Tag Archives: collapsed lung

Now, How Did We Get Here?

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I was recently asked to pen this summary for an In Her Own Words column for the regional ovarian cancer newsletter (http://www.ovariancancerosw.org/). Since writing the summary was helpful for me, I thought it might also be helpful for readers of this blog to step back and look at the consolidated version of the arrival and survival with metastatic cancer. So here it goes…..

In my own words…..Marcy Westerling

At age 50, I was having a wonderful time and experiencing exciting work as a community organizer with a passion for justice. I had founded the Rural Organizing Project (ROP) in 1992.

Speaking against wars at home and abroad

Speaking against wars at home and abroad

My 50th year was all about transitions, the most exciting one having me take a leave from ROP as I accepted an Open Society Fellowship to advance my model of organizing at a national level. Then, in the spring of 2010 as I turned 51, my bliss was derailed by a Stage IV ovarian cancer diagnosis.

It started on my birthday with a vague feeling of heaviness. I wondered if the lovely cake family had made was proving too much for my system. The feeling didn’t lift and in subsequent days I mentioned a sense of someone sitting on my chest. Odd. I stayed active, but climbing slight hills on my bike required breathing tricks – it was like I was practicing being a woman in labor. A visit to the doctor led to a diagnosis of bronchitis, which didn’t make sense given how well I felt.

At the start of the appointment I mentioned that I also had intermittent stomach issues in recent months and I asked to talk about that too vs. waiting for the appointment I had made several months back to take place. They said, “No. Both your lungs and your stomach are big topics – you must choose one.” The appointment focused on my breathing. I had never before left a doctor’s office feeling silly.

In the next week my breathing became increasingly labored until I could no longer talk on the phone to make an appointment. That night I could barely climb the stairs to bed. I dreamt of an ambulance coming for me. The next morning my distressed sweetie found no argument as he drove me to urgent care.

Luckily, the doctor on duty was fantastic. Oxygen was given and x-rays were taken before he even completed my chart review. In a no drama way, he said I would need admittance to the hospital to figure out, “why the lung of a young, healthy, fit woman had collapsed.” He was so calm, so was I.

I texted friends as we commuted to the hospital thinking, “I’ll never again have such an exciting 15 minutes of medical fame.”  I wanted everyone to know, “Marcy’s lung has collapsed!” It seemed cool.

The ER docs fast went from being comedic pals to sober workers as they narrowed the list of possible causes. They extracted two liters of amber fluid from my right chest, allowing immediate relief. I wouldn’t know until months later that that doctor told my friends in the hallway, “The situation looks grim.”

It would take a few exploratory surgeries and some false leads before I was officially informed on the side of the highway on April 22nd, 2010, I had some form of advanced metastasized cancer. For those who love drama, and the diagnosing of advanced cancer stories are always full of drama, details can be found in my short essay, The First Hello.

I have been in treatment since then. I often say, “I never went home after diagnosis.” Of course, I did but not really. My husband and I had laboriously and lovingly built the life we had wanted.

The happy couple 2009

The happy couple 2009

It was based on the premise of staying alive and in good health. We lived in the woods with few neighbors. A half-acre pond was our front yard.

Our home at the pond

Our home at the pond

All around the pond were the orchards, animal pens and never ending year round beds for vegetables and flowers. We fed ourselves from what we harvested, sold eggs and imagined a small farm stand at the end of our driveway that would be the pension that neither of our cherished day jobs offered.

We loved our lives but with this diagnosis, I knew immediately any effort to stay alive would require building a new life – it would be in the city and it would include rigorous focus. My husband was more bereft than I at our loss. I had choice; he was along for the ride. Luckily, we live amid rich community and friends took over. They housed us in the city during frontline treatment, handling meals and facilitating decisions, allowing Mike and I to be dazed by the chaos of disease’s arrival.

By my last of six frontline chemotherapy treatments, my CA 125 was respectable and our move into our new city life was set. We started over. We built a life accepting the “new norm” and geared to bolstering my odds. They say that diagnosis via a collapsed lung means you have a ten % chance of surviving to two years.

I passed that marker in April of 2012 with little fanfare, as I was seven months into my first recurrence with my cancer far from tamed. An essay, Expiration Date, marked the occasion. That summer was especially hard as I experienced fairly extreme Doxil burns on my butt, hands and feet before being pulled off that chemo which had had minimal impact on my cancer. I coped by writing It’s A Dying Shame and some other essays. I started a support group across ages and diagnosis; it was for women wanting to talk about staring at mortality and also called It’s A Dying Shame.

I strive to embrace livingly dying, a phrase I credit to the late Christopher Hitchens even as I co-opt his language. This past November I did a reading at a coffee house of Livingly Dying essay excerpts and this September I travel to an Adirondacks retreat for a writer’s residency to decide where I might go next with the topic.

