Saturday, October 30, 2010

A positive sign?

Last summer, my social worker invited me to select a small, metal icon out of a big, glass bowl. I rooted around, looking at the designs and words carved into them until I found the one that spoke to me. I carried it around everywhere during my treatment last year. I'd often rub my fingers over its bumpy pattern and draw strength from what it represented to me.

I'd transfer this small metal cross carved with a vine, leaves and the word grace daily from one pocket to another. When the clothes I selected lacked a pocket, I'd toss it in my purse or wallet.

Last spring, I misplaced this protective talisman. It'd been with me throughout most of my chemo and all my remission. Yet, when I was going into treatment for the second time, I couldn't find it anywhere. I wondered if this was a bad omen of my prognosis.

The definition of talisman is: an object marked with magic signs and believed to confer on its bearer supernatural powers or protection. Since the cancer grew within me again while I carried it every day, maybe it didn't do its job? Perhaps it hid because it couldn't help me on my second bout with chemo.

But I believed it gave me strength, so I was sad when I'd lost my beloved little cross. I trusted in God and being in a state of grace, and I felt a little lost without it. I missed its continued presence and the calming effect rubbing it between my fingers brought me.

Yesterday, while watching TV, I thought my cell phone fell between the cushions of my chair. I reached in down to find it and instead discovered my lost cross. I hugged it to my chest, feeling great relief.

Is it coincidence I found it just as I finished treatment and started on the Olaparib maintenance? Is it a good sign? Have I moved into a state of grace, a state of remission, a period when I can enjoy my life without being treated for cancer? Will this talismen do its job and provide protective powers?

I'd like to believe all these things. I don't want to think I'm going to need it for strength because bad news is on the horizon. So I'm not. I'm going to go with the premise I found it at exactly the right time. At a period when I need the strength to get better and move on to the next stage of my life.

Believe me, I'm ready to do that.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Danger and opportunity

The Chinese symbol for crisis is actually two symbols: danger and opportunity. Cancer is a crisis and no one would dispute it would fall under the danger component of the symbol. But some may question the opportunity the disease presents.

Danger, danger, Will Robinson

Cancer is dangerous because it's a painful, gut-wrenching illness that kills far too many people. The surgery and chemotherapy treatments commonly used cause many side effects and can damage the heart, blood cells, immune system, digestive system, etc. Radiation produces its own set of dangerous side effects.

It's also dangerous to families and relationships because not everyone responds well to a cancer diagnosis. Both patients and those around them may react in unpredictible, unhealthy ways. While we'd like to believe this type of crisis brings people together, that's not always the case. Marriages fall apart, kids get angry with their parent for getting sick, friends disappear, and individuals go into denial and refuse to believe in the seriousness of the situation.

Cancer also presents a danger to the patient's sense of self esteem. It's hard feeling good about yourself when you have a deadly disease growing in your body. The side effects of surgery and treatment can make the cancer patient sick, weak, tired, lose/gain weight, get acne, lose hair, produce scar tissue, cause pallor or jaundice, etc. Many patients can't continue to work or partake in many of the activities of daily living. It can produce a feeling of helplessness and uselessness.

Awesome opportunity
Yet for all the danger cancer brings, it also presents valuable opportunities for cancer patients and those around them. But they have to be open to seeing the good side of an awful disease.

So, as the Chinese symbol indicates, crisis also brings opportunity.

I feel I'm a better person because of the learnings I've gained from cancer and, as a result, enjoy life more. Some of my blog readers tell me they've also changed. While I mentioned some of these before, they bear repeating. Here are a few of the things I've discovered along my cancer journey:

1. Relationships are important and constantly changing. Over the past year and a half, I've repaired relationships, culled or limited soul-sucking ones and deepened others. I've learned it's okay to say no and not have people hate you.

I've gone through rough patches in some relationships; but that trauma only strengthened them. The people in my life and spending time with them is far more important than things, making money or getting a promotion.

2. Work is just work. I used to get all worked up (pun intended) and stressed about my projects. I thought I was the only one who could accomplish the work I was assigned. One of my personality traits is a strong sense of responsibility, so I believed if a task was assigned to me, by God, I had to complete it regardless of how it taxed me.

Cancer taught me, I am replacable at work, I can ask for help and the stress produced trying to be Super Tina isn't worth it. While I value doing a good job and enjoy what I do, I live for what working allows me to do after work.

But I do have a bonus to my job, I actually enjoy so many of the people with whom I work. This allows me to work on those important relationships I discussed above. Lucky me.

3. Everyone has a unique story and I shouldn't be so judgemental. Sure, some people still bug me and I'm still convinced some people don't have a mirror or friends when they wander around in public in a questionable outfit. Like the woman in the grocery store yesterday whose breasts were practically falling out of her too-tight top. But I digress.

We never know the troubles others are experiencing in life. Be kind, be flexible and refrain from making judgements.

4. It's good to be patient. I'm thankful every day I wake up. I don't know how much time I've got on this earth, but I'm not going to waste it by getting impatient about things that don't matter in the whole scheme of life.

For example, I'm a much more patient driver. I rarely talk to drivers who make stupid moves any more. I drive slower. I don't crowd other cars as much. As a result, I actually enjoy driving more.

With my kids, I try to inject more humour into conversations, and I attempt to be more patient and flexible. Although it doesn't always work and at times I lose my cool, I'm doing my best. 

5. Don't sweat the small stuff. I know that's a book title, but it's so appropriate. It's easy to get caught up in little issues or aggravations, that really don't mean anything in the big scheme of things. I'm not saying it's easy to let go of some things, but my son's clean room, an aggravating salesperson, a driver cutting me off in traffic or a perfectly-clean house are not necessarily important.

I tell my son, that when he allows someone to bother him until he gets upset, he's given that person the power to get him in trouble/suspended, ruin his day (my day, his dad's day, his teacher's day) and get privileges taken away at home. Some kids push his buttons inadvertently, while the rotten ones, do it simply to get a rise out of him. I encourage him to let go of the little things that bug him and walk away. He can let others control his mood and his actions, or he can choose to let them go.

