An Early and Unexpected Birthday Present

28 11 2011
Me, about to light the candles on one of my favorite “birthday cakes” — pumpkin pie! — in 2007, one year after finishing treatments for my Stage 1 breast cancer diagnosis in 2006. And yes, those are my boys — Don and Theo – in the background.

Let me tell you about my birthday. When my birthday is coming up, EVERYONE KNOWS. I make sure of it. And it’s always been that way.

Until this year. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I feel differently about my birthday this time around. Of course, there’s the cancer diagnosis from January. But to me, that should be MORE reason to celebrate November 29, 2011. Still, so far, I’ve been unusually quiet about the occasion.
When it comes to my birthday, I’ve got a rep for being downright obnoxious — in a way that has earned me a label as a prankster. One year, when I was an English/Writing Instructor at Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor, Mich., I told my freshmen Composition I class that there were “just 14 shopping days ’til my birthday,” and that if they wanted to view my Birthday Wish List, they could go to www.amysbirthday.com. Of course, the site didn’t really exist, and after watching several of my freshmen students (poor things) taking copious notes, I let them know that it was all a ruse.
But I have always loved my birthday, and the occasion has grown from my birthDAY to my birthWEEK and finally, in recent years, my birthMONTH! I’ve been known to call close family and friends to remind them that there are “only 28 shopping days left til MY BIG DAY,” and to continue the countdown via text and email, unti they are weary, though I am still grinning.
So, why the kabash on the joy I feel every year about the celebration of the day I came into this world? Is it the new diet, and the fact that I can’t eat birthday cake? No. I don’t think that’s it. My best guess is that perhaps I feel some sort of irrational need to stay “under the radar” this year — lest some power out in the universe hear the ruckus and decide that this birthday is my last.
Or, maybe it’s more simple than that — that somewhere, deep down inside, I hold a terror in my heart that that could simply be true. That’s the way I felt yesterday afternoon, as I unwrapped bulbs to put on the Christmas tree. Each time, I wondered if it would be the last time I’d be unwrapping and hanging that bulb.
Then came today. Today, I received an unexpected birthday present.
Last week was supposed to be a chemo “on” week, but my platelets — low enough to send me to the ER on Nov. 18 — still had not recovered. Typically, after one week of rest, they will bounce back and I can get treatment. So, this morning, quite expecting that this would be Day 1 of four infusions over the next 11 days, I got into the car with my cousin and chemo driver, Lori Parker, and off we went.
When we got to the hospital, my blood counts told a different story. And truly, I was surprised. I’ve been feeling a little tired lately, it has indeed been a looonnnggggggg year, but what could I — what could anyone expect after 10 months of chemo? My counts — even with the extra week of rest — had not recovered. My platelets were actually even lower than they had been when I was in the ER. Time is what it takes to create platelets and send my counts back into the normal range. But a lot of time had elapsed, and still, nothing. To add to the issue, my white blood cell counts were low and had also not budged.
What to do? That was the question.
So, me, my cousin Lori, my Physician’s Assistant, and the nurse from Clinical Trials all put our heads together and ran through the options. What is becoming more and more clear to everyone on my team as I continue this brutal protocol (my current protocol in comparison with others is quite taxing both in the time commitment and the potency/side effects of the drugs I’m taking) is that my body has just had it. I’ve been saying that for weeks to those close to me: This chemo regimen is really wiping me out.
I feel like I’m in the boxing ring and every time I get knocked down and the referree stands above me, counting to 10, it’s taking me til 8 or 9 to get back up, rather than the 2 or 3 of several months ago. And I mean that from not just a physical, but also a psychological, standpoint. I have a pretty high threshold for the pain and misery the treatments have brought this year, as the trade-off of LIVING is something I cannot put a pricetag on — but even I feel like I’m at my wit’s end. And that’s exactly what my PA saw in me this morning.
Still, the question remained: What to do?
