Thursday, November 26, 2009

Giving thanks

It's not what we have in our life, but who we have in our life that counts."

j.m. laurence

This Thanksgiving, as our family counts our blessings, we have so much for which to be thankful: For the strength to fight cancer and tolerate the treatment...for the courage to face this daunting challenge....for the hope and optimism to beat this disease...for the skill and knowledge of the doctors and the compassion of nurses. But above all, our gratitude runs deepest for all of the love and support we have received from our friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and many others, including people we've never met before.

Over the past six months, these caring people have provided Karen with a daily infusion that's far more powerful than any of the drugs that have flowed from her IV bag during chemotherapy. Their generous infusion of support counteracts the fear of cancer and the sick fog of chemotherapy. Their care and concern is a kind of anti-toxin -- a remedy that nurtures Karen's spirit and has sustained all of us during these past months. Indeed, the support of those who love you is a cure itself.

A year from now, when we think back to this time, our memories won't be of the diagnosis or the treatment, but rather, it will be of the many simple acts of kindness, friendship and love that have been repeated every day along this "journey", including:

  • Soft blankets and a hand-woven prayer shawl -- gifts from Karen's friends -- have provided warmth and comfort during long chemo sessions.

  • Over three dozen family, friends, colleagues and neighbors have provided gift cards and meals -- from homemade soups to roast chicken with mashed potatoes. From slow-cooked ribs to Turkey Tetrazzini. From chicken Marsala to Cuban chicken. From Mexican lasagna to meatballs made from a friend's secret family recipe. Some meals arrive with bottles of wine and even dog biscuits for Caramel. Every dish was special -- not only for its unique flavors and the talent of the cooks, but because of the time, energy, care and thoughtfulness that went into preparing and delivering them.

  • Friends and family have bought Karen a myriad of hats and scarves -- colorful, fun, practical, whimsical and too many to count. They allow Karen to make a fashion statement every day and keep her bare head warm as the weather gets colder.

  • Other friends have sent over their "cleaning lady" to help with household chores -- a generous gesture and a big help for me since my job forced me to travel almost every week.

  • With 16 rounds of chemo -- all in Philadelphia -- we were fortunate to have a reliable group of friends who drove Karen to many of her treatments and spent nearly a day at the Penn breast cancer center with Karen as she met with her doctor and received her infusion.

  • Care packages filled with lotions and other soothing items, books, magazines and CDs to help make each day a little easier.

  • And a steady stream of flowers, phone calls, emails and cards -- enough to fill a shopping bag -- continue to arrive with words of encouragement, support and offers of prayers.

These are simple acts that have had a powerful impact on us -- especially Karen.

This past year has been a long and often difficult one. But it has been made easier because of all that our friends and family have shared with us. It's difficult to imagine getting through this without such incredible support. I recently came across a fitting Turkish proverb, "No road is long with good company." Battling cancer is often a long road, but with good company -- friends, family, co-workers and neighbors -- that road is made shorter and less bumpy.

Thank you!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Strength, courage and wisdom
And it's been inside me all along
Strength, courage and wisdom
Inside of me

Twenty-two weeks and 16 rounds of chemotherapy later, Karen is still strong. Sure, her body has been ravaged and her energy drained by the cumulative effects of nearly six months of a difficult regimen of chemicals, but today, as the final drops of Taxol dripped from her IV bag, she took the first steps toward getting "on the other side" of this journey. The same strength, courage and wisdom that she drew upon for her first chemo treatment on July 9th was still inside of her when she finished her final round of chemo today.

Looking at the two photos above -- one taken on her first day of treatment and the other on her last -- the toll of the experience is apparent. On the outside, chemo has stripped her of her hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. Her skin is milky-white and her toenails are falling off. But her smile remains, always, as does her buoyant optimism. On the inside and on the outside, she's been fighting cancer every day, never losing hope and inspiring all of us along the way.

Karen could have opted for a less intensive and shorter treatment protocol. But faced with a diagnosis of the more aggressive triple negative cancer that has a higher rate of recurrence, she never thought twice about participating in a clinical trial that required 16 cycles of dose dense drugs, including the trial drug, Avastin. After all, she didn't want to ever have to go through this again if there was any chance that she could knock out cancer for good now. Bravely, she said yes to the trial. In the end, she endured that long trial only to learn after the 10th cycle that she was in the 20% of the trial participants that received a placebo instead of Avastin, the drug added specifically for the trial. Disappointing? Greatly. But she can rest easier knowing that she received more chemo than she might have otherwise received with a standard treatment protocol.

Today was an important milestone in the cancer journey. Yet, in many ways, the last treatment was strangely anti-climatic. Oddly, there were no cheers or high-fives in the "infusion room." Of course, we were both glad to end this chapter. Karen is anxious to begin the process of recovery and healing. To grow hair. To rediscover the taste of food. To sleep well. To simply feel good. But first there is radiation treatment -- perhaps as many as four to six weeks of daily radiation. While it doesn't loom as threatening and scary as the the chemotherapy, it represents another phase in the treatment course. And so, the journey continues.