Desperate times…

I took the knee scooter to the mall.

I brought my husband.  Well, technically he brought me.  And he lugged the giant contraption down the stairs and into the back seat of our “big enough for most things, but not this thing” Sonata.

The screen on his iPhone had cracked and he needed to go to Apple.  I needed an outing worse than a puppy who has been crated too long.

He dropped me off at the door.  He rode the scooter through the parking lot to meet me.  Apparently, like so many other things, its a LOT more fun when you don’t need it.

I laughed in spite of myself at the sight of it.  I was also glad our teenager had decided to stay home.  The sight of it all would have likely been just too much.

People stare right at you, while simultaneously judging you as you drive this thing.  The local mall lacks the tolerance of Disney World.  In fairness, from face on, it looks like you’re using wheels for fun.  It’s not until I have passed, if they bother to look, that they would see the giant walking boot resting on the knee pad.

Today is 8 weeks and 1 day since I’ve been “booted” again. 57 days.

I have had more surgeries in my life than I can count.  Not a single one of them kept me down for 8 weeks. This foot has been messing with my life for over 8 months.

Double Mastectomy – back at work in 5 weeks.

Hysterectomy – back in 2 weeks.

I once had arthroscopic knee surgery over a long weekend, and was back on the 4th floor in my classroom the following Monday.

Vascular, over the February break…

Biopsies, a day tops…

We always say recovery pain is the best kind, because you know it’s going away.

And yet the answer to “Does your foot feel better?” still remains “Not really.”

My kind and compassionate local podiatrist, in a combination of frustration at the injury that won’t heal and my insurance company making it harder for him to treat me, has advised a visit to Hospital for Special Surgery.  I’m sitting.  Foot up, phone in hand, waiting to try to schedule.

I rode that knee scooter all over the mall.  I rode it into the grocery store too.  Quite simply, I’m tired of being locked in my house.  It is truly a ridiculous and ingenious contraption.

If you asked me 2 years ago if I would ever… the answer would have been “NO WAY!”

Except if I keep learning anything through these years of life with a rare disease, and also just life, it seems to be” never say never…”

I had a boatload of things I wasn’t going to do as a parent.  I’m pretty sure the first one was undone about three hours in… right after the anesthesia from that c section wore off…

Wasn’t going to… feed certain things, watch certain things, give certain things, etc. etc.  And then you find yourself learning that all the plans in the world are suddenly invalid as you just try not to damage the tiny human.

A great deal of my pride was left behind in the OR where she was delivered.

I lost a bunch more of it through a slew of breast biopsies prior to the double mastectomy in 2012.

The uterine biopsies, the hysterectomy, the “cancer screening” human exams took a bunch more.

And there are few things quite as humbling as a breast MRI of your silicone implants.

I was never “in fashion” but I used to take great care in what I wore.  Things were dry cleaned.  Stockings and heels were worn daily.

Then there was back pain that seemed only better in sneakers.  Coupled with a significant weight loss my wardrobe evolved into jeans, t shirts and sneakers.  May be a dig at my early judgment of “too casual” teachers…

Life, at it again…

If we are open, and able to be introspective, we are changing and growing all the time.

I am in a painstakingly slow process of relinquishing control.  

Control is really largely an illusion anyway.

Faith, trust, hope, and the ability to embrace what the future has in store, these are my current goals.

I’m a work in progress.

So if you see me and my knee scooter, be kind.  You may even see me up and down the block.  These are, after all, desperate times…

We’re done being caged up.  I need some fall air.  I am ready to get well.  Since my foot isn’t cooperating, I’ll start with my mind.

#beatingcowdens

 

 

Six Wheels and a Boot

At any given point during our 10 days in Disney, our party of three also had six wheels and a boot.

We must have looked unusual to anyone who passed us by.

I traveled with a virtual pharmacy in my purse, which is really simply a string bag on my back, because who really wants to be fancy anyway?

The week before we left we had a PILE of appointments.  I think I lost count at 17 in the 5 days.  One of them was the orthopedist Meghan sees a few times a year.  He was catching up on the new diagnosis of Ehler’s-Danlos Syndrome, paying careful attention to her knee, which by all accounts has been her ‘Achilles heel’ her whole life.   There had been pain in that knee for weeks prior, which is always a concern.  One of the surgeries she has had repeatedly has been to correct the tracking of the patella.  Anxiety is warranted.

This doctor suggested an MRI to confirm the knee was tracking correctly.  He also said that she was ‘not to walk consecutive distances longer than one block’ at least until the pain in the knee settled.  He prescribed a painkiller and a muscle relaxant.  He told me she was not to walk the parks in Disney. She needed to spend most of the day confined to a wheelchair.  And while there is gratitude for the temporary nature of this situation, there is a mental and emotional adjustment to enduring it.

