Caveats

February 6, 2015 at 4:08 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Pardon my long absence. I’ve had an eventful—and at times grueling—few months. But I’m finding my way back to writing, and hope to post more regularly here.

If there’s a theme to my news it’s this: I’ve gotten a lot of good news, but good news with caveats.

I’ll talk about my other news (like a more involved knee surgery than I thought I’d signed up for and medication side effects) in future posts, but let’s start today with my sarcoidosis. In December, I went to Ohio to meet with my sarcoidosis guru to assess the impact Acthar is having on my systemic disease. Acthar is the new treatment I was able to start on last May after the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD) was generous enough to enroll me in their patient assistance program after my insurance company denied coverage for this very old but newly very expensive drug. I was desperate when I began the twice weekly home injections of Acthar, stuck as I then was on an unsustainable regimen of toxic drugs that seemed barely to control my sarcoidosis—two monthly chemotherapy infusions (Cytoxan and Rituxan), one chemotherapy pill (CellCept), and prednisone. And during the past seven years, I had “failed” an even longer list of equally toxic drugs that did even less to stop the disease’s victory march through my body than the ones I was on. Acthar felt like my last hope.

I went to Ohio bearing films of whole body PET scans done before I started Acthar and six months after the drug had a chance to begin working. The comparison, according to my guru, was “astounding.” Acthar diminished the active sarcoidosis in my body by 50 percent. I need to repeat that because the news still takes my breath away. In six months, Acthar did what a host of immunosuppressants, chemotherapies, TNF inhibitors, biologics, and corticosteroids could not. It not only stopped the sarcoidosis from progressing, but beat it back. This is great news in itself, but it also means I can stop both Cytoxan and Rituxan. I can look forward to fewer nasty chemo side effects, and hopefully more energy as I quit these toxic brews.

There is, however, a caveat. As much as Acthar is demonstrably working to fight my sarcoidosis, I am not feeling much better. I continue to struggle with almost daily migraine-level headaches, along with frequent bouts of vertigo that are so intense I can’t get out of bed. I’m still exhausted every day, even after sometimes sleeping fourteen hours a night. The left side of my face is still numb, and my left leg is so numb that after my recent knee surgery, I gave myself second degree ice burns without feeling a thing.

“What is going on?” I asked the sarcoidosis guru. “Why don’t the encouraging test results mean that I feel better?” It turns out that the disease has damaged—probably permanently—the delicate cranial nerves that are responsible for my pain, vertigo, and vision problems. My chronic fatigue and various areas of numbness are also caused by nerve damage. There is no current treatment for peripheral neuropathy.

If I plotted my emotions during my hour visit with the guru and in the weeks since then the result would look a lot like a sine curve. My hopes rise, dip, rise, and dip again, and I end up pretty much back where I began. My inner dialogue goes something like this:

“I’m so much better! Acthar is actually working”
“But my head is throbbing and my world is literally tilting.”
“I get to stop Cytoxan and Rituxan! That will help me feel better, maybe a little less tired.”
“Who cares? I have permanent nerve damage and there’s no hope for improvement.”
“But I’m so much better. Acthar is actually working.”
(Repeat. Ad infinitum.)

It’s exhausting to be on a rollercoaster of emotions. In turns, I am elated, deflated, hopeful, and gloomy. I push myself to appreciate the truly good news I received. I catch myself wallowing in the caveat. When I inject myself twice a week with Acthar, half of the time the syringe feels like it contains a golden elixir of hope itself. “This will cure me,” I think. But the next time I’ve got to plunge a needle into the muscles of my thigh, it only hurts and makes my hands shake. What does it even mean to be cured if the damage the disease wrought means I’ll always keep feeling so lousy?

I’d like to report that I’ve found a way out of the oscillations of my personal sine curve. But it’s an emotional equation I can’t solve. I keep wrestling with this paradox: I am better, and yet I am not; I am being healed, but in a way it doesn’t seem to matter. It’s possible that sarcoidosis has broken me to the point that eradicating the disease won’t fix me.

Without a solution, what do I do? For now, I am falling back on the single most important lesson I’ve gleaned from my eleven years in Chronic Town: run away from big concepts like cures or permanent damage and reside instead in each moment. I’m trying not to give up on hope, but just scale it back. I’m seeking refuge in daily life— in my son and my husband. I cannot solve a conundrum. But I think I can live within it.

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Thankful

November 30, 2014 at 2:09 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

In this season of gratitude I have extra reasons to be thankful.

