I’m SO Sick of Pink Cancer Ribbons… Hear Me Out, Please !!

We’re all pretty well aware of cancer.  The pink ribbons are really marketing tools- and that’s fine.  But it really chaps my hide to see the pink ones so prominently.  Like it’s the “most important” cancer… what about prostate, lung, thyroid, pancreatic, liver, bone, colon, testicular, brain, pediatric, blood, skin, and other cancers?  Any cell in the body can become cancerous.   We need PLAID ribbons.  (The rainbow has been taken).  Let everybody have equal showing in the cancer awareness campaigns.  I’d wear a ribbon that represented all cancer struggles.

I don’t have anything “against” breast cancer (my mom had bilateral mastectomies, along with lung and brain metastasis).  But what about all of the other folks out there?  Just last year, my cousin Kathy died after a 10 month hellish fight with neuroendocrine colon cancer, my dad’s friend Marilyn died after a 9 month horrible battle with ovarian cancer, and my uncle Lee died from esophageal cancer just weeks after diagnosis.  In the past, my biological father (Phil) died from brain cancer (metastasized from his kidney, dead at age 49; we never met because of cancer), a cousin’s wife (Pat) had kidney cancer that went to her liver (was also in her bladder), my dad  (adoptive guy I grew up with from the time I was 10 days old) had thyroid cancer 3 years ago, two cousins’ wives had blood cancers , I’ve had leukemia, another cousin’s husband  had prostate cancer, another aunt with breast cancer,  another one who had to deal with knowing she had genetic predisposition to breast cancer,  and there are many other relatives that I’m forgetting (or can’t remember the actual site) that matter.   Then there are the friends – several with stage 4 cancers (lung, colon, and colon going to lung and liver) who are still fighting or have done well .  And some who lost that fight.  They all deserve to be recognized for their battles.  I’m just one person who knows this many people who have or had cancer.  I’m not naming the ones who are still alive.

I have been an RN for 30 years.  While I’m disabled now, I took care of a LOT of cancer patients (mostly on a surgical floor- and we also did ‘end of life’ palliative care; we couldn’t fix them, just ease their last weeks and days).  Four stand out.  One was a Holocaust survivor with terminal colon cancer (the sweetest lady, who had more than her share of hell on earth).  Then there was the 40 year old construction worker who had just had a melanoma removed (still had sutures) when he started having headaches.  After 3 trips to the ER, they did a CT scan of his brain, and found multiple sites. He was admitted (I was the admitting nurse), and found that he had lung, bone, and liver metastasis as well…. he lived for a month. I pronounced him dead and watched the funeral home take him away.  There was the lady who had just had a baby and was having trouble breast feeding; ends up that stage 4 breast cancer was blocking her milk ducts.  She’d never see that baby grow up.  There was the lady with pancreatic cancer, who was ‘Big Bird yellow’ and looked like someone had strapped a basketball to her belly because of fluid accumulation; she had a miserable last few weeks.  There were dozens, if not hundreds, besides those four that I took care of (mostly as a charge nurse- so not direct care in some cases).   When I worked neuro, as a direct bedside care nurse, there were a LOT of brain tumor patients.  The malignant ones never ended well.  Glioblastoma multiformae (GBM) – stage 4 = grim prognosis.  The tumor has ‘tendrils’ that bore into the surrounding brain tissue to never be fully removable.  Though stage 4 in some sites is more and more treatable- much more than when I was still working- it is still generally felt that stage 4 means that is what the person will die from.  But there are never any accurate timelines; more people are living longer WITH  stage 4 cancer than ever before.

Then there are  the two little relatives of a friend of mine, just a couple of years ago-Cole and Sadie (nephew and niece) – diagnosed within weeks of each other, who both died… an 11 year old and 8 year old.  One had the same type of leukemia I had, and went to the ER on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, not feeling well since the day before; he went into a coma on the helicopter transport to a larger hospital, and was gone the next morning.  Never saw it coming.  No symptoms that were red flags.   The 8 year old survived less than a year after a diagnosis of  GBM Stage 4… St. Jude’s did what they could… but glios are notoriously tough to treat.  Then there were the kids when I was a kid- one who had brain cancer when I was in 3rd grade (he was in 4th grade- his name was Mark), a friend’s 8 year old ‘big’  brother (I was in first grade when he died- I still remember hearing about him dying.  His name was Thor.)…  Facebook is full of kids with cancer.  I can’t handle that type of grief, even if I don’t know them… what their families and friends go through is just heartbreaking.  I’ve heard parents make that guttural, primal  scream of that ultimate loss when I worked pediatrics (our PICU was connected by a narrow hall, and those sounds travelled).  The pain they feel is palpable.

