Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Walk in Jen's Shoes

Walk a mile in Jen's shoes. Better yet, walk 60 miles in Jen's shoes.

Last weekend, Karen's sister-in-law, Jen, joined hundreds of other women and men in the Twin Cities for the Susan G. Komen 3-Day Breast Cancer Walk. She walked in honor of Karen and Dick, for Nancy and Oma, and for so many friends, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whose lives have been touched by cancer. The event raised over $6 million for breast cancer research and Jen raised an impressive $5000!

But more important than the money she raised is the personal commitment that Jen made in training for this weekend and walking the 60 grueling miles over three days -- an effort at least as challenging as running a marathon and just as exhausting.

For Jen, the walk was a humbling experience. Despite blisters and aching muscles, Jen and her team endured the pain, knowing that those who battle cancer experience much greater pain and discomfort.

Without being there among the hundreds of walkers and supporters, it's difficult to convey the incredible emotion and energy driving these selfless individuals. They honor us all. And for that, we are grateful.

I applaud Jen's dedication, hard work, compassion and great physical exertion. Awesome job, Jen!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

A Father and Daughter's Shared Journey

This past week, while Karen underwent her fourth chemo treatment in Philadelphia, over 1100 miles away in Woodbury, Minnesota, her Dad sat in a similar blue recliner as toxic chemo drugs ran through an IV line into his veins and raced through his bloodstream in search of hyperactive cancer cells.

While Karen is battling breast cancer, her father, Dick, is battling prostate cancer.

It's a dark reality: a father and daughter fighting their own cancers and enduring lengthy chemo treatments at the same time. Separated by five states, they find themselves on similar paths hoping to -- no, determined to -- beat cancer and move on with their lives.

Sharing this disease can give way to a multitude of empathetic emotions between father and daughter. Yet, it's also a strange, almost awkward, bond to share. Is it somehow easier for Dick, who’s left with tiny wisps of a white crew cut after months of Taxotere, to relate to the trauma that Karen is facing with her own hair loss? I know that it's difficult for Karen to be so far away from her dad at this time.

They speak little of their fate or their fears, or the details of their treatments. Instead, they share useful tips, like Dairy Queen strawberry milkshakes, Dick's near-daily elixir for taste buds that have all but lost their receptors for flavor -- unless you consider metal a flavor, and Karen’s craving for scrambled eggs and spinach to ward off nausea.

Dick fights his battle with a “play-the-cards-you're-dealt” acceptance and a determination to get out on the golf course as often as possible. But they haven't been easy cards to play. Only retired a few years, he's already endured quintuple heart bypass surgery, radiation for his prostate cancer and now a long chemotherapy regimen. This isn't exactly how Hallmark or Charles Schwab portray the golden years, but he never complains. Dick still finds great joy in his Saturday morning golf games, his weekly cardiac workouts and a good book curled up with his dog, Bella.

Sadly, cancer is no stranger to Karen's family. Her mother, Kathy, valiantly fought colon cancer, losing her battle after four difficult years in which she tried every drug imaginable in an effort to have more time with her grandchildren. Karen's stepmother, Nancy, bravely fought cancer as a new mother, beating Hodgkin’s Disease some 25 years ago when the anti-nausea drugs were not anywhere near as potent as they are now. And Karen's cousin, Larry, took on colon cancer with his trademark guts and wicked sense of humor right until the end.

One thing we have learned from Karen’s loved ones is that there is great strength and faith in this family and they have all shown Karen how to fight cancer with courage, dignity and grace.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I am not my hair!

Karen has decided to bare it all...her bald head that is. These days, as the temperature has broken 90 degrees for several days in a row, she has tossed aside her caps, scarves and hats and stepped out into the world -- or at least Harrisburg -- as bald as a full moon.

Clearly, she's feeling more comfortable with her new look. She has the good looks, not to mention a nicely shaped skull, to pull it off. She strides down the street like some sort of exclamation point (an upside down one, perhaps) that proclaims her new-found self-confidence. And she's having fun with it too.  Sitting hairless in a colorful summer dress among a large crowd of 9th grade students and parents at Jack's high school orientation today, she laughed, "I look like you stole me from a department store."

Her friends shout out, "You go girl!"  I agree.  

Yes, she's feeling bold, but her acceptance of her transformed beauty hasn't quite caught up with her boldness. Because, despite how easily she appears to throw caution to the wind, she admits it's still quite jarring when she catches her reflection in a window or stands before the bathroom mirror in the morning. And no matter how good she may feel about herself or how bold she may be, the hair loss remains a constant reminder of the journey she is on and the toll of cancer.

I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations, no, no
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am a soul that lives within
(I am not my hair...India.Arie)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Can duct tape fix cancer?

My idea of doing repairs around the house is using duct tape to hold together whatever is broken or loose. In fact, for Father's Day, Karen and Jack bought me a wooden sign that reads, "Mr. Fix-It. Dad can fix anything with duct tape." And if duct tape doesn't work, well, I simply ignore it.

