Blindsided

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Here’s the thing about grief, it doesn’t care what you’re trying to do. You can be walking along, living your life, pretending things are nearly as good as they used to be, when it just comes around a corner and blindsides you. You think you can manage and then, wham! It brings you to your knees.

Today, I flew to Pittsburgh for meetings tomorrow with doctors who are sharing their data. I’m excited about it because it gives me an inside look at how the CBTTC member hospitals collect and send in their data. There’s just one little problem. It’s also the hospital where we were told the clinical trial wasn’t working for David. It was the beginning of the end, and we all knew it.

I thought it would be ok. After all, when we left Pittsburgh, David felt great. We were still in that crazy world where they tell you your child is dying but he looked fine, felt fine. And as long as you have a treatment plan, you feel like you might beat the odds. And then comes the smack down.

In many ways, we are so appreciative of Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. We’ve told them that – at meetings that were far from the building I’m going to tomorrow. I know that we had more quality time with David because of the work they did. But somehow, being back on the streets that we traveled with him, it felt like he should still be here. I mean, every day, it feels like he should still be here, but somehow it was just so much more overwhelming being back here.

It made me think of the many friends I have who spend their days in hospitals where their children died. They get up each day with the resolve that they will make the day a little brighter for a family traveling the path they know too well.

When I think of that, it makes my days seem easy. When I think of that, I know I can face tomorrow with a smile for those who have dedicated their lives to trying to save our children. The truth is, none of us want to be in that room tomorrow. None of us want to be dealing with the reality of childhood cancer, but we lift each other up and do what we need to do to try and save lives. Until there are cures for all.

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!

People You Need To Meet #35: Ellen Grant

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JustinElliot

My son, Justin Elliott, lived 21 years, 3 months, 4 days and 4 and 1/2 hours. He went through a lot during his young life. When he was four, I divorced his father. Three years later, I moved him to a new town when I married Ed. Justin was almost 14 when I had to hold him while his father was taken off life support and immediately passed away.

Despite all this he grew up into an amazing young man. Justin had a plan, and the world was waiting for him. Education was extremely important to him. He decided to go away to college, attending a dual enrollment program, instead of completing his senior year. I was devastated because I wouldn’t get to enjoy being the mom of a senior. Turned out to be one the best decisions Justin made. That fall Justin matured and thrived. He loved college. Loved his professors, and loved being away from home!! He traveled, by himself, not even 18 years old, to interview at NYU. New York City is a far cry from the little town of Ellijay, Georgia. Of course he was accepted. I thought he should go to Georgia, but Justin was determined to be different. I can’t describe how proud I was of my young man. We celebrated his 18th birthday, and a month later the glass of life shattered into a million pieces.

Justin was home for the weekend. He called me, and said he had a horrible headache and was nauseated. I think now that I knew it was brain related. My mother had two aneurysms, and when something goes on in your head you get sick. But that couldn’t be possible. This was my healthy, athletic 18 year old. It must be a migraine, my sister had them. I understand the first one can be really bad. After several hours nothing was helping, and we headed to the emergency room. After a CT scan the doctor told me Justin had an aneurysm. I remember holding on to the bed rail then going to the bathroom so Justin would not see me hysterical. The memory of Justin being strapped into a helicopter at one in the morning is something I will never forget. Then followed several days of excruciating pain, lots of tests, too many different doctors, and no one who could tell us what was wrong. Then, a specialized MRI showed a tumor. Surgery was scheduled. They said the tumor was encapsulated. They would go in, pluck it out and we’d be on our merry way. Not. February 28th around 5:30, a doctor had to tell me and a huge crowd of family and friends that my only child had 6 months to one year to live. Another memory seared on my brain.

I won’t go into all the details but the next 3 years were filled with chemo, radiation, a year of being on a trial drug, more radiation, many other drugs, more surgery and way too many trips to doctors. Despite having to endure all of this Justin lived his life to the fullest, continuing with college, attending sporting events, going on trips and trying live a normal life.

