Difficult To Work With

I am so tired of fighting.

All the time.

My Grandfather told me  many years ago that I was “difficult to work with.”  He said it with love.  I don’t remember the exact context.  I do remember it was said with a smile.

And he was undoubtedly right about that, like so many other things.

I had a boss a few years back that told me, “If you continue to hold everyone to the same standards you hold yourself to, you will always be disappointed.”  Strong words, but also not  inaccurate.

I am a lot to take.

I am intense almost all the time.  I have a mouth full of words that last long  past the attention span of anyone I strike up a conversation with.

I am passionate about things I believe in.

I make lots and lots of mistakes.  But, I truly do my best all the time.

So I just sometimes struggle to understand why it seems everything I touch or encounter is a battle.

I spend hours upon hours sorting through medical claims.  I look up who paid what, and when.  I call on bills that need to be refiled.  I take names on post-it notes with dates and times, in case things don’t get rectified.

I file out of network claims, and then I watch them processed in error.  I make three phone calls to try to sort out the change in policy, which was simply just a mistake no one will own.  I take names again.  I am told to wait 6 more weeks for hundreds of dollars owed to me to be reprocessed.  It’s only a little about the money.  It’s mostly about the notebook, and the folder with the copies of the claims, and the alarm in my phone to remind me when I need to follow up on the call again.

I send medication to the mail order pharmacy because we have no choice.  And then I wait for them to screw it up.  That sounds negative, but it’s simply accurate.  They have an entire notebook in my world to help manage the 9 mail away prescriptions between us.  There is a perpetual box on my ‘to do’ list which tells me to check on the progress of any refill.

I make appointments.  The list has 20 specialists between us.  They vary from twice a week to once a year.  A psychologist once told me not to let the appointments interfere with “preferred activities.”  So there is a matrix with the impossible task as the ultimate goal.  Except none of the 20 doctors know about the other 19.  Or the full time job.  Or the high school honor student’s schedule.  Or swim practice.  Or theater.  Or voice lessons.  Nor do they care.  And I get it.  They can not hear everyone’s story. So when I call to try to carefully place that appointment in a very tiny window of time, they are always unhappy with me.  They think I’m being unreasonable.  And maybe I am.  But, I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t TRY to get everything to keep her physically healthy and still let her be a teen.

I deal with unexpected schedule changes.  Like when I carefully stack 2 appointments in one day, and then one has to move to right smack in the middle of a week long summer internship that was planned forever ago, because now instead of two doctors with Friday hours at the same facility, one has Monday and one has Friday.  No overlap.  So I erase,  and juggle.  Except I’m not great at juggling in a literal sense, so one got cancelled and hasn’t been rescheduled.  Actually two… because summer can not be ALL about doctors.  Nor can every day off.  But, neither can every day at work or school…

“What do you mean you’re not going to reschedule today?”

So much of our condition relies on screening.  Early detection is a blessing.  It is the key.  It is also tedious and time consuming.  It is possible to be grateful and overwhelmed simultaneously.

So much of this is case management.  And, when last I checked my master’s degree is in education, not medicine.  But, with no one to coordinate care I have to guess a whole lot.  I have to decide if 9 months will be ok instead of 6.  I have to decide when to push the doctor for more lab tests when the fatigue won’t quit and the thyroid is ok but the spleen…eh, no one is quite sure about the spleen…

And there are doctor’s whose pride won’t let them return a call because I haven’t seen them recently enough.

There is the genetics appointment lingering again.  Because maybe Cowden’s wasn’t the WHOLE answer…

And the “normal people stuff”  like the seemingly never-ending root canals because my stress is played out in the jaw clenching that overtakes the episodes of sleep. That is on the occasions everything is calm enough for me to make it to my bed.

Or the foot injury.  The “rare” lisfranc ligament partial tear.  Close to 6 months later.  Not a soul wants to hear me tell the story again.  No one wants to believe that it still hurts badly enough that I haven’t take a real walk since last fall.  I’m not lazy.  I’m horrified by the state of my body in the absence of real physical activity.  I am trying to be patient.  My patience is running out alongside my sanity.

