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.

When Dad Had Surgery

Those who have read my blogs know that my family is no stranger to various cancers and health issues.  My mom had bilateral mastectomies (separate surgeries), a lung resection, and brain tumor removed- all cancer. She also had chemotherapy and radiation. I’m a medical train wreck, including leukemia (APL/ AML- sub-type M3), diabetes, dysautonomia, multiple pulmonary emboli (all three lobes- acute, subacute, and chronic -all found at the same time), lung scarring, seizures, multiple concussions, yadda, yadda, yadda…  My dad has been the rock for both of us (mom died in 2003, after being 17 years free of cancer, but with 10 years of dementia caused by the radiation to her brain; she died from sepsis- not cancer).  Dad is the one who takes care of my beloved schnauzer when I’ve been in the hospital.  He didn’t own a bottle of Tylenol until a month ago.

Dad had to go to the doctor for an annual look-see before getting his year of thyroid pills refilled. The doc poked and prodded on his neck, as per usual, and felt ‘something’. He decided he wanted to get an ultrasound to figure out what the hard pea-sized ‘thing’ actually was.  Dad got scanned (I had to reassure him that it was painless and very quick), and instead they found a large (2 x 1.5 x 1.5 inch) mass coming up from the right side of his thyroid.  That’s BIG for the neck area- there are a lot of veins, nerves, arteries, muscle, windpipe, and esophagus related structures in there.  Now they wanted a biopsy.  Numb it up, take some needles and withdraw some of the tissue. They did that, and dad did well… the results, however, were inconclusive.  He was sent to a neck surgeon to figure out the next step.

The neck doc had seen the biopsy and ultrasound results, and felt that it was a cancer, but that it had actually replaced the actual thyroid tissue on the right side; the left side looked OK, at least from the tests.  The ENT surgeon (neck doc) decided to get a CT of the area to check for any lymph node involvement. He did feel that it was some sort of cancer, but reassured dad, and myself, that the vast majority of thyroid cancers are fixed with surgery. Dad should be fine.  But, in the meantime, they wanted to get some more biopsy material, to see if they could narrow down what was going on in there- but bottom line, the thing had to be removed.  It was too squirrelly to leave in there.

Dad is a guy who is 80 years old, and takes a lousy Synthroid pill every day. That’s it. He lives alone, runs around ALL over the place, has a social life that pretty well has him ‘booked’ every day with something, and has really never known anything about chronic or life-altering illness. He has been incredibly blessed.  He had a busted appendix in the early 80s- that was bad. But he got well. He had his gallbladder removed, and aside from post-op vomiting, he was good to go in a week.  He’s been remarkably healthy.  SO, all of this medical stuff that involved HIM was completely foreign.  Mom had numerous surgeries and became totally dependent on him during her last 10 years (he was amazing as he cared for her at home). I’m mostly independent, but when I’m in the hospital, he’s been the go-to guy to make sure my dog is OK, and my laundry gets done when I’m holed up. He has been really healthy.  This whole ‘being sick’ thing isn’t something he really knew what to do with.

While I know that I’m likely to outlive him, I hate even thinking about him not being here.  I have very few people around here that are very present in my life. I’ve got friends- mostly in Texas. The people I know here are mostly interacted with on FaceBook- most I haven’t seen in 30 years.  Dad is the person I talk to daily.  He’s the one who I know always has my back. I don’t have anyone else who could take care of a schnauzer in heart failure with medications (or who even knows her very well), or who I can call for just about anything.   I have some amazing and incredibly dear family scattered about… but dad is just a few minutes away. They are wonderful, yet my physical situation doesn’t make it possible for me to be all that mobile to see them all that much; I certainly feel that I’ve been too much on the ‘fringes’ to just call anyone.  Thinking that something could be wrong- and BAD wrong- with him was a lot to take in.  I have been going to MD appointments with him during this- partly because I want to be supportive, and partly because I’m an RN (disabled, but still have my license since I earned it, and it is MINE) and understand more of the medical terminology, so when we leave, I know how to answer his questions better.

The day for surgery finally came, and while a friend of his got him to the hospital, I definitely wanted to be there before he went into surgery. I wanted to talk to the anesthesiologist about his severe vomiting after getting Versed for other procedures (the anesthesiologist practically challenged me on that- said it wasn’t possible- must be the gasses used, even though it was the only common denominator the times dad had gotten sick- and a few times he hadn’t had ANY gas….time to back off when the doctor thinks he’s always right- wouldn’t help dad, and the doc wasn’t going to listen).   He ended up giving dad Versed, and sure enough, he was sick- though not nearly as badly as other times since they gave him more anti-nausea meds post-op.  Evidently, this type of surgery is more likely to cause a problem with nausea and vomiting because of one of the nerves in that area- which dad didn’t need to hear minutes before going into surgery.  He was already terrified.

They wheeled him off, and his friend and I began the wait.  It took about 3-3.5 hours for the actual surgery, then about 2 hours in recovery. After the surgery, the surgeon (who is wonderful) came out and talked to us.  The initial pathology report sounded potentially ominous. He thought it was a low grade lymphoma, and it might require chemotherapy. It wasn’t thyroid cancer. But until the final pathology reports were back in about 5 days, there wouldn’t be any more information than that.  No point in telling dad part of the story, so he could worry- we all planned to stick with ‘the final pathology reports aren’t back’ which was true, and kept him from spending days in terror thinking he was up against something terminal.  Nobody hears ‘cancer’ and their first thought is that it’s positive.  Since I’d been through extensive chemotherapy, my initial reaction was that he’d have that to deal with, even though most chemo isn’t a daily occurrence.  Most chemo is anywhere from every few months to a few times a week (until the time when pills are used daily for maintenance for a period of time).  I cried. I didn’t want that miserable existence for him…he was always on the go.  Having an indeterminate amount of time to deal with feeling lousy was no way to spend the precious years he has to live.  He’s no where close to slowing down.

Dad stayed in the hospital for 2 full days after surgery. More on that in another post.  He did  pretty well from a nursing standpoint, but from the perspective of a daughter, he had one rough day after surgery and was gradually improving, but it was still tough to see my active, never-holding-still dad lying in a bed, or sitting in very institutional furniture.  My dad who can graze his way through the day eating anything in sight was doing well to get a diet Sierra Mist down.  This is a guy who likes to eat!  He was nauseated most of the time (but can’t be the Versed!).

We got to the appointment to hear the final pathology report…more anticipatory tension.  We ended up getting some relatively wonderful news- yes, it’s a low grade cancer, and he’ll need scans to check the rest of his body for other masses- which may or may not have to be removed, depending on if they were causing trouble.  The mass was well-encapsulated, so not just spreading willy-nilly in his neck.  Also great news. The surgeon thought it had been there for 5-10 years, it’s that slow growing. He’ll be seeing an oncologist after the scans to find out what was next (come to find out, he’ll be seeing my oncologist, so I could reassure dad that he’s a good guy).  I got some label for what the description of the mass was, but when I looked up the words online, it was more confusing than helpful; will wait to ask the oncologist 🙂

Dad is going to be OK.  The doc said that this kind of cancer won’t kill dad. It’s quite probable that he’s going to have another 10 years of quality living.  That is a huge answer to prayer.  Yes, one day dad will die. But thankfully, it won’t be anytime soon. ❤