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

Sometimes GOOD Things Do Happen…

Sometimes really GOOD things happen.  And when they do it is just such a jubilant feeling of gratitude and relief.

In October I wrote at length about Meghan’s struggle with PTSD and anxiety.  I wrote in the blog linked below about our commitment to obtain a service dog.

A blog outlining Meghan’s journey towards a service dog.

When we made this commitment it came with an enormous price tag.  It came after two of her doctors strongly encouraged the decision.  It also came with a determined sense of urgency that we would do whatever was necessary to make this a reality for her.

After searching, we interviewed with, and contracted with Medical Mutts.  We were drawn here because of their commitment to rescue their service dogs.  We currently love 2 rescues, and a third spent several wonderful years as a key part of our family.  We believe strongly in their mission.  We put the deposit for the dog on our credit card, a total leap of faith that was so necessary at that moment when she needed HOPE.

Meghan had weighed out the pros and cons of a service animal.  She had overwhelmingly decided on the pros.  And, while we know there will be bumps in the road, her father and I trust her instincts.

The wait time for a dog can be a year.  We had to get her into the system.

Then we paused and wondered how on earth we were going to manage the cost of obtaining a fully trained service dog from Indiana, with costs including a week of lost wages, air fare, hotel, and food while we were there.  We knew we needed help.

We reached out to local charities and were directed first to ECHO –Emergency Children’s Help Organization  

Previously, I had an idea they existed, but I had no idea we would ever need to ask them for help.  The whole act of asking for help is humbling.  But, if anything can humble you, it is the desire to provide your child with what she needs.

When I spoke to Gina she was friendly, helpful and calm.  She spent so many different sessions on the phone with me as I drove her wild with questions.  The application was intense and comprehensive, but I understood why.

With time and patience I was able to deliver her a completed application close to the end of November.  When I submitted the application, I had complied a list of other places we would apply to once they decided if they were going to grant us money.  I had never done anything like this before.

Through the process I was able to compile a history of Meghan’s charity work around the community.  I was proud to be able to attach a document detailing her work.

The executive board at ECHO was presented with Meghan’s case awarded her a grant that exceeded my wildest hopes and dreams.  With one phone call Gina was able to tell me that the balance of the dog would be paid in full, and there would be stipends for the travel to Indiana, the lodging, the transportation and the food.  In short, we were told to focus on Meghan.  The financial burden of the dog she needs so desperately had been lifted.

I have no doubt that Meghan, once she feels well again, will return to the charitable end of things, fundraising for PTEN disorders, and for those less fortunate.  It is part of her heart.

Right now, we have HOPE to carry us through some difficult times.  We have HOPE and eager anticipation for a dog that will become her best friend.

HOPE right now is spelled ECHO.

Please, if you’re inclined to support a quality organization – visit their website and consider a donation.

Emergency Children’s Help Organization – Donation Page

We will wait for the new dog anxiously in HOPE and GRATITUDE.

Forever,

#beatingcowdens

More questions than answers…

 

I haven’t written regularly and it is wearing on me.  I keep putting things in front, waiting to be ready, to be finished so I can focus.  Except life is really busy.  And it keeps getting busier.  So, while I’m really dating myself…


While I will never ever possess even a fraction of Ferris Bueller’s 1980s spontaneity, I am constantly working on this reminder.  I’m a work in progress.

Today we stopped.  We sat together.  We watched a movie.  We enjoyed each other.  It was fun.  I need to remember to do it more often.

I find myself struggling to keep the story together, while respecting the privacy (she does preread every post before they publish) of my teenager, and maintaining the authenticity of this journey we are on together.

I always try to be positive, and to put a positive spin on everything.  It’s how I cope.  It’s how I press on.  But, it is the same reason it’s been so hard to write.

The cold hard reality is that even when we are conscious of our many blessings, sometimes having a rare disease, THIS rare disease, really just sucks.  And, as much as you work to not have it define you, it becomes so intertwined with who you are, that it can become difficult to tease the two apart.  In the 6 years since our diagnoses she’s, gone from 3rd to 9th grade.  Those are some pretty formative years.

The struggle to stand apart from the disease that takes so much of your time and energy is real.  As a teen the level of self-awareness is naturally high.  The fear of judgment is one we can all remember.  The desire to stand alone, stand apart, and fit in, while not compromising yourself is one I remember as if it were yesterday.

My girl is strong.  She is physically strong, as she recovers from countless surgeries, and fights her way back into the pool time and time again.  She endures physical therapy.  She navigates countless flights of stairs, and is constantly challenging herself to do more.

