“I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees.”

The call came to my cell phone on a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago.  It took me a few minutes to process that Sharon from the Teddy Atlas Foundation was telling me Meghan had been selected to receive the  Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Humanitarian Award.  The award is named for a local physician who epitomized the concept of what it meant to be a physician through more than a half century of people centered care on Staten Island.

Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Biography

I knew of Dr. Atlas, who did most of his work before my time, because I followed the work of the foundation, started by his son, Teddy Atlas Jr.  The Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation is a name known to locals who are inspired by stories of people helping people.  I had watched this foundation through the years, grateful that people who genuinely want to help are not afraid to just do it.

Teddy Atlas Biography

I know I stumbled, and may have sounded like a bumbling fool as I asked her to repeat herself.  “Yes,” Meghan will accept gratefully, I replied without asking.  I was given the date and time for the dinner.

I’m not sure either of us really grasped the enormity of the honor until we looked up the event on line.

Teddy Dinner celebrity line-up

We had just struggled to get 100 people in a room for a fundraiser.  Here they were looking at close to a thousand – from big names to community favorites.

When she learned she’d need to give a brief acceptance speech, she took a deep breath, and then thought.  A whole lot.

We talked about humanitarian, as a word and as a concept.  The more we bounced it around, the more we both knew the concept suited her.  Meghan has always wanted to make a difference.  She has always done what she can to speak for those who can not speak for themselves.  She is not sure what her future career will be, but she is sure that she must know she is ‘helping.’

We talked about quotes.  I gave a few suggestions.  She came back to me with Dr. Seuss.  She nailed it.  As usual.

The Lorax speaks for the trees.  They can not speak for themselves, so the Lorax advocates for them.  It resonated with her.

Here is Meghan’s speech:

Good evening, I am extremely humbled and grateful to be standing before you tonight.
When I was 7 I never thought my life would turn out this way. I never thought I’d be accepting a prestigious humanitarian award. When I was 8 and my life was turned upside down by a diagnosis I didn’t understand, I was in shock. By the time I was nine, I realized that no one even knew what my disease was. Then I realized that if I didn’t do something, there was a chance no one else ever would.
Cowden’s Syndrome is a mutation on the PTEN Gene, a tumor suppressor gene. Because of this disorder I have extremely high cancer risks, and grow a lot of tumors. I am in the hospital being poked and prodded on a regular basis. I am constantly scanned and monitored. Every time I step into a doctor’s office I am holding my breath, praying that I will get even just two more months of peace, without a procedure. I am 15, and I have had 18 surgeries. This disease has tried to break me over, and over again. And, because of this, with each passing day I become more determined to overcome these challenges, win my daily battles, and lend a helping hand to others in need.
I am living the life of a rare disease patient. I am closely acquainted with the downfalls and struggles of my disease, and others. Because of this, I am fully cognizant that there is very little awareness about rare genetic disorders. Some of these disorders are fatal, and others can just make your daily life torturous.  
My disorder specifically is sometimes classified as an “invisible illness.’ No one sees my scars and my struggles because I don’t ‘look sick.’ I present as a healthy and intelligent teenager. When I was little I used to wish all my scars were able to be seen, and that they were all over my skin. I thought that maybe people would start understanding what patients like me go through a bit more if they saw some of the ramifications of these diseases.
Cowden’s Syndrome has not just impacted my body. There are undeniable, severe mental ramifications that have come with my struggles. I have a depressive disorder, an anxiety disorder, and PTSD secondary to medical trauma. In no way am I even close to normal. I have to fight ten times harder for what someone else can do physically. I struggle mentally to live a normal live and get past the anxieties that control my daily life.
I have been bullied since elementary school there are some days where I come home, curl up in a ball and cry. It’s really hard to make friends when you’re at the doctor so much, and it’s even harder to deal with teenage drama when you’ve had to act so much older then you are your whole life. Whether it’s been because I’m different and they don’t understand, or because I catch on to things quickly, I always find myself that kid with the target on my back for bullies.
People like to say to ‘not let your hardships define you.’ Personally, I think that’s idealistic and impossible. The events that you have gone through in your life have created who you are. Sometimes I wonder what life would be like if I did not have this rare disease. Then I shake myself out of it, and realize that I’m a pretty cool person who has the ability to change lives. And, that if I didn’t have Cowden’s Syndrome, I wouldn’t be growing into the person I am.
My mother and I host annual fundraisers called “Jeans for Rare Genes.” They started out with all of the profits being donated to the Global Genes Foundation, a 401C3 organization that raises money around the world for the purpose of providing support to patients with rare diseases. Then, the PTEN Foundation, an organization specifically devoted to patients with PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome (Cowden’s Syndrome) was born. Once this organization was created, we began fundraising for them. To this day, our annual fundraiser is one of the biggest donations that goes into this organization and I am proud to know that our work is making a difference.
There are less than 2,000 diagnosed Cowden’s Syndrome patients in the US. Sometimes it is hard to see the light at the end of a lonely tunnel.  The PTEN Foundation is close to putting up a patient powered registry that will start things moving in the right direction. We have a long way to go.  We need funding for research, and then we need medication and hopefully a cure. There is far too little awareness about Cowden’s syndrome and all rare diseases in general. They are very real, and very present in our society.
This honor will serve as a stepping stone for me. My awareness efforts are not nearly done. In fact, I view this as a new chapter in my life, where I will have the confidence and courage, needed to continue raising funds and awareness, and that I may hopefully be a part of changing the lives of other rare disease patients.  
In the words of the Lorax in the famous Dr. Seuss book, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
With the number of people who care in this room tonight, I look forward to a future of hope and promise. Thank you.

