My Friend Dorothy

In 1968, the City of Albuquerque hired its first female engineer in its history. Not just any female engineer, she was a 26-year-old Filipino babe! LOL! Those days, a woman engineer had no redeeming value to the older white male engineers while the female secretaries resented a young chick engineer. An adorable personality could not possibly adjust those attitudes overnight. Such were the times. I went with the flow.

During the first few days on the job, I went on coffee breaks at the cafeteria, by myself, lapping up the stares. One morning, a nattily dressed Anglo woman in her mid-30’s joined me at my table. She smiled and handed me a napkin with a handwritten note on it. I read the note. It said “Can you be my friend?” I wrote my own note, “Yes.” I was mystified. Why we were writing notes? My last memory of exchanging notes secretly was in grade school. She pulled out a small notepad from her purse and wrote another note. “My name is Dorothy. We can have lunch in your office and for 15 minutes every day, I’ll teach you American Sign Language (ASL).” Light dawned! She’s Deaf. Not hearing, not talking. I’ve always been a positive person. I thought I gained my very first friend in the United States and the prospect of learning a new language, to boot. My inner linguist did sommersaults!

Thus started a unique, deep and abiding friendship that has lasted 46 years and counting – a win-win relationship where we have filled each other’s needs. We have subscribed to the same sense of equity. One has not taken advantage of the other.

For years, until I decided to start my own engineering company, I did not drive. During weekends, when my husband had to take care of things, Dorothy drove the gang – her, me, and my four-year-old son – everywhere. Next thing we knew, my little boy was signing to us that he was bored! I invited her to places, events and activities she would have otherwise missed out on. I went with her where she needed a “voice.” When my parents came to the United States to live with me and my family, Dorothy traded her two-door car for a four-door model. She knew there’d be two more Filipinos to haul around. When my mother sewed a “poncho” for me, she made one for Dorothy, too. Through the years, we celebrated milestones together – her divorce and remarriage, her job changes (data entry), my morphing from a non-entity to CEO, my first book signing event, our retirements. When my husband died, I made sure Dorothy was in the front pew with the rest of my family. One year I took her on the Rhine River Cruise with the hearing population. The following year she took me on the Nile River Cruise with a boatload of Deaf people. Until the early 1980’s, we each had a teletype machine the size of the Stonehenge for long distance communication. Nowadays, armed with smartphones, we text each other regularly.

Then came 2012 and my lung cancer diagnosis. Dorothy received my announcement. She was shocked. You know, cancer is the shock disease. When the drug Tarceva turned my soft, shiny, straight and black dyed hair to a dull steel wool head cover, Dorothy had a Deaf man crochet custom colorful caps for me. She bought a see-through contraption for the passenger window of her car to shield me from the sun, with which Tarceva has issues.

Then came 2014. Dorothy texted me that she had been in the hospital on an emergency because she could not breathe. Later her husband emailed the CTscan image in a broadcast to friends and family. I saw what looked like dandelion blossoms in the middle and lower right lobes of her right lung. Based on my Oncology degree from Google University, I thought, My dear buddy is in deep doo-doo. I told her the lines that I give to Inspire.com’s scared newbies: It’s not cancer until a biopsy says it is; Cancer is not a death sentence anymore, yada, yada. I made sure that if her lung problem was cancer, she would benefit from all the knowledge I’d accumulated about treatment options.

A week later, I received another broadcast from Dorothy’s husband. The biopsy results and diagnosis: Sarcoidosis, not cancer. So much for my expertise! But I was so happy for her. Like cancer, sarcoidosis has no cure and has to be CTscanned every so often to see what’s happening. Unlike cancer, sarcoidosis does not metastasize.

Nowadays, Dorothy and I both look and feel healthy. We still play, this time around our CTscan schedules. Life goes on and we both hope it stays good.

Attitude, Attitude, Attitude

It’s all about attitude.

As a young woman in the Philippines pioneering in the male-dominated field of engineering in the late 1950’s, I overcame gender discrimination through sheer tenacity. In 1968, I achieved success as a civil engineer and land surveyor. That was pretty heady for a woman, especially for one drop-dead gorgeous young babe. LOL! Success went to my head. I decided to go the United States by myself legally as a professional. I had only $300 and my civil engineer’s diploma. I was going to be the engineer to end all engineers. I was going to show Americans how it’s done!