I had acute promyelocytic leukemia- the most lethal leukemia if not treated (many folks diagnosed at autopsy after some type of ‘bleed’ or hemorrhage ), and the best outcome if treated- per  my oncologist.  The average survival without treatment after onset is ONE month.   I was very lucky (or more like God was looking out for me).  I had no specific symptoms- I’m disabled with a bunch of diagnoses, so I never feel “good”.  I just happened to get my annual lab work for my diabetes, and it showed a BAD ‘complete blood count’ (CBC).  Like really bad.  It took 2 weeks to get an appointment with the oncologist, and he scheduled a bone marrow biopsy for the next week.  That was 3 1/2 weeks of my month ( I didn’t know that then).  The weekend before that, I felt bad. I went to the ER, and stayed for 6 weeks, starting induction chemo.  I then had 50 dose (2 25-dose cycles of Monday-Friday for 5 weeks x 2 cycles) of ARSENIC (Trisenox- look it up 😉 ).  Then another year of maintenance chemo.  My body has never been the same.  No eyebrows or eyelashes aren’t that big of a deal- but the increasing neuropathy and weird weight gain has been rough.

So, I’m not cold or indifferent to cancer.   I’m just tired of the boobs getting the press above the others.  This month, the NFL will have their players in pink shoes and other accessories (they look ridiculous).  Go figure… the boobs win out as to who gets their public support.   It’s kind of a kick in the face for those with other cancer struggles, wins, and losses.  They are ALL important.  All of the survivors and lost fighters are important.  They all deserve some undeniable recognition.  If someone sees an orange ribbon (leukemia) or yellow ribbon (pediatric cancer), do they know what those are for?   So, I suggest plaid.  Get everybody in there.  Weave them all together, since so many cancers spread.  Maybe finish them with the color of the cancer a specific person has.  But acknowledge them all.  They all matter.  Nobody struggles more than anyone else.  Everybody needs funding for research.

I will very rarely ‘share’ Facebook posts about any cancer.   I feel for those struggling with it, and for those who have lost family and friends to cancer.  It’s not because I don’t care.  It’s because I’m sick of SO many being affected.  And only the pink ribbons being ‘iconic’. Everybody with cancer matters, and deserves to have money funded into research for their type of cancer… not just the boobs.

In Memory of Madeline Spenrath, R.N.

I just found out on Thursday, April 25, 2013 that one of my favorite nursing supervisors had died.  I’d talked to her several times over the last few years when we were both going through various cancer diagnoses, but hadn’t talked to her in a while.  She had been through breast cancer, and thought she was doing well when she discovered she had bone cancer in her thigh and had to have an amputation at the hip (around 2010).  She went through that with a great deal of grace and dignity.  I’m told that she had recurrence of cancer in her lung and spine.  I can’t imagine what that was like for her. Getting used to her leg prosthesis and wheel chair were hard enough; the leg prosthesis drove her nuts.  She was incredibly independent, and needing help didn’t make her smile.  I can just hear her saying “when I go, just toss me out into the pasture with the horses”.  Down to earth, no frills, and knew SO much about nursing.  I will always have a great deal of respect for her.

Madeline  was a no- nonsense supervisor, but also had a heart of gold. I first met her in in  1991, and while there are many people who knew her much better than I did, she left a definite impact on me, for the better.  I worked at Sid Peterson Memorial Hospital in Kerrville, TX on and off for over 10 years.  Madeline had been there much, much longer, and was a ‘staple’ supervisor on the night shift.   She had her own way of getting report on every patient in the hospital for the next shift’s supervisor (or ‘Number 9’, as they were called at Sid Pete, at least at that time). Some supervisors wanted report from each nurse- Madeline wanted the charge nurse to give the run-down.  SO, I talked to her a lot.  She wanted ‘just the facts’, but also had a really good sense of humor, and if a patient needed something, and she could do it, she’d give it her all.

Madeline could get IVs in just about anybody.  Generally, if someone needed an IV started or restarted, the direct care nurse or charge nurses would get them in.  If that didn’t work- or if someone’s veins were just too puny to go poking around when it didn’t make sense, the charge nurses would call Madeline (or whoever was the supervisor that night).  Madeline could get an IV in the butt vein of a grasshopper. In motion.  She was just that experienced and had all of the tricks down pat.

