Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Burden to Be Strong

With last Thursday's treatment, Karen has reached the half way point in her chemotherapy. There was no singing and dancing to celebrate the metaphoric "light at the end of the tunnel." Instead, she approached it just like the week before, and the week before that: get up, get on with it and move forward.

That's what you do when you have cancer. Is there a choice, really?

Karen's hope hasn't faded, but the facade of strength has begun to show cracks. Behind her ever-present smile that seems to buoy others more than herself is a flu-like fatigue that no amount of rest seems to ease.

New in town for the chemo production playing out at home is: "The Change of Life". Hot flashes have thrown Karen's internal thermostat off kilter. And weepy emotions flow without warning. It's all new here..for all of us. Yet still, there's: get up, get on with it and move forward.

We've heard it before, "That which does not destroy us makes us stronger." Some might say it's a challenge put before cancer patients as they go through treatment. The pressure to be strong is very real.

I've come to realize that Karen carries a burden to be strong, because she must, but also because we want her to be. We expect cancer patients to battle cancer as brave fighters. These words -- and I've used them repeatedly in my blog, helping to fuel this expectation -- convey the image of a strong warrior. But Karen is not a warrior. Yes, she is strong -- in more ways than one -- but when it comes to cancer, she has no choice but to be strong. As she puts it, "you do what you have to do."

There are days when falling into self-pity and despair would be much easier than fighting. But in the six months since her diagnosis, I'm not sure I could count even one day when she retreated into self-pity. This is tough stay upbeat as your body and mind tries to bring you down.

Soon, there will seven treatments left, then six, then five....and Karen will move beyond all of this. Perhaps stronger, but relieved of the burden to constantly be strong.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Race for the Cure

This past weekend, the Walsh family made a strong showing in support of breast cancer awareness and research -- participating in two Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure events in Scranton, Pa. and New York City. On Saturday, over 20 family members in Scranton ran and walked the 5k course as part of a team organized by our niece, Sarah. I joined my brother, Chris, and his family and my brother, Will -- along with over 25,000 other supporters -- in a race through Central Park on a beautiful Sunday morning.

These were great events that brought my family together to support an important cause and to honor Karen -- and thousands of others -- fighting breast cancer. A huge thank you to Chris who raised a very impressive $5000 and to Sarah who recruited family members and friends in Scranton.

For me, the event marked my first race. Not my very first charity first race ever (unless you count when I ran track in middle school). I can't think of a better way or place to have made my entrance. The scene in NYC was overwhelming as a sea of runners and walkers of every age, gender and race came together to show their support. Given our family's personal experience these past several months, it was impossible not to be moved by the commitment, concern, hope and encouragement of so many wonderful people. They ran or walked in memory or celebration of their own friends and family, but I also realized that those 25,000+ people were running for our family...for Karen. It's powerful when you stop to realize that these people run for someone you love.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

"The worst is over...but your tongue may turn black"

I've fallen behind on my blogging, but not because there's nothing happening here. To borrow Ted Kennedy's line replayed so many times over the past few weeks, "the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives..." It's a fitting battle cry for Karen.

Her treatments have taken a toll on her as the chemo toxins build up in her body. She has become increasingly weary as the chemo wipes out her red blood cells. Migraines grip her head like a vice. Her infusion port bulges like a transmitter just under her chest. Mouth sores line her lips. And the waves of nausea have grown stronger and last longer.

Here's the crazy thing about all of this: none of Karen's pain or exhaustion is from the cancer -- the evil, scary cancer that we feared more than anything. Not a single moment of pain was ever from the cancer. It's hard to make sense of it, but all the pain and discomfort comes from that which is meant to cure her. Karen is caught in the crosshairs of a battle between her doctors and cancer. The chemo drugs are the weapons; her body a battlefield.

The doctors always presume that at least some rogue cancer cells may break loose from the original tumor and find their way into the blood stream, travel to somewhere else in the body and then divide and conquer. So, chemotherapy becomes, in some ways, a kind of scorched-earth defense -- kill everything that grows and divides -- even the normal, healthy cells. The result: you have to become sicker to get better.

Thursday marked another milestone in Karen's treatment. She finished four cycles of the powerful Adriamycin and Cytoxan (AC) drugs and has moved onto the chemo drug Taxol.

"The worst is over," say the doctors.

It's hard to find comfort in these words knowing that Karen still has 11 more Taxol treatments ahead of her. The "AC" may be one of the toughest regimens to tolerate, especially with infusions every two weeks. But Taxol has its own set of destructive side effects: pain in the joints and muscles, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, skin and nail changes, mouth sores, mood changes (oh, joy!), and occasionally, the tongue may turn black. She can also expect to lose the last few hairs on her body -- her eyelashes and eyebrows. But remember, the worst is over.

Still, her spirit remains positive and her resolve is strong -- bolstered in large part by the support of many amazing friends, neighbors, family and colleagues.

It has been 22 weeks since Karen first found that lump and nine weeks of chemo treatments have been crossed off the calendar. Eleven more treatments in as many weeks stand between her and the end of chemotherapy. Radiation therapy will add many more weeks. And then it will be a new year. Surely, a year of recovery, healing and renewal.