The options are better than I imagined. Though I’ve always known that there is an arsenal of breast cancer drugs from which my doctors can pull in our continued quest to battle the monster and win, I didn’t realize just how much some of these drugs could change my life — for the better. Not only in their efficacy, of course. But also, in my quality of life. That’s a biggie, as lately, between the beating I’ve been taking via the chemo drugs and the huge adjustment I’ve had to make with the new anti-cancer diet that I’m on, I’ve been watching my quality of life wither.
Though my blood counts do eventually rebound each time into a range that allows me to go through yet another round of chemo, each time, they not only bounce back a little more slowly, but they fail to reach the threshold of previous levels. This, in short, means my bone marrow is having a very hard time recovering.
What to do? Perhaps move to a different chemotherapy drug. While my results this year have been very good — after all, my cancer has not grown and has actually shrunk some — were the PARP Inhibitor in combination with other chemotherapy agents the “silver bullet,” as my PA pointed out today — I’d likely be in remission. The results are good, but we can hope for — and work toward — better. And, with the message my body is clearly sending out — now might be the time. I may be moving to a new drug as early as next week. My oncologists will be discussing my options this week and I’ll learn more at next Monday’s appointment.
What does this mean for me? Things I hadn’t even yet considered; places I hadn’t yet allowed my mind to go. The drug that was proposed today is an oral form of chemotherapy with little toxicity and few, if any, side effects. And if I do exhibit the side effects, the dose can be adjusted accordingly to eliminate them.
The “frosting” on this “birthday cake” is that this new drug would give me back something that has been steadily waning over the course of the year — my quality of life. I would no longer need to go to the hospital three days a week as part of my treatment protocol. Instead, I would take this drug orally, at home, 14 days on, 7 days off. I would need to see my doctor only once every three weeks, just to check in.
Instead of spending my days lining up chemo drivers and people to pick up or drop off Theo when I’m just too sick, or drawing up a schedule that includes days when I KNOW I’ll be sick, I could potentially and very hopefully return to a more normal — or even a normal — work schedule. What a thrill that would be! And no longer would so much of my life revolve around my chemo schedule — like travel — as my chemo would be “portable.” Should we decide we’d like to get away and visit friends, I don’t have to search the calendar for my “week off” — and then wonder if it really will be my week off  — or if chemo will be delayed for any number of reasons, our plans thrown by the wayside.
The best part of all is that this drug has proven to be very successful in breast cancer patients and is one that I could stay on for years, should I need to. Even if I go into remission, this is a drug that I could continue to take in order to keep me there. A maintenance drug.
And, as my PA pointed out, this drug would continue to buy me time as we wait for the even better ones that are coming down the pike. Next week, she’ll be in attendance at a breast cancer conference in Texas, where she’ll be learning all about what’s on the cutting edge in breast cancer treatment.
All of this came as a complete surprise to me this morning — a delight. And just ask Don — surprising me is one challenging task. (He long ago nicknamed me “micro” because he says I’m such a micro-manager.) But indeed, I was surprised, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
I’ll learn more next Monday, but, as I left the doctor’s office this morning, the potential of moving over to this new drug, based on the feedback from my medical team, seems quite real and very likely. Not only that, but my exam today went very well. My team is really pleased with how well I’ve battled the cancer this year. I do not exhibit the signs of a “cancer patient” — like shortness of breath, cough, extreme fatigue, or “looking sick.” My lungs sound beautifully clear as a church bell, ringing through the air on a crisp, clear Sunday morning.
I’ve been lucky enough to carry on with much of my “normal life” since my diagnosis — as you know from reading my blog posts. There has still been plenty of real life there for the taking — and I’ve been pouncing on the opportunities. Now, it looks like we might be moving forward into a place that would allow me even more of those opportunities. What a thrill! Way to make me smile!
Happy Birthday to Me. And, when I blow out the candles on my cake tomorrow (even though I CAN’T eat it), you know what will be on my mind as I make that magical wish.

Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson

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“Don’t Look Around. Look Up.”

19 11 2011

Photo Copyright 2011, Kathy Stadtfeld

Editor’s Note: A two-part article on me, my family and the BRCA genes appeared Sunday, Nov. 20 on the front page of  The Detroit Free Press. Part II appeared Monday, Nov. 21.  Also, the Canton Observer ran a nice piece on the Dec. 3 Sky Lights of Love Benefit. You can go to the Events tab on the blog homepage and click on Upcoming for more info.
When my close friend Kathy Stadtfeld shared this photograph with me, I was astonished.  I hadn’t yet shared the story of that January night with her, but somehow, she had captured on film the very vision of God’s pure white light as I see it in my mind’s eye.  I begged her to let me use it on my blog.  “But of course,” she said.

It was three-thirty in the morning on a cold winter’s night last January. I was sitting alone in my home office, exhausted from the physical and emotional battering I’d taken. In the two weeks leading up to that night, I’d found a lump wedged between my left implant and the thin layer of skin on my chest. I’d been through a biopsy and very quickly learned that yes, breast cancer is possible without breasts. I’d undergone surgery to have a port inserted on the right side of my chest, in anticipation of numerous rounds of chemotherapy. I’d been through a very painful lung biopsy to confirm what we already suspected — the cancer had spread to my lungs. I was a Stage 4.

That’s a heavy dose of hard reality for anyone, but especially for the mother of a five-year-old boy. Hours earlier, he’d  fallen into a deep sleep, not a care in the world, clutching his stuffed bear. I’d just finished reading to him about the antics of a monkey named Curious George.

Beside me in bed, my husband, Don, had finally succumbed after a string of sleepless nights filled with the terror of my diagnosis, his world closing in and crumbling around him. I couldn’t sleep. My tossing and turning disturbed Don, who would change position or roll over. I decided that if I was going to have insomnia, it’d best be someplace else. I crept downstairs.

Nighttime never seems darker than in January. Gusts of wind blew the tree branches to and fro, and they took turns scraping noisily against the windows, then the side of the house.

I was alone and completely exhausted. I had nothing left to give the night. No more tears, no more worries, no more ‘what ifs’. I was done. After what must have been an hour or more, I thought about heading back upstairs to bed, but couldn’t summon the energy. So, I sat there in the dark, at my desk, the mixture of snow and freezing rain pelting the skylights like so many forks striking champagne glasses at a wedding reception.

And that’s when it happened.

One minute, I was sitting there in complete darkness, silent, ridden with fatigue. The next, I was filled with a white light. A powerful, pure, all-encompassing white light.

I never saw the light, yet I knew instinctively that it was white. Then words: Everything’s going to be OK. YOU are going to be OK.

But the words weren’t audible. I can only describe them as a rapid-fire communication that came from someplace outside of me and entered my mind in a nanosecond. It wasn’t a conversation. It was an understanding.

I felt nothing but peace and serenity in those fleeting moments. And they were fleeting. As quickly as the white light filled me, the message was communicated, they were gone.

I was still sitting in my office, but I was different. I knew. I knew that it had been a message of comfort from God.

And though it took me a while to process, to truly absorb, what had happened that night, I’ve never had any doubt as to what it was. Not for a moment. Not even a flicker.

It’s going to be OK. I’m going to be OK. And I have a lot of work left to do here on earth before it’s my time. This I know for sure.

Yet, I’m a mere mortal and inherently flawed. And though I’d like to tell you that since that night, I’ve been able to push all fear, all doubt, all questions aside, and proceed with utter confidence, I haven’t. There are still times — and plenty of them — when I am wracked with sobs, days that are filled with despair, void of hope.

Perhaps my sister Julie said it best when she told me that during the toughest, most grueling of moments, I must not look around, but rather, up.

That’s a tall order when you’ve been hurled into a world of white coats, blood draws, chemotherapy infusions, regularly scheduled scans to see whether you are one of the lucky ones whose cancer is shrinking…or not. When, in the months that followed, you hear over and over again the words from the people here on earth who preside over your course of treatment:

Stage 4 breast cancer is incurable.

The average lifespan for a patient with your diagnosis is three years.

You think you can live 20, or even 10 more years? That’s just not realistic.

You will need to undergo some form of  chemotherapy for the rest of your life.

Each utterance is a blow, some harder than others, but all require psychological recovery time in much the way my body needs time to rebound physically after each chemotherapy infusion. It is hard to remember to look up when the script is playing out all around you.

I have my tough moments, times when I cannot imagine continuing this course of treatment that on numerous occasions has physically ravaged my body to the point that I’ve needed to be hospitalized in isolation, or transfused with platelets and bags of whole blood. Times when the ER doctor has looked at me and said, “You’ve got about a 50/50 chance of making it.”

