Hijacked

Stories from a Life I Didn't Plan

Tag: Ways to Support Someone During a Serious Health Crisis (page 1 of 2)

Looking at Cancer in the Rearview Mirror

Looking at Cancer in the Rearview Mirror

December was incredibly busy. In addition to the frenetic energy of five- and six-year-olds as they anticipated the arrival of Santa, I had what must have been an all time high number of health related appointments. My teaching schedule led up to the Friday before Christmas and with eleven appointments for my health, little time for shopping or card writing remained. Needless to say, I accomplished little in preparation for the holiday, which passed quietly and simply.

However, some very exciting things happened during December and the early days of January. In December, I had follow-Looking at Cancer in the Rearview Mirrorup tests to monitor my progress after chemo and had mixed results from the PET/CT scan. While there was no evidence of cancer (grand shout of jubilant relief), a growth noted on my original CT scan from 2015 showed enlargement. Consequently to avoid future problems, the oncologist referred me to another specialist for a biopsy to determine the nature of the growth.

Although the oncologist recommended I take a break, enjoy the holidays, and schedule the biopsy for February or March, the office staff from the specialist’s office called, worked me into the schedule for a consult, and then scheduled me for the complicated biopsy just two days later–all before the end of the year. I think it is the only time I have ever had a health care provider work me in before the new year in order to take advantage of my deductible already being met.

The growth turned out to be nothing worrisome. In fact, I was probably born with it, but for some reason it has gotten bigger.

Anticipating the preliminary findings of the biopsy would ultimately be confirmed and with my oncologist’s blessing, I met with the surgeon in preparation for the removal of my mediport.

With family far away and friends back to work after the holidays, I decided not to undergo general anesthesia, but instead to have my mediport removed using local anesthetic so I could drive myself to and from the hospital. As a non-emergency, outpatient procedure, mine was pushed back from 9 a.m. to 10:30 a.m., then to 1:00, and finally to 3:00 p.m. All of the staff were very kind and apologetic about the time changes, but for me the exact time of day simply did not matter.

While in surgery, everything went smoothly. When the surgeon said the mediport was out of my chest, I cried–not from pain or discomfort, but from sheer happiness.

Before Christmas when my oncologist told me he had no reservations about having my mediport removed, I was over the moon–not because the mediport caused undue discomfort, but because it symbolized the pain and uncertainty of cancer and chemotherapy. Having my mediport out heralded my return health and traversing the final length of the cancer detour.

Although for the next four and a half years I will be monitored regularly to detect any sign of cancer, I am content knowing the expectation of trained medical experts is that in 2017 and beyond, I will continue to be looking at cancer in the rearview mirror.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

This morning I had the last of my follow up scans and the unofficial word is that it looks good. Of course, the oncologist has the final say about what the scan means and how to proceed, but my Christmas present to myself is to see him on Friday to hear the (what I expect will be only) good news.

I cannot wait to hear it from the doctor himself and to say goodbye to my tiresome companion, the mediport, but until then I am content to know that everything is looking good!

It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like ChristmasChristmas looks quite a bit brighter tonight than it did when I woke up this morning.

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas!

The Interlude Between the Scan and the All-Clear

The Interlude Between the Scan and the All-Clear

With both my scan and appointment with the oncologist in the past, I find myself in the interlude between the scan and the all-clear. While the results of the scan showed no cancer, it did show an enlarged spleen, which the oncologist belieThe Interlude Between the Scan and the All-Clearves must be investigated. So, instead of saying goodbye to my faithful bosom friend, my mediport, we will continue to be inseparable until this is resolved.

I know there are worse things that could happen or that could have shown up on the scan, but I have let this little hiccup get me down. In fact, I have had little to say for a while now because first the scan and then the results have been weighing on mind. I would like to say that I believe all will be well, but I cannot dismiss health related concerns as readily as I did pre-cancer.

The reality is that what the oncologist is investigating is probably due to one of the drugs administered during my chemotherapy regimen: specifically, a medication to help my body produce platelets when the chemo was taking a heavy toll on my body. That is the best guess at this point, but only further testing can rule out something more troublesome.