The fact is, I shouldn't even own a toolbox. But I do... and it's full of a mess of wrenches, drill bits, pliers, nuts, bolts and screwdrivers which I don't use, not to mention dozens of other tools for which I have no idea their purpose. But a guy needs a toolbox.

When Karen announced that her brother, Dave, and sister, Anne, from Minnesota would be visiting in a show of support, I didn't realize that I was getting Bob Villa from This Old House for a week. Karen, knowing my lack of handyman talent, had actually warned Dave in advance that she had a "honey-do" list that had long been ignored by her "honey-don't." He came prepared with his own work gloves and work boots. This guy from Minnesota is serious. You betcha.

When he arrived, I sheepishly showed Dave my toolbox and quickly departed for a short business trip to Long Island, comfortable that Karen would be in good hands and that he would be busy with an ambitious project list. And by the end of the week, Bob, er, Dave, had:
  • silenced the pipes that rattled whenever we shut off a faucet (who would have thought that a simple 10 cent bracket could fix that so easily...jeez!)
  • fixed the pantry door handle that would fall out whenever we pulled on it (had been this way for, let's see, six months or more).
  • trimmed the dead tree branches, filling 17 garbage bags in the process,
  • unclogged the basement drain pipe so the two dehumidifiers -- that run around the clock to stop mold from growing on our basement walls -- had somewhere to drain (hmm...does mold cause cancer?),
  • replaced two porch light fixtures (whoa!... electrical work is way outside my comfort zone),
  • dug out and replaced a lamp post and fixture (taught Jack how to mix concrete),
  • cleaned out my tool box (I still don't know what's in there),
  • called the exterminator who rid us of cicada killers, don't ask, (to the tune of $353) and, oh by the way, found termites in the process (to the tune of $1100)...gee, thanks Dave!
I must say that I was impressed and glad to have someone who knows how to change a light fixture without getting electrocuted in the process (I didn't realize that you need to switch off the circuit breaker first...boy, that would have been sad).

So, we had a great week. Karen is overjoyed with her new porch lights (it's the little things in life that really matter). As for me, for now, I can leave the duct tape for the soles of my feet (seriously, I tape the dry, cracked, bleeding soles of my feet...the duct tape works wonders).

Oh...Anne! Not to be forgotten. For she brought her energy, cooking talents and high school prep tutoring to our family last week. We enjoyed her rich and creamy risotto, wonderful sweet potatoes and special cocktails. Thankfully, she also helped kick start Jack's summer homework assignments, motivating him to get moving on long overdue school work.

In the end, it wasn't the risotto or the porch lights that mattered the most. Simply having family here to visit (Karen's stepfather, Phil, also made a week long visit in July), is what sustains all of us during this difficult battle. Thanks!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

"Pain is temporary; quitting is forever." A personal note from Lance Armstrong

On Friday, Karen received a package from the Livestrong Foundation. At first, she thought it was like several other care packages she had received from cancer support organizations. But then she was surprised to open it and find a personal, hand-written note from Lance Armstrong himself.

We don't know Lance Armstrong personally. But my college roomate, Rob Lettieri, and his family, are personal friends of Lance. When they learned that Karen was battling cancer they called and asked Lance if he would send Karen a note of support. The note reads:


Recently I spoke with Bob Lettieri and he indicated that you are in a fight with cancer.

Please do not give up as you can beat this.

I am enclosing a few items from the Lance Armstrong Foundation to help you in that regard. Please let me know as to how I or the foundation may be of assistance to you. "Pain is temporary; quitting is forever."

Lance Armstrong

Just back from the Tour de France and jotting a note off to Karen. Pretty cool.

Friday, August 7, 2009

"Just do it...then do it again!"

The marketeers at Nike have decided that "Just Do It" isn't enough anymore. Now we have to "Just do it...then do it again." For Karen and her chemo treatments, it's again...and again...and again...for a total of 16 treatments over 5 1/2 months. Yesterday marked only treatment #3 of the potent AC (adriamycin and cytoxan) chemo cocktail, with a possible splash of Avastin (that is, if she's actually getting Avastin and not the placebo). She has one more AC treatment on August 20th, before starting with another chemo drug, Taxol, for 12 weeks.

So far, she's tolerated the AC better than expected. And believe it or not, she's still smiling...and maintaining a busy schedule between working and gladly welcoming a steady stream of her family members from Minnesota (more on that later).

Because the chemo drugs have a cumulative effect, the toxins are building up in her body, which means she's almost certain to experience greater fatigue and face the onset of new side effects. During the first couple weeks of treatment we anxiously and nervously maintained a 24 hour side effect watch. No more. Some side effects are now more predictable: mouth sores, waves of nausea, fatigue. We remain thankful for every good day Karen has and for the strength to get through the difficult days.

After treatment #2, Karen faced the loss of her hair head on (pun intended). And for the past two weeks the remaining tiny splinters of hair that held on have all but fallen loose too. Though she's found comfort in a colorful variety of hats and scarves ("The Sandra" wig still sits atop a styrofoam head), she has also boldly left the house topless (on her head, that is). My point is this, the "journey" continues on a path of hairpin turns and steep hills, but we're still moving forward and the wheels haven't come off....yet!