What I wish I knew. I wish I didn’t know any of it. I wish I didn’t know the pain that Justin would go through. I wish I didn’t have to watch his dreams be shattered. I wish I didn’t know that Justin was more concerned about Ed and I watching him die than he was. I wish I didn’t have to bring him home from NYU, and I really wish I didn’t have to watch as those silent tears rolled down his cheeks on our way home from Athens when we were told the tumors had ” exploded with growth” and the end of out journey was near.

I wish I knew how to be the mother of a very independent young man with brain cancer. How can you let your child go to school a thousand miles away with brain cancer? How can you let him be two hours away, getting himself to treatments and doctor appointments, getting prescriptions filled? He was 18 and legally in charge. As hard as it was, I don’t regret letting him go. What if I had insisted that he stay home while everyone else was off going to college or working and definitely not being home with the parents? Justin wouldn’t let me take care of him. He just wanted to be normal, and he didn’t want anything to remind him that he had cancer. I will have to say that his favorite phrase was “fuck cancer”. Justin actually had a shirt with that on it. He wore it to doctor appointments. The only other time he would mention the word was when I asked him to unload the dishwasher. “I can’t, I have cancer!”

I wish I knew what he kept to himself during those years with cancer. I wish he would have talked to me about it. To this day I don’t know if he ever confided in anyone. His “other” mother, as I fondly call my best friend, texted him those last few weeks. She asked him if he was scared. His reply, “we aren’t supposed to talk about that”.

I could write volumes about Justin, the what ifs and the whys. He is my first thought when I wake and the last when I go to sleep. I will miss seeing him fall in love, get married and have children. I won’t get to see him have an amazing career and make his mark on this world. My biggest fear is that his memory will fade. I am so scared he will be forgotten. Ironically, as I have been writing this, I had to stop and attend a memorial service for Justin’s youth leader. It was much harder than I thought. Justin thrived with Leanne and “came into his own” as he grew up in the church with her. He was mentioned at the end of one of the eulogies today.

I am rambling as I have become accustomed to do. So what I really wish I knew:

How lonely I would be when it was all over. I am very social and having a house filled with family, friends and kids was great medicine for me. The house is now too quiet.

I wish I knew how much people really do care.

I wish I knew how much Justin loved me and what I really meant to him.

I wish I knew that I would become involved with some extraordinary women who would understand what I have been through and will for the rest of my life.

And finally, what I know know:

I am forever changed, and in some ways, for the better. There is a definite line in the sand: before diagnosis and after. I view life and make choices differently now. There is so much that just doesn’t matter anymore. And out of the darkness there will be light again.

52 People You Need To Meet: #22 Richard Haddock

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David Pearson is my stepson, who I immediately liked when we first met. He was a very odd kid and loved to be different. Whenever someone told him that he was weird, he would simply smile and say “thank you”. David never cared what anyone thought about him and was always befriending the friendless. He would almost seek out the ones who looked wounded, or in need of a smile, or a joke, or to say something totally unexpected. David treated everyone like his best friend, and they all loved him for it.

David was a stranger to no one, and he is an amazing, wonderful soul. David Pearson was diagnosed with brain cancer, at only 16. This is what I wish I knew before then. Growing up, my parents, especially my mom, taught me that I could be anything, do anything. When David was diagnosed with a GBM (glioblastoma multiforme), my thought was that everything was solvable, that any issue could be analyzed, understood, and fixed, but I was wrong. There is currently no cure for GBM, and the standard of care hasn’t changed much in 30 years.

When we went to the hospital to help David and figure out what to do, we saw that there were lots of children with cancer. One that particularly stood out was a young man named Justin, who had leukemia. His mom, Kathleen was a nurse, and she seemed to know her way around the hospital. She was very kind to us and immediately took an interest in David. Justin and David became hospital buddies and in the short time they were together, became friends. I assumed that Justin would be fine, and that eventually he would be a healthy young man, able to live his life. I naively wished that David had something “curable” like Leukemia.

