I Am Not Your Warrior

Okay, it’s truth time (again).

Here’s a natural fact: I’m quite adept at pissing people off. Yeah, like everyone else on Earth I’m totally guilty of flipping switches once in a while. But then there are those times when I’m not trying, and my words get twisted into something not intended. Through texts, blogs, and conversations, I’m totally guilty of raising pulses with a single bound. I have the gift of offending. Then again, maybe some folks are just always looking for something wrong? (Always the best way to find it.) Well, I’m about to piss off a whole legion of humanity with the following discussion. So if you’re easily piqued, come back when I’m talking about road trips, or something else less controversial.

Here goes…

Do you know what R-E-A-L-L-Y irks me? When someone with cancer is referred to as a “warrior.” Wait, it’s just women, isn’t it? Men are “fighting it with everything they’ve got,” and we women, well, we’re your warrior. Over and over and over again I see women with cancer being called warriors. “My best friend succumbed to cancer yesterday. She was such a warrior.” Or, “Be a warrior! Kick cancer’s ass!” I can’t tell you how many times this has been said or implied to me in the past nearly three years since my diagnosis. Here’s the kicker, folks. Hold your breath!!

I DON’T WANT TO BE YOUR WARRIOR!!!

Who started this shit anyway???

A tough question to answer, because when I put the term into a search engine I keep coming up with a PBS documentary by that name about a doctor named Judah Folkman who was a cancer researcher in Boston. Just reading a little about Dr. Folkman makes it obvious that it was not he who coined this overused moniker to label any and all women who are unfortunate enough to get the disease. Susan G. Komen seems like a much likelier source. Bless her heart, may she rest in eternal peace, and I hope she was and always will be a shining example of a cancer warrior, if that is what she wanted, if that was her intended legacy.

BUT I STILL DON’T WANT TO BE YOUR WARRIOR.

Back in September of 2019, when I had a weird bump growing out of my sternum and I knew a cancer diagnosis was coming, as unlikely and unfathomable as that seemed, I tried to head off the outpouring of emotions of others by requesting that I receive no sympathy, no questions, no assumptions, no sad faced emojis. I got all that anyway, and more: for some, I’ve become a figurehead of bravery and heroism. For others, a figurehead of pity, puppy dog eyes, and head shakes. I’m so sorry. Aww, you poor thing. But wait, you’re my hero. When all along, the only person I want to be is me. I’ve said this time and again: the struggle to be normal is real, and that struggle is exacerbated by the labels that have been hefted on me. Most are well-meaning. But for heaven’s sake, don’t label me to make yourself feel better about my “condition.” (Heard that before, too.) And don’t label me because you think that I somehow want to be a warrior. I accepted cancer as part of my life a long time ago, because I don’t have a choice. But I don’t accept the need for others to make me feel like an outcast, for better or for worse, because of an illness you wouldn’t even know I have if I didn’t tell you.

Herein lies the catch: even if the label is meant to be somehow complimentary, it still places me in a different sphere than you. Do me a favor, and let me still breathe that rarefied air of those without cancer. And please, for others walking this Earth with this shitty disease, (and have you noticed that there are more of us than ever?) be damn sure they want to be warriors before you adhere the label to them. Here’s a novel idea: ask how someone feels before you assume that they want to be warriors or heroes. Perhaps they just want to be who they used to be before cancer. Or as close to that as they can get.

Meanwhile, I will continue to wield a hiking pole in place of a sword.

Cursed, But Blessed!

I know, I know, it’s been a while since my last post. But if you’ve read enough of them you know that I love my summer road trips, and they keep me pretty busy. Not busy enough, however, to stop me from thinking about things that I’d like to blog about. Here’s one that popped into my mind as I toured California again for nearly three weeks. And if you don’t mind, I’m including snaps from my trip!

I don’t know how many times I’ve declared myself a “lucky girl.” The term just seemed appropriate, and it illustrated that I didn’t take the life I had (and the life that I still have) for granted. A good paying teaching gig, friends to travel the globe with, a few people who really, truly love me.

And then, cancer struck in the autumn of 2019, and just about the worst case scenario I could ask for was mine: Stage IV lung cancer. A curse for the rest of my life, which probably wouldn’t be much longer anyway. After a pretty good run of being a “lucky girl,” my time would wind down and I’d fade away, into the sunset. In like a lion, out like a lamb.

But wait. After seeking top tier medical care, things started to look considerably brighter. Nearly three years later, I’m still here. Not only that, I continue to do what I love to do. So the question looms: am I still a lucky girl? Am I luckier than lucky? Or am I truly cursed?

I think that all apply. Let’s talk about being “cursed” first and get it out of the way. That’s how I like to do things in life: saving the better stuff for last.

