Rare Disease Day 2018

I took today off from work.

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

Today was doctor day.

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

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

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

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

Rare is defined by Dictionary.com as:

adjectiverarer, rarest.

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

a rare disease; His visits are rare occasions.

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

Lighthouses are rare on that part of the coast.

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

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

4. unusually great:

a rare display of courage.

5. unusually excellent; admirable; fine:

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

Synonyms for rare

adj exceptional, infrequent

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

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

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

Yet, these words also mean RARE.

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

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

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

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

I’m not hopeful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, and internist?  I asked again.

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

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

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

I got my blood drawn at the hospital lab.

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

RARE isn’t just snowflakes and unicorns.

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

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

We are scared of things we don’t understand.

Right now, RARE is a bit of a loner.

We are all RARE in some way.

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

The choice comes in what we make of it.

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

RARE does not give up.  Ever.

#beatingcowdens

Sometimes GOOD Things Do Happen…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOPE right now is spelled ECHO.

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

Emergency Children’s Help Organization – Donation Page

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

Forever,

#beatingcowdens

More questions than answers…

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She also suffers with PTSD, and severe anxiety.

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

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

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

The anxiety- we’re working on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I first noticed the anxiety increasing in middle school.

“Middle school is hard for everyone…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do I convince them she’s worth it?

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

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

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

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

She deserves better.

So, we will press on.

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

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

This is life

#beatingcowdens

 

 

 

Middle School is Hard

Middle School is hard.

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

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

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

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

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

Cowden’s Syndrome messed with the wrong young lady.

The text of her speech from graduation is below:

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

 

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

 

This poem is called “The Victor.”

 

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

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

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

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

 

Walter D. Wintle

 

Smart man.  

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

                                                    

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

 

#beatingcowdens

It’s Not Over Yet…

Tonight my search for perspective was harder than it normally is.

Tonight I needed a glass (or two) of wine, some time alone in my office, and plenty of music.

And as the lyrics roll through my head in the eclectic mess that spans, Contemporary Christian, Classic Rock, and some alternative memories from back in the day, I somehow start to find myself again.

I am generally a very positive person.  I am able to find blessings in unlikely and hard to reach places.  I make a point of focusing on these things for so many reasons.  Primarily, I find it is necessary to be positive for my health.  While I don’t believe a positive attitude alone will cure illness, I do firmly believe a negative one, or a constant state of stress and worry can worsen illness.  We certainly don’t need that.

But, lately I’ve been frustrated.  I’m even a little angry.  You see – everything is NOT fine.

And I’ve been avoiding my computer because I’d rather write when my perspective is in its proper place.  One of the reasons I love to blog is because I can get right in my head by the time I’m done.  I can typically work through whatever is gnawing at me.

There are drafts in my folder.  Unpublished, unfinished work.  I’ve tried, but I’m struggling.

Logic leads me to retrace the obvious.

In our house the diagnoses came about five and a half years ago.  I was 38 and Meghan was 8.

In most of the people I’ve interfaced with who have Cowden’s Syndrome, their diagnosis is less than 10 years old.  I know there are others, but this is the majority.

There is a growing group of us who are parents.  Now, in my case, my diagnosis was made BECAUSE of Meghan’s.  But, in many cases the opposite is true.  There comes a point where the signs are either apparent, or subtle, and something prompts the formal diagnosis of PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome, in some form, in our children.

Anecdotally, we are not the only house where the syndrome seems to manifest worse a generation down.  This is a story I have heard many times.

There is a special kind of knot that forms in your stomach and lingers, forever, when you realize that you are somehow responsible, in an unintentional, yet undeniable way.  Your child has this syndrome because, even with a current estimate of a 1 in 200,000 diagnosis it is an autosomal dominant condition, which means that if you have the mutated PTEN gene, 50% of the time, it will pass to your child.

Between us, since Meghan was born in 2003 there have been 30 or more trips to an operating room.  On 18 of those visits I have watched my girl head into surgery.

And I know all the blessings bestowed upon us.  I know the beauty of benign biopsies, and the gratitude of legs that allow for walking when the alternative has certainly been possible.  I know the strength and resilience of my daughter, and the grace of God alone.  I know the grit of a child just out of her 7th knee surgery who understands the recovery process better than any PA she will meet in the surgeon’s office.  I know the feeling of bruises on my knees as I give thanks for my child who is ABLE to recover.  I get it.  I truly do.  I’m grateful.  I am.

But, you know what else?  Sometimes I get angry.  And, that’s OK too.

