Update, November 16, 2017

Now that I can no longer post to carepages, I will do my updates here.  We’ll miss carepages, first introduced to us when our grandson was born at Brighams and whisked (with mom) away to Children’s where he had his first of a few heart surgeries.  He’s a very healthy, athletic eleven year old!  But then, and now, we needed a way to update and communicate easily with friends and family.  So, thanks carepage!

GREAT NEWS! Lorlatinib is working for me.  75% reduction of the cancer in my meninges!  I am having no symptoms from the cancer in my brain.  I am having some minimal side effects from the lorlatinib doing its job in my brain.  Lorlatinib is also controlling the cancer in other places of my body as well as my hero Xalkori Crizotinib did. High cholesterol is a side effect of the drug, so my Crestor has once again been increased, but I’ve been assured that this can be managed and wouldn’t be a reason to stop the lorlatinib. Whew!  So, at the lower dose from when I began, it is still effective for me!

Dan and I drove to Boston Wednesday for the Thursday appointment.  Our first test was at 6:30 AM.  We were finished for the day at 2:45 PM and then Dan had to drive home in the pouring rain.  Traffic was heavy heading out of the city, and then visibility was terrible on the highway. It got dark while still on the interstate.   We stopped for a quick dinner and break in S. Portland, Between Augusta and Belfast it was mixed precipitation. But finally at 9:20 PM we pulled into the driveway, safe and sound.  Dan’s my hero, always.  The greeting by the three little dachshunds was as wonderful and crazy as always.

We are ever so grateful to/for everyone at Dana-Farber, everyone in lung cancer research, and our family for jumping in so we can travel.

Road Trip!

Believe it or not, but Dan and I love our road trips to Boston every three, six, or eight weeks.

Ever since I moved out of the middle back seat (wedged between two grumpy siblings), I’ve loved road trips.  My mother-in-law, daughter, and I went on countless trips: day trips, overnight trips, shopping trips, college trips.  It didn’t matter to any of us the purpose, we just loved going together.  Once we traveled across three mountain ranges in winter in a Geo Metro to visit colleges – now that was a trip.  Dan and I always took the kids on a road trip somewhere in New England in April.  Boston, Mystic, Sturbridge, Springfield, Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT – that was exciting to the young expert in the family.

Even before we got the cancer diagnosis, Dan and I knew that if ever we did hear those dreaded words, we would go to Dana Farber Cancer Institute, five hours away.  Road trip!  That would be the easy part – we know how to do this.  Our first road trip to Dana Farber included Dan, me, and my sister – my other caregiver.  We were on a mission, the only known was the destination.  We booked a night that quickly became a few as we jumped on the train of the cancer journey. Since then there have been countless (not really true, but I haven’t counted them) road trips to Boston.  Most of them are just the two of us (Dan and me), but some have included my sister or our son, and once we (my sister and I) made the trip without Dan. Early on, for some I was pretty sick and spent the drive sleeping, so I “missed” those trips.  After trying a couple of routes and a couple of different hotels, we’ve settled on what works for us.  We’re lucky that we’ve got a good car for traveling, and the funds for gas, an overnight stay, and meals.

Road trip!  Let’s enjoy it.  Enjoy it?  Two days of being on the road and at the hospital? (We don’t feel we can take more time away and sightsee, etc. because our three little dachshunds and goats miss us!)  But, enjoy it knowing that it’s traveling and a day of tests and appointments?  Really?  Well, why not? So we do!  We’ve got it all down. My appointments are on a schedule (8 weeks, 3 weeks, or 6 weeks apart).  Our suitcase stays packed with the extra change of clothes, travel toiletries,  and coffee and tea supplies.  I try to remember to book our room several weeks ahead. Our daughter is alerted of the dates for pet care.  The day before the road trip I finish the packing.  And then we’re off!

Just imagine having five hours of uninterrupted time with your best friend!  Heavenly.  What would it have been like years ago if someone had given the two of us “all expenses paid” trips every few weeks?  Heavenly!  Well, we have this road trip we have to do and pay for, so why not look beyond the reason?  We spend the drive time talking, and even though we’ve been together over 40 years, we love to just talk, about anything and everything. When we feel like stopping to eat or take a break we do. Now that we have our favorite route, there’s always different animals, seasonal changes, and such to notice.   Like turkeys in Brookline.  True story. They live amongst the most beautiful homes, right in the city. And then there’s Dan’s favorite little school to look for, a childcare/preschool.  Often the children will be out with Mr. Rope on the sidewalk in Boston, just like my daycare children when we walked around Blue Hill 30+ years ago. (Just like and so just not like!)

