Here in the Mid-Atlantic region of the country, it’s been a very mild Spring.  There’s been so much rain I have a variety of mushrooms growing in the woods around me.  So I’ve been a little slower going from warmer to cooler clothes.  My closet still shows evidence of Winter.  Today was the day I decided that it was time to replace the layers of warm undershirts and wool pants.  I’m fairly certain the snow and Winter winds are a half a world away.

And there they were, folded and hiding on a shelf, under my shorts and t-shirts: Leroy’s favorite jeans.  These jeans have been to so many wars, I can’t even count them all.  These jeans have been to beach bar-b-q’s, baseball games, they’ve partied at Super Bowls and have successfully aired thousands of ABC NEWS “Nightline” broadcasts, literally by the seat of his pants! Some nights were close.

And now, I look at them and hold them and still find a reason to keep them.  I can’t let them go.  Leroy and his jeans: they were one.  No other piece of clothing identified him more.  His shirt sleeves were always rolled up to his elbows and he had on his jeans.  Even when he wore his Hawaiian shirts, those jeans were the other half of the picture.

The image is still crystal clear.

So as I change over the closet to Summertime clothing, the heavier pieces will be tucked away for another season.

Those jeans will be there too.  His favorite jeans are one of my favorite memories.

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HAIR

HAIR

It’s such a part of who we are, how we identify ourselves and when we hear the words, “You have cancer,” one of the first things we ask the doctor when he mentions chemotherapy is “Will I lose my hair?”

Most of the time a regiment of chemo means losing your hair.  It really depends on the drugs but if it doesn’t completely fall out, it’s pretty likely your hair will become thin and wispy during treatment.

And so it was with my friend who has just finished her chemo and radiation.  Her hair came out in clumps.  It caused a lot of anxiety.  She’s worn her long hair in a ponytail for a very long time.  Occasionally, she’d wear it down and I would barely recognize her.  But her hair was a big part of her identity.  Without it, she stayed inside a lot, or she wore a ‘chemo cap’ or stretchy cap to hide her baldness.

So now it’s hot outside, the pool is open and she’s having a hard time coming to grips with her old routine of sitting in the sunshine and talking to the same pool pals she’s had for more than 20 years.  It’s just not easy.

Her doctor told her to sit in the shade.  She said too much sun isn’t good for my friend following all that treatment.  Her hair has grown in and it looks like a Peter Pan cut; very short and the gray has taken over where brown once resided.  These are all big changes in her eyes, but for those of us who are just happy to have her back at the pool, short, gray hair is hardly an issue.

But try and tell her that!

So we’ve come light years since it used to be the whispers about so-and-so having cancer that caused the patients to hide in their homes.  CANCER was the issue.  For years, the word cancer wasn’t even mentioned in conversation.  Other words were used, but not CANCER.

Now, it’s about the hair, or lack of it.  Being bald gives us away now.  Are there still whispers, I hope not.  I hope we’ve gotten past that part.

But it’s going to take a long time to get past the hair.

 

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It’s the new deal in treatment.  It’s called “precision medicine.”

Expensive, targeted meds designed to tackle specific tumors.  The same med that works on certain colon cancers could also be effective against another specific tumor.

There’s another “precision medicine” in my book.  That’s the one where you, the care giver, advocating for your patient needs to be precise and direct when it comes to the proper care and treatment of your loved one.

There’s no more nodding yes to everything the physician says, just because you’re in awe of your doctor.  You can never be too tired to question the treatment suggested.  Go to school on your cancer.  Know what is being studied about it and what drugs are being given to stop it.

Be precise and clear and know what you need to address with each visit to the doctor.  Your loved ones’ life depends on it.

Precision medicine …its’ more than the drugs killing cancers.

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We mean well, we really do, but sometimes the words just don’t match what we’re trying to convey.   This is especially true when it comes to cancer, care givers or even patients.  And it can happen during the illness or following the loss of a loved one.

I remember it happening to me and to Leroy more than once.  We’d have visitors over who came to cheer him up and tell stories and have a few laughs.  All would be going smoothly and then when it was time for them to leave, they’d say something like, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine,” or “My Aunt Kathy had what you have, she didn’t make it, but you’re a real fighter.”

I’d get the “Hang in there, Laurie” or “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

I would close the door and wonder, WHY would something like that even enter their minds much less leave their lips?

So consider this to be a friendly reminder from someone who has been on the receiving end of some of the most outrageous attempts at “meaning well.”

Think before you speak.  That you speak at all says a lot about how much you care and that means a lot to the caregiver or the patient, just think-it before you speak-it.

 

 

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If you’re in the car, behind an SUV stuffed with beach toys and luggage, I feel your pain; Should have left earlier!!

I’m sitting at the computer working on a web cancer series that will hopefully guide those who are looking for cancer care in the Washington Capitol region.  Any information that helps cancer patients get comprehensive care is worth working on even when others are fixated on the beach, the bar-b-que, and a long awaited weekend.

Precision cancer care is here.  It’s targeted, to each patient and their cancer.  Even the toughest cancers are showing they can’t escape what immunotherapy and other treatments are providing doctors as they attempt to turn certain cancers into chronic diseases.

In a few days, some of the very best cancer physicians, researchers and scientists will gather for their annual meeting and no doubt we’ll hear some good news about how these dedicated men and women are making big-time gains against this beast that has changed so many of our lives.  We have to believe in their work.  We have to hope that some day they’ll be out of work: No more cancer.

But right now, the first, big holiday of the summer season is upon us. Don’t forget it is Memorial Day…honor and remember our Veterans.