Yet, I will continue. Because I know I am on the path to healing and that my work here, God’s work, is not done. Not only did He tell me so, but I’m watching it play out. Just this past week, a member of my medical team remarked that my results from nearly a year of treatment — 44 chemotherapy infusions — have been “robust.” I love that word and the context in which it was used. Indeed, my progress has been steady, with each scan revealing a continually shrinking cancer, along with areas that have fully healed.

Still, I know the road ahead will continue to have its twists and turns, its bumps and potholes. It is in those darkest of moments when I need to remember the light and the communication from that dark January night, and my sister Julie’s words. “Don’t look around. Look up.”

Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson





Guest Post: The Story Behind the Story

8 11 2011
By Kristi Rugh Kahl
A few weeks ago, Amy’s husband, Don, was driving home from work in his pick-up truck when he first heard “I’m Gonna Love You Through It,” by Martina McBride, on the radio. He was so deeply moved by the song that he had to veer over to the side of the road afterwards and pull himself back together.
The next day, he forwarded the music video to Amy with a simple message: You need to watch this, babe. Amy did, and her reaction mirrored Don’s. Tears flowed and she found great strength in the knowledge that, like Don, so many people everywhere stood strong in this fight together with their loved ones, right by their side, every day, every moment, every surgery and treatment.
“I can’t imagine what it would feel like to have so many people gather around you to release lanterns of pure white light heavenward,” Amy said. I decided it was time for Amy to experience it for herself. This is the inspiration behind our upcoming benefit, Sky Lights of Love, December 3, 2011, at the Van Buren Township Lookout Point, Van Buren, Michigan. No matter where you live:

You can Participate!

  • Purchase a Lantern, and join us as we gather together to release hundreds of lanterns of light over Belleville Lake in Amy’s honor ! Lanterns will be distributed when you check-in at the event.  Lanterns are available by pre-sale onlyPurchase Lanterns by November 20, 2011.  No Lanterns will be sold at the door.
  • Can’t be there? You can still purchase a lantern, and we will release it on your behalf.
  • You can make a donation to the event here!
We have already been pleasantly surprised by the number of lanterns sold today and donations made for the Benefit — just hours after we announced it yesterday. Thank you! We are off to a good start. We look forward to seeing as many of you there on Dec. 3 as possible!
Don’t forget to check out the Martina McBride video. Not only is the song gorgeous, but it will give you a good visual of just how amazing and beautiful these lanterns are as they soar through the night sky.
Copyright 2011, Kristi Rugh Kahl




Guest Blog: Sky Lights of Love Benefit December 3, 2011

7 11 2011

By Kristi Rugh Kahl


Imagine if you went to your job every day and it made you feel sick to your stomach. Not just the thought of going to that dreaded place, but so physically sick that you couldn’t get off of the couch or out of bed when you got home. Your head pounds and you feel queasy. It’s difficult to eat, but you know you have to in order to keep up your strength. You’ve got to go back to that job. Your survival depends on it. Then imagine that after two weeks of doing this, you wait for your paycheck thinking, OK, I guess it’s worth it. We’ve got to pay our bills. We have a little boy to feed, a household to run.

But the paycheck never comes. Yet, you have to keep going back, two weeks on, one week off. Repeat.

Sad but true, this is the life of most cancer patients on chemotherapy. Not only are they unable to work, or, like Amy, only able to work limited hours, but the bills continue to pile up. The old bills — like the utilities and the groceries — and the new bills: medical. Amy is blessed to have health insurance. But even with that safety net, there are copays and percentages that have added up to thousands of dollars since her January 12, 2011 diagnosis.

Amy’s schedule is no different.  Every two weeks of chemo (what the doctors call “a Round”) takes its toll on her body and puts a financial strain on her household.

A couple of weeks ago, one of her two employers called to let her know that they could not wait any longer for her to get better. Yes, they loved her writing and editing work and found her to be very talented in both arenas. They had recently told her she was “the whole package” — and they meant it. She was offered other writing work that didn’t have the hard and fast deadlines that her editing work for the company required. She took them up on that offer, and understood, but it broke her heart to lose the copyediting position she had, working with a team she loved.