6. I've learned when choosing between a chore, or spending time with someone or participating in a fun activity, the tedious job should take a back seat. Again, life's too short.

Cancer's allowed me to learn many, many things about my life. I've said it before, my diagnosis with this disease and the journey it's taken me on has been a gift in many ways. While cancer is indeed a crisis, the optimist in me would rather look at - and share - the opportunity this journey brings.

Have a great day,

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The details

Yesterday, I took my cues from Dr. H and he was happy, so I felt the same way after my appointment to discuss the results of my CT scan. In fact, I was so relieved the results were good I didn't ask many questions.Of course, now I have questions, but since I see him again next Wednesday, I'll ask them next week.

It didn't help that he was really behind yesterday. While my appointment was scheduled for 3:30 p.m., I didn't see Dr. H until around 5. It was dusk when Michael and I walked hand and hand out of the cancer centre.

The nitty gritty scientific results
Dr. H pulled out a copy of my shadowy grey, black and white CT pictures, which compared the snapshot of my abdomen from June 22 to the one from Oct. 26. According to what he saw, the tumour they were tracking is gone, the omental caking has disappeared and the ascities isn't visible.

But, in the accompanying report, the radiologist provided measurements for what he's assuming to be the same original mass. If that's the case, it's only shunk minimally from 20.44 mm to 17.45 mm.

Dr. H. thinks the measurements are from two different masses, and the second one seems to be on the wall of my bowel. As a result, Dr. H has asked the radiologist to go back through the scans to ensure they're comparing the same shadowy grey dots.

I'm not exactly sure what's on my bowel and whether I need to worry about it. That's one of the questions I should have asked before walking out of the office. I guess I'll get some more clarity at my next appointment. But Dr. H didn't seem worried - in fact he said I did really well - and so I didn't fret. (Now I'm a bit worried.)

The good news
Overall, I'm relieved with the results. Even though there may be something (or maybe nothing) on my bowel, the cancer isn't growing rampant. I still have time to enjoy my life. Once the news really sunk in last night, I kept smiling with Michael because we have more time together.

The CT report says:
 - My lungs are clear
- Extensive omental masses have significantly improved since CT on Aug. 24
- No adenopathy (no cancer in my lymph nodes)
- My spleen, pancreas and adrenals are normal
- My liver demonstrates fatty infiltration (probably due to chemo) and has small hepatic capsular nodules, which have been seen before, and are probably unchanged
- I still have my hernia, gallstones and rotated kidneys (like the chemo was going to fix that)

At the bottom, the report says, "The single target lesion in the right lower quadrant is not representative of the improvement which has taken place."

So even the radiologist thinks what seems to be miniscule shrinkage doesn't represent how well I'm doing on the treatment. There's something not quite adding up and I'm somehow confident all will be okay.

The maintenance
I'm now done with chemo. Yippee! I started the maintenance program this morning. I now take eight Olaparib capsules morning and night. I still can't eat or drink anything but water for an hour before and two hours after each dose, but I'll have to learn to live with that.

I mentioned to C, my research nurse, I'm worried about the side effects I'll experience on the mono therapy. According to her experience, the side effects are very minimal. I hope that's the case with me too. I guess I'll find out.

Moving forward
Dr. H is going to continue to watch me very closely, which I find reassuring. I have weekly appointments in Hamilton for the next three weeks to ensure I tolerate the double dose of Olaparib well. Then the time between appointments will increase to three weeks and then every six weeks. So I'll have plenty of time to ask my questions and discuss any side effects.

With no more chemotherapy treatments, I'll gradually get stronger, my blood cell levels will rise, my energy will start to come back and my hair will make a reappearance. I'm looking forward to it all.

I guess I can now sign off with more confidence,

Your cancer-slaying friend

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Short and sweet

The news is good. My CT shows significant improvement over the one I had in August. My doc is happy. I am going on maintenance Olaparib starting tomorrow.

I'll provide more details in tomorrow's blog. But I wanted to share the good news tonight because I know lots of people are sitting on pins and needles waiting for news.

Thanks for all the prayers and good karma. It worked.


Inspired and optimistic

While waiting for test results, there's nothing better than to be reminded of the value of research and clinical trials. 

Last night, I had the honour of attending an event to recognize the sponsors and organizers of The Run for Ovarian Cancer. As the cheque for $125,000 that the event raised this year was presented to the London Health Sciences Centre, I reflected on how much the researchers rely on these funds to continue their valuable work. It made me proud that Team Tina and London Life made such a big contribution to this total.

During this event, I met many wonderful people, including those who work on The Run for Ovarian Cancer organizing committee, the sponsors of the event, the researchers from the Translational Research Team, and a gynaecological oncologist who works every day with women plagued by ovarian cancer. (I'm sure I'm forgetting someone and I apologize.)

They were gracious and welcoming, calling me a special guest. I proudly represented the women with ovarian cancer who benefit from the run and the research it funds.

Someone I respect told me last night that I was inspirational. My reply was, "That was never my intention." I never set out to inspire anyone, but to live my life and tell my story so others could understand what it's like to live with ovarian cancer. I write so I can process what is happening to me; as a form of self therapy. Over time, I learned I also write to help other women diagnosed with this terrible disease. Even though each individual's experience is different, we share some common thoughts, feelings and side effects.

Last night, I had the opportunity to talk to some of the ovarian cancer researchers, who were interested in hearing about my experience with Olaparib. It was a pleasure talking to them. I greatly respect the work they're doing. I believe, one day, their research will provide new ways to detect and treat this deadly cancer.

Although I was tired from waiting around at the hospital for my CT scan (they were behind) and my jaunt to Hamilton, the event energized me. It felt so good to be part of the celebration and I felt humbled to be in such amazing company.

I was asked to speak last night and I'm including my speech at the bottom of my blog. As many of you know, I'm not very comfortable with public speaking, but I'll put aside my anxiety any time to talk about such an important subject.