I’m learning that part of being able to be positive is allowing myself to FEEL and WORK THROUGH ALL the emotions that come my way.  Even the ones that hurt.  Even the ugly ones that don’t have flowers and rainbows attached.

This is reality.  This is our reality.  And I am not about comparisons.  I do not profess to understand anyone else’s reality any more than I could expect them to understand mine.  I do not use words like “worse” or “better” or “harder” or “easier” or “fair” or “unfair.”

What I can tell you about our reality is that 18 is too many surgeries for a 13-year-old girl.

I can also tell you there will be more.  For both of us.

Vigilance, a necessary reality to keep us in front of the astronomical cancer risks associated with Cowden’s Syndrome will lead to more surgery.  And we will hope and pray each is followed by a benign biopsy, or an encouraging word from an orthopedic surgeon trying to preserve a knee damaged by a mischievous AVM.

When I got my diagnosis, I was almost 40.  I was married.  I had a little girl.  I had a home.  A career.

When my girl received her diagnosis she was in 3rd grade.

Swallow that.

It doesn’t taste very good.

Cowden’s Syndrome is isolating.  In addition to numerous food issues, and immunological issues, and significant knee trouble (understatement of the year,)  there are SO MANY doctor’s appointments.  There are countless blood draws.  There are so many days I pick her up at school and we do ANOTHER 4-5 hours round trip in the car, traveling to NYC, sitting in traffic, parking, waiting, sitting in more traffic…

As connected as social media can help you be, there is a lack of connectedness that is inherent with not being there.  Being absent.  Being unable to go on certain trips.  Being unable to do the things kids your age can do…

When I was a child I always “knew” something was wrong with the ridiculous number of surgeries I had, but it was different.  It was not the same as knowing for sure that your genetic mutation was going to guide portions of your life whether you like it or not.

When you have one thing wrong, whether you break an arm, or have your wisdom teeth out, or your tonsils, people seem to know what to say.  When you constantly have something wrong, some type of surgery, or some type of recovery on the agenda, it gets harder for everyone.

People don’t know what to say.  So they don’t…

Cowden’s Syndrome can be very isolating.

What about our children?  What about our children who are being diagnosed younger and younger?  To some extent, yes, “Knowledge is Power,” but at what cost?

We are forced to make the logical choice for necessary screening appointments, and often surgery, while often having to skip social, cultural, or sporting events.

We are forced to say no to social engagements so often, that people forget to keep asking.

Our youngest children at diagnosis may not fully understand the scope of what is now their’s.  But, they will.  If they have a parent with the same syndrome they will watch.  Everything.  If they are the first in the family they will piece it together.  Really there comes a point there is no keeping it from them.  Then what?

I am blessed with a young lady who reads like a book-worm, and has a solid comprehension of people, personalities, and her environment.  I am left only with the option to tell her the truth.

Sometimes the truth gets stuck in your throat, burns a bit, or leaves some nasty reflux.  Yet, still that bitter pill is the only one we’ve got.

I sometimes wonder how different things could have been, if…

But it is my girl who stops me.  Without this diagnosis she knows I would not be here.  My breast cancer was uncovered by her diagnosis and that diagnosis undoubtedly saved my life.  Without Cowden’s Syndrome she knows she would have become someone different.  Someone else.  And that wouldn’t have been right.

While I don’t believe in a God who wants us to suffer, I believe in one who uses that suffering to allow us to become a better version of ourselves.

My girl started Junior High with a broken foot.  During her 3 years there she endured less than perfect social relationships (read, a few very mean children and my child who didn’t always have the patience to contend with teenage normalcy) and 7 surgeries.  SEVEN. Seven recoveries, and pre and post operative visits too.  She did that while holding an average of well over 95% every single marking period.  She did that while making enormous strides as a competitive swimmer.  She did that while learning that she had a the voice of a singer hiding inside.  She did that while performing in several productions, practicing after school for months each year.  She did that while spearheading 3 successful PTEN Fundraisers, essentially putting Cowden’s Syndrome in the vocabulary of our community.  She’s ending Junior High on crutches.  Unfortunate bookends, or a reminder of the strength and resilience of a young lady who refuses to be defined by her disease.

I am sometimes not even sure if she is aware of her accomplishments, as she is so busy pushing onward to stop and notice.

Who sets the example here?

I guess I need to stop hiding from my computer.  Perspective never really leaves.  Sometimes it just needs to be worked through.

This diagnosis stinks.  This syndrome is a real bear to contend with.  It is lonely and isolating and leaves little time to even see family, let alone friends. However, as the saying goes –

And that is probably the real perspective.

