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

 

 

Dear Meghan… Mother’s Day 2018

Dear Meghan,

Almost 15 years ago you entered this world kicking and screaming.  You scared the heart out of us, the doctors, and the nurses.  The NICU nurses called you “Miss Attitude”.  Even in distress that August day you showed them all you were not to take anything without a fight.  You made me a Mom under the craziest circumstances, and looking back, maybe they were fitting.  How could we know back then, when we were discharged, a few days later, and all of NYC went black in the blackout that no one will forget, that was just the beginning of all things epic?

I look at you now, taller than me, beautiful and smart, athletic and talented, and I burst with pride.  You are good in your core.  You are pure in your heart.  You hold yourself to a fiercely high standard, and you hold others there too.

We’ve long passed the point where summarizing your history is easy, or even practical.  Truth is, most people’s heads would explode to hold inside the medical journeys we’ve taken, and the emotional bumps and bruises along the way.

You made a decision many years ago, that your struggles would be only part of you, and that they would NEVER define you.  You want to achieve, and you do achieve, in spite of your struggles, and not because of them.

Most Magical Moment

Facing your teen years with the cloud of Cowden’s Syndrome always hanging nearby is daunting, to say the least.  You possess knowledge, statistics and realities about your own body that no one your age should have to try to understand.  You have more memories of trips into and out of operating rooms than most people would ever know in a lifetime.  You have been held down, poked, prodded and examined so many times, even I sometimes try to forget.  You have been through Physical Therapy and rehabilitation so frequently that we have the numbers for multiple surgeons and the best PT in the world, saved into speed dial.

Before you were 11 the threat of cancer stole your thyroid, and as normal teenage hormones kicked in, yours were just a bit more complex.  Precancerous cells in your uterus before the age of 12 necessitated more synthetic hormones, and your body… sigh.  Beat up and abused, no wonder it gets annoyed.

The PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) diagnosis was not a shock, rather the exclamation point on the end of a very long sentence.  Before the start of the next paragraph, in what will be a very long story…

The struggle to deal with it takes place mostly behind closed doors, and most people would have no idea.

You just keep going.

It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.

The longer, and harder the battle, the more determined you become.

You excel at school.  You continue to make strides at swim.  You are learning to use the beautiful voice you were gifted with.

You are my pride, my privilege, my daughter and my friend.

You have strengthened my resolve.  You have helped me fine tune my “Mamma Bear”.

You have helped me learn self-restraint when I have had to allow you to handle things on your own.

You have helped me become a better human.

Sometimes, my dear, I want to scream, as your stubborn, rigid, principled self, clashes with my “I want to fix it” attitude.  And yet, I count myself lucky in this day and age to have a daughter who is so sure of her principles that she will not bend to the whim of the crowd.

I wish for you the ability to find joy and laughter.  I wish for you, to be able to smile among the good people you meet, and allow them into your world.  I wish for that the  kind souls you meet are able to understand that there is more to you than initially meets the eye.

I want you to know that you are good enough, and that you are enough.  Yet, I want you to remain hungry and goal oriented and kind and compassionate too.

A wise woman (your grandma) once told me, you do more changing in your 20s than you ever do in your teens.  You will continue to grow and learn and change, and develop your personality.  Set your goals, meet them, exceed them, or rewrite them.  Life is fluid, and full of change.

No matter how hard things get, never ever lose HOPE, and NEVER GIVE UP.

You gave me a beautiful necklace today.  The compliment of being referred to as “Wonder Woman” is about as high praise as a mom of a teen could ask for.

If I possess those qualities they are because of you.

We will continue to take this long journey.  The road will never be smooth.  But I would take no other path if it meant traveling without you.

Together we remain #beatingcowdens.

Thank you my dear.  Thank you for allowing me to be part of your world.

Thank God for selecting me as your mother.

Love you always,

Mom

 

 

Dear Mom…. Mother’s Day 2018

Dear Mom,

You’re small but mighty.  You’re a force to be reckoned with.  You are a role model, and an inspiration.  You are a survivor.  You never give up.  You were my very first hero.