Madeline used to have incredible BBQs for the night shift staff. They were annual and legendary.  I got to go to one in 1991. She had them in the summer, and would have one of her horses saddled up for anybody who wanted to go for a ride around the farm in Comfort.  I still have a photo of me on one of her palomino horses, in my tennis shoes and t-shirt…. I looked SO not ‘Texas’.  But it was fun 🙂

When Coca-Cola changed their formula back in the 80s, Madeline rode her horse to the town store, and brought home as much of the original formula as she could secure to that horse!  I never heard that she ever smoked or had other vices- but don’t mess with her classic Coke !! 🙂

One night, Madeline called me about a predicament with staffing on the telemetry floor.  Uh oh.  Madeline could get me to agree to a lot of things that I’d normally freak out about (like charging two floors on nights when there were simply no other nurses to cover one of the floors- they were back to back units – 4A and 4B- so I just ran between the two that night; one was my usual floor, and I knew the other staff well enough).  The regular charge nurse on the telly floor had some emergent health situation happen, and they really needed a charge nurse.  I really didn’t read telemetry strips !  I knew ‘OK, looks survivable’ and ‘uh oh’. She reassured me that the monitor techs knew the rhythms and there were standing medication orders that the nurses knew about- I’d be fine. They just needed an RN body to check off orders and be physically present.  Scared the snot out of me, but I went.  Everybody survived the shift 🙂

She hated taking bodies to the morgue in the basement of the old hospital. Madeline would do anything she could for anybody in the hospital, but once she was notified of a death, she’d show up like the wind and drop off the keys to the morgue.  She wasn’t a fearful person but that morgue gave her the willies. I have to admit, it was creepy- it was a ‘one occupant’ room, with shelves along all available wall space that had the specimens from various surgeries… there were gallbladders, appendixes, lungs, and just about anything that could be removed from a body bobbing along in preservative liquid in semi-opaque plastic buckets. You could still tell they were guts.  Named, dated, and labelled.  The first time I went down there, I was very distraught.  I was still shaking the next day, and actually had to leave when I got to work (major chicken-poo reaction). Madeline was on that night, and while she wasn’t amused at me falling apart, she never made me feel ashamed of my reaction. Once I knew what I’d be seeing, I was able to go if I had to help take a body there.

When I was diagnosed with diabetes in 1995, I had just started working at SPMH again (and was diagnosed with diabetes through general pre-employment screenings)… one night I said I felt a little funny, and Madeline went bounding off to the cafeteria to get me a pimento cheese sandwich, in case my blood sugar was getting too low; I was still very early on in being treated, and could sometimes have symptoms even when numbers were decent- my body was just used to having much higher blood sugars.  Being diabetic wasn’t seen as a liability, and I had a great deal of support from Madeline and others there at SPMH.

When Madeline brought a meal for a patient admitted later in the evening or night, she’d bring back  a tray full of food fit for a football player…. her theory- never trust a skinny chef, and make sure they get enough food if they’re hungry.  Never knew when someone sick would either lose their appetite, or have the need for some energy stores.

Madeline loved her horses and cats.  She retired from nursing several years ago, and while she was dealing with a lot of health issues, she always talked about how she was doing with taking care of the horses and cats on her farm. She was deeply saddened when that palomino died… it was one of her favorite horses.  She also volunteered at the local VA hospital, and loved going out there.  She had passion about many things, and when Madeline took to something, she did it with a great deal of satisfaction- and she was good at it.

Madeline was a ‘giver’. I never heard her ask for anything for herself, even when she was going through so many life changes with her health.  When she’d call me, she’d sound upbeat- and she had so many reasons to be bummed.  She’d send funny e-mails, and periodic notes- and never complained.

When Madeline would hear of something just not sounding fair in regards to how someone was being treated after some management changes at the hospital, she felt so badly for them.  Madeline believed in people being accountable- but she also knew that sometimes people got a really raw deal… and it hurt her when they hurt.  One other supervisor comes to mind in regards to that.  We both deeply respected that other person.  Madeline didn’t always wear her emotions on her sleeve, but she was an incredibly caring person who wanted the best for those around her.   Sometimes there might be someone (usually someone who didn’t last long) who drove her a little nuts- but she was always fair if anything came up that involved her input with that person.

I’ve worked with some great people in the years I worked as an RN.  Madeline Spenrath is someone who I will never forget, and am forever grateful for things she taught me.  I became a better nurse and person for having known her.

For those who knew Madeline, and would like to leave a comment about your memories of her, please feel free to do so, and I’ll get them added to the comment section 🙂