People You Need to Meet : #46 Holly J. Gainsboro

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What I wish I knew before my late husband was diagnosed with a brain tumor…

My husband, Steven, was diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor on February 12, 2009. We were blindsided by this news – his primary care physician said the MRI report showed a cyst or abscess and sent us to a local neurosurgeon. We sat in the examination room prepared to hear that it was nothing to worry about…..what we heard was “you have a malignant brain tumor”…and then all I heard was “wah, wah, wah” (similar to what the   adults sound like in the Charlie Brown holiday specials on TV). Sharing the news with our children, other family members and friends was excruciating – how do you tell a 12 and 16 year old that their father has a mass in his brain that needs to come out? We spoke carefully with our children and gave them only the information necessary – Daddy has something in his brain and will have surgery. He will be fine! Not sure if they bought it or not, but they have both shared that they were grateful that we didn’t go into further detail with them and were optimistic about the outcome and longevity of Steven’s life.

I kept to myself for quite some time as I needed to muster my strength and hope in order to keep him with me and our children for as long as possible. I did extensive research on the disease and its treatments. I traveled back and forth to Duke’s brain tumor center and hospital with Steven, and I tried to maintain our lifestyle and acclimate to our new normal. At the suggestion of our clergy, I created and maintained a Caring Bridge page so that family and friends could follow our path. When, after 7 or 8 months post diagnosis, the myriad of emotions coursing through my body became more than I could handle I finally sought out others who could possibly understand my experience. I began an online search for support groups. I came across a few but www.cancercompass.com drew me in. It was there that I found so many who seemed to be living my life – my beautiful, yet painful life. A life of uncertainty, a life of hope, a life of fear, a life of “this can’t be happening” and “nobody knows how I feel deep in my heart, nobody!” I no longer felt isolated as I shared my own stories, asked my own questions and provided answers and comfort to others.   Once I allowed myself to open up to these women traveling this same and yet different journey, a life-long bond was formed – a sisterhood. As author, Rachel Naomi Remen wrote “Everyone alive has suffered.  It is the wisdom gained from our wounds and from our own experiences of suffering that makes us able to heal.  Becoming expert has turned out to be less important than remembering and trusting the wholeness in myself and everyone else.  Expertise cures, but wounded people can best be healed by other wounded people.  Only other wounded people can understand what is needed, for the healing of suffering is compassion, not expertise.”

Steven and I already knew that there were many gifts that come with a cancer diagnosis – yes, you read this correctly, there are gifts, but one has to be open enough to recognize them. The gift of waking up beside one another each morning and going to sleep together every night. The gift of sharing our love with each other and our children. The gift of being able to say all the things we wanted to say (of course, there is never enough time to say it all but we shared a lot with one another over those 22 months), and the gift of being part of a community – a brain tumor community. I cannot imagine how I would have managed through the remaining year of Steven’s life, as well as after his death, without my GBM soul sisters. English novelist, Mary Anne Evans, better known as George Eliot said “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”

One cannot travel this road of illness and caregiving alone… it takes a village, truly. I am eternally grateful for my internet village and my local village. As I write this six and half years years post diagnosis and four and half years after Steven’s death, I still recognize the blessings that come with this life I am living. My local community and my internet family made life less difficult and offered me refuge when I needed it most.

For anyone caring for a loved one with a life threatening illness, you do not need to struggle alone. There are those waiting in the wings wanting to help, love, support and guide you. Be gentle with yourselves as you learn to navigate your “new normal”. There are so many just like you wanting to be comforted and wanting to comfort. Trust that your journey will bring you to those people.

What A Brain Cancer Caregiver Wants You To Know Before You Head to the Polls, aka People You Need to Meet: #45 Kristen Gauly

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What I wish I knew before my Mom was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme…

When brain cancer entered my life, I couldn’t have processed or understood at that moment that it was the cancer that keeps on stealing. It stole my Mom’s speech, her movement on the left side, her laugh, her smile, her personality, in short, it took all of her. And then, it came for us.