I’ve learned a whole bunch through the years, and I’m quite sure I still have a ton to learn.  This year, as you celebrate your first Mother’s Day without your own mom, the enormity of that is not lost on me.  I just wanted to make sure you know that.

You raised three of the most different humans imaginable.  And, yet, you did an awfully great job on each of us.  That’s mostly because you did the best you could to give us what we needed.  An impressive juggling act.

For years you told me “You’ll do more changing in your 20s than you ever did in your teens”.  Truth.  But, did you stop there so as not to scare me?  The changing in my 30s- I still shake my head in amazement.  And I’m quite sure now, half way to 50 – I’ll look back at 40-year-old me and find a stranger.

Nothing is easy.  Nothing ever was.  I remember.

Yet, I don’t remember a life couched in sadness or despair.  I remember focus, drive, determination, and a whole lot of Never Give Up.

I remember a single mom who worked two jobs so we could have all that we needed, and lots that we wanted.

I remember you positioning us with your parents, so that right upstairs would be stellar role models.  I know it must not have been easy.  We don’t always agree with our parents.  And, now, as a mom myself, I get how it might have been a challenge for you sometimes.  But, I can tell you with confidence, it was right.  Living downstairs from Grandma and Pop was a fantastic, life changing move.  Thank you.

I remember the hours you worked, in the city all week, and then on your feet every holiday and every weekend, serving other people’s parties.  I can only imagine how tired you must have been.  Only now do I have a much better idea.  And, I have a much better understanding of how you just kept going.

You made choices.  You chose to keep us involved with all our families.  You could have chosen differently.  You had every right to.  Thank you for choosing to allow me to choose.

You modeled for me, things I never knew I’d need.

And every day, as I dig deep to give everything I can to Meghan, I think of you.

You, and “The Little Engine that Could,” and Tinkerbell too.

Thank you for being tough as nails, and soft as a marshmallow at all the right times.

Thanks Mom, for the things I can put into words, and the things I can’t.  Thanks for the stuff you just know, and the things in my heart.

Please know, no matter how old I get, or how busy you think I am, a call, or a visit, or even a text with my Mom brings a smile to my face.

Every. Single. Day.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Thank you for preparing me for #beatingcowdens, long before we had any idea of what was coming.

I love you forever.

I love you for always,

Lori

 

 

Triage- A Way of Life

Triage.  The word hangs with me like the memories of countless Emergency Room visits.

Triage. Take care of the most serious first.

It’s the reason we might wait hours for stitches, and barely a moment for a trauma.

I get it.  It makes sense in the ER.  It also makes sense on the battlefield, or in other places where there is widespread injury to be treated.

The thing is, you typically don’t stay in those places FOREVER.

Places we equate with triage are not places of comfort.  And that’s where this life with Cowden’s Syndrome can get tricky.

You see, lately I can’t shake the feeling that life is triage.  24/7/365 damage assessment, and handling the most critical first.  Vigilant.  Hyper-vigilant.  ALL.  THE.  TIME.

When you live with a chronic illness, a syndrome that causes cancer by its very definition, it is so easy to get wrapped up in monitoring and preventative care.  And then there are the times that you go for those monitoring appointments and they require their own follow-up.  This condition can easily morph into a beast that can swallow you whole.

And we’re at it times 2.

What I refuse to allow this syndrome to do is take away any more from my daughter’s life  than it has.  To the best of our ability, she will do “teenage” things, and she will do things she enjoys.

But, lately that has become quite the juggling act.

I am monitored twice a year by endocrinology (post thyroidectomy), my breast surgeons, and dermatology.  I am monitored annually by gyn oncology, and oncology.  This is post-bilateral mastectomy (stage 1 DCIS) and post hysterectomy.  I am monitored every 5 years for colonoscopy.  I am also monitored with abdominal ultrasounds for 4 hamartomas on my spleen, and a cyst on my kidney.  This may not seem all that impressive, but those are just the appointments if everything goes well.  That’s not additional scanning, blood work and biopsies.  None of them are close to home either.