Last week, I received some of the only good news about my systemic sarcoidosis I’ve gotten in the nearly eleven years since my diagnosis. My doctors wanted to see if they could measure the effects of Acthar—the injectable treatment that they used to try and replace Cytoxan about 6 months ago. I got a PET scan before I began Acthar. The results were demoralizing. “You lit up like a Christmas tree,” one of my doctors said, referring to the glowing orbs of inflammation that revealed the extent of the disease’s damage within me—in my lungs, my bones, my heart, my brain, even studding the skin beneath my arms and legs.

Last week, they repeated the PET scan. I waited with damp palms to go over the results with my local doctor. “I’m not going to use the word miraculous,” he said, “but these results are extraordinary.” The Acthar has made “significant” inroads against the sarcoidosis. Even my untrained eye could tell the difference between the two scans. While the first had glowed with the lurid presence of the disease’s globules everywhere, the second was darker, calmer, quieter. It feels like a double blessing. Not only did I get to stop Cytoxan, the most difficult of my monthly chemotherapies with the most side effects, but I was able to make some progress against sarcoidosis. I’m not well yet by any stretch of the imagination, but to be able to type that last sentence—to say I’ve made progress—is unfamiliar and exciting territory.

My double blessing is actually a triple one. If it weren’t for the generosity of a non-profit organization called the National Organization for Rare Diseases (NORD), I wouldn’t even have had the opportunity to test Acthar’s efficacy against my illness. Acthar costs somewhere between $30,000 and $60,000 a month. My health insurance plan refuses to cover the medication (and my positive PET scans won’t somehow force them to start. The plan will only accept the results of a large, peer-reviewed study as “acceptable” data that warrants providing coverage). If it weren’t for NORD, I would never have been able even to try Acthar. I’ve just renewed my application to NORD for next year. Hopefully, they will continue to help me.

I’m not accustomed to receiving good health news. I wasn’t quite sure how to react after reviewing the second PET scan. I’d grown unaccustomed to hope. Feeling it unfurling within me, like a green shoot taking root beneath the snow, leaves me breathless. The future feels a little more well-lit, a little wider. We’ll have to wait and see, of course, for what happens next. But for this moment, I can let just be grateful.

I’ll need to hang onto this awareness of gratitude in the coming weeks, which will be difficult. After this month’s round of chemo, Jay and I are heading to Ohio to meet with the sarcoidosis Guru to go over the results of the PET scans and try to figure out how to proceed and what to expect. I come home and immediately get knee surgery on December 9, to repair a torn ACL. Please keep me in your thoughts and prayers during this season of light and hope.

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The Land of In Between

November 18, 2014 at 10:24 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , )

I got a haircut a few days ago. This means I am maintaining my super short, post-chemo look. Andrew calls it a “miniature pixie cut.” Most people who see me—and get over not recognizing me without the long, red hair that defined me for most of my life—tell me that they like my new style. I like it too. I think short hair is flattering on me. Plus, it’s certainly much easier to get ready in the morning now. I literally wash and go.
Truthfully, though, I’m keeping my miniature pixie cut for a different reason. I can’t stand the prospect of growing out my hair. I’m daunted by the prospect of months of “in between” hair that is unmanageable.

There’s a lot in my life that feels as though it is caught in the land of in between. Take my health. I’m certainly much better than I was a year ago, when I was hospitalized for over a month. I was in constant, crushing pain. My vision was blipping in and out, and I could not walk across the room to the bathroom because my vertigo was so bad. I’ve come a long way from those hopeless days. Thanks in large part to my new drug regimen of Acthar (generously provided to me by the folks at NORD, the National Organization for Rare Diseases), I’ve stayed out of the hospital and have mostly been able to live a limited normal life.

This is great news, I know. But it’s not always easy. There’s a lot of pain and uncertainty in the “mostly” and “limited” qualifiers I used to describe my healthier reality. I’m still not able to work with any kind of regularity. The sporadic postings on my blog are a testament to the problems I continue to have with chronic pain, exhaustion, and neurological problems. The past few weeks have been particularly hard. For no reason that I can discern, my systemic sarcoidosis flared up once again, and I was stuck in bed at home for days on end, unable to read and in so much pain that turning over in bed felt impossible.

There aren’t many role models for living through these in between phases of life and illness. I’ll use one presentation of illness as an example. On the TV drama Parenthood, Kristina gets cancer. As in most other pop culture representations of serious illness, Kristina’s travails follow a familiar arc. She is diagnosed with breast cancer, goes through chemotherapy, and loses her hair. For a few episodes, she is literally fighting for her life. But she pulls through. Between seasons, the show moves forward a year in time—at which point, Kristina’s hair has magically gone through the messy, unsightly process of growing from totally bald into a lovely bob. We don’t see her wondering whether to wear a hat when her hair has grown into a crew cut, or what to do with her miniature pixie cut.

