On Survivorship, from the Survivors

“Why does mommy have to work all the time?” Our three year old, Gideon, asked through broken sobs when I greeted him at his crib one recent morning.

“I’m sorry, buddy, we all miss her, don’t we,” I replied, my own eyes blurry and breath shortened, choking back tears of my own.

Later this same day, or the day after, rinsing dishes following breakfast I began sobbing.

“Are you sick, daddy?” Gideon asked.

“Yeah, bud, daddy is sick,” I say.

“Are you going to throw up?”

“No,” I chuckle.

Scenes like this play out frequently, swapping the subjects and settings, themes are similar.

 

Our family is slogging through a waste-deep sludge of survivorship, and like quick sand, we seem to sink more each day. The new experiences of active cancer care are behind us. The quick wins and short-lived milestones are long past. Setting our eyes to the horizon reveals more angst than anticipation.

We lug the bags of survivor’s guilt behind us, recognizing we have these moments together, moments that many families did not.

We lug the bags of insecurity, too, second guessing our decisions to work, to keep busy, to be productive, to send the kids off to daycare so that I may sit in an empty house to write in an effort to satisfy a life project–papers, books, or posts–at the cost to my family of lost wages and absent parenting.

Whitney experiences terrible guilt leaving the house each morning. I feel terrible guilt that she has to.

 

I sat across the coffee shop table from a close friend last week, a rare trip out of the house. I shared with him the idea I was trying to make sense of: when I search for meaning and purpose, in light of my predicament–uncertain life expectancy, a desire to live fully today, a desire to aid Whitney with financial stability, a desire to achieve future aims–I am motivated to say something helpful to others about what it is to grieve the loss of future possibilities that will likely never come to be.

“I’ve never thought about this before,” said my friend, “but now that you say it, it seems so obvious! You’re experiencing things we all experience in our lives, but your experience is more […] compressed.”

I nodded.

I’ve alerted myself to this insight also. Several months following my diagnosis, when I was wrestling with acceptance of a terrible disease and what it amounted to for my life and the life of my family I expressed something similar, “my life is like everyone else’s,” I said, “but the volume has been turned up.” I was trying to get at this notion that each of us gives some thought to our relationships, to goals and priorities, to what legacy we build, and to thinking of our own mortality. For me, these occasional considerations are amplified. Or, as my friend put it, “compressed.” They become daily, high-pressure considerations and decision points.

“A lot of people work through the decisions you’re making, and they take 20 or so years to do it.” This was the response from a friend, a palliative care physician, when I rattled off the horizon of possibilities for my future direction, possibilities that narrow more each day. “But of course, you don’t have 20 years, do you?”

 

I am a member of a loving brain tumor community including patients, care partners, loved ones, researchers, and clinicians. Struggling with survivorship, I set out to write this post–in fact, much of what you just finished reading was my first pass–in hopes it would meet others where they are, in their own struggles as a spouse, child, sibling, parent or guardian, also slogging through survivorship. Then I realized, we are a community, and if the sign posts I’ve been reading are correct to signal I speak in ways that amplify the experience of others, how might we all learn together from our shared yet unique experiences.

I posed the following question vis-a-vis Twitter (in the following quote, I spelled out the hashtag acronyms, with brackets):

Drafting a blog post today about #survivorship. What issues do you find most challenging to navigate after the dust settles from the shock of diagnosis? #btsm [brain tumor social media] #btsmqol [brain tumor social media quality of life] #ptexp [patient experience]”

The community responded with thoughtful, vulnerable, and honest replies. My mood immediately lightened as I experienced the embrace of a community that stands shoulder to shoulder with each other as we experience our disease from our unique perspectives. In the following paragraphs, I report on many of the replies I received to my prompt. As a note of caution, I quote responsibly, but I also present these replies thematically through the lens of my own worldview. As we say on Twitter, retweets are not endorsements, and opinions are mine only!

I consider it an important observation that an inability to work and provide for one’s family is one of the most noted difficulties when navigating a brain tumor diagnosis. I ask rhetorically what does it suggest about our culture that in the face of serious illness it is employment and income with which we find our selves concerned? In my life I’ve sacrificed time on personal projects in order to fit in working hours to earn income. This is a perennial issue for me. My good friend @JBHarp82 put things most bluntly. She replies, “Guilt:feeling like a burden on others at times when unable to do things ie: not working full time to contribute financially as before.” Another reply suggests the painful loss of productivity, “it’s disheartening that while I don’t feel less intelligent, I am much less productive” (@mcintose)

It seems addressing, defining, measuring, and evaluating value and productivity are possible gaps for people living in a period of survivorship. How might our goals of care better close this gap?