The speech ended with Teddy Atlas committing $5,000 to the PTEN Foundation on Meghan’s behalf.

It made me extra glad that Kristin, the PTEN Foundation President, who has become a dear friend, had made her way to New York from Alabama to celebrate with us.

Yesterday, November 15, 2018, NYC was almost totally crippled by an unexpected snow storm.  In all of my years here I have never ever seen anything like it.  I have seen worse storms, but NEVER the crippling state of things I saw yesterday.  I left work to get Meghan at school at 2:20.  On a busy day it takes me 22 minutes to arrive at her school for pick up.  At 4:10, after crawling for HOURS and getting so close,  I was being pushed up a hill out of a pile of snow.  I was in such a state, feeling frantic that I was literally not able to get to her.  And even though I knew she was safe, it was a helpless feeling I’m not looking to duplicate any time soon.

November 15, 2018

At 4:15 she sat in my car while we turned around to head back.  At 5:35 the 8 mile round trip was complete, but we weren’t out of trouble.  Three hours on the road and I never saw a plow or a salt truck.

My parents agreed to drive in their very capable pick up truck.  My husband made it safely off the bus from Manhattan.  It was far from the poised and put together departure I had hoped for, but we got there.

I’m not going to lie, there were a few moments there where I thought, “WHAT THE HECK?  Why does EVERYTHING have to be surrounded by drama?”

But I pulled myself together.  There are far bigger problems in the world.  We made it.  We were safe.  We were together.  Meghan’s dear friend greeted us there.  I looked around and soaked up the enormity of the honor my 15 year old was receiving.

I looked around the room full of energetic, generous spirits.

I looked in the booklet on the table and found this.  Despite a few minor errors, the idea that this was published here.  Now.  For everyone.  Well, it kind of blew me away.

I listened while Ciaran Sheehan sang, with chills down my spine.  Having played leading roles in two of Meghan’s favorite Broadway shows, “Les Miserables,” and “Phantom of the Opera,” he was the one she wanted to meet.  And she did.

My girl is not perfect.  She struggles.  We argue.  She sometimes acts like a teenage girl and I have to remind myself she is one.  She is intense.  She is focused.  She is determined.  She is deeply principled.

She is learning to find balance.  She is learning to laugh.  She is learning to pause.  To believe.  She is letting herself be successful.  She is working daily on becoming the best version of herself.  She is my hero.

And Meghan, as one of the “trees,” I am happy to have a “Lorax” like you.

Because as Dr. Seuss said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better.  It’s not.”

You are way more than

#beatingcowdens

You’re going places kid.  And I’m so grateful to be along for the ride.

(Living) “In Prep for the Climb” – PTEN Awareness Day 10/23/18

I’m aware of Breast Cancer.  As a survivor now of 6 years and the daughter of a 21 year survivor, I am aware as I dry from my shower facing my mastectomy scars every morning, that breast cancer is reality.  As my Facebook feed and my memory are both too full of those we have lost and those who still face this disease, we are aware.  What I wonder, is how much help is the awareness?  It is a topic that could be debated forever, but I’ll change gears first.

Something else I am very aware of is the PTEN gene located on chromosome 10q23, and the perils its associated mutations can cause.  So when the PTEN Foundation let us know that 10/23 was designated PTEN Awareness Day, we were all in.

This blog has, for years been designated to the ups and downs of this mother- daughter duo dealing with Cowden’s Syndrome, the diagnosis we both received in late 2011 after a PTEN mutation was first diagnosed in Meghan, and weeks later in me.

The few years following were an absolute whirlwind of appointments, scans, screenings and surgeries.  We worked to keep our heads above water and just exist.  We considered keeping my job, and maintaining honors status in her school quite the accomplishment.

We were told things over and over, like “don’t let it define you…”

I’ve got some news for you.  You can only walk so far into the fire without retaining the scars.

True awareness of PTEN for us comes with comprehension of the gravity that you have to remain in a vigilant stance of preparation, awaiting attack from your own body at all times.  PTEN patients have ridiculous cancer risks pretty much all throughout, and the VIGILANCE required to stay ahead is utterly grueling.

We are faced with choices to keep the most high risk organs, or remove them prophylactic ally.  We are asked to play the odds.  With our bodies. All the time.

With Meghan the AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation) in her right knee, though quiet now, has caused damage she will deal with forever.  She is 15.  God willing she will walk on those legs another 80 years, each day aware of the pain, and of the symmetry removed from her body forever.

When you have to be vigilant, you have to plan.  There are trades.  You have to decide if you’ll miss school with friends and fall behind in classes or give up the breaks designed to recharge you.

There are no breaks.  February – months away has 3/5 of its break and 2 other days devoted to appointments.  Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.  Yep – that one too.  Don’t worry, the brain MRI is scheduled for April break….

