Little love

I suddenly find myself in a committed relationship, and nobody could be more surprised than me.

Although there are certain things I’ve missed about having a partner, I have relished living alone. Going to bed at all hours of the night and sleeping in as well, with nobody in that bloody bed but me. Playing loud music, keeping my own schedule, eating what, when and if I feel like it. Staying inside all day long, wearing anything I want or nothing at all–a beautiful way to become more comfortable in one’s own skin. It’s been a long, blessed vacation of sorts.

But then I met somebody. Or rather, my friend Brian did, wandering around out by the train tracks.

This somebody was a wee white dog and he seemed to be lost–a bit disoriented and clearly frantic. It was cold and dark outside–no place for a lost pup–and Brian asked me if I would help corral the little fellow.

That turned out to be easier said than done as our new friend was not about to let us get close to him. So Brian and I spent thirty minutes running around and chasing this wild little dog back and forth, doing our best to corner him so that one of us could grab his collar.

The situation looked hopeless until our neighbor Howie came outside with his great Pyrenees, Appa, whom the little stranger took a great interest in. Then Marianna joined us with her two pups and between the four humans and three dogs we were able to lure the stray close enough that Howie was able to grab his (tagless) collar.

Marianna provided a crate and Brian said our guest could spend the night in his loft. The next morning Brian texted me that he had some previous commitments and so I agreed to walk our little friend. When I let him out of the crate the first thing he did was grab a cat toy and start tossing it in the air. I was charmed and ended up hanging out for two hours until he trusted me enough to approach. And then I took him back to my loft along with the crate.

Several days passed with no word from Animal Control. We decided to take the dog to a local vet to see if he might be microchipped but he was not. By this point I’d given my guest a flea bath and he was sleeping in my bed rather than the crate. And, of course, I was growing fond of him.

But then, on day five, his family called. We learned that our visitor’s name was Kumo (Japanese for white cloud–I’d been calling him ghost). And I said I’d be happy to bring him to them the next day.

That last night together was bittersweet but then again I imagined how happy both Kumo and his family would be at his return.

The reality was slightly different–although they had a teenage son, there were also lots of people in and out of what appeared to be a very chaotic household. Most troubling, Kumo had run away on a Friday evening but they hadn’t even noticed he was gone until the next day. The woman asked me if I loved Kumo (yes, I did). She told me that her husband was ill and that she wasn’t really sure if she could handle the care of a dog–and that she was considering tying him up inside the house to make sure he didn’t escape.

I left her with my name and number but my heart was heavy as I closed the door. However, the reality was that Kumo belonged to this family, not to me.

One week passed and the woman called. She told me that Kumo had run away several more times and Animal Control had warned the family that they would begin incurring fines. She asked if I wanted Kumo. I told her I would call right back–I needed a moment to think.

But of course the answer was obvious.

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Kumo

My free dog has turned out to be quite expensive between some gastric upset, all his shots and neutering (something you get a certificate of bravery for–who knew). He has severe separation anxiety and clearly has had some mistreatment in the past–he ducks when petted, gets frightened easily, and absolutely will not come when called. In other words, in need of some tender loving care.

And I have realized just how much I missed the act of nurturing as well as having a companion.

In gratitude

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So I’m about to tell you something that is either going to make you laugh or cry. Or not. Maybe you’ll just want to punch me in the face.

Sometimes I get really, really tired of being grateful.

Awful, isn’t it. I know how flipping lucky I am to be alive and most days, my gratitude is boundless. However, twelve years of being grateful for something most people take for granted (waking up in the morning) actually can get old.

As a cancer patient it is expected and accepted that you will feel all sorts of less than pretty emotions. Anger, sorrow, frustration, fear. Confusion. Depression. Bone deep weariness. All taken in stride.

But ingratitude?

The minute I start feeling anything resembling self pity I quickly self admonish. Because I am only too aware what the alternative is.

Those of us with terminal illnesses set the bar both impossibly high but also brutally low.

