Tracie Cone has always been a trailblazer. This award-winning journalist is the former California Newspaper Executive of the Year. She shares a Pulitzer Prize with fellow staff members at the Miami Herald for coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and has twice been nominated individually. She has focused her writing on helping the underdog and empowering those without a strong voice of their own. Now she takes us on the fight of her life.
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Archive for August, 2010

Another bad day

I decided not to take the Lapatinib today. I just can’t stand another day of pain and nausea. I know it’s important, but I feel as if I’m poisoning myself. Will try again tomorrow.

Da Pain, Da Pain

Bone pain arrived. Wake up. Take vicodin. Repeat.

So Far, Kind of OK

Today is Day 3 since my last round of chemo, the 25 percent reduction in Taxatere that we hope is the right balance for me. So far I am not experiencing the bone-aching pain that last time caused me to feel as if I had been beaten half to death with a tire iron.

Along with the Taxatere I’m taking Lapatinib, the pills that allow the chemo to go on its seek-and-destroy mission into places it otherwise could not access, like my brain. What a thought, right? The pills (5 a day on an empty stomach) have their own set of side effects, mostly numbness, pain and burning in my fingers and toes. My skin is peeling off my fingers and it hurts just to type. I’ve been taking them at dawn, an hour before my protein shake. I was feeling pretty good this morning before I took them, now I’m shaky, sore and weak.

So now I’ve got a new plan, backed up by Dr. Nice, aka Dr. Mollick, my replacement oncologist who called today (for the second time this week!!!!!) to see how I’m doing. My chemo overdose and hospitalization during the last go-round has caused some concern. It’s comforting that he checks in since I’ve had such a hard time with all of this.

I hate this Lapatinib feeling, or the feeling I’m blaming on the trial drugs. It’s weird because I actually felt kind of normal today at 5:30 a.m., before I took the pills. “Kind of normal” is not something I feel on Day 3 of chemo, so I was heartened. Not for long.

So tonight, with Dr. Mollick’s blessing, I’m going to take the pills before I go to bed. With a sleeping pill. Then I’ll see if I can pass out for the worst of the symptoms and wake up tomorrow feeling a little better. I have to take these “trial drug” pills every single day for the rest of my chemotherapy routine, and I don’t want to feel like this every day through the end of September.

I’ve got to find a way to make it as easy as possible to navigate this trial-and-error process that has become my cancer treatment protocol.

My sore, peeling fingers are crossed.

Another Random Act of Thoughtfulness

I stand testament that random acts of thoughtfulness and kindness make the difference in finding the will to overcome a devastating illness. When others care enough to invest their time and emotions into my recovery, I know I can’t let them down.

Today I received a FedEx package from my old high school basketball teammates. My Cali friends might recall a trip I made to Belmont, N.C. in October when our team was inducted into the city’s Hall of Fame for winning back-to-back state championships. We established a won-loss record that has stood all of these decades. Best of all, we reconnected as teammates after years apart.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, many of my teammates began rallying me with cards, calls and emails. Nearly always their communications ended with our team motto: No matter what the odds, I can, I will, I must.

Now today a t-shirt arrived that they made for the team, and I’m overwhelmed by the thought that went into it.

On the front “Team Tracie,” the breast cancer ribbon and the name of our team: the South Point High School Lady Raiders.”

On the back: “Tracie’s fight is our fight.” And that team fight motto, which is appropriate for this battle I’m fighting. No matter the odds (and mine are 80 percent), I can, will and must prevail.

The motto inspired us to win championships. I think of it now, too, as I fight cancer. No matter what the odds, I can, I will, I must.

Dr. Nice and Dr. Disheveled

Today I met my temporary new oncologist, Dr. Mollick, an MD and PhD researcher. I really like him even though he has a tough act to follow: Dr. Robert Carlson, who is in Ethiopia sharing his vast knowledge about breast cancer treatment with doctors there. I was sorry to lose him for the next two months, but it’s hard to be selfish when he’s out saving the world.

I have worried for weeks about his replacement, and started worrying even more after meeting my cardiologist last Friday. Stanford is a teaching and research hospital, so all of the doctors are book smart. How that translates into other areas of life is something I now question.