The enormity of that decision hit me when I arrived at LAX Airport. Without a place to go, a person to meet, and a U-turn possibility, I cringed. I decided to strategize my new life in the restroom. At that time, the pay-as-you-go toilet doors had just been installed. When I found myself reading instructions as to how to open a toilet door with the use of a dime, it was my first clue that I was unclear on the concept of showing Americans how it’s done. It was so uphill from there. But things eventually worked out. I took charge of my life, worked hard, persevered, and succeeded as a professional engineer, entrepreneur, author, and motivational speaker. I retired happy and content in 2008.

Then came 2012 and the lung cancer diagnosis! Absolutely, it shook me to the core. Anybody who’s suddenly bitten in the face by such monstrous event would be shocked, too. However, true to character, I faced the daunting challenge with aplomb. The dust of uncertainty of the cancer cyclone finally settled the day the Onc put me on Tarceva. That day also opened my eyes to a new aspect of life – one in which I am completely not in control, where somebody pulls my nose at every turn!

It all starts with a need for a companion, or caregiver – a very close relative or a bff (best friend forever) – who goes with me to my doctor’s appointments. The intent is to have a second pair of ears to listen in case my mind meanders, which is a distinct possibility. This companion is the Chief Nose-Puller, Coordinator Extraordinaire of all Nose-Pullers. For simplicity, I’ll refer to the companion as “he.”

The day of each appointment at the cancer center starts with my companion telling me to get ready because he and I, car driver and passenger respectively, must be in sync if we expect to get anywhere as a unit. In other words, we’re joined at the hips. At the waiting room, someone gives me forms to fill out. Soon another person appears and calls my name. She says “Follow me” to the blood draw room. Sit. Make a fist. Release. After the bloodletting, she leads me out to the waiting room. My companion takes over and leads me to the CTscan waiting room. As soon as we step out of an elevator, I automatically turn one way, he turns the other way and corrects me. “To the left,” he says or “Straight ahead” until we get there. A technician picks me up and leads me to a room with the intimidating radiology equipment. There someone tells me: put on a gown, open side at the back. Lie down face up. Don’t move. Breathe in. Breathe out. Then I’m led out. My companion takes over again and leads me to the Onc’s area. An intake nurse tells me to step on the scale, give him my arm for blood pressure check. After he’s done, he leads me to the Onc’s examination room. Now comes the Onc. He goes through the stethoscope motions. Breathe normally. Deep breaths. Then back to my companion again.

Let me be clear. I am able-bodied. In cancer lingo, my Performance Rating is 0-1, meaning physically and mentally independent, no evidence of disease. I simply have no options in the cancer center, so I just merrily float around and go with the flow.

I was born with an attitude, according to my mother whose stories reverberated until her death at age 85 in 2007. She used to tell anybody who cared to listen that Celia was not your normal baby. She said when you pick up a baby – not an infant – and place it in the crook of your arm, the baby automatically stiffens its back and helps you. My mother said as a baby, I never did stiffen my back. She said she could not tell if I did not know how or just did not want to stiffen my back. Her story went on that when the Filipinos were literally running from the Japanese during the Occupation, the men who volunteered to carry baby me complained, “This kid is a slippery blob!”

My attitude is pliable. Its adjustments range from 100% in charge to 100% clueless. At the cancer hospital, I’m like a puppy dog on a leash walking with its master. A puppy stops and sniffs everything. I stop and read everything – elevator postings, art painting captions, cafeteria menu. Occasionally my nonchalant attitude grates on my companion. One day, he lectured me.

Him: Dear One, you need to learn how to get around this place in case one day you have to come by yourself.

Me: Dear One, don’t forget I came to the United States by myself. And how did that work out for me?”

End of discussion.

The point: I adjust my attitude to cope with cancer. My companion adjusts his attitude to cope with me. We’re all in this together.

What’s the attitude situation in your neck of the woods?