And almost as if perfectly timed, I found my title for this blog – as the Pandora radio plays..

“They are inside your head
You got a voice that says
You won’t get past this one
You won’t win your freedom

It’s like a constant war
And you want to settle that score
But you’re bruised and beaten
And you feel defeated

This goes out to the heaviest heart

Oh, to everyone who’s hit their limit
It’s not over yet
It’s not over yet
And even when you think you’re finished
It’s not over yet
It’s not over yet
Keep on fighting
Out of the dark
Into the light
It’s not over
Hope is rising
Never give in
Never give up
It’s not over…”

(It’s Not Over Yet – For King and Country)

#beatingcowdens

It’s Complicated…

I was in the stairwell close to the 5th floor of the nursing home where my grandmother resides when the phone rang.  I paused, startled by the ring, and trying to suppress my slightly out of shape panting before I acknowledged the call clearly coming from the medical office we had visited earlier that day.

It was Tuesday the 11th.  “Spring Break” had begun Saturday the 8th.  Early that Saturday morning I had left on a road trip alone to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico where I had the privilege of watching a Marine who served with my Dad receive the Bronze Star with Valor – almost 50 years after the day it was earned.  It was a whirlwind trip – 5 hours down that morning, and a busy, fun, emotional day that lasted well past midnight.  I returned to Staten Island by 12:30 PM Sunday, in time to catch Meghan’s 1 PM Swim meet.  Felix took “off” the workweek and spent Monday and Tuesday overseeing the installation of air conditioning in our house.  It was 24 hours well spent – 12 each day- but the inevitable trail of dust and dirt needed to be tended to as well.  So, I had headed to this appointment alone with Meghan earlier in the day.  Now I was trying to visit with Grandma, although she’s often unsure I was ever there… I still know.

I took a deep breath before I answered.

A lovely young woman, whose cheery voice caused me to immediately forget her name asked, “Is this Meghan’s mother?”  That is my favorite title- depending on whose asking.  I tried my best to muster and equally cheery, “Yes, it is.”

“Oh, good.  I was asked to set up Meghan’s surgical date.”

Sigh,  Even though I knew the call was coming – it doesn’t get easier.  I also knew I had very specific directions from Meghan that I was to “get it done as fast as possible.”

“How soon can we do this?”  I asked.

“My first available is May 11th.”

“REALLY?  A whole month?”  I thought of the anticipation and the anxiety that would build as the pain increased.  Then I realized something worse.  May 11th is opening night for “Bye Bye Birdie,” her school play.  Cast as Rosie she’s been preparing forever.  There was just no way.  I swallowed hard.

“What if I can’t take that date?”  I held my breath,

Cheery changed her tune.  I’m sure she thought I was being difficult.  I tried to explain.  No luck.

“The next date is May 20th, then you’re into June.”

I was playing out the June calendar in my brain.  ComicCon with Dad, school dance, graduation, West Virginia… forget about the Long Course Swim Season and the 2 meets we knew she’d have to scratch out of, and the last CYO Swim meet she’d ever be eligible for- that was out too.

There was never going to be a good time to be out of commission.

Deep breath.  “Any chance you’ll have cancellations?”

“No.”

“Ok then.  May 20th it is.”

And after telling me I’d need to give up a day the week before for formal pre-surgical testing, which is a first for us, as she grows up, I didn’t bother to explain I’d just missed 16 days of work for vocal cord surgery.  I just said, “Thank you.”

Meghan’s relationship with her right knee is complicated.  It started giving her trouble before she could talk, as her first babysitter will attest to hours rubbing that knee.  As she grew, it got worse.  It always seemed to bother her.  She pushed, and pushed.  Eventually it was hot to the touch and pulsating.  The diagnosis came in 2008, after multiple mis-diagnoses, including “her pants are too tight.”  Finally, a team at Sloan Kettering, adept at ruling out cancer, was able to diagnose a high flow arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in that knee.  We were sent off to Interventional Radiology at Lenox Hill, where the doctor confidently told us he could eliminate this AVM in “one procedure – 2 tops.”  Between December of 2009 and February of 2012 there were 4 embolizations on that knee.

The doctor seemed almost relieved when she was diagnosed with Cowden’s Syndrome in the fall of 2011.  It seemed as if he felt better about himself, like there was another explanation to justify why the darn thing just wouldn’t quit.  By that point she was being run through the surgical mill, so we welcomed the 2 and a half years of monitoring.  It seemed to stabilize.