When she called me to tell me what had happened, one of the last things she said to me during the conversation was this: “It was so very hard to know that I can do the job and do it well. When I was healthy, they loved me and I loved working for them. All those years of education and various jobs in the trenches had paid off. Yet, that day, as I held the phone to my ear, I realized that while my mind wanted to scream, Don’t Replace Me! I can do the job! I want to do the job!, my body was telling me a different story. I knew they needed someone in that position who was healthy. Right now, that person isn’t me. And there’s nothing I can do about it besides keep going to chemo, keep praying and doing everything I know to do in order to get better as soon as possible.”

Yes, this is the price for survival, but it doesn’t have to be so hard if we all come together to celebrate her life and help defray her expenses.

When I first mentioned the idea to Amy, she loved the vision of a gathering of people and the lantern release over the lake. But she wasn’t, at first, comfortable with the idea of another benefit for her family. She didn’t want to keep asking so much of so many people. That’s when I told her that asking for help doesn’t mean you’ve failed; it means you’re not in it alone. And that is the theme of the recently released song by Martina McBride, I’m Gonna Love You Through It, that inspired this event (see more on this personal story about Amy and Don on the Events page).

In celebration of Amy’s birthday (November 29), we are hosting a benefit called Sky Lights of Love on Saturday, December 3, 2011 at the Van Buren Township Park.  We will gather at 4:30 p.m. and, at 6:00 p.m. sharp, we will release the lanterns from the Lookout Point over Belleville Lake — a place that is near and dear to their hearts.

The cost per lantern is $10 and the proceeds will go to the Amy Rauch Neilson Benefit Fund to help Amy with her ongoing medical bills and expenses. 

If you can’t attend, you can still participate by ordering a lantern. We will release it in your name or the name of a loved one.  Or if you’d like, please consider giving a donation. 

We all know times are tough, but they are even tougher if you are fighting for your life. As for me, the time is now for my bff Amy. Together, we can make it better by celebrating life and collectively lifting all of our spirits as we watch hundreds of lanterns filled with pure, white light rise up into the night sky. I hope you can join us on December 3, 2011!

Lanterns available by PRE-SALE ONLY – purchase by 11-20-2011
Purchase Lantern or Make Donation Below:

  • Purchase a Lantern, and join us as we gather together to release hundreds of lanterns of light over Belleville Lake in Amy’s honor ! Lanterns will be distributed when you check-in at the event.  Lanterns are available by pre-sale only.  Purchase Lanterns by November 20, 2011.  No Lanterns will be sold at the door.
  • Can’t be there? You can still purchase a lantern, and we will release it on your behalf.
  •  You can make a donation to the event here! 




Trying to Focus on Bright Rather Than Bleak

3 11 2011
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Theodore Neilson! Photo by Amy Rauch Neilson.

Life just feels really hard right now. So, I am extra, uber-grateful for moments like this one. On Sunday, Don, Theo and I went to a local pumpkin farm and spied this big orange beauty. It weighed in at 121 pounds — and that was WITHOUT Theo inside! 🙂