Because of the life that I’ve lead, that, by the way, I made for myself through sound decisions and hard work, I’ve been the target of what the world now appropriately calls “haters.” A perfect term! And regardless of how the world coaches you to handle “haters,” there’s only so much vitriol you can take before is starts to stick. When “haters” touch on every aspect of your life, from your body, to the way you travel, even to what you have in your freezer, the hurt sinks in deep. When these individuals not only hurt you, but also the people you love most in the world, the sorrow becomes unbearable. You would hope that the hatred has stopped since I got cancer? It has not, and in some ways it has only gotten worse, since I not only have to deal with this disease, I have to deal with them too. Between cancer and them, I would honestly rather deal with cancer. At least cancer can be controlled for periods of time. The nasty humans that I’m talking about don’t ever stop the abuse and the pain. On top of all this, I’m dealing with the death of the only person I could really talk to about my illness, and about their sickening way of treating me. The past few months have been incredibly trying, and sometimes I’m not sure that I can go on, or that I want to go on, or that I want to keep doing well.

But then…I think of all the things that I’ve done in this life and how there are so many other things I want to experience before I leave this world. And in spite of this disease, I can still do them! Herein lies the blessing. I may have the deadliest cancer at the deadliest stage, but lung cancer has treatment options that other cancers don’t have, treatments that sometimes allow patients to live normal lives for many years. Thus far, I fall into this category. I’ve maintained my lifestyle of hiking, biking, and traveling, something that my oncologist has said has contributed greatly to saving and extending my life.

The past three years have not been easy. Radiation, scans, medication changes, progression, side effects, haters. But I’ve had a lot of fun too. I can’t say that I haven’t. And as always, I’m not seeking sympathy. I’m just putting my feelings out there, trying to write on topics of interest, and hoping that maybe I’m helping someone who has the same issues.

So you see the confusing life that I lead now. Then again, I have lead that same confusing life for decades. Great love, crushing adversity. Loss, and luck. Extreme sadness, extreme joy. Sometimes, all at once.

Some days I wake up feeling like crap and I tell myself, “I can’t do this anymore.” But then I think of the two family members who still love and need me, I think of some of the great friends I have, I think of my sweet bunny Muffin, and my traveling and writing and hiking, and I say, “Okay, I’ll keep trying to get through this.” These days, I’m looking for a fresh start. Have to keep moving forward for that.

Cursed perhaps, but blessed more.

In Memory of Marie

It’s been a while since I posted. I’d like to say that it’s because I was having the time of my life, but that would be as far from the truth as I could get. More accurately, I was remembering and celebrating the life of my beloved sister Marie, who passed suddenly and unexpectedly, but peacefully and without struggle, on May 17, 2022.

I would like to share some pictures of Marie, as well as the eulogy I wrote about her that I read at her service. Please read a little about the life of my eldest sister:

Marie was a complex person. Intensely private, brilliant, and with a photographic memory. But the most important and sometimes overlooked aspect of Marie’s person was the breadth and quality of her heart. Today, it’s cliché to say that our loved one always put others before themselves, but in Marie’s case, this is the absolute truth.

Marie dedicated her professional life and a large portion of her personal life to taking care of others. When those she loved were ill or hurt, she was ill and hurt too. Yet she did her best to find escape and contentment in her books, music, and foreign language studies, and on frequent trips to Boston, the city she loved.

Gaining Marie’s love and trust was a tough thing, but if you got it, it meant something. She would never betray you and would be your staunchest supporter. She had an undying belief in what was right and would carry it out, even when it wasn’t in her favor.

Marie was never a lover of animals or nature until later in life, when she took particular joy in our niece Amanda’s flowers and dog children, as well as photos from my frequent globetrotting. She also became a stellar bunny babysitter while I was away, another example of her willingness to help others, even if it was out of her comfort zone.

I was diagnosed with the deadliest cancer at the deadliest stage two and a half years ago. Marie was with me every step of the way, always ready and waiting a text away for scan and blood test results, even when she couldn’t be right there with me due to aggravations like worldwide pandemics. Thanks to her love, medical miracles, sheer will, and intense love of life, I am still here today. But back in 2019, Marie once said to me, “I don’t know what I’ll do without you.” Now, it’s me that has to live without her, and I don’t know what I’ll do. We took care of each other in life. In many ways, we will take care of each other in death too.

Marie was extremely modest and would not want me to go on and on about her. I can see her sitting sheepish and uncomfortable while I sing her praises. So rather than make her blush, let me finish by speaking directly to her:

Marie, I am sick, lost, and lonely without you, more than you will ever know. But I’m at peace too, knowing that you’re now free from pain, sorrow and worry. Your heart was immense, and like our beloved mother you were too good for this world and how it treated you. I love you and will love you and miss you forever, until we meet again.

SLEEP PEACEFULLY, DEAR SISTER!

