“… Turn on the Light!” -Albus Dumbledore (J.K. Rowling)

Last week my daughter pulled on a shirt before we headed out to the doctor for the umpteenth time this summer.  I didn’t think much of it at first.  I was grateful she was dressed and pulled together, and ready without event.  As a matter of fact, I was in full on grown up mode, rushing her almost 5’8″ frame and her crutches along to get us prepared for the obligatory ridiculous traffic as we traveled what seems to be the longest 30 miles ever.

I don’t think I even read the shirt until we were in the waiting room a few hours later.

I had read the Harry Potter series as each book came out – beginning as a 5th grade teacher more than 20 years ago.  My daughter enjoyed the series in its entirety in a brief period during her year in second grade.  I enjoyed the books, each one, but it took a reread or two to analyze things on a deeper level for me.  Dumbledore, the wise guide had an infinite amount of wisdom to offer.

Whether she realized it or not, my girl was sending a message that morning – to both of us.  There is an ongoing battle, here, and I suspect in many lives, to live the days as they come.  We try to “get out of our own way” and “our own head” as the case may be.  And it is not easy.  When we look further ahead than the day, sometimes even the hour, or moment, it is easy to get swallowed up.  The darkness comes hard and fast.  Too many appointments, too much worry, too many “what ifs,”  too much time wasted, too many plans unfulfilled.  No one likes the dark.

So don’t stay there.  Turn on the light.

Thank you J.K. Rowling, for giving us Albus Dumbledore.

That appointment Tuesday, it wasn’t great.  There are still no real answers.  There is swelling on the knee.  There is pain.  There was confusion from the surgeon.  He decided we had rested the knee.  Now, it was time to add two medications to treat the knee, a neoprene sleeve for swim, and PT back in the equation.  For 2 weeks we will move it and see if that helps.  Nothing more than educated guesswork.

I hate it when we have to guess.  But, I am grateful for a surgeon willing to logically troubleshoot.  We visit him again in 2 weeks.  He is confused, but he is smart.  And he will not quit.

So with a surgeon who made the choice to keep working on it – my girl did the same.  Every day we have choices to make… all day… every day.  Those choices shape and mold us.

My daughter was to be part of a beloved theater group these first two weeks of July.  Some of the most compassionate, talented and caring young people are in that group, guided by adults that are not afraid to give everything they have for the betterment of the children in their charge.  Last year, she had arguably one of the best experiences of her life, and when the word came that she could not participate, that the knee was not prepared for that amount of standing – she was crushed.  But, being who they are, the staff, and the students alike not only allowed her, but welcomed her to be with them during rehearsals.  As we watched two amazing performances of “Aladdin Jr.” on Friday night, I know she wished to be on the stage, but the pure joy of excitement for the success of these children – her peers- was evident.

She could have sat home and sulked.  They could have said she could not come.  Instead, the best possible outcome came from unfortunate circumstances.  Another major life lesson.  Executed flawlessly.

My daughter has dreams.  Big dreams.  She aspires to be a better human, and to assist those who struggle.  She wants to learn her voice, and sing to the best of her ability.  She desires to perform, on stage, often.  She seeks venues for community outreach and has goals to raise awareness and funds to cure PTEN Mutations like our Cowden’s Syndrome, and other rare diseases.  She strives to be an athlete.  The same thrill of competition that creates great anxiety, lights a fire deep in her soul.  She also has hopes, standards, and expectations for herself.  She actually, most days, can do a lot of the parenting work without me.  But, sometimes when those dreams and goals are forced to pause, and rest for whatever issue is going after the body at that time, its nice to remember the words of Dumbledore, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.  Remember that.”


Exact, precise language.  That is how my girl likes it.  We sometimes kid that she will be an attorney.  At the very least, an advocate for herself, and maybe others.  There is little gray area with Meghan.  She likes people who are kind.  She does not like people who are not.  End of story.

Or is it?  In this age of adolescence there are times when lines are clear, and times when they are blurry.  Emotions run high.  There are times when things are said, and done that are deliberate, and mean and awful, and other times where things FEEL deliberate and mean and awful where that was not the intention.

That changes things for the speaker, but rarely for the recipient.  With intent being often left to the interpretation of the recipient,  words can cut more sharply than a sword, and pierce the soul and the spirit.  Words hold great power.

The absence of words, those kind sentiments, thought, but never spoken, can injure as well.

My girl is far from perfect.  I myself am far from perfect.  We have many conversations between ourselves about the power of words.  Sometimes we hurt each other’s feelings.  Usually we talk it through.  Our relationship invariably gets stronger.

That’s because we speak.  And we hear.  So many times when words have hurt, a conversation could clarify so much.  An honest reflection that not a single one of us is perfect in our speech or actions is invaluable for growth.  Friendships grow, not over text messages through an iPhone screen, or photo exchanges… friendships grow when we take the time to talk, and laugh, and listen and hear and care.

And, perhaps many times, when you are lonely or simply alone, those are the times words, or their absence, can hold the greatest power.

Nature vs. Nurture.

An especially complex conversation in light of genetic discoveries happening every day.

In this house my daughter, although she first learned of it as she turned 8, was born with Cowden’s Syndrome- a PTEN Mutation leading to a high incidence of benign and malignant tumor growth.  She was born with this condition, because I was born with this condition.  That statistics and numbers are real.  They are hard core.  They are disturbing.

A 2012 article about PTEN related cancer risks.

