Cruisin’ Along

So, putting things in perspective I was officially diagnosed with multiple myeloma on May 5, 2014, rounding the corner to four years ago. (I only know this because I looked it up today.) I have been on maintenance therapy, post-stem cell transplant, for two and a quarter years (per Dr. Munshi, last week). I feel good. I am completely a symptomatic. My numbers look good.

And last week, Dr. Munshi told me I don’t have to go back to Dana Farber for SIX months – woot! No quarterly visits. Bonus!

The Hair Story

I have been meaning to write this for a while now. And I’m not sure why I even feel I need to write it. Maybe it’s because losing your hair is such an emblem of being a cancer patient. Or maybe it’s because my hair is a big part of me, literally, my hair is typically gigantic.

So, the prospect of losing it, was for me like for most cancer patients, something I was not looking forward to.

First, to prepare, the trying on of wigs:

I thought it might be fun to try to be a blonde, nope. Shorter wigs are easier to care for, but it just didn’t feel right and soon enough I would have very short hair! I went with the Raquel Welch “Showstopper”. Something about a Raquel Welch wig made me smile.

I learned an important and expensive lesson after I purchased my wig. Connecticut has a statute that requires insurance companies to cover up to $350 towards the purchase of a wig when your oncologist writes a prescription for a “cranial prosthesis”. My wig cost $478. When I submitted my claim it was denied. When I questioned the denial I was told that I had purchased my wig “out of network”. I had never even considered that there would be In network places to purchase a wig. Anyone going through this – read your insurance coverage carefully!

So, after my DCEP treatment, and before my stem cell transplant I was told my hair would likely start to fall out in about two weeks. So I waited. And then this happened.

And this is what it looked like:

The next day I eventually cut it short to my head and put on my wig to go to my stepdaughter Tess’ junior prom pictures. No one I saw even batted an eye.

I found sleeping on that short hair actually hurt. Somehow the short hairs are pushed against the grain of the way they normally lay and it HURTS, a lot. So on Mother’s Day my daughter Sarah came over and we shaved my head. Just like that. Wearing the wig took some getting used to, for instance in this Mother’s Day photo it is clearly falling too low on my forehead!

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I wore the wig to work every day. And everyone thought my hair looked so great! (Very few people at work, a handful really, knew I had cancer.) But wigs are uncomfortable, they itch, they tangle and they are hot, so at home it was often just my bare scalp.

And then there were the buffs and hats.

And everyone’s favorite the hat/hair!

Occasionally, I revealed my baldness in public.

But mostly I wore the wig, itchiness, tangles and all. At one point I even had to pay for a “haircut” for the wig! I needed to make it a touch shorter so it wouldn’t tangle so much on the bottom.

And then the growing out began.

Where it went from chic, to really not chic at all. My son Kyle was always the most brutally honest (not politically correct to share all the things he called me)!

At one point it was feeling oh-so-not-chic-at-all and in desperation I went for a haircut, where she thinned my hair in spots so it would lose some of it’s bushiness. It worked for a bit, although the growing out of the thinned layers was not so great – not sure I would recommend it.

And then there were the difficult times, which for the most part I found humorous (do excuse my mascara circled morning eyes in lots of these, morning hair was often the most “special”).

But one of my all-time favorites was when I sent a bad hair day photo to my nephew Hunter and he came back with the perfect response in seconds!

And I am still waiting for a great blowout…

In the meantime, some good hair days, some bad hair days…

But, really every day is a great day—and to be fair I’ll always have crazy hair!

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Giving Back

I’ve come a long way thanks to the miracle of modern science. But it’s not entirely a miracle – it is brilliant minds working hard and funding from people like you and me. As I am approaching the 2 year anniversary of my stem cell transplant I am feeling the need to give back. To raise money and awareness for those who have gone behind me and for the struggles (selfishly) that I will face down the road.

I am putting together a team to in the  Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation (MMRF) Team for Cures 5K Walk/Run. And I invite you to join me on June 11th in New Canaan or to make a small donation to help fund the research in hopes that some day there will be a cure for multiple myeloma.

I share the photo above, which I lovingly call “Cancer on the Beach”, remembering the stem cell transplant, not how hard it was – but how amazing it was.

Here’s the link to my fundraising page: https://walkrun.themmrf.org/Tri-State/heathersmith.

Thanks as always for checking in here.

It’s Been a While

It’s been a year since my stem cell transplant. The ‘birthday’ of my new cells was June 15th. And it’s been almost four months since I’ve posted.

The reason for not posting has been two-fold  – super busy work/life stuff and not much cancer stuff.