Stop Calling me “Sick”

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life, and many of them are unprintable. I’ve been called a lot of things since I was diagnosed two years ago with Stage IV lung cancer, and while most of them are probably printable, a few of them are out of this world unbelievable that someone would have the gall to refer to me in such a fashion. One term that I’m really done with is “sick.” According to several people, I’m “sick.” Sometimes the word is inserted into a favorable sentence, so I guess that makes it okay. An example: “No one would ever know that you’re sick.” Am I supposed to be flattered? Would you be flattered if I said this to you? The truth is this: Your “sick” description only moves me further away from who I’m fighting to be again: ME.

How many times do I have to say this? How many people do I need to tell? If I’m not interested in being a “warrior” or a “hero,” why in heaven’s name would I want to be “sick?” The irony is that if I didn’t tell someone that I live with cancer, they wouldn’t even know it. I have stopped telling most people my story, have stopped sharing it on Facebook, have refrained from updates and day by day reports. But some of those in the know have my dossier open in front of them, and instead of being the “Barb Lee, writer, blogger, and traveler,” of the past, I am now “Barb Lee, full-time cancer warrior and permanent sicko.” Never mind that I continue to do all the things that make me who I used to be. Now, my illness defines me.

For the record, are there times when cancer consumes me? Of course. In fact, now is one of those times. As I type this I feel like crap. My back hurts, my gut hurts, my head hurts, I want summer back, and I want this pain to go away. I want my medication to keep working, though I fear it has stopped being effective. I don’t want to be “sick” in the eyes of those who think I am. I want to have another round of great scans next week and keep going in the right direction. Right now, none of those things are happening or seem like they will work out, and I’m floundering.

But here’s what history tells me: I always manage to turn the corner. Though it’s always in the back of my mind that someday I won’t turn the corner, I have not reached that particular curve in the road yet. Nor am I planning to any time soon. Does that sound sick?

And how about this fact: I really do love being a survivor. There is something pretty special about being a survivor. A lot of folks out there claim to be survivors, but only some of us can really offer hard and fast proof of cheating death. So should I accept being labeled as “sick” because in order to be a “survivor” I had to come from a place of being severely ill?

Then there’s that pesky little fact that Stage IV cancer isn’t curable. But what the general public doesn’t know is that the cases of people living well beyond their expected expiration date are on the rise in a major way. Big Pharma isn’t withholding a cure for cancer to make money. Big Pharma is plugging away behind the scenes to keep making better and better drugs so that cancer patients like me can continue to live our lives like we always have. There ain’t nothing sick about that!

Here’s a fact too: a pretty high percentage of those that refer to me as “sick” don’t do nearly as much in a day as I do. Maybe they’re the sick ones?

I didn’t feel good for a decade before my diagnosis. Almost always, something didn’t feel right. For a while, I ran doctor to doctor trying to figure out why a woman who was in great shape, looked as healthy as a horse, and did everything she could to stay that way, felt like crap. No one had answers. Some of the individuals I pleaded with for help didn’t believe me. One of my favorite comments was, “Are you depressed? Do you need an anti-depressant?” I gave up after a while and just dealt with whatever I was feeling inside. Until I got the big answer in October of 2019. Quite an eye opener.

Sigh.

The moral of the story is this: I don’t feel that much worse than I did when everyone thought that there was nothing wrong with me, when what was really wrong was unknown. No one thought I was “sick” then. The only difference is that the secret is out, and it’s a big ugly one. I’m still the same ME, and I don’t accept the “sick” label any more than I accept the “warrior” label.

Please…STOP.

Happy Cancerversary to Me!

Since there aren’t that many people out there who want to celebrate my life and my journey with me, I’m just going to do it myself! Two years ago on this day, I was formally diagnosed with non small cell lung cancer. Of course the beast has been in my body for longer than two years, but it was confirmed on October 8, 2019, so this is the date I will acknowledge. My last two posts have recounted my trail of surviving the deadliest cancer out there. You can read them here and here.

I was on a train bound for New York City’s Penn Station last weekend when I started writing down ideas for this post, and decided that I would share my thoughts in two categories: What I’ve Learned, and What I’ve Accomplished, in the past two year. A few years before my diagnosis I was told by someone that I use the word “I” much too much, but screw him. I’ll be using it ad nauseam here to make my point, and I think I’ve earned it!

Ready?