There is a self conciousness to life when every moment is fraught and at times I dearly miss the insouciance of before. As in, before cancer. The self awareness I have gained has been prompted by significant and persistent provocation. I am both wiser and sadder. And some mornings I’d just like to skip that part about being grateful.

Not because I’m not, but rather because there was something glorious about being so certain that something was due you that giving thanks never even crossed your mind.

I am beyond either innocence or assumption. And that’s ok. I have scans tomorrow, and an appointment with Dr. Shaw next Tuesday. The scans I could do without but the appointment with Dr. Shaw? There is no place I’d rather be. And yes, I will be feeling enormous gratitude.

How many ways can cancer break your heart

Seemingly the possibilities are endless.

Upon first hearing ‘you have cancer’ we were forced to face the specter of mortality; in our face and way too close for comfort.

Next up was the impact our diagnosis had on friends and family and if we were parents, our children–now suddenly faced with challenges that had no rightful place in the happy childhood we’d imagined for them.

Loss was a word that soon figured largely in our everyday existence, with bodies that suddenly looked and felt very different as cancer became part of our identity on both the meta and purely physical level.

Stress and anxiety—our finances, interpersonal relationships, jobs. Everything was suddenly at risk.

However, that didn’t stop each of us from trying to put a brave face on. We sucked it up and made an honest effort to find the silver lining in cancer. Certainly there was opportunity for personal growth, but at a cost oh so dear.

And then we discovered that the one really good thing to come from our disease was each other.

Since my diagnosis, I have had the privilege of knowing, interacting with and often growing quite close to an incredible assortment of extraordinary individuals. Brave, gracious, generous, kind, caring, fun. Lovely, lovely people who have made my life so much richer.

However, there is an obvious downside to falling in love with others who are battling cancer and that is the potential for heartbreak.

Last week the lung cancer community lost someone who had touched the hearts of many. Maybe it was her youth, the fact that she was a young wife and mother, or perhaps it was Elizabeth Dessureault’s radiant smile and outgoing personality that made her so appealing and accessible.

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Her passing took us each by surprise and the ripple of grief soon became a big wave. Shock and sadness turned to anger and for some, fear.

The truth is, you can have the best oncologist in the world (Elizabeth, like me, saw Dr. Shaw) and although your odds may be improved, the course of this disease remains ridiculously unpredictable.

It is all so very disheartening.

And yet. There is only one way to go and that is forward. You and me. Live and love some more. Because every moment is precious and no one is assured a tomorrow.

Frosted

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Yesterday I had two slices of chocolate cake for lunch. And yet another for dinner. This is so not my usual behavior, but then again, desperate times call for desperate measures.

Sigh. Desperate is surely an exaggeration but then again, this is undoubtedly an interesting moment in history.

2017 started off with a bang when I tried to pay my health insurance premium for January. To great consternation, I found myself locked out of my own online account. Never, ever, a good sign.

It was a holiday weekend so I had to wait until January 3rd to speak with a representative at BeneDirect, the company that manages my health insurance through COBRA. The pleasant young woman on the other end of the line confirmed that due to non payment in December my policy had been terminated.

Isn’t that an awful word–terminated? Right up there with terminal. No good has ever come of either one of them. Were I Queen they’d both have their heads lopped off.

Speaking of heads, what’s inside mine is nowhere near as sharp as it once was. I’d never knowingly miss a COBRA payment, understanding only too well how much is at stake. I am undoubtedly any health insurance company’s worst nightmare–having been in treatment for lung cancer for almost twelve years now. And being denied health insurance is my worst nightmare.

Fuck, fuck and more fuck. My only option was to file an appeal. Well of course I got right on that and faxed if off that very afternoon. And just to make sure nothing fell through the cracks, I call BeneDirect when I returned home to see if they’d received the fax. Confusingly, this representative told me that no, I had not in fact been terminated. That due to the holiday weekend lots of people had been late with their payments. And if I overnighted payment for December and January, my policy would remain intact. One more trip to FedEx and a big sigh of relief.

Until two days later when I received an email from the human resources representative at my ex-husband’s place of employment (they administer my cobra) informing me that in fact, my policy was kaput.