The lack of nuance in the show’s representation of Kristina’s illness transcends hair styles. By the time the narrative picks up a year after she is declared cancer free, Kristina is totally back to normal. In fact, she seems healthier than before her cancer. Not only does she have the energy to continue as a full-time stay at home Mom, she decides to run for mayor. She suffers none of the physical after-effects of her illness. She’s not tired from her months of chemo. When she’s delivering her moving campaign speeches, she doesn’t struggle with aphasia or chemo brain. As in so many other depictions of illness, she is either sick or she is well. There is no in between.

Watching something like Parenthood’s dramatization of cancer can be particularly demoralizing for those of us with a chronic illness. We frequently dwell in the shadowy land of in between, caught between illness and health, or see-sawing between periods of wellness and sickness. It’s the chronicity of chronic illness that I find most challenging. When I emerge from weeks of a flare-up, I want to be purely well. I certainly don’t want to have to go in for yet another monthly chemotherapy infusion, or deal with feeling somewhat better. Hell, I want to run for mayor—or, at least have the energy to cook dinner a few nights a week and write every day.

Chronicity is hard, and it’s not the stuff of gripping narrative. “Yesterday I felt mediocre. Today I feel maybe a little more mediocre. And tomorrow I expect to feel more or less mediocre.” It doesn’t make for great television. But life is not television. I have no choice but to live with chronicity, to keep plodding along in the land of in between.

I am going to keep my hair super short for the foreseeable future. That means I’ll have one less aspect of my life up in the air and in a state of flux. Miniature pixie cut, it is.

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Wasps

June 13, 2014 at 5:15 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

Yesterday I felt as though I had wasps in my brain. I had at least dozen tasks on my mental to-do list, buzzing around and crashing into each other, each one a goal for my day—and my life. Work on book. Celebrate Andrew’s first day of summer vacation. Write a blog post. Write in journal. Rehab my healing broken ankles. Clean out Andrew’s room. Make Andrew clean out Andrew’s room. Wait, that doesn’t fit with celebrating his first day of summer vacation. Fold laundry. Plan dinner.

I forced myself to choose a single task. In reality, right now I have only the health and energy to accomplish one or two things each day. I decided I’d work on my book and let Andrew gorge himself on video games—his choice for how he wanted to launch his summer vacation. I sat, and the wasps revved their engines. The mounds of clutter in Andrew’s room thrummed at me, as did the undone stretches and exercises for my feet. I also had calls to make, friends I hadn’t talked to in weeks. It took all the self-will I could muster to sit in the damn chair and write a couple of hundred words (mediocre ones at that). I literally trembled from wanting to get up and throw myself at another task—and then another.

This wasn’t solely my writer’s procrastination, though I’d wager some of that was going on too. (Jay used to tease me that the house was never cleaner than when I was on deadline for a magazine piece.) No, the wasps were especially busy because I was trying to live a week’s worth of life in a day. Yesterday I was beginning to creep back to “normal” life after my monthly round of three days of infusions, two of which are chemotherapy medications. These treatments beat the hell out of me. I’m sick and tired after them. All I can do for about a week is hole up in bed, sleeping 16 hours a day. And then I emerge, a little more each day, back to my “good” days when I can bite off one or two tasks.

But it’s hard to creep back into life when there is so much living missed in a week. Here’s where the wasps come into play. They urge to me take on at once everything I had to put down for my week’s absence. They assure me that if I buzz loudly as I flit from task to task that somehow I can reconfigure the inalterable algebra of time, that by sheer willpower I can compress four weeks of book writing, parenting, laundry, and everything else into three weeks of consciousness.

One of the pitfalls of living in Chronic Town—of being afflicted with a serious, chronic illness—is to assume that everything hard or bitter in life stems from the illness. And it’s true that sarcoidosis has brought me its share of unique difficulties. But I don’t think the wasps fly and sting only in Chronic Town. My guess is that my overwhelmed sense of having too much to accomplish in too little time is universal, especially for those of us entering the middle years of our live, when we become increasingly acutely aware that possibilities, like time, aren’t limitless. Anxiety becomes a steadfast companion. With every item we check off our to-do list, four more rear up, undone. We want to do it all. We so desperately want to give our children, our husbands, our homes, our careers, the care and attention they deserve, and yet we cannot.

I think all we can do is to try our best, as trite as that sounds. There’s nothing to be done but to have faith in the choice we’ve made for where to fix our limited attention for this minute and devote ourselves to living it out. It’s impossibly hard, but it’s all we can do. That and tell the wasps to be quiet.

What do you do when the wasps start buzzing?

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