This was not a totally new arrangement for us, as the knee has limited her walking in the past.  However, there is always the hope that with age things will change.  And while Meghan is healthier and stronger than I have ever seen her, the realities of Ehler’s-Danlos and its wear and tear on the connective tissue are real and very present.  So, out came the wheelchair.

And, one of my appointments was an MRI follow up for the foot that has been a disaster since I fell at work January 8th.

The initial fall partially tore the lisfranc ligament.  Which might have been easier to recover from, except ligaments don’t show on xray.  So the initial diagnosis was a sprain.  Which was treated with 5 days rest.  Then 2 weeks later when the pain was more than it should have been and my primary asked for an MRI, GHI decided I didn’t need one yet and I could wait 6 more weeks.  So, I forced the foot into a shoe for a total of 8 weeks post injury before I couldn’t stand it anymore.  At that point an MRI finally picked up the partial tear.

I was booted for about 6 weeks.  I was pulled out of work and off my foot, but largely too little too late.  I returned and handled the foot conservatively, waiting to feel better.  Or at least closer to being able to walk like I did on January 7th.

Every other week there have been check ups at the podiatrist.  Two visits to a specialist in NYC. Days blended into weeks and my patience started to wear thin.  I began Physical Therapy, but even the PT was baffled by the amount of pain in the foot and encouraged me to keep looking for answers.

A repeat MRI was scheduled for 8/2.  I obtained the results on 8/14.  While the pain in the foot should have been an indicator, I was not prepared to hear that I needed to return to the walking boot, as I had a likely stress fracture in the cuboid bone, and a neuroma in between my second and third toes.   This mess courtesy of my body compensating to protect the lisfranc ligament while it healed.  I had unconsciously shifted all my weight to the outer part of my foot.  I was to limit my walking.  By that night I was back in my walking boot ordering a knee scooter for the trip to Disney.

I remember after the fall in January, and even after the diagnosis in March, feeling so happy that I would at least be healed and back to walking before our trip.  The best laid plans…

So when we headed out for a 5AM flight on 8/18, we had all our suitcases, a wheelchair and a knee scooter.  We checked three bags, and Felix pushed Meghan while I scooted behind.  We were a sight.

And after waking up at 2:30 for our flight and traveling via scooter through the Magic Kingdom, I wanted nothing more than to go home.  Immediately.  I felt like I had done a bad step aerobics video over and over on only my left thigh and butt cheek.  You might not realize the strain on the thigh when you rest the knee with a way-too-heavy boot hanging off the back.  There was just no way I was going to make it.

So Monday morning I released Meghan and Felix to the Magic Kingdom.  I sat in the hotel room.  I cried for about 10 minutes.  I called my mom. I made a cup of tea.  And then I made a plan.

I researched a new set of eyes to consult on the foot when I arrived home.  I rearranged our return flight to a more civil time to I could book an appointment for the 29th with confidence.  I stretched.  I took way too much Advil.

And sometime that morning between the NSAIDs and the caffeine, I started to feel the magic.  I sat on the hotel balcony.  I strengthened my resolve.

I am not sure at all why it seems everything is so hard.  I couldn’t fathom why I had sent my otherwise healthy kid off in a wheelchair, while I sweated inside a walking boot,  all the while healing from the Fine Needle Aspiration thyroid biopsy two days prior for thyroid nodules recurring on my previously quiet and well-behaved remaining thyroid lobe. (Partial thyroidectomy 1993 – dx multinodular goiter, 18 years before I had ever HEARD of Cowden’s Syndrome)

In that moment most of what we were facing had nothing at all to do with Cowden’s.  And yet, the same choice existed in that moment.  I had to decide that I was going to make the best of it.  I had to decide that I was not giving up my family vacation for more medical nonsense.  I had to decide to find a way to enjoy.  Because the struggles, the pain, and the drama would all be waiting for me at home whether I found the “magic” or not.

All the positive thinking in the world was not going to make anyone’s pain go away.  Not even a stomach burning amount of Advil and a few strong cocktails could do that.  But, I am a huge believer in a positive mindset.  And in that Monday morning overlooking the Hawaii themed resort, things started to fall into place in my mind and my heart.

We get 2 weeks a year to spend as a family, free of other obligations.  We get 2 weeks a year.  And I wasn’t going to waste it.

I joined them later that day, and never left them again.  We traveled together – a family of three, six wheels and a boot.  We laughed a lot, we argued a little, and generally found the best in each other.  We met up with my sister and her family for a super fun night together. 

