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…”

 

 

delete

Don’t you sometimes just want to hit the delete button?

We were going through vacation photos and I was struck by how easy it was to eliminate images that we found unflattering.  We were able to simply click a button – and they were gone, for no one else to ever see.  Eventually our only memories of the trip would be reliant on the images that remained, so in some ways it was almost like those unflattering moments never happened.  Right?

I love my social media accounts.  I do.  But sometimes I scroll through feeling a bit down, inadequate and lonely.  Everyone looks so happy.  Everyone is surrounded by friends.  Everyone’s house is clean.  Everyone is taking wonderful vacations.  Everyone is resting in their pool on a weekday afternoon…

Then I realize I do the same thing.  No one wants to see a picture of my unmade bed, my tears of frustration, or the times when the family doesn’t really like each other too much.  No one wants to hear videos of me bickering with insurance companies, or dealing with the day-to-day realities.  No one wants to know how often some type of issue simply keeps us house bound.

I started this summer as I do every summer, full of hopeful anticipation that it would bring health, and rest, and time to read, and do lots of nothing.  And, like most of the summers before, that is not at all how it turned out.

I could insert a photo of my unread books, or closets that never got cleaned out, or the files that never got shredded.  I could flash you a shot of my EZ Pass statement, for the countless trips to the doctor… you get the idea.

As we journey through this world of rare disease, and chronic illness together, I use this blog to keep my perspective straight.  Yet, some days it’s hard not to feel like the plate is just a little too full.  And somehow, some way…

This summer Cowden’s Syndrome took a run at us- hard.  The knee has been, and continues to be a work in progress.  The isolation it causes is hard to describe.  The sinus infection caused chaos because the medications wrecked a sensitive stomach.  The knee medicines added fuel to the fire.  Renegade hormones took their toll too.  We are still deep in this journey to figure out PTSD and its manifestations, and ramifications, and where we all fit in.  Cowden’s Syndrome has done some damage.

Yet, despite all the things we want to delete from the summer, there were some beautiful, simple, and just fun times.  There were friends that visited.  There were connections with dear old friends, and some new ones too.  There was a fun birthday party – something we have not had in YEARS!  And, there was Disney… still magical.

With all this on my mind as I went through the vacation pictures, I opted to save some that in previous years I might have deleted.

It was late one night and Meghan wanted to go back to the Magic Kingdom.  I took her back myself.  We made our way up main street and headed to “Dumbo” the first ride she ever rode in Disney – 10 years ago.  We waited on line, and rode our elephant side by side.

I’ve never been so pleased to take a “selfie” in my life.

Then we used a Fast Pass for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.  Three years ago I didn’t even ride roller coasters.  Now, I’m so used to the ones in Disney I don’t give them a second thought.  As we headed over the first hill the sky lit up with the fireworks display over the castle.  We were in awe.  I think it will probably be one of my most magical Disney memories ever.  This picture, although not  flattering, captures that moment so well.

Most Magical Moment

There were many moments this summer I wanted to “delete.”  But, then there were others.

So in an effort to give you a little more “real” and a little less “facebook fancy” I decided to keep these.  And, I even decided I like them.

Because life is not pretty.  Sometimes its downright nasty and ugly.  Most of life is not us in our best clothes, and hair.  Most of life is sweats and sneakers… that are hopefully clean and matching.  And if we delete all of that, and spend all of our time looking for the perfect, well, I think we’ll miss some magical moments.

Cowden’s Syndrome is not going away.  Plans are going to get messed up and changed at inconvenient times.  There are going to be lots of housebound days full of isolation and loneliness.

But, as I go through my camera roll, I am going to concentrate on deleting less.  I am not going to judge a picture by a random perfection scale.  I’m going to judge it by the magic within.

We asked a Disney employee for a quick shot on the iphone…

And with this girl, I will learn every single day.  I am just so lucky to be her mom, and I won’t delete any of it simply because it’s hard.