And the IEP.  Oh, the Individualized Education Plan… and the meetings.  Over and over and over again…  Meghan is on the waiting list for a service dog.  She has PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder.  The dog is coming.  The process is wearing me out.

I am a lot to take.

I am often “difficult to work with.”

I hold myself and others to a high standard.

I am intense most of the time.

I am tired.

I am so very tired of fighting all the time.

There is no choice though.  No choice at all.

So, in the mean time I will be here.  Strengthening my resolve.  I may bend, but I will not break.  I will continue to strive to show my girl that she can have a rare and currently incurable disease, while excelling at school, at sports, being active in the community, and being a generally decent human.

Last month we walked out of a screening appointment.  It was not critical.  It was an hour behind.  We rescheduled.  Also a valuable lesson.

I am tired of fighting, but I am far from done.

As my Grandfather said, I am “difficult to work with.”

I am also loved.  I am flawed.  I am also forgiven. 

 

When I have no more, I put my hands together and ask… and I am never disappointed.

Through God’s Grace alone we remain…

#beatingcowdens

The Carousel

Life is very much like a carousel… you must hold on tightly.  It will not stop until it is over…

I always heard about the body changing every seven years.  I never gave it much thought.A quick Google search brings a couple of interesting articles.Every Seven Years…

This has been on my mind a lot the last few weeks.  I’ve never been one to spend New Year’s Eve wishing a year away, or blaming one for my misfortunes.  However I do have a rock solid memory for dates, and 2012 is a year I will never forget.

Digesting our PTEN diagnoses from the fall of 2011, 2012 began with thyroid biopsies for my girl.  It was the year of risk assessment and triage for us.  In February there were breast and neck MRIs for me and another in a long string of embolizations for an AVM in Meghan’s knee.  In March came my prophylactic double mastectomy that showed DCIS on pathology.  In May of that year came my hysterectomy, as well as breast and an external pelvic ultrasound to assess my then 8 year old.  In June she had another thyroid sonogram as suspicion of her nodules increased.  She also had an MRI to assess the progress the embolization made on her AVM.  Insert recovery times, and “normal people stuff,” and that took us only to the end of third grade.

In the summer she had kidney and bladder ultrasounds, and an MRI of her pituitary gland.  I added an abdominal MRI to baseline hamartomas that to this day have continued to slowly outsize my spleen itself.  That MRI was repeated in November, and we ended the year with an uptick in concern about my girl’s thyroid.

Things have not really calmed down since then, and I have never counted surgeries and procedures from 2012 alongside any other year to see if it truly was our most medically active, because by all accounts the year you spend trying to process this diagnosis is the longest one ever.

Over time we have adapted to our lives, dancing in between appointments, carefully trying to schedule doctors and surgeries around life, and not the other way around.

Its a valiant effort.  Sometimes I am successful at it, and sometimes it is an epic fail.  Regardless there is no alternative but to keep pressing forward.  Adapting and changing.

Sometimes the adaptations make us stronger.  Other times they make us more efficient.  I am not sure the impact of the adaptations on emotional health.  I am focused on not letting this diagnosis take away my life.  I am determined to live my life in spite of it.  But, sometimes I do wonder.  I keep in touch with virtually no one.  Unable to make plans for the likelihood they will need to be cancelled or changed.  A deep fear of not being able to hold down a non-medical conversation reverberates through my soul.

So as I was hopping around on the crutches this morning it occurred to me that it is now 2019.  It is seven years since the epic 2012.  This year is shaping up to be one for the record books.

It is hard to tease apart the Cowden’s from the “Normal People Stuff,” because at this moment life seems to be a bit of an all-consuming medical drama.

