Perspectives, Sarcoma

Nik Jiruska: Ewing’s Sarcoma Survivor.

July is sarcoma awareness month so I’ve invited others affected by sarcoma to guest blog throughout the month. Today’s blog comes from Nik Jiruska, a young man who battled Ewing’s sarcoma. Enjoy.

My name is Nikolas Jiruska and I recently finished receiving chemotherapy treatments to fight a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing’s Sarcoma. This disease primarily affects children and adolescents, but I was diagnosed at the age of 20. It was a long journey, and I am fortunate enough to be able to say that I am now back at The University of Iowa nine months later and enjoying life more than ever. Now, let’s go back to April 2013 where my journey began.

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I started feeling pain in my left hip towards the end of April. It was a fairly mild pain and it would come and go every so often. I thought it might have been a pulled muscle or a pinched nerve. This persisted for a few weeks before the pain started to get worse. Fortunately, the intense pain waited until I was done with my final exams for the spring 2013 semester. I went to the emergency room at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids the first time the pain in my leg became unbearable. It started in my hip and would send deep, pulsing pain down my entire leg. They drew blood and took X-rays of my back and hip, but were not able to draw any conclusions from this work. I received some pain medicine and was told to keep monitoring my leg.

The pain continued to grow worse and worse from then and I went to the emergency room two more times before I finally received an MRI. The ER doctor who was tending to me knew immediately that I had cancer after looking at the results of the MRI. This was the last thing I ever expected to hear, especially at age 20. The doctor arranged for me to go to The University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics immediately. My parents, girlfriend, and I left St. Luke’s and went straight to Iowa City in the middle of the night.

After a few days of various tests, I was officially diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma on June 4th, which also happens to be my mother’s birthday (happy birthday, right?). Although we had the official diagnosis, there was still a lot to do to find out if the cancer had spread anywhere else. After the initial blow from this horrifying diagnosis, we only received good news from then on. All of the tests revealed that the cancer was localized in my hip and had not spread to the brain, lungs, or bone marrow, which are three locations that this could likely spread to.

At this point, I started my chemotherapy treatments and talked with my oncologist, Dr. Mohammed Milhem (just “Mo” for every one who knows him), to get an idea of what the next few months would entail. I would receive chemotherapy treatments every two weeks, alternating between two and five-day treatments. I would have five rounds of chemotherapy and then have more scans to see how it reacted to the treatment. Shortly after, Dr. Benjamin Miller would perform surgery to remove the tumor. We thought I would have to receive a hip replacement, but there was a chance I could also have a bone allograft surgery depending on how the tumor reacted to the treatment. After the surgery, I would go on to receive nine more rounds of chemotherapy for 18 weeks.

It took me a few rounds of chemotherapy before I started to feel the effects. One of the effects that was the most difficult for me to grapple with was losing my hair. It was sort of my trademark and was a big adjustment in my life. However, a small price to pay, considering it would grow back eventually. Some of the other side effects I felt throughout my treatments were lightheadedness, fatigue, and nausea.

Nik Jiruska 1

The first five treatments flew by much faster than I had anticipated, and all of the sudden it was August. I had my scans and my cancer had reacted very well to the chemotherapy treatments, shrinking the tumor a lot. Dr. Miller determined that I would be able to have the bone allograft surgery. There is a longer recovery time with this route, but long-term, it would be better for my leg in terms of returning to normal functionality. Dr. Miller and his team performed a successful surgery to remove my tumor on August 21st. He determined that 95% of the tumor was dead and had been removed with clean margins. This was a big step out of the way, and everything was downhill after that.

Perhaps it is only at this point in time that I can say that it was downhill after surgery. At the time, life was very difficult. I was not able to put weight on my left leg for three months because my bone had to heal around the graft, and when you are dealing with healing bone, everyone knows this is a very slow process. This lack of mobility along with starting my final nine rounds of chemotherapy made my choice to withdraw from school for the fall 2013 semester pretty easy.

I do not know how I would have made it through those three months without my parents and girlfriend. They went out of their way to do things for me much more than they needed to. I am so grateful for them and what they did for me during this time, and during my whole fight. I primarily spent this time going back and forth between my apartment in Iowa City and my parents’ houses in Cedar Rapids, when I was not at UIHC for treatments. This was an uneventful time, to say the least. My days were filled with watching movies, Netflix, and playing videogames. It was the lazy time you fantasize about when you are living a normal, busy life, but believe me when I say this lifestyle gets old very fast.