But, as everything overlaps and one thing leads to another, there was pain.  There was pain that she was repeatedly told should not be there.  Yet, no matter what they said, the pain was there, and it was consistent, and it was real.  She pressed through.  She stopped soccer and tried dance.  The knee was cut out for neither.  She found her way into the pool in the spring of 2013.

By that fall we had signed her up for a 12 month competitive swim team, and things were looking up.  She swam a full year, getting stronger, becoming more confident, and finally feeling like an athlete.

There were other surgeries in between.  And there was that knee pain.She had been prescribed Celebrex to substitute for the Advil that was being consumed in clearly excessive quantity to allow her to function.  And the Celebrex was wonderful.  Until it wasn’t.

And in May of 2014, two months after a complete thyroidectomy (thank you Cowden’s) she lay in the hospital in severe GI distress.  It took a week to stabilize her.  I was scared.  Out went the Celebrex, fried food, and a whole host of other goodies.

But, little did I realize, that Celebrex was likely the reason the AVM had quieted down.  Apparently the drug has properties that work on blood flow.  A few months off of the Celebrex and all hell broke loose.  Literally.  It was November of 2014, the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving when she collapsed outside of swim practice, unable to walk.  Our travels that night took us directly to Lenox Hill ER because we were sure it was the AVM in action again.

Proven right when the surgeon showed up early the next morning giving me a surgical time for her, they drained 50ccs of blood from the knee that day.

Blood and bone and tissue are not friendly.  It’s like neighbors invading space.  You can tolerate it for a while, but it doesn’t take long before the damage is irreparable.  It became evident there was structural damage beginning because the blood had begun to wear things away and allow the knee cap to move to places it did not belong.

We were advised to consult with an orthopedist, and we did.  He wanted a coordinated arthroscopy where both he and the interventional radiologist would be in the OR together.  It became an orthopedic procedure.  The patella was moved back where it belonged.  Things were cleaned out.  Recovery was smooth relative to the emobolizations.  We were told it would last a few years.

In January 2017 we were pretty much released from interventional radiology.  We were told the AVM seemed quiet and we need only bring her back if she becomes symptomatic again.  In February the knee pain started again.  Slow, but steady, it kept growing in duration and consistency.  At a routine visit the orthopedist mentioned the potential need for another arthroscopy.  He reviewed the January MRI and showed us where the patella had shifted again.  He said her growth plates were “wide open” (a scary thought at over 5’7″) and that this would continue to be an issue at least until she finishes growing.  He offered her a “patella stabilizing brace” for 6 weeks, to see if it would do the job he wanted done.

Tuesday the 11th he looked at her knee for less than 2 minutes before he started making plans for the surgery.  He explained to us what he needed to cut and move, and why it was time to get it done.  We had the necessary conversations about length of time out of the pool, and other restrictions.  We left, quiet and resolved.  The only thing she asked me was to just get it done as soon as possible.

So when the phone rang in the hall last Tuesday afternoon, I felt sucker-punched, again.  Regardless of how many times I tell myself, and her, that it “could be worse” and we have to “look at the bright side,” the reality is that sometimes it sucks.  And that’s just the frank honest truth.  Scheduling your 7th knee surgery in 13.5 years is just not ok, not even a bit.  I was grateful for Grandma, and the ability to be distracted for a bit.  Without her memory, she is just real.  That was a good day.  And that day she loved having me.  I cherished the visit.

I spent Wednesday in the grocery shopping marathon, and Wednesday night at swim.

Thursday was for an extensive blood draw for Meghan and a triple dermatologist appointment.  Meghan headed to play practice, and I traveled to my vocal follow up in NYC.

My report was adequate, but not what I had hoped for.  Still swelling.  Still be very careful.  Still rest when you can.  Still exercise caution when you get back into your program on the 19th.

Friday was for vocal therapy.  And for trying to put the house back together.  And for painting upstairs, and washing the dist off the curtains, and visiting my in-laws.  It was our 17th Anniversary.  We sneaked an hour or two for dinner together…

Saturday was voice lessons, and…

Somehow it bled into Sunday, and Easter and some time with family.  But, it was immediately back to the painting.

By Monday I was waiting for the blood results, hoping to catch a call from one of the three doctors on the order.  We hit the orthodontist to have the retainer tightened, and a few things at Costco before it was time for swim…

I am focusing on the sunny days.  I am trying to find some time within the chaos to be still.

I asked Meghan why she was so uptight the other day.  It really was a stupid question.  This was the grossly abbreviated version of ONE aspect of her real life.

And tomorrow she will have to practice smiling and responding to the question “How was your break?”  in the only socially acceptable way.  “It was fine, how about you?”