Usually, these prize-winning sized pumpkins go for in the neighborhood of $80. That’s why we’ve always stuck with the, er, well, more “traditional” size.
Not this year. The farmer told us he was offering deals that day. It was, after all, the day before Halloween and the demand for his crop would be plummeting in a matter of hours. He knew it and I knew it.  Supply and demand basics from Econ 101 back in my freshmen year of college…
“$34,” he said.
I shook my head.
“$25?”
“Nope.”
“I’ll give you $20,” I said, waving a crisp bill in front of his face.
“Sold!” he said, taking the twenty dollar bill, loading our big prize onto a dolly and heaving it over and into the back of our SUV.
It was a thing of beauty — the reflection of all of that orange in the back of our car. We drove to my bff Tabitha Green’s house, where it took six of us — Tabitha, Rodney, their daughter Lauren, me, Don, and Theo — about 2 1/2 hours to carve it. Talk about entertainment. We had a blast. Right up there with the best $20 I’ve ever spent.
We all stood back to admire our work when Tabitha said, “Hey, I bet Theo would fit inside!”
Theo’s eyes got wide and he looked like he wanted to simply disappear. He finally agreed — as long as he could keep his socks on. He’s got a thing about goop.
So, in he went, and indeed, he fit quite perfectly!
What fun we had with that pumpkin! I brought it along as a “prop” to Theo’s school for Trunk or Treat Monday morning. We lit it with an uber-large candle Halloween night and the kids who came to the door wanted to know if that great big pumpkin outside was real. Indeed it is, I assured them with a wink and a grin.
These are the moments of my life that I cling to when the going gets rough. And it’s been rough.
I consulted with the dietician who works with Dr. Waldo (the specialist from Indianapolis) last Friday morning. With the help of my bff Jennifer Amprim Wolf, I cleared the cupboards, fridge and freezer of all the things on the “cannot eat list,” of which there are many. No dairy, with the exception of butter and Almond milk. No sugar. No coffee. No beans (allergy tests showed I’m allergic). No gluten. No yeast. (We found one loaf of bread at Whole Foods that contains neither.) It’s a challenge, to say the least.
I’m allowed meat, like steak, chicken and turkey (I also have seafood allergies). And potatoes are fine. Lots of veggies and some fruit. Lots of nuts. Still, the choices feel so limiting to me and the change so dramatic. “You might feel a bit of depression as your body adjusts to the chemical changes of this new diet,” the dietician said to me. I’ve been feeling more than a bit of depression.
Yet, I’ve not cheated since I began the diet last Friday. I’m committed. Dr. Waldo told me that if I cheat, I have to start all over again. This current diet plan is quite strict, will go on for about 8 weeks, then hopefully, if my body has made progress, the dietician will slowly begin to add in more foods. I’m hoping for coffee, bananas and strawberries — all on the “no go” list right now. But we’ll see.
I’ve also had severe pain in my right rib cage. So Tuesday, when I went for chemo, the doctor checked me and is quite sure I have a broken rib. He sent me for multiple Xrays and an MRI. There’s concern over the CT Scan from two weeks ago — some possible areas of question along my spine. So, they’re taking a closer look there. I should have results today. Don is taking me to chemo so he can be with me for those results.
I’m really scared. If there’s progression, not only is that terrible news, but I would have to go off of the PARP Inhibitor — per protocol of the trial. I’m also down in the dumps because the oncology staff indicated Tuesday that my chemo regimen is a lifestyle — not likely to come to an end. I will have breaks — like the “chemo vacation” I’ll have in December — a whole month off. But as of now, they don’t see anything changing. Keeping my cancer stable and in check may mean indefinite, ongoing rounds of chemo. It’s hard to imagine living like this, permanently, three trips to the hospital two weeks in a row, one week off, repeat.
Each round of chemo is cumulative, and my body is getting really beat up. I liken it to a Rocky movie, where each time the opponent goes down, the referree begins the count and it takes longer and longer for the boxer to get up. This past week, that was especially noticeable to Don, who says I used to lie down for an hour long nap, then pop back up. Now, he finds it harder and harder to wake me. And, usually, I rebound well during my week off. Last week, not so much.
We’re looking into other options as well. The name Dr. Burzynski has come across my radar several times in the past few months, and more prominently so recently. He is a doctor based in Houston, Texas, who has patented a number of cancer-fighting drugs that are successful in patients with certain genetic fingerprints. Blood tests determine whether or not you are a candidate. The treatments are less toxic than chemo, and studies show, more effective. Don is knee-deep in research on Dr. Burzynski, as are many of our family and friends, and I’ve been asking my doctors for their opinions as well. I may be heading to Houston in the near future.
In the meantime, I’m trying to keep my head up and continue to do what I need to do to give myself the best chance of staying on the planet. Please pray for good test results today. I will keep you updated, and I will continue to post pictures of the bright moments in my life, of which I am blessed to have many.
Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson




Sputter, Sputter, Back to Life

13 09 2011

Theo and Don giving summer one last hurrah! Photo by Amy Rauch Neilson.


It’s been a rough week or two. I haven’t blogged in a while. And you noticed.

I’m glad.

It’s nice to know that when I don’t blog, there are people out there who notice. Lots of them.

So, what was the hang-up? I’ve thought a lot about it and it really wasn’t any one thing. It was a lot of things.

I was scheduled for chemo last week, but when I got to the infusion center, my white blood counts were still too low from my bout in the hospital, so they had to send me home.

