Colleen's thoughts on writing, directing and coaching, and her unique take on life itself!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Ending more than 7 years of cancer treatment...

In three months, I will have ended more than seven years - nearly eight - of medical treatments and drug dosages to kick breast cancer to the curb.

Two core needle and one surgical biopsies were followed by two lumpectomy surgeries, extended chemotherapy and radiation, which have been augmented with five years of "chemo lite" pills one takes daily (with noticeable side effects that are offset by taking yet another pill).

My chemotherapy was extended because at the end of the first go-round as I started radiation, I came down with appendicitis. Since chemo kills the good cells and the bad cells, anything that can go wrong in your body will because the immune system is beaten down.

The vast majority of appendixes are about 1/2 inch long.

Mine was 7 inches long. And wound around my intestines.

I arrived at the hospital *out of my mind* sick, and they tested me for everything related to cancer and chemo as I was covered with ice to reduce my fever, the temperature of which was somewhere between a white hot flame and hell.

After nearly a full day of experimentation, every bodily fluid sample assessed and a state of delirium, a lowly intern in the back of the room full of experts, doctors and specialists said softly, "It sounds like appendicitis."

The advanced medical staff turned slowly toward him in a way that said he may well be right. The doctor who later wrote up my case for a medical journal started with, "When you hear the sound of hooves, look for horses .."

A quick cat scan later and I was on the operating table.

Not only had my extraordinarily long appendix nearly burst, but it ate through my intestines -- which meant that now I also had E. Coli streaming through my veins. E. Coli can be life-threatening on a good day, but my immune system was MIA as well.

One friend who lives in Chicago changed her plane ticket from Vancouver, BC, to Seattle in order to see me in the hospital, renting a car to drive to Canada after she saw me.

The girl is no teenager, but the only way the nurse told her she could see me is if she were immediate family. My Chinese friend said she was my daughter.

Daughter?? At her age? What? Was I *6* when I had her?

But of course I confirmed our relationship, and for a couple hours, she was my daughter. To be honest, I was so delirious all I remember is her holding my hand and how grateful I was. She had called the hospital to find out what was up with me - most of my friends and family had no idea where I was at that time.

When they did, they were gravely concerned because, well, I was about as sick as sick gets.

After a week in the hospital, I was good as .. well, as good as one can be recovering from a third major surgery within a year, E. Coli., chemo, radiation and of course cancer itself.

My oncology team told me the reason they believed I was able to send cancer packing is because of my attitude. Even through the worst days, I was happy. I tend to have endorphins pumping almost all the time, anyway, but I upped my dosage of feeling good with everything I watched, read and did; as well as the people and pets I hung around. Or who hung around me.

I'm so grateful to so many. Jesse, our mail carrier, schlepped up to my house every day with the mail rather than have me hike down to get it from the box; the Chalupas helped out with a furnace that would keep me warm and fuel prices low; my landlord said don't worry about the rent until I was up and running full tilt again; the well-intended folks who brought me home cooked meals; all the people who helped me track down my kidnapped dog Mistletoe - who was missing 8 full weeks until I found her.

Good times.

Someone asked me how chemo feels. I told him the only way I could describe it would be to imagine that every single cell had a molecular-sized being is inside stabbing me with a very sharp knife.

For all the aforementioned reasons, I was on chemo for a very long time.

Radiation - I was zapped every weekday for 30 some days.

I wrote screenplays, made short films with my actors and worked as an acting coach through most of my major treatment, until my oncology nurse told me I had to simply rest for the rest of my chemo treatments or I could change my positive prognosis; my body was starting to noticeably wear down.

I was very fortunate - I had a different friend or colleague take me to chemo every week; my nurse said she'd never seen someone bring so many people in to sit with them for the 3-5 hour chemical drip.

I even helped someone write a screenplay and assemble a pre-production plan as we sat together for all those hours.

I finally did take some time off to totally rest - and was surprised at how good it felt.

The big day is when they remove the "shunt" that hosts needles for everything from the weekly blood tests to inoculations to the chemo drip.

I still have "chemo flashbacks." It's a miserable feeling that permeates every cell as if I were still taking it. Fortunately, they don't last long.

I'm told it will take years for the chemo chemicals to thoroughly work their way out of my body; I'll be so happy when I no longer have to take the "chemo lite" pills, and therefore the other pills that offset their side effects, as well as lose the weight that somehow comes with breast cancer treatment. I'm told it's the only cancer in which patients gain weight rather than lose it.