My brother, David, and I have been close my whole life. I’ve been blessed beyond measure in that respect. We endured much growing up; both of us faced major obstacles that required full family support to survive. It was always a comfort to know that my Mom, Dad and David would be there to face whatever challenge showed up next. I wish I knew how to prepare to for the day when crisis would result in the death of the leader of the pack. At thirty-six, it’s very difficult to think about how to face the rest of my life without my Mom.

My Mom’s fight with Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM) was short. It began on Valentine’s Day of 2013 and ended on the afternoon of May 6, 2013. In those eighty-two days, she endured a resection, a stroke three days post resection, and three weeks of physical therapy which kept her from any sort of chemo or radiation. Mom’s left side was completely paralyzed thanks to the stroke, chemo, radiation, continued physical therapy and finally home hospice.

I wish I’d understood the health care system better. I wish I’d known that lack of funding, lack of research and no new treatment was the stark reality for those facing GBM. That death from GBM is the rule, not the exception. I wish I’d known GBM is considered “rare,” and that because it’s such a low priority, it’s considered an undesirable disease to study. I wish I’d known all of these things so I could’ve been prepared, planned ahead, advocated more effectively. But I didn’t.

I wish I knew before cancer that this… IS IT! Of course I know we only get one life; I wish I’d recognized earlier the importance of each day. I wish I’d taken more pictures throughout her life, that I’d spent more time with just her when she wasn’t sick. I wish a million things had been different, but I understand they simply are not. Mostly, I wish I knew how much the death of one family member can change the dynamic of the entire family. We aren’t the same. My Mom was the glue. She held everyone together, carried the Band-Aids and tissues in her purse for emergencies. No one tells you that cancer will change everything. Forever.

I wish I knew how just plain ugly cancer could be. There’s an unwritten rule among GBM folks: Do not compare any other cancer to this. When anyone does so, it is hard not to cringe. I’ve stood beside my dear friend while her Mom conquered ovarian cancer multiple times. GBM is nothing like that. My close friends, especially those who came to see my Mom, learned quickly this was a whole other beast. My Mom had the reasoning ability of a child post-stroke. She could say things that were cruel, such as when she told a friend that I pushed her out of her wheelchair and tried to kill her. Oh how that stung! Long gone was my sweet, smart Mama who loved others so very much. Nothing is quite as humbling as cleaning your Mom during a Depends change or feeding her soup and wiping her mouth.

I wish I knew how much others cared before cancer. People came out of the woodwork when they find out my Mom had GBM. They cooked, cleaned, prayed non-stop, gave gifts, and struggled for words that could possibly make my family feel better. My work family responded in a way you read about in books. They donated money in my Mom’s name to ABTA, covered my butt, and prayed non-stop. They took care of my cat, cleaned my apartment, gave me hugs, and listened when I needed to just spill my heart. My friends did all of this as well, but to see my work family just jump in without being asked told me quite clearly how they felt about me.

I wish I knew about post-cancer, post-funeral aftershock. I was ill-prepared for the after effects of cancer. I didn’t understand that my brain was processing all of these emotions for months after my Mom was gone. I continuously lost items, I forgot what I was doing, would find my keys in the freezer. I found myself continuing to panic with every incoming call and text, and sleep was hard to come by for months. Sometime around the five month mark, I started having nightmares. There are still days—over a year later— when I cannot remember what I’m doing or sleep through the night. While less frequent, the nightmares still love to resurface at the first sign of stress.

Lastly, I wish I’d known that all the things that fell apart did so for a reason. I’m not referring to my Mom’s death; her death is something I’ll never understand.  It is only now that I begin to recognize that sometimes you have to experience extraordinary pain from loss before you decide to change priorities. My Mom was my biggest cheerleader; her cancer helped me see my life much clearer. She was constantly telling us good things would come from her cancer. I’ve made connections with others fighting GBM, begun working to spread smiles through my charitable project for kids with, Brain Cancer Share Your Shirts, and I’ve strived to make my loved ones my top priority everyday. The more I delve into advocating, the more of those “good things” begin to surface.