Not to mention, I am still searching for a local primary care doctor.  In addition, there is dental work, both routine, and the emergencies the stress from grinding my teeth keep causing.  I’ve been referred to another oncologist who specializes in genetic diseases, and I need to get in to see her.  I just completed vascular surgery, with its pre and post op appointments and recovery as well.

That’s just me.  Me, and my full-time job.  And, like every mother, my needs are not the most important.

My girl sees endocrinology twice a year.  She is still, 4 years post-op, trying to get thyroid function balanced.  She sees gastroenterology, and dermatology twice a year.  She also sees an adolescent gyn twice a year, courtesy of precancerous tissue already uncovered in her teenage uterus.  She sees a chiropractor every 2-3 weeks for pain management.  Right now, amid diagnosis of the small brain tumors, she is seeing neurology every three months for new MRI scans.  She sees orthopedics every 8 weeks.  They have been monitoring her knee for years, and recently stubborn tendonitis in the shoulder.  There have been a few MRIs of late.  She has seen physical therapy weekly since the fall, and is now working on twice a week.

She is tired.  Partially because of her schedule, and partially because of her sleep patterns.  Despite a regular bed time, she struggles to get quality sleep.  It is hard to turn her brain off, and for her to get rest.

She has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, secondary to consistent medical trauma.  She is working through it – but, like everything else, it is a great deal of work.

She is awaiting word that her service dog is ready.  The call could come any time in the next 6 or so months, but we are hopeful this dog will help her through what can be some trying times.

She is an honor student.  She is a swimmer – at least 5 days a week, for 12-15 hours a week.  She is in weekly vocal lessons, and a theater group that meets 3.5 hours a week.  She enjoys a local church youth groups.

She has food allergies – restricted from dairy, gluten and soy.  And seasonal allergies to all things pollen.

None of this includes normal things.  Like dentist and orthodontist visits, or even haircuts.

It is easy to get isolated.

She has a strong sense of what is right and wrong, and can be rigid in her perceptions.  But, life has shown her things most adults, let alone people her age, have ever seen.   Just as that strong mindedness flusters me, I refuse to try to break it down.  It is that same will that has gotten us where we are.

And where we are, is in TRIAGE.

My iphone calendar is with me everywhere.  I prioritize swim and theater over doctors when I can.  Physical Therapy is a high on the list right now for pain management and strengthening.

Vocal lessons keep her going, as she can sing herself through a lot of stress.  Theater is just a fun group of children, and I am not willing to sacrifice that.

I have a list by my desk of “next up” appointments, and because our availability is so limited, I am often booking months out.  We travel to most – NYC or LI.  Short on miles – but up to 2 hours each way – often.

We stack them when we can.  Two appointments are a bonus, three is a banner day.

And every year about this time I dream of a summer light on appointments.  I’ve yet to see it come true.  Truth be told, almost every school holiday and every vacation is cluttered with things we need to do, but would rather not.

There is a blessing in knowing what we are fighting.  There is blessing in having a warning system in place.  But, there are still some days when I’m totally overwhelmed that I wish I didn’t know so much.

Triage.

Triage means that right now the physical and emotional health of my teenager trumps all.

So she swims 5 days.  We do PT 1-2 nights after swim. We see “other” doctors midweek on the one day there is no swim.  We do voice, and theater on Saturday.

I make my appointments on weekends when my husband can drive.  I make my appointments a year out so I can stack three in one day in the summer and on February break.  I schedule our surgeries for February of Easter vacation when I can.

I plan our fundraiser now for October, so as not to give it up, but in hopes of finding an easier time.

I research at night.  There is always a need to learn what most of our doctors do not know.

I write, when I can.  I love it and I miss it, but time just doesn’t seem to allow.

Hair, nails, eyebrows, and things I used to enjoy are forced into holes in the calendar, every once in a while.

Dust builds in places I never used to allow it.

