressure in my brain. Now, with the shunt in place, the fluid will hopefully continuously flow out of the brain and be absorbed into the rest of my body. Science! It’s fascinating when you’re not the guinea pig.

I’ll have this shunt inside my body for as long as it holds up. It could be years, months. Again, who knows?

What I do know is that this has been one of the toughest, if not THE toughest surgeries so far. So, I hope and I pray that this will be Lucky Number 7 and I won’t have to see another Operating Room for a very, very long time.

The Dreaded Word – Recurrence

I think it’s safe to say that every single cancer patient fears that dreaded word – recurrence.  We may not think about it every single moment, of every single day.  However, every survivor I have spoken with over these last 2 years admits, “It’s always somewhere in the back of my mind.”  In this awful world of cancer, is there really anything more frightening?

Cancer Attacks

Going back to my original diagnosis and the beginning of the “cancer chaos”, I technically remained “cancer free” following my surgery in April 2014.  Yet, I then underwent treatment for cancer, obviously in an attempt to remain “cancer free.”  I recall asking my radiation oncologist, “So, what do I say?  Do I actually have cancer?”  She looked at me with a questionable smile and said, “Well, you don’t have a tumor, but you are being treated for cancer.  So, there is really no easy answer to that question.”  Fair enough.

I HATED it when people said, “Oh that’s great!  You’re in remission!”  The other comment that made my skin crawl was, “So you’re cured!”  Hmmm… not so much.  I don’t blame them.  People who haven’t lived through this really don’t truly understand.  They mean well and only want the best for me.  It is frustrating though.

Anyway, 2014 rolled on.  MRIs all looked clear.  I was back at work.  No more treatment.  Sure, I was still on anti-seizure meds, but those weren’t going away any time soon.  I still had physical therapy, but I was exercising regularly and could do every workout I wanted.  Yes, I remained in therapy every so often.  Cancer is a true trauma and a little professional help goes a long way.  I was heavily involved in charity organizations, which gave me so much strength and purpose.  I was meeting so many other amazing survivors.  Life was really pretty much back to normal, although we all know it was the “new normal.”

The fear of a recurrence never went away.  However, it didn’t dominate my thoughts.  There were even moments I didn’t even think about cancer!  I almost forgot about it… almost.

So 2014 came to a close and I decided to celebrate the end of the hardest year of my life in the Caribbean with my husband.  We sat on the beach, sipping champagne.  We ate A-mazing food.  We watched the fireworks over the ocean on New Year’s Eve.  God, life was good.

aulani-fireworks-over-the-ocean-16x91.jpg

We rang in the new year in style, but it was back to reality.  And boy, did reality strike like a ton of bricks.

In February 2015, ironically just after my 35th birthday, my MRI began to show an enhancement at the surgical area where the original tumor had been removed.  It was extremely small, so my doctors could not absolutely confirm it was indeed a recurrence.  We would just have to wait and see.

So there it was – that dreaded word.  My biggest fear staring me in the face.  Yet, I didn’t even have enough information at that point to even confirm, yes, the tumor is back.  I would be stuck in limbo for the next few months until my next MRI.  The hope was that the enhancement would remain stable, indicating that it was likely just a side effect of the radiation.  However, if it increased, then, well, it was likely it was a recurrence.

Simply by reading the title of this post and it’s category, the recurrence was eventually confirmed.. but I’ll get there.

In the Clear! And, the “New Normal”

happiness2

In my prior post “Vacation Period?” Seriously…, I described the traumatic period between my last radiation treatment and my follow-up MRI.  Well, the day of reckoning had come – the MRI results were in.  ALL CLEAR!  No sign of cancer!

Without a doubt, I was indescribably relieved.  I cried tears of overwhelming joy.  That metaphorical tons of bricks weighing on my shoulders immediately lifted.  It was almost surreal.

Once my oncologist sat down with me celebrating the incredible news, we got to another topic… the emotional turmoil of those weeks leading up the MRI.  She knew full-well what I had been going through, thanks to multiple calls to her office.  Even with the clear MRI, she knew I needed help to process all of this.  So, she recommended several things, including seeing a therapist, as well as a psychiatrist for an evaluation to determine if I
needed medication to ease the anxiety that had overcome me during that period of time.