After beating five video games and watching countless movies and TV shows, my three-month appointment with Dr. Miller arrived on November 14th and he gave me the OK to start bearing weight on my left leg. Goodbye, walker and crutches. I started practicing to walk immediately when I got back to my apartment after that appointment. It was an awkward and exciting feeling. I had, and still have, an overwhelming feeling of thankfulness that I have the opportunity to walk, because not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to keep their limb when they are diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma.

At this point, life was getting pretty good. I was walking again and only had four more chemotherapy treatments to go. However, my last few treatments were delayed because I was really feeling the negative effects of the chemotherapy and I was not meeting the required blood counts to be able to start the next round of treatment. I had to receive a handful of blood transfusions during this time to help meet the blood count requirements. Thinking about it now, these setbacks were not a big deal at all compared to what can happen when receiving chemotherapy treatments. At the time, though, it seemed awful because I was so anxious to finish and get on with my life.

Finally, January 3rd came around and it was time to go in for my final chemotherapy treatment. Unfortunately, this had to be a five-day treatment. The longest five days of my entire life, I think. My girlfriend stayed with me every night in the hospital, as she did during my treatments in the summer months, which made everything a lot more bearable because she is a very comforting person to be around. The wonderful nurses of 4JPE in UIHC presented me a beautiful cookie cake to congratulate me on my final day. I then returned to Cedar Rapids for a couple of weeks of rest, relaxation, and relief before I would return to school. I returned to UIHC three weeks after I completed chemotherapy for a bone scan and CT scan to make sure I was clean. Sure enough, the scans were clear. We were all optimistic that this would be the case, and it was truly a wonderful feeling. Time to get back to life.

I am sitting here writing this now and I do not feel bitter about having to have endured this experience at all. I have only to be thankful that I survived it. Also, as odd as it may sound, I am sort of thankful that I went through this experience because I learned a lot about myself during this time and it strengthened my relationships with those closest to me. I want to conclude my story by saying that you should never overlook any pain or odd feeling you may experience in your body. I did not do this and the early detection of my cancer may have saved my life. I also want to give thanks to my wonderful caregivers throughout this journey, including Mo, Dr. Miller, my parents, my girlfriend, and the nurses of 4JPE, 4JPW, and 2RCW.

-Nik Jiurska

Nik’s girlfriend made a surprise video for him at the completion of his chemotherapy. She got many of Nik’s friends and family involved in this video, including a celebrity or two. Watch the story from KGAN News Channel 2 and then watch the video from his girlfriend here.

 

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Melanoma and Sarcoma, Patient Care, Perspectives

Orphaned.

Everyone in the room is quiet.  I feel like the old man leaning forward looking through my glasses understanding the situation but not fully. As an observer  I have seen it, can describe it but I am not experiencing it myself. No one in the room can appreciate that struggle. Three situations have made me think differently this week about cancer and what I do.  So lets navigate the spheres of care. The psychological, the spiritual, and the physical realms that humans use to perceive their surroundings.

I walk into a room and pull up a chair. I feel separated from my patient because of a new unfortunate event. I start to talk. The power of words, trying to reconnect and asking politely to let me back into their struggle. My patient said to me “Mo I can handle the pain but not the emotions of this struggle”. I acknowledge this. I do not underestimate it. Anxiety and depression makes a patient alone as if  orphaned by their diagnosis struggling at their core to make sense of things. The psychological scramble.

My patient sits across from me, my last one for the day I think to myself, going home soon, the day is done. Then out of the blue as I describe the cancer, I hear the words “Mo you talk about cancer very  spiritually.” Revelation. Taboo, should not talk to this person about this right now, no religion allowed. That’s the training. My indoctrination. But honest that was one of the best conversations I have ever had with someone with this disease.

Challenged. My patient stares at me but does not understand. Waves at me and smiles. That innocent oblivious smile. Someone else is making this decision for them. They are in pain and the people around perceive the situation but are unable to communicate it truly and fully. How can this paradox exist you might think? In a challenged intellect perhaps where explaining the physical does not help, words are of no use and an orphan appears.

Three unique situations. Each one with no real guidance on how to approach them. Am I the pioneer then? Don’t want to be. But clearly we have to start thinking of this disease as different and evolve more holistic approaches to help those who it encompasses.  Perhaps we have to explore it in places we dared not go before. Like orphans exploring parenthood for the first time.