Friends, well I have to trust they get it and they’ll be around when there is a change in the current status of things.  I miss them.

Triage.

It starts early in the morning, waking up a teen who just hasn’t slept well.

It continues through the day – my job and her school.

After school is all about making it work.  Swim, PT, or whatever therapy the night brings.

There are often phone calls, requests for lab reports, or battles about IEP needs…  Emails go through the iphone.

Usually we are out of the house about 13 hours.

At night we pack everything so that we can be ready to begin again.

Triage.

Most critical right now is allowing my teenager to find her way, in school, in sports, and in her life.  Most critical is giving her very real scenarios where her disease does not define her, and she is able to achieve in spite of her challenges, not because of them.

In order to make this happen, everything revolves around her schedule.  There are opinions about that in all directions.  There are people who would tell me I am creating an entitled, self-absorbed human.  I don’t pay them much mind, because they haven’t met her.

When I signed in to be a parent I knew I’d be all in.  I just never saw THIS coming.

Balance needs to always be in place, where the physical needs of either of us are never overlooked.  However, non-essential appointments CAN, and WILL be scheduled around our availability.  She will be a happier, and more tolerant patient when she didn’t miss something she loved with three hours in traffic and two in the waiting room.

Triage is meant to be something you experience briefly in times of crisis.

The “fight or flight” response is not always supposed to be on.

But it is.

At this time in our lives we may not always make for stellar company, although ironically, we’d love to have more of it.

At this time, we may say no constantly, to the point where you stop inviting.  Trust me.  We’d rather go.  We actually enjoy your company.

At this time, we are so busy surviving, and taking care of the most critical needs, that anything not immediately essential gets passed by.

We are constantly evaluating order of events, but TRIAGE is fluid by definition.  Unfortunately there are so many situations and scenarios, it is hard to see through them all.

Even at our toughest times.  Even at our most overwhelmed days.  We can look around and find our blessings.  They exist in big things, like being able to physically attend 5 practices a week, and little things, like being able to WALK around the school without hesitation or assistance.

We are aware of those suffering illnesses far beyond our grasp.  We are aware and we are grateful for the health we do have.

We are also tired.  And lonely.  And often overwhelmed.  We also know this is the way the plan must go for now.  And one day it may change.

Triage is fluid.

Life is fluid.

We all do the best we can with what we have where we are.

And we remain steadfast

#beatingcowdens.

 

 

Just Do Your Job

I guess as I think about the last few weeks, so often the thought comes to mind that if people would just do their job, thoroughly and with accuracy and pride, many problems could be avoided.

This weekend I compiled a 5 page letter, and a 20 page PDF and Emailed it to the CEO and director of operations of the local hospital that I feel could have done a far better job handling my February 21 vascular surgery.  It took a little time to get it out, and it was frustrating, but simultaneously cathartic.

Early in the healing process my sage daughter said, “Mom, you’d never let anyone treat my body like that.  Why is it OK to treat yours that way?”

It isn’t my dear.  And I know she’s always watching.

I took my notes all through the week before and after the surgery, and then I rested to see if I could get it out of my system.  It lingered.  So, yesterday, off it went.  I told them I’d like the name of who they handed my case off to, by the close of business on Friday 3/30.  There’s a post it on my desk.  To be continued.

Just Do Your Job.

job3

When I finished that letter, I wrote one to my health insurance carrier.  We are fortunate enough to have two, but keeping things straight can get confusing.

Meghan met a new neurologist in December of 2017.  When we went to the appointment there was no one to collect a co-pay.  I figured they would bill it.  Then, I forgot.  The news of the finding of a “lesion” was enough to jar me out of my normal routine.

Sometime in January I received an “Explanation of Benefits” and a $35 check from my insurance carrier.  This is not uncommon, as often I have co-pays refunded once an office receives the co-insurance payment.

A February MRI and neuro follow-up gave news of in fact TWO 1cm lesions, and some swelling.  All of which will need to be watched.  I got a bit distracted.