It's test result day in Hamilton. I head there this afternoon to give blood and see Dr. H. After being inspired last night and with the sun streaming in my window, I'm optimistic. Besides, my good friend texted me this morning to say she woke to "my" Bon Jovi, so it's got to be a good day. I know there are also many friends who are praying for good news. Thank you. I feel the support and love. And I look forward to writing my post-appointment blog to share the good news. (How's that for believing?)

Your cancer slaying friend,

My speech from last night

Thank you. It’s an absolute honour to be here this evening.

I’m currently fighting ovarian cancer for the second time in two years. When I was first diagnosed in April 2009, my friends at work quickly organized a team to participate in The Run for Ovarian Cancer. In less than a month, this team grew to over 70 participants and Team Tina was one of the top fundraisers. Thanks to the London Life matching program, we contributed a large sum to support the run’s efforts.

Before Team Tina joined this run, I knew nothing about this amazing event that Ann Crowley began in 2003 to help women, like herself, battling ovarian cancer. Over the years, the mandate of the run has grown to include research to find better ways to detect, fight and hopefully beat this insidious disease.

I had the privilege of touring the research facilities at the cancer centre last December and I was amazed at the diverse and mind-boggling work the doctors and researchers are doing. As a writer, I didn’t understand all the medical jargon and the implications of some of the studies, but I comprehended enough to be excited by the feeling that breakthroughs are right around the corner. Heck, I was ready to roll up my sleeve that very day and I often joke that I want to be a guinea pig for some of the projects.

But, they’re not quite ready for human participation yet. So, when I experienced a reoccurrence after nine months in remission I joined a clinical trial that’s studying the effects of a new drug called Olaparib. This clinical trial studies the effect of this drug in conjunction with conventional chemotherapy treatment. This new drug is designed specifically for those with the BRCA gene mutation, which I have. It’s believed to replace the function of this broken gene to prevent the cancer cells from repairing themselves, so they die. In fact my mantras are: one day at a time, and die cancer die!

While I have to travel to Hamilton to participate in this clinical trial, I’m more than willing to do that. I’m extremely thankful for the support The Run for Ovarian Cancer committee provided to help me with the travel for this important study.

I’ve just finished the chemotherapy portion of the clinical trial and now move on to the Olaparib maintenance portion. Fingers crossed, this drug will continue to kill the cancer cells and make me cancer free.

This evening is about celebrating the great work of The Run for Ovarian Cancer and those who sponsor and participate in the event. It’s also about the amazing and ground-breaking work of the researchers and doctors who search every day for a way to beat this disease. I know the efforts of all these people make a big difference to the women who fight ovarian cancer.

So thank you to everyone here and all those involved in the run. Thank you for inviting me here. And thank you all the hard work and support. I believe it will save many, many lives – maybe even mine.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Test day and moving forward

As I head to Hamilton today, I've got my fingers (toes, arms, legs) crossed for good results. It's test day.

First I'll head to the electroencephalogram (ECG) suite to test my heart health. It was strong and healthy at the beginning of my chemo regime in Hamilton, so I'm hoping that helped it stand up well to the chemicals. Sure, I huff and puff with exertion sometimes. Some activities make my heart beating very quickly, and it feels as though it's going to jump out of my chest. But that's usually in the weeks right after chemo, when my body is trying to process the toxic cocktail.

Then I'll head to the CT suite where I'll swallow the peach-flavoured radiactive juice and get hooked up to the I.V. that will provide contrast, both of which are designed to light up my insides during the computed tomography (CT) scan. This test will create photos of my abdomen, like the one seen below, that a radiologist will interpret.

I'll discuss these test results with my doctor tomorrow afternoon. That's when we'll know if the chemo and Olaparib did their job to shrink the tumour and kill those cancer cells. While I'll give blood tomorrow, I won't know my CA-125 right away. Before my last chemo, it was 77 (under 35 is normal). I was disappointed with that number, but my nurse seemed happy because it keeps getting smaller. I guess because I didn't have surgery to remove the tumour, it isn't dropping as quickly as I expect or want.

Good news, my ribs hurt less today. While the pain isn't completely gone, I can at least cough, sneeze and breathe deeply today. So maybe the pain is related to the chemo, gas or a gastrointestinal issue. Looking back at the side effects I've recorded over the course of my chemo, I noticed rib pain appears quite regularly. But this time it was far more intense, which has me worried. I'm happy I experienced this symptom just a day before my tests or else I would have fretted for longer.

I'm hoping to hear good test results tomorrow and head home with a big supply of Olaparib. Even if the tests show less than stellar results, at least we'll discuss a plan of action. It's fear of the unknown - and an overactive imagination - that I (and probably most cancer survivors) find difficult. I like action. When I know the plan, I can throw on my Xena, Warrior Princess outfit Patty mentioned yesterday, and do what's necessary to move forward.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Need to get positive

So do you like the new look of my blog? I thought a change was in order, given I'm moving on to the next stage of my treatment.

That's the optimistic attitude I wish I had this morning. I have to admit, I'm not feeling very positive because I'm scared.

I woke in the night with pain under my left rib. It reminds me of the pain I got when I had fluid in my abdomen. Automatically, I wonder if the tumour is growing again and producing ascities. My brain says, "That's impossible. It's just over two weeks since your last treatment. And the tumour was responding to treatment and shrinking after the third dose. The chemo and Olaparib are working to fight those nasty cancer cells. A return of the ascities is impossible."

But my heart and emotions are sending different signals, which make me nervous. Maybe they're making mountains out of mole hills. (I sure hope so.)

I want to be positive. I want to believe my CT scan will show the tumour is gone (best case scenario) or reduced to a teeny, tiny speck. I want to hear the EEG results show the chemo didn't damage my heart. I want to start on the Olaparib on Thursday with minimal side effects, knowing it'll keep killing the cancer. I want to believe my best laid plans are going to happen.