Brain cancer has not changed my core values or beliefs. However, some parts of my life have been permanently altered. If you ask me which issues are most important to me at the polls in 2014, you’ll find my answers dramatically shifted from those I would have given a year ago. My first priority is now supporting those politicians, regardless of party, who support brain cancer research. It matters. I wasn’t always a major supporter of brain cancer funding, but then again, I wasn’t always a thirty-six year old living without my Mom courtesy of GBM.

Missing Patricia A. Gauly today, and always.

With Love and Hope,

Kristen Gauly

Editor’s note: If you would like to learn more about what Kristen is doing in her mom’s memory, check out her Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Brain-Cancer-Share-Your-Shirts/160672910806397

People You Need to Meet #44: Stephanie McMillan

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Stephanie's family

Stephanie’s family

What I wish I knew before my child was diagnosed with brain cancer??

I wish I had known how precious time was. I wish I had realized how little that mess had mattered, how quickly time passes by, how precious every sound from his lips could be.

Though his whole life we were on the go, enjoying life, but it wasn’t until my son was told that he mostly likely wouldn’t survive this that we really began to live. October 4, 2012 will forever be etched in my mind as a day that the world stopped turning at the same rate of speed.   From that day, life became before and after.

Before Richard was diagnosed with Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) we spent our weekends going to the park, visiting the local lake, swimming from sun up to sun down. I wish I had known how precious that time with him really was. I wish I had soaked up every minute. The thing is, as parents, we tend to busy ourselves. Even when taking our kids to a park, we use that time to socialize with other parents, or to send those all so important work emails. Looking up every so often to make sure we can spot our child, then right back to what we were up to. How many times did I take my kids to the park only to sit on a bench the entire time?   How many of our trips to the pool or lake did I lay on the side line the entire time working on my tan rather than splashing around with them? Yea, I got up and played with them, when I got too hot to continue lying there, and needed a break from tanning my skin. There were many times that I did this with friends and spent more time laughing and cutting up with them, rather than playing with my kids. If I had known then that my son would die at 9 years old, I have to believe that I wouldn’t have cared one bit about my tan lines, or sending that work email. I have to believe that I would have gotten off my butt and played with my kids. I would have spent every single second soaking them in. I would have let the dishes lay in the sink and played with them before bedtime.

So often in our busy lives we wake up determined to keep ourselves on schedule. We get upset with our children when they take too long to put on their shoes. ‘UGH….get up, I’ve called your name three times… if I have to call your name one more time you’re going to be in trouble.’ I have to believe that had I known that our lives would change completely when my son was 7 years old, I would have spent every morning waking them up slowly with snuggles. Giggling while we played games to get dressed. I have to believe that I would have gotten up earlier to make sure we had time for things to go wrong, or us to fall behind schedule. To enjoy that morning rush with my kids rather than just march them into the day with one …two…. three, let’s go.

As adults we become so consumed with our careers. I wanted to travel every chance I was given with the company I worked for. I was working hard to hopefully become a District Manager some day. Had I known when I was busting my hiney to climb the corporate ladder that my life would change, I would have left work at work. How much money I earned wouldn’t even matter anymore! So often I brought it home with me. After working 12 hours, I’d come home and take calls or send emails, pushing my kids to the side so that they could entertain themselves. I have to believe that if had I know that my son wouldn’t ever turn 10 years old that I would have worked fewer hours, and I would have let work handle itself when I was home with my family.

I ask myself often, why did that matter so much to me? Did they miss me when I left? You see for me, it wasn’t my business I was working to grow. I was working in a corporate job that I loved, but while I want to believe I was a valued employee, I was just a number and quickly replaced. Life moves on, and they needed the job done. Meanwhile, what was waiting on me at home was a position that was irreplaceable. I was the CEO of the most important job in the world. However, I didn’t place that job description high enough in my list of importance. Don’t get me wrong, I needed to earn a living. I needed to pay for the fun I took my kids to enjoy, but I, like so many other parents, put the value of the corporate ladder before the quality of time my family got from me.