She is mentally strong.  She has a work ethic that is impressive, and grades to back it up.  She reads.  She questions.  She thinks.

She is morally strong.  She has ethics that often impress me, and she will not step away from who she is, even for a moment.

She is emotionally strong.  She refuses to stay down, no matter what life tosses at her.  She handles stress, disappointment, and struggle, with a poise many adults I know are lacking.

She is strong.  I know she is strong.  Anyone lucky enough to meet her knows she is strong.

She also suffers with PTSD, and severe anxiety.

I see no conflict between her being strong, and suffering.

I watch the age of diagnosis for PTEN mutations getting younger.  I see in this blessing and curse.  It is a wonderful thing to have the mechanism by which we can survey and protect.  It is also a difficult thing for an intelligent child to have to shoulder.

Clearly, her PTSD is PTEN related.  There are only so many surgeries, hospital stays, IVs, blood draws, MRIs and other medical dramas one can face before memories are haunting.

The anxiety- we’re working on it.

I have some theories.  And I will press until every one of them is shot down, or validated.  Her history indicates that she has always had some metabolic issues.  Some were first addressed by an alternative medicine doctor beginning when she was 2.  I watched things resolve that I thought could never get better.

When her thyroid was removed in 5th grade, just shy of 4 years ago.  I knew then it was not a good time.  I also knew it was not our choice, as the recent biopsy result with 19 nodules, 5 of them suspicious for malignancy, prompted the endocrinologist at the major cancer center to force the total removal.

Fortunately, it was a benign thyroid.  However, that thyroid, no longer in her, now needed to be replaced synthetically.

I was 20 when I lost half of my thyroid.  That was hard.  This, well, it was just unimaginable. Because, anyone who understates the importance of the thyroid for every single function in the body, in my opinion is under-informed.  The endocrinologists are trained to look for one number on a piece of paper and make every decision based off of that number.  Except, we are people.  We are individuals.  We are not numbers.

It took just shy of 2 years before even that number, the TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone – which by definition should not IMO be the “go to” number in someone with NO thyroid to stimulate) stabilized.  It also required a change of endocrinologists to get one to listen to me practically scream that her body was not converting the synthetic T4 to T3.  I may not have been a good chemistry student, and I may not fully understand WHY she does not process synthetic anything very well, but I confidently know it to be true.  This new endocrinologist was willing to give a low dose of T3 a try alongside the T4.  Finally the “magic” number stabilized.

Looking back I believe I was lulled into a false sense of security.

There was so much going on those years.  Middle school is tough for every student.  Factor in 7 surgeries in 3 years and its easy to see where things got complicated.

Looking back again, maybe I should have seen or thought… but there really was no time.

Excessive menstrual bleeding – nonstop for months, led us to an adolescent gynecologist.  That led us to a pelvic ultrasound, which subsequently led to a finding of “abnormally thickened uterine lining.”  The D&C pathology showed cellular irregularities, highly unlikely in her then 12 year old body.  But, we live as the “highly unlikely.”

Even as we were nudged towards hormones, I should have seen.  But, it’s easier to see in reverse.

The need for hormones to thin the uterine lining was non-negotiable I was told.  The IUD was an unacceptable solution to both of us.  So, she was given progesterone.

The medication is pure evil, I am convinced.  She handed me the pill bottle one morning and told me to get rid of it.  She was done with it.  I shudder at what could have become of things if she did not possess the inner strength I spoke of earlier.  Her level of self-awareness is eerie at times.  I am grateful.

So, we went a while with nothing.  And the body began to act up again.  This summer we agreed to try a birth control pill.  And, still, several changes later, things are not where they should be.

Most doctors want to make all sorts of sweeping generalizations.  They want to put everyone in a neat box.  Life is messy.  Rare disease life is RARE by definition.  When you are 1 in 250,000 you just don’t fit in the box.

I first noticed the anxiety increasing in middle school.

“Middle school is hard for everyone…”

The PTSD diagnosis finally came in May of this year.  But, I knew even then it wasn’t the whole picture.

This summer we almost cancelled Disney.  The pain from her periods had become intolerable, totally crippling her.  I called the gynecologist in desperation.  She was glad to hear me finally agree to the birth control pill.  I was desperate and hesitant, the progesterone nightmare was not lost on me.  It was the classic “rock and a hard place” story.

