Sharing the Journey

I can’t imagine traveling this cancer road alone.  No one should ever, ever have to.  I’m so very grateful that I’ll never have to.  In fact, my family has grown through this journey.  This struck me again today when the caregiver wife of a ROS1der posted a heartfelt and loving message to us all. While I’ve never met any of the ROS1ders, I feel incredibly close to them in the 22 months since I found the facebook group established for cancer patients who are ROS1+.  This family has nearly tripled since I found it, and is worldwide.

The ROS1der FaceBook group is a closed group (public site: ros1cancer.com), and I cannot share the details of that lovely post or anyone’s specific information, but  I can share what makes them my “family”.   Most, but not all, have lung cancer. Most, not all, have metastasized cancer.  Most, not all, have been on the drug  Xalkori crizotinib, my treatment hero, the reason I survived long enough to even call this a journey.  Many, maybe most, are younger than me, many with children at home.  Many have had treatments that I’ve not had.  Many are in clinical trials, some on the same drug as me (lorlatinb – hero drug #2), some on other targeted therapy drugs that are giving hope to ROS1ders.  All are either ROS1+ or the caregiver of someone who has ROS1+ cancer as required to be a group member.   Because of all we do have in common, there is always someone who understands, or can relate to, what another is experiencing.  Beyond that even, there’s just such a feeling of empathy and sincere caring about one another’s well being in the group.  In this group we share information, learn how different oncologists approach different topics, hear about procedures and tests as described by the patient, get the latest news on clinical trials and research, share tips about dealing with side effects and symptoms, options for and how to access healthcare/treatment, and so much more.

I’ve tried to think what it is that makes this family so very special compared to other organizations I’ve been part of and even considered family. I believe it is the never-ending optimism, the incredibly high level of HOPE, STRENGTH, COURAGE, and FAITH.  The people in this group have so many (not every!) reasons to feel and speak only doom and gloom, but not in this family.  Our fears, worries, and sadness can be freely expressed and we know they will be responded to with caring and genuine concern.  It is a safe place.  This is a difficult road to travel.  Love, compassion and support, research and answers, virtual shoulders to cry on and hands to hold are all offered.   Always, always with an eye on a future where, if not a cure, then treatment for managing cancer as a chronic disease, always HOPE.

My ROS1der family, a FaceBook group. Who knew I’d find such camaraderie in such a place.  Huh.  Another of the countless blessings that have come my way on this journey.  May every human needing such a place, find theirs.

Finding joy in the everyday, every day.IMG_3189.jpg

 

 

Lucky to be me!

Try to imagine that you’re hiking along life’s trail, happy go lucky as can be and then you find yourself slowing to a walk and then a crawl.  That’s kind of what happened to me in the fall of 2015.  Despite the house fire recovery, things were good, and then they weren’t.

I’m lucky! For lots of reasons. I’m really grateful to the FNP or PA who saw me on that Sunday at the walk-in clinic.  She did the x-ray that led to the discovery of my lung cancer tumor.  If not for her, I’m not sure help would have come soon enough, I was crawling that slowly.  But I am so fortunate that she knew to do that x-ray that day.

And then There I was at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute barely crawling (Dan thought it was time for a wheelchair) to my radiation sessions (that were for palliative care while they were developing my treatment plan) when I found out just how lucky I really am.  I am LUCKY! My cancer, at that time already spread to my liver and pelvis, was treatable with a targeted therapy drug.  Yes, that’s right. TREATABLE!  Not sure about others, but Dan and I knew that I wasn’t going to be crawling much longer if something didn’t change, so hearing that word treatable made us feel blessed indeed.

Great Educational Reading on lung cancer, genetic mutations, target therapy treatment, and more!

Back to lucky me!!  Thanks to the testing done by Dana-Farber and Brighams it was discovered as quickly as could be that the lung cancer in my body is driven by a cell mutation called ROS1.  While ROS1 is what caused the rapid spread, it is one of a few mutations that can be battled with a targeted therapy drug that truly targets those ROS1 cancer cells and not all cells like chemotherapy does. It was available at that time for expanded access, not quite FDA approved.   And, it is a pill that you take.  I am lucky.  I was dying and in just a few days the crizotinib began to work.  I started the drug on March 2 ,2016 and check out how different my lung looked by May.  (Feb.,even after radiation on right, May on left)

IMG_2968 (1)

Told you I’m lucky!  I’ve had two years since cancer crept into my body and ROS1 slammed me. Great years filled with blessings beyond thinking. If not hiking, definitely walking at a good pace and feeling pretty darn good.

