Daily Prompt – The Companion I Never Asked For & Never Wanted

“I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”  Groucho Marx

In April 2014, I gained a companion I never asked for and certainly never wanted.  I did not want to be a member of this companion’s club.  Yet, I had no choice.  This club accepted me despite all of my fear and loathing for it.  Unfortunately, this companion was brain cancer and I gained a permanent membership to the Big “C” Club.

My cancer companion will remain a constant part of my life, even if I remain “cancer free.”  I have a name for my companion – Chester, Chester the Brain Molester.  For ease, I’ll just call him Chester.

I did hate Chester.  He changed my life forever.  He turned my world upside down.  He infected me.  He took away so much, not just from me, but from everyone who loves and cares for me.  I will never be the same person I was before Chester came around.

Yet, Chester will always be my companion, whether I like it or not.  So, I’ll just have to live with him.  I’ll have to accept him.

Hating Chester truely a waste of my time and valuable energy.  Resentment and anger towards him will only hurt me.  I will just have to bury Chester deep down inside, filling my life with love and inner peace.

So, yes.  I am forever a member of the Big “C’ Club.  I’ll never know why that Club chose me as one of its thousands upon thousands of members.  I’ll never know why Chester needed yet another companion.  Yet, I am at peace with it now.  My strength, my resilience, the love that surrounds me will forever and always be so much more powerful than Chester.

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/companion/

I Did It! I Made It Onto a Podcast!

THE NEWS

First – the big news.

I did it!  I made it onto a podcast!  For anyone who would like to listen (I would LOVE anyone to listen) the link is here:

http://croydonradio.com/podcast/show.php?HistoryID=215b2eb5-886d-fde2-1a8a-773bce29f2ba

My segment begins just around 14 minutes in.

HOW I MADE IT ONTO MY FIRST PODCAST

It took so much for me to sit down and create this blog.  I was so self-conscious and intimidated by the idea of opening myself up like this.  Still to this day, a few months since I began the blog, very few of my friends and family know about it.

I’ve spoken publicly many times about my story and this “cancer chaos.”  However, there is just something that feels so different about putting it all out there on the worldwide web, for absolutely anyone to read, anyone to find.

I recently listened to a video by Gabby Bernstein (if you don’t know her, you need to!  http://gabbybernstein.com/.  One of her particular messages is that it is our responsibility to share our own empowering message – to share your story.  Along with that, she also teaches not to compare ourselves in telling that story – there are more people in need than those who are serving that need.  In other words, even if there are 300 people out there with a similar story, there’s so many more people in need of hearing those stories.  Plus, your story is your own!  It is different from every single one of those 300 other people’s stories.

So, with that motivation, I decided to put myself out there just a little bit more, beyond this blog.

Through Twitter, which I also joined at the same time as I began this blog, I found an incredible woman, Claire Bullimore.  Claire is a fellow brain tumor survivor.  She is the founder of Aunty M Brain Tumours, a radio presenter on Croydon Radio (online) and the host of a show dedicated to people affected by brain tumours, called the Aunty M Brain Tumours Talk show.  As Claire says on her website, her show is there “to give a voice to brain tumour sufferers, survivors, family or friends.”  AND, this was key – her website said that she interviews “anyone who wants to have a voice or tell their story.”

So, fate/the cosmos/what have you was clearly sending me a message.  Tell Your Story!!

All it took was a simple email to Claire and just a few days later, we were setting up an interview for her podcast.  It was such an amazing experience and I hope that anyone reading here will listen to my podcast, and all of Claire’s past and future podcasts.

Thank you, Claire!  You will always be my first podcast!

Claire’s website is: http://www.auntymbraintumours.co.uk/ and specifically, information about her talk show is here: http://www.auntymbraintumours.co.uk/aunty-m-brain-tumours-talk-show/

Her Twitter handle is:

Her blog can also be found at https://braintumoursupportauntym.wordpress.com/

Oh and did I mention, she’s an author too!  “A Brain Tumour’s Travel Tale” by Claire Bullimore.

In the Clear! And, the “New Normal”

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In my prior post “Vacation Period?” Seriously…, I described the traumatic period between my last radiation treatment and my follow-up MRI.  Well, the day of reckoning had come – the MRI results were in.  ALL CLEAR!  No sign of cancer!