However, because we are BORN with this Syndrome, it does not mean we will develop every possible manifestation.  We have AVMs and thyroid issues, and lipomas, but of yet, no colon issues at all.  I had breast cancer, early stage.  So did my mom who is not a PTEN patient.  We have large head size, but not autism.  You get the idea.

I believe we are born with certain things.  I believe that Meghan and I were born with Cowden’s Syndrome, and I even have theories about its origin.

I also believe that EVERYONE has something.  We are either born with it, or it develops.  Whether it is a physical ailment, or an unfortunate circumstance, there are forces affecting each of us.

Life is not smooth.  But within life there are choices.  Every day there are choices.

Choose kindness.

Choose compassion.

Choose love.

Choose forgiveness.

Choose happiness.

Choose to find your “Never Give UP.”

Choose to trust.

Choose to take risks.

Choose to care.

Choose to push yourself.

Choose to believe you can.

Knowing, that sometimes those choices will hurt.  Sometimes they will leave you angry or even furious.

Know in your heart that those are the only choices.

As you “grow to be…” it is those choices that will help you navigate the path to be the very best version of yourself.

Some people go their whole lives and never meet their hero.  I gave birth to mine, and her stamina and drive continue to inspire me daily.

#beatingcowdens

AHCA, High Risk Pools, and My Child’s Future

I am angry.  I am hurt.  I am worried.

I have stayed out of politics through the entire tumultuous 2016.  I have serious issues with many politicians.  I am not here to talk about them directly.  I am here to talk about an issue that transcends political party affiliation.  I will not engage in a debate about Democrats or Republicans, or the should have/ would have/ could have game that people like to play with each other.

This is far  more serious, and more important than any of that.  This is about my daughter.  It is about her life.  Her future.  And, it is about the lives of millions of American citizens, myself included.

I will concede that there are problems with health care in America.  I will even agree that healthcare the way it exists today needs change.  However, when I look at a situation that needs change, I think it through carefully.  I work through every detail. I weigh out repercussions and ramifications.

The Bill that passed the House today, in my opinion was put together in an attempt to score a “win” for our President.

When millions lose. No one wins.  That’s not just the math teacher in me.  That’s real.

Three years ago I was in a car accident.  It was a terrible situation, and I was T-boned at an intersection.  I will contend to my dying day that the truck that barreled through me was speeding so fast it never should have made it to me before I cleared the intersection.  I had the stop. I stopped.  He never saw me and it took almost a block, in a school zone, for his truck to finally stop moving.  Because the stop sign was mine, I was assessed with most of the fault for the accident.  It made me furious.  I was told speeding could not be “proven” despite the absence of skid marks.  The other 6 accidents that happened at that intersection in the months preceding were not helpful either.  In the end, I was grateful for my life.  I walked away and took the penalty on my insurance.  I paid that accident penalty for three years.  And, while it did not make me happy, I did it.   The accident penalty was annoying, but affordable, less than $200 a year.

The car accident happened once.  It might happen again, but it will not happen regularly.  I am 25 years driving, with one accident and no moving violations.  I have proven I am not a reckless driver.   I have control over that.  Full control, and I take my driving very seriously.

I also take health very seriously.  Unfortunately, there are aspects of my health I do not have full control over.  My daughter and I have a rare genetic disorder called Cowden’s Syndrome.  She is 30 years my junior, and at 13 and 43 we have seen the inside of an operating room close to 45 times combined.  Cowden’s syndrome causes tumor growth.  It carries with it an astronomically high risk of many cancers, most notable breast, thyroid and uterus.  It carries also significantly elevated risks of kidney, colon, skin, and other cancers.  Many of our tumors are benign.  Some are not.  The only route we have to long term SURVIVAL is constant surveillance.

Many doctors recommend surgery to remove things that are high risk.  Thankfully, that suggestion proved life-saving for me in 2012 when a “prophylactic” bilateral mastectomy revealed stage 1 breast cancer.  I was fortunate.

Two months ago I had surgery to remove a benign tumor from my vocal cords.  It was impairing my ability to breathe and speak.

In 16 days my daughter will undergo the 18th surgery in her young life – the 7th on her right knee.  Cowden’s Syndrome carries a high correlation to vascular malformations like the Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) that grew in that knee.  After 6 embolizations to curtail the blood flow, she now deals with the repercussions of having blood lingering in the knee.  There is wearing away of tissue causing the patella to shift.  There is extreme pain, not just in the knee, but all through her body.  Her right foot stopped growing years ago, but the left one kept at it.  Now a full size apart,  different in length and width, her 5’8″ frame feels the repercussions with every step.  She is regularly at the chiropractor in attempts to minimize pain medication and keep her in alignment.  Pain medication caused such GI distress in 2014 that she spent a week in the hospital.  Cellular changes in the esophagus are not good in anyone.  At 10, with a condition that causes tumor growth, it was certainly another wake up call.  We gladly purchase 2 entirely different shoes every time she needs a new pair.  We are grateful she walks.

That is just the tip of what this child has endured in under 14 years on this earth.  She has had her thyroid removed with 19 nodules and suspicion of malignancy at the age of 10.  We still work to balance levels synthetically.  She had had TWO D&C procedures to eradicate suspicious tissue in her uterus.  She has had a lipoma removed from her back and vascular malformations from each palm.  She has lost her gall bladder.  She fights, stands up.  Moves forward, and gets smacked in the face again.