High School started out a little tumultuous.  The school she thought she’d attend underwent major changes over the summer.  She ended up relocating a few days into the school year.  But, she loves the new school.  The kids are nice.  She has more good teachers this semester than in 3 years of middle school.  The high school swim team was strong.  So why was the anxiety quickly melting into full scale panic attacks?

She works so hard to keep it all together.  She tries to keep it hidden.  She is so aware.

The panic settled back into general anxiety, but that anxiety spread to just about everything.

In December I adjusted my work day through FMLA to be able to pick her up at the end of every school day.  We spent a lot of time working through so much.

And somewhere in the middle of working through all of this, as people were so quick to offer medication for anxiety, I had some thoughts.

Why had the gynecologist and the endocrinologist NEVER spoken about interactions between their respective medications when both were prescribing hormones?

Simply because her lab tests for thyroid function remain in the laboratory range, there was never a question.  No one noticed this actual human being in front of me is struggling.

Why are we so quick to write off the unusual as impossible?

Why won’t we try anything to keep a bright, articulate, in touch 14 year old OFF as many medications as possible?

What if her T4 to T3 conversion, which was always a problem, was masked and not solved by adding a synthetic T3?  What if this anxiety has been building for all these years, and exploded at the insult of additional, yet necessary synthetic hormones?  What if the answer is harder than adding more medication?  What if it will take research, theories, and some “out of the box” thinking?

How do I convince them she’s worth it?

While my PTEN Facebook friends are sending me article links, I am composing my thoughts before writing a more organized, clinical version of these questions to her doctors.

All of this while seemingly insignificant head congestion is cramping her style.  I am not sure exactly where it fits in.

The ENT ordered an MRI of the brain to check the sinuses.  Turns out the sinuses are clear.  Except there was an incidental finding of a brain lesion 9.5mm of undetermined significance.  The new neurologist is confident its not a problem, but we’ll have a follow up MRI on February 20th.

In the mean time – no one will touch the congestion other than to tell her it’s “anxiety.”

She deserves better.

So, we will press on.

One year ends and another begins.  We’ve grown, we’ve learned, we’ve laughed, we’ve cried.  Yet still there are more questions than answers.

I have a feeling that’s pretty much how it will be.

This is life

#beatingcowdens

 

 

 

You Might Have Cowden’s Syndrome if…

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome (or insert your chronic/rare illness here) if…

I spent some time alone last night.

That sounded a great deal nicer than it actually was.  There was no manicure, no spa, and not even any wine.

Last night, after working, taking my daughter to her orthopedist on Long Island, and sitting in traffic home, I finally had to address the feeling that something large was sitting under the rib cage on my left side.

It was a process to arrive there- a mental game I played for about 12 hours.  But, I got there.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…  you have ridiculously large “stable” lymphangiomas on your spleen that outsize the spleen itself.  Because, hey, we grow things.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… it occurs to you as you’re teaching that you are actually acutely aware of the previously mentioned spleen.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you then proceed to launch into a logical, rational series of scenarios, while completing your math lessons.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you know that the day may end with you in surgery, yet, you still make sure your daughter has the follow-up appointment she needs for the knee that has its own Cowden’s related issues.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can carry on a conversation with your teenager through 90 minutes of traffic while simultaneously setting up your strategy… just in case you need your spleen removed.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can get everyone settled at home and then sneak out to the “mall” (read Urgent Care) in hopes that a doctor will tell you your spleen is just fine.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… while you are waiting for the doctor, you access the sonogram report from your last spleen scan in February.  Scanning the spleen is a regular occurrence, so you have the “mychart” app open and ready.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you listen as the doctor tells you he’d like to get you to the Emergency Room “as soon as possible” to address the abdominal swelling and rule out a rupture.  You thank him for his time, shake his hand, decline his offer for an ambulance because your gut tells you it’s not THAT bad, drive yourself home and figure out how you’re going to travel to a hospital where you could possibly handle surgery if you needed it.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you’ve been through enough atrocious hospitals to know when to stay local, and when you must travel… just in case.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you contact your job to let them know you’ll be absent the next day.  Because, even if you don’t have surgery you’re sure it’ll be a late night.  And then, as you hang up you start to wonder if you did the right thing.  Because, sick days are hard to come by, and you can get by on little sleep, and maybe you should have waited till the morning.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you reassure your husband all is well, while helping your anxiety filled daughter get to sleep.  All before you mention the need to get to the ER.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can calmly text your husband what you’ll need for your bag, just before you’re sure your daughter is asleep.  Then, explain to him that you’re driving yourself.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can lovingly reassure, while starting to feel a little nervous inside, because, you do what you have to do.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you call a friend or two from the car, with your full on brave voice, just to pass the time.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you drive to the ER, park the car, tell the attendant in the garage you’re not quite sure when you’ll be back, call your husband to tell him where you put the parking receipt, and walk into the ER to check in.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you don’t even have to provide an insurance card because your information is so active in the computer.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… the triage nurse says “What?” three times as she takes your blood pressure and asks about your medical history.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can watch the attending from your “bed” in the crowded hallway “Google” Cowden’s Syndrome before she comes over to you.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you have to catch yourself from acting like a know-it-all when that same attending speaks as if she studied Cowden’s extensively, and tells you “spleenic lymphangiomas are not a common presentation of Cowden’s Syndrome.” You just nod instead of asking “Exactly how many patients have you ever met with this syndrome?”

