The Quiet Time

Most mornings, I am the first one awake. I like that. I have a routine that I follow. I go into the kitchen, turn on the Keurig, put hazelnut creamer in my coffee mug, and while the coffee is brewing, I prepare Bella’s breakfast. The first of her several small meals throughout the day. I grab my coffee, my meds, an “after breakfast” cookie for Bella, and head for the couch. While I check my phone to see what I missed overnight, Bella & her full belly snuggles up next to me & falls asleep.

Morning puggle snuggles

This quiet time is my favorite time of the day. The only sounds that I hear are the clock’s ticking on the dining room wall, the soft whooshing of the traffic below us & Bella snoring. It’s peaceful & relaxing. My Twitter feed is full of tweets about what’s going on in the world & updates from friends sprinkled in between them.

It’s ironic how the brain triggers the memory of events that happened in the past. Songs, smells, places, reading a book, or specific dates. It happens even when we don’t mean to or even want to, depending on the memory it triggers. That happened to me this morning. Not just one memory, but two.

These memories are both exceptional, each in its own way. They are separated by fifteen years. I can recall every last detail of each memory. When I think of them, it’s as if I am back in that moment again. I hear the sounds, what was happening around me, and who was there with me. I even experience the feeling as if it’s happening for the first time. I don’t always remember them in the order in which they occurred. However, one always triggers the other. It’s like being in a time machine but without the “Back to the Future” Delorean. Does this happen to everyone?

This morning it happened backward. My memory placed me back in one of the many waiting rooms at Memorial Sloan Kettering in Manhattan. I was waiting for the nurse to call me for the first of four scans I was having. I was sitting in an armless chair; the bright sun came through the windows on my left. Above me, in the corner of the room, the TV was on. Good Morning America was on. A couple won a contest to be married, live on their show. The hook was that John Legend would also be there to serenade them with his wildly popular love song: “All of Me.” Later that afternoon, I would be in the exam room sitting next to my Oncologist and, on the other, my husband. She read the results of my PET scan. It was the first one I had after I started treatment and the first time I heard: No Evidence of Disease. I was confused. My doctor put her hand on mine, looked me dead in the eyes, and said, “The cancer is not detectable. The Aromatase Inhibitor is working. This is the best possible news.” It took a minute to sink in. I cried & laughed at the same time. That was seven years ago.

GMA 2014, Courtesy of ABC News

I will always be grateful for that memory. It’s probably the only positive, happy experience I’ve had living with cancer. I had hope again. Hope that cancer had taken from me. That feeling is what triggers my next significant memory. It was a snowy day in 1999. I had the ultrasound that every expectant parent looks forward to. I saw my son, for the first time, cramped in my belly. He looked so chill. The tech pointed out his tiny little finger buds, his spine, his legs. She was reassuring that all was well. Did I want her to tell me the sex? she asked me, YES, I wanted to know. She moved the wand back and forth over my stomach. “There it is,” she said. “You’re having a boy” The rest of the story can be read Here

As I sit here remembering these two events, I think about what’s to come this month. My son & future daughter-in-law are graduating from college. They will have commencement ceremonies this year. While the No Visitor policy is still in place, I’ll be watching the live feeds. The following week I will have fully realize a dream I never imagined I would have the honor to attend; my son’s wedding. I am so looking forward to watching his bride walk down the aisle to exchange their vows.

I adore these two

I’m still trying to wrap my brain around all of this. When did he grow up? Most parents who get to this point in their children’s lives want to turn back time to when their kids were little. I honestly don’t. I cherish this time right now as he builds his life with his soon-to-be wife. They both have accomplished a lot in the last four years. I couldn’t have imagined a better future for my little pup.