Fine… it has so many meanings.  We don’t want to bring people down all the time.  It gets hard to have a conversation sometimes though.  Felix and I realized in the years since we’re married, one of us has been in an operating room somewhere in the neighborhood of 34 times.  A lot of our days are spent recovering.  Physically, mentally and emotionally recovering.  Fighting financially against incorrect billing, and generally trying to breathe.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we would not trade our lives for anyone’s.  However, just like in anyone’s life, some days are better than others.

I’m anxious for a vacation not peppered with appointments and surgeries.

Until then, maybe I should teach Meghan to answer “How was your vacation?” with “It’s complicated…”

#beatingcowdens

Deep Cleanse

I had a list of things to accomplish while I recover from my vocal cord surgery on 3/3.  I have been unable to work, preserving my voice for exercises given by my therapist, and brief conversation.  But, aside from the inconvenience of not speaking, I have felt pretty well.

That left me with a little time to get a few things done.

I could not push it physically, but I sorted papers, shredded, sent Emails that were overdue, and generally handled things that had fallen by the wayside during the busy nature of life.

I discovered, much to my disappointment, that my attention span for reading has decreased exponentially since spending so much time at a computer screen these last few years.  I vowed to get to work on that.

I also discovered that I have an account on the family’s “Netflix”  and I learned how to sit still long enough to binge watch some “Law and Order.”

There was time over these three weeks for some honest self-reflection as well.

Sometimes it’s painful to put truth right in front of our own faces, but I had the time to do the work, so I went for it.  I already wrote about isolation,  and I had some time to think more deeply about what role my own actions play in that.  I was able to reconcile that some of it is unavoidable, and some can be mended by me.  Balance.  I’m on it.

I also took a hard look at my own emotions and how they affect my house.

It is so easy to get “stuck” in the role of caregiver.  It is so easy to live a task oriented existence, making sure things get done, and arranging the logistics of life.  We may only have one child, but you add into the equation, two of us with a genetic disorder that involves countless appointments, surgeries, therapy and follow-ups things get dicey quickly. Add in that every appointment in NYC is a MINIMUM of 4 hours, and sometimes 6 or more, and the billing that comes with these appointments is at least a part-time job on its own, well, your head can spin.  Then, you think about the issues that surround friends and family, illness, disease, financial hardship, emotional distress, and your heart can hurt.  When you join that with “regular” stuff, like 2 working parents, a scholar, athlete, theater buff kid, food sensitivities, prescription medication, and anxiety all around – well, it can easily become all-consuming.  And it did.

I sat in my office one day, looked around and realized I was unhappy.  That was a tough realization.

I am not unhappy with my husband, or my daughter, or the countless blessings in our life.  I just became so consumed with getting things done that I forgot myself.  Literally.

Sometimes its good to reflect.  It’s the only way to get things done.

Last week my sister sent me a box of essential oils.  I was skeptical.  I bought a diffuser.  I feel like peppermint in the air while I work is good for my soul.  So is trying something new.

Tuesday I went to Kohl’s. A quiet activity easily done alone.  I felt the tension start to release.  I picked up a few things for me and for the house.  I went out because I WANTED to.

Something amazing happened Tuesday.  My husband and my daughter both remarked that I looked happy.  I had a story to relay at dinner that was about me.  The mood in the house was lighter.

Wednesday I took a nap in the middle of the day.  Because I could.  Again, I found myself with a little less pressure in my shoulders.

That night I promised myself and my family, no matter how busy things got I would find a way to spend 15-30 minutes every day on SOMETHING I could say truly made ME happy.

I’m a work in progress.

I chose to do a deep cleanse on Thursday and Friday.  I was working on my mind, but I had to bring my body along.  It had been too long.  I had gotten a little lazy in my habits and in my routines.  I have this incredible nutritional system at my fingertips and in my home, and sometimes I forget to use it to its full potential.

I woke up this morning having released 5.1 pounds of junk.  I started the day with a protein shake full of strawberries.  I shopped with my girl this morning.  Then, I got to listen to her singing lesson.  Now, they watch a movie while I get to write.  Then, my little family is off to dinner together.

This week the spring plants that sprouted on 3/3 started to really grow.

The caterpillars that came in on 3/2 have all become butterflies today.

Maybe we all used the same period to try to transform a little.  Nothing like a few new butterflies to remind you about new beginnings.

I am focused on this journey now.  I may falter along the way, but I will hold true.  This feels right.  This feels good.  And when I feel right and good, it is much easier to remain

#beatingcowdens