Perspectives, Sarcoma

Waiting

 

Today’s post comes from guest Blogger, Fletcher Summa. Thanks, Fletcher, for sharing your story with us! 

 

 

I sat in the waiting room on February 8, 2013 in the Cancer Center preparing to tell Dr. Mo that I didn’t want to do this anymore. My treatment was entering the 11th month and my body was bloated and scarred and bore little resemblance to my pre-diagnosis self. I looked around the waiting room and I focused on what I wanted to say to Dr. Mo and settled in to wait for my name to be called. Waiting is something you become very good at as a cancer patient; my mom sat next to me lost in her usual game of Candy Crush Saga on her phone. This situation had been part of my life for almost a year: the two hour trip to Iowa City every other week, wait for a bed, get hooked up to chemo, stay for days, go home, feel awful, get better, then repeat. However, this time I could no longer go in and just face it the way I’ve done in the past.

The chemicals were really starting to take a toll on my body, especially my heart. The methotrexate I was scheduled to take had been cancelled due to my lab results. This meant that I would have only two rounds of treatment remaining—“only” two but it was dependent on the results of my heart scan. Regardless of the result, I planned to tell Dr. Mo that I was done with all treatment.

It all began when I was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma on March 21, 2012 and within weeks I began treatment, then on June 21, 2012, I underwent surgery. The surgeon removed the tumor and if the tumor was over 90% dead then I would have a shorter treatment plan; if it was below 90% then the treatment would be more intense. Yet because my heart scan results had not improved I was informed that I couldn’t receive further treatment without risking permanent damage. Though it doesn’t quite sound like it would be, this was indeed good news. This was the day that I waited almost a year for. “No more chemo.” And it was finally over.

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I smiled when I heard this news and feelings of joy overwhelmed me. I could get on with my life and not deal with any more side effects. Aside from the doctor appointments every three months, I thought I never had to think about cancer again.

I was wrong.

What I didn’t take into account was just how much this experience had consumed my life. Living and surviving became indistinguishable. Together with the nausea, the doctor visits, the questions from friends and family, the pills and treatments, and the pain, being a cancer patient became who I was. My return to the real world after the chemo was extremely difficult. I simultaneously wanted to talk about it and to NOT talk about it.

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Yet life goes on and my life had to continue to move forward. My hair was growing back, I was losing weight and I had more energy than I’d had in a long time. The mindset I had throughout chemo was that each round was a victory and that every small nauseating triumph would accumulate to success overall. And what is cancer but a concentration of painful battles? If I had won against that, then surely I deserved to live without any more inconvenience.

Again, I was wrong.

Without this understanding I might have gone through life thinking that the world owed me something and that every hardship had to be reimbursed. What if I spent the rest of my life asking “why me?” or cursing the wind every time my leg hurt, then there would be no time to appreciate the fact that I made it through the treatment. Sometimes, often times, life is unfair. But that is only part of the picture and a small one at that. Maybe this is the real lesson I learned.

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It’s been 29 months since my chemo ended and I’m still not sure I’ve really ever left that waiting room. What remains though after spending so much time waiting and reflecting on my life, is an enormous appreciation for those who supported me throughout this journey. The fact that so many people supported me, including my wonderful family who sat alongside me in the hospital all those days bored out of their minds and not knowing what the future holds. To the doctors and nurses who were able to balance their work responsibilities while being kind and compassionate, proves to me that people are capable of extraordinary acts of kindness and strength. It is because of them that I made it through an otherwise horrific experience, and it is because of them that I appreciate life so much more now.

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Perspectives, Sarcoma

The Will to Live- by Guest Blogger Suzanne Ruggieri

Today’s blog comes from the wife of an osteosarcoma fighter. Together, they fought the disease as a team and beat the odds they were given, at least for a couple of years. Their story together may have ended early but it lives on through the eyes and spirit of their daugther.

I remember the first day my Ethan told me that he once had been treated for Osteosarcoma. I never expected him to say something like that, but I also thought it wasn’t a big deal. I had never been in the “front row” to witness the impact of cancer on a person fighting it; I was ignorant and oblivious to it. As Ethan and I continued our life together and soon we were engaged to be married. I knew that most likely Ethan’s cancer would rear its ugly head again at one point, but in the excitement of building our future together I assumed it would happen much later down the road. Unfortunately, it didn’t.

Ethan and Suzanne 1

The osteosarcoma came back with a vengeance early October of 2006, just two short months before Ethan’s 5-year remission date; only we didn’t know it yet. Our wedding was planned for November 18, 2006.