The cardiologist – whom we knick-named him Dr. Disheveled – sat in a chair facing Kim and Michelle engaged in a Sen. Larry Craig “wide stance” that revealed a giant hole in the crotch of his pants, which also were frayed at the cuff from walking on them. He could have used a good nail-scrubbing brush. He really couldn’t even tell me why my blood pressure dropped dangerously and whether it would ever return to normal. Kim said she couldn’t ask questions because all she could do was wonder if he knew he had a gaping hole in his crotch?

Then today I meet Dr. Mollick, the ultimate professional, very smart, and patient with his explanations about my situation. Will my blood pressure return to normal? Nobody really knows for sure because every one reacts differently to chemo. But he did say that many people with high blood pressure have to go off their medicine during chemo because it drops to the normal range. After chemo it rises again to the dangerous levels. He assumes that someone with low-range blood pressure like mine (usually 110/60) is experiencing the same chemo-induced drop, but mine goes dangerously low. He assumes at the end of chemo it will creep back up again. It makes sense to me.

My hospitalization had to be reported to the FDA because I’m on a clinical trial with the test drug Lapatinib. It was almost enough to get me booted from the trial, which I would have hated because it’s designed to prevent metastasis by getting the chemo into my brain. I’ve come too far now to drop out. Instead they are cutting the amount I get by 25 percent, which is still in the therapeutic range. Obviously, Dr. Mollick said, my body cannot metabolize the higher dose.

I hope that 75 percent is enough to kill all of the wayward cancer cells that might be living in the far-flung reaches of my body. I had spent most of the past two weeks as I suffered in pain wishing for a lower dose, but when it came down to it I was disappointed. I have only two more rounds of chemo after this, then surgery (Can you believe we’re nearing the end?) I wanted to go all out, no matter how badly it made me feel.

Because for now and at last it no longer feels like I will be doing this for the rest of my life. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and it looks pretty good from here.

Crazy Cancer Patient Full of Hope

I’m in the car on the way to Stanford for chemotherapy writing this on my new iPad. I’m going to get the same chemotherapy that landed me in the ER, then the hospital. A funny thing happens to a cancer patient after a few days of feeling good and lots of love and support. We start to feel like we can do anything again.

So today I am confident that I will be back on track with my trial, downing the pills that get the Taxatere into my brain, withstanding the pain that makes me want to stop, my body accepting that that’s what we need to do to get this done!

9:30 update. Blood draw, which has taken up to four hours because of my temperamental power port, went off without a hitch. Less than two minutes. A good sign!!
1 pm. Met Dr. Mollick, who is subbing for Dr Carlson for the next couple of months. I had been apprehensive because Dr C is the best. Fears allayed. Dr Mollick is smart, personable and explains things very well. I’m still in good hands.

Only two more chemos after this one! I can do it with your love and support.

Getting Ready for Another Round

Tomorrow is my next round of Taxatere, and I’ll start back with the Lapatinib pills, the trial portion of my treatment that I haven’t taken since landing in the hospital two weeks ago today.

Sigh, I’m already dreading it. Michelle always works so hard to trick/ease me into my next round. Usually on the weekend before, when I’m feeling kind of ok, we take a little trip so we don’t spend the time in dwelling on it. This weekend we were in San Francisco to visit with Judi, John and Bryan and to stop in and see my work buds. (One distressing aside: when I get tired I wait in the car. As I was waiting outside a store in the Marina District a guy was having an animated telephone call next to Michelle’s BMW with the crack dealer darkened windows, perhaps not knowing a bald woman was sitting inside. He kept saying “Whatever you do, don’t let them give you chemo and radiation. That stuff will kill you.” And I mean he said it about 10 times before Judi showed up and I sent her to tell him to go have his distressing conversation somewhere else. Are these signs from the universe, or just horrible coincidences, and how can one discern the difference?)

On Sunday, Kim’s last day here, we picked up my friend Elaine at the Fresno airport and went to Yosemite for the day.

If you have never seen the view from Glacier Point, you don’t know what you’re missing. Half Dome larger than life, with a gushing Nevada and Vernal falls below. It was so incredibly beautiful, especially with thunderstorms in the distance. Michelle made a wonderful picnic lunch and we ate, mostly in silence, mesmerized by the beautiful view. It doesn’t get any better than that.

It’s nice to get out because I feel housebound constantly. But it’s hard. I’m weak all of the time. A colleague’s wife, who is at the end of her chemo, wrote to me yesterday saying she felt like an old lady during chemo, and still does, but is now working to regain her strength. Her doctor told her it takes six months for chemo to leave the body, then one starts to feel a little stronger, so that means that even on my so-called “good” days I’ll feel extremely weak.