The check sat, with several other checks until March 8th, when I deposited them into an ATM.  That was a Thursday.  On March 11, I logged onto my online banking to see that the check had a “Stop Payment” and in addition to having the $35 deducted, I was charged a $12 fee.

Furious was an understatement, as I am meticulous about my banking.

Just Do Your Job.

job2

On Monday the 12th I received a letter from Chase Bank explaining their end of the explanation of my fees.  My insurance carrier told me that the doctor contacted them on February 15 to ask them to stop payment on the $35 as I had never paid the co-pay.

The doctor never billed me, just reached right to the insurance company.  They later admitted never billing me.  No apology.  The insurance company never reached out to me.  Never told me the check had been stopped.  I didn’t go to the bank with the check until 3 weeks later.

Within 72 hours my bank had notified me online and by mail.  My insurance company had no explanation as to why they never afforded me the same courtesy.  My bank actually DID their job.

When I took it to a supervisor over the $12 fee, and my embarrassment, and my annoyance at the number of hours this was taking from my life, she offered me the standard PO Box to send my complaint.

I asked her to do better and she told me to fax the receipt of deduction to her.  She said she’d expedite it.  It’s been 10 business days.  The formal complaint letter is written and mailed.

Just Do Your Job.

Then, there is the doctor who refuses to figure out mail order.  My insurance has denied payment of the drug until it goes to mail order.  Thank goodness it’s affordable.  I’m paying it while simultaneously working out getting him to mail order it.

Just Do Your Job.

job

Tomorrow, I will make a few calls on our newest denial.  I suspect it will take a few weeks to sort out, but I will win this appeal.  Because, no one in an office is going to tell my that my daughter has “recovered,… and no further improvement …. is expected.”  Nope.  Not working for me.

Apparently they weren’t  at the swim meet last weekend.  The meet that her PTSD might have kept her from without a hard push, but the meet where she DESTROYED all her best times.  At that meet I had proof that further improvement IS EXPECTED.  Because it is happening.

Just Do Your Job.

job4

That swim meet last weekend was 6 hard months in the making.  There has been so much work in place dealing with her PTSD, her anxiety and her panic attacks.  She had to make sacrifices and step away from her commitment to a local theater program.  I didn’t give her much choice, even though I knew I was probably taking one opportunity at theater from her to give her another at swimming.  Parenting is about making tough choices.  She’ll be at all the rest of the theater practices.  She had to KNOW she could get through this meet.

IMG_3839
This event is just exhausting. She has a love/hate battle with it. Sometimes she even catches the “2Fly Flu”

 

IMG_3871
The improvement from entry to finals just shows how much she needed to be there and get this out of her system. She’s got more progress in her.

 

IMG_3870
It’s been a goal to go under a minute for over a year. She crushed it.

When you are 24/7/365 fighting a chronic illness, and in this case a rare disease, no value can be placed on physical strength, actual and perceived.  You see there is never a moment when you are not waiting for the other shoe to drop, right on your head.  So the need to be physically strong, is a NEED, not a luxury.

I sit here now, Sunday evening again, and I think of all the things I would have liked to do this weekend.  I think longingly about how nice it would be, to be in Alabama at the PHTS Patient Symposium, and if not that, then to get a manicure, to catch up with old friends, or even to stop and read a book.  But, I know that is not meant to be.  Not right now.

For now, at this point  my life, weekends are about putting out the fires that creep into the world all week.  It is about uncovering the “in box” and fighting the fights that will get my daughter and myself the care we need and deserve.

I like to think it won’t always be this hard.  But, if I’m honest I suspect it will be.

The trick is going to come in my figuring out how to keep it from swallowing me up.  There is always going to be a fire, a battle, an appointment, or a medical drama.  ALWAYS.

This weekend, I had dinner with my husband.  I took a walk, AND I went to one store for fun.  It’s not much, but it’s a start.  It’s a process.

The battles rage on.

Vigilance is required.  This journey is not for the faint of heart.