While my head knows the medication probably accounts for the enlargement of the spleen, I cannot get my emotions to accept that rational probability. Nevertheless, I do believe that with God’s strength and the faithful prayers and encouragement of family and friends, I will be able to deal with whatever comes of further scans.

If a little CT scan brought up something so insignificant to follow up on, what will a PET/CT bring?

Hopefully, only peace of mind.

A Year After Beginning Chemo

I couldn’t help but think of where I am a year after beginning chemo, while also remembering the beginning of that chapter in my life. Over the weekend, the anniversary of the installation of my chemo port came and went and today is the six month anniversary of the end of chemo. But, yesterday I found myself a bit melancholy thinking about how one year ago I had my first chemo infusion. I remember I was scared, my port incision was still very tender, and the sensations I experienced during that infusion were unpleasant and unfamiliar. Similarly, my emotions were somewhat raw and I wrestled with the “Why did this happen to me?” and “Oh my goodness, I had cancer and I am having chemotherapy!”

Although I may still remember with sadness and disbelief that cancer and chemotherapy were once a part of my life, today I am thankful to be looking back at the cancer detour and hoping to never find myself on such a path again.

The anxiety of my upcoming CT scan sometimes looms large in my mind, but I try to remind myself that worrying won’t change the results and that a positive outlook is good for everyone concerned. Today, I rescheduled my scan from Friday, November 11 to Monday, November 7. I was fretting that the report wouldn’t be ready for the oncologist when I saw him the following week.

So, getting rid of that worry simply took a phone call. If only all of our problems could be rectified just that easily.

I feel a bit of a hypocrite worrying, especially since I read my students a book called, What Do You Do with a Problem? In the book, the author says that problems are beautiful and hold opportunities. If that is the case, then I can honestly say that cancer and chemotherapy were opportunities I could have lived without!

Unpacking a Mixed Bag of Memories

Unpacking a Mixed Bag of Memories

This time of the year I find myself unpacking a mixed bag of memories. My teaching schedule brings a much needed break right around my mother’s birthday. Last year, my mom, two of my sisters, and I made it a weekend based at my house and it was loads of fun.

In addition to celebrating our mom’s life, my sisters kindly helped me rearrange my living room furniture, haul my Christmas tree out of the basement, assemble it, and wind it with festive ribbon. (Kind Reader, please remember I lived in Ecuador for years and the custom is to begin decorating in October.)

Unique to last year was the additional preparations of my spare room and other shared areas of the house for my mom to spend most of every other week with me during the months I had chemo. It made for some truly mixed-up emotions during that span of time. On the one hand, it was lovely to be together with family. On the other hand, it was surreal to be preparing to be off of work for six months (turned out to be seven months) while having chemotherapy.

Happily, this past weekend I made the trip to my mom and dad’s to spend Mom’s birthday with her. Again, surrounded by family, I enjoyed celebrating Mom and thanked God for another year we shared. Without Mom’s help and support, I cannot imagine how I would have made it through chemotherapy! She took over all of my ongoing chores like grocery shopping, cooking, doing dishes and sometimes even dragged laundry down to the basement to be washed and dried before bringing it back up! Naturally, I was glad to be among the loved ones celebrating her special day. Being healthy was icing on the cake!

Naturally after traveling back home, yesterday I found myself again rearranging living room furniture and then heading down to the basement to unearth the box containing my seven-and-a-half foot tree. Then, I made multiple trips to carry up each of the four sections of tree and multiple storage containers filled with Christmas ornaments and décor. It amazes me how much time and energy is required to clean the basement grime off of the storage containers before I can stack them nearby for the monumental task of decorating the tree and decking the halls. A feeling of satisfaction and anticipation overcomes me as I look at the rearranged living room furniture and the assembled, although still unlit, tree. If nothing else, I have something to anticipate, a new goal, a task to complete, and that means another reason to live and to live well.