You have to pick and choose.  And the decisions are hard.  You want to give it all to everything, but HOURS of your world are wasted in bumper to bumper traffic, waiting for the hopeful news that you have another 6 months before you come back.  And if, in fact you don’t get that news the schedule is tossed and it’s game on for scans, analysis and biopsies.

The pain.  No one can really tell us yet from why, but it seems to exist throughout.  The fatigue.  Maybe the thyroid issues, maybe some immunological stuff.  Maybe some connection yet to be determined.  But it’s real.

It’s as real as the number of times we had to decline invitations before most people stopped asking.

We’re not blowing you off.  We’re holding it together – by a shoestring.

Chronic Illness is hard to live, and we get that it’s difficult to watch.  But, it’s real.  And short of a cure, it will never “run it’s course.”  It will not BE us, but it will be PART of us – FOREVER.

“You don’t look sick…”

“You don’t look anxious…”

No, as a matter of fact she looks strong and determined.  She’s been practicing for quite some time.

Sometimes I have to bite my tongue to keep from replying, “You don’t LOOK ignorant either – but at least you can fix that if you WANT to…”

Our rare disease journey has opened our eyes to not only PTEN disorders, but “Lhermitte-Duclos disease,” “Nail-Patella Syndrome,” “Lynch Syndrome,” “Spinal Muscular Atrophy,” “Muscular Dystrophy,” “Neimann- Pic Disease,” ” Neurofibromatosis,” “Acute Myeloid Leukemia” to name just the very tip of the iceberg.  I am more aware than every that everyone struggles.

I’m also a big fan of real pure awareness, for the sake of learning something about other humans I share the planet with.

One of the humans I share my home with has grown up in a totally different direction courtesy of this disease.  And while I am grateful for her diagnosis, as it surely saved my own life, I am sad that she has had to see so much, and manage so much already in her life.

So today, on 10/23, if you’re not living with it yourself, direct yourself to http://www.PTENFoundation.org, or the PTEN Facebook Page and learn an little more about PTEN.

My own girl is working every day to make herself better, physically, mentally and emotionally.  When I have down days, or I just don’t feel well, she reminds me to forgive myself.  “You have it too Mom.”  Indeed I do, and it’s quite a ride…

“Prep for the Climb” Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Together we prepare for the climb each day – and seek out that ‘One Perfect Moment’

For as much as this disease has taken, I am grateful that she is starting to take back control, and is finding her voice as an advocate for herself and others.  (And I love listening to her sing too…)

#Beatingcowdens

Bring It On the Musical – One Perfect Moment Lyrics
2012 Broadway
Bring It On the Musical – One Perfect Moment Lyrics
I’m not freaking out, I’m really okay
I’m totally chill or I will be someday
‘Cause I’m so near the top but there’s so many mountains to climb
There are plans to be planned, drills to be drilled
‘Cause this dream that I’ve dreamed is becoming fulfilled
And I plan to enjoy it but right now, I don’t have the timeFade in on Campbell, an average teenager almost grown
Close-up on average grades from the average life she’s known
Now zoom in the lens on the rest of her friends as she stay alone
Doing the work, getting it right

‘Cause I know we’ll have to be practically perfect
So I’ll go above and beyond and pull through, this I can do
All that I’m asking is one perfect moment in time

I’m seventeen, there are so many things that I can’t control
If I start to freak, or feel weak, I focus on just one goal
Turn down the panic, attack this routine like it owns my soul
Turn up the music so loud that it swallows us whole
And then there we are, we burn like a star
We’re safe inside the world we know
Then suddenly I’m in prep for the climb and here I go
High in the air, there is a moment just before you start to fall
Live in that one moment

I know that if I can just stick the landing
Then I’ll know that somehow my life will be fine
And I’ll go through the rest of my life understanding
What it feels like to shine
The future’s full of mysteries
So please let this be mine
My one perfect moment in time

No Excuses. No Apologies.

Recently I asked that Meghan’s “Present Levels of Performance” on her IEP be updated.  She no longer receives many services, but I find great value in keeping this section current.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding involving Individualized Education Plans (or IEPs) and many people feel only children who struggle academically have an IEP.  This is just not true.

My daughter has had one in place since Kindergarten.  She has consistently maintained high honors, and as a matter of fact was Salutatorian of her 8th grade class, and is in an intensely challenging International Baccalaureate program at her high school.

IEPs by definition, are to “Individualize” the Education Program as needed.  Meghan’s needs are not academic, as much as they are residual connected to the Cowden’s Syndrome, the PTSD, and the medical trauma.  The resulting anxiety affects every area of life, and is far deeper than “teenage angst.”  We work extensively outside of school to address this in many ways, but sometimes we need the school to be on the same page.

Much like you give a medical history to a doctor when you see them for the first time, and you update as situations change, the IEP is to be fluid and updated as changes occur so all personnel will be aware of Meghan’s needs.

I make a habit on the first day of school of copying a few key pages of the document and giving it to her teachers.  Even though they have access, and technically it is their responsibility, I am also a teacher.  I get the pressures placed on us.  So, I make their lives easier by giving them what they need and an invitation to reach out to me with any questions.  Her teachers are historically receptive and appreciative.