My CT Scan results came in from two weeks ago and they were very good. My condition remains stable to slight improvement. The tumors in my lungs — two on each side that started out the size of blueberries — continue to shrink.

I should be thrilled. I AM thrilled. But I also get scared.

Sometimes, the CT only captures my lungs. This one was more comprehensive, taking a snapshot of my lungs, abdomen and pelvic regions. So, this one showed my liver.

Months ago, a CT report showed spots on my liver. But, because there has never been a baseline of my liver prior to my January diagnosis, no one knows for sure what those spots are. Are they cancer? Could they simply be hemangiomas — harmless clusters of blood vessels that my family is quite prone to?

There’s no way to know without a biopsy. And a biopsy doesn’t make sense. Because, whatever those spots are — cancer or not — my treatment wouldn’t change. A biopsy presents risks. It’s surgery. And there’s always the chance that when the surgeon goes in to take a piece of the suspicious growth, a cell or two could escape in the process — something that’s known as “seeding.” In essence, it’s taking a chance cf spreading cancer as a big downside when the additional information — whatever it is — doesn’t offer an upside.

The CT Scan results showed that the spots on my liver had shrunk considerably since they were first noted in the spring. But no one knows whether that means they are cancer — and the chemotherapy shrunk them — or, that they are something else, and they shrunk for some other, unknown reason.

Regardless, they DID shrink. Everything has. I’m doing really well. That’s the rational interpretation.

The not so rational reaction is the emotions, the fear I feel when I get test results back, wondering about these strange, rogue, uncooperative cells that are in my body. How many and where? And my incessant prayers and continuing journey to annihilate them. When? I wonder. When will this part of my life’s journey be over? When will life return to
“normal.”

So, there was the letdown of not being able to get my “medicine,” followed by the scan results which should have had me leaping for joy, and did, in many ways, while also causing me to question and to fear.

Yet, I feel from the depths of my soul that I am not only moving in the right direction, but that I am going to be on this planet for a long time to come.

My doctors have also been slowly weaning me off one of my three chemo drugs — Gemzar. That is the drug that so ravages my bone marrow and causes my counts to plummet — landing me in the hospital two weekends ago. There are two sides to this news: One, my chemo treatments will be shorter and less toxic. I’m at chemo this very moment with my bff Kristi Lynn Kahl, going through my first “test round” of what it will be like with one less chemo drug entering my body. Will it make a big difference? Will I be a lot less sick as a result? That’s my hope.

It’s also scary. Though I was unable to get chemo from the end of June til mid-August due to low blood counts and hospitalization, and during that time, nothing grew — it actually continued to shrink — there’s always concern when a drug goes away that the cancer could regain its foothold. So, that was on my mind last week.

Thank God I was blessed with a strong spirit that rebounds quickly. This week is a whole new week and I’m feeling quite fine.

Sunday, Don, Theo and I wandered the Toledo Zoo with close friends and had a blast. Monday, I watched dockside (I’m still not allowed in the water) as Don took Theo on a jet ski ride — what a beautiful, big grin on Theo’s face! And today, my counts were in line and I am able to get my chemo treatment.

In short, I’m back. But thank you for noticing my absence. It’s so very uplifting to know there are people out there thinking about you and praying for you, even on the days when it’s hard to offer anything in return.

I may have sputtered, but I am back to life and loving it.

Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson





Could the Future be NOW?

2 06 2011

Me, modeling the DNA-themed Art Bra I created along with my mother-in-law, at the Bras for a Cause event, Royal Oak Music Theatre, September 18, 2010. The PARP Inhibitor has proven to be particularly effective in BRCA gene carriers like me. Photo by Trish Baden MacDonald.

I’ve got Google Crawler working for me day and night, when I’m working, sleeping, at the infusion center, hoping to catch a ball at a Tiger’s game, making fruit-kabobs for my kid’s kindergarten class.

When GC finds something related to the BRCA 1 or BRCA 2 genes, the PARP Inhibitor — or any of the related key words I’ve sent it out into cyberspace to fetch, I get an alert in my e-mail box. I’m particularly excited about the one that came through today.