Without a doubt, I was indescribably relieved.  I cried tears of overwhelming joy.  That metaphorical tons of bricks weighing on my shoulders immediately lifted.  It was almost surreal.

Once my oncologist sat down with me celebrating the incredible news, we got to another topic… the emotional turmoil of those weeks leading up the MRI.  She knew full-well what I had been going through, thanks to multiple calls to her office.  Even with the clear MRI, she knew I needed help to process all of this.  So, she recommended several things, including seeing a therapist, as well as a psychiatrist for an evaluation to determine if I
needed medication to ease the anxiety that had overcome me during that period of time.

I had never been in therapy.  I was of the strong opinion that here in the U.S., we were over-medicating ourselves with antidepressants and drugs of all sorts.  I’ll be honest – I was against it all.  However, she felt that it was almost a “prescription” to seek out professional help within the hospital’s incredible counseling center.  So, because I literally trusted her and all of my doctors with my life, with much hesitation, I agreed.

Additionally, she suggested reaching out to the hospital’s social worker, who specifically dealt with neurology patients and particularly brain cancer patients.  I had an easier time agreeing to that idea.  It seemed a lot less clinical.  As it turns out, the social worker pointed me to some really great cancer organizations, particularly First Descents (http://firstdescents.org/).

During the dark period, it also hadn’t helped that I had been on a seizure medication known to have terrible side effects regarding anxiety/depression in some patients.  So, with the clear MRI, my seizure doctor was comfortable taking me off that medication and replacing it with another drug.  Changing that medication made a world of difference for my mental state.

Going back to the time period between my surgery and throughout my radiation period (approximately 6 months after my inital diagosis), I had actually been extremely positive and strong.  I had become heavily involved in the National Brain Tumor Society (www.braintumor.org).  I had also just signed-up for a post-treatment support group through CancerCare (http://www.cancercare.org/).  So, I will say I was fortunate that the dark period only truly lasted those several weeks before the MRI.  Now, with the news the MRI was clear, boy, did my whole outlook change!  I went back, almost immediately, to that fighter/survivor, who people had truly been amazed by.  People had called me an “inspiration” (discussed in my post https://braincancerbabe.com/2016/04/19/being-an-inspiration/) and yeah, I felt that way again.

So, life began to quickly normalize again.  I felt happy.  I felt strong.  I felt positive.  I truly felt that everything was going to be okay.  Of course, the fear of a recurrence remained in the back of my mind, but it didn’t dominate my thoughts.  I was meeting so many other survivors and realizing, “Hey.  I’m not alone in all of this.  Other people actually felt the same way I did!  This was NOT a death sentence”  I went back to work, part-time.  Although, I still hated my job and actually regret going back so soon.  I did see the therapist and set up a regular schedule of appointments.  The psychiatrist, thankfully, deemed that I did not need antidepressants.  Life felt good again.  It felt really, really good.

While yes, life did normalize, it was indeed my “new normal.”  I felt comfortable with the fact that cancer had changed my whole world, but it wasn’t all for the worse.  I truly embraced a new perspective on life, namely, “Live every minute of every day like it’s your last!  Appreciate everything you have!”

I saw how lucky I was to have come out of all of this with very, very few side effects.  I was doing pretty much everything I had been doing before cancer entered my world.  I mean, seriously – I had had brain cancer and brain surgery!  Yet, here I was, pretty much the same girl I had been.  I truly recognized what an amazing support system I had.  The kindness, concern and love from even strangers overwhelmed me.  Man, was I loved!

I continued to be monitored very closely by my neurology team.  At every visit, they were beyond thrilled that the dark days were behind me (which I now see as a very brief period of time in the grand scheme of things).  They loved seeing that girl they had first met, who showed what a fighter she was and how she continued to embrace life so much.

I was kickin’ ass.

However, things did change in early 2015.  So, that will lead to my next post and specifically, Round 2 of the cancer chaos.