This year I was reviewing that section on the document realizing how much was no longer accurate, and how it should be more detailed.

I sat with Meghan to write the summary below:

Meghan is a 15-year-old sophomore in the IB program at School.  Academically she is consistently above average in her classes, attaining high honors every marking period for the 2017-2018 school year.

She is a student athlete as well, participating on the School varsity swim team, as well as Trident Aquatics, a 12 month competitive swim program on the Island.

Meghan has several medical diagnoses.  The most far-reaching is “Cowden’s Syndrome” a mutation on the PTEN (tumor suppressor) Gene, causing benign and malignant tumors as well as vascular malformations.  Recently PTEN mutations have been correlated with low levels of (infection fighting) immunoglobulins, which Meghan also suffers with.

Because of the low immunoglobulin levels Meghan has frequent infections that often require antibiotics for resolution.  She suffers with gastrointestinal distress with each course, and needs to avoid gluten and soy.  She also has an allergy to dairy.

Meghan’s medical challenges are far-reaching.  She has had 18 surgeries, 8 of which have been on her right knee.  There was an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in that knee.  While it has been controlled, the long-term effects will last forever.  Meghan has leg and foot discrepancies on her right side.  The blood was restricted from flowing to her right foot for so long, that it stopped growing 6 years ago.  The left foot is a full size larger than the right foot.  That right-sided weakness has been repeatedly treated in physical therapy, but still presents as a struggle with stairs, and long walks.  While she endures these activities, they can cause pain and excessive fatigue, and extra time may be necessary between classes located far apart.

Meghan had her thyroid removed in 2014 and the resulting need for synthetic medication has yet to be regulated.  Her current endocrinologist follows her 4 times a year, adjusting, tailoring, and trying to balance her levels.

Meghan had 2 D&C procedures during 7th grade.  Those procedures yielded precancerous tissue in her uterus and prompted the need for birth control pills to try to stop the cellular growth.  Those pills have also been difficult to regulate and balance.

Meghan has been hospitalized countless times in addition to her surgeries.  She has also undergone over 30 MRIs and close to 10CT scans, each requiring IV.  She spends countless hours being poked and prodded at doctors, monitoring her cancer risks.  She is acutely aware of her mortality at an age when most teens are barely aware of their social interests.

In the spring of 2017 Meghan was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, secondary to extensive medical trauma.  She was also diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

In the fall of 2017 Meghan began to develop panic attacks.  Subsequently, she has also been treated for panic and generalized anxiety disorder.

She sees a social worker weekly and has guidance on her IEP in school.  She sees a psychiatrist monthly who manages the medication, which currently consists of and antidepressant and another script for panic attacks.

The panic attacks were well controlled for a time, but flare up in acute anxiety.  This summer saw several severe episodes.  We are working together to help her through all of this.

Meghan is waiting for a service dog, which should arrive in the next 4-6 months, to address the PTSD.  In the mean time, we are teaching strategies to deal with necessary stress, and tools to eliminate unnecessary stress.

I presented this document to the team to update the IEP.  I was a little startled when I was met first with a challenge on the diagnoses.  No problem I told them.  I would send the doctor’s notes.

I love her school, I do.  But, I was in fact also told “She doesn’t LOOK sick”  and “She doesn’t LOOK stressed.”  While I had to breathe a few times before responding, I came up with “You’re welcome…”

We’ve worked quite hard on all of that.  My girl has goals.  Life goals.

Last week Meghan was approached to remove the section regarding the D&Cs from the document above.  She declined.  She was pushed, and told the information was “far too personal.”

Forever practical, Meghan reminded them the document was about her, and should include factual information.

Again pressed, she reminded the staff she helped write the document they were holding.  She wanted and NEEDED her teachers to understand the validity behind her anxiety and PTSD symptoms.

The final time they told her the information was too personal she reminded them that she had done nothing wrong, and had nothing to be embarrassed about.  Meghan is a factual child.  She likes actual truth being reported.  She knows better than to be embarrassed about truth.  She knows ugly truth is a real part of life with Cowden’s Syndrome.  She also knows that secrets give power to things that don’t deserve it.

These things happened to her.

She did not ask for them.

She did not cause them.

She will not hide them.

She will not apologize for them.

She will not let them define her.

But the things that happen to us do change us.  HOW they change us is the only thing we can work to control.

I will continue to work the Mom end to get this updated.

I am beyond proud of her growing confidence, and her desire to educate.

I am proud of her desire to be a scholar and an athlete in spite of all the adversity.

I am proud of her respect for the clock as she grows as a swimmer, and her desire to be the same as everyone else, by beating the same clock.

My girl is, and shall remain

#beatingcowdens

And that is why we continue to work on the journey towards treatments and a cure.

Please consider joining us or making a contribution.  You can reach us at jfrg.pten@gmail.com

Jeans for Rare Genes 4

As we plan our next fundraiser, we are doing things a little differently.

We are shipping orders for  T-shirts within the US.

The shirt looks like this:

If interested- shirts are $20 plus shipping.