Soon after our diagnoses in 2011, another mom told me Cowden’s Syndrome requires vigilance.  I got it.  I am on it.  All the time.  And with the GRACE of God alone, we are walking the path the best way we can.

We average between 6 and 10 appointments a month between us.  The copays and travel costs are often daunting.  But, we are fortunate.  We have two good jobs my husband and I tell ourselves.  We have good insurance.

We are careful with every morsel of food that enters her body.  We eat largely organic and non-GMO to let her body use all its energy to stay healthy instead of fighting contaminants.  Even at that she is acutely sensitive to almost all gluten, dairy and soy.

We treat as naturally as we can, often incurring bills, as these treatments are rarely covered.  Yet, still we prioritize health because we realize its value.  And we remember how fortunate we are.  We have good insurance.  We have two good jobs.

My daughter is awesome.  And, not just because she is my daughter.  She is a respectful, kind-hearted young lady.  She has the voice of an angel.  She acts in the plays at school.  She reads for fun.  She swims passionately.  She is an honor student.  She talks about her future, and what she will do with her life.  I have no doubt she has the capability to make a real difference in this world, regardless of her career path.  Today however, I am left to wonder.  Will any job ever be enough?

If the AHCA passes the Senate, we will likely be placed in an unregulated “high-risk pool.”  This is not like my car accident.  This is not a minor inconvenience.  This has the potential to decide the course she will have to take with her adult life, as her health issues will not go away.  We have this genetic mutation with all its risks and ramifications for life.  Lifetime caps, potentially re-instituted will likely be met in her 20s, if not before.

There is no way at all to prove where the mutation came from.  I’d ask you to indulge in a theory with me a moment.  My father, a Vietnam Veteran was heavily exposed to Agent Orange as a Marine in 1967-1968.  My mutation was traced to my father.  He never manifested with Cowden’s Syndrome, but somehow passed that mutation on to me.  Wouldn’t it be ironic, if that toxic exposure in the jungles of Vietnam, in an attempt to fight for his country, ultimately led to this condition in his daughter and granddaughter?  Dad died in 2013, pancreatic cancer that may or may not have been Agent Orange related.  I’m glad he is not here to see the reality that our government may be on the cusp of turning it’s back on his family.

I was raised a proud American.  In addition to my Dad, I have three Grandfathers who were World War II Veterans.  I value the principles this country was founded on.  I am grateful for the freedoms I have in this country.

I have not been raised to use the phrase, “that’s not fair,” but I will ask you to consider a few things.

Last night as I watched the news my head spun as I heard elected officials allege that people with pre-existing conditions have not led good lives.  I am not here to compare, but I will tell you our “pre-existing” condition has NOTHING to do with lifestyle choices.  And if you do not like the site this link came from – scroll to the video.  Hear it from his mouth.

http://www.politicususa.com/2017/05/01/gop-congressman-people-pre-existing-conditions-bad-people-pay.html

I can name dozens of people off the top of my head, as close as within my own family, that would be grossly negatively affected by the establishment of “high risk” pools.

Should a cancer survivor, an MS patient, a diabetic, a person with a brain tumor, a rare heart condition,  a genetic mutation, or countless other conditions be forced to make decision on the path their life should take because they are too expensive?  Are they less valuable?  Do they matter less?

Should we be asked to decide whether or not to keep critical screening appointments, or have access to necessary medication blocked by cost?

We have two good jobs, and this whole thing terrifies me.  But, I will not be controlled by that terror.

This post will reach my Senators today.  Social media can be used for good.   I have a voice.  I will not be quiet about this.

Tell your story.  And if you can’t find your own words, share mine.  Let our Senators know that we are real.  We are not numbers.  We are not a cost-cutting measure.  We have faces, and names.  We matter.  We all matter.

We are determined to remain

#beatingcowdens

We will not be silent!

Richmond County Savings Foundation

If you were with us at “Jeans for Rare Genes” you heard me announce we had received a grant for $2500 from the Richmond County Savings Foundation.

This story Inspirational Staten Islander to host Fund Raiser ran on February 4th.  On February 8th I was contacted by the Richmond County Savings Foundation.  The story had been read, and it was suggested we apply for a grant on behalf of the PTEN Foundation.

We are relatively new to the fundraising thing, but with a lot of help, we got on track and completed the application.  The PTEN Foundation President, Kristen, spoke with them to get the 501c3 papers squared away.   And – about 10 days later we were notified of a $2500 grant, awarded to the PTEN Foundation!

We included the grant money in all our fundraising totals for the event, but today we got to go to the office to receive the check.  We got to meet Mr. Cesar Claro, who noticed Meghan’s story.  We got to meet Ms. DeSapio who helped us so much via phone and Email.

Meghan took the day off from school, because my speaking time is so limited, and because she’s the reason all this happens anyway.  It was just right for her to be there.

We gathered in a conference room with about 10 incredibly inspirational people.  I loved how professional, yet casual the whole experience was.  Amounts of grants were not discussed.  Checks were distributed in sealed envelopes, but first , everyone spoke about why they were there and how the grant was going to help.

Meghan spoke a little about Cowden’s Syndrome, and how we are hoping the PTEN Foundation will be able to inspire research on our disorder.  She did great, as usual.

We got to hear from a teacher, and his school’s work with Habitat for Humanity.  We heard from “Metropolitan Fire” and how the grant would help their organization.

We got to meet Dennis McKeon From Where To Turn, and hear about the work his organization does on Staten Island.

We heard about the Moravian Church garden and their donations of food.