We got to Mickey’s ‘Not So Scary’ Halloween Party for the first time.  We saw more characters than we’ve seen since she was quite young.

Finally, after many years of staring at the giant “Hot Air Balloon” in Disney Springs, I got myself on.  Because, Why not?  Magical.

 

We found that our resort had a stand serving dairy free Dole Whip – the first time my 16 year old ever had soft serve.  Magical.

 

Some people wonder how we do the same vacation year after year.  They wonder how we don’t tire of it all.  For us, there is a magic that can’t be explained, only felt.  There is wonder in eating safely in restaurants and having access to a bakery free of gluten, dairy and soy.  There is joy in eliminating something so basic as food isolation, and sharing meals, sometimes as a family of three, and other times with some Disney friends.

Even Donald was checking on my boot!

There is magic running into Pluto in the lobby of your resort, or finding the Seven Dwarfs waiting to meet your family.

There is magic in roller coaster selfies, and Figment reminding us to use our imagination.

There is magic in all things familiar, and always finding something new.

There is magic when you seek it, even with six wheels and a boot.

Because there will always be battles to fight.  So sometimes they can just wait 2 weeks.

The foot problem is not solved.  It’s time to find some serious answers.  I won’t open the school year for the first time in 22 years.  These next few weeks will be about making plans to heal.

There is no magical solution for my foot.  There will be more MRIs, and more doctors.

My patience will be tested in new ways.  I am not sure what to expect, and that makes me nervous.

But there will never be a single second that I regret adding 4 wheels and a boot to my own self to enjoy and appreciate the magic with my family.

I know the body can not heal if you don’t nourish the soul.

#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

 

 

(Living) “In Prep for the Climb” – PTEN Awareness Day 10/23/18

I’m aware of Breast Cancer.  As a survivor now of 6 years and the daughter of a 21 year survivor, I am aware as I dry from my shower facing my mastectomy scars every morning, that breast cancer is reality.  As my Facebook feed and my memory are both too full of those we have lost and those who still face this disease, we are aware.  What I wonder, is how much help is the awareness?  It is a topic that could be debated forever, but I’ll change gears first.

Something else I am very aware of is the PTEN gene located on chromosome 10q23, and the perils its associated mutations can cause.  So when the PTEN Foundation let us know that 10/23 was designated PTEN Awareness Day, we were all in.

This blog has, for years been designated to the ups and downs of this mother- daughter duo dealing with Cowden’s Syndrome, the diagnosis we both received in late 2011 after a PTEN mutation was first diagnosed in Meghan, and weeks later in me.

The few years following were an absolute whirlwind of appointments, scans, screenings and surgeries.  We worked to keep our heads above water and just exist.  We considered keeping my job, and maintaining honors status in her school quite the accomplishment.

We were told things over and over, like “don’t let it define you…”

I’ve got some news for you.  You can only walk so far into the fire without retaining the scars.

True awareness of PTEN for us comes with comprehension of the gravity that you have to remain in a vigilant stance of preparation, awaiting attack from your own body at all times.  PTEN patients have ridiculous cancer risks pretty much all throughout, and the VIGILANCE required to stay ahead is utterly grueling.

We are faced with choices to keep the most high risk organs, or remove them prophylactic ally.  We are asked to play the odds.  With our bodies. All the time.

With Meghan the AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation) in her right knee, though quiet now, has caused damage she will deal with forever.  She is 15.  God willing she will walk on those legs another 80 years, each day aware of the pain, and of the symmetry removed from her body forever.

When you have to be vigilant, you have to plan.  There are trades.  You have to decide if you’ll miss school with friends and fall behind in classes or give up the breaks designed to recharge you.

There are no breaks.  February – months away has 3/5 of its break and 2 other days devoted to appointments.  Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.  Yep – that one too.  Don’t worry, the brain MRI is scheduled for April break….

You have to pick and choose.  And the decisions are hard.  You want to give it all to everything, but HOURS of your world are wasted in bumper to bumper traffic, waiting for the hopeful news that you have another 6 months before you come back.  And if, in fact you don’t get that news the schedule is tossed and it’s game on for scans, analysis and biopsies.

The pain.  No one can really tell us yet from why, but it seems to exist throughout.  The fatigue.  Maybe the thyroid issues, maybe some immunological stuff.  Maybe some connection yet to be determined.  But it’s real.

It’s as real as the number of times we had to decline invitations before most people stopped asking.

We’re not blowing you off.  We’re holding it together – by a shoestring.

Chronic Illness is hard to live, and we get that it’s difficult to watch.  But, it’s real.  And short of a cure, it will never “run it’s course.”  It will not BE us, but it will be PART of us – FOREVER.