Still lucky! After 16 months on crizotinib, the cancer progressed to my brain meninges. Crizotinib does not protect the brain, so when one of those little cells sneak by…  Researchers had developed a newer drug that battles ROS1 that does fight in the brain, and I was eligible for a Phase II clinical trial at Dana-Farber.  Lucky!!! This drug too will soon be FDA approved.  It is a pill taken once per day.  Since July Lorlatinib has kept everything from the neck down looking the same in scans, and it has reduced the cancer in the meninges by 75%.  Lucky, blessed, fortunate – give me a thesaurus – I’m that.

Research doctors are working on the next line of treatment to work against ROS1 when it figures out the code for this treatment and builds resistance.  I, and so many others with acquired cell mutations such as ROS1, are SO grateful.

Saying I’m lucky implies that it’s all by chance.  I know that’s not so.  Something more than chance is at work here.  I’m grateful every moment of every day.

Gratitude and Joy

Every day I make sure to embrace the gratitude and joy in my day.  It’s very easy as I live in a beautiful place with the most wonderful people, and I have everything I need to sustain a truly fulfilling life.  Today my joy and gratitude is in thinking about everyone and everything that makes it possible for me to be here.  I’m thinking especially about the clinical trial I’m in.  Tomorrow we travel to Dana-Farber for my quick three week check-up (no scans).  Dan will drive, once there I’ll have blood work and an EKG, and then meet with “my” oncologist and the clinical trial research nurse.

I’ve little idea how this particular trial drug was developed, but it is one of now several targeted therapy drugs being studied for targeting ROS1 in lung cancers and other cancers.  Lorlatinib, the targeted therapy drug I’m on, hopefully does what crizontinib did for me in targeting ROS1, and then it goes where crizotinib seemed to not be able to – my brain.  In my case, my brain meninges. When you think that only 1% of lung cancer patients have ROS 1, it is mind-blowing to me that there is a clinical trial at my treatment center that is specifically designed for my situation: ROS1+ lung cancer, progression to the brain with first line of treatment.  A Study of Lorlatinib in Advanced ALK and ROS1 Rearranged Lung Cancer With CNS Metastasis in the Absence of Measurable Extracranial Lesions

I’m ever so fortunate to live close enough to Dana-Farber to be treated there. Participation in the trial is relatively easy for us.  Driving to Boston every three weeks is doable.  Clinical trials aren’t offered everywhere.   This trial isn’t available to many in my situation because they are unable to make the commitments necessary, specifically traveling to the clinic site of the trial. The Bonnie Addario Lung Cancer Foundation is working to address this problem and help to make trials more accessible for patients anywhere.  ALCF Centers of Excellence  Thank you to them for this advocacy work.

I’m so grateful for the researchers, the doctors, the patients in prior trials, and the countless others that I’ve no idea about who have and continue to contribute to this and all the clinical trials.  It gives me joy to know I am contributing to something that will help a patient in the future, whether it is living with lung cancer as a managed chronic disease through targeted therapy, immunotherapy, combination therapy, or advances in early detection or finding that real C word, cure.

The New “Normal”

I am ever so grateful for my ROS1+ FaceBook group and my fellow ROS1ders.  They are my greatest source of information, inspiration, and support (outside of my network of family and friends).  In addition to this group, I follow several blogs of fellow lung cancer survivors, groups, and foundations.  From all of these sources I glean varied things that help me in a multitude of ways.

After we began this cancer journey, and I’d completed radiation, started Xalkori and begun to regain strength, we were finally at a place where we could stop, take a deep breath (well, Dan could – not so much me…), and reassess where we were.  That’s when we began to hear the term “New Normal”.  I know it is meant to be a helpful term, I think it’s a way of saying that you can find normalcy in this world of cancer.  I think it helps people think of managing a chronic disease or living with metastatic cancer as a change in how things are done that can actually feel normal.