After much convincing on my part, we scheduled an appointment with the doctor and a biopsy was taken. The test results pointed to sarcoma again. It was so difficult to cover the panic that I felt when everything we planned had to be thrown in the wind. There was only one guarantee: Ethan would fight as hard as he could to beat the disease yet again.

We had so many appointments going from oncologist to oncologist with each one telling us the same thing: that the cancer has progressed too far and there was nothing that could be done for him and we should just go home. That did not sit too well with Ethan or me. We wanted our wedding, our honeymoon, and the happiness of newlywed bliss.

We knew that Ethan’s body was consumed by sarcoma; as it was in his lungs, heart, skin, pancreas, skull, kidneys, and liver. Despite that, Ethan felt he could fight it as he had beat it once before, and this time we would fight it as a team together. But we had a problem: we couldn’t find a single doctor that was willing to fight with us.

Ethan

We were scared and discouraged but we refused to give up so we headed to yet another consultation with a doctor that came highly referred. We didn’t expect any different from the previous doctors yet we knew if we didn’t try then we couldn’t beat it. Right away as we met Dr. Vyas we knew this would be different from all of the other doctors’ visits. He could clearly see we were worse for wear, yet he didn’t tell us that we should go home, rather he talked to us like normal people. He did make it clear that we were in bad shape and he could make no guarantees, but he also told us he would do everything he could to help us. That was a first for us.

We left the clinic that day with a ray of hope and we got married two weeks later, went on our honeymoon to the Virgin Islands and tried to enjoy the bit of time we had before it would all end.  We had a wonderful time despite the fact that we carried over 25 medications with us all prioritized to combat the painful effects of the cancer.

Ethan and Suzanne

Upon our return, Ethan was admitted for chemo treatment right away and he stayed 39 days. It was about 5 weeks into our stay when we learned that we were expecting our daughter, Emily. Despite feeling horrible, Ethan smiled so brightly and was so proud that he was going to be a Dad. From that time on, Ethan’s biggest concern each day was to make sure I was comfortable enough. My well-being and our daughter’s were more important than Ethan’s own comfort-the thought of his daughter gave him even more reason to fight.

Over time, the lesions polluting Ethan’s body shrunk and some even disappeared. Then as summer came as we prepared for our daughter’s birth we were still planning for the future as a family. Our daughter made her debut into the world on August 27, 2007 and Ethan was by my side. Two weeks later Ethan had his first lung surgery to remove the nodules. Up until that point I stayed with Ethan 24/7 and tried to be his voice and his biggest advocate.

Ethan with Baby

The first two days after the surgery I had no choice but to stay with Emily. It was heartbreaking to see that Ethan needed me desperately and one of the hardest decisions I had to make was to entrust Emily with family and to again stay with Ethan. At that time I felt that he needed me more than she did and I trusted our family and knew she would be well taken care of. In my heart I knew that Ethan and I were a team and we had to fight this as a team.

Life went on as did the chemo treatments and surgeries until the fall of 2008. That fall brought many horrors for us. Though Ethan’s lesions disappeared in some places he now had the addition of brain lesions. These lesions caused seizures and resulted in an emergency surgery. What we thought was a stumbling block was the beginning of the end and from this point on we were limited in the chemo treatments because Ethan’s body could not heal and become strong. As a result each time he had a surgery the cancer was flourishing elsewhere making it impossible to keep up. Finally on December 19, 2008 after an ambulance ride to the hospital we were told that there wasn’t anything else that could be done. The cancer was wrapping around Ethan’s spinal cord and was slowly paralyzing him.

We went home sad and empty and I made hospice arrangements and I was forced to accept the fact that I could not make him better. Regardless of how quickly I could change his drug pumps or clean his lines, I could not stop everything from happening. Ethan came to terms with his end on the last day in the hospital. Alone with his aunt, he said that he was blessed and fortunate to have had such a wonderful life and that there were people that did not get to experience half of what he experienced in his 24 years. He said that having Emily and me were all he could ever want. He was happy and he could leave our world happy knowing that.

We lost the battle in the early hours of February 8, 2009. I had given medication and must have fallen asleep and less than an hour later, I awoke and did not hear the oxygen machine. I knew he was gone. I never said goodbye and part of me knew that he left our world when I finally got a moment to sleep when I wouldn’t worry about him and for a few moments I was at peace.