We remain forever

#beatingcowdens

“… Turn on the Light!” -Albus Dumbledore (J.K. Rowling)

Last week my daughter pulled on a shirt before we headed out to the doctor for the umpteenth time this summer.  I didn’t think much of it at first.  I was grateful she was dressed and pulled together, and ready without event.  As a matter of fact, I was in full on grown up mode, rushing her almost 5’8″ frame and her crutches along to get us prepared for the obligatory ridiculous traffic as we traveled what seems to be the longest 30 miles ever.

I don’t think I even read the shirt until we were in the waiting room a few hours later.

I had read the Harry Potter series as each book came out – beginning as a 5th grade teacher more than 20 years ago.  My daughter enjoyed the series in its entirety in a brief period during her year in second grade.  I enjoyed the books, each one, but it took a reread or two to analyze things on a deeper level for me.  Dumbledore, the wise guide had an infinite amount of wisdom to offer.

Whether she realized it or not, my girl was sending a message that morning – to both of us.  There is an ongoing battle, here, and I suspect in many lives, to live the days as they come.  We try to “get out of our own way” and “our own head” as the case may be.  And it is not easy.  When we look further ahead than the day, sometimes even the hour, or moment, it is easy to get swallowed up.  The darkness comes hard and fast.  Too many appointments, too much worry, too many “what ifs,”  too much time wasted, too many plans unfulfilled.  No one likes the dark.

So don’t stay there.  Turn on the light.

Thank you J.K. Rowling, for giving us Albus Dumbledore.

That appointment Tuesday, it wasn’t great.  There are still no real answers.  There is swelling on the knee.  There is pain.  There was confusion from the surgeon.  He decided we had rested the knee.  Now, it was time to add two medications to treat the knee, a neoprene sleeve for swim, and PT back in the equation.  For 2 weeks we will move it and see if that helps.  Nothing more than educated guesswork.

I hate it when we have to guess.  But, I am grateful for a surgeon willing to logically troubleshoot.  We visit him again in 2 weeks.  He is confused, but he is smart.  And he will not quit.

So with a surgeon who made the choice to keep working on it – my girl did the same.  Every day we have choices to make… all day… every day.  Those choices shape and mold us.

My daughter was to be part of a beloved theater group these first two weeks of July.  Some of the most compassionate, talented and caring young people are in that group, guided by adults that are not afraid to give everything they have for the betterment of the children in their charge.  Last year, she had arguably one of the best experiences of her life, and when the word came that she could not participate, that the knee was not prepared for that amount of standing – she was crushed.  But, being who they are, the staff, and the students alike not only allowed her, but welcomed her to be with them during rehearsals.  As we watched two amazing performances of “Aladdin Jr.” on Friday night, I know she wished to be on the stage, but the pure joy of excitement for the success of these children – her peers- was evident.

She could have sat home and sulked.  They could have said she could not come.  Instead, the best possible outcome came from unfortunate circumstances.  Another major life lesson.  Executed flawlessly.

My daughter has dreams.  Big dreams.  She aspires to be a better human, and to assist those who struggle.  She wants to learn her voice, and sing to the best of her ability.  She desires to perform, on stage, often.  She seeks venues for community outreach and has goals to raise awareness and funds to cure PTEN Mutations like our Cowden’s Syndrome, and other rare diseases.  She strives to be an athlete.  The same thrill of competition that creates great anxiety, lights a fire deep in her soul.  She also has hopes, standards, and expectations for herself.  She actually, most days, can do a lot of the parenting work without me.  But, sometimes when those dreams and goals are forced to pause, and rest for whatever issue is going after the body at that time, its nice to remember the words of Dumbledore, “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.  Remember that.”


Exact, precise language.  That is how my girl likes it.  We sometimes kid that she will be an attorney.  At the very least, an advocate for herself, and maybe others.  There is little gray area with Meghan.  She likes people who are kind.  She does not like people who are not.  End of story.

