Sharing Our Story About Pediatric Cancer

Saturday we attended the Grand Finale event for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Man & Woman of the Year campaign (Bay Area Chapter). Jack and Celia, the Boy and Girl of the Year, handed out the awards to the participants and the winners were announced. The grand total for the campaign was also announced – 10 weeks of fundraising resulted in $804,000 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Candidates who raised over $50,000 are able to directly choose a research grant to fund with that money. Pretty awesome!

I am hopeful that after my talks with some of the candidates, they are aware of the issues in childhood cancer treatment and will direct their funds toward those research grants.

Jack Boy of the Year

At dinner during the event, I sat next to the President & CEO of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Dr. DeGennaro. He is a very nice man and it was clear he cares deeply about what the organization does. I took the opportunity to let him know what it meant to us to be part of the Man & Woman of the Year campaign, and also to emphasize that we need more focus on new, better treatments for kids (an area that is consistently underfunded). He said it’s one of the issues at the forefront in his mind (as well as prevention!), and that one of the challenges with getting new treatments for kids is that many in the medical community see the high survival rates (over 90% for ALL, for instance) and think their work is done.

Researchers, physicians, and advocates…we are nowhere near done. Cancer treatment for kids takes YEARS and it’s incredibly hard on the whole family. While the treatments usually work, they are not great – they cause secondary cancers, organ damage, learning problems, and other terrible (and sometimes deadly) side effects. Most of the time during Jack’s treatment, I didn’t worry about the cancer killing him – I worried about infection, which was statistically more likely to be a problem.

Friends, this is my challenge to you – please share our family’s story whenever you can. My wish is to spread awareness and hopefully get more funding diverted to childhood cancer research – for reference, only 4% of federal funding is devoted to childhood cancer through the National Cancer Institute. This is despite the fact that cancer is the #1 disease killing children.

Here is our family’s interview video that was made as part of this campaign. Please feel free to share it far and wide.

Note: I’ve read that if you donate to LLS, you can earmark the funds for pediatric cancer research by making a note in the memo section that states: RESTRICTED TO PEDIATRIC BLOOD CANCER RESEARCH. Additionally, for those who are donating at least $10,000 LLS says you can tie your donation to a specific research portfolio.

End of Treatment!

Jack’s been off treatment for over a month! I’ve been terribly remiss in posting about it here. We took a few pictures, though. The first is his last day of chemotherapy in the clinic. The second marks the last day of oral chemotherapy altogether!

We’ve already seen a big difference in Jack. He is full of so much energy now! He has a huge (it seems to us, anyway) appetite! He’s waking up on his own a lot in the mornings rather than needing to be dragged out of bed. It’s AWESOME!

His Broviac catheter has been removed from his chest, as well. That is both good and bad. Good because we don’t have to go to the ER for a fever anymore and we don’t have to worry about dressing changes! Bad because it means now Jack needs to get blood draws with a needle from now on…

And he is deathly afraid of needles.

We tried to get labs drawn this week and it was a miserable failure. We are now looking at finding a therapist who specializes in EMDR (a therapy used for PTSD) in kids to deal with the trauma issues he has developed. We need to get this done soon and quickly! We can also try a finger prick approach, but I am not convinced that will work any better than a needle in the arm. Even if it does, he needs more therapy – his fears and nightmares (and NIGHT TERRORS) are still terrible.

So, that’s where we’re at with that. We are celebrating the end of treatment tomorrow by hosting a party in Tilden Park. Jack has come up with some cancer-themed games he wants to play and we’ll eat, drink, and toast to the fact that we survived the last 3+ years!!

Fuck cancer, y’all.

So Many Appointments

Jack has so many appointments. ALL THE TIME. Chemotherapy is only part of cancer treatment – there are a lot of extras that come along with it. Bonuses, if you will. (Ha!)

This is a snapshot of Jack’s January appointments – minus the things I’ve pushed off into next month, like the one that checks that his spinal fluid pressure isn’t damaging his optic nerve or the echocardiogram to measure organ damage from 3 years of chemo. It also doesn’t include the learning and psychological assessments he’s had at school this month.

January 2 – Ultrasound to check for damage to veins from Broviac catheter (looks good! whew!)

January 9 – Therapy

January 12 – Pediatrician due to dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea (inconclusive!)

January 15 – Lab draw (to hopefully explain dizziness, fatigue, headaches, nausea)

January 16 – Breathing treatment

January 20 – Lumbar puncture, oncologist exam, chemotherapy infusion

January 21 – Eye exam

January 22 – Dental cleaning (if his platelets and white blood cell counts are high enough)

January 23 – Therapy

January 27 – ADHD Assessment

As you can see, the longest stretch we’ve gone without making a trip to Kaiser was 7 days. BUT! Add on Desmond’s well-child check (January 5) and that stretch disappears.

I think we might spend more time at Kaiser than at home.