Powerful fear
But in the back of my mind, nasty, negative thoughts are creeping into my consciousness. These include: the chemo and Olaparib stopped working after my mid-cycle CT scan and the tumour is growing. I'm going to have to go on chemo (a different kind) again. Or, the Olaparib will cause debilitating side effects in me.

Of course, the biggest fear is hearing there's nothing we can do. We estimate you have x amount of time left.

Okay, so that's the worst case scenario. I'm Mrs. Positive this morning, eh? Fear of the unknown is a powerful emotion.

I'm going to have to pull out some positive reading material and boost my attitude. I think part of my negativity comes from extreme tiredness. I have low hemoglobin and I feel like I've been kicked around the block a few times by the six rounds of chemo. When I'm tired, I have more trouble feeling positive. But I'll get there.

My angel card readings over the last two days have been positive. They emphasized that beliefs become reality and can produce some amazing results.

I need to believe
The cancer is responding to the treatment and is miniscule or gone.

The Olaparib is going to continue to kill any residual cancer in me - forever.

I'm not going to have any side effects from the Olaparib. My tastebuds are going to remain. The acid reflux will be minimal. I'll adjust to the restrictive time frames associated with the drug and it'll just become part of life (and make it easy to lose weight).

Once my red blood cells replenish themselves, I'll get my energy back to work around the house and yard, socialize more and start exercising again.

I'll become the poster girl for Olaparib, the wonder drug. (Okay, that's pushing it, but I do hope the drug becomes the next best thing for treating women with BRCA cancers.)

So magic genie, God, the angels and all the good karma in the world, I'm asking these five wishes come true. I know it's a tall order, but I have to believe it's possible.

The plan
I get my CT scan and EEG in Hamilton tomorrow. It'll be a day of wandering around the hospital (I tend to get lost) and subjecting myself to the tests. But I'll be with my sister, which is always fun.

On Wednesday, I give blood and see Dr. H. My appointment isn't until 3:30 p.m., so I won't be blogging until late Wednesday or Thursday morning. I know some of you anxiously wait to hear the results, so don't worry if you don't hear from me right away.

One thing is definite, I move forward this week in whatever direction God has planned for me.

Fingers crossed it's the healthy, long path.

Friday, October 22, 2010

A few observations

Since I'm almost recovered from my last chemo, I thought I'd take this opportunity to blog about a few cancer-related observations. Some are serious, others funny, while some make you go hunh.

It's supposed to be a fun list and it's solely from my perspective. But I welcome input from any other cancer survivors out there.

1. Without eyelashes, I blink more.

2. Eyelashes prevent sleep from accumulating in my eye. I don't know where it goes.

3. Chemo acne is angry, lasts longer and resists treatment more than regular acne.

4. There is usually a chemo resistant hair, just to add dimension to the beautiful bald look. The rest of my head may shine in the bathroom light, but I'll find one or two hairs (that are an inch or longer) poking straight up, ruining my Kojak look.

5.  In the week after chemo, when my fingers and toes are tingly, hot water feels hotter and cold feels colder. (I know the tingly is probably pre-neuropathy, which is a loss of feeling, so I have to be careful with temperatures).

6. When hemoglobin levels are low, I feel the cold more than usual. Brrrrrr. I'm going to have to break out a toque soon.

7.  During the week or so post chemo, I move a lot slower and my movements are a lot more precise. I have to pay more attention to what I'm doing (ironically, when I don't have the concentration). Tasks take a little longer and require more energy.

8. The steroids make my body swell. For a few days, my fingers look like little sausages and I have to take off my rings.

9. When my body is swollen, it is extremely sensitive to touch and pressure. During this period, when Michael holds my hand, he squeezes too hard (even though it's the same pressure he usually uses). He has to be very, very gentle.

10. My moustache area (you know that little space of skin between your mouth and your nose) goes numb about a week after my treatment. When this happens, my tastebuds go numb too. (I think this may be Olaparib related.) When this happens, most food doesn't have flavour, only texture. It's weird.

These ten random observations reflect my experience with cancer and chemo, and may be ones you don't read about in a book or side-effect sheet. Everyone's experience is different, but I'm sure there are also some commonalities.

While I look forward to leaving these behind, I also think it's important to talk about them. Some of them may remain while on Olaparib, and I figure one day I may have to go on chemo again, so this will be a good reminder of what to expect. It's amazing how much I (intentionally?) forget when I leave chemo behind.

Besides, other cancer survivors may experience some of these side effects and wonder if they're alone. It's nice to hear others have been in the same boat.

Like I said at the beginning (and as always), I welcome comments, feedback, input about other chemo side effects or questions.

From your (currently) relatively side-effect-free friend,

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Miles before I sleep

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
- Robert Frost

I heard that quote last night and thought to myself, "Yeah, that's how I feel!"

While I have to admit, I am quite satisfied with my life and the choices I've made, there are still lots of things I'd like to do. None of them are extremely pressing and if I don't get around to them, I won't be traumatized. But I have a curious sense of adventure, so there are activities I think would be fun to try.

Some of these include:

- Riding a zip line in the rain forest
- Visiting the Whitesunday Islands in Australia
- Skydiving (again)
- Whitewater rafting (next spring everyone!)
- Taking a ranch-type holiday (with lots of horseback riding)
- Going back to Myrtle Beach (or other exciting destination with my sister)
- Camping with my family (I haven't done it in two years!)

Some of the bigger events I'd love to experience:

- Watching my children graduate college/university and get their first jobs
- Celebrating the marriage (or significant relationship) of my children
- Being a grandmother
- Being an empty nester and retiring with Michael
- Being cancer free for years and years

Oh, I'm sure I could go on and on with each list. Obviously, achieving the goals on the second list are far more important to me. But those goals require something I'm not guaranteed: time.

Over the past few weeks, I've been thinking about my life and acknowledge that I'm pretty darn lucky. I love my life. I have few regrets. And I love that I can say that.

So I'll live for today while praying for the gift of time. Hopefully, I'll be able to personify Frost's poem and go for miles and miles before I sleep.


Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Small, but mighty

It's a bit of an odd feeling being one of a handful of people randomly chosen to test the efficacy of Olaparib to treat ovarian cancer. When I really think about all the factors that had to align - timing of my reoccurence, the start up of the study in Hamilton, the computer's random selection - I feel a little awed I'm actually participating in this study.

Like James Bond and the rest of the double 0 agents in M15, I'm in select company. Yet, I didn't realize how special until I looked a little closer at the little white bottles that house my pills.

The study protocol indicates 150 women in 50 countries are participating in the clinical trial. Yet, my investigation reveals a bit of a different story. I'm not questioning it (in all honesty, I don't care as long as I am on it), but I find it interesting.

This summer, after approximately my third or fourth chemo, I finally looked closely at the label affixed to the side of the bottle. What looked like a bunch of drug company mumbo jumbo turned out to be country abbreviations with a number beside each. I guessed at some of the abbreviations (many incorrectly) before I noticed there were several pages to the label, secured with tape. I lifted the flap and discovered the pages contained the instructions, warnings and number of participants, as well as the addresses of Astra Zeneca (the drug company) for each of the countries involved with the clinical trial.

Flipping through, I found:

BE-NL - 2  (Belgium)
BE-FR - 3  (Belgium)
BE-DE - 4  (Belgium)
CA-UK - 5  (Canada)
CA-FR - 6  (Canada) - I think this one is mine because there are six participants in Hamilton
CZ - 7  (Sweden)
DE - 8  (Sweden)
PE - 9  (Peru)
US - 10  (United States)
AU - 12  (Australia)
IT - 13  (Italy)
UK - 14  (United Kingdom)
PA - 15  (Panama)
ES - 16  (Spain)
NL - 17  (the Netherlands)

If these numbers are accurate, 141 women in 11 countries are involved in a similiar experience to mine. In terms of timing, some are ahead of me and some behind. But we're all placing our hope - and our lives - on the chance this will beat back (and hopefully kill) all the cancer cells making their homes in our bodies. I'm sure we all feel this is our chance to expand the number of years we have to enjoy our lives.

I'd love to talk to some of the other participants. I'd enjoy hearing their stories and their dreams. I'm sure in many ways we're very different, but I'm equally confident we share similar traits too. We all have the will to live.

We're a small, select group willing to take a chance on an experimental drug to help, not only ourselves, but other women afflicted with ovarian cancer. I count myself extremely blessed to be one of this group.

Die cancer die.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Pocket angel

I've blogged about some pretty heavy topics over the last couple of days, therefore, I'm going to lighten it up today.

My cancer journey has opened many doors for me and allowed me to meet all kinds of interesting people. Some of these individuals, even if the interaction is only brief, have touched my life.

In August, I was having my mid-study CT scan done in Hamilton when Michael and I started talking to a woman, named Shirley, in the waiting room. Our conversation revealed, she is battling an ovarian cancer reoccurence too. We passed the time chatting about early morning appointments, the peach-flavoured contrast drink and clinical trials.

I don't remember how we got onto the topic of angels, but over the course of the conversation, Shirley revealed she was a glass blower, and she'd created small glass angels to be handed out at her funeral. I thought this was amazing because all the friends who came to celebrate her life would leave with a wonderful gift to remind them of her. She would live on in memories provoked each time the recipient held or looked at these glass angels.

While I had my CT scan completed, Michael continued the conversation, telling Shirley I write a blog describing my ovarian cancer journey, which she promised to check out. He also discovered she is a famous glass blower, the one who designs and creates each individual Juno award. We walked out of the hospital thinking how cool it was to have a minor brush with someone so talented and famous, and reflecting on the fact that anyone can be touched by cancer's cold, dark fingers.

A few weeks later, I found a small, white Fed Ex box in my doorway. Tears touched my eyes and a warm feeling passed through me as I opened the box to reveal two Shirley Elford pocket angels nestled inside the wrapping.

Michael often carries his angel in his pocket. I think he holds it to gain strength during trying times or as a way of remembering the generosity and kindness of a fleeting friend. I carry mine in my cancer bag so I transport the strength of the angels with me whenever I go to Hamilton. It also reminds me of Shirley who's also trying to slay the ovarian cancer dragon.

We shared a group hug with Shirley to say thank you when we saw her at the cancer centre a short time after we received our angelic gifts. She was very gracious, and took the short reacquaintance to share she too was starting a clinical trial. I wish her the best of luck, very few side effects and many extra years.

Shirley is just one of many people I've met during this journey who's positively touched my life. So, even though cancer brings many terrible and uncomfortable experiences, I'm trying to focus on the positive outcomes my dance with this disease brings.


Monday, October 18, 2010

Bring sexy back

Everyone likes to be noticed every once in a while. Receiving a second glance from a cute individual, or an appreciative wink and smile makes one feel attractive. I'm not talking about those advances near the end of a boozy night when each drink improves a person's appeal, but an honest to goodness, "there's something about you that starts my engine."

For us married/relationship folks, this validation of attractiveness comes mostly from our partners, although sometimes it's especially nice to know you've still got it by getting a "hey, how you doing" from someone else. But even when in a relationship, it's important to remind your significant other what you find captivating; and the more specific, the better. It's great to hear, "You're gorgeous tonight." But, it's an added bonus to hear, "You've got amazing arms (I can't keep my hands off those toned muscles)" or "I couldn't keep my eyes off your killer legs as you walked across the room" or "I'm so drawn to your beautiful smile" or even "Wow, those lunges are really working because your butt looks fab."

Some people are especially attractive and often get the catcalls and whistles (or the more refined, less construction-site variations), while others of us (me) occasionally get a second glance.

But all that changed when I got cancer. It's probably mostly me, my attitude and my perception, but I lost my sexy.

Of course, when I'm going through treatment, am hairless, covered in acne, swollen from steroids and covered in bruises, I wouldn't expect to feel sexy. In addition, my giant surgical scar and added poundage, only contributes to that low self image.