Or is it?  In this age of adolescence there are times when lines are clear, and times when they are blurry.  Emotions run high.  There are times when things are said, and done that are deliberate, and mean and awful, and other times where things FEEL deliberate and mean and awful where that was not the intention.

That changes things for the speaker, but rarely for the recipient.  With intent being often left to the interpretation of the recipient,  words can cut more sharply than a sword, and pierce the soul and the spirit.  Words hold great power.

The absence of words, those kind sentiments, thought, but never spoken, can injure as well.

My girl is far from perfect.  I myself am far from perfect.  We have many conversations between ourselves about the power of words.  Sometimes we hurt each other’s feelings.  Usually we talk it through.  Our relationship invariably gets stronger.

That’s because we speak.  And we hear.  So many times when words have hurt, a conversation could clarify so much.  An honest reflection that not a single one of us is perfect in our speech or actions is invaluable for growth.  Friendships grow, not over text messages through an iPhone screen, or photo exchanges… friendships grow when we take the time to talk, and laugh, and listen and hear and care.

And, perhaps many times, when you are lonely or simply alone, those are the times words, or their absence, can hold the greatest power.

Nature vs. Nurture.

An especially complex conversation in light of genetic discoveries happening every day.

In this house my daughter, although she first learned of it as she turned 8, was born with Cowden’s Syndrome- a PTEN Mutation leading to a high incidence of benign and malignant tumor growth.  She was born with this condition, because I was born with this condition.  That statistics and numbers are real.  They are hard core.  They are disturbing.

A 2012 article about PTEN related cancer risks.

However, because we are BORN with this Syndrome, it does not mean we will develop every possible manifestation.  We have AVMs and thyroid issues, and lipomas, but of yet, no colon issues at all.  I had breast cancer, early stage.  So did my mom who is not a PTEN patient.  We have large head size, but not autism.  You get the idea.

I believe we are born with certain things.  I believe that Meghan and I were born with Cowden’s Syndrome, and I even have theories about its origin.

I also believe that EVERYONE has something.  We are either born with it, or it develops.  Whether it is a physical ailment, or an unfortunate circumstance, there are forces affecting each of us.

Life is not smooth.  But within life there are choices.  Every day there are choices.

Choose kindness.

Choose compassion.

Choose love.

Choose forgiveness.

Choose happiness.

Choose to find your “Never Give UP.”

Choose to trust.

Choose to take risks.

Choose to care.

Choose to push yourself.

Choose to believe you can.

Knowing, that sometimes those choices will hurt.  Sometimes they will leave you angry or even furious.

Know in your heart that those are the only choices.

As you “grow to be…” it is those choices that will help you navigate the path to be the very best version of yourself.

Some people go their whole lives and never meet their hero.  I gave birth to mine, and her stamina and drive continue to inspire me daily.

#beatingcowdens

A Perfect Storm

 

Sitting, sopping wet, in the middle of the ocean, in your small row boat.  Your feet are wet.  Your fingers are wrinkled.  You are cold, exhausted, and often frightened.  There is no access to the weather channel.  Your connections to the real world have all but vanished.  You focus every ounce of your strength on keeping the boat afloat.

You try to maintain a sense of calm, but your insides are turning worse than after a serving of spoiled mayonnaise at a summer barbecue.

There are moments when you think.  Hope.  Pray.  That it will settle down.  There are moments when you dream of enough sunshine to shed your wet clothes and warm and dry yourself.  There are moments when you can almost see what appears to be a friendly ship in the distance.  And in those fleeting moments you even remember what it felt like to socialize, to chat, and to laugh – about every day life.

Your faith reminds you that Jesus is in the back of that boat.  You know better than to let your insecurities wake Him.  You know in your core that you are loved, and protected.  