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you take a picture of your IV once it’s in.  Because that’s a thing in our family.  No, it’s an actual thing… really.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you check your “mychart” app so regularly, you know to the minute when they are coming to take you for the CT Scan because it is in as an “appointment.”

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you can wait better than most people.  You can settle into your “chairbed” in the hall, while people are ill and vomiting, and you’d rather be anywhere but there, and you can keep your blood pressure and heart rate calm.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you view the “registration” people as vipers traveling through the corridors with iPads, getting sick and out of sorts people to sign away.  It’s about the money and the bills that will follow you for months anyway.  And you can actually see snakes while you look at them, even if it’s not who they are because you are so furious that they regularly delay people’s requests for help until they sign “this last form.”

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you knew to pack two battery chargers for your phone, a t-shirt, and a bottle of water.  The bare necessities in a hall where there was no one to attend to you and no plugs.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can resign yourself to drinking a full container of lethal tasting contrast dye while ordering yourself new sneakers on amazon, and a few gold bars for “Candy Crush Soda Saga,” because, hey…it’s the little things.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…the attending who ‘googled’ you hours before, is fully perplexed at your visibly swollen and tender spleen and your negative lab results.  So she says, “That’s not what I expected.  It’s good, but unusual…”  And you laugh to yourself.  Hard. In your brain of course.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… when the CT results come back as “multiple stable hypodense spleenic lesions” and that same attending says, “you should follow-up with your primary doctor tomorrow,”  you smile in your head again.  You know this means the spleen is safe for now.  You know this means no emergency surgery.  You also know you already explained you DON’T HAVE a primary doctor, because seeing a million specialists means sometimes you lose track of what “routine” means.  Plus, no one is too interested in being your (or your daughter’s) case manager because “rare disease” is high risk.  But, you take your walking papers because tonight your spleen won’t rupture.  And, hey, it’s the little things.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…before you sign your discharge they mention an “incidental finding” of some spinal deterioration that you should “probably point out to your primary doctor,” and you can’t quite stifle the laugh that time, as you are reminded about taking the used car to the mechanic… and the fact that no one is really listening to you anyway.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can see the vipers slithering around as you gather yourself, stretch your side that feels exactly as it did when you walked in, and navigate your way out.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you wake the parking garage attendant at 2:30 AM and retrieve your car.  You head home relieved, grateful, and overwhelmed.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you actually contemplate heading to work in 4 hours to save the sick day, but think better of it.  You plan the morning with your husband, text your daughter her directions, remove all traces of the hospital from your body and slide into your bed.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… it takes you a few minutes to settle as you contemplate your “night out” and you wonder if a night out will ever again include fun, friends, and wine.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you think about the number of times you and your daughter have been to the hospital courtesy of this syndrome, and you wonder how many more there will be.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you want to get mad.  Really mad.  But, you can’t.  Because after all, you get a warning system.  You get to check it, scan it, and test it, BEFORE it ruptures, and BEFORE it spreads.  You know how tired you are, and how sick of it you are, but you also know how fortunate you are, and how SO MANY people would actually give anything for that warning system.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you miss your friends, but you know there will be time again.  Eventually.  And in your heart you know they are all there.  You miss socializing, ever.  You wish a night out wasn’t bridge and tunnel tolls and a parking garage at a hospital.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you are not quite sure you have the physical or emotional strength, or hours in a day, to get through the next few weeks.  Yet, you strengthen your resolve and readjust your mind into tiny, manageable chunks.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you spend way too many hours calculating and reforming your strategy to remain grateful and

#beatingcowdens

Change- The Only Constant

Wild.  These last few weeks have been just that.