We met E. Randolph Wheagar from 2nd Chance Youth Empowerment Program, and we were inspired by their community work as well.

We met Jennifer Dudley from Staten Island Children’s Museum and learned about their efforts to “spruce up” the museum.

We met a few other incredible folks as well, one whose organization was obtaining deeds to local neglected cemeteries so they could be maintained.  In the absence of pen and paper a few are slipping my mind, but it was a fantastic experience.  It was an intense 45 minutes!

Perhaps the one that touched our hearts most was Mr. Capolongo who spoke of his son Michael with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy.  If you are not familiar with the genetic disorder, you can get some information here. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy  It is a genetic disorder affecting about 1 in 3,500 boys.  The body lack dystrophin, and without it muscle cells become damaged and weaken.  It is progressive.  Michael is 11.  They have 2 other healthy children.  They are a family like ours.  Dad is a policeman, mom is a nurse and a breast cancer survivor. Yet, they have managed to create a not for profit, Michael’s Cause and have raised a million dollars to help fund research, and hopefully, ultimately a cure.

In the 30 minutes we sat across a table I felt inspired, and connected.  I respect so much the positive outlook, and the awareness that even in strife, others have it worse.  I respected the acknowledgement that every day is a gift, and life can change your perspective quickly.  These are things we identify with in this house.  Those are principles we live by.

Meghan and I often feel a little more “at home” in the presence of others with rare disease.  While they are all so drastically different, the difficulty, the fear, the unknown, the isolation, they all overlap.  And what also overlaps are your decisions in how to handle them.

I was reminded of my own girl, at the age of nine telling NY1 that. “You have a choice, you can get angry or you can DO something.”  And, “I feel like I was put here to DO something.”  Watch this clip and reminisce with me.

Today we were full of gratitude.  Today we were inspired by others.  Today we were reminded of our own mission.  Today was a continuation of an ongoing goal,  and a reminder that it matters.  It all matters.

We remain

#beatingcowdens

A REAL Love Story

love

I’m not one for Valentine’s Day.  Never was.  It didn’t matter to me if I was dating or single, it just never made sense.  The “Hallmark Holiday” seemed determined to bleed money out of people who shouldn’t have to work so hard to prove themselves one day a year.

If you love someone, prove it every day.  It’s not about the big things.  It’s about the things that matter.

Picking up someone else’s mess, doing someone’s laundry, a random hug, an “I love you” that’s real and spontaneous, treating each other respectfully all the time… and so on…

My husband and I decided years ago to exchange only cards on Valentine’s Day.  I already know how much he loves me.  We do what we can to get a little something for our girl, well, just because.  And we, we try to get organized and celebrate our anniversary.  The day we stood before God and our families and friends and pledged our “for better or for worse,” and “in sickness and in health.”  Because those vows – they matter so much.

Tomorrow I will head to Manhattan for three of my annual appointments, carefully timed to cost me exactly one day off of work.  I will see the oncologist, the breast surgeon, and the endocrine surgeon, with some blood work thrown in for good measure, and the results of a sonogram from Saturday checking on that bumpy spleen of mine.

I will return in time to have parent conferences at my daughter’s school.

Not a “romantic” day by any means.

I will wear a red shirt that says “Strong” and I will make it work with a smile.

Because, I will be thinking of this heart.

img_6210Last year in January, my Grandfather fell.  It was after a trip to the grocery store.  We later found there was stroke activity, and that January day began a slippery slope that ended with his passing on March 3rd.  If you know me personally at all, you know my grandparents were larger than life to me.  That’s it.  They were 70 years married, and even though Alzheimer’s had largely robbed Grandma of much of her memory, my Pop loved her with his whole heart.

Last year, coincidentally, my grandparents spent Valentine’s Day in the nursing home at the same time.  And, although I’m not totally sure either was aware of the date at the time, we were.

A few days after Pop passed, my uncle sent the picture above.  He was cleaning out the linen closet and tucked in between some things was this heart.  By every rational account it must have been purchased by Pop, for his love, on that day in January when he made his last shopping trip alone.

My Pop was a man that planned ahead.  He was a man who always thought of his wife, and lived every day loving her with his whole heart. And my Grandma, well, she’s pretty special herself, and she’s always been quite fond of chocolate.

Nothing flashy, nothing fancy.  But he saw the hearts early, and thought of her.  That’s how he rolled.  Always kissing her hello and goodbye, clipping roses from their rosebush, and doing what he could, even when there was nothing more he could do.

My newsfeed, and my heart have been full lately, of people struggling and suffering.  The prayer list is long.  There is pain and sadness and worry.  But within, there is also love, and gratitude and compassion.

Life is about balance.

I’d rather spread out the love to last all year.  I’ve got plenty to share.

For it is with love alone that we hold each other up.

Love for those around us, and those who’ve gone before, motivates us.

Grandma is still “here” but many of you understand when I say I miss my grandparents.  The love though, the love and the example they set is imprinted forever in my soul.

It is with Love and Gratitude that we find the strength to remain

#beatingcowdens!

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To Do Lists, Digital Footorints and Random Thoughts

I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions.  I don’t believe in waiting for a specific day to make changes.  If they are needed, wanted, or warranted – we make them.  Right then.  Otherwise, I’m all about just being your best you- every day.

Parenting a teenager is tough stuff.  Even when your teen is just a good soul, a hard -worker, a good student, and a compassionate human.

persistence4

There are people who would challenge me that we have it easy.  They give me the default model, that raising one child has to be easier than raising 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or more…  And maybe they are right.  I will never know.  But, they won’t either.  That’s the point.