My lil pup

At the last minute, I chose to have my PET scan last Friday. I wasn’t going to do any significant medical stuff this month as I didn’t want anything to put a cloud over these monuments occasions, but in the end, I knowledge is power. I didn’t post anything about it or the “look at me; I’m having a scan” picture on social media. Many of my friends are dealing with their health that it just didn’t feel right. I realize it shouldn’t stop me from talking about what’s happening with my own health. It’s separate, but I guess I’m becoming more empathetic now that I’m in my 50’s. Is this what happened to the Grinch?

May 2021 will be the most fantastic month. I am going to take in every second & enjoy it to the fullest. I feel so, so fortunate, and I thank the universe for keeping me No Evidence of Disease for now.

Until We Meet Again

Social Media tends to bond people with similarities. Similar interests, hobbies, music and even illnesses.

Cancer is one of one of those illnesses that bonds people rather quickly. Especially terminal Cancer. We are a group of people that bond over treatments, side effects, helpful hints, advice, support groups and stories of when diagnosis happened.

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Deb Mumma is one of those extraordinary women I was lucky to have met thru Social Media because of our common diagnosis. Right down to the same pathology. We became fast friends and talked quite frequently thanks to our mutual friend – insomnia. There were many 3am conversations when Deb was recuperating from back surgery. If you’ve ever spent time in the hospital you know how difficult it can be to sleep for any length of time.

Deb loved her family. She spoke of her parents and how after as many decades they had been married they were still just as close as in younger days. Her husband, Ron passed after a long illness. It was very clear how much Deb missed him. The way she spoke of their marriage made me a little jealous.

The pride and joy, that always brought a smile into Deb’s voice were her Children and Grandchildren – 12 little ones in all! And of course her pups, Sully and Kiki.

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At Christmas we talked about our kids. Deb worked furiously on two identical doll houses for her Granddaughters. And then there was the trip to Disney World in March. Deb was so excited to tell her Grand kids and witness the expected ‘freak out’.  It was very important to her to make lasting memories as her health began to decline. Although she would never admit it or want to talk about it.

The first weekend in April, Deb helped me with a speech I gave in Buffalo (See previous post dated April 7). She knew how nervous I was and offered to read it and give me the honest criticism I needed. Then on Saturday night we Skyped so she could be my audience and I could practice giving my speech to her. Deb was selfless like that. Even though she had been feeling sicker from chemo and her liver failing she still made time to video chat.

Many of us with Metastatic Breast Cancer are active in some way with advocacy. Deb was no different. Her advocacy was on a local level. It was important for her to raise money for those receiving care at Cumberland Valley Breast Care in PA. Deb even designed a beautiful necklace with the help of a jewelry designer with part of the proceeds going to CVBC and to Breast Cancer Research. “Ribbon of Hope & Tears”. This is one ribbon I can endorse. It doesn’t have to have a pink gem. There are 10 gem options and 3 metal options for the ribbon.

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In the time I’ve gotten to know Deb, we had meaningful conversations and we were there for one another whenever we needed each other without question and regardless of the time of day or night. Deb knew I never muted my phone and that I am a very lite sleeper so the ‘ding’ of my messenger would never go unanswered if she needed to talk. I’m going to miss that. A lot.

“A dragonfly to remind me even though we are apart, Your spirit is always with me forever in my heart”…..Until we meet again Deb. I love you.

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Sharing My Story With Compassion & Choices for the NYS Aid-In-Dying Campaign

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The following is a speech I gave in Buffalo in support of Medical Aid in Dying Laws for New York State

I’m a wife, a mother, a daughter, a sister and an aunt. I’m also a supporter and advocate of Aid-in-Dying laws in NYS and I’d like to tell you why.

In August of 2013, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer. I went to my Doctor for what I thought might have been a kidney infection but an MRI revealed I had a tumor on my spine so large that it was compressing the nerves causing me the constant pain I was feeling. It was 1mm away from my spinal cord. It also showed a tumor in my ribs. It wasn’t until after the PET scan that we learned that the primary tumor was in my right breast. It was shocking, because 9 months earlier I had had a clean mammogram. I was 43 and I had terminal cancer.