Many phone calls, emails, a few tears and several days of additional anxiety later, I logged on to see that my policy had been reinstated.

Man oh man oh man. I only have one more year of COBRA before being thrown to the free market (or the wolves, depending on how this administration sorts things out) but I’d rather not have to deal with that shit yet. Of course that doesn’t mean I can relax either. Like everyone else dealing with a chronic condition, I am nervous as hell that preexisting conditions and lifetime caps will in fact be reinstated.

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And if that happens, we can always just eat cake.

xo

Whoa

Has it really been more than a month since I’ve posted? It has indeed and what a month plus–lots of water roiling under that bridge.

So where to jump back in…perhaps with my last scan result, which I think I just sort of skipped over. Things look really, really good with the worrisome area in my right lung settling down; maybe even receding a little. I have scans again in five weeks and in the meantime I’m just going to keep busy with lots of positivity. To that end a friend of mine shared that he felt certain I was ‘healing’. It took me aback at first. I’m a truly optimistic person but the notion of healing just seemed over the top–that is, until I looked at that word in a holistic sense and then I realized he was absolutely right. Between mind, body and soul I am feeling extraordinarily healthy–maybe even the best ever (and I’m sure tomorrow will top today).

I’ve had a couple of truly meaningful adventures (all three thanks to LUNGevity) since I last posted. On October 21st I had the privilege of attending LUNGevity’s 2016 Science Meeting; an annual event where grantees (a big part of LUNGevity’s mission is funding medical research in lung cancer) in the areas of Career Development, Early Detection and Targeted Therapeutics gave five minute presentations in addition to a poster session about the progress they are making. It was sort of like a mini ASCO up close and personal but focusing exclusively on lung cancer.

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And then on November 9th I traveled to NYC for LUNGevity’s Celebration of Hope, their annual gala held at the beautiful Mandarin Oriental. It was an incredibly special night all the way around. Andrea Ferris, Linda Pressman Wegner, Dr. Upal Basu Roy and the rest of the LUNGevity staff feel like part of my extended family now and it is always fun and inspiring to spend time with them. My dear friend Melinda Lee was my date for the night and Rob Densen and his daughter Arielle, fabulous friends of mine that I see too seldom, joined us. And of course, some of my fellow survivor/advocates/friends were also in attendance–Alisa, Dolio, Amanda. Always good to hang with them.

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I suppose I would be remiss if I failed to mentioned that I was honored that evening with the Survivor Face of Hope Award. I should also add that this meant the world to me, coming from an organization that I have so much respect for. And although some in attendance hoped I’d give a speech without notes (think HOPE Summit 2016) I stuck to the script–I absolutely cannot be trusted to be spontaneous, for a whole variety of reasons.

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Photo by Alisa Kaye Brenes

Well, I’d barely gotten my bags unpacked when it was time to leave for Indianapolis and a tour of the Lilly Labs. My inner geek was thrilled–interacting with members of the Lilly team and a few cancer cells as well–viewed at a safe distance through the microscope. And of course, I also got to spend some quality time with my fellow advocates. Never a dull moment!

Matt, Katie, Linne, Melissa and Kelly.

Matt, Katie, Linnea, Melissa and Kelly.

The downstream effect of two miracles of science

My friend Dr. Tom Marsilje wears a number of hats–devoted parent, dedicated scientist, cancer patient and absolutely amazing advocate/activist.

Tom holds a special place in my heart and personal history but sometimes I have to stop and remind him; we both suffer from chemo brain, a subject he recently covered in his column for the The Philadelphia Inquirer.

He was in town briefly last week so we met for lunch and a photo op in front of Miracle of Science in Cambridge. I mean, how could we not.

Linnea and Tom: two miracles of science

Linnea and Tom: two miracles of science

After snapping our selfie we headed down Mass Ave to Flour, one of my favorite little cafes. Lunch banter was about any number of things including Tom’s relatively new role as a writer, and he noted that it makes him feel good to be really making a difference. I just looked at him incredulously before exclaiming “Dude!”

