Category Archives: Connections

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.

elizabeth-dessureault-and-18-month-old-son-jack-for-story-by

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.

Because magic can be in a moment

I’ve gotten an adventure or two under my belt since my last post (with more to come) and I plan on divulging in detail. But before I get to all that I’d like to share a truly magical moment. On Sunday I accompanied my friends/neighbors Machiko and Koichiro Kurita and their dog Momo to Mill No. 5; an enchanted space if there ever was one. The four of us were wandering about and came across this most perfect of props. I whipped out my handy iPhone for an impromptu portrait of two of my favorite photographers and their little peach Momo. Serendipity.

Koichiro, Machiko & Momo.

Koichiro, Machiko & Momo.

When Breath Becomes air

If you haven’t yet read When Breath Becomes air, Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s extraordinary book about his all-too-brief experience with non small cell lung cancer, you should. Once I picked it up I found it difficult to put down.

Part of what makes this book so special is that Paul was a physician–a neurosurgeon–and so perhaps had a leg up on most of us in that he was able to immediately distance himself from the disease with a dispassion that is difficult for a layman. I had to work very hard to not take my own lung cancer personally, but Paul was able to come to a place of acceptance/grace with remarkable speed, and this lends his telling a particular elegant universality.

When Breath Becomes Air was preceded by an essay by Paul in the NYT that garnered a huge response from readers, ultimately leading to a book deal. There was a lot of buzz in the lung cancer community prior to publication of When Breath Becomes Air, in part because some of my friends and peers were personally acquainted with the Kalanithis. Aside from the pre-publication chatter my own introduction to Paul’s book was this touching essay by his wife Lucy, which also appeared in the NYT. I kind of fell in love with Dr. Lucy Kalanithi after reading it and have been hoping for some time that I would have the opportunity to meet her.

Linnea, Lucy and Diane

Linnea, Lucy and Diane

Well a couple of weeks ago I got my chance, as the Harvard Book Store sponsored a conversation between Lucy and Neel Shah, an assistant medical professor at Harvard Medical School. The venue was the Cambridge Public Library and my friend Diane and I (in true fangirl fashion) got there super early with seats front and center. Better yet, before the event started I had returned to the lobby in order to refresh my parking ticket just as Lucy was arriving. She recognized me from social media and came right up to say hello and gave me a great big hug. Now I was smitten.

Once the event got under way, Lucy read some passages from the book, conversed with Neel for a bit and then took questions from the audience—many of whom were medical students. Some of the questions were of a truly diffuclt nature, yet Lucy was unfailingly warm, patient and kind. Afterward a long line formed for autographed copies of the book, and Lucy took her time with each and every person. A physician herself, I can only imagine that she brings the same care to her practice.

Read the book, and better yet, if Lucy Kalanithi comes to your town, go!

This is Hope

It’s been more than two weeks now but I’m still high on Lungevity’s National HOPE Summit. Some clever person in attendance coined the hashtag #thisishope which absolutely sums up what I have come to view as one big family reunion. This year we numbered about 300 survivors and caretakers. All with a common goal; doing something about lung cancer.

Dolio, Linnea, Bruno and Diane.

Dolio, Linnea, Bruno and Diane.

Leslie and Andy Trahan (<3 these two)

Leslie and Andy Trahan (

Striking this year were the number of young people in attendance—and of course the older I get, the greater the number of survivors who I look at and think, ‘you could be my child’. Absolutely unacceptable and something that really gets my panties in a twist. However, what these young survivors and their caretakers bring to advocacy is immeasurable passion, energy and optimism. I am also always incredibly moved by those advocates who have lost either a family member (sadly, sometimes a child) or a close friend to lung cancer but continue to fight for not only their lost loved one but all of us with this disease. Thank you.

It is never a good time to have lung cancer but with FDA approval of eleven different drugs for lung cancer since 2006, it is at least a time of increasing therapeutic options. And look at that picture of all the people who have lived for ten years past diagnosis (Diane and myself included)—again, hugely encouraging.

