Death in the land of Facebook

I am lucky enough to be a part of a private FB support group for those with Mesothelioma.  About 70% of the members have Pleural Meso, (lungs), 28% have Peritoneal, (abdomen, my type) and about 2% Peri-Cardial (heart).  There are close to two hundred of us, plus two medical professionals who operate & administer the group.

Thankfully, approx every month we get a new member.  I say thankfully because approx every month we also lose a member, so at least we are replenishing ourselves. One month this year we lost three people.  Pouf! Gone.  Leaving behind their dreams, their children, their spouses and families.  I’ve come to dread FB notifications, always fearing the worse.  One death, a couple of months ago, hit me especially hard.  He was a young man in his late thirties, married with two kids.  Like many other Meso patients, he had to travel a long distance to receive treatment.  Mesothelioma is a very rare form of cancer, there are only a handful of doctors who specialize in, let alone know anything about it.  Since he was going to be away from his family for treatment, we were invited to send him cards to cheer & strengthen his spirit.  I sent a lovely note, writing that I too had Peritoneal and had received the exact treatment he was about to receive.  I wrote him that I would be thinking of him and sending him strength and positive energy and that he was welcome to ask me any questions he might have.

It was radio silence for a long time after that and then….the dreaded FB notification: “I am sorry to report that we have lost another one…”  Nooooo!  He was dead.  Not only was he dead, but he suffered.  The treatment he received, the same one I had received, is called “Cytoreductive Surgery and HIPEC” – and it is fucking gruesome.  But, it is also an amazing invention.  It used to be that with a diagnosis of Peritoneal Mesothelioma you were screwed, usually dying within a year.  But with this treatment patients often gain a few additional years and sometimes even more.

Sadly this young man was not one of the lucky ones and I initially felt very guilty.  Guilty because although I have a partner, family & friends, I don’t have children.  And in some weird way I felt it would be more “just” for me to die and for him, a father, to be able to live long enough to see his children grow up.  Then, after the guilt passed, I started to get angry with “God.”

Hello God, are you listening?  Why can’t you just kill all the evil freakers out there and leave the good people alone?  People always say you – God – have a plan.  But I don’t think you do have a plan, or perhaps you are super disorganized and all of your plans have gotten mixed up and you are killing the wrong people.  Maybe you need a Personal Assistant God.  Someone who can keep all of your plans and paperwork and charts organized.  That way you can focus your energy on killing off all the horrible, bad people and saving the good people – like my nice Facebook friend who died, whose children are now fatherless.  

 I look forward to hearing back from you regarding my suggestion.  Take Care.  Sincerely, Mary Ellen 

Hospital-Chic

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I can now officially say that I have a sparkly brain!  On Wednesday I had my brain aneurysm “coiled” with platinum, so I’m feeling pretty swanky!  The surgery went smoothly for which I am very grateful.  I only had to spend one night at the hospital and I had the loveliest nurses.  But, my God almighty, I have never experienced headaches like that!  I spent the night riding waves of intense nausea mixed with the most brutal headaches.  They gave me morphine which helped the pain – a bit – but made the nausea worse.   And as with all my recent medical experiences, there was an absurd quality to it: the patient next to me had an odd, bedazzled female visitor who was blasting Celine Dion while performing a weird interpretive dance – in an ICU style recovery room – r u kidding me?!

The doctors wrote me a prescription for Percocet to help with my headaches, which are supposed to last for a few days.  For some reason I felt deep shame picking up the drugs – I felt like a low-life!  I was paranoid that I would become addicted and that I would end up like Nurse Jackie, doing anything to secure my next high.  Once home though, the drugs were a godsend and I spent most of the day in a loopy sleep dreaming of Iron Maiden – who were dressed like Wizards! – flying through the sky.

Editor’s Note:  A special thanks goes out to my cancer!  Had I not been in the hospital being treated for Mesothelioma – where I ended up with “Neuroleptic Malignant Syndrome” after a bad reaction to the drug Haldol – I never would have had my brain scanned and my aneurysm would have gone untreated.  So thank you Mesothelioma!

Where u at?!

Recently I had to get an abdominal and pelvic ultrasound and the experience was – as many things are in my life these days – absurd.  The technician slicked me down with so much gel that I was worried my ostomy bag would fall off!  The whole process seemed to be taking forever, she scrutinized the computer screen with a concerned look on her face – not what you want to see.  Then she asked me if my gallbladder had been removed during my cancer surgery.  “Why?!  Has it gone missing?!” I cried.  WTH!

