So Much For “Catching It Early”

David's Journey, Lessons Learned
David & Rachel

Does this look like a kid waiting on brain surgery?

I found a Facebook post today from before I started this blog. You see, I didn’t know the path that we were headed down. I didn’t know that I would be trying to help others navigate the ugly world of brain cancer. I thought my son had a brain tumor that would require some potentially risky surgery, but that we would get it out and be on our merry way. I didn’t know a lot of things – then.

Fast forward to today, when I know more than I ever wanted to about brain cancer and how devastating it is – even when it is small and they catch it early. You see, this disease isn’t like most cancers. Catching it early doesn’t dramatically improve your chance of survival. It being small doesn’t make it any less aggressive.

Looking back at this post, I am struck by how naive I was. I know that the rest of the world is also that naive. I know that you won’t really understand unless, God forbid, it happens to you or someone you love. And that’s the real kicker. It COULD happen to you or someone you love. We have no idea why David got brain cancer. Most brain cancers can not be traced to a specific cause. He didn’t smoke or drink or even use a cell phone much. He was a healthy, happy 16 year old who didn’t deserve this. No one does.

This post is full of optimism, and though we may not have David with us anymore, we still have his sense of optimism. We know we are on the right track. We know we will help put an end to this disease, and most likely, many others. I wish with all of my heart that it had happened in time to save David, but I move forward everyday with a sense of urgency that it today it could be someone else’s “David”. One day, a mother will get to keep her innocence because of the work you are helping us do.

Here’s the post from September 3, 2010:

David was having really bad headaches so his dad took him to the ER – twice. Second time they did a CT scan and saw something. Turns out he had a small growth with some bleeding. The bleeding was irritating the area & giving him a headache. (We had originally thought the bleeding was an issue, but it seems to have stopped fairly quickly on it’s own.) So the headaches alerted us to a problem (the growth) that might have gone unchecked for a while otherwise.

The growth is a concern because it shouldn’t be there, but as growths go, it seems “good”. It’s small and compact, like a ball – not “reaching out” like an open hand.

Because it is in his head, they want to be very careful how they approach it. Since everything has stabilized so much (a very good thing) they are waiting for the dust to settle (or in this case for the blood that is in the wrong place to be reabsorbed) so they have a nice clear picture when they put their tiny scope camera in.

Now, this may sound intense, but there are some good things working here: 1) they caught it very early and 2) they have time to calmly decide on the best approach to fix it. Since he is doing so well, they can start with the least invasive thing and only use the more invasive stuff as a latter option. (A lot of times the situation is more severe and they have to use the “big guns” right away. And yes, that is just a figure of speech!)

The growth is in his brain, and not in the easiest location to reach, so the doctor is being very cautious about how and where he goes in. It is very likely that David will have to do a little rehab depending on what procedure(s) they have to use.

His headaches have been well under control (sometimes gone) since the day after he came into the hospital, so he’s feeling pretty good. He has been kidding around a lot today and seems pretty comfortable with what’s going on. He does know everything and was able to ask the neurosurgeon questions. (Which, if you know David, you will know that made him happy.)

Please keep praying for him. Things look good for the circumstances, but we have a lot of work to do next week.

Lastly, I’d just like to thank all of you who’ve sent messages of thoughts and prayers. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve never really had to deal with this kind of thing before, so I never really knew how much that meant. We are confident that God is working powerfully for David, and we are so thankful for the prayer warriors out there who are lifting us up. (On a light note, we were visualizing that today as sort of a prayer with a “raise the roof” hand motion. God is good!)

Signs, Llamas, and Hallelujahs

David's Journey, Dragon Master Foundation

dancingllama.jpg

A lot of people I know believe that their loved one can send signs from Heaven. I’ve always been a bit of a skeptic about this, but I can’t deny that things happen in quirky and unexpected ways that certainly bring David front and center for me.