But we are establishing support from afar.  We are finding each other.

As one of my groups says #WeAreCowdenStrong

And we, in this house, remain

#beatingcowdens

 

Superfluous Tissue

6 years ago I was trembling with fear.  I sat up most of the night.  I paced the floors.  I was scared out of my mind.

No stranger to surgery, this one was way different.

Sometimes I actually forget things.  But, most of the time, especially when it has to do with numbers or dates, I remember.

Six years ago I was only months past the diagnoses of Cowden’s Syndrome Meghan and I had received.  Six years ago I was only learning about the mutated gene with astronomical cancer risks that I had passed unknowingly to my girl.  Six years ago I was reeling with the knowledge that she had nodules on her thyroid, pronounced and alarming.  I was trying to grasp the reality that this life of medical drama that I had hoped would subside, was going to require our vigilance and attention forever.

So, exactly 6 years ago tonight  I was contemplating the overwhelming reality that my newfound breast cancer risk, which exceeded 85% on gene mutation alone, had been coupled with my 8 prior breast biopsies, and my mother’s “survivor” status, and had relegated my surgeon to tell me it was not “if,” but “when” breast cancer would strike me.  When I met her for the first time a few weeks prior she had my chart with her.  She had reviewed it before our consultation, and she cut right to the chase.

“When are we going to schedule your surgery?”

I paused, a little stunned and confused.

“For what?”  I managed to ask.

“Prophylactic bilateral mastectomy.”  She stated simply.  “You will face breast cancer.  The numbers, and your history make it irrefutable.  I think we need to get there first.”

I always travel to my doctors alone, but that is probably one of the few times I actually regretted it.  The room started to spin a bit.  Thankfully, she didn’t skip a beat.

I managed to ask, “when?”

She said, “March 5th.”

I protested.  I asked if we could do it over the summer.  “I am a school teacher,” I told her.

She was kind, but unimpressed.  “March 5th.  My scheduler will help you coordinate with the plastic surgeon.  We will be in the operating room together.”

I was numb.  I called my husband, then my mother.

I drove home, and started to prepare.

I was unsure how I would handle the minimum 5 week recovery.  There were no sick days left for me to pull from.  I had an 8-year-old who had already had multiple surgeries, and I had quite a few myself.  I started to wonder how to plan financially for a leave that would end up being at least partially unpaid.

A dear friend, who will never fully grasp the depth of the gift she gave, donated 25 sick days to me.  The weight she lifted off me was astronomical.

I spent the next few weeks in auto pilot.  We were still handling some new findings on Meghan, and I was reading and processing Cowden Syndrome.  It made me nauseous.

I remember the drive into the city that morning.   I remember walking with Felix.  I remember praying over the phone with my brother-in-law.

I remember repeating over and over to the unbelieving doctors that I would NOT be having tissue expanders, the common course of action with a mastectomy.  The plastic surgeon heard my concerns, and my need to simplify, and to get home without additional surgery.  The knowledge that my child would likely one day walk this road filled me with a sense of urgency to make it seem as simple as possible.  She agreed to do immediate implants.  I lost count of the number of times I explained that.

I remember walking to the operating room, and looking into the comforting eyes of my surgeon before I fell asleep.  “You are very brave.”  And even though she never really gave me a choice, her reassuring smile helped so much.

I remember waking up feeling relieved and empowered.  Not just because the surgery was over, but also because I had gotten out in front.

I remember seeing my husband, and checking on Meg.  I remember seeing my sister and telling her she should be with my nephew.  His birthday happens to be the same day.

I was discharged the next morning – about 28 hours after the surgery.

The next days were painful, and draining.  My mom was with me for a few, to wash my hair, and to chat.  I hated the circumstances but treasured the time with her.

After my mom’s mastectomy following her cancer diagnosis many years prior, she had dubbed the breasts “superfluous tissue.”  I finally understood.

When my pathology came back days later with early grade DCIS, essentially one cm of stage 1 breast cancer, I missed my breasts even less.  We were all surprised, and I was grateful for the knowledge that the cancer was not close to the chest wall and no follow-up treatment would be needed.  I just had to heal.

