Double Edged Sword

I remember as a young girl, and even a teenager, having the phone pretty much attached to my ear all the time.  I remember being so excited when we got a cord long enough for me to bring the phone into my room.  I remember calling people, and being so frustrated at busy signals.  I don’t remember much of what I talked about for all those hours, but I liked it.

When I went to college, I went with an electronic typewriter with a 4 line display.  It was state of the art.  In my dorm there were computers in the common area and people were just beginning to really Email.  There were no cell phones.  We knocked on each other’s doors and spread word through friends when we were getting together.

It’s now been 23 years since I graduated from college.  I’m coming to understand the generations before me.  Perhaps some of the discontent with things changing was a foreboding sense of where it was leading.

I don’t go far without a cell phone in hand.  I “google” like it is my full-time job.  I’d rather text than call, and I am guilty of putting only the “perfect” images on my social media accounts.  I “keep in touch” through photos of friends children.  Some of these children are teenagers now.  Many of them I have never even met.

I wish “Happy Birthday” on Facebook after it reminds me, and rarely send a card.  I delude myself into feeling “in touch” when really we’ve lost all track of each other.

I’m watching a generation grow that thinks its acceptable to post all kinds of photos of themselves, inevitably trying to look older than they are, in a forum where nothing is truly private at all.

I’m not saying we had it all correct by any means.  I was guilty as the next of trying to impress “popular” kids, or to fit in.  There were mean kids.  There were those who isolated.  We passed notes.  But, we didn’t post our comings and goings for the world to see.  I was blissfully unaware of who went where, unless I was there.  If we took photos it was the real deal.  There were no filters.

The internet, and the social media craze that has followed is the proverbial “double-edged sword”.

Living with, and having a child with, a rare genetic disorder means I have to do most of our research here.  Most doctors lack the time, the knowledge, or the desire, to entertain my instincts.  I may not be a doctor, but I am an expert on Meghan.  I have been able to learn through trusted medical journals and intelligent internet connections, more than I would have ever been able to learn 25 or 30 years ago.

Meghan has had medical problems since day 1, and I have had the privilege of advocating for her since then.  I have “met” parents through online support groups, and have soaked up their advice like a dry sponge.  Parents go out of their way to help other parents, and it is a community like no other.  Without the internet I would have been traveling this journey largely alone.

There were multiple diagnoses before the PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome (Cowden’s Syndrome) diagnosis in 2011.  And, truth be told, I suspect there are still a few more coming our way.  During each step of the journey I have been able to connect with medical professionals and parents in ways that leave me forever grateful.

I am skilled at dealing with the insurance companies, the mail order pharmacy, and the collection agencies.  I am on-line so often, printing medical explanations of benefits, or fighting for treatment courses that I know are necessary.

I have become well versed in the laws surrounding Individualized Education Plans, (IEPs) and have secured necessary accommodations for an honor student battling PTSD largely from the fallout of a rare genetic disorder.

We fund raise for the PTEN Foundation, in hopes of one day soon allowing a patient powered registry that can lead us to treatment, and maybe even a cure.

All of this is possible through social media and the internet.

These are the same forums that allow people to think they are “in touch” without ever hearing each other speak.  These are the same forums that allow teens and adults alike to think it is ok to be insufferable or mean because they don’t have to look the other person in the eye while they do it.  It is these same forums that claim to bring us all together, that are causing what I fear is irreparable social damage.  A generation of children who aspire to impossible ideals and feel they are not good enough, are growing up.  They have the world at their fingertips.  Will they have the skills to access it through human interaction?

I don’t know what it is like to live anyone else’s life.  Maybe there are similarities, or maybe my views are odd.  I blog to give an honest account of life in this house, with these challenges, because I too have found comfort in knowing I am not alone.  At least theoretically.

I am always busy.  Sometimes I don’t choose it, and sometimes I choose it without realizing it.  I am so used to being in motion, not having a full agenda is confusing.  It is also very very rare.  My only speeds are “go” and “off”.