In April of 2013, twenty months after starting the qualification process, I transitioned from traditional treatment efforts to stabilize my cancer here in Oregon (OHSU) to a Phase One, Cohort Four immunology clinical trial at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Quite a harrowing commute for medical care!

I had my official Phase One final treatment at the close of August. Odds are I will continue the commute for maintenance vaccines until I recur (and move to Phase Two) or run out of vaccine material in another year. But I await testing in late September and the resulting decisions. A great thing about treatment at Penn, though, is they don’t discard you from clinical trials if your disease progresses, the norm, they just adapt. I like that attitude. It matches what patients are forced to do.

Finding myself on the cutting edge of medical breakthroughs (or one more splendid failure), I decided to write a blog so that others seeking to prolong living with advanced cancer have easy access to my experience. It is called Livingly Dying – notes and essays on daily life with terminal cancer and if you like it, I hope you will spread the word to others. To date women from 45 countries have accessed the site.

Perhaps bartering my body for medical advances will grant me more time to find the sweet spots of living fully while terminally ill. While I stay saddened at how deeply interrupted my life was and how likely it is I will die younger than planned, I do marvel at how content Mike and I are with the life we rebuilt. We had a good life. We have a good life.

The happy couple 2012

The happy couple 2012

Treatment Summary

Diagnosed: April 2010 Stage IV Ovarian Cancer – standard frontline therapy (Carbo/Taxol), optimally debulked, started parallel Phase Three clinical trial (BIBF 1120) in June 2010. Recurred: October 2011with multiple visible tumors in abdomen, started Gemzar/carbo. Carbo stopped in March 2012, Gemzar in April. CT Scans showed some tumors stabilizing while new tumors appeared. Started Doxil in May with Avistan added in June. Doxil stopped in August due to mixed CT scan and burns on hand, feet and butt. Surgery to remove easily available tumors set for early October – this was not technically a second debulking (because conventional wisdom of the time does not recommend them) but it did gather needed tumor for the Autologous OC-DC Vaccine Phase One trial I had been trying to enter for 12 months and gave me head start going back on chemo. Started low dose Taxol with Avistan in October 2012, which I stayed on until April 2013. Disease reduction with no new growth shown in January and May 2013 ct scans! My care transitioned to University of Pennsylvania with first treatment (Cytoxan, Avistan, Vaccines) of clinical trial June 5th and 6th 2013. My ca 125 has been at 7 since February 2013. (Unfortunately, I can have new cancer growing with a ca 125 of 13.)

The Philly Chronicles – Trek Four, Part A

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Monday (6.3.2013) dawned gray in Portland rather then kicking off the predicted suite of sunny days. The forecast had been revised overnight. I have yet to give up trying to control the weather, a habit I developed upon moving to the rainy part of the Pacific Northwest. The rain is fine, the gray can be gorgeous but my disposition is for sunny and warm – I never tire of it.

May weather was especially harsh to accept after a remarkably dry and blue-sky winter and spring. This May ended up being the third wettest on record. And cold. The nation suffered big weather turmoil while we just coped with the grumpiness of winter weather in spring. So yes, I counted down to my one sunny Oregon day before bidding goodbye to fly back to Philadelphia – more planes, airports and hospitals in store for me. The sun did sneak out albeit a few hours late. I thrilled in its arrival.

Between chores outside I toured the different nooks that make up our small urban homestead. I love to greet the flowers, their beauty deserving a small shout out. I am less outgoing with the vegetables and fruits, the exception being our young apple trees promising an actual crop this year. We moved to the city when I got my stage iv cancer diagnosis three years prior, leaving behind our dream farmstead with my flock of ducks and the ever expanding orchards and growing beds my husband fed us from. We planned to grow old there. We lost several dreams with the arrival of cancer.

I never really went home post diagnosis. Dear friends literally met us at the emergency room where doctors were puzzling out my collapsed lung. It would take a week for diagnosis but after removing liters of fluid from my chest, they whispered in the hall to these friends that, ‘there was never a good explanation for a collapsed lung.” We stayed with these friends that rocky April filled with all hours of trips to emergency rooms and then the pronouncement of terminal cancer. We stayed with them in an ad hoc guest room for the duration of front-line treatment. It insured care and laughter during a bewildering few months for my husband and me.

With the cancer diagnosis I committed to staying strong and for me that meant easy (aka biking) access to medical and complimentary care and, frankly, the busyness that a city offers. Depression seemed a secondary threat. It was time to say goodbye to the greater isolation and distances of country living.

Our new home, small and perfect with a decent allocation of land, steadily took on the shape of our revised dreams. Two vegetable beds were squeezed into the side yard, then three on the sidewalk meridian, two community plots acquired nearby and the expansion continues, a source of shared delight. I know every square foot of it very well.

