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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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Growing up too fast"

There are several news stories out now in newspapers, TV and radio about protecting kids from "growing up too fast" - from being exposed to - and partaking in - drugs, alcohol and violence.

But ask any psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor: engaging in these activities and abusing mood-altering chemicals at a young age results in preventing an individual from growing up.

They actually keep us immature.

Significant steps in our maturation stop literally the day a child takes his or her first drink, drug or is severly traumatized by violence. Addiction is much more likely to occur if a kid takes a drink or drug at a younger age.

According to Robert Downey Jr., his father gave him his first hit of marijuana when he was 8 years old and was allowed to partake in addictive substances, including alcohol, as a child. According to addiction experts, children and women are more easily addicted to alcohol and drugs because of their physiology than adult men.

And addiction is no stranger to grown men.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, a noted child psychiatrist I interviewed from Seattle's Children's Hosptial and Medical Center told me the way children can recover from even the most traumatic experiences is to talk about their feelings.

However, addictions prevent abusers from processing - recognizing and talking about - memories or feelings in order to mature. When kids aren't taught systems with which to handle negative emotions or experiences, the fallout from those feelings and troubles can linger and fester - harming the individual's ability to deal effectively with life's ups and downs as well as blocking a significant part of the emotional and intellectual maturation process.

Several adult friends of mine regret ever lighting up that first cigarette or joint, or abusing alcohol. Not because they ever got "hooked" or addicted, nor were these "gateway" drugs ("lighter" drugs that lead to hard drug abuse) or because their lives were in any way messed up or ruined by them, but because they simply were not necessary.

They only took time away from the clarity they enjoy now not taking any mind-altering substances - especially the misery and time it took to quit smoking!

I'm one of them. What a waste of time. Even though I started when I was a young adult and not a kid, and quit smoking and drinking decades ago, I still wish I had never started. I'm someone who wants to make the most of her life; chemicals don't enhance that experience for me - they detract from it.

It's probably impossible to convince youngsters how much of their youth is robbed by sucking up cigarettes and booze or taking drugs because they mistakingly believe abusing drugs and alcohol is a sign of maturity - where in fact it is a sign of immaturity.

It's immature to get behind the wheel of a one-ton lethal weapon after drinking or drugging.

It's immature to escape feelings and refusing to grow up drinking and drugging.

It's immature to instigate violence.

Violence not only enforces simplistic, ineffective solutions for complex problems, but witnessing violence traumatizes not just those who experience it, but even those who execute it; those doing the shooting and hurting others.

Why do you think there are so many soldiers - who firmly believe they're doing the right thing - suffering from post traumatic stress disorder?

Again, from all I've seen and experienced, smoking, drinking, drugs and violence keeps those parts of us that have not developed immature. Literally preventing us from becoming all we can become, all we can genuinely experience in order to live life fully.

It always makes me laugh when notorious alcoholics and drug addicts die and are described as people who "lived life to the fullest."

Um, no. Drugs, alcohol and violence actually prevent us from living life fully - I mean, what good is having a "great time" if we can't remember it or suffer the sickness of a hangover the next day or two or three after - preventing us from doing anything except recovering?

Or suffer from life-altering injuries, severe trauma, are killed or put in jail because of violent acts?

It's true of artists. Who can create honestly, love openly, share our talent fully, if we're "under the influence" that prevents us from accessing our deepest thoughts and feelings.

An interesting study in Canada revealed that great artists don't do great work while they were under the influence or suffering from depression or bipolar disorder, but in fact when they were free from those things - lucid, sober and not distracted by demons.

However, because those experiences tended to be their most vivid and recent memories, that is what they tend to create in their work - painting, writing, and so on.

You may consider these things when you are creating characters as a writer, actor or director.

To be clear - I personally don't care if adults imbibe or partake of anything they choose as long as they don't endanger anyone else as they do it.

However you choose to define living your life to its fullest and being genuinely happy - whatever that is - is just right for you.

It is your body, your mind, your life.

I thought you might find these thoughts interesting.

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