Although my memories are mixed, I am grateful. Having cancer was not my plan, but the cancer was successfully removed. I have scars that remind me each day of this reality. Having chemotherapy was not in my plan either, but chemotherapy successfully eradicated all traces of the disease (we think) and significantly reduced (according to relevant medical statistics) the chance of a recurrence of cancer.

Even as I am unpacking a mixed bag of memories of my own, I am grieved knowing that those I care about are facing their own cancer detour and struggling through the rigors of treatment. Others are facing the failure of treatment and with it the unflinching reality that without a miracle, the disease will continue to advance. When I think of the challenges faced by so many others, I pray, I grieve, and I feel small and self-centered for having mixed emotions when in reality I am doing so well. So, I’ll keep a mixed bag of memories and emotions that go with it and I will remember to pray for my friends and to be thankful for each new day.

Nearly Through My First Year of Cancer Anniversaries

Nearly through my first year of cancer anniversaries and thrilled to be moving on with life! For me, the most difficult dates fell on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday this year.  Saturday marked the day of my admittance to the hospital for blood transfusions and diagnostic testing, Sunday, the cancer diagnosis, and Monday surgery to remove the tumor.

As I look back, I am grateful for doctors who detected the cancer early, allowing for successful treatment with the goal of avoiding a recurrence. I am also thankful for family and friends who surrounded me during that time, and for all of you, the army of friends and family who loved, encouraged, grieved with, and faithfully prayed for me. I will always be thankful for your companionship on the cancer detour.

Going Back to Kindergarten

After being assigned to first grade for three years and a kindergarten/first grade combination the year before, I am excited to be back in kindergarten at a new school site. Although the learning curve is fairly steep as I attempt to assimilate into a new staff and ready everything for a grade level I haven’t taught in three years, I am glad for a new challenge and surroundings.

This week, I met with my new staff, parents, and my students. It was wonderfully exhilarating, but oh, so tiring! I forgot the amount of teaching about how school works goes into the early weeks of kindergarten. It is very important work that will pay enormous dividends throughout the school career. The time spent kindling the romance with the educational system for my students is a worthwhile investment. However, it is not without its challenges!

After my first day of teaching kindergarten for just five hours, I felt exactly as I did when I was an intern teacher: overwhelmed. The little I had accomplished with the class  discouraged me until I met with my grade level colleagues, looked at their faces, and realized they felt the same way I did. Their similar reactions comforted me and I remembered that showing these novice students how school works is an enormous task!

For my young charges, this may be  the first experience of not being the one special person in a group. Instead they find themselves among a host of individuals who are every bit as special. Making the discovery that they have to take turns, listen, and follow directions, raise hands to ask a question and walk in a line behind a leader drives home the concept that they are all equally valued and unique. No one is more important or esteemed. Consequently, the day was not without a few challenges and disappointments for a couple of students.

Nevertheless, we took the first few tiny steps on the journey of learning all of the skills necessary to get along in a class of twenty-something in an urban elementary school. As I learn to know each student and what motivates them, and they adjust to our schedule and being just one special person amidst twenty-two special people, I know we will be humming along smoothly before much longer.

Until then, I will focus on what we did well and build on those skills until my students become experts in the business of school.

The nice thing about my new teaching position being so challenging is that I do not have much time to reflect on the fact that I am nearly through my first year of cancer anniversaries–and for me, that is a good thing!

 

Back to Work for the New School Year

Back to Work for the New School Year

Living Strong, Living Well Trainers and Participants

Back to Work for the New School Year

I am back to work for the new school year as of yesterday. For the past couple of weeks and with loads of help from my family and friend, Julie, I have been preparing the classroom for my incoming kindergartners. With their help, I was able to get things settled in my classroom and brighten up the space with new bulletin boards and interesting materials. I am truly grateful.

Unbidden Reflections

Last year, I was in these back-to-school training sessions when I got the call from the doctor’s office confirming I was ill–although the exact cause was still unknown. The simple reality of being back in the same place and at the same time of the year brought a wave of unexpected emotion that I haven’t quite shaken yet. However, I am reminding myself I am healthy and getting that phone call was the best thing that could have happened because it resulted in the cancer being found in time to be successfully and fairly easily treated. I am enormously grateful!

