Forever…

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

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

forever

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

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

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

Stay Alert

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

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

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

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

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

busy-calendar-2

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

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

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

late doctor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forever.  The struggle is real.

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

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

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

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

waiting doctor

Forever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One step at a time.

We  will remain

#beatingcowdens

Forever.

 

 

 

 

When you reach the end of your rope…


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

So often this is easier said than done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It held on then, and I was released.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checkbox with green tick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if he’s not – I’ll find another.

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

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

Game on.

Tick tock.

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

#beatingcowdens

 

 

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

 

 

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

Time flies…


February Break.  A time to refresh and renew.  Mostly.

Except here.  Here it’s a time to go as hard and fast as possible to get as many things done as possible.

Some of those things are Cowden’s related.  Some are real-life related.  Some are both.

Each could probably take a full entry or more.

But, for now, just in the last 10 days…

Last Thursday, was root canal 4 of 4.  Ninety minutes in the chair for a nerve I don’t think is gone.

Friday I spent the morning at pre admission surgical testing for an upcoming vascular surgery.  6AM appointment.  By the time I was leaving at 8, they had already begun to tell me I needed to find a primary care doctor to fill out “clearance papers.”  A whole lot of nonsense about “comorbidities” with Cowden Syndrome.  I felt like I had “cooties.”

Friday afternoon I went to two appointments with Meghan.  Each left more questions.

While I was in the car the head of PAST (Pre Admission Testing) called to tell me without additional clearance, my surgery was cancelled.

Monday the dogs, both of them had all day trips to the vet.  One had her teeth cleaned, and the other 22 staples in her side to remove a tumor that’s been there for almost 18 months.

Tuesday some work began in our basement- a long overdue upgrade to a leaking shower.  It would take days, and my husband needed to stick around just in case.

Tuesday we went back to NYC to Meghan’s neurologist to have another brain MRI.  Lesion is stable.  The tumor board will review it on 2/28 – Rare Disease Day – and if all concur, she will have 6 month brain MRIs for at least 3 years.  We talked a lot about headaches, and got a suggestion for a natural migraine relief I’m hopeful about.   The head congestion persists despite “clear” sinuses and the headaches are relentless.

After I dropped her to swim, right from the city on Tuesday, I called my surgeon’s office to discuss what had gone wrong to cause the cancellation of my surgery.  I was very surprised to hear things had rectified, in ways that confused me greatly, and I was no longer cancelled.

Having given up my ride, and anxious about the way things had been handled, I took an uneasy Uber trip to the hospital for my arrival time.

I should have been late.  They were.

My 11:30 OR became 3:45, and the day was pretty much poorly done all around.

It’s over now – and truly is a long enough story if I tell it, it will need its own entry.

Thursday and Friday I did what I could to rest.  Saturday was Silver Swimming Championships.  In the Bronx.  With a 6:30 AM arrival.

There was also a 2 hour line for a well-deserved sweatshirt.  In my stockings.  3 days after vascular surgery.

We made it back to Staten Island in exactly enough time for her to change her clothes, brush her hair, and grab a sandwich on the way to theater.  She’s begun working with a lovely group, SICTA, performing “Once Upon a Mattress” this spring.  She made it in 10 minutes before rehearsal began and kept at it till I picked her up at 4:30.

Sunday was Saturday – take two.  Minus the sweatshirt line, with the addition of some rain.  In the dark.  To the Bronx.

But, two days.  Two events.  Two best times.  This is what makes it worth it.

And, I was home in time to get April to the vet for her newest ear infection.  Felix was going to go, but the flex hose behind the dryer split…

And in 12 hours I’ll be on my second class of the day.

It should be easier than this.  Today I’m wiped out.

I keep vowing to write more, and I keep failing.

#beatingcowdens

is exhausting.