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Survivors ten years and more out from diagnosis

And that first photo? Dolio, Bruno, Diane and I are all lung cancer patients/advocates (although you wouldn’t guess the patient part looking at the picture, and that is why I love it so). The four of us went out to dinner the final evening of HOPE summit. Our reservation had been mistakenly made for the following night and the only available table was outside and it was pretty darn chilly. Diane played the C card and upon hearing that we were all living with lung cancer, the manager was overcome. His mom had just been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, and our smiling faces made him feel infinitely more hopeful. He ushered us over to perhaps the best seat in the house and then brought us this ridiculous (but oh so fun) tropical drink. It was a lovely and somewhat surreal ending to a fabulous weekend of learning/bonding. Thank you Lungevity and see you next year!

I love people

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On this Valentines day, 2016—I would like to send a love letter to everyone. Absolutely EVERYONE.

Why? Well, because I love people. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.

I know a lot of folks who feel dogs might be better than us humans, but not me. Dogs are great but people are my favorite animals of all. Nothing is more interesting to me than other people.

That doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to the fact that we, as a species, do a lot of shitty things. To the planet, other creatures and each other.

The thing is, I believe in us. People are capable of incredible empathy, kindness, generosity, grace. We can be so smart, creative and industrious. Brave, courageous, strong and tender. Altruistic. Most of us care deeply about each other, and that is perhaps our greatest ability of all—love.

 

The underscore

After reading the post about losing my friend Ginger, another friend of mine commented that ‘her long time in remission has to be a triumph of its own’. Well yes, absolutely. And it made me realize that I left out one of the most remarkable aspects of Ginger’s story. Just prior to her diagnosis, Ginger, recently divorced, had travelled to Israel and met the man who would become her second husband. Post diagnosis, she experienced almost a second lifetime, one very full of joy. When I met her she was recently widowed and embarking on yet another chapter.

Ginger’s life was inspirational/aspirational for me. And although the details differed, she provided me with a role model of what could be if I only had the courage to really go for it.

I’m not talking about cancer here, but rather my divorce. It’s not an experience that I’ve shared very much about but it was hands down one of the bravest things I’ve ever done.

When I tell people I am recently divorced they say they are sorry. Well, I’m not. It requires a lot of hope, faith and optimism to start over when you have cancer, but it was something that needed to happen and honestly, if I was strong enough to do this, I can do anything.

I gained so much from my friendship with Ginger and I shall miss her so, so much. My last email from her was a month ago and it sort of captures the essence of our friendship—a little bit of cancer, a whole lot of caring:

I saw you all over the Globe. Good article, but you are so much better in person! 🙂
Good luck to Peter!
I went in for chemo yesterday and they sent me home- too weakened. But I will try to build myself up again. It’s partially the blasted antibiotic until next Sat. Just went down on the bicycle. Have to try.
Have you tried a dating site yet?
Much love back, g

____________ ❤

 

This part’s really hard

When I was diagnosed with lung cancer I immediately understood that loss was going to play a big part in my life. What I didn’t understand was that it wouldn’t all be personal. You see, I never anticipated becoming close to so many others with cancer—it just wasn’t part of my initial game plan.

However, once I was restaged to IV I knew I couldn’t go it alone anymore and I began to seek out others with lung cancer. Not long after I also took my first steps into advocacy and before I knew it, I had a lot of friends who shared my diagnosis.

The upside to these relationships is obvious–no one knows better what it is like to have this disease than someone who is living with it. The downside is that cancer is a brutal and relentless foe and a lot of my friends haven’t made it.

Each time it’s a real punch in the heart.

Yesterday I learned that my dear friend Ginger Wyler Saunders had passed away. I met Ginger some years ago in the Whole Foods down the street from MGH. We were sitting across from each other at a crowded table during the busy lunch hour and all was chaos around us. She looked at me and said ‘We are the two quietest people here.’ With that we began to chat and I learned that she had also been diagnosed with lung cancer–twenty six years earlier. I think I asked her if I could touch her–I was so amazed to meet someone who had lived for such an extended period post diagnosis.

Anyway, we became pals. We emailed, met for lunch, and called occasionally as well. Sadly, Ginger was diagnosed with a second cancer; ovarian. She fought tenaciously but gained little ground. Yesterday her daughters let me know that she was gone. Today I sat at what I thought was perhaps the same table at Whole Foods. And I wept rather openly as I ate. I love you Ginger–cancer can’t take that.

Linnea and Ginger

Linnea and Ginger 3/11