Before my son was diagnosed with brain cancer I wish I had realized how little the opinions of others really meant. I’ve always worked hard to be a likeable person and be easy to get along with. When relationships failed, as they often will, it would break my heart. I would spend so much of my energy worrying over what went wrong and how I could have changed the outcome of that relationship. If a “friend” had the wrong idea about who I was or what my agenda was, I spent way too much time trying to get them to see things from my perspective. I wish I had known none of that would matter. You see during my son’s fight for his life, we made his journey public. I wanted people to see what life was like with living with a child with cancer. By doing this I made myself and family vulnerable to the opinions of others. It didn’t take long for people to question my agenda and say hurtful things. I wish I had known then how little those people’s opinions mattered when it was all said and done. People will tell you what you should do, or how you should do it. They may question your every move. What I am glad that I know now, that their opinion of me is none of my business. All that matters is that everything I did/do is for my children.

My son died one week and three days shy of his 23rd month anniversary from being diagnosed with DIPG. He beat the odds and survived much longer than initially expected. From the moment he was diagnosed until the day he died, every ounce of me was poured into him and my other children. I will forever be a person who doesn’t care if there is a mess laying around in my floor, as long as I am taking that time and focusing on what is important….my family. I am thankful Richard’s fight taught me these things. I wish I hadn’t had to experience childhood cancer to learn that lesson. Please, hug your children. Please evaluate your life, and think, if your world was flipped upside down today, what would you forget about in order to be what your family needed? Every minute counts in life, and I promise you, if you’re aligned as you should be, when it’s all said and done all that matters is your family.

People You Need To Meet #39: Andie McConnell

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What I wish I knew before my friends’ son got brain cancer… This may seem a strange twist on the theme of these blog posts but I wish I knew my friends before their son got brain cancer. When I met them, their son had been in remission for a couple of years, but the pain over what they experienced was still raw. As I got to know the couple, she spoke of the experience of facing cancer with a child and the disappointment in the friends who disappeared during this difficult time. So in addition to the fears and grief that come with a child facing cancer, she spoke of the loneliness and the struggles as a family. She talked of how people they believed would stick by their sides did not, and that some people they didn’t expect to help, did.

Her words really resonated with me, as did her talk of the pain of watching a child go through cancer treatment. Hearing their struggles made me wish that I had known them and had been able to be there for them during their journey because I knew I would have been one of the ones who stayed around to help. I thought of ways I would’ve helped to lighten the load on them, how I would have been there to listen, to help with meals, their house and anything else they couldn’t quite find the time to do. Years later, I met a family with a child with a new cancer diagnosis, and my friend’s words about the loneliness of pediatric cancer rang in my ears.

I decided to make an effort to help them through fundraising and emotional support. Looking back , in some ways I realize I did it to make up for not knowing my friends before their child got cancer. As this family’s child reached the end of treatment, I realized there just might be a real need for support of other families facing pediatric cancer. I surveyed families and found there certainly was a need. I brainstormed how best to provide this support, and it evolved into what is now a nonprofit based in Fredericksburg, VA that focuses on the needs of the parents rather than the child. We provide meals, house cleaning, lawn care, hair cuts, gas cards, a financial relief fund and emotional support to the parents in order to relieve some of their stress and to provide them with more time to focus on their family. I wasn’t able to support those friends during such a difficult time because I didn’t know them, but now my organization provides support to families in parts of VA and MD with similar struggles. We fill the void of the friends who, for whatever reason, are unable to help and for the friends they have yet to meet who will wish they had been there in such a difficult time.

Editor’s note: You can learn more about Andrea’s nonprofit, the Fairy Godmother Project, by checking out her website: http://www.fairygodmotherproject.org/

People You Need to Meet #38: Clint Murphy

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What I wish I knew before my mom got brain cancer… the value and limits of time.

Last picture with mom

For me, Friday, September 12 was like any other day in the life of a presidential campaign staffer. Working from dawn to dusk, doing everything and anything to push the ball just a touch forward in the task of getting John McCain elected as the next President of the United States. I lived and worked in Tallahassee, FL and was the Deputy Southeast Regional Campaign Manager for McCain for President.

