Monthly Archives: June 2017

Terminal, incurable, alive.

It’s a heady mix. You have advanced cancer which is, by definition, both incurable and terminal. And yet, thanks to ‘the wonders of modern medicine’, you’re alive–aka–not dead yet.

Because you prescribe to not just a glass half full but rather a ‘my cup runneth over’ mindset, you always try to stay focused on the bright spots. First, waking up in the morning. Never, ever, taken for granted. The chance to see your children even a few minutes longer–mind blowingly awesome. Meeting fellow travelers on this friggin ‘journey’–others who’ve been smacked upside the head with cancer–your life has been made oh so much richer by each and every one of them. And then there is the fact that you get to hang with your oncologist (a goddess) and a bunch of swell nurses—perk and more perks.

So yeah, you’ve been fortunate. And at the moment, you are on a targeted therapy that is keeping your cancer in check. You don’t even look as if you’re sick, let alone terminal.

Which, by the way, makes it very easy for those around you to forget that you have cancer at all.

But you, you’re always aware. Friedrich Nietzsche once said “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Bullshit. Sometimes it just keeps on trying.

Each day you continue surviving is an achievement. It is also a tremendous struggle–physically, mentally, emotionally, financially. An endless struggle too, as there is no top of the mountain, no victory lap, no cure in sight.

The heady mix becomes a mind fuck. If you are lucky, you have adequate support. Enough resources so that you don’t live in a constant state of anxiety; friends and family with sufficiently long attention spans who don’t drop away when terminal becomes chronic.

Because the truth is, nobody wants to think about cancer all the time. My marriage ended, in large part, because my partner found our lives too ‘cancer-centric’. I’d break up with cancer this very moment if I were able to, but it seems we are one and the same. Cancer doesn’t just inhabit my body, on a cellular level, it is me. My own selfish, nihilistic and wildly dis-obediant cells.

Sigh. Living well may be the best revenge and most of us do whatever we can with what we have to work with. I’m certainly not interested in becoming a schadenfreude. However, when living itself (liv·ing: a : having life) is a big fat uncertainty, then living well often requires more psychic energy than a person can muster.

Short of curing cancer there’s not much you can do other than to be understanding. And supportive. It’s not easy living with the knowledge that you are terminal; harder still to remain happy while doing so. Honor that.

The pass it on power of media

Those of us who are ALK+ (alkies) have a Facebook group (ALK-I.E.S. Worldwide–it is a closed group–limited to those who are ALK+, message the moderator for permission to join) started by Tom Carroll and his wife Merita (Merita is the patient/mutant). This group operates as both a forum and a source of support, and has a growing membership of ALK+ patients and their caregivers which is worldwide.

Earlier today one of the members asked for the link to a story I appeared in some eight years ago, on June 2, 2009. They were inquiring as they’d been introduced to Bill Schuette, another ALK+ patient, and he had referenced this particular news story while talking about his own cancer journey.

I found the link, which was kind of fun as I had not watched it in years. More fun still, in the ensuing online conversation we learned that Bill provided essential information to another alkie, Catherine, who in turn helped Jeff, also ALK+. Bill himself joined our conversation and provided a link to a video he made at MGH. Watched in conjunction, our two videos are such a splendid example of how media has the (exponential) potential to help someone else. And social media serves the same purpose–as we make connections and share information and resources.

Linnea and Bill. Connected 🙂

 

It’s a jungle out here

Pretend for a moment that one hundred people are standing in front of you. The only thing you know about them is that they all have lung cancer. One at a time, each person approaches you and then shares some intimate detail about their lives. Sometimes you sense that you have much in common with the speaker, sometimes little. In each case you get an overwhelming sense of their humanity.

You are thinking about how you would like to get to know some of them better when I drop a bombshell: only eighteen of these people will be alive in five years.

It shocks you but I assure you I have not told you this merely for dramatic effect; statistically speaking, this is an actual scenario. The five year overall survival statistics for all stages of lung cancer cancer are only 18%. At stage IV, that number drops to 2%, or just two individuals out of one hundred.

Statistics only tell part of the story because numbers are not nearly as compelling as living, breathing human beings.

Now imagine what it’s like to be one of those hundred; that you too have been diagnosed with lung cancer; that you too will fall somewhere along this statistical curve.

It is a terrifying feeling, and isolating as well–as many of us feel that friends and family can’t really comprehend the sometimes debilitating anxiety that is part and parcel of our diagnosis.

We often combat that feeling of isolation by connecting with others people living with lung cancer–through support groups, social media, summits, or advocacy work. However, this network can become a double edged sword, as we are now invested in each other’s outcomes. When one of us passes away, a collective shiver runs through the entire community. We grieve, we rage, but we also rightly wonder if we might be next.

Over time, it becomes a trauma–this mix of fear and sadness. And for those whose cancer is considered incurable–and in the case of lung cancer, that would be most of us–there is no post to our traumatic stress. It is ongoing, or OTSD.

We focus on staying alive even as we worry–constantly–about dying. And, because we often don’t look as if we are ill, it is very, very difficult for those around us to fathom what it’s like to live on borrowed time.

Can you plan a vacation six months from now? Is it worth spending the money to get your dental work done? Will you be there when your kids graduate from high school?

As a society there is a great deal of emphasis on planning for the future. When you are living with cancer, it often feels as if the future has nothing to do with you.

I’ve now been living with the idea of dying for over twelve years–more than 20% of my time on earth. How do I do it? One day, one moment, one person at a time.

 

xo dedicated to all we’ve loved and lost–far too young, far too many

*thinking of you, Kimberly.