CO-1686 versus Lung Cancer: Verdict #2

I have been a participant in the Clovis Oncology Clinical Trials now for three months. As I mentioned in previous posts, it’s not easy to become a participant in clinical trials. Even when one gets in, unknowns abound. How will the body react to the trial drug? How will the trial drug react to the participant’s system? In either case, if the reaction is adversarial, it could be “bueno” bye time. In my case, it is so far so good. I’ve had no side effects.Even my historically high cholesterol went down significantly and gradually. The main tiny tumor shrunk and the tinier nodules decreased. That was six weeks ago. But clinical trials are an ongoing thing. How am I doing now twelve (12) weeks after I swallowed the first CO-1686 pills?

July 13, 2014
The night before the Bloodletting and Scans

On the eve of my second six-week scans, I was ready to pop the last six pills of my 21-day supply when suddenly, the engineer in me went on overdrive. I measured the pill. It’s one centimeter or three-eighths of an inch in diameter. I computed. After three months, at twelve pills a day, I have ingested a total of 1,092 pills. I imagined. If I glued the pills diameter to diameter, the length of the resulting chain would exceed an NFL first-down by nearly a couple of yards! I concluded. Thank goodness the CO-1686 pills are designed to dissolve in my innards after water shoves them down my throat.

Then the thought of the soon-to-happen bloodletting and scanning yanked me back to reality. Was I worried? Not one bit. I have already proclaimed myself the Scarlett O’Hara of Lung Cancer. If the results disappoint, I’ll put on my Southern Belle dress, the one over frilly petticoats, and matching girlie-girl bonnet, then throw myself into a cobra yoga position in the front yard of my tract home and say, “Tomorrow…there’s another trial!”

July 14, 2014
The day of the Bloodletting and Scans

At Crack of Dawn in My Hotel Bathroom
I did my urine specimen collection ritual. I filled the prescribed specimen container, added the preservative, put the container in the foam cube, the cube in a plastic baggie, then the sealed baggie in the hotel’s small refrigerator. A few inches separated the bio hazard specimen from my left-over steak salad, which suddenly looked unappetizing.

An hour later at the lab, I was so excited to surrender my chilled urine specimen to the medical technician, the same one who, minutes later, drew approximately five tablespoons of blood from my arm. Then the CTscans.

Within an hour, I viewed the blood test results in my private site at MyHealthConnection. Everything was within normal range. Of specific interest to the trial folks are the glucose numbers, which remained good. Of special interest to me is the cholesterol reading. It got even better. I’m loving these CO-1686 pills!

July 15, 2014
The Visit with the Good Doctor

A new physician working with my Onc’s Onc said the scan showed stable compared to the one three weeks ago. She said since the main tumor is so tiny, it’s hard to tell anymore if it is just scarring. I liked that. She and I agreed on the blood test results. Later, my Onc’s Onc, the Big Kahuna of the trials, joined us. He confirmed the new physician’s findings on the CTscans – stable. Nothing grew, nothing new. It might be like this from hereon.

Having no side effects to discuss and considering the expected developments, we talked about switching me to a less frequent schedule of coming to Denver only every six weeks instead of three. Before we left, the trial supervisor emailed the request for permission to the trial sponsor. Sounded like a plan to me!

Later At the infusion room, the smiling trial supervisor handed me a bulging white paper sack. I thought they were doughnuts. No such luck. They were not. The sack contained the 21-day supply of pills. I took the first six in front of her. Two hours later, an EKG confirmed that my heart was still beating normally inspite of the six CO-1686 pills circulating in my system.

So there we have it! A ray of hope for Tarceva Progressives!

What do you think?

Of Smokers, Non-Smokers, Never-Smokers, and “Moi”

The event in the following paragraph happened two years ago at the start of my cancer journey.

I had no idea how long I had been asleep when the anesthesia wore off and my eyes opened. At my hospital bedside I saw two grim-faced men – my husband and a salesman-like African American whose nametag identified him as an Oncologist. My husband sadly told me that my left lung surgery had been an open-and-shut case; that the surgeon had told him, “There’s no sense removing one cancerous tumor and leaving several others behind.” Then tears welled in his eyes.