Next, she asked me to stand up.  So there I was, naked, except for my Forever 21 banana socks, slicked down like I was ready for some oddball porno, my ostomy bag starting to fill up with its usual liquid grossness and the technician jamming me with the wand.  “The Case of The Missing Gallbladder!” I said with a dramatic flourish.  She did not seem to appreciate my humor.  Finally she found the little bastard!  He was hiding and kind of “flipped over”- whatever the hell that means.  She left the room looking very relieved and I started the process of de-glazing myself.  #glamorouslife

 

 

Turning into Woody

This just in: I am totally turning into Woody Allen’s hypochondriac character in “Hannah and Her Sisters:”

The other morning, while brushing my teeth, I became convinced that the bottom of my mouth – the salivary glands – were swollen with cancer!  I mean I was convinced!  I inspected them and quickly came to the conclusion that they had never been so large and that in the three months since my last CAT scan, my abdominal cancer had taken over my mouth!  I spent a solid fifteen minutes googling and staring at horrible images of mouth tumours.  Then I called my dentist and explained the situation.  I’m sure they thought I was NUTS, but they were totally cool.  Since I was due for a cleaning anyway, they said I should just come in and they would take a look at my highly suspicious, swollen, I’m about to die, cancerous mouth.

On the streetcar over I prepared for the worst.  “Your cancer has spread to your mouth.  We we will have to remove your entire mouth, you will no longer be able to speak.”  I started to sweat.  Walking the few blocks to the dentist’s office I passed a beautiful old church – Toronto has an amazing assortment of stunning old churches – and I decided that I should go in and say a few prayers.  I tossed money in the saint’s box and lit a candle:

Dear God, please don’t let my mouth become mis-shaped from this horrible cancer.  I already have a tummy that is mangled looking, I don’t want a mangled face as well.  Please help Tom and my family deal with this terrible new diagnosis.  If I need to get traditional chemo, please let me keep my eyebrows.  I don’t mind losing my hair, it’s been fucked up ever since my HIPEC/hot chemo treatment.  I will purchase a nice pink wig with bangs, but I really like my eyebrows.   And please don’t let me get down to 90 pounds again, because I already gave away all of my “emaciated clothing” to The Salvation Army.  Again, please bless my family and Tom.  Thank you.”

After several ridiculous prayers and many dollars later, I left the church and walked the death march to the dentist.  I love my dentist, he is the best.  He assured me that although the bottom of my mouth was larger than most people’s, there was nothing to be worried about.  But, he said it was totally normal that with a large-bottomed mouth like mine I might think there was a problem (bless his heart!).  Oh the Joy I felt upon hearing that my cancer had not spread to my mouth!  I practically danced all the way home and then passed out exhausted on my bed, dreaming of pink wigs and saints and perfect mouths.

 

Don’t Stepford Wife Me

 

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You know that expression that God only gives you as much as he thinks you can handle? Well, I think it’s a ridiculous expression.  But on the off chance that it’s true, then God must think I am one hardcore broad.  Because in addition to dealing with Mesothelioma, (special thanks to Asbestos for giving me this lovely cancer), I also have a Brain Aneurysm to deal with.  Fuckety Fuck Fuck.

On days when I am feeling “oh the glass is so very beautifully half full!” I feel extremely lucky that my brain aneurysm was found.  Most people don’t even know they have one and then one day they’re walking to the 7-Eleven and – pouf! – they die on the spot.  But my brain aneurysm was discovered while I was being treated for Peritoneal Mesothelioma.  I forget exactly why they were scanning my head – that whole time in the hospital is a bit of a blur – but they basically stumbled upon it.  When my Oncologist told me I was like “ok, whatever!” because I had more pressing issues at the time.  But now I’m worried.

On May 18th I  go back to the hospital – cue the scary music – to get my aneurysm “coiled.”  Basically the surgeon packs the aneurysm with platinum coils which prevents it from bursting.  Luckily they don’t have to open up my head lobotomy style – thank you Jesus!  Instead they weave a small catheter from my groin all the way up to my brain.  Is it just me, or does that seem like something that you would see on The X-Files?  I have decided to think of the platinum in my brain as an alternative engagement ring from my partner.  Instead of wearing platinum on my finger I am wearing it in my brain.