Chronic illness can easily run your life.  When every ounce of strength must be used to create the illusion of normalcy, there is not much time to be “normal”.  When you can not predict the health crises that exist daily, or the new ones that crop up at a moment’s notice, it is hard to make plans to do much.

We are a family of 3.  My child is an only child.  She has all the benefits, and all the downfalls of that status.  We have extended family.  I have friends.  Long time friends.  Old friends.   I know I could rely on them if it became time to wave the white flag.  But they are busy too.  And our time will come in a few short years when our children are off on their own.

My child does not have a built-in network.  My child has PTSD, and incredible anxiety.  She can sometimes have an abrasive personality.  But, she has more integrity and compassion in her than just about any other human I know.  You can’t pick any of that up off her Instagram. Or her SnapChat.  To really know her you’d have to talk to her.  The old-fashioned way.

That very network that has allowed me to learn so much, to do so much, and to help so much, has also caused harm.  For both of us.

For me, it represents the easy way out.  Aside from a few support groups, I know people will tire quickly of hearing the same story over and over. So, it is easy to click “like,” post a few comments, and have at least a visual in my head of what’s going on.  But, it also leaves me with feelings of inadequacy.  Why can’t I get us to the beach?  Why can’t I plan day trips with actual humans without fear of having to cancel?

For her, it is a constant reminder of a “normal” life that she doesn’t have.  Whether it’s pain, medical appointments, food allergies, or anxiety, there is an isolation inherent in this world of chronic illness.

She speaks of the “Sword of Damocles” with regularity.  The history channel gives this explanation History Channel- Sword of Damocles (Go ahead, and click the link. It’s a worthwhile read.)  This analogy explains a life hard to comprehend, and impossible to describe.

The internet probably saved us.  Social media brought me to some of the smartest parents, living variations of our life.

Social media altered the scope of human relations with consequences we will see for generations.

The irony of it all perhaps is that this message reaches you through the double-edged sword of the internet.

I’m interested in hearing your comments.

We remain

#beatingcowdens

With all it’s “side effects”

One day at a time…

When you reach the end of your rope…


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

So often this is easier said than done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It held on then, and I was released.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Checkbox with green tick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And if he’s not – I’ll find another.

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

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

Game on.

Tick tock.

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

#beatingcowdens

 

 

Triage- A Way of Life

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

Triage. Take care of the most serious first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And we’re at it times 2.

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

But, lately that has become quite the juggling act.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is easy to get isolated.

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

And where we are, is in TRIAGE.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dust builds in places I never used to allow it.

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

Triage.

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

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

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

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

Usually we are out of the house about 13 hours.

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

Triage.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Triage is fluid.

Life is fluid.

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

And we remain steadfast

#beatingcowdens.

 

 

Superfluous Tissue

6 years ago I was trembling with fear.  I sat up most of the night.  I paced the floors.  I was scared out of my mind.

No stranger to surgery, this one was way different.

Sometimes I actually forget things.  But, most of the time, especially when it has to do with numbers or dates, I remember.

Six years ago I was only months past the diagnoses of Cowden’s Syndrome Meghan and I had received.  Six years ago I was only learning about the mutated gene with astronomical cancer risks that I had passed unknowingly to my girl.  Six years ago I was reeling with the knowledge that she had nodules on her thyroid, pronounced and alarming.  I was trying to grasp the reality that this life of medical drama that I had hoped would subside, was going to require our vigilance and attention forever.

So, exactly 6 years ago tonight  I was contemplating the overwhelming reality that my newfound breast cancer risk, which exceeded 85% on gene mutation alone, had been coupled with my 8 prior breast biopsies, and my mother’s “survivor” status, and had relegated my surgeon to tell me it was not “if,” but “when” breast cancer would strike me.  When I met her for the first time a few weeks prior she had my chart with her.  She had reviewed it before our consultation, and she cut right to the chase.

“When are we going to schedule your surgery?”

I paused, a little stunned and confused.

“For what?”  I managed to ask.

“Prophylactic bilateral mastectomy.”  She stated simply.  “You will face breast cancer.  The numbers, and your history make it irrefutable.  I think we need to get there first.”