I have to find a way to accept this fact that my mind is willing to do things that my body is unable to perform. I place a hand on a friend’s shoulder to stay balanced to walk, and even then I can’t go far. I got weepy and felt sorry for myself Saturday while sitting on a bench at the Embarcadero in SF when I realized that was all I could do.

So today I have a new challenge: Instead of being sorry for what I can’t do at this moment in my life, I have to find a way to be happy that at least I can still enjoy the beautiful views that California offers us. All is not lost.

And I have to be confident that one day instead of simply gazing at Half Dome, I’ll be able to walk to the top if I want.

One day I'll be able to walk to the top of Half Dome if I want (not that I would ever want to)

CHANGING OF THE GUARD: Today Kim went back to Florida, reluctantly, after three weeks attending to my every need. We had no idea when she planned her trip back in June that I would need her so badly. Neither Michelle nor I would have made it through my collapse, hospitalization and recovery without her. She extended her stay an extra week to get me through the bad time. Yesterday Elaine, my friend from high school, arrived. She planned her trip when she realized last week how poorly I was faring. Now she’s here for my next round, and we’re all hoping it goes better than the last.

I love my friends!

The Love Never Stops

Every day something happens in the midst of all my suffering that makes me feel loved. Feeling loved makes me want to keep fighting no matter how horrible I feel.

Today after visiting my cardiologist at Stanford, who really shed no new light on my fainting spells, we headed to San Francisco. I had told my colleagues in the AP bureau on Wednesday that I would stop in to say hi if I felt up to it. I miss them so much, and I miss having purpose, tho I suppose fighting for my life is purpose.

I thought that given the pace of news they wouldn’t have much time to visit. Surprise! We visited for an hour, enjoyed fresh fruit and cold drinks, and I caught them up on my ordeal.

Then Steph came in with a gift bag. It was heavy. I thought it was a big book. I was shocked they had gotten me a gift to help pass my days, but not as shocked as when I opened the package. It was an iPad!!! OMG I have wanted one so bad. I can download books and audiobooks and update my blog from bed easily instead of typing on my phone. How thoughtful, cool and generous is this????

This reminds me of the time I had mumps as a kid and my parents bought me an Etch a Sketch. I passed the days away drawing staircases. I hope to be more creative and fill even more time with this!!

The SFC bureau rocks! I miss you guys!

Back at Stanford

We’re at Stanford on a non-chemo day but it’s not a crisis. Meeting with a cardiologist who might be able to give us the results of all of those hospital tests. Then to San Francisco for dinner with friends while we are in the hood. Kim and Michelle deserve a change of scenery and I feel well enough to go along for the ride.

In Sickness and Health

Today is a good day on many fronts. I felt well enough to go to the farmers’ market. And U.S. District Judge Walker ruled that the ban on gay marriage passed by California voters two years ago is unconstitutional.

There was a brief moment in state history when the state Supreme Court ruled gay marriages were legal in California. It ended five months later when a hate- and fear-driven campaign succeeded in convincing a majority of California voters that the relationships of gay and lesbian couples are somehow inferior, threatening and less worthy of legal protections than those of heterosexuals.

During that five-month window of opportunity Michelle and I were married at the Fresno County Courthouse, becoming one of 18,000 gay couples currently legally married in California. Our marriage was not particularly romantic or well-thought-out. We read the polls, we knew we were about to miss our window of opportunity, we took a risk.

Today it’s hard to believe that anyone could see our union as less committed or worthy of protections than theirs as I depend on her to feed me, shop for me, fill my prescriptions, schlep me to my doctors at Stanford, sit by my hospital bed, prop me up when I’m down, cry with me when I’m scared, put her life on hold, and plan an uncertain future. It’s hard to imagine that given this level of commitment, should I not survive my illness, she will not be entitled to my federal Social Security surviving spouse benefits to help her move forward without me.

Marriage is not about what children may or may not be taught in school.

It’s about partners who stick with each other in good times and bad, for better for worse, for richer for (on disability) poorer, in sickness and in health.

Thank you Judge Walker. U.S. Supreme Court here we come!

My honey loves me, even when I'm sick

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Copyright 2010 by Tracie Cone. All rights reserved.