Category Archives: Attitude

Don’t call me partner

Warning: this may be the most contentious blog I’ve ever written.

That is because I am about to desecrate a sacred cow–the idea of patient as a partner in medical research. Lovely in notion, the reality is something quite different and nowhere has that been more clear to me than sitting in the audience at DPharm 2018.

Let’s start with the straightforward definition of partner:

And then let’s parse that definition, piece by piece. A person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others. I have no quibble with this. As a participant (I refuse to call myself a volunteer—I did not ‘volunteer’ for this shit) in a clinical trial, I am a member of a ‘team’ composed of researchers, other participants, clinicians, schedulers, nurses, sponsor, phlebotomists, techs, lead investigator, regulators; even payers.

Every member of this team has an important role to play and, as the term stakeholders implies, to a certain degree the outcome of our endeavor will impact each of us personally.

However, this is where the concept of partner starts to fall apart; shared risks and profits.

No one has more on the line than the participant. The skin in the game is not figurative for us, it’s our actual tissue. Best case scenario: we get to continue living. Worst case scenario: we die. Those are some pretty bloody high stakes and not in the same category as fourth quarter losses.

And now we get to the word profit. Don’t even get me started. I pay for the privilege of participation. Clinical trials are not gratis. The experimental agent/therapy is provided to me free of charge and sometimes certain labs or procedures; in the trial I am currently enrolled in echocardiograms are covered by the sponsor. However, everything else is billed to insurance, and I am responsible for deductibles and copays. Gas, parking, lunch—all paid for by me.

And then there is the physical toll. One hundred and one chest CT scans, 60 abdominal CT scans, 42 brain MRI’s.

So, let’s just get really real here and stop the pretense. I am not your partner and if I am, this is one heck of an abusive relationship. One in which I am bound to you by desperation, you call all the shots, and my only true power is to withhold. Where words like compliant and noncompliant are used to describe me. One in which your need for data is greater than my need for autonomy/personal safety. Sure, you keep me alive but you can also kick me to the curb if my cancer gets out of line again. And when and if you do, there will be nowhere else for me to turn.

We are codependent, you and I. That much is true. But we are not equals and certainly not partners. And we won’t be until you recognize that I am a human being. That I have hopes and dreams and family too. It is my bad luck that I also have cancer. I want to live and I will do almost anything to stay alive. You know that. But don’t exploit it. Do not continually ask me for more blood, more sweat, more tears, more money.

Instead, provide me with genuine support. Understand what I have sacrificed and compensate me for my time, just as you compensate healthy ‘volunteers’ in clinical trials. Being a subject in a trial does not mean that I am also subhuman so treat me with the respect that I deserve. Let’s ditch the condescension and start with transparency. Stop pretending that I am your partner. I know what a true partnership looks/feels like, and baby, we’re not there yet.

S.N.B.T.H.

That’s my go to complaint. It really should not be this hard. But it is.

Health insurance. Didn’t want to fess up but I’ve been without it this past month. Long story short, the assistance I was counting on per making my selection did not come through (not responding to emails is such an easy way to blow someone off) and when I showed up at the office in person instead (an hour drive, each way) I learned that A. I had missed a deadline and B. I needed to go back home and get on the phone with the folks at the Mass Health Connector anyway.

So….I cancelled my appointments for September and before I left the hospital, stopped by to see my clinical trial nurse. I should always talk to a nurse when I have an issue—no one is more empathetic, more pragmatic or less likely to take shit or no for an answer than a nurse. I then made arrangements with Alice to contact the sponsor to see if I could get drug even though I was not coming in for my labwork/echocardiogram.

Arrangements were made to have my drug mailed to me (not quite without a hitch–they forgot and it had to be overnighted) and I figured out (on my own) which policy would work best for the remaining three months of this calendar year–a higher premium, no deductible plan. As my income is 360.70% of poverty (yes) I qualified for a tax credit which brought my premium down by $127.00 a month.

I feel better when there’s something in my checking account, so I waited until last Friday, three days prior to the deadline, to choose my plan. Because the 23rd (the deadline you have to pay your premium by in order to get health insurance for the following month) was on a Sunday, I needed to get my online payment in by that afternoon. When I attempted to log onto my account, the system did not recognize me. I called back, and was offered two options—drive an hour to Boston to make a payment in person or wait another three hours at which time I was assured my account would be active. I gambled on the latter. Three hours later I still did not register and I placed another phone call to the Health Connector. This time I was again assured (and by now I was in tears) that even though it wasn’t working now, my account should be online by the next day, Saturday.