There wasn’t a question then or now of how I would treat this cancer. Despite the median lifespan of 36 months, my mind set is that I will do whatever treatment options my Dr’s recommend until I’m physically unable or there just aren’t any more options or clinical trials available.

Having Stage 4 Metastatic Breast Cancer means that I will always be in treatment. I will stay on whatever treatment plan is working until it fails – and by fails I mean that we will see the cancer spreading on a PET scan or I can no longer physically tolerate it. I’m currently on my 4th treatment plan.

To date, I’ve had radiation to my spine and ribs, my Ovaries have been removed and 2 breast surgeries. I receive 3 monthly injections – 1 to increase my bone stability and 2 injections to supress what’s left of the estrogen in my body (estrogen fuels my cancer). I take an oral Chemo pill that affects my blood counts and at times makes me want to sleep for days and I take a few other medications to help with the side effects from the Chemo.

As you can imagine a diagnosis like this sends your mind into overdrive. I began thinking of things I thought were decades away like “I’m going to need a will”, “What do I want my funeral to look like”, “I need a Health Care Proxy” and “Who will take care of my son.”  I had a lot of conversations with myself in bed at night. Of all these decisions I’d have to make, I already made up my mind about one very important decision: How I want to die.

I did a lot of research and asked my doctors a lot of questions. The way Metastatic disease works is that once it figures out how to get around a particular treatment, it continues to travel to distant organs. In my case, it began in my bones so the next major organ will either be my lungs, liver or brain. That’s when it gets harder to treat. Ultimately, I could end up suffocating if my lungs become too compromised.  If my liver fails I’ll be unable to eat and be in horrible pain. If the cancer travels to my brain I will suffer seizures, uncontrollable migraines and could lose things like my memory, sight and speech. Quite frankly, none of that is OK with me.

I remember being with my Aunt when she was in hospice. She had pancreatic cancer. Seeing her so medicated that she was unaware of anything and anyone was awful to me. There were times she writhed in pain and was unable to communicate. She lingered for 2 excruciating weeks. That was not how I wanted to die.

As I look back over my life; my greatest accomplishment without a doubt is my Son. He’ll be 17 this summer. No question, my Son is the reason I do and will continue to do whatever I have to in order to stay alive. He’s the reason I take the Chemo pills that cause me the constant fatigue, headaches and nausea. He’s the reason I happily get the injections that make me cry when they stick the two 3 inch long needles into my muscle that I can feel for days after. And he’s the reason I will keep going and never say “I can’t” or “It’s too hard”

Since my diagnosis we’ve gone on some really nice trips and had some great experiences. It’s all about making memories now. The one memory I’m absolutely positive I do not want to leave him with is my painful and lingering death. I don’t want him to look back and see me in a bed, unable to communicate, medicated and waiting for my body to give out. That would cause me unimaginable stress.

You may have heard or read or even feel that Aid-in-Dying is suicide. I’m here to tell you that it’s not suicide at all.. Aid-in-Dying is about having end of life options. I want more than anything to live another 40 yrs but the reality is that I won’t. I will do whatever treatment options are available to me and any clinical trials I qualify for. I will continue to utilize palliative care team for pain and comfort, but when that stops working; that’s when I want another option.. My terminal illness has taken so much from me already and ultimately it’s going to take my life. I want to be able to choose how I will die when my time comes. I don’t want my illness to make that choice for me. I need my representatives in the State Legislature to make sure I have that choice in the end. If you also want to have a choice, I encourage you to contact your State Legislator so you can be heard.

Thank you.

The Mind F*ck

Ask anyone. Living with Cancer is a total mind fuck and if you’re living with Metastatic (terminal) Cancer like I am it’s a never ending mind fuck roller coaster.

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Monthly blood work to see if the cancer is waking up and planning a move. Regular scans to see if your insides are glowing. You stay on top of your treatment plan to make sure the blood work and the scans stay ‘normal’ but when it comes time to do these things that’s when it becomes a Mind Fuck.