Raising our children, or living our lives is not meant to be a discussion of “harder” or “easier.”  There are challenges present in every single scenario that comes to mind when I think of EVERY family I know.  In this house we  talk a lot.  My girl and I, we talk about those other lives we know, and their battles.  And we send love and prayers and warm wishes, as they do for us.  It’s not a contest,  it’s real life.

2016 saw the results of two uterine biopsies of my then 12 and 13 year old, with results that left us uneasy, and in a perpetual state of “cautious waiting.”  It also saw me back in surgery, replacing less than 5 year old silicone implants because one had “fallen”  And then, it saw my clumsiness as I spent 6 weeks booted with a broken toe.

2016 saw loss in my family, as we mourn Pop, and are readjusting with Grandma in her new living space.

Yet, we made it.  We came out with a few bumps and bruises, but we made it.

2016 ended with 8th graders we know taking High School entrance and Scholarship Exams.  The next weeks will bring jubilation, laughter, and tears.

Yet, we WILL make it- all of us.

The “To Do” list on the yellow pad to my right is busy.  The fundraiser is about a month away and there is lots to be done.

There is also an MRI, a vascular surgeon, an orthopedist, an endocrinologist, and a gastroenterologist for Meghan, as well as Pre-surgical testing, a tentative surgery date, and a breast surgeon follow-up, an oncologist, and an endocrinologist for me.  All before February 22.  That’s IF no one requires additional testing for anything…

We will fit in the “regular” stuff too, like swimming, and meets, and school projects, and drama… well you know what I mean.

We are working hard to fit Cowden’s Syndrome into our lives, and not to let it RUN our lives.  It’s a subtle difference on paper, but a HUGE one in practice.

And when the thought of running a house that contains TWO people with a rare genetic disorder becomes overwhelming – we try to step back and count our blessings.  Because at the end of all days, regardless of our struggles, it is good for us, and those around us, if we can remain positive.  I’m not saying we’re perfect at it – far from it actually, but it is a goal, and an on-going work in progress.

It came up this week when we were preparing for the fundraiser and talking about social media.  Actually, it has come up a bunch of times since the iPhone became attached to her hand almost 3 years ago…

digital-footprint7

Digital footprint – how are you presented on the internet?  What if someone “googled’ your name?  Now?  5 years from now?  8 years from now before your job interview?  The whole concept of this blog has been discussed in depth.  Meghan, whether she likes it or not, at the age of 13 has an identity that is connected to her rare disease.  Now, don’t misunderstand me for a minute – a close read would CLEARLY indicate, she is NOT her disease, but she will never have the opportunity to deny the diagnosis.  That’s forever, and its important.

What she does with it, well that’s ongoing.  She’s made some pretty dynamic choices to date.  Sometimes she feels a bit like she has something to prove- so she does.

She’s been asking me for “snapchat” lately, and eventually I’ll give in.  But, I’m one of the mean moms who makes her wait.  Instagram is plenty to manage for now.

This week Meghan was nominated as “Inspirational Staten Islander of 2016.”

It prompted me to “google” my daughter.  So when I type in her name connected to our home town, these are the first links to surface…

How Meghan Ortega saved her Mother’s Life

12 Year Old With Rare Genetic Disorder Chosen as Inspirational Islander

Staten Island 9 Year Old and Her Mom are on a Mission….

12 Surgeries in 11 Years- Living with Cowdens Syndrome

Meghan Ortega- NYS Senate

I’ll take that top five any day.

And just for good measure, I switched to an image search.  These 5 were on the first page…

Meghan in her elementary school with one of her idols- Borough President James Oddo
Meghan in her elementary school with one of her idols- Borough President James Oddo
An old one - when Meghan was named "Hero of the Month" by Child Life after an early surgery
An old one – when Meghan was named “Hero of the Month” by Child Life after an early surgery
SI Children's Museum Achievement Luncheon Award
SI Children’s Museum Achievement Luncheon Award
Rare Disease shirts from the PTEN Foundation
Rare Disease shirts from the PTEN Foundation
One of my most proud - NYS Woman of Distinction, nominated by Senator Lanza in May 2016
One of my most proud – NYS Woman of Distinction, nominated by Senator Lanza in May 2016

And, just to be sure, I even tried Youtube.com, only to find a video made in February 2016

Apparently she has listened, carefully.  I don’t know what the future holds for my bright eyed activist.  I know she’ll continue to take heat from a few along the way.  I also know she’ll find the strength to rise above and press on.  Because, that is what we do.

Would she like it is she were named “Inspirational Staten Islander of 2016”?  Sure.  Will it break her spirit one way or another, absolutely not.  Her focus is, “If I win, we could get publicity to help raise money at the fundraiser…”

2017 Event Flyer
                                                                       2017 Event Flyer

If you’ve read this far I’ll tell you what I know about the poll I’ve linked you to below.  The voting takes place like a reality TV show.  I’m not sure how valid it all is, but there is a week of lots of voting.  It ends January 11th at noon.  Apparently you can vote many times before it stops you.  And then you can vote every hour.  So pretty much, if it crosses your mind, and you find Meghan inspirational, save the link and vote whenever it crosses your mind, until your device tells you to stop.

Regardless of the outcome, life will go on.  And we will continue on the same missions we’re on right now.