I was stoic.

“Fortunately,” the Oncologist chimed in, his stare focused at the Asian face in front of him, clueless as to what those beady eyes were up to. The scene would have been one for Leonardo da Vinci: A man’s face with a puzzled look trying to unlock the mystery in this Filipino woman’s inscrutable face. “You belong to a sub-group of cancer patients who respond well to this one-a-day anti-cancer pill. That sub-group is Asian women who never smoked.”

I took a sip of water and chuckled, deepening the mystery for him. “Hah! But I inhaled tons of second-hand smoke over a period of 35 years. Did I smoke or did I not?” I tried to strike an argument.

The good doctor was stunned into silence. Obviously, he was not accustomed to being challenged by cancer patients, especially one who just woke up, to argue about the nuances of smoking.

The topic of smoking stirs up lively discussions on cancer boards. Many patients resent being asked if they had smoked. I can understand why the probing can upset a former smoker, but those who never smoked, what’s their problem? Could they be thinking, “How dare you accuse me of not having a lick of common sense!” Then there are posts from the spouse who complains about the other spouse secretly taking a cigarette break during chemo treatment. Or from the adult offspring threatening to withhold care to a parent who won’t quit smoking after cancer diagnosis. An avalanche of opinions descend – angry, compassionate, holier-than-thou, medical-types, environment-inclined, name it. Cancer patients and caregivers bring out the best and the worst.

I talk about my 35 years of inhaling second-hand smoke with great relish and without hang ups. Those 35 years covered my marriage to my first husband, who smoked like a choo-choo train. Cigarette smoke so permeated my clothes, my hair, and every aspect of my life that I might as well had been a smoker. My husband and I worked in my engineering business for a couple of decades. Those were the days when most people assumed he was the engineer and I was a mail-order bride. We spent hours in dark smoky bars slugging beer with other small-business owners like us. That way, we found clients and had fun at the same time. I was usually the only woman in the group, going toe to toe with the men in telling wild stories and sharing laughter. In restaurants, I held my husband’s hand, the one without a lit cigarette, in smoking sections.

Then the airlines banned smoking. As soon as the plane landed, my husband and I followed the pilots and flight attendants to a dank underground parking. There I was in the middle of smokers, watching the relief in faces as they sucked in deep for the first nicotine treat and exhaled the smoke ever so slowly, as if never wanting the moment to end. When the first exhale finally subsided, we all burst into laughter. I was among the happiest people on earth! I saw why quitting smoking is difficult. At their ages, 50’s and 60’s, they volunteered to me that quitting smoking had already become a quality-of-life issue.

Over 35 years, I saw my husband try to quit smoking many times. I remember how he would get so nervous that he would arrange the canned goods in the pantry alphabetically. When I tried to lose weight at the same time he tried to quit smoking, we struggled to keep our hands from each other’s throats. As we became older, I noticed that he quit trying to quit smoking altogether.

In 2004, at age 64, my husband died of complications of kidney disease. That was after 46 years of smoking. I discovered after his death that he had maintained a cancer insurance in addition to the regular life insurance! Eight years later, I was diagnosed with lung cancer. Go figure. I had already completely forgotten about the second-hand smoke until the puzzled Onc told me about Tarceva, which works well with Asian women who never smoked. But he could not tell me if I was a never-smoker. Whatever. While I don’t recommend for anyone to run around and intentionally sniff other people’s smoke, I don’t blame it for my lung cancer. Maybe it’s the cause, maybe it’s not. What’s done is done. I’d rather concentrate on the treatment.

Based on my experience with smokers, I’d say this:

Don’t start smoking. Nicotine addiction is a very difficult addiction to beat. To those who’ve just started, quit while it’s still doable.

To those whose “spring chicken” distinction has gone the way of the covered wagon; to whom the phrase “What’s done is done” applies; to whom quality of life is an issue with smoking cessation; and can’t and don’t want to quit, mum is the word. To their loved ones – one word – Compassion. That is, as long as the smoker doesn’t blow smoke on their faces. Just saying….

Tell me what you think.