Tag Archives: lung cancer

Couldn’t

I just missed World Lung Cancer Day. Well, not quite. I did spit out this tweet:

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For those who were able to post something inspirational, I have nothing but respect. But I just found myself unable to embrace the concept of a day devoted to lung cancer.

That’s because for those of us living with this disease, every single day is lung cancer day. And every single one of those days, we wish it wasn’t.

If we’re not dying, our friends are. This disease is a holocaust, a catastrophe, a fucking disaster. And although there is nothing wrong with ‘raising awareness’, we absolutely cannot stop there.

As important as it is to inspire, it is also necessary to incite. Complacency equals complicity, folks. And if we are going to inspire anything, it should be a sense of urgency. And raising awareness? Let’s put the money where our mouths are and raise funds; moneys for lung cancer research. How about devoting November to one giant bake sale? Or a virtual bake sale, with a go-fund campaign devoted to lung cancer. Let’s make our goal a million dollars. I mean, why not?

A cookie for a cure. Let’s do it.

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

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Just not a just world

There are two kinds of people. Those that believe life is fair (everything happens for a reason) and those who don’t (shit happens).

These differing viewpoints may seem like no big deal until you start thinking about the moral implications of belief in a just world. I suppose if everything is working out for you it’s a pretty convenient philosophy. However, if life has thrown you some major curves (such as a diagnosis of terminal cancer) than you probably don’t believe we all get what we deserve.

My own diagnosis of lung cancer left me completely gobsmacked. How on earth did a young, seemingly healthy woman who had never ever touched a cigarette (me) get lung cancer. And yes, I was struck by the unjustness of it all. I mean, why me?

Well, first of all, lung cancer in non and never smokers is nowhere near as uncommon as most people believe. Approximately 60-65% of newly diagnosed cases occur in former or never smokers.

Secondly, life is not fair.

However, most of us grew up believing in a just world, a well ordered place where sensible and good behavior was rewarded and risky or bad behavior duly punished. This viewpoint not only shaped our moral code, it lent us an invisible cloak of safety.

This philosopy is the very reason that those of us with lung cancer are consistently asked as to whether or not we smoked. The asker wants to be reassured that our lung cancer is the direct result of cause and effect. Of course they haven’t stopped to think about how this question will impact us. If the answer is yes, the implication is that we are the agent of our own misfortune. And if it is no, we are reminded once again of our extraordinarily bad luck.

Belief in a just world is the thinking behind the stigma associated with a diagnosis of lung cancer. Stigma is defined as ‘a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person’. In the case of lung cancer, our diagnosis is inextricably linked to shame and a blame the victim mentality.

Which makes us all incredibly sensitive to any suggestion that cancer, and our disease in particular, is almost entirely preventable. ‘Helpless to Prevent Cancer? Actually, Quite a Bit is in Your Control‘ reads the catchy title of a recent article from the New York Times. The author, a professor of pediatrics (and therefore, I think, not an expert on adult cancers) makes statements such as this: ‘… you’d have to be living under a rock not to know that smoking causes lung cancer…’ Or this ‘About 82 percent of women and 78 percent of men who got lung cancer might have prevented it through healthy behaviors.’ The author makes a stab at empathy with this observation: ‘You don’t want to get into situations where you feel as if people don’t deserve help because they didn’t try hard enough to stay healthy’. However, the word deserve and that bit about not trying hard enough harkens right back to shame, shame, shame.

The way in which disease is characterized matters. Talking about lifestyle changes that can optimize health is always a good thing, but it is important to remain sensitive to the language that is used.

Calamity of all sorts and cancer in particular is often beyond our control. Nobody deserves lung cancer, whether they smoked or not. But sometimes, shit just happens.

 

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!