I had never been in therapy.  I was of the strong opinion that here in the U.S., we were over-medicating ourselves with antidepressants and drugs of all sorts.  I’ll be honest – I was against it all.  However, she felt that it was almost a “prescription” to seek out professional help within the hospital’s incredible counseling center.  So, because I literally trusted her and all of my doctors with my life, with much hesitation, I agreed.

Additionally, she suggested reaching out to the hospital’s social worker, who specifically dealt with neurology patients and particularly brain cancer patients.  I had an easier time agreeing to that idea.  It seemed a lot less clinical.  As it turns out, the social worker pointed me to some really great cancer organizations, particularly First Descents (http://firstdescents.org/).

During the dark period, it also hadn’t helped that I had been on a seizure medication known to have terrible side effects regarding anxiety/depression in some patients.  So, with the clear MRI, my seizure doctor was comfortable taking me off that medication and replacing it with another drug.  Changing that medication made a world of difference for my mental state.

Going back to the time period between my surgery and throughout my radiation period (approximately 6 months after my inital diagosis), I had actually been extremely positive and strong.  I had become heavily involved in the National Brain Tumor Society (www.braintumor.org).  I had also just signed-up for a post-treatment support group through CancerCare (http://www.cancercare.org/).  So, I will say I was fortunate that the dark period only truly lasted those several weeks before the MRI.  Now, with the news the MRI was clear, boy, did my whole outlook change!  I went back, almost immediately, to that fighter/survivor, who people had truly been amazed by.  People had called me an “inspiration” (discussed in my post https://braincancerbabe.com/2016/04/19/being-an-inspiration/) and yeah, I felt that way again.

So, life began to quickly normalize again.  I felt happy.  I felt strong.  I felt positive.  I truly felt that everything was going to be okay.  Of course, the fear of a recurrence remained in the back of my mind, but it didn’t dominate my thoughts.  I was meeting so many other survivors and realizing, “Hey.  I’m not alone in all of this.  Other people actually felt the same way I did!  This was NOT a death sentence”  I went back to work, part-time.  Although, I still hated my job and actually regret going back so soon.  I did see the therapist and set up a regular schedule of appointments.  The psychiatrist, thankfully, deemed that I did not need antidepressants.  Life felt good again.  It felt really, really good.

While yes, life did normalize, it was indeed my “new normal.”  I felt comfortable with the fact that cancer had changed my whole world, but it wasn’t all for the worse.  I truly embraced a new perspective on life, namely, “Live every minute of every day like it’s your last!  Appreciate everything you have!”

I saw how lucky I was to have come out of all of this with very, very few side effects.  I was doing pretty much everything I had been doing before cancer entered my world.  I mean, seriously – I had had brain cancer and brain surgery!  Yet, here I was, pretty much the same girl I had been.  I truly recognized what an amazing support system I had.  The kindness, concern and love from even strangers overwhelmed me.  Man, was I loved!

I continued to be monitored very closely by my neurology team.  At every visit, they were beyond thrilled that the dark days were behind me (which I now see as a very brief period of time in the grand scheme of things).  They loved seeing that girl they had first met, who showed what a fighter she was and how she continued to embrace life so much.

I was kickin’ ass.

However, things did change in early 2015.  So, that will lead to my next post and specifically, Round 2 of the cancer chaos.

 

 

“Vacation Period?” Seriously…

In my last post, So, you’re going to radiate my brain????, I talked about my 6 weeks of radiation.  As I described, radiation had become part of my regular, daily routine, as odd as that may sound.  Following the end of my 30 radiation sessions, my doctors dubbed the time until my next scan my “vacation period.”  Seriously?

There’s power in the words you choose, especially when it comes to cancer.  To call that time “vacation” is just simply wrong.  That term should never, ever be used.  So obviously, the period between the end of radiation until my next scan was by no stretch of the imagination, a “vacation.”

First, I lost that daily routine.  I was left all on my own to  find something else to do, day in and day out, to occupy my time.  From leaving my home to arriving back after radiation, I was out of the apartment for hours.  I wasn’t sitting around, pondering my own thoughts.  If there’s one thing that keeps you out of your head, it’s following a routine!

With the lack of that routine, things became VERY dark.  Frankly, this was the first time I truly felt the weight of what I had just gone through.  The “fight or flight” mentality had weakened.  I found myself sitting on my couch, hysterically crying, asking, “What the hell just happened to me?”  It never got to the point of, “Why me?” although that’s a perfectly understandable, common response.  However, it was the first time I truly thought about death.