Three Years

Jack was diagnosed with Leukemia three years ago.

It’s been three years since I heard, “This is the best kind of cancer to have.”

Jack - first day of Kindergarten, before cancer.

Jack – first day of Kindergarten, before cancer.

Three years of worrying that he could die from a cold or infection or even just a side effect of treatment.

Three years of worrying what damage the same treatment that would cure him would cause. Heart damage? PTSD? Learning disabilities? More cancer?

He’s had 12 or so lumbar punctures in the last three years.
Plus Four surgeries – two Broviac catheters placed and one removed, and the placement of a PICC line.
Three infections – one likely viral, one due to a rare bacteria, one due to a common bacteria.
Four hospitalizations.
Countless toxic drugs, blood draws, dressing changes, line flushes, doctor appointments…

Jack has lived with monthly “Roid Rage,” as well as daily headaches, stomach aches, fatigue, trouble walking, numbness in his extremities, bone pain, skin sensitivity… His appearance has gone through drastic changes thanks to weight gain, weight loss, and hair loss. He’s dealt with acidosis and pseudotumor cerebri for much of the time. His personality has changed – I no longer describe him as carefree.

He has missed so much school in the last three years – half of kindergarten, at least a third each of first and second grade. We’ve had 504 and IEP meetings – and it’s only now, three years into this, that he is getting the proper assessments.

He has developed food aversions to the things we used to try to administer pills. He won’t touch applesauce or peanut butter anymore. He avoids yogurt and nutella.

It’s been over three years since he’s gone swimming. He will do anything to avoid an extra dressing change!

It’s been grueling for all of us. We are beyond tired, beyond shell shocked. We are different than we used to be. Cancer is a part of our life now. When treatment ends, it won’t go away.

Still, we are looking forward to the end of treatment - March 20, 2015. Maybe we will breathe more easily then.

Three years is too long to hold our breath.

Jack, age 8 - Christmas 2014

Jack, age 8 – Christmas 2014

So Many Experts, So Few Explanations

We’ve seen quite a few doctors over the last week to address Jack’s recent paralysis incident and an increase in headaches that don’t want to go away. Two pediatrician visits, one neurology visit, and lots of phone calls have occured. We have one more appointment Friday with the eye doctor just to make sure things are okay.

None of the doctors had answers for us. No one knows what caused the paralysis and the headaches seem to be tension headaches. Everything looks benign and so we will do nothing for now and hope it goes away (and the paralysis incident doesn’t recur). Perhaps being out of school will help.

Jack’s pediatrician has been great during all of this. He is really good at following up on what is going on with Jack even when we don’t reach out to him directly (usually we call the oncology clinic because we tend to assume whatever is happening is probably due to chemo). He took me aside after the appointment yesterday to talk with me privately, away from Jack. He wanted to know how I was doing and let me know that that we could come to him anytime – that he would figure out what is going on so that we don’t have to. He even went so far as to say he’d noticed that the oncology clinic seems to feel that I’m a worry wart since the things I report that are happening seem to differ from what his dad’s household reports. He doesn’t seem to share this opinion with them, and understands that kids are unreliable when reporting illness – and this is especially true with Jack.

To give an example, if I reported to the docs that “Jack was feeling weak” – it would be because Jack told me that he felt like a chicken filled with whipped cream instead of bones. Jack’s dad would usually not think anything of that kind of statement coming from Jack, other than that Jack is a bit goofy and unique in the way he describes himself. If Jack reports that he got a weird shivery feeling (but he doesn’t feel cold) – I would check his temperature (more often than not he’d have a temp, even if it was slight, or it would be an early sign he was coming down with a cold). Jack’s dad would just assume he was chilly.

I don’t know if this occurs because Jack spends more time with me or just that he tells me more about his feelings or maybe I am some kind of master decipherer! But unfortunately the differences in what is reported between households has the oncologist questioning ME instead of his dad. And I guess maybe they prefer to hear that Jack is doing fine on chemo.

This is partly why David is taking Jack to more appointments these days – to show that it’s not just me (and also to spare me the stress of dealing with these jerks). But it seems that a lot of the damage has been done in the oncology office’s eyes, so we just deal.

In any case, the talk with the pediatrician yesterday was both reassuring (that we have SOMEONE who understands what is going on and who will take the lead on monitoring Jack’s care from a holistic perspective) and frustrating. It’s pretty upsetting to feel that I am not being respected by my son’s oncologist, someone I have to rely on to cure and keep my son alive, and it seems the pregnancy hormones have me a bit more sensitive when it comes to feeling judged negatively as a parent. I’m having a hard time shaking it now that I’ve been reminded.

David and I avoided asking Jack how he was feeling this morning and just sent him off to school, fingers crossed that he would last the day. And it seems he has. There are only 7 more days of school left until summer break, so hopefully we can make it through and we will all get a break from the grind.