I had no idea at the time that two months later I’d be back in the hospital for a hysterectomy.  Cowden’s Syndrome does not mess around.

Except, it messed with the wrong family.

We get knocked down, but we get up stronger.

Sometimes I hate that I remember dates.  Other times, maybe it gives me reason to celebrate, and to feel empowered.

I started owning my nutrition 6 years ago.  I have worked on playing strong and fit.  My weight has been stable, and I am proud to be one of the healthiest looking sick people you’ll ever meet.

“superfluous tissue” indeed.

#beatingcowdens

 

 

Rare Disease Day 2018

I took today off from work.

Sadly, it was not to enjoy the almost 60 degree February day.

Today was doctor day.

And as I traveled  two hours for the 17 mile trip into Manhattan this morning, I had plenty of time to think about World Rare Disease Day, tomorrow, February 28th.

Rare Disease Day 2018 will pass for us unlike the last few.  In recent years my family, spearheaded by my daughter, has held a sizable fundraiser to draw attention to Rare Disease Day.  Our goal was always to raise awareness and funds to support research and treatment of our Rare Disease through the PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome Foundation.  My girl needed some time off to address some things on her mind and heart.  I gave her that time.  She is still working hard, but she has already expressed an interest to join me in planning an event in October of 2018.  Stay tuned.

While I was driving, I thought a lot about RARE.  It has so many connotations.

Sometimes I think of snowflakes, and rainbows, and unicorns.  I think of pleasant, beautiful things.  Some of the buildings on the skyline look rare.  Rare can be a thing, a sight, an action or even a feeling.

Rare is defined by Dictionary.com as:

adjectiverarer, rarest.

1. coming or occurring far apart in time; unusual; uncommon:

a rare disease; His visits are rare occasions.

2. thinly distributed over an area; few and widely separated:

Lighthouses are rare on that part of the coast.

3. having the component parts not closely compacted together; not dense:

rare gases; light-headed from the rare mountain air.

4. unusually great:

a rare display of courage.

5. unusually excellent; admirable; fine:

She showed rare tact in inviting them.
Rare can mean remarkable, wonderful and exciting.  It can mean fascinating, and intriguing.
But life with a Rare Disease reminds you often, that RARE can have many other connotations.
A quick look at thesaurus.com generated these synonyms to RARE:

Synonyms for rare

adj exceptional, infrequent

Quite a list, right?  And, if you really look with an honest eye, not all of them have super positive connotations.

Strange, uncommon, unthinkable, unusual, deficient, flimsy, tenuous, (and no this isn’t a typo, but I had to look it up) unwonted…

These are not the words you’d use to describe a beautiful natural event, and probably not the words you’d pick for a dear friend.

Yet, these words also mean RARE.

I set out today to get screened by 3 of my many specialists.  The cancer risks with a PTEN mutation are almost astronomical.  It becomes a game of “when” not “if” in so many cases, and the vigilance required to seek out the cancers so they are detected early can be overwhelming.  Lifetime risks for breast (approximately 85% as compared to 7%), thyroid approximately 30% to .9%), uterine (approximately 28% as compared to 1.7%), kidney(approximately 24% as compared to 0.8%) and melanoma (approximately 6% as compared to 1.1%) eclipse the general population.  (These numbers were midline from a graph in this link) www.myriadpro.com/services/clinical-summaries/gene-pdf.php?gene=pten&allele…

The risk of recurrence is also great, and that of developing a second, primary site cancer is also noteworthy.  So, having had a double mastectomy with a great prognosis, does not eliminate the need for biannual screening.  I love my breast surgeon.  She is one of the best.   She and I are both always pleased when she can tell me everything is good.

But, I held onto her a little longer today.  I told her I was in the market for an internist.  I need someone to play “case manager.”  I need someone to be my doctor.  She paused and furrowed her brow a bit.

