Status Update: Big Decisions Coming Our Way

5 12 2011
Theo and me, sending off the lantern in memory of my Mom and Dad, the grandparents he never knew. Photo by Don Neilson.

Well, today’s the day. After two weeks of white blood cell counts and platelets that were far too low for me to be able to receive chemotherapy treatment, Don and my sister Lisa and I are headed to the hospital to have a pow-wow with my oncology team. The core issue is my inability to recover from my chemotherapy infusions. And, as my counts remain low, the continuous postponement of my therapy means, bottom line, that the doctors aren’t able to get any treatment, AKA MEDICINE, into my body. Obviously, that’s not a good answer. But there does look to be a great answer in an alternate chemotherapy choice – Xeloda.

I spoke with one of the Clinical Trials nurses this morning and she told me that yes, the plan today is to take me off of the Carboplatin/PARP Inhibitor trial and move me to an oral chemotherapy drug called Xeloda. There would be so many benefits to this move. I would no longer need to go into the hospital three times a week for bloodwork and infusions, schedule chemo drivers and spend hours of my life either in the infusion center or home, trying to recover. If it works — and we so pray it does — it could not only send me into remission, but keep me there. The worst side-effect seems to be a painful reddening of your hands and feet, with possible blistering. But should that happen to me (and I pray it doesn’t, because it would make me crazy not to be able to type for several days!), a dose reduction should solve the problem.
The nurse told me this morning that conversations over the past week between members of my oncology team are pointing to taking me off of the trial and moving me onto Xeloda. She also told me that she has many, many patients — and yes, they are Stage 4 — who have done very well on this drug for years. There are lots of benefits and few side-effects, and all seem to be manageable.
My schedule would be to take Xeloda pills for two weeks, then off a week, repeat. But instead of having to be at the hospital three days a week, my new schedule would mean I’d only need to check in with my oncologist once every three weeks. Xeloda is not hard on the body’s bone marrow and would not ravage my body  like Gemzar and Carboplatin have. It should mean the end of the painful Neupogen shots, blood tranfusions, and hospitalizations.
Perhaps I will be able to turn my handicapped placard back in to the State of Michigan and have less need for wearing protective masks in public. And I can return to a more “normal” life routine, with treatment of my Stage 4 breast cancer as the chronic disease so many medical professionals are now saying that it is. Something I can manage and live with — with a better quality of life, to boot! Wouldn’t that be awesome!
There are other issues that we’ll need to address today, too. I have been experiencing some pretty serious pain for several weeks now, controlled only by continuous doses of Motrin and at night, Vicodin. My shoulders, back, and tailbone hurt continuously and sometimes it’s difficult for me to walk. Then, last week, a new, very strange symptom popped up — my chin is numb. Still is. I pored over the Neopogen pamphlet I got from the pharmacy and did not see it listed as a side-effect. In the couple of moments when I had a break from sanity, I worried that I was having a stroke, induced by my low platelet counts. I don’t know what we’ll need to do to find the answers to this pain. Perhaps additional tests. Whatever it is that needs to be done, it will be a relief to figure out what the pain is so I can stop worrying about it. I’m sure the worry only exacerberates the problem.
When my bff Kristi Rugh Kahl originally began planning Saturday’s Sky Lights of Love Benefit, her hope for me was that we would be celebrating remission that night.  While that part of her dream hasn’t come true yet, I can’t help but think that heaven not only heard all the hopes, wishes and prayers Saturday night, but also saw the golden lights that they were riding on. When remission comes, we will hold another Sky Lights of Love Event — not as a benefit, but as a celebration.
I’ll keep you posted on what happens today. In the meantime, prayers are always, always welcome.
Click on these links to view the three YouTube videos from Saturday night’s benefit that we have uploaded so far (more to come!):
My speech:  http://youtu.be/SlvobyaDrgs
Lantern Send-off:  http://youtu.be/RUBOFVX4t3Q
My birthday lantern: http://youtu.be/rQ1J8EER7j0
Also, please see my facebook fan page for photos — with more of those on the way, too! Click on: http://www.facebook.com/ItsInTheGenes.org
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: Amy’s Power Walk

23 02 2011

Artwork courtesy of http://www.cafepress.com

How does one begin a chemo afternoon with Amy?

It all started with the power-walk in the parking structure. Before I had my keys in my bag and my purse slung over my shoulder, a blonde blur shot past me, walking and breathing, walking and breathing, swinging her arms. I wasn’t sure if we were late, or what, but we were hauling!

“Need to get a little exercise today,” she called over her shoulder, as she all but left me in her dust in the Beaumont Hospital South Deck Skywalk. “Gotta get some of my numbers up.” So away we went.

I think it’s fair to say that, as a first-time Chemo Buddy for Amy, I had no idea where I was headed. Does anyone ever really know where they’re headed when they’re with Amy? After trailing behind Power Walker Woman through doors and around corners, jogging in place on elevators, sneaking through secret short-cuts and creeping up and down miles of hallway, I felt just like a hamster in a habitrail. But the best was yet to come.

That’s when Amy came upon a table, dropped her 37-ton purse, glanced back at me and said, “Watch my stuff,” then completely disappeared. I saw her briefly as she bounced down the first flight of stairs, arms in motion, jogging down two floors to the reception area beneath us. I could hear her footsteps tap-tat-tapping on the stairs until they faded away to nothing. A moment passed, and, just as I was wondering where she’d gone, I heard them again: tap-TAP-TAP!

I peered over the banister and there was the blonde blur, bouncing back up the steps. “Ready,” she said, a little out of breath. “You got my stuff?”

I grabbed her purse and looked up to answer, but she didn’t hear me. She was already way ahead of me… again.

For Part I of this post, see “Begging For Chemo,” Feb. 22, 2011.

Copyright 2011, Jennifer Amprim Wolf








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