“You don’t look sick…”

“You don’t look anxious…”

No, as a matter of fact she looks strong and determined.  She’s been practicing for quite some time.

Sometimes I have to bite my tongue to keep from replying, “You don’t LOOK ignorant either – but at least you can fix that if you WANT to…”

Our rare disease journey has opened our eyes to not only PTEN disorders, but “Lhermitte-Duclos disease,” “Nail-Patella Syndrome,” “Lynch Syndrome,” “Spinal Muscular Atrophy,” “Muscular Dystrophy,” “Neimann- Pic Disease,” ” Neurofibromatosis,” “Acute Myeloid Leukemia” to name just the very tip of the iceberg.  I am more aware than every that everyone struggles.

I’m also a big fan of real pure awareness, for the sake of learning something about other humans I share the planet with.

One of the humans I share my home with has grown up in a totally different direction courtesy of this disease.  And while I am grateful for her diagnosis, as it surely saved my own life, I am sad that she has had to see so much, and manage so much already in her life.

So today, on 10/23, if you’re not living with it yourself, direct yourself to http://www.PTENFoundation.org, or the PTEN Facebook Page and learn an little more about PTEN.

My own girl is working every day to make herself better, physically, mentally and emotionally.  When I have down days, or I just don’t feel well, she reminds me to forgive myself.  “You have it too Mom.”  Indeed I do, and it’s quite a ride…

“Prep for the Climb” Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Together we prepare for the climb each day – and seek out that ‘One Perfect Moment’

For as much as this disease has taken, I am grateful that she is starting to take back control, and is finding her voice as an advocate for herself and others.  (And I love listening to her sing too…)

#Beatingcowdens

Bring It On the Musical – One Perfect Moment Lyrics
2012 Broadway
Bring It On the Musical – One Perfect Moment Lyrics
I’m not freaking out, I’m really okay
I’m totally chill or I will be someday
‘Cause I’m so near the top but there’s so many mountains to climb
There are plans to be planned, drills to be drilled
‘Cause this dream that I’ve dreamed is becoming fulfilled
And I plan to enjoy it but right now, I don’t have the timeFade in on Campbell, an average teenager almost grown
Close-up on average grades from the average life she’s known
Now zoom in the lens on the rest of her friends as she stay alone
Doing the work, getting it right

‘Cause I know we’ll have to be practically perfect
So I’ll go above and beyond and pull through, this I can do
All that I’m asking is one perfect moment in time

I’m seventeen, there are so many things that I can’t control
If I start to freak, or feel weak, I focus on just one goal
Turn down the panic, attack this routine like it owns my soul
Turn up the music so loud that it swallows us whole
And then there we are, we burn like a star
We’re safe inside the world we know
Then suddenly I’m in prep for the climb and here I go
High in the air, there is a moment just before you start to fall
Live in that one moment

I know that if I can just stick the landing
Then I’ll know that somehow my life will be fine
And I’ll go through the rest of my life understanding
What it feels like to shine
The future’s full of mysteries
So please let this be mine
My one perfect moment in time

No Excuses. No Apologies.

Recently I asked that Meghan’s “Present Levels of Performance” on her IEP be updated.  She no longer receives many services, but I find great value in keeping this section current.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding involving Individualized Education Plans (or IEPs) and many people feel only children who struggle academically have an IEP.  This is just not true.

My daughter has had one in place since Kindergarten.  She has consistently maintained high honors, and as a matter of fact was Salutatorian of her 8th grade class, and is in an intensely challenging International Baccalaureate program at her high school.

IEPs by definition, are to “Individualize” the Education Program as needed.  Meghan’s needs are not academic, as much as they are residual connected to the Cowden’s Syndrome, the PTSD, and the medical trauma.  The resulting anxiety affects every area of life, and is far deeper than “teenage angst.”  We work extensively outside of school to address this in many ways, but sometimes we need the school to be on the same page.

Much like you give a medical history to a doctor when you see them for the first time, and you update as situations change, the IEP is to be fluid and updated as changes occur so all personnel will be aware of Meghan’s needs.

I make a habit on the first day of school of copying a few key pages of the document and giving it to her teachers.  Even though they have access, and technically it is their responsibility, I am also a teacher.  I get the pressures placed on us.  So, I make their lives easier by giving them what they need and an invitation to reach out to me with any questions.  Her teachers are historically receptive and appreciative.

This year I was reviewing that section on the document realizing how much was no longer accurate, and how it should be more detailed.