Then we arrive, usually mid to late afternoon.  (Sometimes we leave really early for an afternoon appointment, but usually we get  there one day for an early morning appointment the next day.) We park in the hotel parking garage, relieved to not have to take the car out again that day. We check in and have a cup of tea and a little rest. Pretty nice!  Watch a little TV or watch the city streets out the window.  Interesting.  Then we decide where to eat dinner.  Choices are numerous, especially with delivery, but we’re creatures of habit, so we choose between the hotel restaurant and the Italian restaurant near Children’s Hospital.  Almost every time we go to the Italian restaurant we are seated in the same spot. No joke. Corner booth. What is it about us that makes this happen? Maybe we look like hicks from Maine. Or weary hospital visitors. But I prefer to think we look like lovers wanting to be left alone to stare dreamily into each other’s eyes.  After dinner, on the walk back, is when we do our people-watching.  It’s always interesting to see all the people rushing to their destination, never stopping to even nod a greeting to anyone.  Such a different world.  And then, after dinner we have until the next morning to enjoy our trip, pushing it’s true purpose from our minds.

The next morning the alarm goes off early enough for showers and packing up.  Our appointments will last long beyond checkout time.  Depending on how early we need to be at Dana Farber, we try to eat (or just Dan eats) at the food court or the cafeteria before heading to appointments.  Here’s an example of a typical appointment schedule. First drive one block to Dana Farber and park underground usually at least four levels.   6:30 AM arrive at Dana Farber D3(3rd floor) for Brain MRI. This means taking of everything but my undies, putting on a johnny, having an IV put in that will stay in for a few hours. Then into the cold room, and getting up on the table in the right spot, cushions beside my ears, a “hockey mask” clamped over my face, and into the tube I slide. Halfway through I’m slid out to put the contrast dye in my IV. After listening to some pretty strange and very repetitive noises, I get out, dress, and go find Dan.  Dan waits the 50 mins or so (reading,  texting, looking up sports stuff on his phone).  As soon as I’m out we rush to the elevator to head down to floor L1 (lower level, underground) for a 7:40 AM appointment.  We are there for a while. That appointment starts with a blood draw (from the IV they put in for the Brain MRI), followed by a bottle of the most delicious drink that I must drink in 30 minutes. Wait for my turn.  Then the CT scans of my chest and abdomen.  As long as I wear no metal, I can keep my clothes on, no johnny! Those scans are quick. Lie on the table, a couple of scans, inject the contrast dye into my IV, two more scans, and off I go, with a reminder to drink lots of water.  Dan, he’s been waiting.  But during the time I’m drinking the stuff, we’re enjoying our time, talking about home, something in a magazine, just talking. (We’ve figured out that we both just want to be together, regardless of the circumstance or situation – whatever it is, we’re together!)  After that appointment is done (takes 2 hours total sometimes), we check to see if there’s time to stop at the cafeteria on for a snack (I’ve probably not had breakfast) before heading to the 10th floor where thoracic oncology is.  On this day we do! (This is for real in two days – we’ll see if I’m right!)  10th floor 11:00 AM EKG  This has something to do with being in the Lorlatinib clinical trial. I can’t take my med on this day until after the EKG and Dr. appointment.  For the EKG they stick electrodes all over you that read the electrical activity of your heart.  The EKG is followed by “taking vitals” (blood pressure, temp, weight, O2, heart rate). Then we wait for the appointment with the doctor, research nurse, and program coordinator, scheduled for 11:30AM.  We decided a long time ago that we would never grumble if appointments at DF didn’t happen when scheduled.  It runs very efficiently compared to other medical facilities we’ve experienced.  If our appointment is late we know it is because another patient or family needed their time.  We can wait.  We are grateful to be there.  If all is well with the morning’s tests, the appointment is really just a check-in about side effects and symptoms.  When it is over we have our last stop at the pharmacy on floor 2 to wait for the medication (one cycle/3 weeks’ worth only). Finally we’re on the parking elevator headed down to the floor that we now always remember we parked on.  If lucky on this day that starts at 6:30 AM, we’ll be on the road again by 1:30 PM.