At this point I should remind you that Tom codeveloped LDK-378, the second ALK inhibitor I was on trial for. Also known as ceritinib and now marketed as Zykadia.

I then used my finger to draw an imaginary line on the table. “This” I said, “is my lifeline. And this is where I started taking ceritinib. No ceritinib and my lifeline stops right there.” And then, for further emphasis: “I am alive because of you and don’t think I ever forget that, even for a moment.”

By this point I was getting a little weepy. I went on to say that if Tom were a war hero rather than a scientist who developed a lifesaving drug for a pharmaceutical company, than his role would not be so seemingly anonymous and that he would be celebrated. But that the lack of accolades in no way diminished what he had already accomplished, which was to extend the lives of so very many ALK positive cancer patients. Including yours truly. And that I was grateful to the moon and back.

Such a tight connection between the individuals who come up with these drugs and those of us who take them. A lot of cause and effect going on there and to think that Tom and I would have the opportunity to also develop a human connection is just way, way cool. This guy had my back long before he ever met me (but must of known of my existence as an ALK+ individual). Gotta say I’ve got his back now but sometimes that just feels like hanging onto contrails as he’s jetting around with astounding energy and putting his fine intellect and experience to work as an advocate/activist for patients with advanced cancers. I feel both honored and blessed (and damn fortunate) to have him in my life.

Which leads me to this closing thought: maybe we should nave a national hug a medical researcher day. Followed by a bunch of bang up fundraising.

xo

Going where I don’t really want to go

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There is very little that makes me anxious any longer. However, I am parking phobic. I will drive anywhere, in any sort of weather, but having to search for a parking space causes me undue anxiety. And so I generally avoid situations where parking is an unknown. Which of course means I miss out on certain things.

However….these days I am all about embracing challenges. Yesterday I was meeting a friend in Cambridge for lunch. I also needed to stop by my son’s dorm at MIT as I’d finally located my missing electric toothbrush charger (it had gone to college along with my son).

When I left my loft in the morning I was feeling incredibly scattered and rushed and was doing my best not to get stressed out by the fact that I was leaving late and also that I would need to find a parking space when I got there.

Traffic was a breeze (thank you traffic god) and as I approached my destination I decided that it was high time I faced this ridiculous apprehension of mine head on (of all the things to be afraid of!). And I would do this by approaching the task calmly, assuredly, and with the end goal in mind. No big deal.

Well I immediately passed by two empty metered parking spaces (the ones I was looking for) but they were on the wrong side of the street. It was too narrow to negotiate a u-turn in my SUV so I decided I’d keep driving until I was able to turn around. As I waited at the light one of the spots was taken. I got a little sweaty as my anxiety started to rise but I talked myself down. Two lights and one (probably illegal) u-turn later, I was on my back to what I hoped was still a vacant parking space.

To my relief, it remained unoccupied. To my exasperation it was, thanks to the construction vehicle parked in the space to the front, not quite a full space. And said construction workers were sitting on the steps of the neighboring building having their lunch. Oh goody, an audience!

This is probably a fine time to mention that the only thing I didn’t pass with flying colors in Driver’s Ed was parallel parking. And this, of course, was a parallel space. However, I put myself in the ‘I cannot fail’ zone and after positioning my vehicle just so, I cranked that wheel and eased on in before the watchful gaze of all those construction workers. One more tiny adjustment and I was parked, mere inches from the curb with not much more distance between my bumpers and those of the adjacent vehicles.

Damn, that felt good. Confronting something I was afraid of.

Later in the day I had an errand to run in Lowell. With my confidence running high, I settled on yet another tight parallel parking situation. This time an elderly gentleman walking by stopped to watch my progress. This space, tighter yet, required several wheel cranks and adjustments before I was in. When I glanced up, the gentleman was giving me the thumbs up.

When I got out of my car I looked over my shoulder. He had walked several yards but he turned around and gave me a second thumbs up. “That wasn’t easy, you know” I said. He smiled widely, waved and nodded his head in agreement.

I smiled back, outwardly and inwardly. One more bugaboo, banished.