What I’ve Learned

  • I’ve learned more about my strength and spirit than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned more about cancer than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned more about people than I’ve ever wanted to know.
  • I’ve learned that some people like you better when you’re down.
  • I’ve learned that some people are never going to like you, up or down.
  • I’ve learned that some people don’t have compassion unless something is happening to them.
  • I’ve learned that people throw the word “love” around but don’t know what it means.
  • I’ve learned that “love” really needs to mean more than just a word.
  • I’ve learned who my true supporters are.
  • I’ve learned that to survive, I had to let go of those who aren’t.
  • I’ve learned that people will crush you in the worst of times.
  • I’ve learned to keep going in spite of them.
  • I’ve learned that me with cancer and me without cancer aren’t that different.
  • I’ve learned to live my life in mostly the same way even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that terms like “fighter” and “warrior” only serve to move you away from being YOU.
  • I’ve learned to reject those terms.
  • I’ve learned that for many people, my illness is over, even if it will never be over for me.
  • I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of cancer.
  • I’ve learned not to underestimate the power of ME.
  • I’ve learned that it’s okay to let my “strong” guard down once I shut the door on the world outside.
  • I’ve learned that the world keeps turning, even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that my world keeps turning, even though I have cancer.
  • I’ve learned that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed for anyone.
  • I’ve learned that my life still matters, even if I have cancer.

What I’ve Accomplished

  • I’ve lived through cancer in my lung, neck, sternum, hips, pancreas, stomach, and chest wall.
  • I’ve been on four road trips.
  • I’ve written a 42,000 word book about my cancer journey. (Unpublished)
  • I’ve begun another book about a woman living with ALS.
  • I’ve written 45 blog posts.
  • I’ve walked/hiked 3,350 miles. (Not a misprint.)
  • I’ve lost me.
  • I’ve found me again.
  • I’ve continued my life in full for two years, with cancer.
  • I’ve ridden 110 miles on my $100 bike.
  • I’ve revisited 18 states.
  • I’ve booked my first trip out of the country since summer of 2019.
  • I’ve rebooked and gone on two of the three trips I had to cancel for cancer.
  • I’ve continued my teaching career through COVID19 and cancer.
  • I leased a brand new car but kept my old one!
  • I was debt free for a year.
  • I’ve used up two of my nine lives on cancer.
  • I’ve found solace in art, but am no great artist!
  • I’ve explored New England more intensely than ever.
  • I’ve found friendships with a few of the greatest people anyone could possibly ask for.
  • I’ve left friendships that weren’t productive.
  • I’ve been blessed with the constant love of three family members.
  • I’ve left family relationships that weren’t productive.
  • I’ve requested no sympathy.
  • I’ve held fast to my dreams for the future.
  • I’ve tried to help others with cancer to do the right thing.
  • I’ve survived and thrived because I LOVE LIFE.

I rest my case as I look toward the future.

Coming Clean, Round 2

Me at 53, after cancer, Round 1

It’s inching closer, my cancerversary! Less than a week away, when this goes public. I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my journey anymore, but most people don’t know all the crazy details, so I’m letting them be known for anyone who cares to read. Last week I recounted my first “round” of cancer and treatment. You can read the post here. All involved were hoping for a knockout punch that would last a lifetime, but it was not to be. After radiation to my lung and neck, and a year of targeted therapy, I noticed a small bump on my right flank. My oncologist sent me to a dermatologist in November of 2020. The skin guy did a biopsy in the office, and as I awaited results I headed down to South Carolina to see my niece. Surrounded by love from her and her three adorable dogs, we decorated her Christmas tree, went bowling, and shopped for homemade soap at a local farm. A huge celebration occurred when the results came through: No new cancer! The bump should go away. Life went on happily!

If the bump had gone away and life had gone on happily I probably wouldn’t be writing this post. The next month, just a few days after my 54th birthday, I went to Boston for a PET scan, with my fingers crossed that I would get the coveted news that I had No Evidence of Disease (NED), a designation that I had cut so close during the summer. I wasn’t feeling well, but I still had hope. Feeling crappy had become a way of life even before cancer, and after treatment it was even more so. Fatigue and exhaustion would hit me and stay for a week or more, but I’d keep pushing through to feeling better. By this time I had put my life back on track fully, I was on pace to shatter my yearly mileage record for walking and hiking, road trips were happening again, and I had great hopes for the future.

Which made the results of my PET scan all the more shattering: I had more cancer. That bump on my back meant something. It had not gone away, and was now lighting up as cancer on the scan. But there was worse news than that, as cancer had also infiltrated several other places, including both my hip muscles, my upper stomach, and worst of all, my pancreas. I won’t soon forget receiving this news in the cold of COVID19 December, all alone in Boston as the world got dark, and someone who is supposed to love me making it even darker. That last part is another story in and of itself, and at this point I’m over it. From here forward I’ll keep this post about cancer.

Now what? I was surely going to die, with cancer happily invading my space again. I would have to switch medications. My oncologist’s suggestion was a clinical trial for a brand new tyrosine kinase inhibitor, or TKI, like the one I was currently on, but considered a”next generation” drug, called Repotrectinib. Before I could go on it I had to endure a new series of scans and blood tests, and a fresh biopsy to be sure that the new metastasis was the same as the old one. I also went back to South Carolina to dog-sit my favorites canines while my niece went to Florida. Perhaps it would be my last trip there.