Intellectually I understand what the operation involves and I trust my amazing Neurologist.  But I also have an irrational fear that I will wake up from this operation a changed woman, that I will be turned into some weird Stepford Wife. I will go from a tchotke, sparkle loving collector, to a Plain Jane Minimalist.  Or worse, all the things that make me “me” – my many neuroses, my belief that I was a showtune singing Broadway star in a former life, my rule about never leaving the house without lipstick on – will vanish and I will become someone different.  I realize that it’s a ridiculous fear, but there is just something about messing around with my brain that freaks me out.  It feels like I am about to enter an old episode of The Twilight Zone.  Stay Tuned.

 

 

 

 

 

Love and Loss

Since my beloved dog Leroy died, the house has been painfully quiet. My partner is enjoying the calm, dog-free environment, but I am not. We have no children, so at night there is just the sound of music playing and laptops buzzing. No pitter-patter of paws, no head-butting, no fake sneezing, no barking, no “I wanna go on a walk” dance performance, no cuddling, no old-man snoring, no silky coat to be combed, no belly rubs, no licks on my face. I can’t live like this.

I want to adopt a dog now, but my partner wants to wait. He wants to wait a long, long time – as in he never wants to get another dog. He is worried that my cancer will start to metastasize, (Peritoneal Mesothelioma), that I will die and that he will be left devastated and having to take care of the dog – something he is not sure he will be up to doing. Now, the thing is, I can’t promise him that all that won’t happen. Right now my cancer is stable, but unfortunately Peritoneal Mesothelioma is rare and aggressive and without a cure. So yes, I could be dead in a couple of years, that’s entirely possible. What’s also possible is that I live for another five years or more. With this diagnosis the average life expectancy is 12 months. But, but for those lucky enough – like me – to be able to have Cytoreductive Surgery and HIPEC, (hot chemo poured in your abdomen), then the life expectancy increases to up to five years and beyond. There are even a few people in my private Facebook mesothelioma group who are ten years into living with their disease.

I don’t know how long I have until this cancer kills me. But I do know that having a dog allows me to experience pure joy and I think joy is the best medicine out there. If I’m being totally honest, I think I deserve that joy and I want it now. And yet, I have this amazing partner by my side. When I was in the hospital for two long months, he visited me every single day. He is not freaked out by my hideous ostomy bag and he is more than happy to continue having an intimate life with me despite my rather mangled looking tummy. He is protective of me and my immune system, buying bottles and bottles of vitamins and making sure I eat enough protein. He is in love with a woman who has a terminal illness – how fucking hard must that be?!! So, how do I reconcile my desire for a dog with my wanting to support my partner as he navigates the emotional war zone of living with cancerdame?

To Be Continued…

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Bony Moronie

“I got a girl named Bony Moronie.  She’s as skinny as a stick of macaroni!”

“Bony Moronie” by Larry Williams was my theme song while I was sick.  My partner introduced me to the great little ditty and it became my go-to song to lift my spirits.  I’ve always weighed between 115 and 120 pounds.  I’ve never been Bony Moronie “skinny” per se – I have the stocky farmer limbs of my Irish ancestors – but I’ve always been slim.  By the time I went into surgery for my Mesothelioma, anxiety (and cancer), had caused me to start to lose weight and I was down to 110.  After the grueling surgery I was fed only ice chips for ten days. ICE CHIPS people, nothing else.

One day my nurse announced cheerily that she was going to weigh me.  Suddenly I found myself standing precariously on the scale, hunched over like a frail old lady. “90 pounds!” cried the nurse, with a touch of theatrical flair.  Ninety Pounds.  OMG.  What normal 47 year-woman weighs 90 pounds?!  The number horrified me.  At that time I had not yet viewed myself in a full-length mirror, I had only seen my face in my makeup compact.  I was not emotionally prepared for how shocking my appearance truly was.

It wasn’t until January 2015 when I saw myself naked in a large mirror.  I was at the rehab hospital and tipping the scales at 96 pounds.  I remember the moment I saw my whole figure for the first time, I had sort of an out of body experience.  I looked at the pale, stringy haired, emaciated woman in the mirror and wondered who she was.  It was very difficult and painful to accept that I was looking at my own reflection.  From that moment on I mostly tried to avoid looking at myself, for I feared that I would spiral down into the depths of despair and not be able to climb back out.