And then another wave crashes over the side.  You can not put your hand on the oar.  You lock eyes with your husband in front of you – always with you.  You put a hand on your girl, sopping wet beside you.  You strengthen your resolve.  

I have been fading out of touch these last few months.

I love writing.  It is my therapy and my release.  It clears my mind and cleanses my soul.  Except there is a balancing act to be had -tenuously protecting privacy while fulfilling what we believe is our calling to share a raw, honest view of our lives “Beating Cowdens.”It is hard to realize breaks in time.  Things blend together so readily it is hard to discern where one event starts and another stops.  There is only rarely a pause between medical appointments, some for the same issues, some for new ones, and others for maintenance.  Some appointments are mine, and some belong to Meghan.  All but a few require hours and hours of travel.  It safe to say they cost us on average 5 hours a day.  But, those 5 hours are not of my choosing.  I can’t say, decide to get up at 5 – deal with the appointment and be ready to start the day at 10.  That’s just not how it works.  Most are scheduled somewhere between 10 and 3.  That means by the time we get home, there isn’t much time to do anything.  Or, we spend the day waiting to go – so there isn’t much to get done.  There are no summer day trips planned.  Making plans to catch up with friends is something we avoid – because we so often have to cancel.  The cycle continues.  There is just getting by.  And some dreams that maybe we can get to the beach one day this summer…

Somewhere early this year Meghan started to be done with it all.  This is not an easy place to be in by any means.  She is a month shy of 14, and this is her journey for the REST of her life.  Teenage years are nothing most of us would want to revisit.  The extra complications of finding your way amidst a chronic sense of isolation (the knee precludes too much walking, it prevents basic sports games most of the time, it leaves the competitor side-lined too much, the allergies mean the food has to be different, the pain is unusual and constant and managed in some “unorthodox” ways, the number of times she has to say “no” because she has an appointment, an ER visit, or something else medical is astounding and limits the invitations, ETC., ETC…) coupled with an understandably defensive posture, and a desire to just BE, can make for some lonely times.

 

Her sleep patterns went off the charts some time in February.  My sleeper just couldn’t fall asleep.  She’d lay still for hours.  Her pattern was restless and fitful.  I watched my girl pull away from her swimming.  I fought to push her.  Even after her best meet ever in March – I could no  longer get her up to a morning practice.

Meanwhile, I never made connections that are so clear now.  In January we were released from the Interventional Radiologist who had completed the 5 embolizations over 6 years on the AVM in her right knee.  He released us to the care of the orthopedist who had already performed an arthroscopic lateral release in 2015 to help shift her patella into place.  It had begun to slide as a result of residual damage from small amounts of lingering blood in the knee.  By early this year the warning signs had begun to develop that the knee was off.

A visit to the orthopedist in February confirmed what Meghan undoubtedly knew.  He offered her the chance to try to intervene conservatively and put a brace on to hold the patella in place.  Maybe it could “convince it” to move on its own…

She took it in stride, like always.  We bought leggings to accommodate the giant addition to her thin frame.  She dug in and pressed on.

While all this was going on the chronic congestion that had begun in November worsened.  The ENT noted swelling, but called it allergies, the obvious choice this season.  There was a nasal spray added, and a week of a decongestant.

Attendance in school started to be a struggle.  There was fatigue.  Low grade infections.  There was pain.  So much pain.

The chiropractor visits became more frequent.  The leg length discrepancy made more noticeable by the limping to accommodate the brace on the shifted knee cap.

My surgery in March helped nothing.  There was so much vocal rest required it tossed us all on edge more than normal.

Swim practice was lessening.  Focusing on school was a chore.  Sleep was becoming near impossible.

The breathing worsened.  We justified the “worst allergy season ever.”  Her voice started to feel the effects of this chronic congestion.

In April the inevitable was spoken.  The knee would need a repeat of the 2015 arthroscopic lateral release.  We wanted to schedule it immediately.  The first available day was her the opening night of her school play, a play she had earned the lead in.  The next opening was almost a month later on May 20th.  We would have to wait.