Shipping is $7 for 1 and $13 for 2 (Priority Mail)

Please include shipping costs in your payment, and send a check payable to the PTEN Foundation to: PO Box 140163 Staten Island, NY 10314

Right now I am only shipping in the US.

If you are attending the event- you may pre-order your shirt by letting me know the size you need, and committing to pay with your ticket.  Those attending the event, the T-shirts will be $15.

Looking forward to supporting the PTEN Foundation http://www.ptenfoundation.org

#beatingcowdens

Double Edged Sword

I remember as a young girl, and even a teenager, having the phone pretty much attached to my ear all the time.  I remember being so excited when we got a cord long enough for me to bring the phone into my room.  I remember calling people, and being so frustrated at busy signals.  I don’t remember much of what I talked about for all those hours, but I liked it.

When I went to college, I went with an electronic typewriter with a 4 line display.  It was state of the art.  In my dorm there were computers in the common area and people were just beginning to really Email.  There were no cell phones.  We knocked on each other’s doors and spread word through friends when we were getting together.

It’s now been 23 years since I graduated from college.  I’m coming to understand the generations before me.  Perhaps some of the discontent with things changing was a foreboding sense of where it was leading.

I don’t go far without a cell phone in hand.  I “google” like it is my full-time job.  I’d rather text than call, and I am guilty of putting only the “perfect” images on my social media accounts.  I “keep in touch” through photos of friends children.  Some of these children are teenagers now.  Many of them I have never even met.

I wish “Happy Birthday” on Facebook after it reminds me, and rarely send a card.  I delude myself into feeling “in touch” when really we’ve lost all track of each other.

I’m watching a generation grow that thinks its acceptable to post all kinds of photos of themselves, inevitably trying to look older than they are, in a forum where nothing is truly private at all.

I’m not saying we had it all correct by any means.  I was guilty as the next of trying to impress “popular” kids, or to fit in.  There were mean kids.  There were those who isolated.  We passed notes.  But, we didn’t post our comings and goings for the world to see.  I was blissfully unaware of who went where, unless I was there.  If we took photos it was the real deal.  There were no filters.

The internet, and the social media craze that has followed is the proverbial “double-edged sword”.

Living with, and having a child with, a rare genetic disorder means I have to do most of our research here.  Most doctors lack the time, the knowledge, or the desire, to entertain my instincts.  I may not be a doctor, but I am an expert on Meghan.  I have been able to learn through trusted medical journals and intelligent internet connections, more than I would have ever been able to learn 25 or 30 years ago.

Meghan has had medical problems since day 1, and I have had the privilege of advocating for her since then.  I have “met” parents through online support groups, and have soaked up their advice like a dry sponge.  Parents go out of their way to help other parents, and it is a community like no other.  Without the internet I would have been traveling this journey largely alone.

There were multiple diagnoses before the PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome (Cowden’s Syndrome) diagnosis in 2011.  And, truth be told, I suspect there are still a few more coming our way.  During each step of the journey I have been able to connect with medical professionals and parents in ways that leave me forever grateful.

I am skilled at dealing with the insurance companies, the mail order pharmacy, and the collection agencies.  I am on-line so often, printing medical explanations of benefits, or fighting for treatment courses that I know are necessary.

I have become well versed in the laws surrounding Individualized Education Plans, (IEPs) and have secured necessary accommodations for an honor student battling PTSD largely from the fallout of a rare genetic disorder.

We fund raise for the PTEN Foundation, in hopes of one day soon allowing a patient powered registry that can lead us to treatment, and maybe even a cure.

All of this is possible through social media and the internet.

These are the same forums that allow people to think they are “in touch” without ever hearing each other speak.  These are the same forums that allow teens and adults alike to think it is ok to be insufferable or mean because they don’t have to look the other person in the eye while they do it.  It is these same forums that claim to bring us all together, that are causing what I fear is irreparable social damage.  A generation of children who aspire to impossible ideals and feel they are not good enough, are growing up.  They have the world at their fingertips.  Will they have the skills to access it through human interaction?

I don’t know what it is like to live anyone else’s life.  Maybe there are similarities, or maybe my views are odd.  I blog to give an honest account of life in this house, with these challenges, because I too have found comfort in knowing I am not alone.  At least theoretically.

I am always busy.  Sometimes I don’t choose it, and sometimes I choose it without realizing it.  I am so used to being in motion, not having a full agenda is confusing.  It is also very very rare.  My only speeds are “go” and “off”.

Chronic illness can easily run your life.  When every ounce of strength must be used to create the illusion of normalcy, there is not much time to be “normal”.  When you can not predict the health crises that exist daily, or the new ones that crop up at a moment’s notice, it is hard to make plans to do much.

We are a family of 3.  My child is an only child.  She has all the benefits, and all the downfalls of that status.  We have extended family.  I have friends.  Long time friends.  Old friends.   I know I could rely on them if it became time to wave the white flag.  But they are busy too.  And our time will come in a few short years when our children are off on their own.

My child does not have a built-in network.  My child has PTSD, and incredible anxiety.  She can sometimes have an abrasive personality.  But, she has more integrity and compassion in her than just about any other human I know.  You can’t pick any of that up off her Instagram. Or her SnapChat.  To really know her you’d have to talk to her.  The old-fashioned way.