‘I don’t think you understand’ I explained to the woman on the other end of the line. ‘I am a cancer patient, I already had to cancel my appointments this month, because I had Cobra if I don’t get insurance by the end of this month I can’t get it until January, and if I don’t have insurance for next month, I will have to cancel my appointments again in October and will likely be kicked out of the clinical trial I am enrolled in. I need to know that this is going to work.’

I had a good cry after hanging up and a giant pit in my stomach. And, just as I’d feared, I was never able to access my account.

So I called first thing this morning only to learn that their entire online system was down and that I would need to call back later. I did, two more times. By this afternoon it was finally up and running and I spent an hour on the phone with a very sweet and patient representative. By the end of our phone call I was talking to someone else–an account specialist–as it had been determined that there was a technical error on their end–my billing account had never been activated.

I was given a case number, as this would now have to go into resolution. And I was now informed that I could have health insurance for October but only if I paid for November as well, even though the mistake was theirs. The reason being that the system would not recognize my retroactive payment as an active subscriber as we were past the billing period unless I paid for the next month as well.

Sigh.

The dollar amount for two months of premiums exceeds the amount I currently have in my checking account by several hundred dollars. As in, not doable. I have been told that my case will take several days to resolve. I have to hope that by then my alimony check will have arrived so that I can make the payment.

Caseworker y’all. It would be so great if I could worry about staying healthy and somebody else could help me with this other crap–all of which is a cumulative side effect of years of living with cancer as well as clinical trial participation. Cognitive, financial, emotional toll; unrelenting stress. The wear and tear of dealing with an advanced cancer for almost one quarter of my life.

It’s hard, really flipping hard. And until there are more supportive services in place, it’s not going to get any easier. As in, bucket list, my ass. I’m just trying to get by here.

A new day

I went to bed early last night because I was feeling depressed. Sleeping is generally one of the least harmful activities one can engage in while under the influence of overbearing sadness.

Depression is a funny thing. Never a welcome guest, it arrives unannounced, moves on in like it owns the place, and then proceeds to do whatever the hell it wants, including but not limited to, absolutely trashing everything.

Oy. And never a clue as to when it might decide to pick up and leave.

Well, I woke up on the same side of the bed as usual this morning and yet…something was different. By the time I got home from walking Lily and Kumo I realized that I was in a good mood.

Yeah. That was more like it.

Suddenly everything that felt like an overwhelming burden/impossiblity yesterday now looked a whole heck of a lot more like an opportunity today.

I got on my laptop and started cruising not just the classifieds but also websites for grants and residencies for artists and writers both. And as I did, I started to feel a wind in my sail. I can do this I said, and unlike yesterday, I wasn’t talking myself into anything. Nope. This was true affirmation, the can-do that is my usual MO. I am an overcomer. It’s not for nothing that ‘Adversity Expert’ is one of my tag lines on my current curriculum vitae.

Nope. Challenges are something I eat for breakfast. So let’s get back on track. 😉

Where do I go from here

It’s an interesting question contingent upon several prepositions.

See, I have a problem and the fact that it is a good problem (all things considered), makes it no less daunting. It would appear that I am going to live. Appear being the supposition here, as one can never be too sure. However, if the current trend continues, well, than I have at least a rather immediate future.

This is not something I planned on.

Nope. Stability is a concept I am only beginning to embrace. However, keep in mind, it remains a contingent, suppositional stability. Which is about the same degree of stability that one would experience sleeping in a tree.

Here are the basic facts. I am fifty-eight, almost fifty-nine years old. I am currently in fabulous physical shape but remain in treatment for advanced–aka terminal–lung cancer. That treatment has proved remarkably effective and although my cancer is not gone (70% response) it is gone enough. Better yet, I’ve had a sustained response to my current therapy–four years, three months and counting. The rub? At the moment, this is the end of the road for me–treatment-wise. When (do I dare say if?) this one fails, there is no other. Been there, done that as each time I’ve started a new treatment it has been with the understanding that there were not yet any others. Medical science has thus far managed to keep apace with my cancer but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t weigh on me–life with limited options.

So, there’s that. Cancer. And then there are the side effects of treatment. In my own case, the most debilitating have been the cognitive issues. When it comes to short term memory, I’ve got shit for brains. My own children were skeptical of the severity of my issue. That is, until my son August tried to teach me something. It took his repeating directions countless times and finally writing it down as well before I caught on. This concerned him enough he shared his experience with his younger brother and now I think they both have a little better understanding of what I face.

And although I am not nearly as anxious as I once was (perhaps an inadvertent blessing that goes with loss of short term memory), I am incredibly worried about finances.