Today, I was listening to Ben Rector’s Brand New. It’s a song I really connect with – usually in a very happy way. Today, though, it happened to play as I was doing some work on kids with brain cancer. I listened to the lyrics in a different way because of that. Normally, I think of my husband when I hear it, but today, I thought of David. He had this crazy dance thing he would do in middle school called the Llama dance. It was silly and pointless and that was the whole point. It was just to make people laugh. The lyrics for the song say this,

Like when I close my eyes and don’t even care if anyone sees me dancing

Like I can fly, and don’t even think of touching the ground

Like a heartbeat skip, like an open page

Like a one way trip on an aeroplane

It’s the way that I feel when I’m with you, brand new”

I miss the fresh and happy way that David looked at things. He saw the good. He saw the possibilities. A lot of what we are trying to do is because David believed that REALLY good things were possible. The work we are doing is not easy. It is hard. It is expensive. Half of my days are spent alternating between people who have trouble connecting with the cause because they haven’t lost a loved one to a “rare” disease, and the other half is dealing with people whose lives have been shattered by it. The real message isn’t about rare disease, though. It’s about the human condition, and how we can improve life for everyone if we do this one hard thing.

“Brand New” normally makes me very happy, but today, it just made me sad. It made me miss the way I got to feel when I was with David. I can tell you that it feels a little strange to be crying buckets while such an upbeat song plays, but there I was. The song ended, and the next song to play was

Andy Grammer’s “Good To Be Alive”.

If you aren’t familiar, some of the key lyrics for this song are

I’ve been grinding so long, been trying this shit for years

And I got nothing to show, just climbing this rope right here

And if there’s a man upstairs, he kept bringing me rain

But I’ve been sending up prayers and something’s changed

I think I finally found my hallelujah

I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life

Now all my dreams are coming true, ya

I’ve been waiting for this moment

And it’s good to be alive right about now

Good, good, good, good to be alive right about now”

If you don’t really listen, it just sounds like a typical happy song, but when you listen to the lyrics, you understand that the joy he feels is because he has spent years trying to get to this point. The struggle to achieve your dreams makes attaining the dream euphoric. On paper, we have a lot to be proud of, but in reality, we’re still climbing that rope. We’re putting hand over hand, making progress. The doors are opening, but it will take a lot more money to really get us where we need to go.

I think this song came on to remind me that we will have our “hallelujah” moment. We will see the day when we can truly deliver people from the grips of brain cancer. I believe that the course we are on will also help find cures for lots of other diseases and medical conditions. But we really do need your help. We have all been given the gift of life TODAY. And what we do with that gift can make our collective world a better place. Will you join us?

We need to people who will help us raise money in the Macy’s Charity Challenge. It doesn’t start until July 11th, but you can sign up now. You may not think it will make a big difference, but it does. Because if you take a step forward, other people will step forward, too. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t online much or if you hate fundraising. In fact, it means so much more if those things are true. By signing up, you are saying you believe in David’s vision. You’re saying you believe we can create a better world. It only takes a few minutes to sign up, and you could help us have that “Hallelujah” moment.

Sign up here: https://www.crowdrise.com/fundraise-and-volunteer/the-team/dragon-master-foundation

(If you see an image that says “test team”, don’t worry – it should still take you to the Fired Up For A Cure/Dragon Master Foundation Page.

Who’s Really the Enemy Here?

David's Journey, Dragon Master Foundation, Uncategorized

hawking

When someone you love is diagnosed with a terminal illness, the gut reaction is to attack that disease. That’s certainly how we felt when David was diagnosed, and our initial efforts were focused on ending Glioblastoma (GBM) because that was the type of tumor David had. We were not involved in the world of research, and that seemed the most logical  course of action to us. To strike back at the thing that struck at us.

We thought we knew how to help. As we learned more, we realized that we needed to help find cures for brain cancer as a group of cancers because there is a lot that can be learned by studying them together. We also felt like we needed to help that community as a whole because they are so underserved. A broader goal brought us into contact with many more researchers, and many more ideas.