My husband, my family, my friends – they had careers.  They worked all day.  I didn’t have any fellow cancer patients to turn to.  I felt completely and utterly alone, left with my own frightening thoughts.  Again, to call this a “vacation” makes me sick.

It’s a strange phenomena to me that the end of treatment was worse than undergoing the treatment itself.  I’ve heard both sides of this – some patients see treatment as horrific and ending treatment a true relief.  However, I’ve also met many survivors who felt just like me.  Again, each and every person is different, just as each and every cancer is different.  There is absolutely no judgment in either experience or opinion.

vacation-keep-calm

Another frightening aspect of this “vacation” was the lack of contact with medical staff.  Sure, my doctors were a phone call away.  Yet, going back and forth to the hospital for 6  straight weeks meant there was always someone physically there to monitor me.  If I had an issue, or a question, it could be handled right there and then.

There was a specific incident I remember during that “vacation” when I came down with a simple, routine cold.  I convinced myself it was so much more.  I was sure the tumor was back and it was affecting my whole body.  I also feared that every little twitch in my left leg was an oncoming seizure.  My oncologist’s nurse had to practically talk me off the ledge.  Yet, she understood what was going on.  It wasn’t the first time a patient had called believing the most minor thing was the end of the world.

And so, I truly mentally, emotionally suffered those 6 weeks.  It also didn’t help that leading up to the next scan, my first bought of “scanxiety” hit.  For any cancer patient out there, I would safely bet, you’ve experienced this.  For anyone who isn’t familiar with the experience, it is basically an overwhelming fear/anxiety/stress leading up to the results of a scan.  Many compare the symptoms to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Uh, I can relate and wholeheartedly agree.  (As an aside, with no medical training whatsoever, I believe that the entire cancer diagnosis and what trauma follows brings about PTSD).

My immediate post-op MRI had shown that the surgery was a success and there had been a total resection of the tumor.  Yet, there was always that chance that there were cancerous cells still there, lurking around that no one could see just yet.  So, this next MRI was the first since my surgery.

The thoughts that consumed me: Would the scan show the tumor had already grown back?  Had the radiation worked?  Was there serious swelling on my brain caused from the radiation?  Could there be any visible side effects from the radiation?   Although, I didn’t even really know if that was possible…  Was I going to have to undergo another surgery?  This time, would they decide I’d need to start chemo?  Worse off, would they tell me that none of the treatment had worked and we simply had no other options?

At that point, I didn’t know about scanxiety.  I had never met or talked to a fellow patient/survivor, especially one my age.  I thought I was alone in this feeling.  Was I going crazy?  In fact, although I’m sitting here writing about it, I actually have a difficult time putting into words just how consuming and terrifying these thoughts were.  It actually felt like I was carrying a ton of bricks on my shoulders.  And worse off, no one around me truly understood, although of course they were sympathetic and tried to understand.

So, the time finally came where I underwent that first post-radiation MRI.  I don’t believe at that point I had been introduced to the magic of anti-anxiety medication.  So, as far as I can remember, I went into that MRI cold… nothing in my system to ease the fear of: 1.) going into that MRI tube, again; and 2.) the pure, raw fear of what that MRI could possibly show.  P.S. I have never ever once opened my eyes while in the tube, despite the countless MRIs over the last 2 years.

Luckily, the way my appointment worked, and still works to this day, I met with my oncologist just hours after my MRI.  So, I would know the results that day and then.  And that is the topic of my next post.

So, you’re going to radiate my brain????

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Following my initial brain surgery in April 2014, it took time to come up with the further “treatment plan.”  Given that I am so fortunate (insert sarcasm here), my tumor, an anaplastic ependymoma, is extremely rare.

All of my factors also played into how rare it was:

1.)  It was a primary tumor in my brain –  typically, my type appeared in the spinal cord and remained there,  or it would metastasize to the brain; there was absolutely no trace of cancer in my spine (confirmed through spinal taps – oh my god, the pain!)

2.)  My tumor is considered a childhood/pediatric cancer, so it is rare to find it in adults (some statistics show that only approximately 70 adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with a malignant, primary brain ependymoma every year.)

