World Rare Disease Day – Advocacy and Awareness

World Rare Disease Day is February 28th.  Although the actual day is February 29th (the rarest day…)

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It is a day of raising awareness across the globe about the 7,000 rare diseases that plague 1 in 10 people.

Our fundraiser has ended for the year.  Our checks have been sent.  All that’s left for tomorrow is our denim ribbons and our shirts.  This day is right up Meghan’s alley.  Meghan, whose entire platform has become raising funds and awareness, relishes a day set aside for just that.

Although some days I suspect it would be easier to be an advocate, rather than a patient AND advocate, I suspect   am sure that we are more effective advocates BECAUSE we are patients too.

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I get that not all diseases, ailments, or medical issues are “RARE.”  I also fully understand that that doesn’t make one more important than the other.  It’s just that when you have a chronic illness, life is really challenging.  When you have a chronic illness BECAUSE of a RARE disease, that really has NO treatment, and definitely NO cure, some days the hill seems insurmountable.

I love someone rare

I texted my husband yesterday afternoon to let him know I was going grocery shopping.  He told me I was nuts.  A week post-op from vascular surgery that put 25 incisions in my right leg, he might have been right.  Except he didn’t argue.  Timing would not allow him to go.

Grocery shopping in my house is an endeavor.  I cross a bridge, and hit not one, but two stores – miles apart before returning home after about a 4 hour round trip.  It’s one of the few things easier in the winter – as I don’t have to pack ice!

Why such a journey?  Meghan.

Among other things I have learned from my daughter, she has inadvertently schooled her parents on the value of nutrition.  Meghan has had food “issues” since birth.  Slowly we have played and peeled away and adjusted her diet to be free of Gluten, Casein, and Soy, as well as most dyes and preservatives, and highly acidic foods.  She takes digestive enzymes with every meal, and a host of nutritional supplements.

She went from grossly behind in speech/ language to miles ahead.  She surpassed extensive sensory issues.

I don’t cook.  Ever.  But, I shop.  And it’s my job to make sure the tools are in place to whip up tasty meals for Meghan, and all of us.  My husband never disappoints.  He is creative, tasty, almost passionate about Meghan having a culinary experience she will enjoy.  He is fantastic.

I shop at Wegmans.  And at Whole Foods.  Most things Meghan eats are organic, and  by default a lot of ours is too.   My grocery bill is usually about half a mortgage payment every 3 weeks by the time I feed the dogs too.  It is the sole reason we don’t settle all out debt.  And it is worth every penny. Nutrition is without a doubt the best investment I have made into the health of my child.

The game changer was the addition of a nutritional cleansing program I have come to trust into her diet.  Felix has been using it for almost three years.  Meghan and I for about 18 months.

Felix needed to lose weight.  But almost as an after effect, after losing 50 pounds, he noticed he felt great.  I cautiously introduced the product to Meghan in slow, low doses.  Once I was clear she had no reaction, I went all in.  For well over a year now she has had a protein shake for breakfast every morning, and since starting school she takes a meal bar for lunch on school days.  Over 40 grams of healthy, well-digested protein a day, and this child has done nothing but grow!

Growth spurt?  Maybe.  But the hair, the skin, the nails, the teeth.  She glows of good health.  She missed her shake for 2 days a month ago.  She had a tough swim and felt awful.  Coincidence?  Maybe.  But she’s not even taking chances any more.

In my house we have a protein shake every morning, and Meghan has some organic, home-made waffles too.  We don’t just trust any protein shake.  Ours is high in whey protein from “happy cows” in New Zealand.  And my girl who can have no dairy at all without severe pain – tolerates these like nothing.

isagenix shake

Leaves a mom to wonder- maybe it’s not a “dairy” allergy, as much as a “what’s fed to the cows” allergy?

I could debate processed vs. natural vs. organic all day.  What I have here is results.

When you are fighting a rare disease, you need to have the best food in you as possible so you can battle like a champion.

Meghan got out of swim practice tonight.  She never gets out of the pool.  Her coaches know that.  I know that.

“It hurts Mom.”

Dropping stomach, smiling face…

She knows.  All of it.  Whether I say it or not.  She misses nothing the doctors say, and despite my wishes they ALL talk right in front of her.

She has earned the right to sit out.  Her coaches know how hard she works.  She waited for starts – to get a few in before Sunday’s Silver Championship meet.

On the way to the car she told me she wasn’t sure the knee would hold till May.