Our social life is impacted, and this theme shows up in many replies, “Dealing with family/friends who say, ‘you’ve changed'” writes @PatientAdvocac4. A more direct critique comes from @Lahla42928400, “…being careful about who I let in- too many assholes out there…” Before you find that remark too harsh, here it is in softer language, Again, @JBHarp, “Loneliness:everyone comes out of the woodwork offering support but once the initial shock wears off & surgery/initial treatments & restrictions are lifted, you don’t hear from anyone anymore it seems.”

Our friends play such a vital role in helping to process our experiences, and we need those friends to match our tenor. @Emi_Livingston gave voice to this concern, “dealing with people who are still in the ‘shock’ phase, and/or who focus on the negative when we want to embrace what’s normal and focus on moving forward actively.”

How might we better revise our cultural and social norms to encourage friends of those with serious illness to remain engaged through all stages of care, not only the most acute and interventional stages following disease onset and diagnosis?

The anxiety of survivorship comes up again and again: worries about the next MRI (@JBHarp82), “Waiting for shoe to drop recurrence (already thinking of next one and just beating this time,” wrote @RipsRant. With a reminder that patients are not only tuned to their disease, @inewsham offers this insight, “Hearing about others whose cancer has returned and trying to keep those fears at bay.” For example, the death of Senator John McCain rippled through the brain tumor community regardless of political, demographic, and socioeconomic lines, I do not only speak for myself when I say we collectively mourned for the Senator that day.

Another theme to emerge is the drive toward acceptance of the “new normal.” “You’re all brave amazing people,” cheers @ChloeDrew8. She continued, “The new ‘normal’/facing life so differently to before is not to be underestimated.” The tremendous resilience and effort toward acceptance is visceral in this comment from @NancyNHuang, “I’m 2 years out and can pass for normal, but have come to realize that I will never fully recover. That is hard.” Or imagine this experience reported by @Project2Program, “After two surgeries, double radiation treatments, clinical trials, multiple chemo treatments and recovery from adverse events our biggest challenge in terms of #QOL [quality of life] is fatigue.” Striking a chord with balancing factors, @Sabine_NJ writes, “now:parenting; balance between living life (traveling) and family life.”

How might our care teams come alongside the persons under their care to pursue aims in light of the “new normal”? What we call the new normal is this period many call survivorship, and the challenges exceed those I mentioned in this post, which were: value and productivity, social life, anxiety, and ultimately accepting a new phase of one’s life, one that is like everyone else’s, maybe, but amplified and compressed.

How might we all better learn from the experiences of the seriously ill?

I was not able to include all of the many replies to my prompt. I thank all who ‘liked’ and ‘retweeted’ the question. To follow all the incredible members of our community, please navigate to Twitter and search hashtag #BTSM

Surviving to bear witness

Sunday, June 10, 2018 marks two years after Whitney and I were transported in a wheelchair accessible van from an inpatient acute rehab facility to the IU Health neuroscience center. We sat in my neuro oncologist’s office and received news of my glioblastoma diagnosis. A kind, compassionate nurse who would become more than a member of our care team, but also a dear friend, held each of our hands.

 

I am unsure of what to say on the day of this important milestone, but I am compelled to offer a few words–really, the task of this blog.

 

I published my first post to this blog in October 2016. The staff physiatrist discharged me from inpatient rehab four months prior, and I received the GBM diagnosis only weeks before that discharge. In October 2016, I recently completed a six-week daily chemo and radiotherapy protocol, and I began the ‘maintenance’ chemotherapy cycle: five days, high-dose chemo, followed by 23 days off, and repeat.

 

I struggled to settle into a rhythm and direction for this blog.

 

Early posts revealed a thinking-out-loud style of scientific explanation, connections with philosophy, and personal narrative about a young man, husband, dad, brother, and son, internalizing a devastating cancer diagnosis. I wrote many posts with an aim in mind that never fully materialized. Posts proved too scientific for casual readers, too flimsy for academics, and too personal for many friends. I continued to write, striking a chord with some here and there. Often the reader thanked me for keeping everyone up to date, among other encouraging remarks, noting my positive attitude, vulnerability, and bravery. On the latter, I call up Abraham Verghese writing the Forward to Paul Kalanithi’s, When Breath Becomes Air. Verghese (roughly) remarks, “how brave it is to reveal yourself in this way.”

 

If there is bravery to recognize, it is rooted in my vulnerability.