Yet even when I was in remission, was working out (which always makes me feel better about myself), had great colour and energy, and looked like a normal person, I didn't feel attractive to anyone.

I struggle with this change cancer made in me.

I feel like a friend, a mother, a sister, a daughter, but not an alluring, sexual being. I feel I can't be attractive to others any more because all they can see is the giant, invisible C cancer's painted on me. If a guy looks in my direction, I feels he sees cancer first, which cancels out any va-va-voom factors.

Of course, Michael loves me and says I've still got it for him. But it's hard to accept because I don't believe it myself.

As I recover, I'd like to bring sexy back, but I don't know how. I think it's something I'm going to have to work on with my therapist and in my own head. I don't even know if other cancer patients experience the same thing because I've never seen anything written on the subject. Surely I'm not alone.

While this lack of sensuality matters little in the middle of treatment, it's a delimma for me afterwards. Everyone likes to hear they're alluring and captivating. Everybody wants their own sexy to shine through.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Lost and floundering

Sometime I sit back and reflect on my cancer journey and marvel at the wonderful discoveries it's allowed me to make about myself, the goodness and generosity in others, and the opportunities to which it's exposed me.

But not all the lessons cancer is teaching me are wonderful. Lately, I've learned some pretty hard things about myself. I'm recently struggling with some of these discoveries and I feel a little lost.

I've always known I like being in control. I've been able to manage my life, my relationships, my family situations and my work. I've always been of the mind that if something is wrong, do what you can to fix it. If you're unhappy in your job, make changes to it or find another one. If you're having trouble in a relationship, talk it out, get counselling or move on.

But this journey has taught me I can't always have control and I can't always take care of everyone. That's hard for me.

So now (and in the future) when I need to relinquish control to others, I don't have the framework from which to operate. I don't know what to do and I haven't given those around me the experience and maybe even, permission, to necessarily do it because I've always taken over. I'm not even sure I know how to learn to let go. I'm working on it and maybe discovering these things will help me learn ways of dealing with it.

But as someone who is a control freak and used to taking care of others, I think about the end of my life and what may happen, and I'm scared by it all. I don't even know how to tell others how to take care of me. What is going to happen when I can't do it? How can I tell people what I need in the end?

I'm used to fixing things, but what if something can't be fixed? I can't fix the cancer in me. I can't fix the way my body reacts to the treatment? I can't control what new and improved treatments are going to come out to help me live longer (or are they)? I can't control the cancer if it takes over and kills me.

I'm also struggling with my beliefs in optimism, good in the world and gettting what you deserve. I believe I'm basically a good person and count on the foundation of goodness in others. I like to look at the world as if the glass is half full. It may be swirling snow and -30C outside, but I can look at how pretty the sun reflects off the snow and be thankful for the fuzzy afghan keeping me warm. In the end, the sun will come out one day and pour sunshine on the world.

When I'm in my chemo fog, and even more specificially, when I was talking to my social worker the other day, I was pretty pessimistic. I'm facing some ugly truths that beat me down and tampered the optimism. These revelations are coming out in this blog and will affect my life now. I know they're not pretty, but that's reality.

This cancer journey has thrown me for a loop. I am feeling down, discouraged and out of control. Sure, my last chemotherapy treatment is done. And as much as I'd like to believe it's all over, I know deep down the cancer is probably going to come back.

As everyone is celebrating, high-fiving and wearing yellow, I'm discouraged. I don't want to be the nay sayer and bring down the mood, but I don't believe cancer is done with me forever. That's a hard thing for an optimistic to believe - and it's probably why I'm struggling so much.

I have no idea what life is going to be like on the Olaparib full time, I don't know how I'll feel and I don't know if it'll work. I really pray it does. I'd like this new and amazing drug to prove me wrong. I'd be more than happy to make the announcement from the roof tops when I'm cancer free and in a long, long remission.

As an optimist and someone who believes you reap what you sow, it's hard to accept the pain and suffering in life. Mind you, I'm lucky because I've borne witness to the fact that if you treat others with dignity and respect, it's bound to circle right back to you. I've reaped far more than I've sown with kindness and generosity by people, who don't expect anything in return. I'm continually amazed and humbled by the giving spirit of others. I wonder why little ol' me deserves so much.

But, we aren't guaranteed a good, happy life with our families and friends. We aren't promised a long life with a wide-range of exciting and pleasurable events. We don't even get the chance to earn it. If we're good all our lives, it doesn't mean bad things won't happen to us. That's a tough lesson to learn.

So where does that leave me? I don't know. I'd like to believe I'm still an optimist, but my eyes and mind have been opened to some of the harsh realities of my situation.

When I saw my social worker, she said I seem tired. I'm so very tired, and that's probably why the optimism sparks aren't lighting anything these days. I know my optimism will return and I'll be able to see the good in situations - maybe differently than before; but this too is reality. For now, I'm just a damp, soggy, tired, scared, lonely soul.

It's part of the journey.


Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Rough time

Maybe it's because I  know it's my last one, but I am very, very impatient with the recovery process this time. I feel awful and lethargic. I think I'm trying to will myself out of the post-chemo symptoms because when I start to feel better, I'll stay feeling better.

But no matter how strong my willpower or how much I want it, I can't will the toxic chemicals out of my body. I have to let the ninjas work and let them use all my energy to eat away at the cancer.

My sister has been great about reminding me of these facts. I tell her I feel guilty for feeling so terrible and not being able to do anything. I lament that I'm whining and she assures me reporting my symptoms is not complaining. She lets me moan and she commiserates - and then she reminds me it's the last one.

I am so lethargic I can barely function. I'm walking around like I'm in a fog. I hate that nothing seems to have any meaning. I know it's the chemo (and I hate it), but I don't care about anything that's going on around me. I just don't have the energy.

The bone pain is kicking in too. Then I'll have the stabbing pains in my legs, feet, knees, hands and wrists. I'll swallow my extra strength Tylenol or Tylenol 3s (depending on how severe it is) and wait some more.