I’m always amazed at exactly how much can fit into hours or days.  Sometimes I try to recap a day, and find myself shaking my head.

Meghan is in high school.

I feel like we’ve been looking at high schools since January.  We had it figured out by May.  So we thought.  September 15th is ok too.  Because the plan was clearly not ours to make, and like so many other things was guided by a higher power.

It’s not the high school she planned to attend.  It’s not even the high school she started in September.  But, on day 8 – she enrolled in a school a few miles away.  The reasons are irrelevant.  The outcome is what matters.

Currently her school mascot is the “Warrior.”  Somehow that seems remarkably appropriate.

She is catching up on notes missed the first 8 days.  She is organizing in a way that only she has, and getting herself set up.  She functions largely alone now.  Years of supporting schoolwork have paid off.

September is chaos.  Pure chaos.  21 years of Septembers, 14 of them as a mom and a teacher.  Not a single one gets easier.  No matter how many years I do it.  The new schedules, the logistics of organizing, and establishing routines, both at work and at home can generate extra gray hairs at the thought.

The only thing the same is the chaos.  And the inevitable illness.

The weakened immune system, and maybe the ragweed allergy, means there is never a September I can recall for her with perfect attendance – or without a sinus infection.

There are so many things packed into a day.  Sometimes I can’t think more than a few hours ahead because it gives me a headache.

Right now there is swim.  A whole lot of swim.  There is swim for her 12 month team, and there is high school swim.  There is practice for both.  There are meets several times a week.  I think there is an 11 day stretch in October where there will be 8 meets.

 

There are new friends.  There is a team.  There are old friends reunited.  There are kind people.  In so many ways there is some peace.  Finally.

Except 7 days of 9th grade (actually 6- the sinuses sidelined her today) don’t, or can’t make it all ok.

While my girl works to establish herself as an athlete, a student, and a generally nice human in her new school, she continues to battle every moment with her health.

And because it is that “invisible illness” kind of battle, no human would imagine what it takes for her to get through these days.

She sleeps poorly, struggling for hours each night to settle the pain in her body and the activity in her mind.  She wakes fatigued, and with great effort.

Her pill case overflows – thyroid medicines- 2 kinds, allergy medicines – a pill and 2 nasal sprays, antivirals, medicine for reflux.  Currently another (sigh) antibiotic, and a short course of a steroid for the sinuses.  Strong probiotics, a multivitamin, and a few others, all cross her lips every day.  Each one carries with it its own set of risks and side effects.  Yet, we have had to make the decision each time that the benefits outweigh the risks.  There is a lot of trading “this for that”  that you do when you have Cowden’s Syndrome.  It’s a dicey game.  There are no right answers, and every educated guess could backfire.

The medication leaves her more tired.

The thyroid being gone during these years was necessary torture.

She is gaining back strength lost during months off her normal routine this spring.  The knee is back to allowing her activity, but the body continues to prefer the development of one side.  The difference is so subtle to the eye, but to her it feels so much more.  The right side lags behind.

The foot is smaller and more narrow on that side as well.  It leaves her stride off.  Again she compensates.  Again she aches.

The chiropractor readjusts about twice a month, sometimes more.

The backpack is heavy.  Everything throws off the stride.

The sneakers are carefully chosen.  I shudder at the thought of shopping for dress shoes for my tall, thin, beautiful girl to be “party ready.”

The stomach, once improving, seems to be back on strike.  The pain is more frequent.  The heartburn, once gone, creeps into life more regularly.  But, as is the story of the chicken and the egg, trying to tease of which medicines are causing what is no easy task.

There is no “typical” 14 year old girl.

There is no “typical” Cowden’s Syndrome patient.

We are all just trying to figure it out the best we can with what we have, where we are.

There has been a lot of talk lately about disclosure, and the internet.  There is no real way of teasing apart what is syndrome related and what just is.  Meghan and I tell this somewhat censored, but typically brutally honest version of our struggles, not because we think others have it better, or worse, or even the same, but rather to validate that Cowden’s Syndrome is real.  It doesn’t take a holiday.  It affects every day and every decision we make.

I have a follow up from my voice surgery this coming week.  I’m not so sure how it’ll go.  All that back to school talking, even with the head microphone, has been tough.

I scheduled my next vascular surgery for February 21st. Exactly enough time to stay wrapped for 5 days and make it back to work on the 26th.  They thought I was nuts.  The leg hurts now.  But, the luxury of time needs to be saved for things that can’t wait.

The only thing constant is change.