Monday, soaking up the sun in preparation for my flight, I discovered a hidden treat. We had pruned out some trees blocking the southern sky last winter, now rewarding the effort was the most subtle and stunning iris blooming where a few trillium lounged months back. I took a photo to take with me on my travels.photo

I start this trek (Tuesday – 6.4.2013) with excitement. Finally, I begin the multi-day process of treatment in this phase one trial. A chemo cocktail of cytoxan and avistan day one, vaccines to the groin day two, and for this first cycle – blood draws every 12 hours for an additional day. Then home where I hope the sun and the iris will still be holding court.

I travel with Roxanne Cousins. She died earlier this year at age 40 leaving a young son to do his best with memories. Roxanne and I both worked hard to qualify for this trial, sharing notes and encouragement along the way. After surgery she was told that she didn’t have enough volume to meet the damn criteria. She was determined to try again; to get in this trial; to buy some more time with her loved ones. The cancer claimed her before another surgery could happen. I pledged to keep her spirit with me in a trial that is too early on to promise miracles but those of us with ovarian cancer just seek time extenders.

The Sunday N.Y.Times (6.2.2103) covered the interesting challenge of HIV patients in the U.S. once short tracked for death while often in their 20s and 30s, the miracle arrival of their own cocktail and the problems they now face of aging after decades on treatment. They featured one such man who was extremely close to death when the call came about ‘miracle pills.’ Within weeks he was gaining weight and mobility. Decades later, he lives. What a concept. Imagining that process occupied my mind. Of course, he couldn’t know it was a miracle at the time but must have considered it as a weak possibility. How long did it take him to accept this drastic change of fate? Could he ever revel? Does it matter?

What terminally ill person has not awaited a clarifying call in the months after diagnosis offering a reprieve? “So sorry, but you really have this other more benign calamity to contend with.” I met a woman who got such a call – it only changed her from a stage 3c to 2b but in the terrain of hope that is huge. With this trial I enter the terrain of hope.

Part B to follow shortly…

Two Years and Counting

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Greetings all.  The month between my birthday (March 25th) and Earth Day aka my little brother’s birthday (April 22nd) in 2010 marks the roller-coaster month of being diagnosed.  A month where I went from a 10 mile/day bike commuter to a woman who couldn’t gasp enough air to climb the stairs to her bedroom.  And thus a collapsed lung was diagnosed and weeks later stage iv cancer.  In that month I lost so much that was. Today I biked the hour each way to my 19th dose of chemo.  Next week I have my three month look/see inside.  The last two such check-ins were full of sad news.  I hope this one is as close to dull as possible.  Regardless, life is good.

Below I share a piece I wrote last month after attending a memorial for a younger friend diagnosed 6 months prior to me.
David’s Sendoff

I did not fret the plane’s departure. There were no papers to hang on to, no bags to lug, no crowds to survive. It was just time to go. And then there I was admiring the world above the cloud laden skies of Oregon – a rising red line marked the emerging sun, small eruptions like stepping stones for giants made me smile as I knew the clouds obscured massive mountain bases below. This journey would be just fine regardless of where it took me.

Yesterday at this time I was getting ready for the memorial of a friend. He died at 42 leaving behind a beloved wife and two young children. Cancer ransacked him. Cancer has me as well, metastasized since diagnosis and yet relatively well behaved compared to the sieges David endured in his 2 years. I prepare to close out my second year with cancer, dependent on chemo cocktails and regular cycles of ill days to stay alive, never knowing when the cancer will surge and end the tentative truce I pretend to have with it. I do know that soon I will surpass the prognosis of a 90% chance of being dead within two years. I am not smug. I get the creativity, control and chaos of my dance partner. But I am content.

Where is David now? He never mentioned death as an option as the rest of us counted down the days to his body’s complete retirement. By the end they were pouring chemo directly into his brain. It was always clear to me, his terminal sister on this journey, that his body was being asked to endure too much.

I dreaded the memorial because I had been so sick the days leading up to it due to an allergic response to my latest dose of chemo. I needed a walking stick. I could not afford to leak a tear, as my body was already so dehydrated. Armored with my gals as chaperones, whether to fight off death or any other assault on my system, we arrived in good cheer and stayed there as we got to know David, the husband of our colleague Grace, far better than we had in life.

The church was at capacity with formally attired folks, somber but grounded in the presence of so many children too young to cope with adult displays of grief. Hushed tones and sniffles took the place of keening. The grieving widow seemed more a bride – gorgeous, smiling, cuddling children in their world of play. Lighting funeral candles was fun when enveloped by relatives and attention. “Where is daddy?”, is a question they had asked far too much in the prior two years – the youngest was not yet three. They did not seem to wonder today.

It ended in the best of ways. I understood better why David was so special, why Grace built a life with him, why the crowd was so full and why he and I could be pals in the next world. I am trying to accumulate fun contacts on the other side.

For now my plane flies above the clouds. The sun reveals that another new day without David is fully in process. Everything I see is peaceful and I wonder why it is that I have been taught to fear death.

much love, marcy