3.)  There are extremely limited studies regarding ependymomas, given how rare they are.  Thus, treatment options are basically – surgery, and/or radiation and/or maybe chemo.  Yet, the few studies showed that combining radiation and chemo didn’t make much difference, if any.  Thus, radiation was the standard protocol following surgery

4.)  My surgery resulted in a total resection of the tumor.  Thus, I was “technically” cancer-free, for whatever that was worth…

[DISCLAIMER:  This information is NOT meant to be taken as medical advice or gospel.  https://cern-foundation.org/ is the primary source for information on ependymomas)

So, following my surgery, I met my amazing “team” of doctors.  They are a god-send and I am literally thankful every single day for them.  My “team” consisted of my neurosurgeon, neuro-oncologist, seizure neurologist and radiation oncologist.  This didn’t even include the numerous doctors, who served on my hospital’s tumor board and studied my case alongside my primary doctors.

Together, my team came up with the plan – I would undergo 6 weeks of radiation (30 sessions 5 days a week) and no chemo.  I didn’t really think twice about it.  What other choice did I have?  I trusted all of these doctors.  I was being treated at one of the top cancer hospitals in the country.  Plus, there was really no other studies/information to show any alternative treatment.

Of course though, the idea of actually radiating my brain sounded insane!  Um, weren’t we all taught throughout our lives that radiation was a really, really bad thing?  Ex. “Don’t stand in front of the microwave!  Radiation!”  However, I don’t recall even asking that many questions.  I knew the really basic, possible side effects – swelling on my brain, fatigue, hair loss, etc.  So, I just kind of casually decided, “Okay, let’s do it.”

One of the most disturbing experiences regarding the radiation was the mask.  For those who don’t know, in order to radiate the brain, a patient needs to undergo a simulation.  Amongst other things, that involves forming a mesh mask to be placed on your face and around your head.  The mask would then be strapped down to the radiation table during your treatment.  It is so sci-fi I cannot even describe.  It is scary.  It is beyond uncomfortable.  It creates such pressure around your entire face and head.  Sometimes, it felt like I couldn’t breath properly or swallow.  I hated it.

I know some patients actually keep their masks.  I literally never looked at my mask.  I refused.  So, obviously I did not keep mine.

And so, I spent the first 6 weeks of my summer traveling 5 days a week to have my brain radiated.  The treatment itself never hurt.  It actually became very routine.  It was just a part of my day.

One of the most difficult parts came when I began to lose my hair from the radiation.  I never ever thought it would affect me so much.  Sitting on my couch, running my hands through my hair and holding clumps of it was overwhelming.  I cried – a lot.  I needed to get a hair piece, but I hadn’t actually lost enough to need a full wig.  When I sat down at the hair piece consult, I absolutely lost it.  I could not stop crying.  I guess it was one of the first physical signs that demonstrated, “Yes, you are actually a cancer patient.”  Frankly, I just didn’t look sick, or what we imagine a cancer patient is supposed to look like.  Yet this – this was an unquestionable physical sign that radiation was indeed entering my brain and causing side effects.  I was indeed a cancer patient.

Another side effect I wasn’t totally prepared for, despite being told over and over about it, was the fatigue.  It didn’t hit me as hard as I know it does some patients.  I literally went to my radiation sessions every day by myself on the bus and subway, which people were surprised by.  I made sure I walked every day.  I attended my PT sessions two to three times a week.  However, it took every ounce of my strength, both mentally and physically, to fight that fatigue.  Trust me, it isn’t just being tired.  It is a full body exhaustion.  However, as I was told over and over again, the best way to fight the fatigue was to basically, just fight through it.  So, I did.

I also spent a lot of time with friends and family enjoying summer as best I could.  I took a LOT of advantage of a friend’s pool.  I lounged on the beach as much as possible.  I laid out in the sun and read a lot.  I made sure I kept up my social life, although I obviously wasn’t frequenting the bars until 1:00 a.m.  I mean, for the first time in my life since my teens, I wasn’t working.  I was sure as hell going to take advantage of that!!!

So, after those 30 radiation sessions ended, my doctors advised that I would undergo my next scan in approximately a month to 6 weeks later.  I am still bitter and angry about this, but they called this my “vacation period.”  I wasn’t in treatment, so this was the time to rest and take advantage of my “vacation” from radiation.  It’s insulting to call it that.