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Looking back I know we were truly blessed from the beginning. I was blessed to have met such a wonderful old soul in the body of a 20 something year old man. I still cherish many of our sweet moments we had in the hospital; sure there were tears and worry in our room….pain and fear in waiting rooms…..but there was also undying love and support and a lot of humor that filled our hearts. We had the drive and determination to fight as hard and as long as we could and we made it 2 1/2 years together. In the beginning all doctors, except for Dr. Vyas, reminded us daily that Ethan had less than a month to live and well we proved them all wrong. We proved that determination and will to live is half the battle. We proved, with the help of Dr. Vyas, that we as people do not determine the lifespan of anyone.

I may not have Ethan by my side but I have Emily, our daughter, and a wonderful family that carries on the memory of Ethan daily. Emily is Ethan in every way: her eyes are his shade of beautiful, her facial expressions and silliness remind me that Ethan will always live on through her. I have remarried and Emily has a little brother, Gabriel Ethan. He too, knows the great importance of his middle name. Ethan’s legacy will always live on thru us and his drive is embedded in Emily.

Ethan’s big heart is part of Emily as well. Each year, she leads her Girl Scout troop in collecting donated boxes of Girl Scout cookies to take to the patients at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, where her Daddy Ethan was taken care of. We support her as a family and want to help those who may just be in the same place that we once were. We do it to invoke a smile on a young child’s face or even a parent, because as Emily knows her Daddy Ethan LOVED cookies.

Ethan is as much a part of our family now as he was when he was with us physically. Wherever we may be, whatever we may do, he is always with us.

– Suzanne Ruggieri

Ethan with Emily

Emily is currently in her 2nd Annual cookie drive and for more information please email gscookies4chp@gmail.com.

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Perspectives, Sarcoma

My sister, my friend

Molly McDowell was only 21 years old when her sister died from osteosarcoma. The loss was deep and personal to Molly so she has dedicated her life to raise awareness of the disease and to get involved with research. She has applied for medical school and hopes to be a pediatric oncologist specializing in sarcoma. Today, Molly takes over my blog and tells her story of her beloved sister, Hannah.

“Metastasized…multiple lung and brain lesions…clinical trials…continue living life to the fullest”. I let the words sink in and repeated them in my head as I sat in disbelief in Mo’s clinic. How could this happen to someone so young with so many dreams and so much potential? My younger sister, Hannah, had battled osteosarcoma since the age of 10 and now it was going to take her from me. Hannah was my everything. She is my greatest inspiration and will forever be my number one hero. Losing a sister of age 19 is by far the toughest thing that a 21-year-old college student can go through.

During my entire college career I never knew what “normal” was. Normal to me was a constant worried, scared feeling. But now when I look back on it, I liked that normal. That normal meant that my sister was still here; that sarcoma had not taken her away from her family that loved her more than words could ever describe.

Sarcoma took so much from Hannah, but it never changed who she truly was. She was someone that everyone fell in love with the minute they met her. There was just something about her that could never be explained. She had a fight and drive in her that rubbed off on people. For a lack of better terms, she was bullheaded. That’s what kept her with us for as long as she was. She wanted to show sarcoma who was boss, and I am sure several would agree with me when I say that she sure did. She did not let it define her. She continued living life, gave so much of herself to others, and never let anything slow her down.

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She refused to take no for an answer. In her mind there was always a way. I believe that is the mindset that every cancer patient should have; there is always a way. Whether you have 3 days, 3 months, or 3 years, there is always a way to make the most of your life. Show the cancer that is trying to take over your body that it cannot control your life; it cannot change who you truly are deep inside. It wants you to break down. It wants to ruin your spunk, and your drive to live. Why would you ever want to give cancer what it wants? That was Hannah’s way of looking at it. She wanted to prove to cancer that it would never control her, and she definitely did.

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Hannah is the reason that I am who I am today. Every struggle, every scare and battle she fought, shaped me into an amazing individual with a huge dream. I have a tremendous desire to become a sarcoma specialist someday. I have a fight and drive in me that my sister had while fighting a disease that I someday hope to destroy. Without her I do not know where I would be in life. She introduced me to my amazing, loving husband who was there for Hannah through everything. Him and I were able to celebrate our wedding in her hospital room. We will be celebrating our one-year anniversary on February 5th. It is hard to believe that it has almost been a year. It has been a long, tough year, and I wish my sister could be here with us to celebrate. But I know no matter what that she will be celebrating for us in her own way. It was her goal to get us together and to see us be married. I thank God everyday that she was able to be there. She will forever and always be my sister, my friend.

Molly McDowell

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