I squeezed in a quick jaunt to Costa Rica with my son Kyle and my mom. It was beautiful, fun and full of adventure (zip-lining, Tarzan-swinging, waterfall rappelling, hiking, kayaking and driving on the roads). Our good friends Erica, Stacey, Lisa and my sister Kirsten threw us a fabulous engagement party.


Two of Scot’s daughters graduated (Maia from college and Tess from high school) and we threw them a graduation party.


We went to two weddings, one in Philadelphia and one in Georgia.

And my photography business has started the season with a bang – two weekends of three shoots each.

So as far as the multiple myeloma goes my myeloma numbers have remained low and stable (yay!). However, the revlimid has been messing with me a bit. First some nausea (enough to get me out of bed in the middle of the night to take something) and low platelets caused them to stop the revlimid three days early. And then the next cycle (two weeks ago) my ANC was 0.5 so they didn’t give me any treatment so I had almost two weeks off.

Last week I went to Dana Farber and Dr. Munshi changed my revlimid does from 25 mg to 15 mg.

In a recent conversation I had with Dr. Seropian at Smilow I said that treating this “is an art not a science”. He corrected me and said  “a craft really, you create a product with an art”.  So there 🙂

Writing this today while at Smilow getting poked and prodded – Zometa infusion, 5 vaccines (each a separate intramuscular shot) and my velcade injection. Fun times!

And last but not least enjoying every second I get with Kensley.

Kensley

Last Thursday, March 3rd, my daughter gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Kensley Sarah. And although I would have been equally happy had she given birth to a boy, there is something very special about the name they chose for their daughter. They chose a “K” name to honor Ken, my husband who passed away 4 years ago (see About Me), and not just any “K’ name, but one with his name in it. I love it. Additionally, they honored my family tradition, one that I think is very special as it is passed down through the women, giving the first born daughter the mother’s name as the middle name. It has gone thus: Elizabeth Mary, Barbara Elizabeth, Heather Barbara, Sarah Heather and now Kensley Sarah.

It was an arduous labor, but Sarah was a trooper and Demian steadfastly supported her. I was honored to be there to support her as well. Kensley was amazingly alert from the moment she was born – so much so I commented that she was nosy! Sarah is like an old pro at this mothering thing, relaxed and confident, caring and calm. I am equally in love with this baby as I am watching my daughter be a mother.

And now, just because indeed it is always something, a quick multiple myeloma update. When I went to Smilow for my velcade injection on Thursday my white blood count had dropped quite a bit (my ANC was 0.6). So They halted all treatment (did not get the injection and stopped taking the daily revlimid) until they check my blood work again next week. The upside is that I feel totally fine. The downsize is that I am at risk for getting an infection that would be difficult for me to fight off. And just a reminder that this is a long and winding road, this cancer thing.

VGPR

I have been a very bad blogger of late. What with a baby shower for my daughter, a week in Naples, FL with good friends, waiting for a baby to arrive, my sister’s 50th birthday, working, maintenance therapy, dealing with this mop of hair growing on the top of my head, and did I say waiting for a baby to be born!?!

Well, today is the due date and we are still waiting. My daughter wants to have a natural childbirth so we are hoping this starts moving along in the next few days so we can stop worrying about induction. Did I say “we”? Well, as her birth doula, I am worried about this too!

Two weeks ago I went to Dana Farber to see Dr. Munshi, I had not been since October. He took a while fumbling with the electronic health record, but after going back and forth he finally said, “We would say you had VGPR.” I knew what this meant and it was what I was expecting, but my friend Alison was perplexed., “What is VGPR?”Well,  VGPR is a Very Good Partial Response. My m-spike decreased by at least 90% thus meeting the definition. So I did not have a complete response (or what some people might call remission), but I had a very good partial response. And my numbers could continue to stay where there are today for a long time and they cold also continue to go down a bit with the leftover effects of the melphalan (from the stem cell transplant) and the maintenance therapy that I continue. But as there is no “cure” at some point I will likely relapse, but there are lots of options (read:drugs) out therefor the treatment of multiple myeloma and so far I have only tried a handful, and those can also be revisited.

Here is the clearest information I could find about VGPR: “Based on their results, researchers concluded that achieving very good partial response should serve as a major treatment goal for patients and their physicians – not only does it correlate with better short- and long-term event-free and overall survival, but it also encapsulates a larger population of patients than complete response.” So VGPR, a fancy acronym for “you done good, doing great doesn’t happen very often, now stay there”.

I will try and be a better blogger, (I still have the story of my hair to write) but who knows what will happen after this grandchild is born!

 

365 days past and leaping into the next 366

(I haven’t been blogging much lately for two reasons. One, there isn’t much to say; that is there isn’t much going on in my multiple myeloma world. Two, I’ve been very busy with everything else – a hectic fall photography season and the holidays. So two “good” reasons.)

