My ovarian cancer recurrence in October of 2011 condemned me to the predictable but somber reality of life in treatment. My care team and I selected the Penn trial as the hail mary pass best suited for me surviving longer in this reality. Frankly, there wasn’t an extensive menu of choices. Many other women reached the same conclusion creating a line of hopefuls since winnowed down by the ravages of this disease and hefty qualifications. This week, 19 months after starting the process, I signed the entry paperwork with very little fanfare.
The final countdown to entry allowed me the first moments to switch from ‘must get in’ mode to ‘holy shit, what the fuck am I doing’ mode. It hasn’t made the trial any less compelling, just made my ability to survive the rigors of cross-country medical care a concern. Anyone who knows me knows that I am the ultimate homebody. Additionally, I crave open windows and being outside. Airplanes, airports and hospitals are the worst form of punishment.
Now I consign my high holy months of summer and fall to endless air travel interrupted with endless hours in the hospital. Palliative care patients are counseled to select quality of life since quantity will elude us. The quality/quantity tradeoff is complicated by hope – might I get a bit more time by sacrificing my quality? A more amusing tradeoff is the irony of my lifelong politics prioritizing local solutions (before it was cool) and now I select the least local medical care possible.
I completed my second trek to Philly this week. In the eleventh hour I cancelled months of detailed planning that had me scheduled to stay east between the two May appointments. I got seriously ill at the end of April, which humbled my pretensions of strength – I bought a new roundtrip ticket with bad seats and high prices, as I needed to come home.
My relationship with the travel gods has always been tenuous. It’s like they pull out their most mechanically flawed planes when I show up. They fix them, which is nice, but not before hours are added to the journey. The Houston leg of my late night trek home included several hours circling the city to burn up enough fuel to allow a safe landing and plane change. I crawled into bed at 5:30 am Philly time – a long day by any standards and my standards are not normal.
A month in and I am learning my Philly landscape – who gives reliable answers, what will happen each visit, how to navigate the city and where I sleep. It’s a pleasant city that I have walked enough to feel oriented. My volunteer host is well situated and generous. More importantly she has windows that open! A tiny terrace!!! I can walk the two miles to my treatments!!! These details mean a lot.
For much of my treatment I have opted to go solo. Getting medical care is my new job and people go to their jobs unaccompanied. Furthermore, I hope to extend this into a marathon versus a sprint and that means rationing how I complicate other people’s lives. But I am now realizing there is a big difference between going solo a few miles from your home with a rolodex of allies willing to be on call as needed. In Philly, I am a true solo act. There is no back up plan. Yet.
Mike can’t stand not going with me but I remind him of the importance of some stability and normality in our lives. He serves as the safe harbor I throw my mind to as I miss my life. I visualize him living for the both of us. He is the person who tends my every need when I am home but we still have enough balance that he stays my lover not just my caregiver. He attends all decision-making appointments but that’s it. I draw lines. They help me cope. But I missed him horribly this last trek.
Luckily, Philly is a fun city just $8 by bolt bus from NYC and other settings. I hope to explore having an east coast care team that can break up the monotony and challenges of this trial so far from home. (Any takers out there?)
The apheresis is next on May 22nd. It’s the dreaded procedure where 10 liters’ of my blood will be removed then returned minus dendritic cells. It’s hard on any body and mine was fragile before I started three years of treatment. My sister-in-law is driving down from upstate NY to share her competence and cheer. I leave for the hospital at 6 am, with all my gear (100% roll-able because I cant carry anything afterwards.) My plane departs at 8 pm that night returning me home at the alleged hour of 4:30 am Philly time. A long day. But then the hardest part is done (hopefully to be re-done only one more time in September.)
The first week of June I return to Philly to start actual treatment – chemo one day, vaccines the next then observation then HOME for 3 weeks! I will learn how to master this trial, the travel and ways to keep this a journey I chose – one that need not just challenge my quality of life as I barter for more time.
I close by sharing the invaluable words of Susan Gubar a colleague in living with incurable ovarian cancer. She blogs about her journey at the NYTimes capturing so many of the complicated emotions and body issues that I face right now as she talks about her life in a clinical trial. I say, ‘ditto.’
much love, marcy
MAY 9, 2013
Living With Cancer: Good News Soup
By SUSAN GUBAR
People with incurable cancer do sometimes receive good news, as I have. Why is it harder for me to share good news than bad news? During treatment, good news produces elating highs, but also anxious lows.
When I entered a clinical trial for a new cancer drug, the consent form stated that the medication would not provide a cure and could kill me. The pills’ effects on my ovarian cancer were to be measured by the CA-125 blood test, in which numbers above 35 indicate disease growth.
I started the trial last August with a CA-125 over 100. As the number fell in the autumn to 38, in the winter to 9, and in the spring to 5, my morale rose – tempered by occasional dips and drops.
My family and friends are ecstatic. So is my oncologist, who wrote in an e-mail: “You do not even know how exciting it is to see the results of this new drug. I do a lot of clinical studies and I see so many negative results, some of which are fatal. We do all that work to get one rare patient who gets benefit … very rewarding to see it happening to my friend!”
The last two words of this message touched me to the quick. After four years, Dr. Matei had entered my heart and (apparently) I hers. A great joy to make a new friend at my age and in my situation, especially a friend so admired.
Yet I worry that I will fail her. A number that descended in the past nine months can ascend in the next nine months. (Overwhelming odds are it eventually will.) Might sharing good news jinx it — turn it, in the blink of an eye, into bad news?
I know from the nurse administrator of the trial that the experimental drug is not benefiting women with breast cancer. My good news makes me distressed about their bad news. Also, I had overheard conversations in the hospital waiting room about other ovarian cancer patients dropping out because of deleterious side effects, some of which I experience.
Weak from months of dosing, I cannot stand on my feet to cook for more than 10 minutes at a time. At the supermarket, I ogle ready-made meals. Changing the sheets on the bed requires time-outs. Filling the bird feeder, hauling it out, bringing it back in at night (so the squirrels can’t raid it) takes too much fortitude. Bones ache that I did not know I had. My hair has thinned so drastically that Joanne at the salon clipped it close to the scalp, all the while lambasting comb-overs.
Diminishing the cancer seems to involve depleting me. Still, I have kept my resolve steady by focusing on the satisfaction of contributing (if only in a minuscule way) to medical research. I had also kept myself on an even keel by hunkering down for the worst.
Now, with the best possible results, I am a neophyte who does not want to be an ingrate. My trepidation at the lowering cancer marker reminds me of the angst recounted by many patients at the end of a round of successful chemotherapy. The gift of time starts to feel like a present spoiled by uncertainty about the future. With cancer, you can’t win for losing.
Yet today I would rather be a cheerful Tigger than a gloomy Eeyore. So to buoy myself I decide to use the chicken stock defrosting in the fridge, its fat congealed on the top, to make matzo ball soup for my visiting daughter and son-in-law.
After I toss most of the fat, saving a tablespoon, I start whipping up the egg whites. But one of the rotary beaters of the electric mixer refuses to stay in its socket; it keeps falling out, no matter how I swivel it. I am here to testify that the gizmo works with only one beater. That, too, feels revitalizing, even though my low numbers and high spirits may have started to change on the day you read these words.
Tonight there will be homemade soup. Tomorrow I’ll put out the bird feeder and leave it out, despite the squirrels.