That confuses people who see me smiling through the day at work with a large boot attached to my left foot for well over 6 weeks.  It makes people I run into at the mall think all must be well.  I smile.  Most of the time.  Frowning gives you uglier wrinkles.

Today was to be the day the podiatrist freed me from the walking boot.  Instead he told me to trade it for crutches in the house.  The boot is starting to hurt my knees and my hip.  My foot is simply not ready to be full weight bearing.  The partial tear is not healed.  In fact it seems no better, if not worse than when I fell at work on January 8th.  The delay in diagnosis caused by a denied MRI likely made things worse.

I was given names for a second opinion, and cautiously handed a script for PT, which cautions the potential therapist to be “NOT TOO AGGRESSIVE” with my foot.  The weather is getting warmer.  My pleasure comes from new sneakers and long walks…

Simultaneously working the juggling act with a few other issues, I have seen just about a doctor a day for the last week.

Fortunately my daughter’s brain MRI for lesions being watched for the last year was gloriously “unremarkable” on Tuesday and I am grateful for the little things – because they are the GIANT things.

My ENT was perplexed, as most doctors are.  The hearing test was normal.  The fluid that I feel was not visible to him as it had been to the other doctor.  He spent a good deal of time listening.  He decided he would offer me a tube to drain the ear with an anticipated 5% success rate. (No thanks) and an MRI of my head which would show the ear.  He said he was 99% sure the MRI would show nothing.  Then he corrected himself to say he was 99% sure it would show nothing in the ear… but I should anticipate incidental findings that will likely need follow up.  Whatever.  Brain MRI with Cowden’s is not a bad idea anyway.  MRI tomorrow.

My thyroid labs, after 3 weeks on the new medication regimen indicated the need for another change.  I’ve been having heart palpitations, and the highest blood pressure reading of my life.  I’m awaiting the arrival of the new dose, and setting up the next blood appointment, all while wondering if this is an exercise in futility as it looks like the rest of my thyroid will need to be removed in the not so distant future.  My partial thyroidectomy was in 1993. Clearly the body keeps changing.

I had a routine bone density screen on Weds.  I also went for my abdominal sonogram to monitor the spleen.  It’s a 45 minute ultrasound that requires 4 hours of fasting, but checks the spleen hamartomas for growth, while evaluating the liver and kidneys.  Except it was done in 6 minutes.

Apparently there is a drop down menu somewhere when you order an abdominal ultrasound.  I think the first item is Aortic screen.  The “Complete” that I needed was a few clicks down.  I’ll need to reschedule.  But, I am looking forward to hearing the random screen I didn’t need was “unremarkable.”  Results pending…

I am a different person than I was 7 years ago.  We all are I suppose.  If you evaluate your life in 7 year increments, you will definitely note changes.

The question is, will you be happy with them?

I am stronger.  I am more fit.  I am more confident in my knowledge.  I am less drawn into drama.

I am also less social.  I am less knowledgeable about world news, and more knowledgeable about rare diseases.  My attention span is shorter.  I am easily distracted.  My brain is always on.  Sometimes I catch really important things.  Other times I torment myself…

I am introspective and honest.

Happy is a relative term.

I’ve spent a lot of time watching Netflix. More than I ever have.  I picked up Grey’s Anatomy and keep hearing Meredith quote her mother.

“… But the carousel never stops turning.  You can’t get off.”

I will hold on tightly and remain

#beatingcowdens

 

 

It’s This Day to Day Living…


And that might be an accurate description of my current assessment of living with Cowden’s Syndrome.

It’s so hard to put into words.  Those who don’t understand are likely to think I’m insane.

When you know your mission, you carry it out.  You are driven.  Focused.  There is something that needs to be accomplished, or an adversary beaten.  You have a crystal clear goal.

As difficult as those moments have been, I am starting to find the ‘forever’ aspect of this syndrome to be overbearing at times.

Some days it seems no matter which hurdle we clear, something else is in the line of fire.