I always travel to my doctors alone, but that is probably one of the few times I actually regretted it.  The room started to spin a bit.  Thankfully, she didn’t skip a beat.

I managed to ask, “when?”

She said, “March 5th.”

I protested.  I asked if we could do it over the summer.  “I am a school teacher,” I told her.

She was kind, but unimpressed.  “March 5th.  My scheduler will help you coordinate with the plastic surgeon.  We will be in the operating room together.”

I was numb.  I called my husband, then my mother.

I drove home, and started to prepare.

I was unsure how I would handle the minimum 5 week recovery.  There were no sick days left for me to pull from.  I had an 8-year-old who had already had multiple surgeries, and I had quite a few myself.  I started to wonder how to plan financially for a leave that would end up being at least partially unpaid.

A dear friend, who will never fully grasp the depth of the gift she gave, donated 25 sick days to me.  The weight she lifted off me was astronomical.

I spent the next few weeks in auto pilot.  We were still handling some new findings on Meghan, and I was reading and processing Cowden Syndrome.  It made me nauseous.

I remember the drive into the city that morning.   I remember walking with Felix.  I remember praying over the phone with my brother-in-law.

I remember repeating over and over to the unbelieving doctors that I would NOT be having tissue expanders, the common course of action with a mastectomy.  The plastic surgeon heard my concerns, and my need to simplify, and to get home without additional surgery.  The knowledge that my child would likely one day walk this road filled me with a sense of urgency to make it seem as simple as possible.  She agreed to do immediate implants.  I lost count of the number of times I explained that.

I remember walking to the operating room, and looking into the comforting eyes of my surgeon before I fell asleep.  “You are very brave.”  And even though she never really gave me a choice, her reassuring smile helped so much.

I remember waking up feeling relieved and empowered.  Not just because the surgery was over, but also because I had gotten out in front.

I remember seeing my husband, and checking on Meg.  I remember seeing my sister and telling her she should be with my nephew.  His birthday happens to be the same day.

I was discharged the next morning – about 28 hours after the surgery.

The next days were painful, and draining.  My mom was with me for a few, to wash my hair, and to chat.  I hated the circumstances but treasured the time with her.

After my mom’s mastectomy following her cancer diagnosis many years prior, she had dubbed the breasts “superfluous tissue.”  I finally understood.

When my pathology came back days later with early grade DCIS, essentially one cm of stage 1 breast cancer, I missed my breasts even less.  We were all surprised, and I was grateful for the knowledge that the cancer was not close to the chest wall and no follow-up treatment would be needed.  I just had to heal.

I had no idea at the time that two months later I’d be back in the hospital for a hysterectomy.  Cowden’s Syndrome does not mess around.

Except, it messed with the wrong family.

We get knocked down, but we get up stronger.

Sometimes I hate that I remember dates.  Other times, maybe it gives me reason to celebrate, and to feel empowered.

I started owning my nutrition 6 years ago.  I have worked on playing strong and fit.  My weight has been stable, and I am proud to be one of the healthiest looking sick people you’ll ever meet.

“superfluous tissue” indeed.

#beatingcowdens

 

 

Rare Disease Day 2018

I took today off from work.

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

Today was doctor day.

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

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

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

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

Rare is defined by Dictionary.com as:

adjectiverarer, rarest.

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

a rare disease; His visits are rare occasions.

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

Lighthouses are rare on that part of the coast.

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

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

4. unusually great:

a rare display of courage.

5. unusually excellent; admirable; fine:

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

Synonyms for rare

adj exceptional, infrequent

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

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

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

Yet, these words also mean RARE.

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

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

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

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

I’m not hopeful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, and internist?  I asked again.

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

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

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

I got my blood drawn at the hospital lab.

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

RARE isn’t just snowflakes and unicorns.

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

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

We are scared of things we don’t understand.

Right now, RARE is a bit of a loner.

We are all RARE in some way.

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

The choice comes in what we make of it.

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

RARE does not give up.  Ever.