I hate to wish away days, but that's what I'm doing.

But one day - very soon - I'll come out of the fog and be back in the world where it all matters. And I'll be thankful to be there.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010


I am thankful.

I know yesterday was Thanksgiving, but I didn't get my butt to my computer to blog about it. Besides, I think I have reasons to be thankful every, single day. Yes, today (and probably tomorrow and Thursday) are going to be bad days, but I'm here. Enough said.

So here is a short list of things I'm especially thankful for today:

1. The people who love me (and all the wonderful things they do and are). I am very, very blessed to have so many wonderful people in my life.

2. The doctors, nurses, researchers and medical professionals who take care of me.

3. That I am one of 75 women in the world getting Olaparib in the clinical trial (and only six in Hamilton).

4. This is my last chemo treatment (Forever? I'm not confident. For now? Yes, and thank God.)

5. That I'm here. I've had another year to enjoy life and all it has to offer.

My list is short and sweet today. I feel myself tumbling into the black, chemo well, so I'm going to take it easy.

I hope you remembered why you're thankful this past weekend - even if it was just for the pie.


Saturday, October 9, 2010

A hilarious way to mark 2011

Once again, I'm overwhelming thankful for all the wonderful things my village does for me. Each week, just before chemo, my fridge and freezer are filled with delicious meals and treats from my friends at work. One couple insists on sending something amazing every week. Others ask when the food is being delivered and, despite busy lives, make the effort to make something on at least one of the weeks. Those who don't feel they can cook or don't have the time, buy pre-made food or send gift cards. Thanks to all of you, we Bratschers will never starve.

But I don't only get food. Others generously donate money for gas, housecleaning or other necessities, they visit and email, buy me cofee, lunch, angels, saint medallians, crosses and other beautiful gifts, accompany me to appointments to ensure I'm not alone, participate in the Run for Ovarian Cancer, pray for me, or make other generous offers to help with my fight. I am so stunned by the giving spirit of people. I even feel guilty that I'm the recipient of such amazing support. Despite having cancer, I am incredibly lucky.

On Thursday, I found out about another astonishing, yet up-until-then secret endeavour. I'd heard inklings of a fundraiser organized by my department at work, but knew it was hush hush and didn't ask too many questions. When I got an envelope of money on Thursday to help with my housecleaner, I had to find out details.

So Thursday evening, I got a copy of the 2011 fundraising calender created by the Communications and Advertising Department at London Life. I cried at the hard work, thoughtfulness and generosity. But those tears were quickly replaced by ones of laughter. It's a hilarious creation that will bring a smile to my lips every single time I look at it.

I've been told the project was a group effort. All the designers in the department worked on various pages, others kept track of the pre-sales and organized the money, other advertised and sold to folks all around the building, the brave ones volunteered to be photographed (not knowing how their pictures would be used within the calendar pages), it's being printed by our team, and of course, many, many people from both inside and outside London Life bought copies of the amazing and laugh-inducing way to mark time next year (without ever seeing the finished product).

Wow! I'm honoured and flabbergasted. I LOVE it! I am so very, very thankful for both the calendar and their proceeds. Some days I don't have enough energy to crawl out of bed and then with the many, many appointments to Hamilton, my house gets very messy. The donation is exactly what I need to ensure I don't overdo it while I'm recovering and staves off embarassment when I receive visitors. My village once again comes through - and for the second year in a row - and gives and gives and gives. I will keep saying it, I am an incredibly lucky woman.

My wonderful village is just one of the many things I have to celebrate on this Thanksgiving weekend. But I have to admit, all those who support and love me during these battles with cancer are near the top of my list. So thank you all.

Be sure to take a few minutes to remember all for which you're thankful this sunny, Thanksgiving weekend. You may be amazed at how many items grace your list.


Friday, October 8, 2010

Last one, I'm done

It only took one stick this morning in the back of my right hand and I was up and running. With an early 8:30 a.m. appointment, I swallowed my Olaparib by 8:40 and had the pre-chemo drugs flowing before 9:30. By 9:40, the paclitaxol was delivering the black ninjas to my veins. Die cancer die!

I'm a little tired, but so far that's it. Two more weeks and I'll start to feel better. My hair will start to grow back. I'll be on the road to recovery.

My CA-125 is still too high for my liking at 77, but at least it's going down and my research nurse seems happy I trust my doc and nurse are taking care of me and recommending what's right for my situation.

I'm so happy my chemo treatments are done. I can now start get through the crappy side effects and start on the next phase of my journey.

Thanks to everyone and all their support today. I even got photos of my friends at work sporting their Team Tina t-shirts. Loved it! Made me smile in the chemo suite. My supportive village is the best.

Happy thanksgiving and long weekend to all my Canadian friends. It's a great time to be thankful (the sunshine doesn't hurt either).

Your smiling and relieved friend,

Yellow power!!!

Michael and I will sport our bright yellow Team Tina t-shirts as we walk into the chemo suite this morning at 8:30 for my LAST chemo treatment (ever?).

Even though it's a little snug now (damn steroids), I'm proud to wear this shirt my designer friend at work created when a bunch of friends at work started Team Tina in honour of me for the Run for Ovarian Cancer. Besides, it goes well with my teal Converse chuck shoes I bought because they were the closest colour to the ovarian cancer awareness one.

I learned yesterday, a bunch of wonderful people are going to sport their Team Tina t-shirts or wear yellow at work today in support of my last chemo treatment. Wow! They did it last year when I had my last treatment and I'm honoured they'll do it again today. I'm sure all that yellow and the yellow light another friend envisions around me every treatment will be powerful and strong.

As much as I like this t-shirt, let's make this the last time we wear it for this reason. While I'm caustiously optimistic, I need your hopes and prayers this chemo and the Olaparib continue to eradicate the ovarian cancer. A few prayers or good karma that it only takes on needle stick would be appreciated too.