These districtwide meetings mean I see people I haven’t seen in ages. Since I was back to work for such a short time at the end of the school year, even people I see regularly may not have seen me back at work. So, it was heartwarming to have people make a special effort to greet me and let me know they were happy to see me back and looking well. Honestly, I still struggle with how to respond when people ask me about my weight loss or other aspects of my appearance. One lovely colleague commented on my lighter weight and asked me what program I had followed. I quietly leaned over and told her I had had cancer. Her shocked, but compassionate response made me feel terrible for springing the news so baldly and without preamble. However, I have yet to find a mendacious or glib answer to substitute for direct questions. If any of you have suggestions, I would welcome some helpful ideas.

New Beginnings

Being at a new school and different grade level rounds out the season of new beginnings I am experiencing. I look forward to meeting new colleagues and my young students next week. I know the future holds challenges and joys, but I look forward to meeting them head on.

Gaining Closure

On Monday, I wrapped up summer school and Wednesday brought the end of the Living Strong, Living Well (LSLW) program. Both programs helped me grow in very different ways, but came to a bittersweet close.

Over the summer, I enjoyed the challenge of teaching English learners and will continue to implement strategies I used to teach these students. I had a sweet class and will miss them as well as the teachers I came to know through the program.

Similarly, Living Strong, Living Well signaled an end regularly scheduled exercise and ongoing interaction with a small core group of individuals whose constancy and kindness made going to the gym enjoyable and important. I will miss seeing and working out with them on a regular basis, but am pleased to have exchanged contact information so we do not lose touch.

The LSLW end of program testing showed the benefits of my regular exercise and weight training. I showed improvement in strength, endurance, and balance. My speed did not show improvement, but it was not an issue that had raised concern. I am happy to be in the best physical shape of my adult life. And, gym culture and etiquette is no longer a mystery to me. As my summer drew to a close and I was swamped with setting up a new classroom, finishing up summer school responsibilities, and maintaining household chores, I realized how much more energy I had this summer than last and how thankful I am to be able to soldier on without becoming ill or having to take naps every afternoon.

Now that the program has ended and I am back to work, I have to figure out how to maintain these positive habits so that I continue to benefit from good health and fitness, while improving my chances of avoiding a recurrence of cancer. Any suggestions for how to establish and maintain balance so that I can fit work, exercise, meal preparation, and household chores into my schedule? From where I sit right now, it seems almost unattainable. I gladly welcome your suggestions.

 

 

The Beauty of Relay for Life

The Beauty of Relay for Life

Walking the Survivor’s Lap

The Beauty of Relay for Life

Last weekend, I learned something about the beauty of Relay for Life. Along with family members and good friends, I participated in this 24 hour event to raise funds for and promote community awareness of cancer. Through generous contributions by team members and friends, the team raised over $700 for the American Cancer Society (ACS). The fundraising continues through the end of August, so if you would like, you may still make a contribution to Team Chel’s effort to fight back against cancer.

Team Members

Although it was a hot time of the year for the event, I chose to take part in the Relay for Life of Saratoga to mark my transition back to health. San Jose and other neighboring communities hosted their Relays earlier than Saratoga, but I wanted to be energetic enough to walk laps and in the words of ACS, to fight back against cancer.

Most of my team came in from out-of-town. My family stayed in my home.  After receiving only limited guests during chemotherapy, having a full house was a blast! I was delighted to have my roommate from my freshman year in college join my team, helping to raise funds and driving a few hours with her family to walk in the Relay.

The Beauty of Relay for Life

Team Chel!

My team and I didn’t spend the night walking like other teams, but the busy schedule still made for a tiring day. I spent a few afternoon hours napping on the field under our team tent, but walked during cooler times of the day and participated in activities throughout the event.

As I walked laps, I chatted with my teammates as well as folks from other teams that I met while walking around the track. I sensed an immediate kinship born of our common experience with the disease, whether it was as a cancer warrior, survivor, caregiver, friend, family member, or colleague of one who suffered. Our diverse experiences left us with passion to see cancer research move forward toward finding an end to the human suffering caused by the disease.