We were energized by some of the sharpest minds in research, and realized that the kind of analytics we wanted to do are really best empowered by studying all types of cancer, and even other diseases, in tandem. The most cutting-edge research points to cancer being mutations in genes and studying the mutations, regardless of the starting point in the body, is leading to new research pathways.
Cancer is a disease that has plagued humanity for generations. In all that time, we have mostly dealt with it as a disease of a particular body part. We now know that it is much more complicated than that, and we need to empower researchers to follow many pathways.
David had a bright and curious mind. For him, helping researchers was never really about helping himself. It was always about helping other people and solving the puzzle of cancer. Brain cancer is the beast that took David from us, and we would love to see that disease wiped out for good. But what if the answer to curing brain cancer lies in pancreatic cancer research? What if the answers we seek lie in the cure for  fibrodysplasia ossificans progressive? (That’s a super interesting rare disease that has been connected to the brain cancer DIPG. You can learn more about that here.)
It’s human nature to strike back at the thing that hits you. But do we really even know what that thing is? Dragon Master Foundation is focused on putting all of a patient’s information into one giant research platform. It’s a database, yes, but it is also a place where researchers can collaborate and gain access to biosamples. It has a patient’s full genomic data, but it also has their treatment path over time. It gives us a more complete picture of what is going on with the patient and what treatments are successful. It can help us understand why certain patients do well on a clinical trial and some don’t. And possibly most important, it looks at patients across many disease types to compare and contrast things like gene mutations. Instead of having one small group of researchers working on a problem, this platform makes it possible for any researcher, anywhere on the planet, to work on high quality data to help find cures.
Tomorrow is #GivingTuesday. It’s a time when people around the world put a few of their hard-earned dollars into the hands of a charity that they hope can change the world. I’m convinced that Dragon Master Foundation is one of the most deserving places you could make your donation. Here are a few of the reasons why:
  • No one at Dragon Master Foundation gets paid.
  • We direct all of our research dollars directly into this one project that is already speeding research. (One doctor said that it shaved a month and a half off of his typical tissue request workflow!)
  • This project has the potential to help patients with cancer as well as a host of other medical conditions.
  • Through this portal, research can be done on both adult and pediatric populations.
  • It was listed as part of Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Fact Sheet.
  • It is open access – meaning researchers don’t have to be part of a special consortium to access the data.
  • It is cloud based – meaning the researchers don’t have to download petabytes of data that can take days to acquire. It also means they are not dependent on their hospital’s computational power because they can do their work directly in the web.
Dragon Master Foundation isn’t the only foundation funding this. As of right now, there are 13 hospitals and more than twice as many foundations putting resources toward this project. However, many of them have a specific disease focus where they direct their resources. By donating through Dragon Master Foundation, you can be assured that your donation will go to building the infrastructure that will help all patients, all researchers. This isn’t just a gift to help researchers. This is a gift for mankind. This #GivingTuesday, you can  be part of the generation that changes the world.

The Top 9 Things You Need to Know When Your Child is Diagnosed With Cancer

David's Journey, Dragon Master Foundation, Uncategorized

carpeWhen David was diagnosed at 16, he was the first person in my immediate family to have a cancer diagnosis. We were shell shocked, to say the least. To be told that your seemingly healthy teen who had a bad headache is going to die… well, nothing prepares you for that. What happens next, though, is something I very much hope we can help parents prepare for.

David went to heaven four years ago, but we have stayed very active in the brain tumor community. It has been a huge part of my life for the last six years. (He was diagnosed in 2010.) I’ve learned a lot since then, some of it while David was in treatment, and some of it after he passed. All of it is information that I would rather forget, but it is important for parents like me to share their journeys so that those who follow after us can have a smoother path.

So here it goes, my top 9 tips for parents who’ve just heard that their child has cancer:

1. GET A SECOND OPINION. (Sorry for the all caps there, but really, this is important.) I don’t care that your doctor has been your family’s doctor for the last 3 decades. I don’t care if you are at one of the top hospitals in the country. Get a second opinion. Doctors are humans, and a lot of what happens in cancer treatments is up to their judgement. You may find that you don’t want to be on the path that they recommend. That isn’t a criticism of them. People are different. Paths are different. You almost always have to talk to more than one institution to know what all of your options are.