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I am still waiting for a call back from the orthopedist from last week.  Apparently her notes are being typed.  He can’t possibly speak to her case without them.  He saw 65 patients the day we were there.

The knee is swollen.  We will try ice.  Hopefully that’s it.

“What if it’s blood?”

“What if it’s not?”

That’s kind of how the conversation went.

Truth is, neither of us know.  So we will press on.  We have the main plan – the one that lasts till May.  And we have the back up.  The one where we just yell “plot twist!”  and go with whatever happens.

Why did I go grocery shopping last night?  For Meghan.  For her food.  And so she sees me press on.  Despite being hurt.  Because if I don’t press on through tough times, how can I ask the same of her?

My Mom may not have a “rare disease,” but I learned stubbornness, stamina and work ethic from her.

Rare Disease Day 2015.  It’s not so much about “celebrating” as it is about advocacy and awareness.

Because the under diagnosed, the underfunded, and the often ignored – matter.  Very much.

We are BEATINGCOWDENS… One day at a time…

Global Genes hit this one spot on!
Global Genes hit this one spot on!

Kid of Achievement!

Today I turned 41.  And while I am incredibly grateful for the gift of life, and for “More Birthdays,” as the American Cancer Society once put it, my birthday holds all sorts of emotional challenges for me.

I have a memory for dates.  And seasons.  And events.  And people.  Especially people I love a lot.  And 23 years ago on this November day, my beautiful 6 year old cousin Meghan was invited to dance with the angels.  Childhood Leukemia weakened her body so, that she was not to stay here physically.  Yet on my 18th birthday I got the gift of the most spectacular guardian angel – and her name and her spirit live on in my girl.  Even with all the good, the day messes with me.  I tried explaining it to my Meghan last night, and the best I could give her was – 23 years become 23 days sometimes.  The pain just gets a whole lot more fresh.

And Grandma, Dad’s Mom got her wings just a few weeks ago.  After 88 years and a life well-lived, it was still tough to see her go.  Not even a year since Dad…

And last November 12th, on my 40th, my Dad was in the middle of what was to be the fight of his life.  We spent it together.  An unsavory appointment, and some legal crap I wish never had to be.

And this year a dear, compassionate, kind-hearted, fun-loving relative sits, so close to the end of his life here on earth.  My heart just gets full.

So, it came as a pleasant surprise last week when my cell phone rang and it was Gina from the Staten Island Children’s Museum, telling me that Meghan had been selected as one of this year’s “Kid of Achievement” honorees, for her advocacy work in the community.  The luncheon was to be held on November 12th.

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“Of course we’ll be there.”  And I couldn’t wait to share the news with her.

We kept kind of quiet while she prepared her speech, and I sent her to school this morning with her backpack and her speech and a pretty dress.  Quite a swap from her typical sweats.

We arrived at the Hilton Garden at 11:15, sized up the room that we will be in for our fundraiser on February 15, 2015, and checked out the raffles.  We met the other honoree, a lovely young woman being honored for her work with Project Homefront.  The tables filled in and the event began.

When Meghan was introduced for this award, her advocacy was the focus.  Her nominee(s) knew her history.  They knew of her work, and her goals.

She delivered this speech with incredible poise.

When my mom got the call that I received this award, I was thrilled.  All of my advocacy began with me wanting to make a difference.  I am so honored, and humbled to realize that I am.

I was diagnosed in 2011 with a rare genetic disorder called Cowden’s Syndrome.  It affects 1 in 200,000 people and it starts from a broken PTEN gene.  The PTEN gene is the tumor suppressor.  The PTEN gene prevents benign and cancerous tumors, but since mine is broken I have a higher chance of getting these things. 

My Mom was diagnosed weeks after me.  A few months after that she was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer.  She had some pink ribbons around the house, and she got a pink ribbon Pandora necklace.

I knew about the gold ribbon for childhood cancer, and the puzzle piece for autism.  I knew there were many others, and that all these disorders had a symbol, and with a symbol comes a voice.  I had many medical issues, and went to the doctor all the time.  I knew there had to be symbol for people/kids like me; kids who’ve had eleven surgeries in eleven years, kids who’ve had countless tests and are treated like human pincushions.  Imagine, all this happens to prevent cancer.  There is no simple solution, only a constant set of routine poking, prodding, tests, surgeries and more!

We kept looking for a symbol.  We found one when we came across the Global Genes Project.  They stand for all rare and genetic disorders, their symbol is the denim ribbon, and their slogan is “Hope, it’s in our genes.”  But, there was not a necklace, no jewelry.  There was nothing to wear to help me show people, and tell the world about genetic disorders.