 

In July 2017, nearly one year after our trip to the neuroscience center, news broke of Senator John McCain’s diagnosis. I was first notified in a tweet (a “mention”) by an academic colleague. I wept. I wept for the Senator and his family, for me, and for my family. I wrote an open letter to McCain to be published in medical journalism outlet, STAT News. The letter received an overwhelming response from people affected in one way or another by GBM, including newly diagnosed patients, others living with the disease, care partners of those with the disease, and relatives of people with GBM who died.

 

Article comments, increased blog traffic, and a full inbox signaled that my commitment to continued writing and posting found an audience. That audience, my audience, includes those closely impacted by this disease. Comments and emails expressed an important and instructive theme: people seek to tell their stories and impetus to do so may be triggered when people share a common suffering. GBM is diagnosed in three people per 100,000. This qualifies GBM as rare. Compare GBM incidence to breast cancer, which is diagnosed in one person per every eight. Nearly 300,000 people are diagnosed annually with breast cancer, contrasted with 14,000 cases of glioblastoma.

 

Consider the disparity in incidence rate.

 

I note these statistics only to emphasize the reality that if you’re looking for a resource to discuss your illness experience, the peer population is disproportionately small contrasted with the horror of the disease, for those with rare diseases such as GBM.

 

It is an honor to receive and reply to emails from people impacted by GBM. Many of these patients and care partners are now friends. Sadly, I have heard from loved ones about the death of people I emailed with frequently. It is a sample size of a population dying in the thousands each year; nonetheless, these are deeply personal losses. I am humbled to consider that in the final weeks, maybe days, before death, I was in active dialogue with a (now) late friend. I thank the loved ones who exhibited vulnerability, hence bravery, to open an inbox, to read email conversation threads, and to inform an unknown person on the other end of an optical fiber cable their loved one is now gone.

 

After living with this disease for two years, I extend my deepest gratitude to those who follow my journey. Thank you. We mark this milestone together.

 

To the patients and care partners who look to me for next steps in their own journey, or to reflect in the rear view mirror to recall and process their own experiences, I mention the broad range of experiences shared across a rare disease population, but notice each is unique to the individual.

 

Telling our stories to each other, to our social circles of influence, and to our clinicians is an effective way to locate our agency, that is, to discover those outcomes for which we may exercise control, amidst a disease and circumstance for which an abundance of variables exist outside of our control. Expressing our experiences through storytelling is  an effective means of establishing a supportive network who endure the journey alongside us, and yes, to celebrate our milestones.

 

It is a fitting conclusion to say a few things about where I am today. The reality is when given a life-limiting diagnosis like GBM, everything changes, yet, surprisingly maybe, nothing changes. I am still uncertain of which alternative is favored: for all to be different or a return to the familiar.

 

Frustratingly, maybe, but not uncommon in spaces between such tension, the answer lies in the middle.

 

Many think, mistakenly, by my judgment, that a life-limiting diagnosis affords an opportunity to sort out priorities and pursue “what matters most.” For many, physical impairment, cognitive deficit, decreased life expectancy, and financial toxicity limit the pursuit of new or revised priorities and mythologized bucket lists.

 

What is different is the perspective that must be adopted. You still must do the laundry, but you fold the shirts with acute knowledge of your own mortality.

 

Two years following my diagnosis, the Adam that existed pre-diagnosis is dissimilar from the Adam, now two years on. Though, these historically competing personal identities are far from strangers. I continue to enjoy coffee with former faculty and friends, I recently submitted with a friend and colleague a co-authored chapter to an academic press, I try, and often fall short, to balance my responsibilities to my wife and family with my own aims and personal projects. I returned to work. I maintain responsibility for house chores that I am capable of completing. These activities are familiar and routine.

 

After an especially busy travel season, where I was in Chicago, D.C. twice, and San Fransisco within a six or seven week period, my wife reminded me that while I aim to leave a legacy in the world, my greatest contribution to the future is a commitment to be present with the family; with our boys. This tension exposes the dual nature of illness: to serve ourselves before we cannot, or to serve others while we can.

 

There is little success to be found in chronic and advanced illness. There is no victory, fighting, nor conquering. I find these frameworks for illness harmful. So also, there is no succumbing to disease nor losing the battle. There is life. There is death. What there is, is enduring. Enduring is another name for survivorship. We survive to bear witness. Bearing witness is vulnerability, and it is vulnerability we recognize as bravery. Survivors are constrained to record their experiences. To leave behind something permanent from the ephemeral.

 

If there is something Whitney and I have sought to teach others, lessons we learned ourselves, it is we live to bear witness to endure each day. Our endurance is strengthened when we commit ourselves to being on the journey with others. Thank you for hearing our story and for telling us yours.

 

Enduring. With vulnerability. With bravery. Together.

 

June 10, 2016; June 10, 2018.

xoxo.