 

 

“Vacation Period?” Seriously…

In my last post, So, you’re going to radiate my brain????, I talked about my 6 weeks of radiation.  As I described, radiation had become part of my regular, daily routine, as odd as that may sound.  Following the end of my 30 radiation sessions, my doctors dubbed the time until my next scan my “vacation period.”  Seriously?

There’s power in the words you choose, especially when it comes to cancer.  To call that time “vacation” is just simply wrong.  That term should never, ever be used.  So obviously, the period between the end of radiation until my next scan was by no stretch of the imagination, a “vacation.”

First, I lost that daily routine.  I was left all on my own to  find something else to do, day in and day out, to occupy my time.  From leaving my home to arriving back after radiation, I was out of the apartment for hours.  I wasn’t sitting around, pondering my own thoughts.  If there’s one thing that keeps you out of your head, it’s following a routine!

With the lack of that routine, things became VERY dark.  Frankly, this was the first time I truly felt the weight of what I had just gone through.  The “fight or flight” mentality had weakened.  I found myself sitting on my couch, hysterically crying, asking, “What the hell just happened to me?”  It never got to the point of, “Why me?” although that’s a perfectly understandable, common response.  However, it was the first time I truly thought about death.

My husband, my family, my friends – they had careers.  They worked all day.  I didn’t have any fellow cancer patients to turn to.  I felt completely and utterly alone, left with my own frightening thoughts.  Again, to call this a “vacation” makes me sick.

It’s a strange phenomena to me that the end of treatment was worse than undergoing the treatment itself.  I’ve heard both sides of this – some patients see treatment as horrific and ending treatment a true relief.  However, I’ve also met many survivors who felt just like me.  Again, each and every person is different, just as each and every cancer is different.  There is absolutely no judgment in either experience or opinion.

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Another frightening aspect of this “vacation” was the lack of contact with medical staff.  Sure, my doctors were a phone call away.  Yet, going back and forth to the hospital for 6  straight weeks meant there was always someone physically there to monitor me.  If I had an issue, or a question, it could be handled right there and then.

There was a specific incident I remember during that “vacation” when I came down with a simple, routine cold.  I convinced myself it was so much more.  I was sure the tumor was back and it was affecting my whole body.  I also feared that every little twitch in my left leg was an oncoming seizure.  My oncologist’s nurse had to practically talk me off the ledge.  Yet, she understood what was going on.  It wasn’t the first time a patient had called believing the most minor thing was the end of the world.

And so, I truly mentally, emotionally suffered those 6 weeks.  It also didn’t help that leading up to the next scan, my first bought of “scanxiety” hit.  For any cancer patient out there, I would safely bet, you’ve experienced this.  For anyone who isn’t familiar with the experience, it is basically an overwhelming fear/anxiety/stress leading up to the results of a scan.  Many compare the symptoms to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Uh, I can relate and wholeheartedly agree.  (As an aside, with no medical training whatsoever, I believe that the entire cancer diagnosis and what trauma follows brings about PTSD).

My immediate post-op MRI had shown that the surgery was a success and there had been a total resection of the tumor.  Yet, there was always that chance that there were cancerous cells still there, lurking around that no one could see just yet.  So, this next MRI was the first since my surgery.

The thoughts that consumed me: Would the scan show the tumor had already grown back?  Had the radiation worked?  Was there serious swelling on my brain caused from the radiation?  Could there be any visible side effects from the radiation?   Although, I didn’t even really know if that was possible…  Was I going to have to undergo another surgery?  This time, would they decide I’d need to start chemo?  Worse off, would they tell me that none of the treatment had worked and we simply had no other options?

At that point, I didn’t know about scanxiety.  I had never met or talked to a fellow patient/survivor, especially one my age.  I thought I was alone in this feeling.  Was I going crazy?  In fact, although I’m sitting here writing about it, I actually have a difficult time putting into words just how consuming and terrifying these thoughts were.  It actually felt like I was carrying a ton of bricks on my shoulders.  And worse off, no one around me truly understood, although of course they were sympathetic and tried to understand.

So, the time finally came where I underwent that first post-radiation MRI.  I don’t believe at that point I had been introduced to the magic of anti-anxiety medication.  So, as far as I can remember, I went into that MRI cold… nothing in my system to ease the fear of: 1.) going into that MRI tube, again; and 2.) the pure, raw fear of what that MRI could possibly show.  P.S. I have never ever once opened my eyes while in the tube, despite the countless MRIs over the last 2 years.