I may be one of the few people with terminal lung cancer who does not qualify for disability. This is due to the number of years that had elapsed (stay at home mom) between my last paycheck and diagnosis. Alimony is my income; in an amount insufficient to actually get by and so each month my credit card bill steadily grows. And those checks stop arriving fifteen months and three weeks from yesterday.

I have started reading the classifieds looking for gainful employment. Unfortunately, my own work history is heavy on waitressing, with some other odd jobs mixed in. And although my work in advocacy should qualify me for something better, I am terrified that my short term memory issues are going to make any job difficult to maintain.

Take a deep breath. These are good problems to have.

I

can

do

this.

Bounce

I don’t do things halfway and when I go low, I go low. Take no prisoners, lethal sort of low.

My face couldn’t couldn’t get out of the way soon enough and so I made a minor mess of it. If you’ve never picked your skin you wouldn’t understand, but if you have, you know. Damned if you do, but in some sick way, self damage is an amazing way to relieve stress. However, just like alcohol, it tends to make things worse the following day.

That said, my mood is on the upswing. Sometimes when you hit bottom you bounce. I plan to take that momentum to propel me forward into some healthier activities. Writing (I’m on a roll), working on my health insurance, going to the gym and yes, painting.

It’s been a long time since I’ve held a brush but my easel beckons. And getting my art on might just be the perfect antidote to much of what ails me.

That, and the always amazing outpouring of love and support that a post brings–both here and on Facebook. Thank you. Know that every message goes straight to my heart in the best of all ways and that as alone as I feel at times, I’m really not. Because I’ve got all of you. ❤

Deepest Indigo

IMG_2826

Depression is having its way with me.

Yesterday I took myself to Five Guys for lunch. A small cheeseburger, fries and a chocolate malted. Not so bad, as I am working out again.

But then dinner rolled around and so did my gloom, just like a bank of fog. I started with a glass of white wine (that bottle was staring at me so I just decided to kill it). Some black licorice. Five olives. A beer and a banana. Cereal with goat milk kefir and frozen blueberries. My repast all over the place, just like my mood.

I feel as if my schtick is strength and positivity. For the curriculum vitae I am putting together I have Adversity Expert as one of my skills (given my lack of actual substance, I am taking some creative license with my CV). And honestly, I feel as if I am letting some of you down by so openly sharing my current depression.

However, in the name of keeping things real, this is part of it. Any one of the stressors in my life (emotional, financial, physical) is enormous and when you add them all together, it is, on a good day, extremely challenging. And on the bad days–overwhelming.

What I am describing is OTSD–ongoing traumatic stress disorder.

Yes, I am unusually resilient. However, almost thirteen and 1/2 years of dealing with this shit has taken its toll. Last night I managed to waken myself from a nightmare because (and I distinctly recall saying this to myself) ‘I don’t want to see where this is going.’

If only it were so easy to walk away while awake.

So please bear with me as I move through this tough place. As my Granny B was fond of saying, ‘this too shall pass.’ And so it shall.

The lung cancer blues

I was a miserable child. As in, I was miserable; a good deal of the time.

As a ward of my parents, I felt a good many things to be out of my control. However, with careful observation it became clear to me that I was in charge of my personal happiness. And I set about making certain that my own disposition became–through much effort–a sunny one.

This has served me well. Certainly, it has made me more likable but it has also impacted my outlook on everything.

Even cancer. Yep, when I was first diagnosed I look at my odds (not very good) and decided that it was going to be hard, but that I could do this. As in, I had the skill set (that sunny disposition being part of it) to give this a go.

And so I have. But of course, I never could have guessed that I’d be at this surviving thing for such an extended period.

It’s a blessing. And a curse.

There was a sweet little op ed in the NYT’s today about the good in taking things for granted. Sadly, that is a luxury well beyond my reach; an innocence lost long ago.

No, my life is fraught; every frigging moment. Not by choice, but rather circumstance.

Thirteen, going on fourteen years of living with a disease such as lung cancer. For the bulk of that time, well over a decade, I have also lived with the knowledge that my cancer was terminal.

My cancer has remained stable for an extended period. Somnolent, resting, biding its time. I feel good/strong. Sometimes I even pretend that I can let down my guard–just assume I’ll be sticking around. Those are the good days.

But then it hits me. All of it. Like a ton of bricks or a platinum doublet. I am alive but alone with an uncertain future on every front. Grateful and terrified all at the same time. Sad and sometimes angry too. Anxious about my friends because even if cancer’s not breathing down my neck, it’s breathing down theirs.

I was right; this is hard. Really hard.