The shell of it all remains the same, but the logistics and decisions forming the web get increasingly complex.

Yet, we need to remember, in the midst of the regular chaos, and the medical chaos, to stop, or at least to pause.  And sometimes, maybe a sinus infection is how the universe forces the pause…

Change is constant, but we remain

#beatingcowdens

through it all.

 

Middle School is Hard

Middle School is hard.

If you’ve ever had a middle school student in your world, you know what I mean.  Like everything in life, the feelings are different for each of them, but if you’ve recently had someone pass through 6th, 7th, or 8th grade, you have undoubtedly  been with them through some trying times.

And that’s without factoring in the Cowden’s Syndrome.  Middle School saw 7 surgeries in 3 years.  It started with a broken foot and ended with Graduation on crutches for some extreme, and as of yet, unexplained knee swelling.

It also culminated with my girl as the Salutatorian of a class of close to 400.  At awards night Tuesday she received several other awards as well.  And, not a single one was connected in any way to the obstacles she overcame to get there.  It was a proud moment.  The desire of my teenager is to not ever be defined by her disease.  She wants no pity.  She’d love compassion.  Empathy, not sympathy.  She wants to achieve in spite of her obstacles and never BECAUSE of them.

As her Mom, I am insanely proud.  I am also inspired.  Every day we wake with a choice to make.  “The body achieves what the mind believes.”

Her mind believes that she will continue to overcome.  I have no doubt.  High School is on the horizon, and while I have no idea what the next few years have in store, I am confident she will continue to achieve success in all she does.

Cowden’s Syndrome messed with the wrong young lady.

The text of her speech from graduation is below:

Welcome and good evening, Mr. Mele, the administration and teachers from IS51, parents, family and guests, and most importantly, the graduating class of 2017!

 

Heh. I remember thinking to myself before I knew I’d be up here speaking to you today, “Wow, I feel sorry for the poor sap that is going to speak at graduation.” Yea, the universe has a funny sense of humor, doesn’t it? I’ve never been much of a writer, but I hope I at least don’t bore you to sleep. So, fellow classmates, here’s my attempt at leaving you with something “profound.”

 

This poem is called “The Victor.”

 

“If you think you are beaten, you are
If you think you dare not, you don’t,
If you like to win, but you think you can’t
It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost
For out of the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man,
But soon or late the man who wins
Is the man WHO THINKS HE CAN!”

 

Walter D. Wintle

 

Smart man.  

 

As I stand here today getting ready for all of us to move on to high school, I’ll say Congratulations! We’re done!

 

You might expect me to reminiscine about all the amazing memories I have of the last three years of middle school. While there were some good times, I’m not going to lie, middle school was three of the most difficult years of my life so far, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who shares that sentiment.

 

Middle school is hard, and some times can be super taxing. In addition to figuring out the school, the teachers, and the classwork, we have had to figure out ourselves, and each other. 

 

Let’s be real here. Bullying is a real part of these years.  Many of us have experienced it, and it hurts your self-esteem and diminishes your self worth. When people have hurt you enough, you can easily want to give up. Even if you can do it, your brain can become convinced you can’t. Therefore, you will fail. It’s cliché, but true. The body achieves what the mind believes.

 

The first step to winning, to taking that final step into your full potential, is believing in yourself.

 

That’s the trick.  The way to overcome the feelings of loneliness and isolation is to alter and control your state of mind. Your state of mind, and hard work, together form the key to accomplish your goals.

 

Now, while I’m here talking to you about a “winning state of mind.” I’d just like to put the disclaimer out there that I haven’t even close to succeeded in this mentality yet. But, I’m working on it. It’s hard. But, most things that are worth it are hard.

 

I once had a friend tell me something at one of our swim meets that I’ll never forget.  She said to me, “Stop. Breathe. Focus.”  Since I respect her ability in our sport so much, I shut up, and listened. It was one of the best things I ever did and it worked.

 

You see, I’m not talking to you about nonsense. As you head off into your high school, wherever it may be, you are likely to be at least a little nervous.  Remember, that your mind is extremely complex, and it controls and affects more than we could ever realize.

 

So, if you find yourself feeling like you’re not good enough.  If you find yourself worrying too much about what others think of you, or if you find yourself feeling like you are destined to fail, remember to “Stop. Breathe. Focus.”  You are enough just the way you are.  And, don’t worry, I’ll be standing in the halls of Port trying to take my own advice.

 

                                                    

Thank you, and once again, congratulations to the graduates.

 

#beatingcowdens