2. Do your research. Over and over again, I talk to families who say, “Well, our doctor said it is a ___ and we should do ___.” Then they just do it. We’ve been trained to honor medical professionals and trust their judgement. That’s not a bad thing. But being led around like a blind sheep can lead you into a treatment path that isn’t right for you or your child. When you are given the diagnosis, look it up. Start with major websites that can give you reliable information. A really good place to start is at https://www.cancer.gov/types

From there, look for foundations that specialize in the type of cancer that your child has. Since David had brain cancer, I can tell you that the sites I found useful were:

http://abc2.org/guidance/find-care – to find out which hospitals specialize in brain cancer – more on this later.

https://endbraincancer.org/we-can-help/ – to get guidance on what your next step should be. At the time I sought their advice, they were very frank about the type of testing they recommended and what to look for in a doctor, including referring me to a Neuro Oncologist.

3. If at all possible, go to a hospital that has a brain tumor team. ABC2.org only lists hospitals with a dedicated brain tumor team. The world of brain cancer research was virtually stagnant for many years, but in the recent couple of years, discoveries are being made very rapidly.  I don’t think it is practical to expect a doctor that deals with many types of cancer  to stay on top of every new treatment coming down the pike. Most will wait for the “tried and true” treatments before they change their recommendations. Brain cancer patients frequently don’t have that kind of time. Cutting edge treatments could mean the difference between life (or at least extended life) and death.

4. Ask every question you have. Write them down between appointments and don’t be shy about going through your list. The medical staff is there to help you and your child and the first step of that is making sure you understand what is going on.

5. Don’t be afraid to “fire” your doctor. I know that isn’t going to make me very popular with some folks, but here’s the deal. This is the single most stressful thing you will ever go through. You need to know that the doctor is 100% on your side and will fight for your child. If they ever make you feel like you are wasting their time, or your child doesn’t deserve treatment, move on.

6. Seek help. If you have found a doctor you like, but they are far away, ask for help. There are many foundations that fund travel and related expenses. Hospitals themselves sometimes have funds or auxiliary groups who can assist you. Crowdfunding websites help people raise money all the time for just this reason. You aren’t a slacker if you need help paying for all of this. Treatment is expensive. Time away from work means you have less money than normal. Going to doctor’s appointments means you need extra daycare, pet care, home care. It adds up. You can find a list of resources for brain cancer patients at http://www.dragonmasterfoundation.org. (Full disclosure: I’m President of that foundation.)

7. Make a Plan B. For everything. You may have a reliable vehicle, but what happens if your transmission blows? You have a friend picking up your other kids from school, but what happens when they get the flu? Most likely, you have people offering to help you, but they don’t really know what to help with. Get them involved in your plan B.

8. Make a treatment Plan B. I could have included this above, but this is super important. If your child has an aggressive cancer or one that has a high probability of recurrence, ask your doctor to tell you what the next line of treatment is. Time after time, people are lulled into a sense of security because treatment is going well, and the BAM! The cancer comes back. Everyone wants to believe the treatment will work, and if it fails, you have that same shock that came with diagnosis. Knowing what the next possible treatment is can really help you feel more prepared.

Side note: We were blindsided when David’s cancer spread. He had been on a clinical trial and was doing so well that his results were presented at a conference. We just knew he was going to beat his cancer. When it spread, we were kicked off the clinical trial and had to scramble to figure out what options were available for him.

9. Trust yourself. All of the tips above are for families who are prepared for an aggressive battle. However, not every family chooses that path. We were fortunate because David was a teenager and could tell us his wishes for treatment. Most parents are dealing with younger kids who may or may not understand the repercussions of treatment. We had an amazing neuro oncologist who would always lay out possible treatment options to us and the last choice was always, “or you can do nothing.” David had glioblastoma multiforme, and even now, six years later, there are no easy answers for that type of cancer. Brain cancer is a tricky, nasty beast. If there were one thing that was certain to work, I would recommend it, even if it made the child feel bad for a while. After all, what is six months of feeling bad compared to the potential 77 years of life lost when a child dies from cancer? But with brain cancer, there are no guarantees. Heck, for the aggressive cancers, there is very little hope. The families that push forward with treatment do so because it feels right for them, and frequently, because they want to help other people.