We weren’t sure what to do, since David was living in Virginia, and we lived in Kansas, but our friends, Jamie and Jennifer offered to let us stay in their house in Virginia while David was going through treatments. We essentially moved into their home, even bringing our dog, Cooper, to stay with them. They were awesome hosts and we could not have done it without them. They continue to help us as well as others.

We weren’t sure what to do with our cats, still in Kansas, and how to look after our home, but our neighbors, Jay and Michelle quickly offered to help with feeding the cats and watching over the house. It was one more thing that just got handled and we didn’t have to worry about. As we worked to help David with his health, we found that there were times that we simply could not get everything done, and that’s when Jay and Teresa stepped in and helped with all sorts of projects. There are so many kids and parents who did little things to help us along the way! Please forgive me for not naming everyone here.

A few months after David’s diagnosis, we got word that Justin had lost his battle with leukemia, and we were stunned. I thought that Justin would be okay,  but the battle had just become too much, and he lost the fight. We went to Justin’s visitation and waited for two hours to pay our respects. When we finally made it to Kathleen, she asked about David. I was heartbroken and amidst her pain, Kathleen was asking about David. Kathleen has been an amazing friend, who continues to fight for cancer research and is a treasured friend.

As we continued working to find a cure for David, we came into contact with many amazing nurses, doctors, researchers and others who are doing their best to make things better for families going through this. Dr. Hwang and Dr. Packer of Children’s Hospital in DC were very vigilant to do everything they could to help us. They were also instrumental in finding a clinical trial for David at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Jakacki treated David in Pittsburgh with a new immunology study that helped him for 10 months until the cancer got smarter and the cancer began to grow. All through our journey, we had the help from many friends, who did things to help that we could never repay. Whatever we needed, friends, and people we didn’t know were our friends yet, helped us in ways that were simply amazing.

David lost his battle at the young age of 18. I think of David every day, and think of what might have been. I miss his sense of humor, his amazing personality, his love of everyone, and his amazing faith. On the day of David’s funeral, a lot of our friends came to pay their respects. I’ve never been one who goes to funerals because they’re uncomfortable. Many people came to show their love of David, including a bunch of his friends from high school. They all wore Hawaiian shirts because David always liked to wear them to be different and stand out.

I was not prepared to see my friends David and Loren show up, as well as Dr. Hwang among many others. My brother, David, also made a point to come and be there for us. It was a very humbling day, and changed my view of funerals. When David’s battle started, I thought that we would be able to fix him, to make the cancer go away. My parents taught me that anything was possible, and even though I’d had various setbacks in my life, I always came through it.

David’s journey, though, was different. Here was this battle with cancer that David lost, but is that it? Is that where it stops? Amanda and I decided that even though David’s battle was over here on earth, that there were many more children and adults who are fighting this battle every day. Many were winning, but too many are losing. After a year or so of thinking about what to do, and trying to “recover” from such a loss, we made a decision to help. The battle for David may be lost, but the war against cancer is certainly not over.

We formed the Dragon Master Foundation in 2013 to bring big data technology to medical research. When we started, we had no idea how many people would offer to help, even though they had no family members who had ever taken on the cancer battle. We’ve been very humbled by all the help from many different people, including Angie, Miles, Kimberly, Roger, David, Linda, Jolee and many others.

I often ask myself what it means to be a Christian, and I think that our friends and family have shown me in many ways what that means. As we struggled with what to do throughout this ordeal, and ultimately our loss, Amanda and I would pray together, and we would feel a sense of calm that I cannot explain nor will I try. Things just happened for us that we can’t explain, I think, because we were connected to something greater than ourselves.

Some days I see David’s picture and just smile. He always made me laugh, and I think of what a privilege it was to have known him and be part of his journey. The picture of David with this article is just a few weeks before his diagnosis. You can see that David was a handsome young man, full of life and laughter and love and promise.