My next post on the topic of Round 1 of my cancer life will go into the details of this “vacation period.”  Needless to say, it was NO vacation!

 

So, Freddy Krueger And I Walk Into A Bar…

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It’s officially a week and a half since my 12-hour brain surgery/plastic surgery/infectious disease surgery/whatever it is that just happened to me.

I know that there will be several (okay A LOT) of posts that will cover what has happened over the last few weeks, but in a simple, non-medically trained nutshell… all of my radiation treatments caused my brain cells to die, which then caused the skin cells around my surgical/radiation area to breakdown, causing a serious infection that led to my titanium plate being exposed.  Enter an infectious disease team, a plastic surgery team and my established neurosurgery team…

I was advised that the infection would obviously have to be surgically cleared out, that my plate may or may not have to be removed, and that a portion of my stomach would have to be taken to create a new skin flap to cover the area.  Little did I know that I would wake up with my stomach now making up just about half of my head, as well as a giant incision starting from the top of my chest down my abdomen.  Oh, and my bellybutton is also now about 6 inches off from where it was just a few weeks ago.

So, I feel like Freddy Krueger and I walked into a bar and well, whatever happened, he clearly won.

I am thankful beyond words that I am alive, that I am recovering remarkably well and that I am even able to write this post, but… this time, the vanity thing is tough.

I feel like a monster.  While I know rationally, it will get better – the swelling will reduce, the bruising will fade, etc. – it’s just really, really hard this go around.

With my first surgery, you wouldn’t have known I’d even had surgery.  My hair only began to fall out a few months later due to radiation.  I thought that was hard.  However, I got a fantastic hairpiece (clip-on, not even a full wig) and absolutely no one could tell I had a bald patch hiding underneath.

Time went by and my hair started to grow back enough that I didn’t even need the hairpiece.  I only needed to style my hair the right way and all was okay.  I even left the hairpiece hidden in a drawer to get knotted and matted, thinking I really wouldn’t need it again.  How naive!

So, along came the second surgery and more hair had to be shaved down, but honestly, it wasn’t too bad.  I wasn’t going to cry over it.  Yet, once again, radiation came around.  I was actually away on my First Descents trip when my hair began falling out in huge clumps.  I stood in the bathroom at our camp site just crying while running my fingers through my hair as it immediately fell out.  Thankfully, being on a trip with cancer survivors, they all understood my hysterics.  Due to the high-dose radiation, this time my scalp looked red and severely burned (“angry” as one person perfectly described it).  It looked worse than before, but by the time it was all said and done, I wiped the dust off the hairpiece and adjusted to it all.  I also continued to rock what I like to call “the crazy bun.”  It was disappointing, sure, but manageable.

But now…since ya know, my scalp is significantly made up of my stomach, the hair will never ever grow back and it’s definitely not just a bald spot either.  (As a darkly humourous aside, my scalp now has freckles that were formerly members of my abs).  Sure, they say the swelling will go down too.  However, it’s really hard to imagine my head ever looking semi-normal or symmetrical.  There are sutures everywhere and because the plastic’s team had to connect artieries behind my ear, there is yet another incision there.

I’ve been dealing with the whole bald spot/scalp/hair issue for 2 years now.  I get it.  I had brain cancer.  I can’t expect that my head would look compleletly untouched.  However, I was not prepared for the additional disaster area of my chest/abdomen.  Again, I had brain cancer.  This wasn’t supposed to involve abdominal surgery with permanent scarring down the front of my body.  That wasn’t in the manual!

My stomach is also so swollen that I look about 10-months pregnant.  I am a very petite person.  It’s not a cute look.  In being such an intensly active person, my core was always so strong.  Now, I can’t stand up straight because of the sutures and the swelling.  I hobble around like an 80-year-old woman.

I hate that my poor husband has to look at me this way.  He is beyond amazing and justifyably tells me I’m being crazy.  He is not afraid to look at me, but I am.

I feel petty even complaining about these things.  Big picture – I’m alive!  So, so many brain cancer patients are not as fortunate.  Also, I’m sitting in my own home, on my couch, next to my incredible husband and my adorable pup.  I am not in the hospital.  I am not in a rehab facility trying to fight serious neurologic side effects.

I still do have everything.  I just wish I had never walked into that bar with Freddy a few weeks ago.  I should’ve just stayed the hell home.