That very network that has allowed me to learn so much, to do so much, and to help so much, has also caused harm.  For both of us.

For me, it represents the easy way out.  Aside from a few support groups, I know people will tire quickly of hearing the same story over and over. So, it is easy to click “like,” post a few comments, and have at least a visual in my head of what’s going on.  But, it also leaves me with feelings of inadequacy.  Why can’t I get us to the beach?  Why can’t I plan day trips with actual humans without fear of having to cancel?

For her, it is a constant reminder of a “normal” life that she doesn’t have.  Whether it’s pain, medical appointments, food allergies, or anxiety, there is an isolation inherent in this world of chronic illness.

She speaks of the “Sword of Damocles” with regularity.  The history channel gives this explanation History Channel- Sword of Damocles (Go ahead, and click the link. It’s a worthwhile read.)  This analogy explains a life hard to comprehend, and impossible to describe.

The internet probably saved us.  Social media brought me to some of the smartest parents, living variations of our life.

Social media altered the scope of human relations with consequences we will see for generations.

The irony of it all perhaps is that this message reaches you through the double-edged sword of the internet.

I’m interested in hearing your comments.

We remain

#beatingcowdens

With all it’s “side effects”

One day at a time…

Forever…

When I married my husband I committed to forever.  It was a good call.

When we decided to have a child, we understood she would be our baby forever.  No regrets.

forever

But some time in the fall of 2011 a doctor diagnosed both of us with a rare genetic disorder.  This forever, well, this one we did NOT sign up for.

At first there was no time to process the concept of forever as it connected to Cowden’s Syndrome.  There was too much to do.

Neither of us had an “easy” medical history, so putting a name on it had its pros and cons.  But, we were handed lists of appointments to make and things that suddenly needed immediate attention.  We were quickly schooled on tumor growth and cancer risks.  We were told to remain vigilant, and that we would be “fine”.

Stay Alert

There was no time to process as 2012 had a traumatic thyroid biopsy in January and an embolization for her Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) in her knee in February.  Then, there was my double mastectomy and my “surprise” cancer diagnosis in March, followed too closely by my hysterectomy in May.  And soon after that hysterectomy, Meghan had breast, pelvic and kidney and bladder sonograms.  There was also another MRI of the knee, and two thyroid ultrasounds that brought in 2013 with a surgical thyroid biopsy.

2012 was salvaged largely by a third grade teacher who I swear was an angel placed in our path.  Because there was real life too.  There was work, and school, and activities, and appointments that were quickly starting to overwhelm.

There was probably close to 2 years after the initial diagnosis before I even looked up.  And, when I did I had a whole host of emotions.

Forever had taken quite a toll on my girl.  Tough as nails.  Driven.  Strong.  Focused.  Always.  But, apprehensive, concerned and full of worry she was way too young to have to shoulder.

Forever.  I did my best to keep as much “normal” as I could.  Early therapists cautioned not to let the disease “define” us.  I kept the schedule delicately balanced between the necessary medical screenings and the “fun” activities.  She needed to be “like everyone else”.  So there was swim, later theater, some voice lessons, all interspersed with surgeries too many to recount again.  Some traumatizing, some annoying, some isolating, and some worrisome.  All time-consuming.  Some required physical rehabilitation, and others emotional.

busy-calendar-2

Forever.  The highway became our bonding place.  She could read and do some homework in the car.  We scheduled appointments on holidays as often as we could.  We scheduled appointments after school.  It made for some long days- often traveling 2 hours each way, and waiting forever in the offices- but we did it to preserve school attendance, and to keep her at as many activities as we could.

Forever.  She grew up.  Not just physically, but mentally.  She has broad shoulders, literally from hours of butterfly, and metaphorically from carrying way more than she should at her age.  The knowledge that this is her forever is difficult for all of us.  We make the best of it.  We talk about how grateful we are to know what to look for.  But, that gratitude, while sincere, can never replace the innocence of youth.  Innocence lost.  Forever.

Forever.  The wait time at most appointments is close to forever.  No one typically knows what to say to us.  They look at what they need to.  They offer some empathy, sometimes.  Then, sometimes out loud, and sometimes in their heads, they show gratitude that they are not fully responsible for us.  We wait hours and hours so often.  We have learned patience.  We have learned to quietly accept that if they “google” us before, it means they actually care.  We are rare.  We are 1 in 200,000.  This diagnosis is forever.

late doctor

This summer we have already gone to our 16th appointment between us.  There are 4 more just next week.

Yet, this summer she performed with a wonderful, talented, warm and welcoming group of young people at Staten Island Children’s Theater Inc. in a production of “Legally Blonde Jr.”  They like her.  Some of them know what she does with the rest of her life, and others don’t, and it’s all okay there.  They give me hope that some people, teenage people and adults as well,  are just good people.

She has been at swim practice most mornings between 6:15 and 8:15.  She has spent this week in small group lessons for swim from 8:30-3.

She has accomplished a good deal of her summer work for school.  She had peppered in the appointments in the crevices hidden in the schedule.

Forever.  The reality is not lost.  But, I am so proud.  So proud of how hard she works to stay in this world, while living in the world of chronic pain and rare disease.  It is hard work.  She does it pretty gracefully most days.