I had so much new cancer I was having trouble keeping track of it, so I made this fancy diagram:

My rendition of me, loaded with new cancer

Cute, isn’t it? Yeah, unless it’s you.

I waited a tense month for the drug company to accept me into the clinical trial. My cancer was growing, making the likelihood of death all the more certain if the new wonder pill didn’t work. The tumor on my back continued to grow and topped off at 3.3 x 3.0 centimeters before I started treatment. Not only was it disgusting to look at (this one was actually like a skin tumor and growing on the outside, unlike the tumors in my neck, which were under the skin,) but it was also bleeding and getting in the way of life, because if it rubbed against anything it would gush blood. I had to keep it covered 24/7 and couldn’t sleep on my right side. A few times I had to cancel plans with friends because I had to take care of my tumor. Yay, me! (Eye roll.)

By the time I started treatment in late January of 2021, all my tumors had grown. In centimeters, my pancreatic lesion was 2.1 x 2.0. Left hip: 3.2 x 1.9. Stomach: 2.7 x 2.1. And tipping the scales at 8.4 x 3.8, the right hip tumor. They had gained considerable steam in a matter of a month. And that bleeding tumor in my side? Any information that I found on lung cancer metastasis to soft tissue was extremely grim. I was literally dying for treatment. Again.

Somehow, I kept going. Shout outs to several friends and a few family members for sticking with me and helping me through. Remote learning saved my finances. I got an accommodation from my school system to teach from home until the end of the school year in June of 2021. The tumor on my back, as disgusting as it was, turned out to be a creepy blessing, as I was able to watch it shrink down to nearly nothing and knew the medication was working. Within six weeks I didn’t need to cover it any longer, and it stopped bleeding.

I kept hiking and walking. Went back to South Carolina in February, revisited my beloved Southern Utah in April, took two fantastic road trips this past summer.

I get scanned every eight weeks on the clinical trial. I don’t feel fabulous most of the time, and am currently sore as hell and have weakness in my legs, but hey, the bottom line is that I’m still able to do everything I love. As long as my luck holds out, I’ll be heading to Costa Rica for Christmas!

Let this sink in: Thus far, I have survived cancer in my lung, neck, hips, pancreas, flank, and stomach. Last scan, in early September, my hips and pancreas were clear, with the stomach and flank tumors significantly reduced. Still hoping for NED!

Sigh.

And what a two years it has been! Bring on the cancerversary!

10-2-21, Roosevelt Island, New York City

Coming Clean, Round 1

Here we are again, heading into the autumn season. At one time, this is when I’d be mourning summer, reminiscing about the road trips I’d just taken, and dreaming of the next years’s road trips. Almost unbelievably, I’m still doing all that, but for the past two years, September is also when I’m faced with memories of the beginning of my cancer journey. Yes, I’m coming up on my second cancerversary with Stage IV Lung Cancer, a diagnosis that few are lucky enough to survive. So I have to be prepared when I look at my Facebook memories, because chances are 100% that I’ll be seeing myself with a tumor growing in my sternum, the first sign that there was something not completely right in my world.

To “celebrate” the upcoming anniversary of my diagnosis, I will “come clean” with the many details of my journey of staying one step ahead of death, sometimes not even that. And because I know that I’ll need more than one post, I’m calling this Round 1.

I saw the lump in my sternum in late August of 2019. Felt it before then, a strange pulling feeling in my neck. And I was exhausted. But the summer was great. I had amazing road trips in the southern U.S. and southwestern U.S., and an incredible journey to Sri Lanka. Other than being really tired at the end of the day, I had no other sign of what was coming. I hiked hundreds of miles a month, and kept up my crazy schedule otherwise. Frequently I proclaimed myself a “lucky girl” for the life I was leading.

The 2019-2020 school year started well, my sixteenth year as a Special Ed teacher. Two weeks in, however, I began to feel intense pain in my neck and head, so bad that one day I had to leave and go to the ER. I also had the school nurse look at the lump in my sternum. She measured it at one centimeter and suggested I get it checked out. I didn’t pay much attention to it until I started to ache from the waist up, so badly I couldn’t think straight.

Thus started a string of doctor appointments, ER visits, and scans. An X-ray showed something happening in my lung. A CT scan was next. I sat on pins and needles while awaiting results, trying to function correctly while trying to convince myself that my life wasn’t falling apart. It couldn’t! I was a lucky girl, traveling and doing so many things I love to do!