#BeatingCowdens together

Inspirational Staten Islander Poll – Vote all the way at the bottom

Light Through the Lens…

I think I blinked, and the calendar changed from October to December.  Some weeks I can do nothing more than plan day by day, because to look too far is overwhelming.  But, I “lost” the fall in a beautiful way.  I lost it shuffling my girl to places she loves to be, and helping her apply to high schools she is excited about.  Four years ago I could not have imagined she could keep this schedule.  She battles for it every day and I admire every ounce of her determination.  I take nothing for granted, and I know a huge “doctor cycle” is soon to be upon us.  Meghan’s appointments begin late this month.  Mine will overlap, likely culminating in vocal cord surgery.  But, for now, for this moment, I am grateful for this chaos.  The hint of “normalcy” is not to be left unappreciated.

Today though, I blocked out some time.  Today I needed some time to sit in my office and look around.  There are beautiful images on the walls of my office from New York City to Washington state – and places in between.  Each is carefully watermarked “Leon G. Thompson,” a process that took my husband countless hours.  There are thousands of such images on my laptop and several backup drives.  You may have no idea who “Leon G. Thompson” was, but I can tell you these pictures are more valuable to me than any you’d find in a museum.  Leon G. Thompson was my father, and these pictures are what he left behind on 12/4/13 when cancer snatched him from us far too soon.

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“A Few Good Men,” has been far more than a movie title in my life.  I was blessed to have 3 grandfathers that shaped who I am.  I am equally blessed to say I have had two fathers mold me into the woman I have become.  My Mom’s husband Ken came into our lives when I was a teenager, but he has been, and continues to be an unshakeable source of everything from “fun facts,” to computer tech, to house repair and all things in between.  There is a special place for a man who steps into a marriage with 2 teenage daughters in tow, treats them as his own from day one, and never skips a beat.

My father, well… let’s just say the early years were rocky.

What I know now, but I didn’t know then, clarifies a bunch.  Dad, a Vietnam veteran came home lost.  The earliest years are peppered with memories that don’t leave “the warm fuzzies.”  The years after that hold memories of fun visits.  Dad would come by sometimes.  There were movies, and visits to the park and the zoo.  There were restaurants, and exciting novelties.  But, there was not consistency.  There were chunks of empty time.  There was a lot of wondering.

Contact got more steady in the teenage years, especially after my brother was born.  There were more visits, and more phone calls.  But, history sometimes repeats itself, and there were years that faded away again.

Later, after high school, and probably after college too, there was more.  Maybe I was ready.  Maybe he was.  I’m not sure.  But, slowly and carefully, over years, a relationship began to form.  By the time I got married, I was able to dance with my Dad, (and Ken, and my Pop :-)) and I will cherish the memory forever.

After my daughter was born, he started showing up more.  And I liked it.

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Hard times came for Dad, and the restaurant industry finally failed him.  And that low for him, was the point our relationship became solid.  Nothing happens overnight, but he was here.  Close.  Interested.  Available.  He helped pick up Meghan.  He came to birthday parties, and dance recitals, and swim meets.  He came by for Father’s Day and even celebrated a birthday with us.

It was during that time that he first spoke the words I’d been waiting to hear since the second week of my Abnormal Psychology class in college.

“I have PTSD.  Do you know what that is?”

“Yep.  I know.  (and I exhaled a sigh I’d been holding in for years..) And it all gets better from here Dad.”

He was stunned.  He had no idea that his entire adult life spent making poor choices, ducking relationships, and often shying away from those who loved him most, were just a few of the symptoms of PTSD. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)  He couldn’t imagine that I had already pieced together that unspeakable horror encountered with his Marines in the jungles of Vietnam had impacted, to the point of changing, and really shaping his entire adult life.  13 months in that war, and not a day, a single day, ever went by without it influencing his thoughts and behavior.  I was able to pick up from a text-book the reasons why he had shied away from our relationship.  I was able to know in my heart that he couldn’t risk expressing his love, showing up, or being truly “present.”  But, in that moment, hat moment when he said it THAT is where I got him back.

I can’t say I remember the day.  And I may be wrong on the year too.  But, it was sometime around 2009.  Finally, he was working on his own healing.

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And he worked hard.

We spoke more regularly.  Once a week usually.  Sometimes it was his turn.  Most of the time it was mine.  As I struggled through raising a chronically ill child, he became my sounding board.  He was my confidant of all things.  He was where I went to bounce the tough decisions.  Because, life had left him a great listener.  Raising a child with a rare disease, means often having to make really tough choices alone.  When your disease affects only 1 in 200,000 people, experience with it is limited.  When Cowden’s Syndrome manifests differently in each of that small number of patients, including myself and my daughter, there is an even lower confidence interval with doctors who often just have no idea by no fault of their own.

It is hard to hear over and over again that a child is ill.  Especially, when it is your child, or your grandchild, or one you love so much.  I have had to make so many unorthodox medical decisions, that I often just needed someone to hear my thought process, and let me analyze, and over-analyze. I have gone against the doctors to trust an instinct that was strong in my mind and my heart.  Dad was the one who could hear it all out.  He heard me without speaking.  He listened attentively.  He offered advice only when I asked, and offered encouragement always.  These were not situations where I just needed my ego stroked.  These were tough conversations to have, and he never ever shied away from one.