Sharing an Overcomer’s Story

In a similar same way to the how I take issue with the term cancer journey, I am uncomfortable with the term cancer survivor. To me surviving is just barely squeaking by. However, I plan to do much more than survive. I aim to utterly overcome the disease! So, I prefer to think of myself as a cancer overcomer. I overcome cancer by living life with  joy in the present and great anticipation for the future. It’s something like after nearly landing on Boardwalk and Park Place with hotels on them, I instead received a get out of jail free card.

Beyond the release and relief from the fear and uncertainty of cancer, I live mindfully, making choices about so many

things that used to be automatic or even reactionary. Now, I realize I can change my perspective to live with greater hope and purpose, while letting the little things stay the little things in life. I am not saying I have this down perfectly now, but I find a lot fewer reasons to get irritated or upset about than I used to.

The Beauty of Relay for Life

Luminaria lighting the field during the ceremony

Sharing my story during the Luminaria Ceremony at Relay gave me a chance to reflect on my life and on how the detour has affected me. Here are a few tidbits from it:

For me, cancer has always had a face. It was a face I had only seen in photos; the face of the maternal grandmother I never knew. Grandmother Alice lost her fight against metastasized breast cancer before I was even born. Her cancer story, as told by my mother and other family members, was of a painful struggle in the days when cancer treatment was limited. It was also a story of the helplessness and hopelessness of family members as they daily watched her waste away, consumed by the pain and devastation of this dreadful disease. Back in those days, there was little treatment for breast cancer beyond radical surgery and certainly besides radiation treatments, no hope for someone with metastatic disease like my grandmother’s. So, our family was marred by this life taken too soon and too ruthlessly by cancer.

The Beauty of Relay for Life

Walking laps with my niece, Shiloh.

Because of my grandmother’s battle against this disease, fear of cancer became part of my family identity. At some level, I feared I would get breast cancer like she had. So, I dutifully had my screenings. Then, last year a growth of unknown nature was found in my mammogram and a biopsy was scheduled. I was in agony as I awaited the results and then again six months later, the outcome of the follow-up screenings.  However, thankfully both were negative for breast cancer.

Little did I suspect that just a couple of weeks after being cleared of breast cancer and before the age 50, I would be diagnosed with a completely different kind of cancer that was uncommon to my family.

Although I would never wish the trial of chemotherapy or radiation on anyone, I am profoundly grateful these treatments exist. Notwithstanding the persistent tingling of Chemo Induced Peripheral Neuropathy in my fingers and toes, I am thankful I received chemotherapy. I am infinitely grateful for organizations such as the American Cancer Society that have raised funds for cancer research, patient services, and community awareness. Unlike in my grandmother’s day, we benefit from decades of chemotherapy research and trials that have led to the successful treatment of various forms of cancer, giving me an optimistic prognosis for continued health.

The Beauty of Relay for Life

Voice of Hope

Because of ongoing research into cancer treatment supported by the American Cancer Society and other organizations, if I have a recurrence, then I will have an even better chance of survival than I would have today.

Better chances at anything in life seems a good thing, but for surviving, or overcoming, I especially like those odds!

 

 

Paying Off Medical Bills

Out of Network Medical Expenses

Paying off medical bills was practically the last thing on my mind when I was hospitalized prior to my cancer diagnosis last summer. I did what I could to make sure the hospital was getting pre-authorization from the insurance. However, the reality is that I was too sick and weak to really think about much more than the blood transfusions and diagnostic testing I desperately needed. The doctor who arranged the hospital admission assured me that no insurance company would deny the medical necessity of my hospitalization, but he didn’t warn me attending physicians and other medical providers were essentially independent contractors, rather than hospital employees, who may or may not be part of my Preferred Provider Network.

