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A Cabinet of Curiosities


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Mixed Bag

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Whenever scan time rolls around, all of the familiar feelings of anxiety and stress pop up. I am the type of person who likes to do well on exams and tests, but this is not the type of test that one can study for, nor is it the type of evaluation where if I do poorly, I can request a do-over. Whatever happens, good or bad; I am stuck with the results until the next scan. That is not to say that things can not change in between scans, I just will not know until the next scan. The one thing that I have learned in the past seven years is that everything is constantly changing, nothing is permanent – even if it seems dire in the moment.

I recently had a scan to see how the TACE procedure I had in November did. Overall, the results of the TACE were quite positive. The tumour that was the most concerning shrunk a bit, some grew slightly and others were stable (!)

However, tumours in parts outside of the liver have grown in size and a couple of new ones appeared  which means that now we have to get them under control. In light of this, my oncologist spoke to my husband and I about a couple of options: either go up to 1000mg of Gleevec (which I have never heard anyone do because 800 is already very high) or switch treatments to the third line drug that is approved in Canada called Stivarga. His leaning was towards changing for the time being – so that is what I will be doing in the near future. I am not entirely sure what day, but soon.

It is confusing when getting a mixed bag of results, on one hand I am happy the TACE worked, but on the other hand I feel frustrated about the progression seen in other parts. It sort of left me feeling discombobulated for the better part of the weekend. Not because I am pessimistic, quite the opposite, just because I would like to have had some good news without the added “but…”

The side effects for this drug have been described as unfriendly, but somehow I feel better, perhaps even cautiously optimistic, about this drug than I did about Sutent; which I took in the summertime. Luckily, I have a very good team who have encouraged me to contact them should I have/feel anything concerning. I feel so protected and supported by everyone on my medical team.

In the fall, I started to change how I approached my thinking about living with gist. I had read a comment left on the Stupid Cancer FB page that completely made sense to me, about how cancer cells have forgotten how to behave properly and if you talk to them and tell them that help is on the way you approach your body with love and compassion rather than as a war zone. So, now I am more mindful about how I think, how I talk to myself and when I take my medication I tell my cells that the help they need is on the way. It is funny, but I feel more at peace with myself than I did when I was trying to do battle from within. Now, I can see the benefits of this type of thinking, I will make even more of an effort to be more mindful of my thoughts and talk to my cells more about how to behave to let them know that I am here to help and send them help.

We will see what this new adventure brings… For now, I am loving my class, looking forward to working on my thesis and doing things that “normal people” do.


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End of Semester

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As with every end of semester, I am once again feeling inadequate in my ability to write in a proper academic voice and question whether I really belong in academia or not. It seems from my perspective that everyone is so far ahead of me – joining groups, applying for funding, getting to speak at conferences, and just generally seeming more ‘with it’ than I actually feel. Apparently, this is normal when being a graduate student who is pursuing a career in academia.

On the other hand, I need to reflect at how far I have come this semester. I missed the first two weeks of school because I was hospitalized with not one but two internal bleeds, my platelets had completely dropped out and, to top it all off my liver was very unhappy causing me to be jaundiced for a couple of weeks. During my hospitalization, I had two procedures to stop the bleeding, 3 platelet transfusions and 5 blood transfusions. I was also told that the drug that I had been switched to only a short time before was not working and it was discontinued. I was then put back on the original drug I was on and sent to radiology and a liver specialist to discuss TACE – and with that I entered uncharted territory medically speaking. I am a unicorn of unicorns.

During the semester, at times I would have up to three hospital appointments per week – every week, as well as a couple of procedures tossed in for good measure. Keeping up has been a challenge because as an art historian, there is a ton of reading and writing about what had been read. Having so many appointments was not only time consuming, but also very distracting because everything that happens in the appointments had to be processed and assimilated, as well as recovery times from the procedures to contend with.

When people talk about grad school being the hardest thing they have ever done, I wonder what they would say about what I went through this semester… When I feel like I am failing or not good enough because I am not part of the executive committee of an academic group, or because I missed the deadline to apply for government funding; I need to remind myself of everything I have lived through and that the most important part is that I am here, living, loving, studying. Everything else is chocolate sauce.


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Be Positive Mantra

I am understanding more and more how the “just be positive” mantra is really hurtful, especially when one is scared or unsure about what is going on. Hearing someone dismiss those feelings by saying “be positive” really makes one feel like they are doing something wrong when they don’t feel like sunshine and rainbows.

I realize that if I have an off day or two, it will not affect the outcome of any tests, scans or what-have-you. Being dismissed with a “be positive” when trying to convey your feelings to someone is really frustrating and undermines the trust that I might have when talking to certain people about serious matters. I think putting on a fake smile it more detrimental than acknowledging a rough day and letting the wave of frustration/sadness/fear wash past. I think the most important part is to acknowledge these feelings and not squash them down. Our society lately has seemingly become so afraid of things that are not pink and pretty that no one really wants to talk to or approach others who are going through a rough time.

