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I’ve discovered over time that I come from a loving family, but one with defective genes. I’ve had Lupus since my 30s. In my 40s, was diagnosed with incurable Stage IV Cancer. My initial prognosis was 18 months. But…that was TEN years ago!
The diagnosis was a shock, of course, since there was no prior history of breast cancer in our family. All I could think of was of was my children. I wasn’t finished with them! They weren’t fully baked! My sister, Linda, and I hunted the internet relentlessly for the BEST possible doctors, which I was fortunate to find! Though I was panic-stricken inside, I tried to keep things as normal as possible at home.
“Normal”, for this High School Performing Arts Teacher, was a Theatre Troupe rehearsing in my (3-car) theatre where I mostly lived, while a Klezmer band was playing in my living room. My home became a wonderful community workshop of people in and out everyday – a cacophony of theatre, directing, music, dancing, writing -a living dream. I have been a teacher all of my life. It is simply my passion. “Normal” lasted a little while — until clinical trial (now off the market) aimed at eradicating the cancer instead eradicated my 25 year marriage. Ha ! It left me a mere skeleton and exhausted. But I am, nonetheless, still a strong believer in both marriage and clinical trials.
So, I became a single mother with two understandably-stressed, but gifted, wonderful teenagers. I grieved, not really so much for me, but for the double whammy that had befallen them. Too depleted to do anything, eventually I had the theatre taken down and all of the equipment donated to a school. I left the band, but kept my shinys black piano and drum set for inspiration. And, I began writing again to keep my sanity — that is…what little bit I had left.
But, the biggest shock of all was yet to come. My brother and sister, one after the other, both were also diagnosed with cancer. Bam! Bam! Bam! All THREE of us. How is this even possible? HOW? In 2006-8, anger fueled my determination to write a deeply personal screenplay (copyright 2008). It was based on my cancer, my life, and my chemo/ therapeutic swimming pool. “Quality of Life” was a dark comedy, or as I like to call it a “dramedy”.
To me, there is absolutely NOTHING funny about cancer, BUT funny things do happen to people with cancer (or any illness). Laughter involving highly dramatic health crisis is another family defect — like the genes, but it’s a great defect to inherit. I have always found that with love and laughter you can get through almost anything.
With that in mind, when I realized that an elderly dear friend and I were on exact same monthly chemo drip, I offered to drive him. His Swiss wife, also a dear friend, teacher, artist was grateful. She ran an “in and out” art studio in her basement. We were soul mates. I picked up Bill in a top down convertible, which he loved. This tall, thin, handsome, charming, white- haired, gentleman, hopped into the car like James Bond. Dr. Bill Atchley was a retired Chief of Staff Internist (turned medical ethicist, turned environmental and political activist). I drove over the Golden Gate Bridge and he lectured brilliantly on global warming, wetlands, politics, and the like.
When we got to the infusion center, I asked the nurses to start our drips at the exact moment. We would race our drips for kicks! Bills eyes lit up. To my surprise, this quickly became a monthly-anticipated game for the entire infusion room. All would cheer, while the nurses and patients placed bets. The winner would buy lunch for the loser, or so they all thought. Bill and I were never hungry. So instead, we headed over the hill to the Buena Vista Cafe, San Francisco’s home of Irish Coffee. We toasted to another month of life, and stared out at the water and the magnificent Golden Gate. After sitting and unwinding, for exactly 60 minutes, aware of the ever-ticking time bomb “return of the Irish Coffee”, we promptly headed back over the bridge and home. And, so it went for 4 years – the convertible, lectures, chemo/poison, bets, Irish Coffee, Bill, me, puking. It was strangely “Fun”… and got us thru it.
So, with stage 4 cancer, you live day-by-day, month to month, tumor markers to tumor markers, and every treatment to every treatment. You bargain with God, I suspect some atheists do too, and you beg for increments of time to live through special life events — especially those involving your children.There is absolutely NOTHING funny about cancer, BUT funny things do happen to people with cancer…
My style has been to throw it all up on the ceiling (whatever treatments my body can reasonably tolerate) and see what sticks! And Bam! One day — it’s TEN years! Is that even possible? Something stuck, but what ?? Or is it just luck ?? “Therein lies the rub”, as Hamlet would say.
No one really knows. Should I care, or just be grateful to everyone and for everything? I am eternally grateful those who have treated and supported me. And most especially, to a certain brilliant, and beautiful in everyway, oncologist in heels, Dr. Linnea Chap, TOP DOC see US News/World Reports (at Beverly Hills Cancer Center).
But…God, forgive me for even thinking this — if I knew I was going to have 10 years, it would have been so different…so much more…and so much less stress. If I only knew! But, I didn’t know. So this is my “Life Lesson” as a teacher…and patient…
The truth is that no one ever really knows FOR SURE!
So, keep loving those you hold dear. Keep seizing moments of laughter to share. And keep living beyond those damn statistics!!!
Approximately 10 years ago, my sister, Nancy, was diagnosed with breast cancer. This was is a total shock since there was no prior history of breast cancer in our family. The only family history of cancer was lung cancer to smokers of our parents generation.
Since I live in Virginia and Nancy in California, we spent untold hours on internet websites, in discussions with doctors, nurses, cancer organizations and others, to get a better grasp of what lay ahead, and to understand the decisions that had to be made. Due to my many years in my career of laboratory sales to researchers at NIH, I already had some insight into various programs in cancer research at National Institutes of Health.
In the meantime, Nancy was uncomfortable with her initial staging and diagnosis – something just didn’t make sense. She begged for a Pet Scan and when her local No. Cal. doctors refused, she headed to UCSF, then hopped the first plane to MD Anderson in Texas, and finally back home to her alma matter at UCLA Medical Center. When those three top hospitals agreed, she felt comfortable to proceed. Her scheduled double mastectomy was cancelled, and her treatment plan changed from curative to “palliative” care treatment plan (which means relief of pain, symptoms and the philosophy of “do no harm”).
Shockingly, 3 years later, our younger brother, Mark, was diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma. Nancy and I embarked on another mission to save our brother, for whom we again found the best possible team of doctors for his cancer type.
Like waiting for the final shoe to drop, a year later, I received my own diagnosis of stage 1 breast cancer. By now, I was prepared to stage my own battle against cancer. As a result of my sister and brother’s diagnoses, I researched and found a wonderful the best breast specialist who was already monitoring me at Georgetown University Hospital. I was not under the stress of trying to find a doctor and was able to just focus on the appropriate course of treatment- surgery and radiation.
Then again, a couple of years later, when my brother was going through his routine followup scans, they found that he had neuroendocrine pancreatic cancer. He was very fortunate. He had surgery and is doing well today.
My sister’s diagnosis serendipitously turned out to help all three of us, and pointed out the need for high risk awareness for our children. Our intensive mission to save our siblings paid off. Only time will tell…but we are all doing well now…and are eternally thankful to all of the brilliant doctors and practitioners who have treated us, and to those who have given us support as well.
We hope that this website will bring hope to some, and be a useful resources to others.