Mo

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Melanoma and Sarcoma, Patient Care, Perspectives

How?

“You got me this far” he told me. And then making it more difficult “I trust you” he added. Perhaps these should be easy words to hear and I should be proud that I was able to do something and be commended. But it’s the other words that linger “I trust you” he repeated. As I build my relationship with patients I become part of their successes, goals and their life. I am someone that they know, have shared their hardships and deepest thoughts. I am told that it is best to have barriers and not to get involved with them. I am told that I should find ways to separate me from them.

How?

To me this responsibility, this trust is crushing. It generally sends me reeling trying to make sense of the inevitability. Perhaps now I understand the spouse and her tears. How do I comfort? With my knowledge that has failed? With my compassion that I disguise?

But it does not end there; there is a question that I have loathed. “How long do I have?”

Is there a stamp with an expiry date? Perhaps I missed it in my examinations. That is what I say out loud, angrily perhaps? Do you say you did not climb Everest when you got only half way? When you stood at the bottom of the mountain and your first words were “I cannot do this?” Now that you are half way, what should I say about the journey so far? What about the goals we reached the times we shared? Just because I could not get you to the top what should I do? That is why my patients are amazing. It’s the first statement “you got me this far” that makes me heal.

It reverberates deeply in my mind. What strikes me down to my core beyond words that I feel do not understand.

How do I say goodbye?

Mo

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

Cage.

It’s about a mile walk from my clinic to my office. A small part of that walk is outside. Grey was the sky, a cold wind penetrated my shirt but not enough for a jacket I thought. A light drizzle of rain. I guess this is the “Ambience” of this blog. I sighed deeply as I walked, the conversation of the day speaking inside me. I could feel each step, each bone in my body ached. And I walked distracted.

“I am sorry but your insurance will not accept me treating you on this clinical trial.”

Shell Shocked.

I did not go into medicine to be forbidden to treat someone with what I felt would be the best option for them. I imagined myself a rare bird stuck in a cage realizing the boundaries of the system that I existed in.  My wings unable to soar. My perceived freedom now defined by outward forces beyond my control. I felt the bars close in and force my decisions. A slave to the system that I have now discovered is not  easy to navigate. “This is all I have to treat you with”.  I did not even want to be in the room anymore as I spoke to this human. Where did my compassion go?  I longed for the freedom to decide the best treatment. I wanted to soar and my anger rattled me.  I flew into the bars wanting them to bend. I felt the imposition of the system. Where are the tools to help my patient today?  This is coming from someone who does not take “no” lightly.

I walked to my office, and talked to my boss. An incredible man to say the least. He let me talk. Like a cushion he absorbed this shock. This is not the first time that this has happened.

I have always liked the political cartoons of the past. They speak volumes in pictures. Intelligently portraying the issues of the time. I sat and read some of the “Far Side” cartoons on my couch. Humor a mature psychological defense mechanism like an old teacher showing the way.

Here is my picture for you- “Imagine”:

That despite this cage; this bird today sang.

I still found a way to deliver my care.

Mo

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

Confidential.

It is a very interesting place to be in the room with one of my patients. The medium of trust allows them to share their intimate secrets with me. It is tranquil and exceptionally vast. Where am I tonight you might wonder as you read this? I guess I’m with myself; in a place where I do not wish to share secrets that are given to me in confidence. They are mine to treasure, each time I think of one they are very personal. I try to write about them and find my hands guided away from sharing. What a difficult thing to truly share with you all. While driving home tonight, my friend said “where do you draw the line with a patient?”  It made me think of barriers perhaps we as physicians put up to protect ourselves from our patients’ feelings and emotions. Is there a line one draws when you are evoking their confidence to talk about things that they hold sacred?

I have often thought about my voice on a radio. After recording it, I always tend to say “that does not sound like me”. Our voices are unique to us; we all hear a different version in our heads of what people around us hear. It’s my confidential voice.  It is fascinating to me that I am the only one who hears it my way. It strengthens the thought of my own journey in life.  Personal.  I feel when I am with my patient that I am hearing that voice that is so unique to them that I cannot find the words to talk about it with anyone. I feel I connect with them inside as they navigate their decisions. I share my thoughts of the same situation they are in, it’s like I dared to go down their journey too. When they take chemotherapy or when they throw in the towel and say enough, I am with them. It is that voice that I try to find the frequency.  And I try to align it with how I would feel.