I asked my parents if we could get something made, and we did.  My parents found a compassionate and caring jeweler who created the mold for the necklace I am wearing today.  We reached out to the Global Genes Project again and again, in hopes they would sell the necklace too. Recently, they put a similar necklace on their market, and I can’t wait for it to become as popular as some of the popular pieces I have come to know.

Rare and genetic diseases are out there.  Most are very rare, but there are over 7,000 of them.  More work needs to be done individually and collectively, to get them the funding they need

In 2013, just about 18 months after our diagnoses, we celebrated “Rare Disease Day” which is February 29th – the rarest day- or February 28th on non-leap years, by handing out denim ribbons at our schools.  We had assemblies, and I got to talk to my peers about what it was like to live with a rare disease every day.

I have had 4 knee surgeries for a vascular malformation in my right knee.  I have a good deal of pain in my body, there, and pretty much all over.  Some days I feel great, and other days I can’t get too far.  One day in the spring of 2013, my mom was pushing me in a wheelchair to an appointment.  I was annoyed by the number of people staring at me and talking about me.  I heard things like, “lazy,” and “she’s not sick.”  I decided I could be angry, or I could do something.  While I definitely spent some time through the years being angry at some of the things – like running- that Cowden’s had taken from me, I decided instead I was going to DO something.

That night my Dad helped me design a business card that very briefly explains Cowden’s Syndrome.  I have handed out hundreds to those who stare, and to those who just care.  I like to spread the word, one card at a time.

This card was created out of her need to "teach" others about Cowden's Syndrome.
This card was created out of her need to “teach” others about Cowden’s Syndrome.

This year, right before Rare Disease Day in February, I had my thyroid removed.  Thyroid cancer is very common in young people with Cowden’s Syndrome.  My thyroid had been watched since my diagnosis, and it went from having 4 nodules in 2011 to 16 nodules and 3 precancerous tumors in 2014.  I was fortunate, but the surgery was rotten, and it has been hard getting the medicine quite right.  I have been called a “Previvor,” which is someone who has an organ removed before the genetic cancer that is looming has a chance to strike.

This kid is clearly a "FORCE" to be reckoned with!
This kid is clearly a “FORCE” to be reckoned with!

This year, for Rare Disease Day, I decided to raise some money.  We sold T-Shirts at my school and we had a fundraiser.  The money all went to the Global Genes Project, and it felt really good.

At my old school, in February, I also met the Borough President.  He took such an interest in my story, he made me feel awesome.  I have visited Borough Hall a few times, and love talking with him.  He has encouraged me to keep dreaming bigger and I will.

Two weeks ago my Mom and I signed a contract with the Hilton for a fund raising breakfast on February 15, 2015.  We will be raising money for the Global Genes Project, and the PTEN foundation.  The PTEN foundation is a new organization, working just for PTEN disorders like Cowden’s Syndrome.   We hope to have raffles, and T shirts for sale.  We plan to have music and fin.

We set up ticket sales through eventbrite, and we called it “Beating Cowden’s First Annual Jeans for Rare Jeans Fundraiser.”  Sales are open to anyone who wants to come support two great causes.

I am on a mission to spread awareness and raise funds for diseases people know too little about.  I will not be satisfied until each of them has the recognition they need, and the cure they deserve.

Thank you again for this award, and for encouraging me to continue my mission.

Here is a video of her speech.

And when she was met with a standing ovation there were tears in my eyes.  Tears of pride.

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One after another people approached her, and complimented her.

Not a single one would have known the strength it took for her to walk in the room today.  The pain was unbearable.  But she did it.  With grace and a smile.

And in addition to the compliments, there were offers to help.  Real, genuine offers.

We will Email some of our new friends tonight.  And with their help, in February we will blow this fund raiser out of the water.

Kid of Achievement indeed.

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World, you haven’t seen anything yet!

Here’s the link to our local paper….

http://www.silive.com/westshore/index.ssf/2014/11/staten_island_childrens_museum.html#incart_river

 

And while you’re at it – book your tickets for February 15th!

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/beating-cowdens-first-annual-jeans-for-rare-genes-fundraiser-tickets-14130024283

 

Mother, Wife, Teacher, Advocate

First I was a daughter.  A sometimes mousy, sometimes mouthy daughter.  I was respectful, but hated to be stepped on.  I wrote letters to the editor when I was annoyed.  I let people know how I felt.