That was one long paragraph! Well I thought about writing it as one very long run on sentence.  For me, that is how it feels. Nonstop.  No time to take a breath, even with the waiting we might do.

And then Dan drives us home.  Very long day for him.

Once out of the city we talk about the appointment and I send texts to let the “kids” know how it went.  Then we decide when/where to stop to eat, fill up with gas, etc.  I try to stay awake to keep Dan company – it’s the least I can do for my chauffeur/caregiver who won’t let me drive.  Dan calls it Driving Miss Rinnie!  All I know is that he must truly love me.

Five hours later we pull into the driveway, hearing a chorus from all sides of dachshund barks and howls mixed with the bleating of Naughty Dottie and her sidekick Matilda.  Home. Together.

Three weeks later…

Radiation (or Radiotherapy as it’s really called)

When I first got to Dana Farber the doctors recommended radiation for palliative care.  Palliative care is care intended to improve the quality of one’s life.  (It isn’t always during the end of life period).  At the time it was recommended, doctors were waiting for the results of genomic testing, and were very concerned about my extreme shortness of breath, coughing, and feeling of chest pressure.  My tumor was(is?) in my left lung hilum, a rather tricky spot (kenhub.com hilum info), where some important stuff happens that shouldn’t get blocked.  All we knew is that we came to Dana Farber for the best treatment and we were going to follow their advice.  We didn’t see many other options jumping out.

So, it was explained to us that to give me relief quickly, I would have “30 treatments worth” of radiation in 10 treatments.  Five days per week, two consecutive weeks.  The hope is that the tumor would shrink quickly and I would be able to breathe.  Sounded like a good plan.  Now after a month of tests we’re finally going to do something to get rid of this beast inside me.  Let’s go!

After meeting with the radiation oncologist, the next step was mapping. For the mapping I was on a table like for any scan, but there was something like an inflatable beanbag under me, that when deflated molded right around my body. In the room was a Dr. and two young technicians.  I was wearing a Johnny, but of course that didn’t really matter as they needed to access my chest.  Now I hadn’t really thought about this too much, but they needed me to be lying just as I would for every daily dose of radiation of course, and what they were mapping was my chest.  So, there were my somewhat aged, floppy breasts being ever so gently moved and set back in place while the process happened.  Luckily for me, I’m not too uncomfortable being partially nude in the medical setting, but I hadn’t put much thought into what they needed to do, or how long it would take.

Contrast dye CT (an IV for this) and lots of marker on me (here, there, and everywhere in different colors above, on, beside, and under my breasts), with a machine giving them the exact measurements of where to mark (looked like green lasers swirling around), 30 seconds of monitoring my breathing, and then my tattoos. Four tiny dots, smaller than my moles and freckles – good thing they are a different color. One above one breast, one under the other breast, and one on each side of my rib cage.

After several days of Quality Assurance testing on a dummy, there was a trial run on me.  I was put in the mold they made last week during radiation mapping (that’s what the inflatable thing was for!) and had x-rays, using the coordinates of my tattoos to make sure that what they are hitting with radiation will be what they want to target. Quite an amazing process.

The radiation machines are assigned color names.  Mine was purple, a good sign because that is my favorite color.  It was explained to me that within a few days I would likely have side effects (skin “burning”, fatigue, cough -already had one of those, soreness in my esophagus and throat, and loss of appetite.  There also may be some additional side effects months after radiation.  At that point I just wanted to breathe and feel like we were doing something, and a liver biopsy the day before starting radiation confirmed that the lung cancer was there too, so the radiation needed to be completed before beginning what we thought would be chemotherapy treatment.  (Received confirmation of the ROS 1 cell mutation during radiation and treatment would be a targeted therapy drug, but that too couldn’t happen until I recovered some from radiation.)