That night, a few campaign staffers and I headed up to Marietta, GA for a GOP Unity Rally on behalf of Senator Saxby Chambliss and the Georgia Republican Party. Nearly a thousand Republican volunteers from throughout the state would be congregating, and it was a perfect time to sign up volunteers, recruit people for coalitions, and generally show the flag on behalf of Senator McCain. I had arranged for the Senator to call in to the rally and express his thanks for their support.

The night before I had talked with my mom, and I got the impression she wasn’t feeling well. During the day on Saturday, I talked with her and again got the distinct impression that something just wasn’t right. She insisted that I call her when I got back to Tallahassee that evening and that I shouldn’t worry.

The event was a success, and we were all excited about having gotten so many people signed up and engaged in the campaign. In the months before, the Obama campaign had placed staff in Georgia and tried hard to make Georgia competitive. With nothing but volunteers and me and my teams’ efforts from Tallahassee, we organized the state, built coalitions, and flexed our muscle via earned media events and scared the Obama staffers out of Georgia and into North Carolina.

I dropped everyone off at their respective homes and was entering the code to get into my apartment complex while I was on the phone with my mom. The sun was setting on what had, for me, largely been a great day. Up until that point, Saturday, September 13 had been a very successful day, and I was excited about the future. For my mom, it would be an entirely different story.

As I spoke to her, mom seemed so calm as she described to me the events of the night before and then, with what seemed to come out of nowhere, she said, “They found a mass in my head.” I believe my initial response was pure disbelief, and when she confirmed for me what she had just said, I immediately started to have a panic attack. I had to hang up the phone because I just needed to scream as loud as I could, something that I had honestly never done and have never done since.

I called back and spoke with my cousin who walked me through the events of the following day, which lead to this grim discovery. On Friday, my mom had noticed that her tongue felt thick. She called her various doctors and sadly, none of them returned her calls. She called my aunt and they decided to go to the emergency room.

Initially, my mom was told that it was likely an allergic reaction to something and she was given a prescription for an EpiPen. While getting the prescription filled at the store, mom had a full seizure and back to the emergency room she and my aunt went. It is then that they performed the CT scan and found the mass.

I wanted to drive back to Savannah right away, but between crying and already being tired, I couldn’t see clearly to do that. I went back to my apartment and began to research everything and anything as it related to brain tumors. Everything I read made me even more upset. Eventually, I went to sleep as I was crying so much I could barely see the computer screen, let alone make sense of anything I was trying to read.

The mass was large, and it had tentacles forming something like a dumbbell in my mom’s brain. The CT and MRI had suggested a Glioblastoma Multiforme Brain Tumor (GBM). A GBM is one of those diagnosis that, by and large, has had very limited hope for a long time. Innovations in treating, let alone curing, GBM have not been forthcoming. Having been so involved in politics, I knew that Senator Ted Kennedy had been recently diagnosed with the same tumor and had successful surgery to remove the tumor. I went to work researching where he went to have that done.

My mother seemed so calm as we sat in the hospital room the night before her biopsy. She wasn’t crying and showed no sign of even being nervous about what might lie in front of us. I on the other hand was a mess. I tried to keep a brave face, but I couldn’t. I was scared, sad, angry, and just about every other emotion you can imagine.

We scrambled to get all the necessary forms completed in advance of the biopsy because I was informed that if the tumor were operable; they’d likely go ahead and remove it at the same time. Worried about what condition my mom would be in afterwards, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

It was random chance that my aunt and I were walking down the hall when the surgeon came out of the operating room. He informed us that the tumor was inoperable and that it very much looked like a GBM, but would need the path report to confirm that diagnosis. Based on what he saw, he said he thought my mom had less than 3 months to live. We were dumbstruck and heartbroken. Even writing this now, I can feel that helpless feeling that I felt that day in the hospital. With everything in my being, I felt that those words just couldn’t be true.