My primary care doctor soon uttered the word “oncologist,” not because she thought I had cancer, but because she wanted to be sure I didn’t have cancer. And so, I entered the world of “the Big C”and oncology, hopefully for only one visit. That was not to be. After an overnight hospital visit, a series of scans including the all-powerful (and expensive) PET scan, and a ton of misinformation, I was told in one of my now-frequent ER visits, that I indeed had cancer. An “incidental finding” from a brain MRI also showed a tiny tumor, usually benign, called a meningioma. I have not revealed this until now, because I feared brain cancer. Over the past two years my little buddy has proven thus far to be unchanged and something that has likely been there for some time. Meningiomas are actually quite common. But at the time, it was more devastating news that would get worse before it would get better.

Two draining months went by as I ran from doctor to surgeon to specialist to radiologist and back to oncologist. The road trip I never wanted to take. The news was grim: Stage 3b non small cell lung cancer, (NSCLC) with radiation and chemotherapy in my foreseeable future. My team of local oncologist and radiation oncologist were hoping for “cure” but also sent out the biopsy tissue from my tumors for what is called biomarker testing, which could change the entire course of my treatment, if I was “lucky” enough to have one of the eight biomarkers in lung cancer. It could be the difference between taking a pill to kill cancer (what???!!!) by targeting a mutation in my tumors, or going through the common course of treatment, chemo and radiation. While we awaited results, a node on the side of my neck started to grow, and the tumors in my sternum and lung continued to get larger. I also had to have a biopsy on a growth in my throat that turned out to be benign, but that held up treatment by a couple of weeks. My dentist even chimed in with the possibility of a tumor in my gum. All arrows seemed to be pointing to death. Metastatic cancer. Everywhere!

The truth was that I had active and growing cancer in three places: lung, sternum, and neck node. The local team stuck with the 3b designation. Behind the scenes, I was considering a trip into Boston, about 75 miles from my Western Massachusetts home, or at least getting an online second opinion. Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is consistently in the top five cancer centers in the country, and friends were telling me that I needed to go there. Admittedly, I dragged my feet, because I thought I was doing okay with the local hospital. But I had the good sense to talk to my oncologist about it, who sent a referral. His staff set up an appointment for me, which was after I had already started radiation, but was the very day before I was set to start chemo. How’s that for timing?

Starting treatment was at least going in the right direction, or so it seemed, but the worst news of all came through: seven out of eight biomarkers came through as negative, so there would be no pills for me. So much for being a “lucky girl.” Bring on the chemo!

November 13, 2019 is a day that lives in infamy for me, for it’s the day that I went to Boston for my appointment at Dana-Farber. It’s the day that I found out that I was in Stage IV, but that I indeed had a biomarker, the eighth one, ROS1, and that I could stop radiation, cancel chemo, and swallow a pill! Two weeks later I started a drug called Rozlytrek (entrectinib) that by some miracle shrank all three of my tumors. The one in my sternum went away altogether. The other two shrank enough that I could have consolidative radiation therapy, that had the possible promise of a long life restored!

For most of 2020, things were moving steadily in that direction, even through COVID19. I had radiation on my lung tumor, and later, my neck node was radiated. Whew, what a cancer ride! This looked like the end of it for me! Had I ever lucked out! Imagine, possibly cured of Stage IV Lung Cancer!

I had lucked out. But it wasn’t over. I wasn’t quite that lucky.

Before I could even enjoy winning round one, round two was ready to take me to the mat.

Me, one year after diagnosis, road tripping between rounds one and two

Positively Positivity

Whew! I was really hoping to be back here long before now, but guess what? I recently returned to face to face teaching, with students in the same room for the first time in over a year. After working remotely followed by an accommodation due to a serious underlying illness (advanced lung cancer…yikes!) for the entire 2020-2021 school year, I’m in front of the kids again for real. Masks are required for everyone, so it isn’t quite the same, but I have to admit that it’s been a mostly positive experience for me to be back in the routine I was in for many years before my cancer diagnosis. In fact, I feel quite normal, and can even sometimes forget that I have a deadly disease. Add last week’s great scans to that equation and it makes for some happy times. But heck, what a struggle to get here, and believe me, I’d be a fool to think that it’s going to last. Which doesn’t mean I’m not going to enjoy the break until the next big cancer event, and that I won’t hope and pray that I have lots of time before that happens.

How did I get to this more comfortable place?

I got (and continue to get) the best medical care possible.

I asked for no sympathy.

I found new ways to do what I love.

I found new things to love.

I surrounded myself with positivity.

I didn’t (and don’t) let my illness define me.

Please click the links above to read previous posts on how I live successfully with a chronic illness that initially spun my world around and still continues to at the drop of a hat.

In this post, I will discuss point number five, surround yourself with positivity

Let me put it right out there: you don’t need people throwing around their own special brand of negativity when you’re already dealing with more heartache than most humans can handle. Do you know what it’s like to have a needle in your arm and lie in a tight, noisy machine while it scans your brain? Then to get out of that machine and get in a different one to scan most of the rest of your body? How about radiation? Ever had it? Or, think about what it might be like when you just want to live your life but you can’t because you have to do things to save your life. Now, add a negative person or two to that and aren’t you feeling extra super sucky? Yeah, I’ve been there, done that.