The question is, how do I find my way back to myself?

I guess in this dark night, that is exactly what I am doing. Finding my home again, finding me. It is cathartic that I could share in all the decisions I made with my patients today. It is a pleasure at the end of my visits with them that they stand up to shake my hand. I hope they see that I too am shaking theirs, in complete confidence that what we shared is sacred.

Mo

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

Bounce.

“It’s a fine line between optimism and pessimism” he said to me, and I looked at him staring blankly. We talked about how it’s so easy to see things with a half empty glass and how the pressures around us sometimes dictate how we view life as it pertains to our practices and the decisions we face.  It could be as Nicholas Taleb would see it, that there really is no glass, but it’s how we in the end decide to see.

It’s been that kind of day.  Bounce.  Like a ball.  I have to have the spring to go from one patient to the other. “Your scans look great” ……….”I am sorry I have some bad news”. Not much more to say when the scans are good; good news brings a few laughs and off they go- anxieties abated until the next scans.  Bad news brings much more discussion, “is there hope? can we beat this?” Like the ball, I am elastic ready for both situations; the good news helping me spring back from the collision of the bad news. I think I am answering the question I am sometimes asked when my patients say “how do you do it?”

I have sat alone in a doctor’s office in silence waiting to be seen. That silence is unbearable. And all I needed that day was an injection into my shoulder. I dislike making patients  wait to hear good news. I yell out loud “yes!” after looking at a scan, springing out of my chair like a kid to get to the person who gets that good news. It’s amazing to watch relief. I have gotten good at reading the faces of my patients.

Bad News. I stare at the scan disbelieving. A meticulous and wise mind takes over, filled with understanding of the greater mysteries of life that the science I know helps me unravel. I sometimes find myself thinking about my own mortality, my heart is heavy, but this when the person waiting really needs me. They do not need me to feel sorry, they need me sharp, ready to navigate and able to get them through this. Like a pilot in a bad storm, as a passenger who knows nothing about flying, I hear myself saying “he better land this plane”.

I want nothing more than to deliver good news to every room I walk into. Reality says differently. I find myself thinking today mostly about the bad news I delivered, not as a sympathetic person but as a physician needing to find the answer to help land the plane, weighing all the odds and stretching my mind to figure this out. Perhaps the answer lies in tomorrow. I have to believe there is an answer out there, that some day while sitting listening to a researcher present his work or explain a phenomenon that there is enough talent in the room to figure this out.

I bounce in and out of rooms, between today and tomorrow, between discovery and a dead end.

Mo

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Melanoma, Melanoma and Sarcoma

Closure.

“I didn’t know I could talk to you” he said to me in the clinic today. We hugged and he sat down, “It happened so fast.” We were both fighting back some tears. “She was an amazing woman” I chimed, trying to find the right footing as we talked.

It was the end of my clinic and a family came to see me to find closure in the care of their loved one. This is a side of me that is very private and my voice is sharing this with you. My heart is not.  It is a rare event that I come full circle and have a chance to talk about someone who lived.

What is important to me in the closure of a patient who passes? I’ll share this intimate detail with you now.

When patients cross my path on their extraordinary journey, I deal with their cancer, their treatment and their ailments, I talk shop, science, but I never hear about the way they lived during this time. I never hear about what they did and what they really felt. I want to know that they embraced each day and that they did not let this beat them and that they fought for what they wanted. This was true for me today. I heard how she lived………………… “She hated that pill” and “the sun was all she wanted to do and went out despite you telling her not to” (my goodness, I laughed at that) ……… and we talked more………and I had closure. YEAH! My heart yelled. She LIVED. I always thought I would make the worst patient. I would never let an illness eat away at my life, and I would live despite what the “doctors” say.

“I feel better that I came and talked to you, Mo, I had no idea how to initiate this, I did not know it was even an option” he said to me, staring right at me, through me. I explained he was and always will be my family, and is welcome anytime. I have done this with many families. I guess I want them to know how it makes a difference to me and how it helps me heal too from the loss of a friend. “Thank you for taking the time” he told me, hugged me and left. Really? I believe I have to thank him for taking the time to come to me, to sit with me. One human to the next, is this so hard? What did he have to face? Memories of her treatment, bad news, decisions made……and he came anyway. “I was very anxious coming, I did not know what to expect.”