#beatingcowdens

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

 

 

 

Looking for Clarity in Chaos

I am rarely at a loss for words.  Yet, today I am struggling.

This was not an easy week here, for reasons that are valid and important.  Yet, they will keep.  Sometimes it’s not about Cowden’s Syndrome.  Sometimes it’s not about our struggles.

This is one of those times.

I messaged with a dear friend all day yesterday as she evacuated her beautiful home in Florida and drove up the coast to her parent’s home in New York.  That decision came for them after a week of sleeplessness and worry.  After a week of waiting and wondering.  It came when Hurricane Irma took a west turn and it was just too dangerous to stay.

And I thought about her all day, even when we weren’t messaging.  We have plenty in common, and I thought about the drive, with her husband, and their daughter, and their dog.  There was not much I could say.

There are no words of reassurance when your home is in the path of a category 4 or 5 hurricane.  And while she gets the big picture, and understands and is grateful for her safety, I can not fault her one bit for worrying, with a sense of terror and dread, about her home.

Because the truth is, things do matter.  I am not talking about things with a price tag.  I am talking about sentimental things.  Even the simple comfort of sitting in your own home – matters.  I will not be one to pass out trite phrases, that I would not want to hear myself.  I’d rather tell the truth.  I have no words…

It was just last week that I sought out a flood relief organization in Houston to make a donation to.  So much loss.  So much devastation.

There are so many.  Those we know, and those we don’t – who are just like us.  They are us.

It reminded me of a beautiful Tuesday 16 years ago when I had the same feelings of despair.

I sat down this morning to try to find the class picture from the second grade class that was mine on September 11, 2001.  It’s one of the few I don’t have.  But, I remember.

I remember their faces, and many of their names.  I remember the phone calls that morning, and the day that slowly unfolded into weeks and months and years of gut wrenching heartache.  I remember thinking that day that those young children – many of them 6 or 7 – would have no idea how much their world had just changed forever.

I thought about them today.  Wondering how 16 years later, their lives have begun to unfold.  Wondering if they remember being picked up early from school by a frantic relative or friend.  Wondering how the events changed their lives.

I woke up suddenly at 1:30 this morning.  I instinctively checked Facebook to find my friend had just made it safely to her destination.  She has seen unspeakable tragedy in her life, yet she lives in gratitude, and with a conscious  focus on paying it forward.  I don’t get it.

I tossed and turned with my perspective for a few hours.  I thought about something I always am aware of.  We are all just 2 steps away from someone else’s worst nightmare.  Be kind always.  Not because you may need it repaid one day, but because it is the right thing to do.

I woke this morning with my heart heavy.  We’ve struggled as a family to find our way into a home church these last few years.  I walked myself down to the closest one I have.  I sat down to the Mercy Me song “Even If”

And I cried.

Quietly, in the back of that church the tears flowed.

The reality is, right this minute it is not “well with my soul.”  My soul is struggling. Even as I don’t doubt the existence of God – I wrestle to comprehend what is not mine to understand.

And even later in the service as we sang the hymns “How Great Thou Art,” and “It is Well with My Soul” and I could clearly hear the voice of my deceased grandfather belting out these beloved hymns – ones that he lived with his whole self… I still struggled.

The Pastor did an excellent job on Psalm 42 and “Hope for Our Souls.”

I was glad I went.

But, my heart hurts.

Tomorrow is 9/11/2017.  16 years from the worst tragedy we have known in my lifetime.

Tomorrow Florida will survey the damage in the sun.  Friends and family will check in.  Shortly after, they will begin the process of rebuilding wherever, and whatever is necessary.

Tomorrow I will wear red, white and blue.  Tomorrow I will be proud to be an American.  I will be united with all those that are facing trying times that I can not fathom.

Tomorrow I will seek ways that I can help, whether it’s placing pencils in a box for school supplies, or sending a financial donation to a front line charity.

We have every single day of our lives to spend

#beatingcowdens

This is not at all about us.  This is about those who could be us, and those who are just like us.

I will continue to pray for the strength to be able to say “It is well with my soul…”