Forever.  Perhaps I could use a lesson or two from her.

Somewhere in the midst of this medical whirlwind we live.  Somewhere in the midst of working full-time, and managing surgeries and appointments, and life as it happens to all of us, I have lost track of myself.

lost

Forever.  I have one speed.  I operate in constant motion, or I am asleep.  There is rarely any middle.  The yellow legal pad is to the right of my computer, capturing every thought.  The iPhone calendar alerts me to the plans of the day.  My house, although not as clean as I’d like it, is in constantly good order.  It is a control issue.  I will own it.  There is so much flashing by in the blink of an eye, I can be sure to get the dog fur off the floor once a day, and know that it actually got done.

Forever.  I’ve lost touch with most of my friends.  Life is busy, theirs and ours.  There are only so many times you can tell the same story to people.  Our story could be recorded.  It just repeats itself.  Doctor, testing, surgery, follow-up, rehabilitation, next body part, routine appointment, maintenance, worry about a potential problem, 6 months to watch it…  I used to have other things to talk about.  Now I would be one of those people I used to laugh at on night-time TV.  I am so out of touch with the world.  My experiences are significant, but without variety.  They are heavy and too much for most people to hear.  There are no answers.

Take-time-to-enjoy-where-we-are

Forever.  The summer will pass.  We will force in a vacation and we will hold those days to be without doctors, and without summer assignments.  Then, we will do our best to put our feet in sand once.  Just to listen to the water.  We will try to get a few people to swim in our pool, so the activities of opening and closing it are not totally futile.

Forever.  Life is busy.  Too busy.  And that’s not just a Cowden’s Syndrome thing.  I heard of three deaths this week.  All three tragic.  One at age 19, one at 31, and another a bit older.  Tragedy.  They had plans.  They did not think their forever was going to end this week.

Forever.  My conscious mind doesn’t need but a split second to list dozens of real and significant blessings.  There are countless things in my life that bring me to my knees in gratitude.  But, the inner conflict is strong.  With the knowledge of the wonder and beauty in my life, I should be able to take this diagnosis, this “Forever” that is Cowden’s Syndrome, and put it in its place.

Forever.  The struggle is real.

Forever.  Stopping to find the moment, and to embrace the joy right now is not as easy as it sounds.  I can talk the talk better than anyone.  The raw truth is that I can not always walk the walk.

Our Cowden’s sisters and brothers span the globe.  Estimates are about 1,800 of us are in the United States.  I do not know the world numbers.  I know some of the people though.  One in Australia just underwent 2 MORE brain surgeries a few weeks ago.  Another, a teen who is with her Mom in Cleveland right now is waiting for news that is surely churning mom’s heart.

Forever.  It’s such an arbitrary concept sometimes.  I became a wife with the intent of forever in my heart.  I became a mother with that same intention.  But Cowden’s Syndrome threw forever at us.  It’s got the same dictionary definition, but not the same feel.

Someone asked me recently why I can’t just take time off, or block my appointments so we have “breaks”.  The truth is, I try.  Doctors want what they want in terms of follow-up, and being vigilant means I need to comply.  Most visits run us a minimum of 4 hours round trip.  Many can not be “stacked”.  I have a full-time job.  I have a high school honor student.  We need to be at work and school.  I suspect those who ask are just trying to help.  But, it makes me feel like maybe if I just tried harder…

waiting doctor

Forever.

It took me 7 weeks to write this post.  My attention span is not what it used to be.  I have a whole lot of reasons to keep making this work.  Forever.  I am blessed.  I am grateful.  I am tired.  I am human.

This blog was started in hopes that people stumbling upon it would read the story of a real family, fighting the same thing they are.  With that comes real, raw, and honest emotion.

Forever is beautiful when you connect it to things you signed up for.

Forever is not so easy when it connects to a rare disease that wants to grow things throughout your body.

Forever.  It is promised to none of us, that forever will last longer than today.  It is our decision what we do with the gift of the time we have.

I am a work in progress.  I am a wife.  I am a mother.  I am a survivor.  I am worth the hard work.

Today I will start by opening all the blinds.  Time to look at the sunshine.  Time to look at the blue sky and the flowers.  Time to breathe. In and out.

One step at a time.

We  will remain

#beatingcowdens

Forever.

 

 

 

 

When you reach the end of your rope…


There is no other choice really.  We must hang on.  We must always hang on.

So often this is easier said than done.

Last weekend I stayed up all night Saturday digging out from under a pile of nonsense on my desk.  It was regular stuff that I had let pile up.  It was junk.  And it was medical bills.

There were 7.  Not explanations of benefits, but actual bills.

I am fortunate to be fully capable of paying my medical bills.  The part that is so often a struggle is sorting out WHICH bills NEED to be paid.  Between Meghan and I we are at at LEAST 2 appointments a week.  And that is a really good week.  Some are close, and some are far, but they are still blocks in our daily calendar.

I try to remain very organized about where we were on which day – but it is a formidable task that sometimes gets away from me.  Both of our insurance companies have moved to electronic storage of claim status, which is really helpful.  Except for my husband’s, my secondary, which won’t allow me access to my records, in some twisted HIPPA attempt to protect me.