He simply would bring me back to reality.  He’d ground me by telling me to use Meghan as my guide.  Check on her health, physically and emotionally.  Focus.  Trust my instincts.  Be able to correct wrong decisions whether they are mine or theirs.  Still now, three years later I find myself aching for those conversations.  She is stronger.  She is tougher.  She is amazing.  But, there are still so many battles to face and so many difficult decisions to make.  That’s when I retreat to my office.  I sit in his chair, and I look up at the path of snow in central park, or the Washington mountain top, or the waterfall, or the rainbow and I think.  I talk the conversation through as if he were here.  Because I know he is.  I just have to listen really carefully.

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Dad told me once that I understood PTSD because Meghan’s medical battles had left me some ways in a similar state to him.  When she was younger, and so sick, that perpetual fear of losing her, the hospitalizations, the surgeries, left me with a need to he “hyper” aware all the time.  While I could never profess to connect this to the horrors of war, he did.  And I think it allowed him to open up with some of his own stories.

Through those years I heard tales from his mouth I had never known.  I heard of battles, and losses and names of people, and places.  I listened so attentively.  Quietly.  As he had done for me.  Sometimes I even took pen and paper to write down his story.  Because I wanted to hang on every word.  Because you just never know.

I found out Dad was sick when I made that Friday night phone call in October 2013.  His voice sounded a little off and he told me he was in the ICU at the VA Hospital in Brooklyn.  When I asked him if anyone knew he said he wasn’t too sure.  But, he said, “now you do.”  And he laughed, as only he would at that moment.

I got to the hospital the next morning and we went through the details.  At that point no one knew anything.  Confused doctors was a topic we had spoken about at length.

The 10 weeks that followed were just a long blur.  There were about 4 weeks of me forcing his hand to allow me to take him back and forth to his appointments.  Sometime after that he admitted he couldn’t drive himself.  That was a tough day.  I had already called in my sister, and it was time to reach out to my brother in Texas.  Family meeting.  The “team” assembled.

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And through the some of the toughest weeks, I bonded in ways that can never be broken, with a sister I have always had, and a brother who I was getting to know better than I ever had.

Dad was admitted to the VA on Thanksgiving of 2013, and one week later, on December 4th, we were by his side when the angels came to free him.  No more suffering.  No more PTSD.  Pancreatic cancer at age 65.

I dialed his number for months after.  I still know it in my heart.

I spent the months after he died cleaning out his apartment.  Dad was not a man of many “things.”  His iPhone held no Email, and only one photo.  “Never want to put too much information in one place,” said the man who in his soul operated always with the mentality of a 19-year-old combat Marine.

As I cleaned I took every single scrap of paper he had ever written on and clipped them together.  I laminated them.  It was to be the only way we would ever “talk” again.  It is Dad’s quotes scattered through this piece.

He loved light.  And I guess for a man who had spent so much time fighting the darkness, his love for light made sense.

Dad was, to our family, and friends, a photographer.  “Tom” would have a camera around his neck at all times.  He took joy out of capturing happiness.  He took pleasure at photographing family events, and sharing his photos with everyone.  As we sorted through the pictures, in the months and year or so following his death, we saw some incredible images.  We sorted out the family shots from the scenery ones.  We put up a sharing site for all those family images in case anyone had never seen them.  And we protectively shielded his “scenery” images, and carefully watermarked them, and kept great pains to keep them off the internet.

At some point we will organize an art show in his memory.  We will print, and sell his treasures.  We will find a place to donate any profits that will honor his memory.  We will let the world see what he saw.  Dad used that camera lens to showcase the light.  To view the beauty in the world.  Consistently, when I look around I see “Light Through the Lens…” and in doing so I keep his memory alive.

Dad did not leave us rich with money, or objects.  He left us rich with visions and memories.  The former keeps you satiated for a little while.  The latter can keep you fueled forever.

The last gift Dad left for me, was one I did not see coming.  In the weeks preceding his death it had become apparent to me that there was a specific incident in Vietnam that clearly should have warranted him a Purple Heart.  I gathered data for him, presented the case, and even after denials came in, and he had passed, I kept fighting.

Holly, a treasure in Dad’s life and ours, had held onto a list of names and addresses from a Marine Corps Reunion they had attended many years prior.  I reached out to every Marine in that list, and if they were still alive, they reached back.  Over 20 of them.  45 years later.  I grew up knowing Dad had 7 brothers and a sister.  I had no idea of the Marine brothers scattered around the country.

I have had the pleasure of meeting many of them.  And this past summer I brought Meghan to meet a few too.

Alan was the first to answer my letter.  From West Virginia he called to tell me he remembered crossing time with Dad.  He researched the story I told him about the incident.  He found it totally credible, and helped me exhaust every option and every appeal to the Department of the Navy.  Ultimately that battle was lost on what I call a technicality, but by that time I had a friend and a confidant in Alan, previously a stranger.

My Dad, although not loyal to a particular church, by the time he died had a solid faith in God, forgiveness, and an afterlife.

I do not know the book this came from, but I found this among his clippings…

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My Dad in his passing, solidified my relationship with my sister, essentially “gave” me my brother who I had never really “known” but will NEVER let go of, AND, secured for me a confidant in Alan, and gave me the gift of loyalty that Marines save for their own and their families.

He left thousands of photos.  Snipits of his own words, and memories of times that we got it right.

I sometimes always wish that he would answer when I called him on the phone.  But, I know.  I know that he is flying free.  And I know, that while he needn’t be saddled with the cares of this world, that he checks in.  That he is nearby when I need him the most.