Luckily, the way my appointment worked, and still works to this day, I met with my oncologist just hours after my MRI.  So, I would know the results that day and then.  And that is the topic of my next post.

So, you’re going to radiate my brain????

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Following my initial brain surgery in April 2014, it took time to come up with the further “treatment plan.”  Given that I am so fortunate (insert sarcasm here), my tumor, an anaplastic ependymoma, is extremely rare.

All of my factors also played into how rare it was:

1.)  It was a primary tumor in my brain –  typically, my type appeared in the spinal cord and remained there,  or it would metastasize to the brain; there was absolutely no trace of cancer in my spine (confirmed through spinal taps – oh my god, the pain!)

2.)  My tumor is considered a childhood/pediatric cancer, so it is rare to find it in adults (some statistics show that only approximately 70 adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with a malignant, primary brain ependymoma every year.)

3.)  There are extremely limited studies regarding ependymomas, given how rare they are.  Thus, treatment options are basically – surgery, and/or radiation and/or maybe chemo.  Yet, the few studies showed that combining radiation and chemo didn’t make much difference, if any.  Thus, radiation was the standard protocol following surgery

4.)  My surgery resulted in a total resection of the tumor.  Thus, I was “technically” cancer-free, for whatever that was worth…

[DISCLAIMER:  This information is NOT meant to be taken as medical advice or gospel.  https://cern-foundation.org/ is the primary source for information on ependymomas)

So, following my surgery, I met my amazing “team” of doctors.  They are a god-send and I am literally thankful every single day for them.  My “team” consisted of my neurosurgeon, neuro-oncologist, seizure neurologist and radiation oncologist.  This didn’t even include the numerous doctors, who served on my hospital’s tumor board and studied my case alongside my primary doctors.

Together, my team came up with the plan – I would undergo 6 weeks of radiation (30 sessions 5 days a week) and no chemo.  I didn’t really think twice about it.  What other choice did I have?  I trusted all of these doctors.  I was being treated at one of the top cancer hospitals in the country.  Plus, there was really no other studies/information to show any alternative treatment.

Of course though, the idea of actually radiating my brain sounded insane!  Um, weren’t we all taught throughout our lives that radiation was a really, really bad thing?  Ex. “Don’t stand in front of the microwave!  Radiation!”  However, I don’t recall even asking that many questions.  I knew the really basic, possible side effects – swelling on my brain, fatigue, hair loss, etc.  So, I just kind of casually decided, “Okay, let’s do it.”

One of the most disturbing experiences regarding the radiation was the mask.  For those who don’t know, in order to radiate the brain, a patient needs to undergo a simulation.  Amongst other things, that involves forming a mesh mask to be placed on your face and around your head.  The mask would then be strapped down to the radiation table during your treatment.  It is so sci-fi I cannot even describe.  It is scary.  It is beyond uncomfortable.  It creates such pressure around your entire face and head.  Sometimes, it felt like I couldn’t breath properly or swallow.  I hated it.

I know some patients actually keep their masks.  I literally never looked at my mask.  I refused.  So, obviously I did not keep mine.

And so, I spent the first 6 weeks of my summer traveling 5 days a week to have my brain radiated.  The treatment itself never hurt.  It actually became very routine.  It was just a part of my day.

One of the most difficult parts came when I began to lose my hair from the radiation.  I never ever thought it would affect me so much.  Sitting on my couch, running my hands through my hair and holding clumps of it was overwhelming.  I cried – a lot.  I needed to get a hair piece, but I hadn’t actually lost enough to need a full wig.  When I sat down at the hair piece consult, I absolutely lost it.  I could not stop crying.  I guess it was one of the first physical signs that demonstrated, “Yes, you are actually a cancer patient.”  Frankly, I just didn’t look sick, or what we imagine a cancer patient is supposed to look like.  Yet this – this was an unquestionable physical sign that radiation was indeed entering my brain and causing side effects.  I was indeed a cancer patient.