Travel carefully….Be safe.

 

 

 

 

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Till death do us part…

How do those words fit into real life?  How do they fit into cancer world? If you uttered those exact words, and lost the one you swore to be the love of your life, is there another one out there for you?

It’s like precision medicine these days.  Each person’s illness is unique; so their meds and treatment need to be suited to them.  It’s personal.  It’s individualized medicine and it’s much more effective than the old way when it was one plan for everyone.

So I guess we all have to decide for ourselves, what works best now that our world has been turned from two to one.  We have to decide how long it should be before we even open up our hearts and allow another person a peek inside.

It probably depends on how involved we were in the care of the one we lost.  It depends on what the relationship was before the diagnosis. And it depends on how we handle being a one instead of a two.  Is one half of the closet empty now, or does that dress or shirt still bring back special memories?

Till death do us part…..

 

 

 

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PT 2008

He was working so hard to learn how to walk again.   It was 2008 and his last surgery had taken a toll.  The cancer had required a vertebrae be replaced in his spine.  Somehow a staph infection had attached itself to the new part and emergency surgery resulted in a replacement part and a very sick patient. It wasn’t enough that he was fighting metastatic disease, but add to that a metal piece of hardware where bone used to be and then add to that an infection of major proportion and it was one heck of a rehab.

He’d sweat and curse under his breath and clinch his teeth, but he was so determined to stand and ultimately put one foot in front of the other.  Walking was his goal and I remember thinking his physical therapist probably thought he’d never reach that goal.  She really didn’t know her patient.

He walked.  He worked so hard and he walked: First with a walker, then with a cane, then with just the grit of a man on a mission.

That’s what the calendar notation says today.  The 2008 calendar I glance at every once in a while, reminding me of just how hard he worked to live.  He was a warrior.

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It’s an annual event of the heart.

We, who have lost our loved ones to cancer put our hearts on display.  We’re not afraid to put them out there on this night because all of our hearts are bruised.  They all show signs of wear and tear, so there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.

Some of us who have had more time to heal, have hearts that have resumed a normal rhythm by now.  Those who have felt cancers’ bite more recently are still trying to find that pulse.  It never really returns to ‘normal,’ but I’m not about to share that information.  It will be known soon enough.

This “Night of Remembrance” is an evening designed to bring peace to these ailing hearts.  It’s a time for reflection, a time to allow ourselves to mourn again and a time to lean on each other for support.  For some, it’s a test of strength.  Can they physically walk back into a building that is filled with memories of scans, treatments and for some, lost HOPE?

“I came for closure,” a new widow shared her thoughts through her tears.  It was her final step to close the book on many years of living in cancer world.  Her heart was an open wound.

When the music stopped, the prayers were said, and the stories of inspiration were finished, the overflow crowd moved to an art piece where they were asked to write personal notes on strips of cloth.  These messages of love and loss are woven through wire on this night but eventually become a ‘rope of memories’ that currently stretches to 72 feet.

But it’s the hearts that take center stage on this night: Open, aching and in need of attention.

Heart ache shared is still heartbreaking.

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I’m remembering our first glimpse into cancer world when Leroy and I first heard the words, “You have cancer.”

Actually, his doctor said, “We have a problem.” Then he showed us a color-glossy picture of a large colon cancer tumor taken only minutes before when Leroy had gone in for a routine colonoscopy.  He followed up with the words “You have cancer.”  Frankly by then, my head felt like it was about to explode and I could hardly catch my breath.

In the beginning it really never occurred to me that we needed a team of doctors.  We really never needed any doctor.  I had my GYN doc, Leroy never got sick, so the only doctors he went to where the ones who inoculated him before he went off to a war somewhere in a desert or a jungle.  Vaccines were his protection, not from bullets, but from disease.

So when we arrived at Hopkins, the team began to assemble: slowly at first, but if you are familiar with the Kimmel Cancer Center, you know they attack cancer care very aggressively.  Doctors come with that aggressive treatment.  By the time his treatment was over, and we’re talking years, his medical record looked like a set of encyclopedia’s.

But, you know, it was necessary and worthwhile because I will always believe his life, both quantity and quality was enhanced because of that team.  They stayed close to his case.  They shared information and if they didn’t know the answer to something, they took it to a tumor board or a researcher and asked questions and got answers.  They were mightily supported by the best nurses I’ve ever seen.

We had a team.  They were worthy of any pennant, any world championship title, any trophy.

My suggestion, if you’re in this fight: BUILD A TEAM, it’s essential.

 

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One of two battling cancer is a full plate.  Two of two is unimaginable.  It’s unfair. It stretches the limits of what a couple can endure.

She has just finished her treatment for breast cancer.  She is weak in body, but strong in spirit.  She walks with a slight bend at the waist.  I’m not sure she even realizes that she is slumped over, but I noticed it as she walked away. Her hair is starting to grow back, but she still wears her wig.  It gives her that ‘complete’ look, something that her wisps of short hair don’t quite do yet.

But more important that any of this physical stuff is the man who stands by her side.  His appearance has changed a lot in the last year.  He’s lost so much weight.  His posture has changed too.  He is weak in body but also strong in spirit.  He is still the man of her dreams.

They are, even in cancer, a perfect match.  They support each other.  When they talk about their cancers, the HOPE echo’s in their voices.  They talk about future treatments for him, and how his cancer will be treated as a chronic problem versus a terminal disease.

“In sickness and in health,” says the vow….

Cancer to cancer, they stand together.

 

 

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