I waffle between doctors who are either not interested, or are so overworked that they lack the time, energy, or desire to research and think from the alternate view required for a 1 in 200,000 mutation on the PTEN (tumor suppressor) gene.

Research.  Real research  (yes, I am smart on the internet and know what to read and what to brush off,) is surfacing so often that it is hard for me to even keep up.  I don’t expect my doctors to be on top of it.

I expect them to treat me as a partner in my own care.

They have gone to medical school.  I have not.  However I have more extensively studied Cowden’s Syndrome than they ever will.  And I still have a great deal to learn.

Gone are the days when “doctor knows best,” and I should comply without question or explanation.  This is my life. This is my daughter’s life.  And wherever I can assist, I intend for those lives to be long and strong – physically, mentally and emotionally.

Tuesday the 26th was my “doctor day.”  It became a necessity years ago that I take a personal day and “stack” my annual appointments.  This makes the day out of work worth it.  Some years things are smooth.  Other years, well… not so much.

After a fall at work in January, where my 5 foot 7 frame ever so gracefully landed on my right shoulder and implant, I have been uncomfortable.  The implant that was previously easy to ignore was prevalent in my thoughts all day.  It is not ruptured, and I was able to get MRI confirmation of that.  However it is just annoying.  It sits slightly off place, a constant reminder to my brain and body that it is THERE.  I am grateful it is not painful.  I am not content to live with this situation indefinitely.

My discomfort, and the knowledgeable people I share some Facebook support groups with, let me down a path of research on silicone implants.

I learned a whole bunch of things.  Most of those things are probably inconsequential in my life, but they made me angry.  I had double mastectomy with immediate implants in 2012.  In 2016 the implants needed to be replaced way ahead of schedule. (With a maximum of about 10 years on average).  I had one breast surgeon and two plastic surgeons.

No one spoke to me about a condition called BIA-ALCL (breast implant associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma).  The risk is minimal, but it exists.  No one ever talked to me about it and allowed me to make an informed decision.  We have a rare disorder that predisposes us to greater cancer risk.  No one has thoroughly studied the occurrence of BIA-ALCL, and certainly no one has considered it in relation to PTEN Mutations.  No one knows.  But, I deserve the uncertainty discussed.

Further down the same page is the screening recommendation that women are screened via MRI for silent rupture 3 years after the first implants, and every 2 years following.

Not a word. Ever.

https://www.fda.gov/ForConsumers/ConsumerUpdates/ucm338144.htm

There are other pages.  Solid articles.  But if you read the above link you get the point.

So I saw my breast surgeon first.  All was good on exam.  That was a relief.  I began a discussion about the above, and was really upset by her flippant response.  I was told I was reading too much on the internet.  I was told that there was no conversation about possibly removing my implants.  Granted this is not something I was ready to do tomorrow, but it was something I wanted to learn about.  I was told I would be subjecting myself to unnecessary surgery and she would counsel my plastic surgeon against even entertaining it.

I honestly felt like I had been hit.

I asked her what her thoughts were on BIA-ALCL related to Cowden’s Syndrome.  She had no answer.  I asked her how many PTEN patients she sees. 20? No 10? No 5? No, less than 5.

I asked about screening MRIs.  I was told they were “unnecessary”.  I referred her to the above link.

I could not believe that I sat in the middle of a major cancer center in New York City.  I felt violated and angry.

Next came my oncologist.

She is a kind woman with very few answers or helpful tips on risk management.  She pretty much looked up Cowden’s and checked that I have no breasts, no uterus, and half a thyroid, so I should be easy to manage.  I asked her questions about bone density,and heart health, (30 years of thyroid replacement, 7 years into forced menopause) and she simply said, “I don’t know.”  I asked about the lymphangiomas on my spleen that currently outsize the spleen itself.  She started to talk to me about spleenic “cysts” but I drew her back to lymphangiomas and the vascular component that often affects PTEN Patients.  I have not desire to lose my spleen, nor do I have a desire to harbor a potentially destructive organ.  We settled on a bone density and an abdominal sonogram to measure the lymphangiomas.  At least this makes sense to me.