Another side effect I wasn’t totally prepared for, despite being told over and over about it, was the fatigue.  It didn’t hit me as hard as I know it does some patients.  I literally went to my radiation sessions every day by myself on the bus and subway, which people were surprised by.  I made sure I walked every day.  I attended my PT sessions two to three times a week.  However, it took every ounce of my strength, both mentally and physically, to fight that fatigue.  Trust me, it isn’t just being tired.  It is a full body exhaustion.  However, as I was told over and over again, the best way to fight the fatigue was to basically, just fight through it.  So, I did.

I also spent a lot of time with friends and family enjoying summer as best I could.  I took a LOT of advantage of a friend’s pool.  I lounged on the beach as much as possible.  I laid out in the sun and read a lot.  I made sure I kept up my social life, although I obviously wasn’t frequenting the bars until 1:00 a.m.  I mean, for the first time in my life since my teens, I wasn’t working.  I was sure as hell going to take advantage of that!!!

So, after those 30 radiation sessions ended, my doctors advised that I would undergo my next scan in approximately a month to 6 weeks later.  I am still bitter and angry about this, but they called this my “vacation period.”  I wasn’t in treatment, so this was the time to rest and take advantage of my “vacation” from radiation.  It’s insulting to call it that.

My next post on the topic of Round 1 of my cancer life will go into the details of this “vacation period.”  Needless to say, it was NO vacation!

 

Allelujia! I’m Outta Here! But…

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After my initial surgery in 2014, I was released on Easter Sunday.  I was raised Catholic, but I wouldn’t say I am a practicing one, which I won’t go into the details or reasons behind.  Regardless, Easter does have a beautiful meaning.  It is symbolic of rising up, celebrating new life and for those who believe, it is a day of miracles.

I found symbolism in being released that day.  I was celebrating my new life as a cancer survivor.  I was someone who had just overcome overwhelming, dangerous, potentially life-altering (possibly terminal, but we won’t go there) brain surgery.  I was walking out of that hospital to return to my own home, my own bed, a hot shower and all in all, a return to a semi-normal life.  My surgery had been a success in all ways possible.  I felt it was a miracle.  Someone up there in the heavens had watched over me.  I have no doubt about that.

However, a strange phenomena that comes with the release from the hospital is a feeling of fear and unease.  For days, you had that “Call Button” right next to you.  If you needed anything, a nurse was right there to assist you.  If the nurse couldn’t ease your fears or your concerns, well there was a team of doctors who could help as well.  You were constantly monitored.  It was safe.

However, after the discharge from the hospital, that all changed.  You were essentially on your own to monitor everything you felt, experienced, etc. (of course, that would be different for those who required home services).  Was that feeling in my leg the beginning of another seizure?  Was the pain in my head just a normal side effect of the surgery, or was it something more?  What if I fell?  There was no physical therapist at my beckon call.

Then, there was the feeling of helplessness.  I had to have someone with me at all times for weeks.  It required my husband and family to all coordinate their busy schedules.  My husband didn’t want to rely on someone else, but life happens – he had to work.  I had always been a fiercely independent person.  This was all so new and so overwhelming.  However, I was fortunate to have all the support I needed.

At that point, I also had never met a fellow cancer survivor.  I couldn’t turn to someone and ask, “Is what I’m feeling normal?”  “Will this fear ever resolve, or will I be spending the rest of my life fearing things like another seizure, or worse even, this tumor coming back?”  Sure, I talked to my nurses and doctors about all of this.  They of course were kind and understanding, but I needed someone who had literally gone through this personally.

So, I began researching organizations dedicated to brain cancer and thankfully found the National Brain Tumor Society (braintumor.org).  Once I learned about their fierce advocacy, research and support systems, I looked no further.  I immediately started fundraising.  I was less than a month out of surgery and I contacted everyone I knew asking for donations.  By the next month, I was the highest individual fundraiser for their upcoming local event.  I truly believe that my incredible dedication to this organization saved me from some very dark, very detrimental thoughts.  I just dove in!  There simply wasn’t any time to focus on negativity and fear.