But, I digress.  It was about 5 AM on Sunday and I was tired but pleased.  I had pared down the pile and was left staring at these bills.  I sorted, cross referenced the bills to processed claims, and printed what was necessary.  Only one of the 7 was for something I actually owed.  The others were clipped with notes to assist me when I got around to teaching people how to do their job billing when there are two insurances.  When I could combine the energy with time to spend on the phone, during business hours, while working a full-time job.

I was ready to leave for the grocery store by 6:30 AM.  I am grateful for the stamina that allows me to pull that off every once in a while.

I got to thinking about it though, and its been on my mind all week.

We seem to have a good handle on #beatingcowdens.  But, really the day-to-day living with it is not for the faint of heart.  It is that day-to-day that is wearing on me.

We are, my daughter and I, the “healthiest looking sick people” you’d ever want to meet.  I am grateful.  I am lonely.  I am tired.

One thing blurs into another.  Someone asked me how I was spending my weekend, and I replied, “trying to return to zero.”  I think she thought I was nuts.  I have long passed hope of relaxation or socialization.  The schedule is so insane that the weekends are for getting it all re-set.

It’s not all bad.  Some of it is swim practice and theater- normal teenage runs.  I don’t mind those.

And even though our physical therapist, and our chiropractor are lovely, I would prefer to meet them for a social call than so often at their offices.  The orthopedist is a delight.  So smart, and so personable.  Yet- visits every three months I could do without.

Every step seems hard.  I have the unshakable sense that not many people do their job with integrity or pride.  There is so much energy getting through each day, that the residual battles over copays and forms can sometimes be too much.

It seems that any variation to the tightly planned schedule which balances practice and appointments (often layering many things into one day at precise intervals) sets off a chain reaction that is hard to recover from.

Which brings me to the problem of when things go off track completely.

The ‘Lymphangiomas’ on my spleen were first found in 2012 after my diagnosis.  They were an incidental finding during the many screenings I underwent during that time frame.  They were to be monitored via ultrasound.

They grew.  A bunch.  And they keep right on growing.  Annual ultrasound monitors their measurements.  Currently there are at least 4 of them and they are bigger than the spleen itself.

You may not remember, but in November I drove myself to the Emergency Room when I was concerned about this very same spleen. November Post- “You Might Have Cowden’s Syndrome if…”

It held on then, and I was released.

The most recent ultrasound was in April.  One of those lymphangiomas grew a centimeter in 2 of three directions.  That’s quite a bit of growth.

They are benign.  They are vascular.  They are growing.  I am not.  We are battling for space.  I am stalling on the inevitable.

I know exactly where my spleen is.  I can trace it at all times.  It is not painful, but really annoying.  I’m trying not to let it bother me.  Its kind of like a friend who will soon be moving away, forever.  I will miss it when its gone.

I’m used to surgeries that send me on my way in hours.  This one seems a little more dicey.

The oncologist said, “It’s not cancer, so we’ll deal with it when you’re symptomatic…”

This week I met a new primary care doctor.  She was fine.  I’ll need her for pre operative clearance.  Lesson learned during the February surgery debacle was to have a “primary” available.  I have a great deal to teach her.  Maybe she will want to learn.  At least she will be able to complete necessary paperwork so someone can check their boxes.

Checkbox with green tick

She examined me, and then the area where my spleen is housed.  She was confused as to why it is still in my body.

She had a suggestion for a doctor.  I asked if she knew a surgeon.  Her plan was to send me to a gastroenterologist to see who he thought I should go see.

Like I said, she’s got a lot to learn, and we don’t have time for unnecessary stops.

I found the surgeon I want to meet.  I read all about 15 surgeons from 4 hospitals.  I want  to try him first.

I sent an email to my oncologist to see who she recommends.  Not only was I not thrilled, I was more sure that I want to meet the one I picked out.

Last week the hospital that manages my care wanted me to see a genetic oncologist.  I called for an appointment.  They wanted my genetic testing.  Then they told me I would see a counselor first.  I explained there was no way I was spending time with someone who knew less about my disease than me so they could tell me about the effects of the diagnosis.

Nope.  Double mastectomy.  Hysterectomy.  About ready to lose my spleen.  Kid with 18 surgeries.  I’ve got this.  It’s relentless.  I know.  And I have no time to be told again.

So, the appointment I was requesting was with the “director” and there are “steps”.

Not to sound too arrogant, but I don’t need anyone I have to jump through hoops for.

I sent an appointment request on-line to the surgeon I want to meet.  He deals with abdominal tumors all the time.  Of course, not splenic lymphangiomas, being that this article says there are only 189 cases from 1939-2010! But, he spends his life operating in that area.  He’ll be my guy.

From – http://www.archivesofpathology.org/doi/full/10.5858/arpa.2013-0656-RS?code=coap-site

And if he’s not – I’ll find another.

I’m not sure when, but I know in my heart it’s not if anymore.  This has been the long goodbye for my spleen.

Now the plan is to get it all set up on my terms before it becomes a medical emergency.

Game on.

Tick tock.

I’ve got a really strong knot at the end of my rope.  I’ll climb back up.  Until then, I’ll just hang out right here…

#beatingcowdens