From the article:
“This drug is a very potent PARP inhibitor. It has already demonstrated very encouraging activity as an IV formulation and now we know that the oral formulation is also active. This potentially opens up many exciting opportunities for long-term treatment for cancer patients,” said Professor Hilary Calvert, Director of Cancer Drug Discovery and Development at University College London, UK, and a pioneer in the field of human cancer therapy with PARP inhibitors. “We know that PARP inhibitors are active in germline BRCA-mutant (gBRCA) tumors, and that this activity extends beyond this group of tumors into broader patient populations in ovarian cancer and may do so in other cancers as well.

“PF-01367338 is currently in a Phase 1 clinical trial examining the maximum tolerated dose of oral PF-01367338 that can be combined with intravenous platinum chemotherapy (the kind of chemotherapy that I am on) in the treatment of solid tumors. This program is supplemented by two ongoing trials, currently using the IV formulation: a Phase 1/2 study in gBRCA breast and ovarian cancer and a Phase 2 study in the adjuvant treatment of triple negative breast cancer (the kind of breast cancer that I have). Clovis Oncology intends to replace the IV formulation with the oral formulation in these studies.”

Now, some backstory.

One of the most miraculous phrases my oncologist uses in describing the war on breast cancer and how close we are to the end is her belief that breast cancer is already a long-term manageable disease, much like, in her opinion, diabetes and hypertension.

There are so many different breast cancer treatments out there right now that if one doesn’t work, there’s another go-to drug. And while you are holding the disease at bay with one drug, others are coming online. Not over the course of years, she’s explained to me, but in days, weeks, months. In fact, the PARP Inhibitor that is part of my current treatment — and has demonstrated to be particularly effective in patients who carry one of the breast cancer genes, as I do — only came online 14 months ago!

All of this is amazing news that gives breast cancer patients, even those in Stage 4 like me, a lot of hope that long-term survival — and a good quality of life during that survival — is not a pipe dream, but a reality. My doctor has told me numerous times that while she of course has no crystal ball, she believes I will live for years. We are not looking at a prognosis of just three, six, twelve months left to live. Even at Stage 4.

I’m thrilled that I was offered the opportunity for the PARP Inhibitor to be a part of my chemotherapy regimen, along with Carboplatin and Gemzar. The PARP Inhibitor is currently a Phase 3 clinical trial drug, one that Royal Oak Beaumont worked hard to be able to offer. One I am so very blessed to get.

Right now, the PARP Inhibitor is an IV-drug only; its oral form has not yet been proven safe. During the two out of every three weeks that I receive chemo, I receive a dose of the PARP Inhibitor on both Tuesday and Thursday. But my doc has known all along that its oral equivalent was in the works — and she’s kept me updated.

Today, the article that Google Crawler flagged for me details, among other things, another huge leap in the development of an oral form of the PARP Inhibitor. What makes this so exciting is that it means the future my oncologist sees could soon be upon us.

She told me a few months ago that someday, not too far down the road, patients like me will be going to the pharmacy with an Rx for the oral version of the PARP Inhibitor, and going home with pills to take it as part of our daily meds the way a patient with high blood pressure does now.

Imagine the change in my life, in the lives of other people with breast cancer, when drugs like the PARP prove not only effective, but become available in a pill form. Breast cancer is kept at bay, my life does not revolve around trips to the infusion center and days of nausea and fatigue. We reach yet another milestone in the war against breast cancer — and continue to rachet up the quality-of-life factor.

Even better, it seems there is a whole family of PARP Inhibitors coming online that give new hope for a better future not just for breast cancer patients, but prostate and other cancer patients as well.

I am certainly not a medical doctor by any means, but I keep myself a well-informed layperson. Check out the article. The future could be upon us.

My job is to hang in there — even on days like last Thursday, when I was sobbing as I waited for my ride to chemo, because I simply did not want to go. I did not want the infusion or the sickness that follows, that I already know all too well.

But my job is to go and keep on going, no matter what. To take advantage of the very best science and medicine has to offer while I await the next best. Until someday, my disease is in full remission and I’m able to keep it that way.

As I was walking to the ballpark Tuesday evening with my friend Jodi, I said, “You know, Jodi, even if this was the best we could do, the best we could ever do — two weeks on, one week off — I still have a darned good quality of life in between infusions and I’d take this gladly over the alternative, any day of the week.”

But my bet is, I won’t have to.

Copyright 2011, Amy Rauch Neilson








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