I’m fairly certain my first few months, as hard as they were, were much easier than many in my condition and situation because of Dana-Farber doing the genomic testing that found my ROS1+cell mutation.  Instead of chemotherapy , after my radiation I was given a targeted therapy drug, a pill taken twice a day.  So while Xalkori(crizotinib) was shrinking the tumor, my ribs were healing, my esophagus was recovering, and I was slowly regaining strength.  That’s when we tried to embrace this concept of New Normal.  Yes, we settled into new routines and adapted to the changes quite well.  Taking a backpack with a change of clothes, Imodium, and adult wipes with me whenever I leave home has become my normal.  Taking medication regularly, something I’d managed to escape in 58 years, has become normal. But, try as hard as I can, I do not think of our everyday life as normal.

Normal: (noun) the usual, average, or typical state or condition. (adjective) conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.

We (my support system) do an incredible job of living life fully and finding joy in all the normal things of life.  Yesterday Dan and I had the chance to “high five” three of our four youngest grandchildren at a soccer event.  The fourth was playing baseball (we watched him last week and likely will next week).  Upon seeing a pic of her little brother playing soccer, our eldest grandchild spoke wistfully of “those times” while at college studying.  That’s all normal!  It’s what our family does.  And, Dan and I find lots of “normalcy” in our days at camp, seeing the sun rise and set, happy and in love as we’ve been for well over forty years.

Maybe I’ve made normal a “feeling” and it really shouldn’t be.  But I refuse to think of some aspects of this journey as normal.  Especially, not my normal. Things from the complex to the very simple.  For example, hurrying up the hill.  I’m convinced it is not normal to huff and puff going up our hill.  That may be what happens to me right now, but even for me, in my condition, it isn’t going to be my normal.  You see, I’m going to get these lungs in such great shape that I can run up that hill with no puffing!  Okay, so maybe that wasn’t as simple an example as I thought.  Here’s another – that cloud that hangs over you when you have metastatic cancer and you have scans every six to eight weeks to monitor medication effectiveness or disease progression.  Now really, does anyone consider having to deal with that normal?  Yes, it is now a routine that we’ve figured out how to manage without it intruding upon everyone’s daily life too badly, but normal?

All in all, we live a pretty ordinary life. It’s an incredibly rich life, filled with joy.  That has only been enhanced by this cancer journey.   My new normal?   Being present, joyful and grateful every moment of every day!

 

First Day of School

Today is the first day of a new school year.  And where am I?  Making garlic dill pickles and sitting on the deck here at camp, with my feet up, watching the seagulls.  Weird.  That’s how it feels.  Weird.  I shouldn’t be home, you see.  I should be at school.  In my classroom, with my students.

While cancer can’t stop some things (Camp Gramma!), it has stopped me from doing one of the things I love – teaching and learning with children every day.   Today is the first time in a very long time that I wasn’t directly impacted by the first day of school.  Why, even when I was a toddler, my older siblings left me on the first day of school.  Then, I went to school for years.  I took a six year break from school while the children were growing, and then spent years with them being in school.  While that was happening, I went back to school and became a teacher.  From there, I’ve not missed a first day of school.  That’s a longstanding tradition.  A tough one to try ignore or think of as “just another day”.  It’s THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL, and it means something to me.

Last year I tried to work 60% time, and I think did so quite successfully until the end of May.  I know it was important to me that I be there, and I hope my students benefited from my presence.  I appreciated my school administration’s willingness to let me job share.  I’m grateful to Andrea for being my longterm sub through my sabbatical and my illness.

So it was, in May 2017, we got confirmation that cancer had crept past my magic friend Xalkori (crizotinib) and we would need to move to the next line of treatment.  Yeah, I already knew – we’d been watching the beast creep in, and there were symptoms for a couple months, but now decisions had to be made, appointments were scheduled, “cruise control” shut off.  Time to apply for what, in the world of Maine teachers, is called “retirement disability”.

The term “retirement disability” really bothers me. It has nothing to do with retiring, and is about accessing that retirement fund for disability.  I wanted to retire on my own terms, when I was “ready”.  Retirement should be joyful! I was occupied with completing forms to giving permission to MainePers to access my medical records so that someone could judge whether I was disabled enough to qualify for benefits.  It was not the retirement I had envisioned. (I am though very grateful for having benefits to apply for, and access to health insurance.)

Back to today, the FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.  Today, I am joyful on this first day of school.  The paperwork stuff (another story) all worked out.  I had a wonderful summer of teaching and learning with children all summer.  I am here in the place that I love for longer this fall than if I was back to school today.  And, even if it’s not every day, I know I will be with children learning and playing, either with the grandchildren or volunteering in my dear friend Kathy’s classroom.  It’s the first day of school, and I’m drinking my afternoon tea.