Off to the otolaryngologist with a hopefully not PTEN problem.  He did vocal cord surgery for me 2 years ago to remove some growths.  This day the vocal cords were clear.  The right ear however has been an issue since September.  I spent a bit of time treating for migraine, and blaming the chlorinated pool spectator sections.  I had 4 doctors prescribe antibiotics when they saw fluid in my ear, and another a short course of steroid.  All cautioned me about hearing loss.  I regained my sanity to some extent when a friend gave me Mucinex sinus max.  Something about it helped the pressure.  The doctor got a look in my ear and used his camera to show me the fluid inside the right ear that is not draining.  He also looked deep in the ears and told me something was “off” with the ear canal.  But that was as far as he would or could go.  He gave me the name of a doctor to treat me.  He also told me to get a hearing test, and to understand that they must find a cause prior to any treatment.  April 18th was the first I could get.  Mucinex for all till then.

The endocrine surgeon came into my world post diagnosis in early 2012.  I believe her function was to evaluate regularly the remaining 1/2 thyroid, as thyroid is one of the greatest PTEN related cancer risks.  My thyroid was partially removed in 1993 due to a diagnosis of “multi nodular goiter.”  At the time, the prevailing wisdom was to leave one of the lobes intact and suppress it with high doses of synthroid, keeping the TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone) low.  For years I operated with a lower than normal TSH, but it worked for me and seemed to keep the remaining tissue quiet.

When I was diagnosed and my team changed, so did some of the management theories.  This endocrine surgeon, who was only managing my medication as a courtesy, not as a regular practice, preferred a slightly higher TSH level.  We jousted a few times about fatigue, and other side effects that come with adjustment.  We had made peace on a split dose, until I had my levels measured in January and they were WAY to high for my physical comfort zone.  After my initial glee that I was not totally losing my mind, and that I needed medication, I started to wonder why the level change.  My weight was consistent…. my activity level consistent…

She did a routine sonogram of my neck in the office.  For the first time in 7 years she paused.  “There are small calcifications.  They were not there before.”

I asked about a biopsy and she told me she would not even know what to biopsy.  She’d be “guessing” as the thyroid bed is undefined.  She said she wanted me to consult with a colleague who is an endocrinologist well versed in molecular genetics.  She told me it was no rush.  She was going to Email his staff, and I could reach out when I have a school break in April.

That was Tuesday afternoon.

Wednesday morning I received a call that it was suggested I book the first available appointment.  I did so for March 12th.

I was told to obtain an ultrasound for basis at a local facility.

Thursday morning the phone rang again directing me to get the ultrasound at the hospital before I see the doctor.

Things seem to have moved from very casual, to lets not dawdle, quite quickly.

I’m not emotionally attached to too many non-essential organs anymore.  I’m vested in getting anything out before it causes me trouble.

Life is a juggling act.

I have plans.

Doctors appointments get in the way.

I know people who use sick days to vacation.  I use mine on the Gowanus Expressway.

I want to get it together, and see people.  I want to have casual conversations and catch up on people’s lives.

I will.  One day.

But for now the energy remains focused on a kind, lovely, compassionate teen, and keeping these two “Rare” ladies in their best health.

Oh, and that fall in January left me with a pain in my right foot that just won’t quit…

Tick tock… the waiting continues…

And we remain forever

#beatingcowdens

 

 

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

 

 

Triage- A Way of Life

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

Triage. Take care of the most serious first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we’re at it times 2.

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

But, lately that has become quite the juggling act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is easy to get isolated.

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

And where we are, is in TRIAGE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dust builds in places I never used to allow it.

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

Triage.

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

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

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

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

Usually we are out of the house about 13 hours.

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

Triage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triage is fluid.

Life is fluid.

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

And we remain steadfast

#beatingcowdens.

 

 

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

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