One of the things that drives me bat-sh*t crazy is the expectation by many people that because I am “lucky to be alive,” I somehow don’t have the right – or it’s deemed in poor taste – for me to talk about how bad I feel about my body.  As cancer survivors we are allowed to feel both tremendous gratitude for the second chance at life and simultaneously feel deep pain about the ravaging of our physical selves.

And with that, Larry Williams – take it away…

Cookie Monster

In the late summer of 2014 I started having panic attacks.  It was as if my psyche knew that something was very wrong before I actually found out that I had cancer.  My anxiety was making it hard for me to eat and I was starting to lose weight (of course the cancer was also causing me to lose weight but I didn’t know that at the time).  Fast forward to the Fall when I was diagnosed with Malignant Peritoneal Mesothelioma, my anxiety levels went off the charts.  So one of my dear friends, whom I have known since our University of Toronto days, made me Pot Chocolate Chip cookies to calm my nerves.  Like many things in life, it seemed like a good idea at the time…

One night, after not being able to eat more than a few forkfuls of dinner, I took a small bite of one of her cookies.  It tasted horrific and I worried that perhaps I was going to be accidentally poisoned.  I didn’t feel anything right away and like a complete idiot I took another bite.  Big Mistake.  Next thing I remember I was organizing the bathroom.  I became enthralled with the toothbrush holder and spent a long time placing it “just so” on the counter.  Then I became obsessed with my face, staring at myself in the mirror, admiring my small pores.  But then there was a shift and all of a sudden I was on a BAD trip!

I ended up at the local hospital, where they already knew me well from my various panic attack freak-outs.  At the front desk the nurse asked me why I was there.  I said “because I have cancer and I ate a pot cookie and now I am having a very bad and scary trip.”  She motioned me to the waiting room where my dad sat with me  – bless his heart – until my partner arrived.  I sat low in my seat, trying to hide from the others whom I deemed all highly suspicious.  Once my partner arrived I was interviewed by another nurse.  I told my story and then I threw up in a small bowl that magically appeared before me.  I was very scared.  I was like the lamest drug taker in the history of drug taking.  The nurse put me on a gurney in the waiting room so that I could “come down” while my partner stood next to me listening to my gibberish (he’s a saint).  Unfortunately it was a busy night at the hospital and I live in a big city – Toronto.  So very quickly the hospital waiting room filled up with characters right out of a Law & Order episode.  Next thing I knew I was lying in my gurney next to two crazy broads who were each shackled to their gurneys.  There was also a gaggle of police officers.  Why oh why did I eat that second bite of the cookie?!   I was also in a panic because I couldn’t remember if I had properly disposed of the rancid cookie.  I was paranoid that my dog Leroy would eat it – though looking back now I realize that the cookie smelled so disgusting that Leroy would have – unlike me – just said no.

Moral of the story:  take one bite and wait, wait a long time.  Or, better yet, ask your doctor for some medicinal pot.

Go Juice Yourself

If one more freaking person tells me that juicing will prevent my terminal cancer from returning, I will strangle them.  Or, at the very least, I will de-friend them on Facebook. Believe me, I know all about juicing – I lived in Los Angeles for twelve years!  And it’s not like I’m sitting around all day eating Doritos and drinking Orange Crush!  I eat a balanced diet, but I also include one daily treat – like a couple of cookies or a bowl of ice cream.  I inherited my sweet tooth from my paternal Grandmother who used to hide chocolate bars all over her house!  If anything, I am more aware than others about the importance of diet because I have an ileostomy.  With ileostomies, and mine is a “high-output” one, food (or juice!) goes right through you.  So I am very aware of getting enough calories and nutrients to keep my immune system strong.  I have managed to get myself back up to 115 pounds – from a low of 90 pounds! – so I clearly know what I’m doing.  I understand that people just want to help and that often they don’t know what to say and I truly appreciate everyone’s concern.  But please, enough with the Juicing.

Beauty Prep

It was six thirty AM, time for Sharon to start getting ready. She liked to look good for her surgical oncologist’s morning visits. She asked her nurse for a bowl of water and washcloth. Later in the day she would get a proper bath, well, as proper as you could get while lying in bed. But for now she just wanted to wash away last night’s grime. She washed her face, neck and armpits. She followed up with a moisturizing wipe, the kind used to take makeup off, it left her face with an attractive glow she thought. Then she brushed her teeth, using a styrofoam cup as her sink. As soon as she finished, a strong wave of nausea overcame her. Fuckety fuck fuck she muttered. She rode the wave for a few minutes – “nausea surfing” she called it – then thankfully it passed.