So when we are driving in the car and Meghan snaps a shot of a sunrise, or the light coming through the clouds in the sky.  When she sees the beauty of the world around her.  When she looks for the good. When she keeps her friends list short and neat, I see my Dad.  I feel him.  I know he’s right there for that moment.

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Courtesy of Meghan on a road trip to WV to meet the Marines.  Always being guided by the light…

Only when you love deeply do you feel great loss.  They all hurt.  The oldest to the newest.  I can not change the way I love.  When I love it is with my whole self.  Otherwise, why?

This one hurts differently because it took so long to get it right.  But, I rest with the gratitude that we did get it right.  And once you get it right, if it’s truly right, nothing before that matters anymore.

You may never know the strength you gave to help us remain

#Beatingcowdens

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Semper Fi Daddy, Always.

04/18/48- 12/4/13

Loved.  Missed.  Remembered forever.

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Overlap and Regrowth – Living with Cowden’s

So, the night I was recovering from my breast surgery on August 19th, I haphazardly checked my Email.

There sat an Email from Meghan’s endocrinologist that shook me out of my anesthesia recovery pretty quickly.  There is no time “in between” because there is usually SOMETHING going on.  Overlap is a way of life.

Meghan had had lab work drawn the 3rd of August.  Routine thyroid labs, and some tests from the gyn worked in.  On the 18th the EMail from the gyn told me she was suspicious of a few lingering “issues” and we would address them at her late fall appointment.

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The endocrinologist’s EMail said he was concerned about the resurgence of her “thyroglobulin” levels.  He wanted to now treat her as a “high risk” thyroid cancer patient.

I almost dropped the phone, alone in my dark room.  The last paragraph said he’d be on vacation for two weeks, and we could talk when he returned.  I read.  And I reread.

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Decoding step by step – “thyroglobulin” is created solely by thyroid tissue.  Someone with a complete thryoidectomy would have non-detectable levels about 3 or so months post operatively.  Only thyroid tissue generates thyroglobulin.  If some was left behind after her surgery a small number would have stabilized early.  But for it to be gone, and then show up…  This meant there had to be regrowth.  And yes, it happens.  Maybe to everyone, but definitely people with Cowden’s Syndrome.  We regrow lymphoid tissue.

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It’s a superpower of sorts.  Except instead of being a really fun, save the world, or generate sunshine and happiness, superpower, it’s more of the – hey let’s add some more worry to your life superpower.

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While the pathology on the thyroidectomy was totally benign, the mind can play lots of tricks.  Lots of tricks.

I’m not slow.  I am pretty well read.  I’m equipped with the knowledge that having faith and worry are counterintuitive.  Except I’m honest.  And with matter of my girl, worry sometimes overwhelms.  I never claimed to be perfect.

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So I spent the last 6 or 7 weeks retreating.  I barely spoke of this fear, this nagging thought that not only could the thyroid be growing again, but what if… what if all those precancerous things that we took out with it were somehow festering.

I made it my job to access the lab work.  And it was a JOB.  You would have thought what I was asking for just to see a list of messed up thyroid numbers.  We live in a pretty crazy society.  But, finally, after 2 weeks of labor, and getting increasingly vocal, I received 4 copies.  All on different days.  All from different people.  But, I got to look at the numbers.

I am a numbers person, so I took some relief in the thyroglobulin being only 3.  Undetectable was better, but 3 was on the better end of things.  It was clearly well under that “10” I had found.  So I took to waiting and ticking away the days until the next blood test.  There was a thyroid dose change, and 6 weeks.

I broke my toe while recovering from the implant exchange, a few weeks after learning I was suffering not only from a single vocal cord lesion, but vocal atrophy secondary to premature aging, the latter which was likely due to the hysterectomy that became necessary after the breast cancer diagnosis in 2012.

And yes, I meant that to be a run-on.

It all kept me as occupied as I could while I hid in the start up chaos of September.  I hate September.  But, when you’re suffering personal angst and need cover under which to hide – it’s September for the win.  I poured myself into setting up 25 classes, and over 550 students, logistically, and academically.  It took some time.

And I kind of just ducked.  Phone calls, texts… I played along.

“High Risk” thyroid cancer patient… like a recurring nightmare.

One of the reasons I was afraid to talk was the fear that someone would talk to be about thryoid cancer being the “best” cancer.  Please, no one ever do that.  When it comes to my child, a survival rate in the 90%s doesn’t soothe me.  When it comes to my child, I, like every other parent want 100%.  Nothing less.

I was scared.

We got the labs drawn at the hospital on Weds. the 28th.

On the 30th I was exploding.  Every second seemed like an hour.  Every scenario was playing through my head.  So when I got the call that the test wouldn’t be ready till Monday I dissolved into a tiny puddle.

And then I did what every other mother does.  I put on my big girl pants and got through the weekend.

Then Monday there was a brief phone call.

The thyroglobulin has returned to undetectable.

WHAT?  How does that even happen?  I sent out a million questions rapid fire.  Most of them had no answer.

Crisis averted.  Prayers answered.

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I explained to Meghan why her Mom had been a bit extra on edge.  She’s really growing up because she was grateful to have not traveled that mental journey with me, and appreciated me letting her in when it mattered.

Next blood test November 11.  And we’re going with the theory that the thyroglobulin was a one time deal.  An error.  A miracle.  Whatever.  A win.

We’ve got 6 weeks.  Some Mommy doctors.  Some swim meets.  6 weeks.  Sometimes that feels short.  Right now it’s blissfully long.

On my knees in gratitude, we remain…

#beatingcowdens

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