I ended up having 10 radiation treatments.  Each day you check in, go to the dressing room and put on your Johnny, leaving on undies, socks, and shoes, and then sit in the waiting area, completing a questionnaire on a tablet about symptoms.  Dan would wait in the waiting room where we checked in.  I seldom waited more than a few minutes and then into the treatment room, climb up on the table (a struggle because of broken ribs due to coughing), lie on my mold, and hold still while the machine hovered over me.  I think that an X-ray or scan was done each day as well.  Of course, for their safety, the technicians running the equipment are in a different room once they get you in place.  When you’re done (5 minutes later) they come back in and you’re on your way.

Over the days (even for just two weeks), you start to build relationships with the technicians and the radiology/oncology nurse that meets with you daily.  One day a technician admired my purple sneakers, and the following Monday announced that she had purchased a pair over the weekend.  (That’s what began my search for fun socks, shoes to entertain technicians when I have tests done.  Almost always you can keep your socks and shoes on when they’re looking at your top half.). The nurse was the one who kept track of  your “vitals” (stats on everything from weight to heat rate), asked about appetite and pain, and offered suggestions to either help prevent or relieve the radiation “sunburn”.  Dan would join me for the check in with the nurse.

Once a week we were scheduled to meet with the radiation oncologist.  But I think we met with him four times.  He always showed us the X-rays or scans that were done. On one visit we had just learned that I had the ROS 1 genetic driver and would go on a targeted therapy drug.  He was SO excited!  He said this meant there was a treatment that would target only the cancer, not my whole body like chemotherapy would, and it was known that it works on my mutation.  Lucky me!  He really did have us feeling like we’d won the lottery.  (And really?  On the cancer journey, we had.) Once he explained that my lung had partially collapsed, but that he hoped after radiation it would re-inflate itself. (And it did!)  He also, very sadly, told me near the end of radiation that it really had done nothing to shrink my tumor, but I would still, for months to come, likely suffer the side effects from the radiation.  He was genuinely sorry about this.

Now, what was life like during this time?  Well, Dan and I stayed at the Hope Lodge (free thanks to the American Cancer Society) in Worcester, an incredibly beautiful, old Victorian(?) home with original woodwork throughout.  We would get up early, drive to Boston, park in the Dana Farber parking garage, go up to the third floor to eat breakfast in the Dana Farber cafeteria, and head down to the below ground level where radiation takes place. This all involves quite a bit of getting in and out, up and down, and walking.  Toward the end of my treatments, Dan thought I should use a wheelchair.  We didn’t.  We did go very slowly, but we had time.  And, we had learned from Mt. Kilimanjaro – polepole (go slowly in Swahili) breathe!

Once done with radiation, unless there was another appointment, we returned to Worcester to Hope Lodge where I rested, and likely Dan watched me rest.  Our room at the Hope Lodge was upstairs (that was a known before staying there).  Once in our room we didn’t go out much because I became so fatigued from the radiation that the stairs seemed like a mountain. While there we got to know other visitors/patients and the staff, often sharing meals with them. I wish I had felt better as I would have enjoyed talking with them more.  There was a large shared kitchen with refrigerator and storage space for each patient, so most meals you prepared yourself, but each night we were there dinner was brought in or prepared by a volunteer organization or group.  Oh nice is that!  So, at dinner we ate family style. I wasn’t really able to fully appreciate or enjoy the dinners at that time, but it was truly thoughtful and there’s always something special about sharing a meal with others.

On the weekends before, between, and after radiation Dan drove us the five hours home so we could “just be home” for a day and a half before heading back again.  While home magic happened and our laundry was done and food resupplied.  My job was to rest and keep breathing.  That’s all I did.

I will always have damage from the radiation.  A few months after I had lung inflammation (pneumonitis) that needed to be treated with steroids.  The fibrosis (like scar tissue) continues to worsen even now, 21 months later.  This was a surprise to me.  I was told it could continue to have an effect, but I didn’t realize it could continue to worsen.  I think I was lucky with my esophagus, or at least so far.  Things that are quite hot (temperature) bother me going down, and I try not to eat much spicy food.  I have developed a hiatal hernia, but have no symptoms.  I’m sure all of this damage could be much worse, so I feel fortunate.

Take-aways from this part of the journey:  the experts are doing what they think and hope will work, but nothing’s a given; even when desperate, try to take time to consider pros and cons; compassionate people are everywhere you go; caregivers are lifesavers.  Always stay hopeful and strong.