So, what do you do? The solution is simple to say, difficult to accomplish. Complicated, because the negative individual is oftentimes someone we love and we think we have to be “nice” and let that person chip away at us when our health woes are already doing that, because to get rid of them is “mean” and we just don’t dare cross that line. Listen, there’s no definitive proof in medicine that stress and unhappiness cause diseases and illnesses to fester inside of us. But last summer when I was in Boston for three weeks receiving radiation I was under siege, being called every ugly thing in the world by someone who claims to love me, and the emotional pain I was feeling was palpable. This was on top of being off my cancer medication and limping around Boston five days a week to get my treatments, being away from home, being masked several hours a day in heat and humidity, and wondering if the radiation was even going to work to save my life.

I know now that the radiation did its job pretty well, but five months later I had metastasis in my lower body, and guess what? The abuse continued. When I was sitting around a medical facility alone because of COVID19, too far from home, and fearing for my life again after a pretty good run at cancer, the abuse didn’t stop. I still remember that cold December night very well. I had just turned fifty-four. And I certainly wasn’t getting what I wanted for my birthday.

Alas, I have gained control of this situation since then. I was “mean.” I wasn’t “nice.” I had to avoid this hurt and pain at all costs, and I still do. I’m not much on sidestepping problems, but then I never had cancer to deal with. I danced around this blemish in my life and a few others that threatened to bring me to the ground. Sorry folks, it’s about me now. I can’t afford the abuse, any abuse. My goal is zero percent negativity, but this is pretty much impossible to achieve unless you never leave the house!

Truth is, I’m overwhelmed (underwhelmed?) by some of the adversity I’ve had to deal with on top of cancer. You would think people would know better. But some don’t. Does it still apply to say that whatever doesn’t kill you will make you stronger? Perhaps, but when you’re already dealing with something that has the potential to kill you, any extra adversity is totally unnecessary.

Say good-bye to it in the nicest way possible. And if you can’t do it nicely, it’s okay. You’ve earned the right to be “mean.”

Not Another Cancer Survivor’s Story?!

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Yeah, I’m a cancer survivor, and yeah, I’m writing a book about my journey. Told here for the first time, the tome’s working title is “Destination Life: My Cancer Road Trip.” Though everyone has a story to tell whether they have cancer or not, I think that my tale is quite interesting, perhaps even a little over the top, and not one you’re going to hear that often. Some parts of it are typical for sure. Yes, my life was devastated. (Though really, is having your life devastated “typical?”) Yes, I was frightened that I was going to die. And yes, I had an incredible amount of stuff to learn. This is probably where the “typical” part of my journey ends. Because I’m one of those people that eventually took control of my care, had a fair amount of good luck in a bad luck situation, called out the prayer warriors, eliminated negativity, and saw things turn around quite dramatically. I know the wonders of modern medicine. I know the power of Big Pharma. But I had to go through some poop to get to the right place.

Before all that happened, I was just a human being flailing with the thought that my life would never be the same again, and maybe I wouldn’t even have a life to look forward to:

It’s still warm in New England, and foliage season is approaching. Autumn is not my favorite time of the year as it is for many, but definitely a beautiful time, and one that I always enjoy hiking in. The leaves are changing colors, and so is the rest of my world. As my sister drives us home the “C” word starts to set in. I look at other people out the window and they appear so casual, so carefree, no worries in the world. They don’t have to think about cancer, but I do. And I come to understand something again, that I realized in 2004 after my mom passed: the world still goes on. Life goes on, even as you’re suffering, even as your life or your world has suddenly been dealt a devastating blow. The world doesn’t care. It has to keep turning for everyone else. It is one of the many sad facts of humanity.

As I write this post, I’m stronger than ever in many ways, but I had to find my wings to fly through my new life. It wasn’t always easy or positive. The ground I was walking on was shaky, uncertain. The fear was real, and debilitating. For a while, the news was getting worse. Here’s an excerpt from one of my darkest days:

A lymph node on the right side of the base of my neck is on the rise. Supposedly it’s on the PET scan, but wait…wrong. The one on the PET is in the lung, a hilar node. The neck node is unaccounted for. I discover it when I scratch my shoulder one night, while talking to my sister on the couch. So now there’s four areas.

          Or…five?

          Dr. L finds an abnormality in the back of my throat and matches it up on the scan. Now we have to find out what these two new discoveries are. The possibility of two different cancers is floating around. Could I really be that unlucky? Head and neck cancer, and lung cancer, too? The cure word gets tossed aside, the waters  muddied. The rug gets pulled out from under me again.