Just because I have feelings other than positivity does not mean that I am inherently negative, in fact I am generally a very positive person. I am beginning to understand the value in not compartmentalizing how I feel all the time, but I am also aware enough to know that I do not want to unpack and set up roots in “negative town.” I know this uncomfortable moment will pass, as they always do and things will look brighter, but sometimes it would be nice to talk to someone who doesn’t dismiss these feelings with a “be positive” or “at least you have ‘x’…”

All this to say that this is a weirdo moment in time containing many more questions than answers. I know that I will eventually get the answers that I am seeking – it is just taking more time than I am feeling comfortable with and “feeling positive” is not always possible when serious things hang in the balance when there are so many other emotions that are being felt at the same time including but not limited to fear, frustration, anxiety – this does not mean that I am not grateful for the wonderful things that are in my life, I am always so very grateful for the wonderful things and I do not see why I need to defend that every time that other emotions come into play.

Sometimes it is not about other emotions at all, sometimes it is just about the reality of circumstances. No matter how much I “think positive” it is not going to drastically change any scan outcomes or whether or not I will get an ‘A’ in a class, or if I will ever be able to safely go to the gym and work-out again. These things are often beyond my control, as much as I hope and wish for that ‘A’ or a clean scan, if positive thinking were the only way to get the things that I want, I would be a millionaire philanthropist who donates time and money to art centres and cancer research. Every time I say something and someone says “think positive” I get angry. I know they mean well, but at the same time, it sort of comes off as a verbal tick – sometimes it is just nice to hear “oh man that sucks” rather than a mantra that is just going to make me feel even more isolated and empty.

Now, I must get back to writing my last paper of the semester!


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One year Ago: April 17, 2014

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One year ago today was the single most scary day of my life. It was the day I came very close to bleeding to death, very suddenly. It was the day that my very last paper for my undergraduate degree was due. I had been experiencing some pain for a couple of days and was mentally monitoring it, I knew that if the pain got any worse that I would have to go to the hospital and see what was going on.

That day I was putting the finishing touches on my paper before having to go and hand it in to my professor. As the day progressed, the pain was getting more pronounced so I took a heavier painkiller to be able to muscle through and finish my paper on time. As I was chatting with my husband on his lunch hour, the painkiller just stopped working, as if someone flipped a switch, I told him what was going on and he said that he would come straight home so that we could go to the hospital together. I then emailed my professor and let her know what was going on.

Having to call an ambulance for yourself when in extreme pain is one of the scariest things to have to do. I was hoping that the dispatcher knew that I was being serious and not kidding around or anything like that. Luckily, the ambulance arrived in what felt like an eternity, but I know it was only a few minutes. My husband arrived home shortly thereafter and was able to ride with me.

While in the ER, they brought me to the trauma room and set to work stabilizing me, bags of fluid, blood transfusions, platelet transfusions, they stuck an NG tube in to empty the contents of my stomach, questions, before they brought me for a CT scan they put some defibrillator paddle pads on me (just in case which freaked me out) and then to angio where they finally, and unceremoniously put me under without warning. I remember them wanting me to lay flat on the table for embolization, I kept asking for a painkiller because I knew I would have to stay still for the procedure but was in a lot of pain… anyway the next thing I know they are waking me up two days later in ICU.

In total I was in the hospital for 6 days, final diagnosis: haemorrhagic shock brought on by necrotic tissue slitting open in my liver caused by metastatic disease.

Since then, I have had 5 CT scans, 1 MRI, a right side portal vein embolization, open RFA surgery (58 staples), 10 blood transfusions, 1 embolization because of tumour bleeding after the RFA, 1 8 grey dose of radiotherapy, 1 cardiac ultrasound, 1 PET scan, a closed RFA and multiple blood tests and doctors appointments.

Now, because of all of these procedures it makes reading my scans very complex, so my case has been brought to the tumour board – again- to see if exactly what is going on can be deciphered. I sometimes wish that there was someone I could talk to who would be able to tell me that it is going to be ok, but the truth is, no one knows. The truth is I could bleed again at any time, anywhere.

Through all of this, I have remained a student, graduated with my BFA, started the Masters program (part time) and worked as a TA this semester.

 

 


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Pre-Birthday Thoughts

Every year around this time, I take inventory of where my life is, how far I have come and where I want to go. This year is a little bit different in that I have been seriously questioning whether my voice, my presence, is strong enough. Along with having something rare, I also tend toward the introverted side of life so sharing and being open does not come easy. At the same time, I want to share, I want to be open and let people know that I exist.

Sometimes, I am not sure how to do that, it often feels like people got there before me, or I am too old, or too young, too rare, too experienced and that my voice does not matter or that I am one voice among a constellation of others vying for attention. The notion of being forgotten leaves a mark that can not be erased, what if I do die in the not too distant future; will I be remembered? Will my voice simply fade away? Will anything I have done matter at all? Right now, I am not so sure, and I want to change that, even if my voice is shaky.


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Unicorn in a Strange Land

It is rare that I feel safe, I mean really safe. The kind of feeling you get when you know that everything is going to be ok, when life is stable, when there is a routine. That is not my life, or at least not a large chunk of it anyway. I hope that this will be a safe space to share ideas, laughter, triumphs and the more frustrating aspects of this crazy ride we call life.

Over the last little while, I have been encouraged by several people to share my story. The story of a unicorn in a strange land. This blog will be multifaceted in that it will contain elements from all facets of my life and not simply focus on one area.

To get me started, here is a guest blog that I wrote for the Cancer Knowledge Network: https://cancerkn.com/unicorn-strange-land/