Wednesday, March 30, 2011

God, Why Us? - by Joe

Many, if not all cancer patients at some point wrestle with the question, "Why me?" do cancer patient spouses/significant others.  Personally, I do not think there is an adequate answer to this, or the more general question "Why is there suffering?"  A more practical issue is how you handle the question when it surfaces inside.

In our case, we had just spent a small fortune remodeling our old house in order to pass inspection for fostering-to-adopt a child.  Then boom!  Cancer.  Adoption was no longer a possibility.  Along with that heartbreak came confusion: neither of us have family histories of cancer! So why, why, why?

As Christians, we aimed the question at God.  Were we agnostic/atheist it might have been railing at an unfair Universe.  Either way, ignoring it just makes depression worse. 

I think for both of us the question was a muddy mix of self-pity and sincerity.  Emotional and intellectual.  The answer has to be a personal one to move on, not some theology or scientific hypothesis. Amid the amazing theories well-meaning friends hurled our way (sinning, eating the wrong foods, stress, pollution, bad water, etc.) we have both achieved some sort of answer.  I see it as a mystery and an opportunity to choose solidarity and empathy with others' suffering.  On top of that, I think we both see cancer as just one of many realities from living in a 'fallen world' based on Jesus's teachings in the Gospels. 

The benefits of facing the question we've found are many: less depression, less feeling sorry for ourselves, less energy drained, less despair.  Not that the question doesn't still sit there.  But there is a healthy truce.

For anyone reading this that is newly diagnosed, I urge you to wrestle honestly with the question and don't pretend it's not there.  Keep wrestling until you find an answer you can live with.

As always, thank you so much for your amazing support!


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

CHEMO: How It Feels -by Heidi

First, Joe and I, through our experiences, have decided to call all the therapies that we have received "chemo".  It is just too hard to explain that "this is a targeted hormonal therapy, that is a monoclonal therapy, this is a viral therapy...."  People understand "chemo" and you can just say, "this one will make me lose my hair", or "this one doesn't usually make me throw up" and everyone gets it. There are so many ways that cancer is treated now-a-days and professionals would probably roll their eyes but we find it is so much easier to say that we are getting chemo and leave it at that.

Ironically the therapy that was the targeted and first-line drug for me was a hormone depresser.  And boy, was I depressed.  Funny all the things that I did not know that estrogen facilitated in my body.  I developed severe arthritis-like symptoms in my hands especially which really impacted my daily life.  I couldn't open a jar, had no hand strength, bad nerve pain and numbness.   My back and hips ached all the time.  I was pretty moody (but it is hard to separate out medicine effects from the fact that I had just received a horrible diagnosis with a really bad life expectancy).  When it failed to keep the cancer in check and I had to go to stronger chemo, I was scared stiff.  But in terms of side effects, it has been much better.  The only downside is that I have to come to the cancer center each week instead of once a month. 

I am fortunate because my side effects have not been totally debilitating.  When I first started treatment, I was NOT going to let side effects stop them from giving me these drugs that gave me a chance for a long life.  I was determined.  But now I more fully understand that side effects can  be so debilitating, so impact your quality of life, that it is a balancing act:  quality vs. quantity.  I dont know all the answers but I sure have learned to not be so judgemental or assume that I know the answers.

One thing that makes the chemo easier is how friendly and kind the people at the chemo center are.  You share your feelings, hopes and sadness with the staff and those you meet in the lounge and leave encouraged.  I am so fortunate that Joe is willing to come with me each time and we try to do something fun each week.  I am also so very grateful to God that this chemo is holding my cancer in check (for almost two years now).

Thanks again for all your support and feel free to communicate with us. We love hearing from you.


Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Waiting Game -by Joe

One of the toughest aspects of cancer has gotta be those times of waiting for news, waiting for results.  Scans, X-Rays, labwork, appointments, whatever can drive you crazy!  And until the doctors proclaim you cancer-free, it gets increasingly hard not to expect bad news, bad results.