I cannot lie.  There were some dark moments.  I am fortunate enough to say though, they did not come often and they did not consume me.  My dedication to the National Brain Tumor Society (braintumor.org) consumed me instead.  So much of my strength and positivity  came through my work to advocate and fundraise.  It was my therapy.

Of course, my treatment did not end with the release from the hospital.  It would be weeks before we came up with a plan and that is a whole nother story for a whole new post.

“Everything Happens for a Reason” and the Judgment Zone

Throughout the last two years of living with the big “C” and delving into the big “C” world, I’ve met countless other survivors.  I’ve joined several support groups.  I’ve become heavily involved in various cancer charities.  Now, I’m blogging and finding other bloggers opening up about their big “C” lives.  Basically, from the moment of my diagnosis, I pushed myself right through the cancer club door, no questions asked.  I anointed myself a member of a club I never wanted to be a member of, and obviously, I never expected to be a member of.

Within this cancer club sphere, a topic that constantly comes up is the notion that “everything happens for a reason.”  I’ve seen that the reactions to this phrase run the full gamut –  we either embrace it unwaveringly, or it makes us want to punch people in the face.  (See below – this is a card I actually received from one of my favorite snarkiest friends)

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[DISCLAIMER: This is a “judgment free zone.”  I never judge any cancer survivor’s reactions, feelings, etc. to their situation.  Our cancer is our cancer and no two are the same.  While I may personally feel different from others, and I may embrace my experiences in certain ways, neither is right or wrong.]

So, for me, I do in fact believe that things happen for a reason.  After seriously contemplating life and death, and facing a potentially terminal disease, not to mention 3 complex brain surgeries, you can’t help but think, “What does all this mean?”

I was not always a very positive person throughout my life.  I was very cynical, even at a young age, and many times unhappy, really for no legitimate reason.  I frankly had a fantastic life.  Who knows where all that came from?  However, immediately after my diagnosis, everything changed.

I never got angry.  I never questioned, “Why me?”  Did I make jokes about how insane it was that a perfectly healthy person, who had never even been admitted into a hospital before, wound up with one of the most serious conditions you can get?  Hell yeah I did.  Some of the typical phrases I used were, “I can’t do anything simply.” or “Go big or go home.”  Every time I was asked about previous medical conditions, my standard reply was, “Nope.  Just brain cancer.”  My tumor is also so rare that my husband loves to say, “I always knew you were one in a million.”  (turns out I’m even more than one in a million, as approximately only 72 adults are diagnosed in the U.S. every year with my specific type and with all my factors.. yay me!)

I took on an unwavering positive attitude that I was going to beat this no matter what, and despite whether the end would come quickly or years and years from now, I would fight every single solitary day.  I would never ever give up.

[SECOND DISCLAIMER:  Another “hot topic” is the use of battle/war phrases to describe our cancer experiences.  There is a school of thought out there that by using those terms “fight” and “giving up” it implies that those we’ve lost didn’t fight enough, or did give up.  In no way do I believe that!!!]

So, I decided that Yes, this did happen for a reason.  I came to grips with the fact that I very likely would never know that reason.  I believe in God, and I do believe that throughout my life, every stage and every step has led to the here and now.  While I am here, continuing to breathe, continuing to get up out of bed every day and face this, there is a reason.  I mean, if there isn’t, then that REALLY sucks! All of this for nothin’????

So, while I harbor no ill will or judge those who feel differently, I don’t always feel that sentiment returned.  I have actually had relatively confrontational exchanges with survivors who do not in any way see that there is a reason for this.  In a circular-type argument though, those survivors tell me they have felt judged because they don’t embrace the notion “it happened for a reason.”  Yet, in the same breath, they roll their eyes and make slightly nasty comments towards people like me who actually do feel there’s a reason.  Hence, they’re sitting there complaining about being judged, as they’re looking me in the face judging me.

Again, I feel the way I feel.  It’s my coping mechanism.  So, along with that, I tend to distance myself from those who I feel judge my way of thinking/coping.  I understand how they feel.  Cancer is awful.  It’s bullshit.  It can kill us!!!  However, if I’m going to walk along this Earth, for however long that may be, I’m going to continue embracing every moment and believe that Yes, there is a reason.

God gives us only what we can handle.  Apparently, God thinks I’m a bad ass!