I sat with Meghan to write the summary below:

Meghan is a 15-year-old sophomore in the IB program at School.  Academically she is consistently above average in her classes, attaining high honors every marking period for the 2017-2018 school year.

She is a student athlete as well, participating on the School varsity swim team, as well as Trident Aquatics, a 12 month competitive swim program on the Island.

Meghan has several medical diagnoses.  The most far-reaching is “Cowden’s Syndrome” a mutation on the PTEN (tumor suppressor) Gene, causing benign and malignant tumors as well as vascular malformations.  Recently PTEN mutations have been correlated with low levels of (infection fighting) immunoglobulins, which Meghan also suffers with.

Because of the low immunoglobulin levels Meghan has frequent infections that often require antibiotics for resolution.  She suffers with gastrointestinal distress with each course, and needs to avoid gluten and soy.  She also has an allergy to dairy.

Meghan’s medical challenges are far-reaching.  She has had 18 surgeries, 8 of which have been on her right knee.  There was an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in that knee.  While it has been controlled, the long-term effects will last forever.  Meghan has leg and foot discrepancies on her right side.  The blood was restricted from flowing to her right foot for so long, that it stopped growing 6 years ago.  The left foot is a full size larger than the right foot.  That right-sided weakness has been repeatedly treated in physical therapy, but still presents as a struggle with stairs, and long walks.  While she endures these activities, they can cause pain and excessive fatigue, and extra time may be necessary between classes located far apart.

Meghan had her thyroid removed in 2014 and the resulting need for synthetic medication has yet to be regulated.  Her current endocrinologist follows her 4 times a year, adjusting, tailoring, and trying to balance her levels.

Meghan had 2 D&C procedures during 7th grade.  Those procedures yielded precancerous tissue in her uterus and prompted the need for birth control pills to try to stop the cellular growth.  Those pills have also been difficult to regulate and balance.

Meghan has been hospitalized countless times in addition to her surgeries.  She has also undergone over 30 MRIs and close to 10CT scans, each requiring IV.  She spends countless hours being poked and prodded at doctors, monitoring her cancer risks.  She is acutely aware of her mortality at an age when most teens are barely aware of their social interests.

In the spring of 2017 Meghan was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, secondary to extensive medical trauma.  She was also diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

In the fall of 2017 Meghan began to develop panic attacks.  Subsequently, she has also been treated for panic and generalized anxiety disorder.

She sees a social worker weekly and has guidance on her IEP in school.  She sees a psychiatrist monthly who manages the medication, which currently consists of and antidepressant and another script for panic attacks.

The panic attacks were well controlled for a time, but flare up in acute anxiety.  This summer saw several severe episodes.  We are working together to help her through all of this.

Meghan is waiting for a service dog, which should arrive in the next 4-6 months, to address the PTSD.  In the mean time, we are teaching strategies to deal with necessary stress, and tools to eliminate unnecessary stress.

I presented this document to the team to update the IEP.  I was a little startled when I was met first with a challenge on the diagnoses.  No problem I told them.  I would send the doctor’s notes.

I love her school, I do.  But, I was in fact also told “She doesn’t LOOK sick”  and “She doesn’t LOOK stressed.”  While I had to breathe a few times before responding, I came up with “You’re welcome…”

We’ve worked quite hard on all of that.  My girl has goals.  Life goals.

Last week Meghan was approached to remove the section regarding the D&Cs from the document above.  She declined.  She was pushed, and told the information was “far too personal.”

Forever practical, Meghan reminded them the document was about her, and should include factual information.

Again pressed, she reminded the staff she helped write the document they were holding.  She wanted and NEEDED her teachers to understand the validity behind her anxiety and PTSD symptoms.

The final time they told her the information was too personal she reminded them that she had done nothing wrong, and had nothing to be embarrassed about.  Meghan is a factual child.  She likes actual truth being reported.  She knows better than to be embarrassed about truth.  She knows ugly truth is a real part of life with Cowden’s Syndrome.  She also knows that secrets give power to things that don’t deserve it.

These things happened to her.

She did not ask for them.

She did not cause them.

She will not hide them.

She will not apologize for them.

She will not let them define her.

But the things that happen to us do change us.  HOW they change us is the only thing we can work to control.

I will continue to work the Mom end to get this updated.

I am beyond proud of her growing confidence, and her desire to educate.

I am proud of her desire to be a scholar and an athlete in spite of all the adversity.

I am proud of her respect for the clock as she grows as a swimmer, and her desire to be the same as everyone else, by beating the same clock.

My girl is, and shall remain

#beatingcowdens

And that is why we continue to work on the journey towards treatments and a cure.

Please consider joining us or making a contribution.  You can reach us at jfrg.pten@gmail.com

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.