Off I go to Hamilton with my supportive husband who'll fetch food and water, get me fresh warm blankets, ensure I'm comfortable, be a supportive force and even rub my back, if necessary.

Your yellow-and-teal sporting, cancer-slaying friend,

P.S. It's going to be a beautiful day, get out and enjoy it. While I'll be sitting in a chemo suite, I consider the yellow sunshine a good omen. So let's all make the most of today.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

High hemoglobin and more kilometres

Maybe it's my winning personality or easy-going ways. Perhaps they like my sense of humour or my smiling face during our visits. Or (this is the real reason), Health Canada reviewed the protocol of the clinical trial and made some changes. Regardless of this reason, the number of visits required to participate in the clinical trial during the maintenance portion have more than doubled.

So, keeping with the dwarf theme, hi ho, hi ho, off to Hamilton I continue to go.

It's a good thing I like my doc and nurse. And I was just saying yesterday, I really don't mind the drive. I also know they're taking good care of me and monitoring my situation. So it's all good.

But first things, first. My recovery and dehydrating abilities (including those two beers on Tuesday night) must be phenomenal because my hemoglobin was 104 yesterday; well above the 100 necessary to get chemo. So my last treatment will be Friday, without an additional blood test that morning. Yipee!

And since it's a go, my nurse went over the schedule after Friday. It's going to be a whirlwind of events.

My end-of-chemo CT scan is on Oct. 26, two and a half weeks after my last chemo. That's when we'll learn the black ninjas and the big, white capsules eradicated that tumour (fingers crossed). All clinical trial CT scans are done on Tuesdays in Hamilton, but, Dr. H is away at a big cancer conference - where Olaparib will be one topic of discussion - so I'll return on Wednesday, Oct. 27 for my appointment with him. At that time, we'll discuss the results of my CT scan, and do the end of chemo/beginning of maintenance transition.

I'm sure I'll get my maintenance supply of Olaparib at that time. The dose doubles during that phase, so I'll be swallowing eight of the giant pills morning and night. I also will not be able to consume anything but water between 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. That puts a bit of a damper on my social life, but I'll have to get used to it.

That means this cycle, I'll only have 2-1/2 days without the pills and their rigid time restrictions on eating and drinking. When I expressed my disappointment, Dr. H was encouraging, saying "you get to go on the wonderful drug even quicker." Yes, but I'm a little worried the side effects I experience with chemo and Olaparib together will continue. He doesn't understand the lack of tastebuds, heartburn, upset stomach, lack of appetite and general feeling of unwellness. He assured me those shouldn't be present with Olaparib alone. But he doesn't know. So I worry.

After I start the maintenance program, I need to visit the cancer centre weekly for the first three weeks. At that time, they'll monitor my blood levels and go over my list of side effects and symptoms to ensure I'm tolerating the new dose.

Then instead of every 12 weeks, as was listed in the original protocol, I'll return every six for monitoring. I'll continue to have CT scans every 12 weeks to check out any residual evidence of cancer (again, I hope there is NONE).

I wasn't upset when I learned about all the additional visits. I know it's for my health and safety. The first thing I said in response was, "I guess I'd better renew my parking card." At least, I'm getting Olaparib. That's the most important factor. The additional appointments, while a little annoying and expensive, are a small price to pay for the chance to continue to kill those cancer cells.

I continue to be the cancer slayer.


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The seven dwarfs

I don't know why, but I woke up grumpy this morning. I shouldn't be. I should be happy. I feel well, I'm meeting friends for coffee today, I ate pancakes for breakfast and I see my therapist this morning. But for some reason, I'm grumpy.

It actually started last night. While I was cheerful and productive most of the day, it caught up with me after dinner. I was so sleepy, I could barely talk. I know I was terrible company.

I'm still tired this morning. I suspect it's due to low hemoglobin, which makes me worried it won't be high enough tomorrow to proceed with chemo on Friday. And I so want this chemo on Friday. I want the final one to flow through my veins and deliver the stealthy, deadly ninjas to the remaining cancer cells. I want to go through the side effects one more time and then start to feel better. I'm so tired of all this.

I guess I'm playing doc by predicting my blood cell counts. That portion of me is also a bit worried because I'm also sneezy this morning. My daughter has a cold, so I'm afraid I've caught the virus, which will lower my immune system even more. But I'm taking my vitamins, drinking juice and consuming my barley, hoping they will stave off the dreaded cold. I'd be dopey to do nothing to try to help my body along.

I won't be bashful when I see my doctor in Hamilton tomorrow because I want to hear the bottom line. I want to know my red and white blood cell counts, and my CA-125. I want to know the plan. But I'll continue to hope and pray everything is okay and chemo is a go.

Of course, I should add a few new dwarfs to my repitoire including: impatient, baldy, chunky, smiley and optimistic (not necessarily in that order).

So I guess you could say, I'm Tina, the 12 dwarfs. I have the stature for it.

From your short, multi-faceted friend,

Monday, October 4, 2010

The good week

I LOVE this week during my chemo cycles. During this time, I feel good, my body gets stronger and my mind is clearer, I can eat what I want (because my stomach isn't rebelling), when I want (because I don't have Olaparib time restrictions).

This is the week when I love life, and am able to go out there and enjoy it.

Michael and I had a productive weekend, which makes me feel good. We cleaned and organized parts of our house. While it wasn't the social weekend we had planned due to a mutant cold virus and my compromised immune system, I feel normal and productive. Hope you feel better, Di.

Of course, during this week of feeling good, I visit my doc in Hamilton and then (fingers crossed) have my LAST chemo treatment! C'mon red blood cells.

To prep for my blood-test appointment on Wednesday, I'll have to drink a couple of beers on Tuesday night to dehydrate myself. Oh the sacrifices I make. Alcohol just started agreeing with my stomach on Saturday, so I can now enjoy those medicinal beverages.

I have to admit, I'm eagerly anticipating this continuous feeling of well-being when the chemo treatments are done. Thankfully, that's just around the corner.

Happy Monday.