 

cancer Stinks!

There are words I intensely dislike, and so I don’t use them.  But, that’s not what’s happening here in this title.  What I really mean to say is that cancer stinks, yup it smells really bad. When I was the most ill, everything that came out of me (in any way) smelled REALLY awful.  My breath, my sweat, my flatulence, … everything.  Not that body odors are usually sweet smelling, but I’ve never been a particularly stinky person.  (Well, the me before cancer I mean.)

This all came rushing back to me this weekend when I was ill.  I’m much better now, but I had some virus going around with everything from body aches to diarrhea.  And back came the stink full force!  I know it wasn’t my imagination, it was the same odor, the cancer stink.  Now I’m not saying my illness this weekend was cancer related, but it smelled the same.  Probably no research on this and now that I’m better I smell better!

One cancer stink doesn’t really go away – the flatulence one.  I know everyone’s toots stink, but cancer toots top ’em all.  Don’t believe me?  You could ask Dan or my grandkids, but they might be too polite or kindhearted to answer (even though we joke about it). Just ask my dogs.  Especially the two that sleep under the covers, against me.  You get the picture.  My dogs are very forgiving.  cancer stinks.

When I was first diagnosed I remember apologizing to Dr. Gandhi for my exceptionally stinky sweat.  She was the one who confirmed for me that it was cancer stink.  On that day I was too busy trying to stay alive to spend more time on the topic with her, but I wish I could.  (She has since left Dana Farber.)

I know I’ve read that dogs have smelled their owner’s cancer before diagnosis.  I’m quite sure my dog Rusty diagnosed me way before anyone else – he knew how sick I was before we realized it – maybe it was the cancer stink.  He was very attentive this weekend, so maybe he smelled the cancer stink too.

All I know for sure on this one is that cancer STINKS!

 

 

Before cancer Me, Living with cancer ME

This is a rambling post.  I’ve worked on it off and on for a few days, when I wasn’t too busy making pickles or watching soccer.  It makes little sense to me, but maybe it will to someone else or someone someday or me someday.

Sometimes I feel as though I’ve had two separate lives – the one that lasted 58 years and two months, and the one that I’ve lived since our house fire.  I use that date of the house fire instead of my diagnosis date when I think about this because that’s when I began to feel ill.  Had the cancer not been creeping in, and then racing through my body, I’m quite sure we would have recovered from the house fire just fine. But it did, and we didn’t, not fully.

Here’s what got me thinking about this today.  Another lung cancer survivor posted this question: “Have you ever thought about taking your next breath?”  My response: “Top of Mt Kilimanjaro 2012, and lying in a bed in Boston before my targeted therapy drug 2016. Two very different experiences. ” That response kind of shook me up.  Huh..  Wow.  That’s so much more than the highs and lows of one’s life.  It is two different lives.

But not really two lives, it can’t be, because all the conditions around us are the same as they’ve always been, and most of the time everyone around us does what they’ve always done or even moves on. So, what then?  One life interrupted?  No, it’s not like my life is on hold and will return to what it was.  It’s a really weird phenomenon perhaps.  You’re going along with all of life’s ups and downs that are expected as one moves through “middle age”, your house fills with smoke, you get diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer,  you’re really, really sick, and you live.  And you keep on living. But not the same life and now you have to figure out what to do in this life.

In that other life, if we’d had a house fire we would have replaced all the backpacking and camping gear because we would have used it.  In that life we had plans, and the fire would have been an interruption.  Plans that won’t be realized in this life, because it’s not the same life.  In this life we’re making the plans we should have made in the other life, and “getting our affairs in order”.  Important stuff, but not the same as the plans we were making in the other life, plans that were months in the making, that took us to new places, climbing to new heights or depths in the case of Grand Canyon.

I’m not complaining.  I’m REALLY glad to keep living in this life.  It’s just weird.  No time ago, in that life, a few of us were going to the Y doing a daily workout that I intensely disliked, but that I could do, and it included hundreds of things like burpees, squats, lunges, sit-ups.  In this life I had radiation to my lung, and it caused fibrosis in that lung (along with other nasty things ).  In this life, I’m doing squats from a chair and push-ups against the counter, and I’m huffing and puffing. I walk 20 minutes and get to a hill, and… huff and puff.   But, I’m doing it – I couldn’t when I was really sick – and I know it will make me stronger.