The pain increased.  The frustration increased.  The sleep, and subsequently the desire to swim decreased.

The “Coaches Award” at the swim dinner made her feel honored.  She respects her coach so much.  But, she couldn’t reignite the fire.

The surgery in May went well, even though I had worried with the increased congestion that they could not put her under anesthesia.  But, it was fine.  She went through the 2 hours like a seasoned veteran.  That made number 18.

Rehab was tough.  The pain was significant.  But, it faded gradually.  Our favorite PT began to work her magic.

She got around on crutches, figured it out and made it work.  Again.  Always.

She got off the crutches exactly in time for 8th grade prom.

 

She was healing.  Physically.

She made it back into the water.  She swam the 18th of June, and the 19th too.  She started to talk about it in a more positive way.  The 20th was awards night for 8th grade.

My 8th grader was named Salutatorian for a graduating class of almost 400.  She received several academic awards that night. I sat in the auditorium with the last few months, and years running through my mind.  People knew some, but no one, not even I knew ALL of what it took to be her, every day.  And here she was, not only doing it, but excelling at it.  It was a good night.

Until she came home, and put up her feet.  And there, on the side of her surgical leg was a 4cm x 6cm mass, with rapidly increasing swelling.  Breathing, we strategized.

We took the crutches back out.  I stayed up most of the night making sure there was no bleed on the knee.  I sent her to school the next day to get her cap and gown and yearbook “like everyone else.”

Then we headed to the surgeon.  His nurse practitioner sent us to the ER.  They could not get their acts together and after 7 hours discharged her on crutches with a script for an MRI.

 And an IV that went unused…

She was to be “minimal weight bearing as tolerated.”  They wanted her back at the doctor that Friday.  I finally spoke up and said no.  She was going to her graduation Friday – NOT tainted by a medical appointment.  We settled on Tuesday.

However, with no answer, she was to graduate on crutches.  So, a friend suggested if she had to use them, she should “own” them.  My husband spray painted them white.

Sunday we drove to Long Island for that MRI.  The one I knew they would not do locally.  30 miles.  2 hours and 15 minutes home.  We caught up with some friends that day.  Good thing.  We needed them so badly.

As she was in the MRI machine for her knee she told me something was “blocking” her nose inside her head.  If you’re a Cowden’s Mom – you just went to tumor as fast as I did.  My head spun.

Monday the ENT was able to ease that worry.  He told us it was a mass of infection.  That likely she had had a severe sinus infection for 8-10 weeks.  He anticipated 14-28 days on biaxin to get after it.  That was alongside a short course of oral prednisone.  He nose was so inflamed there was almost no air passing.

A sinus infection usually has me out of commission in about 3 days.  I just shake my head in awe sometimes.

Tuesday the 27th we trekked out to the surgeon again.  The MRI showed the mass to be a huge fluid filled pocket.  There is also fluid all through the knee joint.  He looked, and looked.  He has done many surgeries.  He is skilled.  He shook his head and finally told us he did not understand.  He had “never” seen this before.  And now we had to wait for her knee to tell us what to do next.

Cancel camp.  No Drama Camp she had loved so much.

Postpone PT indefinitely.

No swim practice yet.

And there we were – facing another summer…

But somehow, all of this seemed to weave together.  The perfect storm.  The knee, the sinuses, the sleeplessness, the fatigue, the low-grade illnesses, the sinus infection…

Somewhere through all this we spent a few visits with a brilliant doctor who diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  PTSD.  Like with the soldiers, or other trauma victims.  “Secondary to significant medical trauma” she said.

It all made sense, except the “post.”  There is nothing really “post” about this ongoing scenario.

That, and the Salutatorian thing.  As impressed as I am – I am still in awe.

The journey continues, and we will above all things remain…

#beatingcowdens