David was pretty adamant about helping others. His tissue was donated to research, and it is now part of an open access database that is empowering research around the globe. (This is also a project funded in part by Dragon Master Foundation. For more info on that, go to Cavatica.org.) It was a heart-breaking journey, but it was not in vain. I know that David would be thrilled to know that researchers are sharing data and working around the clock. We don’t know the answers yet, but I have every confidence that they are on the horizon.

I used to preface my help to people by saying “I’m JUST a mom…” because in the world of cancer research, I don’t want to come across as a doctor or researcher. However, my hard earned “momcology” degree is valuable, and I’m moving forward with a sense of purpose that my message is important and needs to be heard. Do you have tips you’d like to share for newly diagnosed patients? Please share them in the comments!

Imagine

David's Journey, Dragon Master Foundation

IMG_3572Imagine for a moment that you were diagnosed with cancer. (I pray this is never real for you.) You are sitting with your doctor, and he gives you your treatment options based on what they think might work for you. You’re given the odds based on every other person who has ever had that type of cancer. What would you think?

I have not been diagnosed with cancer, but my son, David, was. As his parent, it was my job (along with his other parents) to choose a course of treatment to give him the best chance at survival and the best quality of life. They told us the odds – that he would probably die within the year. We chose to believe in a better outcome, and so did David. We studied everything we could get our hands on to improve his odds. And we did, but only for a while. David died 20 months after being diagnosed.

His odds were based on every other person who ever had that disease. He should have lived longer because he was young – just 16 at diagnosis. But I know others who were much older and lived much longer. Why? If you were diagnosed, wouldn’t you want to know why some people live longer?

In essence, that is what Dragon Master Foundation is trying to do. We are helping fund a database that will help researchers discover why some patients respond well to a drug and why some don’t. The answers are there…in our DNA. The problem is, most hospitals only have access to a relatively small number of patient records. One hospital alone will never accumulate enough data for true “big data” analytics. Because of the multitude of cancer types and subtypes, even most consortiums don’t really have enough data to see the big picture. And yet, you will see and hear about more consortiums formed all the time. More efforts to amass that kind of data.

You might think that we are just one more effort, but let me tell you why we are different. We aren’t just a consortium. Yes, we do have certain hospitals who have agreed to the strict standards for data collection and sharing. But unlike a traditional consortium, the records being collected are available for researchers at other institutions. Virtually anyone with need can access this data. At this point, there are over 1,400 subjects in the database, but that number is growing every day because more people are diagnosed every day.

When a diagnosis comes in your world, do you want statistics based on every other person, or do you want to know what treatment will work for you? Help us build the resource today so that we all have a better chance at survival tomorrow.

P.S.

I am honored to share this picture of Jonny with you all again. You may know that he is on hospice care now. If you would like to send a kind word to his family, you can do so here: https://www.facebook.com/projectteamjonny

Kinsley’s Visit

David's Journey

We were very happy to pick Kinsley up at the airport last night. She flew in to spend a little time with David. She is only here until Tuesday, so she won’t even get to see Austin, but a quick visit is better than no visit at all. (Austin had a tennis match out of town and won’t be back until late.)

David threw up right before we went to pick him up, but he was good for the rest of the day. We took him to the eye doctor to get glasses. He has had some vision changes, and it’s a little hard for him to put his contacts in so we got him glasses.

We spent the night getting dinner (Panda Express, of course!) and watching movies. David and Kinsley both like silly movies so they just chilled and watched some comedies.

We took David back to his dad’s to spend the night, but hopefully we will be able to spend some time with him again tomorrow. He is a little unsteady on his feet, but manages pretty well. He uses a walker some of the time, but he is staying pretty mobile.

Tomorrow at his high school they are having brain cancer awareness day. It is the first day of Brain Cancer Awareness Month, and a lot of David’s friends made grey t-shirts to wear. He has really made a positive impression on a lot of people, and it is heartwarming to see them rally behind him and this cause.