In this life our plans revolve around trips to Dana Farber, and the news we hear there.  Planning for months for something exciting in the future just doesn’t make sense, but maybe it will. Maybe.  Hasn’t yet.  In this life we’re not yet comfortable with knowing what next week may bring, let alone make plans for months from now.  But that’s not to say that I don’t have goals and milestones to reach.  Sure I do!  Grandchildren provide so many opportunities.  Our future is filled with such events that I expect to attend.  Complicated and weird, plan, but don’t make plans, or make plans, but don’t plan on it.

This afternoon I felt that I was in my old life, cheering away at a soccer game.  And then, at game’s end, I pushed myself up from the chair that I should have just hopped up from.  Oh yeah, right. New life, new rules.  Huff and puff back to the car.  Not complaining.  I’m alive and very active, all things considered.  And my plan?  Keep on getting stronger and polepole breathe, wherever I may be.

In this new life I’ve recently gone to my first horse show and I met a very sweet praying mantis in the garden, and last year I became mom to two Nigerian goats Matilda and Dottie.  Things that didn’t happen in my old life. I am happy and have purpose in this new life.  Weird.  polepole breathe!

Too busy making pickles to worry about dying

For someone with a terminal disease who statistically shouldn’t be here, I don’t think I spend much time thinking about dying.  It doesn’t upset me to think about dying, but I’m really much more focused on living.  I’m way too busy to spend much time on the negative “what ifs” of this journey.

You see, I’ve just been given this wonderful opportunity to spend almost all of my days doing whatever it is that I choose to do.  While I may not be well enough to do everything I may enjoy or want to do or sometimes think I need to do, there is so much I CAN do.  Thanks to the doctors at Dana Farber and the clinical trial targeted therapy drug Lorlatinib, I feel quite well.

So instead of taking me down rapidly as this cancer named ROS1+ intended to do, it has provided opportunities that I may not have had or would not have taken advantage of.    These opportunities are both tangible and intangible, and infinite I imagine.  And so now a new path on the journey has just begun.

It began on that first day of school when it seemed like everyone else was going somewhere and I was not.  No real plan, no real reason to do anything in particular.  Every day could be a new adventure.  I could read all day.  That’s very satisfying.  I could sleep all day.  No, not unless I’m very tired.  Or, I could bake! Oh dear, we’ve just completely stopped eating sugar, and are reducing how much wheat we eat.  No, no baking for now.  Well, how about making pickles? Haven’t done that for years and we’ve still plenty of veggies.  Pickles it is.

Pickle making is science and art combined, a beautiful experiment each and every time, right up to the moment your guinea pigs (children, grandchildren, and other willing relatives) take the first taste.  Since I started making pickles a few weeks ago I’ve made sour cucumber, garlic dill cucumber, bread and butter cucumber, ripe cucumber, garlic rosemary tomato, garlic dill summer squash, and bread and butter summer squash.  Yup, it’s true.  I’ve been making pickles!  I’ve used tried and true recipes passed down from my grandmother or Dan’s mom, and ones I’ve found online.  Some have been quite popular, others not so much, but all have found a home.IMG_2526.JPG

Now pickle making isn’t the only opportunity I’ve taken advantage of.  I’m part of a trio (and that number may grow any day now) that goes on NOW WE CAN adventures.  Now we can, and so we are!  We’ve traveled near and far (nah, not really far), so far going to the Orono Bog Boardwalk, Common Ground Fair, and Nervous Nellie’s.  Just the names make you know we had fun! Here’s some proof!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIMG_252822046080_10211986642014460_7954483629869582552_n

And then there’s the hundreds of soccer and baseball games I’ve been to this fall.  Last year cancer kept me from going to many of the kids’ games, but now that cancer keeps me from working, and I’ve started Lorlatinib, I have energy enough to go.  So, go we do!

And on and on it goes!  None of us know what may happen in life, and I certainly never know what news the next scan  or MRI may bring on this cancer journey, but right now I’m just too busy finding joy in the everyday things of life to worry about dying!