Then I was a teenager.  I was full of opinions and was quite sure they were all right.  I was willing to debate for hours, or sometimes stay really really quiet – stewing in my personal assurance that I was right and they weren’t.

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I spent 4 years away at college.  Even though I didn’t want to – lol.  I will be forever grateful to my stepdad for his insistence that I drive, AND go away to college.  I am not sure I would have done either.  At college I learned to stand on my own two feet.  I met all sorts of people from all walks of life.

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By the time I hit my 20s life had educated me some.  I still held strong convictions, but I was able to accept that it was ok for others to have their own.  I gained the belief that as long as people were respectful – we could disagree.

In my 20s I met my husband.  A match that many thought was destined to fail.  And unlikely pair we compliment each other in every way.  He was my missing piece.

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In my 20s I became a teacher.  A lifelong goal realized.  I worked harder than I ever had in my life to be the best I could be.  I recognized the magic of teaching.  I became addicted to the “spark” in their eye when they “get it.”  I came to see that my presence and my attitude were as important as my lessons.  I taught/teach my students, my children – to see the best in others, and to tolerate and embrace differences respectfully.

In my 20s Mom had cancer.  And I learned what it was like to be scared.  And I learned what really really matters in life.  And she fought, and she won.  I always appreciated my family, but I learned to appreciate them even more.

In my 20s I got married.  I got my Master’s Degree.  We bought a house.  We tore it apart.  We fixed it up again.  We got buried in debt.  We worked hard to get out.

Then – just about when I was ready to turn 30 – we had Meghan.

Disney 2012
Disney 2012

Mom said you do more changing in your 20s than in your teens.  She was right.  But as my 30s come to a close – I think they beat my 20s hands down.

In my 30s I learned to love my heart, outside of my body.  I learned that I would never be as important as that little human we created out of love.  I learned about family all over again.

In my 30s I learned to live without sleep.  I learned to endure tears and screeching and pain as my heart ached for my baby girl.  I learned that colic can last way longer than 3 months, and I learned to bounce and rock and sing and move for hours and hours on end.

In my 30s I learned how to balance two full time jobs, as a mother and a teacher.

In my 30s I learned what it was like to be truly terrified, as your baby went into the hospital, and into surgery over and over again.

In my 30s I became really close with God.  I learned that my relationship with Him transcends walls and buildings and people.  I learned gratitude, and I learned not to be shy about my faith.

In my 30s I learned that convictions can change.  And the things I was sure I was right about 5 or 10 or 15 years ago…well, maybe I wasn’t so right after all.

In my 30s I learned that close friends share bonds that go past time and distance.  I learned that even though I miss them, they are there when the going gets tough.  I learned that EMail, facebook, and the internet, when used properly – are some of the biggest blessings in life.

In my 30s I learned that you have the power to make changes in your life when situations, circumstances or people have you angry, sad, hurt, mad, or generally annoyed.  I learned doing something is way more rewarding that complaining.

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In my 30s I learned if you believe in something enough, if you believe in someone enough, well even if you stand alone, you have to stand up for them.  And I learned that if you do – they will be your friend forever and ever.

In my 30s I learned what it was like to hear the words “You have a Rare Disease.”  I learned words like “Cowden’s Syndrome.”  I learned about “tumor suppressor genes,” and “genetic mutations.”  I learned about risks and tests that could take worry to a whole new level- if I let it.

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In my 30s I learned what it was like to hear the words “You HAD cancer.”

In my 30s I learned which body parts are “extra.”

In my 30s I learned – because they made me- what it was like to tell your 9 year old, “The doctors are pretty sure you will have cancer.”

From mousy to mouthy.

From school teacher to Mom.

From “victim” to advocate.

All these things make me who I am today.

So much has changed, and yet at my core, my heart – I am the same.

I feel.  Deeply and truly.  I care.  Often too much.  I laugh, and I love with my whole heart.  I know pain, and I know joy, and I have been intimate with both.  I know fear and bravery.  I know that I am not always right – but when I am… watch out.  Because little will stand in my way.

I know life is not fair.

Life's not fair

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I know God is Good.

This weekend I went to 2 wakes.  One for a woman who had lived a full life, and another for a young girl who sparsely got the chance.  There are too many wakes.  There are too many things that don’t make any sense.  Too many people gone way too soon.

I can wail and cry and wither away in my sadness.  I can let fear win – or I can stand strong.

Cowden’s Syndrome tries to win.  It can strike fear in my core with a headache, or the sighting of a lump, or the feel of a bump.  But I will not let it paralyze us.  I will not let it win.