Perhaps the best up side is that when I am free of taking those medications, my *real* energy will return. As I've let my friends and colleagues know this date is coming up, they have a little panicked look since I tend to be on the higher side of energetic most days, anyway.

So I've had a clean bill of health for four years, nine months - year #5 is the watershed moment. There are no guarantees in life, but my oncologist tells me he thinks chances of it returning are between infinitesimal and none.

When I was diagnosed, everyone around me was more upset than I. I just thought of it as something with which to deal, like anything else. The thought of being taken down by cancer simply did not compute. I knew it picked the wrong body - the wrong person.

I never let it discourage or upset me because I had so many other things for which to be grateful that were working in my life.

I told someone I thought it better that it struck me rather than someone who was more vulnerable and less capable of kicking it into oblivion, as I knew I would.

Tick tick tick. I can hardly wait for the big day. September 15 is close to my birthday, October 4. It's a time to reflect on how fortunate I am because I lost co-chemo mates along the way.

It's also a time to have a double celebration! A revelry that continues day after day for those two weeks - and the rest of my life.

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Proust's suffering and happiness

If you've seen the film Little Miss Sunshine, you know Steve Carell's character explains that Marcel Proust is considered as great or greater a writer than Shakespeare - whose life was filled with suffering until the last few years of his life.

At the end Proust said his happiest days were those fraught with suffering; that the time he ought to have considered himself happy were dull and unfulfilling.

Knowing me as you do (if you're a regular cp blog reader), I have to ponder his reflection and make a comment or two.

Fortunately for you, I won't use Proust's writing style because he was exceedingly loquacious, and by comparison my notes will be as concise as a three-year old's short term memory.

My first response: Hmmmm. I'm happy and don't consider my life unnecessarily difficult. I have faced challenges that most might consider suffering - like breast cancer, several biopsies, lumpectomies and surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, unpleasant ups and downs of any career in journalism and the arts, PTSD from the many traumatizing experiences I experienced as a child (my family moved 17 times by the time I was 17), Air Force veteran and journalist; a serious bout of depression; one truly miserable relationship (among others that were quite pleasant)-

Whoa. A biographer only reading this list without actually knowing me or having the perspective of reading the extended list of what I've done that is considered exciting, positive, valuable, fulfilling and/or rewarding would not have the slightest idea or understandng of who I am . Mostly because - except for that one relationship - I've enjoyed taking on life's tests and challenges.

I mean, bring it on.

What I'm saying is that what others may consider suffering, I take as simply one more thing in life with which to deal, along with all the other wonderful things I've been so fortunate to experience.

I have a feeling what could have happened to Proust is that he also got a emotional kick out of all the things life handed him - but then didn't have an awareness of the emotional impact so many of his challenges had on him. His life was full because of all the physical and emotional challenges he faced daily.

Then, like it happens with most of us, when he no longer had that emotional kick, he realized something was missing - finally having an awareness the impact those experiences had on him.

And perhaps at the end he simply gave in to what was handed him and relaxed because he wasn't forced to deal with a deluge of circumstances that previously made him feel fully alive day in and day out.

I read that another great novelist, Leo Tolstoy, was so successful that he basically allowed himself to "go to seed." People around him did everything for him - to a ridiculous degree - as he was left free to write and write and write some more.

That sort of "man of leisure" existence could become boring and tedious for someone like Proust, making life much less fun or engaging.

With success, at last, Proust may have found he no longer had the urgent sense of living with fewer stressful challenges that used to fill his life and provide the passion for creating his novels whenever he could.

So perhaps his definition of happiness was simply to be fully engaged - emotionally and physically - with life every moment, because he was forced to.

Then he didn't realize how to adapt, creating that sense of urgency and passion within himself when it wasn't shoved in his face.

IMO, happiness is a state of being we choose to have - no matter what is or isn't happening in our lives. And feeling fully alive - completely engaged in life - is also a choice that we make every minute of every day, whether we realize it or not.

A great example of making attitude choices in life is the film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray's character morphs from a self-centered, arrogant, unhappy, immature jerk into a fulfilled man - who learns how to live happily ever after when he decides to enjoy - and share - every minute of his life by becoming genuine, empathetic, compassionate and generous.

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