Appeals and Discounts

I learned the hard way about this reality. Unbeknownst to me, the group of doctors who served as attending physicians in the hospital were not part of my PPO, which meant that not only was the bill paid at only 60% by the insurance, but there was an additional $250 out of network deductible. These surprising charges forced me into another unknown realm: appeals to the  insurance company and requests for discounts directly from out-of-network medical providers. Although the insurance company rejected my appeal for in-network level coverage, my requests directly to the out of network medical providers proved much more successful. Both of the providers I contacted wrote off part of the total and the billing department for the attending physicians also offered to put me on a monthly payment plan because of the size of the bill. I am pleased to say, I finally paid off that balance last month!

Paying Off Medical Bills: Miraculous Provision

While I was on medical leave for chemotherapy, the San Jose Teachers Association (SJTA) granted me sick leave through their Catastrophic Leave Bank. Essentially, sick leave donated by members of SJTA carried me through all but eight days of my medical leave. Because teachers in California do not pay Social Security Disability benefit Insurance, we cannot receive those benefits. Consequently, the provision of these days from the Catastrophic Leave Bank averted what otherwise could have quickly become financial catastrophe.

Unexpected generosity also came from long-time family friends, who with their personal insight into the overwhelming challenge of paying off medical bills, chose to help me pay off those bills. Their benevolence came just as I was facing the month with those eight days of unpaid leave, which was literally just in the nick of time.  I was completely overwhelmed to be the recipient of their philanthropy.

Thankfully, I can see the end of my medical bills within the next couple of months. I am grateful for those who have helped me financially,  for the medical insurance that covers the majority of my costs, for the job that enables me to continue meeting my financial commitments, and for a summer school teaching job helping me recover financially from the burden of months of medical bills.

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Back to Work After Chemo

Back to Work After Chemo

Going back to work after chemo has turned out to be challenging in ways that I had not anticipated. Consequently, this week’s post will be comparatively short.

School

Returning to work was going to be hard physically, I thought. This first week back, I had a commitment every evening after work, so I anticipated being fatigued. Little did I know I was wholly unprepared to deal with the dissonance of reintegrating into teaching at my school, an entity I thought I knew intimately, but which has continued to develop and evolve while I was cocooned for chemo. While I was on leave from work, I thought about how the people at work were not part of the cancer detour, but I failed to realize that I wasn’t part of those months in their lives or the school community, either. I am back seeing familiar things and faces, but I expected everything to be the same and for me to fit right back in. However, since I didn’t live through events with the rest of the staff or experience the ongoing metamorphosis of the school, I have realized that I am out of sync.  Once familiar things have changed and catch me off guard. And, sometimes, my absence has been forgotten about by others and I find I don’t know what is going on for lack of information. For me, this has resulted in an emotional first few days back at work.

Although dealing with the machinery of the school has been a challenge, being back with my students for the last part of the year has been pure joy. The students have adjusted nicely to having me back and are happily requesting to sing songs throughout the day and play games during physical education that I taught them in the few short weeks I worked early in the school year. In spite of my absence, they have had a good year. For this, I am thankful. And, the opportunity to have closure with them is a blessing. In fact, next year I will be assigned to a different school in the same school district, so I am taking advantage of these last few days of school to say goodbye to staff and students alike. I have loved reconnecting with former students and been glad for the chance to tell them goodbye.

Living Strong, Living Well

Twice a week the Living Strong, Living Well program has given me an way to decompress and de-stress after work through physical exercise. And, while I notice my emotions lifting after exercising at the YMCA, I also know that aerobic exercise and strength training  correlate with a lower recurrence of cancer. So, I am pleased to have a dual benefit from my workouts and hope to be able to continue once the program ends.

Furthermore, I have found comfort in working with this group of survivors as we commiserate or laugh about side effects, while focusing on becoming stronger and healthier. Following orientation day, all participants seemed to be looking forward and no longer defined by the disease that gripped us. A sense of anticipation of better things ahead and an easy camaraderie has developed, both of which inspire me to do my best and be a cheerleader for other participants.

Life is Good

Although I have faced unexpected challenges going back to work after chemo, I am happy and grateful for the people, resources, and opportunities that continue to support me in my journey of life as a cancer survivor.  Life is good. Truly, it is good to be alive!

 

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