In researching Senator Kennedy’s experience with a GBM, I saw that he went to Duke. He had surgery, was getting treatment, and doing relatively well, all things considered. I called Duke, got all the information to get a second opinion, and camped out in front of the path lab waiting on the slides so I could send the package to away in hopes my mom would be accepted as a patient.

There was no way that I could or would accept that my mom had less than 3 months to live, thus I went on a one man campaign to ensure that she got into to see the same surgeon that worked on Senator Kennedy’s tumor. My goal was to give my mom the best chance that there was to ensure she would survive this diagnosis and disease.

My mom’s 3-month diagnosis turned into an incredible 18-month experience. Through all the ups and downs over those 18 months, you might be surprised to know that, aside from the initial conversation about her possible death just before the biopsy, my mom and I only talked about her death one more time.

In February of 2010, mom and I made our final trip to Duke. It was on this trip that we had the final conversation about her possible death and she laid out for me her thoughts, as best she could, on the experience that she had gone through in fighting this tumor.

The doctors informed us that the tumor had started to grow again and that we were running out of options and were likely at the end of the line. Most people at this point would assume that we would have had Hospice assistance, but we didn’t. Even after returning home, we still did not have Hospice.

On the return home, mom shared with me that she had few regrets in life. She would do a few things differently, but all in all, she was pleased with how her life had turned out. She wasn’t angry that she had this tumor, nor was she angry that God was cutting her life short. She felt that it had all happened for a reason and that she was confident that God would use this experience she was going through for something better. She had a few people that she wanted to talk with before her journey was over and, if possible, wanted to make a trip to Hawaii. Her strength and bravery was just amazing. I was in awe.

On the other hand, I was a mess. I spent every moment of my time not spent working or taking care of mom, researching other treatment options, calling medical centers, and sending medical records to get another opinion. Sometimes those calls were so hard that I had to call back because I couldn’t control my crying. I was not prepared at all to lose my mom. I was not ready.

On February 28, my mom fell down and hit her head. She seemed fine and the doctor from Duke spoke with us and suggested that unless she seemed to be in pain that we wait and take her to her primary doctor in the morning. Mom seemed fine the rest of the day and evening, however the next morning she began to go downhill.

That Monday, I still thought we had more time! I spent the morning with her and then ran errands in the afternoon to go ahead and purchase the cemetery plot, send off yet for another 2nd opinion, and then have a conversation with my mom’s nurse at Duke about a possible hospital to hospital transfer. The nurse from Duke was the one who actually told me that we were at the end, and that there weren’t other options or opinions and that what my mom needed now more than ever was to be given permission to die. To acknowledge how hard she fought, but to let her know that it was okay for her to let go.

I returned to the hospital, and together with my family and a couple of my mom’s best friends, we sat there with her. By this time she was in a coma. I asked everyone not to cry or be sad while we were with her. We talked about my mom’s favorite flowers and a tear shed from her eye. The nurse at the hospital told me that this could last just tonight or could go on for some time, but almost as quick as she said that it seemed to come to an end. I told my mom how much I loved her, and how proud I was of her fight. I assured her that she would be going from my arms to the waiting arms of her mother and father, and that all would be okay.

Without notice, mom woke up and looked right at me. She turned her head to look at her sisters and friends and then took her last breath. Her death was both peaceful and beautiful.

When it was over, then I cried. I cried out how much I wish I had done more. I cried at how sorry I was that I hadn’t done more. I cried because while she was at peace with what she had been through, I was not, nor was I even ready. I felt like I needed more time.

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Mom Hug

Since my mom’s death, I have gotten involved with the National Brain Tumor Society as the Lead Advocate for Georgia. Additionally, I am a brain tumor caregiver mentor with Immerman Angels. I want to use the experience I went through and the lessons learned to help others going through a similar situation and try my best for the experience my mom went through to be used to help benefit others.

It should be noted that when I read Senator Kennedy’s book, True Compass, he referenced his own desire to share his experience with GBM so that he could offer hope to those who faced a similar diagnosis. Knowing Senator Kennedy’s experience showed me the path to hope for my mom, and for that I am grateful.