You worry before the tests, you worry during the tests and you worry after. What will they show? Will I glow? Is my treatment working? Can I exhale until next time? I don’t feel new pain. I bet my headaches mean bad news.

See what I mean? Total Mind Fuck.

I’m in deep, deep Mind Fuck territory right now. It’s a scary place to be in. It’s a different place than what I described above but could toss me up there if I make that call. If I tell. I don’t know if I want to. I’m pretending it’s not real, that the pain is not real. In my head, it going to go away. In my head, if I go for imaging it’s going to be negative. I’ll be just fine. So there’s no reason to tell. No reason to make that call. Or is there?

Mind Fuck

The Cancer is in my bones. The pain is in my lower back – my spine, my bones. The pain is real. It’s not going away. It’s getting worse. There’s a small lump. When I lay down or sit down it feels like I’m against a rock. There’s no rock to remove. I pretend the pain isn’t there. So, I put on a band-aid of pain meds and ignore what I know I need to do. I stare at my phone. Mind Fuck

I don’t want to be the “Girl Who Cried Wolf.” I don’t want to run to my Oncologist with every new ache and pain paranoid it’s more cancer and for the most part, I don’t. Mind Fuck.

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I’ve not had good experiences with imaging. I’ve had tumors missed, fractured ribs called ‘inflammation’ and PET scans not pick up active cancer.  Mind Fuck

The scenario plays out in my head. I pick up the phone. I call my Oncologist. She examines me. I go for a CT or MRI. She tells me it’s nothing. The painful rock in my back and the shooting electric tingling down my leg to my foot is “nothing.” Complete and Total Mind Fuck.

The next appointment on the books is April 22nd. In my heart I know that’s too long away. I also know no matter how bad the pain gets I won’t go to the Emergency Room. I stare at my phone. Mind Fuck.

This can’t possibly be new metastasis. I JUST started a new treatment plan in February. Ok, yes, my tumor marker did go up a little bit this last time. But that doesn’t mean anything definite. Most people have progression after MONTHS of being on a particular treatment. Not two months. Right? Mind Fuck.

I stare at my phone. Maybe I should wait for my next labs? If my markers go down then maybe it’s nothing. Or maybe it’s still something. If I wait, those little bastards could travel anywhere. Mind Fuck.

Sigh, I’m making the damn call.

A Very Special Day

Today was a very special day.

As parents we ‘check of’ the various milestones our children reach and make mental notes of those that have yet to come. When you have a terminal illness you find yourself playing a kind of ‘beat the clock’ between yourself and these milestones. Hoping that you’ll still be around to see all of them just as you would if you weren’t sick. Except the milestones become that much more bittersweet. (Will that one be the last? Will I be well enough to see the next one??)

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Today was one of those milestones and not only was I there for it but I felt good. I felt like every Mother should on this day: full of excitement, anticipation and a stomach full of knots.

Today, my Son took his road test to get his Drivers License.

He was SO nervous. He made me wake him extra early so he could get in a few extra parallel parking practices. He didn’t need it but I indulged him.

As I watched him drive away for the test, I flashed back to when I let go of his two-wheeler and he rode his bike without falling. He was doing it and I was here to watch just like before.

The whole test took 7 minutes but it was the longest 7 minutes of my life and I’m betting it felt a whole lot longer for him. While I waited for the DMV Rep to finish the paperwork I caught my Son’s eye and he gave me the ‘nod’ that told me he passed. It was all I could do to hold in the tears.

After all the phone calls and text messages were made telling the good news, I let Adam drop me off home and allowed him to drive to school and work…..alone. He earned this victory drive. I did make him promise me to let me know he made it safely to school since I wasn’t riding shotgun.

Fifteen minutes later I recieved this text message:

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Oh, how I love my sarcastic smarty pants child.