In the photo is "Blu", an amazing service dog, patiently resting on my shoe at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance's 5th floor chemotherapy lobby while his loving owner, Sheryle, visited with Heidi during her chemotherapy.

Heidi and I are slowly learning to wait more like Blu does.  He is patient, loyal and never gives up no matter how long he has to wait.  And Blu's ability to patiently, obediently wait required training.  It's the same for us.

Yesterday and today are good examples.  Heidi's initial labs look bad and we have to wait for the final results.  I started having symptoms again a couple days ago and am getting tests run on me to find out why.  Hopefully, both are false alarms but we have to wait to find out.  And maybe, just maybe, we are getting a little better each time..

As always, thanks for your support! - Joe

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Cancer Center Chapel 'Revelation' -by Joe

Last week, I was really getting nervous as they started Heidi's second chemotherapy drug in Seattle Cancer Care Alliance's chemo rooms.  Heidi encouraged me to go down to the Center's chapel so I did..

As I sat in the chapel trying to shut up my noisy thoughts and simply be in God's Presence, a remarkable thing happened.  Back in 1981, I foolishly climbed one of Colorado's 14,000+ mountains called Little Bear Peak in the Sangre de Cristo range.  'Foolish' because I was untrained, doing it alone and without a helmet, rope or any way to call for help if I fell.

In the chapel, the vivid memory flooded back of making it up Little Bear Peak's deadly gully called the 'Hourglass' and once I finished that stretch, I was terrified at the prospect of going back down.  Now up until then, I had established a tradition on the previous (& easier) 14er peaks in Colorado of celebrating communion and praying for at least an hour when weather permitted, on each summit.

Looking down that Hourglass chute, convinced I would die on descent, I was faced with a choice.  Should I spend the time on top or immediately take my chances descending?  I chose the summit view/communion. To this day I believe that choice saved my life.  The descent was hair-raising, still no other climbers on the peak to ask for help.  I did slip several times on the steep, slippery slabs of stone.  But I sang all the way down.

The lesson:  we will ALL face deadly danger in our lives, whether from disease, violence, despair, etc.  But the choice is always there.  Will we spend available time with God or ignore Him and desperately obsess over the danger?

Cancer is Heidi & my danger these days; but since that day in the chapel, I am constantly reminded of a welcome place of peace I can find on an inner mountain summit, whether either of us prematurely die on the 'descent' or not.

As always, thanks for your support! - Joe

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Laughter Is Medicine -by Joe

Balances.  Tears seem healthy to me in a cancer patient unless they become self-pity.  Anger also seems healthy, if it's aimed at cancer cells, helping motivate the battle.  You see both at a world reknown treatment facility like Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.  But not much laughter.  We, among others, are working on that in our own little way.

The picture shows Heidi doing a hilarious 'housewife' commercial for her 'favorite' brand of scan dye in the SCCA lobby, the day she got a Bone Scan and a CT Scan shortly after diagnosis.  A couple months later, when I got diagnosed, we started an ongoing routine arguing about who had the prettiest tumor(s).  I remember times we'd read about some food or household item being carcinogenic, and one of us would say "Oh no! We might get cancer!"  I think regarding cancer itself, we both have developed a good 'sense of tumor'.

Even if someone doesn't like joking about cancer, there are plenty of reasons to keep laughing in life after diagnosis.  Funny movies to watch.  Loved ones to tease.  Pets to play with.  Even in the chemotherapy rooms, the excellent, professional staff have great senses of humor available to patients and families that are interested.  SCCA offers a free 'Laughs at lunch' series of comedy films for families & patients.

I saw an interesting research article at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute website exploring the potentially healing, strengthening effects of laughter in cancer cases.  One mechanism was the release of the body's natural endorphins.  So when you hear a statistically significant punchline, chuckle!

As always, thanks for the support!

- Joe