So this past year has been, well, huge. Just a few days over a year ago I told my kids and my family and friends that I have multiple myeloma. A year ago on  January 5th I started treatment. I got the flu. I had a weekend hospitalization with a neutropenic fever. My daughter got married. I was hospitalized for 5 days for DCEP treatment. I bought a wig. I lost my hair. I had a stem cell transplant. My daughter got pregnant. I went back to work. My son got a dog. I had a busy fall season of photography shoots and editing. My hair started to grow back. I started maintenance therapy. And then the holidays.

The coming year is already chock full of things to look forward to:

  • Sarah’s baby shower
  • A trip to Naples, FL, staying with Dennis and Ruth Ellen and vising many others
  • The birth of my grandchild (sex currently unknown)
  • Graduation of two of Scot’s daughter’s (Maia (college) and Tess (high school)
  • A cousin’s daughter’s wedding in GA
  • Another week in the Hamptons
  • Our wedding (Scot and I)

And the ongoing maintenance therapy. And hopefully that is all on the myeloma front.

And of course the ongoing hair saga. More on that later.

As I wrap up this past year I want to thank everyone again for their love and support. You are my strength.

Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving I am very thankful. Thankful and filled with gratitude despite being a widow and a cancer patient.

I am grateful for Dr. Munshi and Tina Flaherty, APRN at Dana Farber for their expertise in and careful study of multiple myeloma and the treatment of it. And for their kindness and responsiveness to me and my questions and queries.

I am thankful to be living in an era of mostly uneventful autologous stem cell transplants. Grateful for this therapy and the destruction of cancer cells that it allowed.

I am grateful for researchers, and yes, even pharmaceutical companies, who continue to develop new drugs to treat my cancer, two in the last week alone were approved by the FDA. One of these is an oral (pill) form of the maintenance drug I currently have to go to the clinic to get by injection. So this one will make a difference for me in the near future (as soon as it is available locally).

I am grateful to be employed by Yale University and for my co-workers who allow me to continue to work (and get paid) while I take care of my health.

I am grateful for the love of my close friends and family and the support they give me.

I am grateful for the kindness of all my friends, far and wide, both near and far, from old friends who I don’t see very often, and those I am privileged to see much more often, and those I may only “know” or “see” virtually, here or on social media.

This is the first thanksgiving in many, many years that I am not hosting. My daughter Sarah is hosting her first thanksgiving in her first house, which she moved into only a few weeks ago, and pregnant with her first child. We’re splitting the cooking. And as I “pass the torch” in a small way, I am grateful that I have, and we have, all the precious memories of thanksgivings past, when Ken was alive, feeding 3-4 dozen people, hikes in the valley, high school football games, grandchildren visiting, and crescent rolls (for the last time, year after year).

And I am grateful for Scot, who is present for my day to day, my ups and downs, my low moments and my highs, and my whining and complaining. He never panics, never lets me overdramatize, makes me laugh (and laugh and laugh), tells me I am beautiful (even when I am sure I am not), remains eternally positive, feeds me and occasionally, when I need it, reminds me to be grateful, which I am.

 

Why the words are so important

I had my appointment at Dana Farber this past Thursday. And I waited to post about it until I had time to listen to my recording of it. I knew it was positive. There were lots of “yays” and even hugs at the end. So when I was asked how it went I would say “it went well”. But with cancer, at least with my cancer, I am relying on numbers and then how those numbers are translated into words to know how I am doing. Because aside from effects of the numerous treatments I have had, I have no symptoms of my cancer.

So this morning I listened to the recording and wrote down some of the words.

  • With myeloma at this low level
  • Light chains are great
  • IgG is normal
  • Standard maintenance therapy is revlimid 3 weeks on and one week off, because of your genetics (this is the genetics of my multiple myeloma) we will also do velcade every other week
  • Shouldn’t cause more neuropathy
  • Side effects pretty minimal
  • The transplant achieved what we were hoping
  • Free light chains came down quite dramatically 400-500 to 20
  • Come back every 4 months then stretch it even beyond that
  • We are on cruise control now
  • Your myeloma is going to be gone. It’s almost pretty much gone. This (maintenance therapy) is to keep it away for years and years.
  • Your immune system is actually better than it was because the myeloma is not affecting it.

So there you have it, lots of positive words, along with “yays”, smiling faces, joking around and hugs.

I don’t know why, but I remain pretty neutral, not pessimistic, but not even cautiously optimistic. I feel like I’m from Missouri – show me. Show me I’m still cruising along a year from now, 2 years from now.

I guess, I don’t want to get too high, it makes the lows feel that much steeper.