Perhaps our medical system should have a closure visit built into the system to allow physicians a chance to heal from wounds that sometimes make us appear indifferent or callous. Wisdom has softened my heart, and death has opened my compassion.

I never thought I would be writing like this, talking like this to all of you. When I first started blogging, I thought I couldn’t be myself and that I’d have to talk science and other stuff and be the “doctor”. I am discovering I am not able to do that. I picked Tuesday evening to write because it’s a clinic day for me and I am the closest to my patients when I am in clinic. I also realized how they make me feel.

Thank you, my friends.

Mo

 

 

 

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

I do not know.

“Why me?” she asked me today in clinic.

I’m home and thinking and this question just will not leave me. Really, why? I honestly do not know why.  It is a plaguing question. Many have asked me and I search hard for the answer. I am not about to answer this sitting here on my couch that’s for sure.

I have taken refuge in science and in the minds of the scientists around me. Science has answered many questions for me and has given me the ability to come to patients and explain their disease. And it is important to me to explain disease. It’s why I became a physician.

I have spoken of my heroes who take chances for others and participate in clinical trials and research to help us answer the “why me’s?” When I first started working in the academic world I quickly found that science helps reveal truths and prevents bad practice. Collaborating with more minds helped me make better decisions for my patients. Today I share what I sometimes come home with and some of the questions that make me freeze and I simply say “I do not know.”

 

“How do you know you have the best treatment for me?”

“What if I could find a better treatment elsewhere?”

“There is this miracle drug in Mexico. Do you think this is a good idea?”

“I have radicalized my diet to fight this. What do you think?”

“Am I just a guinea pig?”

“So you are saying there is only a 5% benefit from this treatment and it has all those side-effects?”

“Why should I do this treatment? Isn’t there anything better?”

 

These questions linger in my mind and make me wonder. And I do not know the answers. I task my patients in being the answer, in helping me understand, in helping others. It truly is a sacrifice of a higher order, of our human nature. I have learned to be honest with them, share my thoughts, my biases, and my lack of knowledge. I sound unsure, incapable and incompetent as I argue my case in their presence against cancer. It is a huge undertaking to try to explain this disease. I often find myself saying ” I am a good salesman and I am about to sell you a crappy car”.

Our treatments though exciting and innovative are still primitive. Investing in clinical trials and basic science, and research is our only hope to fight against this crippling disease. How does on choose what is best for a patient in an evolving and erupting world of knowledge. I push the buttons of those around me that dare to challenge the life around us and dare to dream of cures. The Wright Brothers wanted to fly. They created models and tested them, now humans can fly. I work with incredible talent, that tests their ideas, and think about what’s next. And for those who know me – I do push hard.

Michael Henry, PhD, the Deputy Director for Research at the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center, has become more than a collaborator. Perhaps I can persuade him to talk to you about his research interests and how he made me see cells differently, opening my mind to the secrets of cancer biology and to ideas that contradict the normal we have come to accept. Together we are forging a stronghold in our understanding of cancer – our movement is only forward.

Thanks for reading.

Mo

Dr. Michael Henry and Mo

Dr. Michael Henry and Me

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Melanoma and Sarcoma

Take a Moment…

Let us take a moment to reflect on why we do the things we do.

It’s for my heroes.

For my patients that have battled melanoma or sarcoma and have helped move science forward. They truly are a part of every decision I make.

They are my true teachers, my inspirations.

Those who have suffered with an ailment that drives us to understand what makes it such. Those that help me help someone else because they dared to take on something new.

It is amazing to sit alone on a Tuesday night, thinking about things. I often sit in silence, and talk to those who have passed. What did I learn? What could I have done better?  What did their lives leave in lessons? 

I must admit that I miss my heroes as I sit alone on my couch letting my day settle. They motivate me and enrich a desire in me to find answers to hard questions that should be asked. They ask these questions of me and force me to think and explore the impossible, making it possible. They have departed us in life, but in me they linger and they still teach me.

My patients, those that are still with me and have survived, those who have said their goodbyes, those who are still fighting hard. They are my heroes. And I take a moment to remember them all.

A community surrounds each individual. The University of Iowa Foundation has a retreat once a year for those who want to engage in the fight against cancer with me. I share with you this event in pictures that sometimes speak louder than words. Thank you each hero. Thank you for your fight. Thank you for helping someone other than yourself. Thank you for you selflessness.

Mo

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Nancy and Jay White 1

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