She propped up her travel mirror on the table next to her hospital bed. Looking in the mirror her first instinct was always to burst into tears. Her face was pale and scarily thin, she looked like a refugee from some godforsaken country. She had lost twenty-five pounds and her hair was falling out, shedding like a dog all over her pillow. But her daily beauty ritual of “putting on her face” as her grandmother used to say, (may she rest in peace), was essential to Sharon’s emotional survival. It gave her a sense of normalcy and the tiniest feeling of still having some control over her life and body. She applied blush to the deflated apples of her cheeks, plucked a few stray hairs, then added a tinted lip balm. Obviously she didn’t do a full red carpet look, if for no other reason than she didn’t have the energy. She finished primping by putting on scentless hand lotion and wrapping her bright pink Pashmina over her bony chest.

Feeling completely exhausted from the effort she lay back down, but then noticed that her overnight drainage bag was full of urine. Worried that it might overflow, she buzzed her nurse. A different nurse appeared this time. “You’re going to have to start urinating on your own, you’ve had this catheter in for too long, ” the nurse said with a bossy edge to her voice. “My bladder nerves were damaged during surgery, they’re taking awhile to bounce back.” Sharon said, trying not to reveal any emotion. The nurse gave her a chastising look, her expression suggesting that it was somehow Sharon’s fault that she wasn’t able to urinate. Dear God, where was her sweet nurse?

Ten minutes later her surgeon and his team of oncology residents were staring down at her. They always seemed very tall to her. It felt like being surrounded by tall, large headed aliens who were staring down at their human specimen restrained on a metal table. A very handsome resident, Dr. Josh Doukas, pulled her gown aside and inspected her ten inch long abdominal scar. “Looking good, looking good,” he said. She felt humiliated. Her sad little tummy, all mangled and grotesque. Why did Josh have to be so good-looking? “Now let’s take a look at your stoma, how has your output been?” If there is one thing a girl does not want to be asked by a handsome medical resident, it’s “how is the fecal waste matter that is flowing out of the red intestinal stump on your stomach?” Sharon wanted to disappear. Instead she smiled and patted the hideous bag affixed to her belly, the one that was collecting her waste. “It’s working well, though I’m still only eating soft foods.” The surgeon and his team continued to ask her questions and discuss her case amongst themselves. Sharon was a bit of a Cancer Celebrity, in that she had a very rare type of terminal cancer. The doctors, though they made a decent effort to hide it, were actually quite excited to have her as a patient – she was a fascinating case.

After lunch the physiotherapist and her assistant came by to help bring Sharon on a walk. They were both plain looking, lovely young women. Makeup free, hair pulled back in ponytails. The types who wore Patagonia jackets and comfortable European made shoes. Along with Sharon’s bladder, there had also been damage done to the nerves in her left leg. Apparently it had something to do with being splayed out on the operating table for twelve hours. So much to Sharon’s surprise, when she had awoken from surgery she’d found that she couldn’t walk, one leg was fucked up. The three of them walked slowly, Sharon’s urine bag attached to the walker, her giant splinted leg awkwardly inching forward and brutal pain shooting out from her incision area. She had once read about doctors who performed “vaginal tightening surgery” and for a moment Sharon wondered if her surgeon had tightened her tummy while stitching her up. The pain was enough to bring on another wave of nausea. She bent her head into the little plastic barf bowl that the assistant always brought on their walks and threw up a little clear liquid.

Sharon succeeded in making it across her room and halfway down the long corridor. This was considered a victory and for her prize she was offered a pain killer drip and some frozen yogurt. Sharon passed on the yogurt, but was excited about the painkiller drip. Maybe this is what it felt like to be a heroin addict – you looked forward to it, it was the highlight of your day. What if she became a drug addict? Then again she thought, who cares? I’m already dying, so why the hell not? She laughed to herself as the drug hit her body. She felt warm and cozy and happy. The sweet nurse – Louise was her name – stopped in and put a couple of pillows under Sharon’s legs so that they were angled upwards. “Sleep well Darlin,” she whispered to her.