People have told me that it gets easier over time, but it really doesn’t. It makes me sad to think of what might have been. That full life that David had envisioned is gone, and his absence is felt every day. It doesn’t get easier, you just learn to live with it.

Our friends did amazing stuff for us. From all over the country, we have friends who have done so much for us we could never repay them. Even now, we have new friends who have come into our life after David died, and really want to help us with our foundation.

Some days I wonder why they help us so much, but I’m trying to be gracious and just say thank you without question. It hasn’t been easy, but our friends have made it easier for us. I wish I’d known how to be the kind of friend that all of the people who helped us through this journey have been. They figured out what we needed, and then just did it – they didn’t say to call if we needed anything. Friends show up when you’re in need – especially at the funerals of loved ones. I wish I’d known how to be a better friend.

We’re all on a journey that we don’t know the script to, and some days we’re just trying to get through the day. Be gentle, be kind and take care of each other. Life isn’t easy, but with the help of friends and family it’s well worth the ride. Thank you is not enough – but thank you to all the friends who have helped us and continue to help in this journey.

Editor’s note: You can keep track of Dragon Master Foundation at the website: http://www.dragonmasterfoundation.org , on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @DragonMasterFdn .

Memories

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I just finished reading this book on being positive, and it said that you should make sure you take time to “make” memories. Capture them. Record them for you and others to look back on.

I do that in my head, but I’m not so good about doing it in the real world. Facebook helps. At least now, my parents can’t say they don’t know what the kids look like! But it’s not enough to post some pictures this week. There’s a lot going on in my head, and I wanted to share some of it with you.

First of all, I just passed the 10th anniversary of a dear cousin’s death. Treavor was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting in Alabama. A pretty rare thing, but I’m learning that stuff is only “rare” if it doesn’t happen to you. Once it happens to you, its 100% in your world.

Anyway, that anniversary left me feeling blessed and melancholy all at once. It was followed closely by the anniversary of 9/11. Again, I felt blessed, but this time there was an underlying anger. Random stuff happens. Sometimes its bad stuff. But the interviews I saw with the FAA left me pretty furious all over again.

I can’t change those things. They’ve already happened. What I can try to change, though, is the number of people dying from cancer.  Ambitious, I know. Especially since I am not a researcher. But I think a big part of this is looking at things differently and not giving up. There are researchers making real progress with cancer vaccines. The New York Times posted an article today about a vaccine that has saved the lives of patients who were basically given up for dead.

The vaccine that David is getting is being worked on by the researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which notably, is the place where Dr. Jonas Salk and his colleagues discovered the polio vaccine. When they discovered this vaccine, polio was crippling somewhere around 21,000 people a year. It was a miracle. I believe that we are poised to see the same kind of discovery for cancer.

The time is NOW. I just heard about another teenager in our community that lost the battle this past weekend. These kids deserve a chance to grow up. Please find a way to help. If you can make a donation, great. If you can volunteer, awesome. Even if all you can do is make a post on Facebook in recognition of Children’s Cancer Awareness month (September), please do that. We can beat this thing if we all work together.

My parting thought for tonight is “Don’t get mad, get even.” Cancer makes me mad, but I plan on getting even.

Next Phase

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Ok, so we are on the cusp of the next phase of David’s treatment. We will be driving to Pittsburgh tomorrow for David’s first visit to the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. They will do an MRI tomorrow afternoon, and we will get to meet with the doctor for results on Thursday morning. David will start the clinical trial on Thursday with his first vaccine.

I talked to David about it yesterday, and he said he was excited. I’m glad he’s excited. I am too. The science behind these vaccines could really be the future of cancer treatment. We certainly are hopeful (and prayerful) that this will be the answer we are searching for.

Thank you for being with us on this journey. We would appreciate your prayers as we head into this next phase of treatment.