          More questions without answers are swirling around. This is an all-time low point. Two more biopsies are on the near horizon. The throat node requires a trip to another specialist, an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor.

          Treatment looms too far ahead as cancer grows inside me, packing its bags for an adventurous road trip.

I wasn’t totally serious about this book when I sat down to type it from the original journal I composed in longhand. But I’m committed to it now, as hard as it is to relive such heartrending moments so soon after they happened. Yes, this was only four months ago. Oh, how far I’ve come since then!

I don’t know how this particular book will end, since my new life is still unfolding in the most interesting of ways. Nor do I  know when it will be done. I’m not on a schedule; I’m in no hurry. But I’m pretty sure that it won’t be the only book of its kind. Thinking it might be a series. I have a lot to say, and I’ve always wanted to write nonfiction. Here’s my chance!

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Am I Cancer, or Am I Still Me?

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Ever since I was diagnosed with lung cancer two months ago I’ve been having a real identity crisis. Suddenly, I have this thing sticking out of my neck that probably nobody notices but me, yet I’m my harshest critic. It’s ugly, it’s embarrassing, it marks me as not being like everyone else. I’m a tumor. Who would want to hang around with me? I might be contagious. And truth be told, I’ve already been dumped by someone I thought was one of my best and closest friends. So, I must not be me anymore. I must be nothing more than a cancer growth.

I’ve started to have social anxiety. Me, the traveler that a few months ago was expounding on the wonders of Sri Lanka after an exciting summer trip. Me, the hiking lady. Me, the road trip queen. Going shopping is a challenge now. Everyone looks so happy and cancer free. Going for a walk is a great achievement. What if I feel weak or need to sit down? Driving is even more aggravating than it used to be, that petty nut behind me trying to push me to go faster, not knowing the challenges I’m facing. Get a life, will ya? I got cancer, screwball. You: In a big hurry to get to McDonald’s for dinner. Me: Figuring out how to save my own life. Beat that. Yeah, you’re seriously going to get the finger now. No questions asked.

I keep hearing the usual things.

“Everyone has problems.” Yes, I know. But not everyone has the problem of figuring out how to be here to see the calendar flip to 2021 in thirteen months, when the statistics say it isn’t going to happen. Not everyone has a devastating disease rendering them unable to do seventy-five percent of the things they love to do.

“You’re still you, and we love you!” I know that, too. I don’t blame my mindset on anyone but me and cancer. You wouldn’t feel any differently if the future you were working so hard toward and looking so forward to might not ever happen.

“You’re not being a warrior!” Listen, I can’t be a warrior one hundred percent of the time, and for a person who had the rug pulled out from underneath her several weeks ago, I think I’m doing pretty good, in spite of it all. By some small miracle I’m not severely depressed, even though my life has changed from hopping planes to hopping on hospital tables. From hiking poles to biopsy needles. From Southwestern road trips to doctor’s office road trips.

Am I working through it? Yes, I am. I realize that life is fleeting for everyone. It can end at any time. There’s no guarantees for anyone. It’s a crap shoot that we’re all destined to lose. Maybe, though, I’d rather not know when, how, or why it’s going to happen.

Lately, I’ve been listening closely to the words I put out to the world, and I’ve changed the way I’ve been doing it. Instead of bemoaning my situation, I’m thinking of it as a hurdle I have to get over to get back to what I want. Instead of assuming that I’m not going to reach my goals, I’ve put them back on the table. Retirement is still a possibility. Getting back to traveling is, too. Over the weekend I took my first hike in a month and a half. Was it as fun as it used to be? No. But I can’t expect miracles. I just have to chip away at the hole I’ve dug for myself since this all started.

Oh, wait, was I really me and not a tumor just a couple short months ago? Yes. Then maybe I’m not that far from where I need to be. I’ve begun treatment and am ready to see this ugly piece of costume jewelry start to shrink. Until then, it’s easily covered with any number of pretty scarves I used to wear just because I liked them. I’ve been lucky enough to be granted a pass on chemotherapy, so I won’t need to deal with the extra added burden of being stared at while trying to look fashionably bald. Go, me.

I’ve stepped up my daily fitness goals. Though they’re still a shadow of what they used to be, they’re still better than they were. I’ve made some new norms, since many of the old norms aren’t possible right now. And yes, I have five realistic goals set for 2020. Let’s not worry about 2021 quite yet.

Something has to make me happy. My life can’t be all about cancer. Thankfully, most of the poking and prodding is over now that treatment has started. And the endless phone calls have ceased, too. Though I have to admit, those annoyances kept me busy with little time to think about anything else.

Now, I have to think about getting me back and ceasing to be defined by a tumor. Maybe I’ll even figure out, like some cancer survivors do, that there’s a really good reason behind all this, as ironic as that sounds.

I want to believe there is. Just be patient with me while I find it.

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