So we have our team of doctors.  We have our visits scheduled.  We check it all.  Sometimes its tiresome.  Sometimes its discouraging.  But I would rather be out in front of the boulder – than under it.

This is really how I view the race against Cowden's Syndrome
This is really how I view the race against Cowden’s Syndrome

Through it all I know Meghan is watching.  My student – learning from how I react, how I fight, how I handle adversity.  My teacher – teaching me bravery, courage, candor, tenacity, and stamina.

always believe

I do the best I can to show her that its important to stand up for what you believe in.

I think she gets it.  I know I do.

The 30s have been a ride, and I still have a few more months to go.

In my 30s I learned what it was like to total a car.  I learned the frustration and injustice that often goes along with accidents that they would like to tell me I am powerless to fix.  I also learned that even though there are in fact some things I can not fix – there are others I can and will speak up about.

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If you happen to catch this before 10 PM – try channel 11 news “Help Me Howard.”  Working with the neighborhood to change a few things at my car accident site.

https://beatingcowdens.com/2013/06/04/howard-works-to-put-a-stop-sign-in-a-deadly-staten-island-intersection/

Advocacy.  Empowering.  Invigorating.  Much more fun than lying in wait.

We have to keep our energy up, standing up for what we belive in while we are “Beating Cowden’s!”

Thinking outside the box

iep5

 

And so began the week that was.

A “simple” annual review – not so much.  But that’s OK.  Mamma Bear remained calm.  I am most strategic that way.

I am however exhausted, and facing another battle.

It was a bit of a struggle to keep the chin up this week, as I often felt like her:

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But, I didn’t act like her.  Not even once.  (Well once I cried – but I got yanked past it.) And that’s about all of that story I can share here, for now.

But these last few weeks  months, have left me with a lot of questions.

See, there is this constant battle to do what is right, or what I perceive to be right, as I advocate for Meghan, and for my family.  But inevitably, because I am so introspective – I am left with a ton of questions at every fork in the road.

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Last week when we took her to 4 doctors and an ER about her shoulder, I ended up being told I went to the wrong ER – that we didn’t belong there.  But it is a cancer center, she is already a thyroid patient there, and my child grows things.  While we are blessed that none have been cancer yet – I am not of the “wait and see mentality.”  But, still I paused and wondered if I had done something wrong.

In the end, the rheumatologist gave her a muscle relaxant.  We began rehabilitative PT and I am seeing progress.  The shoulder and neck remain wickedly sensitive – but she has back almost full range of motion.

Still we watch the lump behind her shoulder blade, in hopes it continues to decrease in size and doesn’t turn out to be the “soft tissue tumor” we were advised to look out for.

what if

Really – no one has even a bit of a clue.  And it is often just downright exhausting.

Physical Therapy this week was refreshing.  At least I deal with professionals who have made themselves aware of Meghan’s needs and focus with a goal of eliminating, or severely managing, her pain.  Thank God we found them.

Because of them, Meghan will swim in her meet tomorrow.  No freestyle – it hurts the neck.  But that was OK with her.

i love backstroke

Backstroke seems by far to be her favorite. I love watching her swim.  She seems so at peace.

It gives me a time to break from all the questions.  The wondering.  The worry.

It is easy to doubt yourself sometimes when so many things are changing at once.  Whether you are precipitating the change, or reacting to it out of necessity, when there is so much at once I think it is normal to wonder.

We are not super difficult to get along with.  Yet we go through doctors like a toddler goes through shoes.  We have very few close friends – confidants to be trusted.  Those who will be honest and open minded.  We spend a lot of time alone.  We get along really well – thank goodness.

I think what we look for is doctors, friends, associates, people who can practice:

Thinking_Outside_The_Box_by_mclelun

 

I just wish there were more.  No one really fits in a box.  And that’s not just us, and our “rare disease.”  Everyone is unique, and special.  Everyone needs to be looked at with a fresh pair of eyes.  Everyone needs to be viewed through the perspective of the other person.  Only when we start to look at things through someone else’s point of view do we solve anything.

It is the outside the box thinkers that solve IEP problems, medical problems, friendship concerns, desires to make the world better…

Daring to think outside the box is risky.  It is hard.  It is necessary.

Especially in this season of “test prep” where I have seen this scenario one too many times…

test prep

 

Mine, yours, all of them – they are individuals.  They have specific needs.  We should never be discouraged when advocating for them and their needs.

In many cases – we are their only voice.  We MUST think outside the box for them.