That isn’t an easy request, she told me.  I said I just need someone willing to learn a little, and consider that I don’t fit in a “box.”  I need someone who will partner with me.  She told me she’d led me know if she thought of anyone.

I’m not hopeful.

I waited down the hall for the hematologist/oncologist.  When she was an hour late, I walked the half mile (in jeans and compression stockings from Wednesday’s surgery) BACK to the main hospital to see my endocrine surgeon.

She may be the weakest link in my chain right now.  She scanned the remains of my “lumpy, bumpy” half thyroid that the surgeon 25 years ago thought would be an asset to me.  She scanned a very slowly growing lymph node in the area that went from .6mm to .8mm.  She told me to get some blood drawn and that all looked good.  I showed her a recent chem panel. She pointedly ignored every out of range number, and zeroed in on the calcium level.  “Good.”  And she handed me back the papers.  Then she ordered a short-sighted list of thyroid labs that I would never tolerate for my daughter.  I was out of her hair in 15 minutes.

I walked back to the cancer center thinking “rare” thoughts.

I waited again for the oncologist, who was as always pleasant and happy.  She examined my spleen, and what she could feel of the 4 hamartomas that live there.  She felt nothing out of the ordinary, and ordered my abdominal sonogram.

I showed her the same chem panel I showed the endocrinologist.  She agreed the irregular labs should be repeated, but did not feel concerned.  I asked her about an internist.

She froze.  She suggested a new genetics person that had recently come to the hospital.  I may go for a consult.

But, and internist?  I asked again.

Hesitation.  Almost painful look.  She explained that the internists have to move fast.  They don’t really have time to get to know a new condition.  She couldn’t be sure if she new any that would care properly for me.  She basically gave me 4 names, but told me I was best left to do it myself.

Even though my rational mind understands it to a degree, I felt like I’d been punched in the gut.  I have homeowners insurance, auto insurance, and life insurance, just in case.  I have a 401K and am part of a pension system.  I do my best to prepare.  And I was basically told, by a major NYC hospital, that I stood little chance of finding an internist who would take the time to manage my case.

That scares me.  I do it.  I always do it, and I will continue to do it.  However, I am managing health care for myself and my teen.  And it’s not just routine stuff.  Cancer is looming, lurking, and mocking us.  All I want is someone to check behind, proofread per se, and make sure I am checking all the right boxes.  I want someone who will know that a test result in us may not mean what it does in someone else.  I want someone who looks me in the eye and knows I am a human who plans to live a long time even though her body doesn’t play by the rules.  I want a name to put on the line every time someone asks me for my “primary care” doctor, and I want that doctor to at least glance at every pertinent paper sent to them about my health.

I got my blood drawn at the hospital lab.

It’ll be in the online system long before anyone ever discusses it with me.   I’ll scan it, and hope that there are no alarm bells to be sounded this time.

RARE isn’t just snowflakes and unicorns.

RARE is that kid, who everyone looks past.  The one without the cool clothes, or the right hair.  RARE is the one who no one wants at their lunch table, and the one who is conveniently forgotten on fun excursions.  Because, what it RARE can’t do what everyone else can?  And anyway,  truth be told, RARE has cancelled one too many times.  RARE doesn’t really fit in anywhere.  RARE is brushed aside, in hopes they won’t bother anyone, or maybe they it go away.  People are afraid of RARE.  They perceive it as fragile, needing too much effort, or too hard to understand.  Sometimes people even envy RARE, without thinking through the late nights, the terror, the medical strategies, the constant advocacy.  RARE wants to fit in, but it never will.

RARE is too much new, and too scary for a doctor to own more than one piece.

We are scared of things we don’t understand.

Right now, RARE is a bit of a loner.

We are all RARE in some way.

But, RARE as a lifestyle is not an easy road.  And it is not a choice.

The choice comes in what we make of it.

Rare Disease Day 2018 will be a little different this year for us, a little more quiet.  But, I hope there is no doubt, that we will come back.

RARE does not give up.  Ever.

#beatingcowdens