Monday, October 3, 2011

Never Forget the Fight

This is Ann's sister writing. With a heavy heart I must tell you the blogs have come to an end. On October 3, 2011, Ann Clarke Dollard was called by God at the age of 47, following a truly courageous and lengthy battle with breast cancer. I hope that through these posts you have gotten to know and love Ann the way I do. A true inspiration, through the end she showed remarkable strength and maintained a sense of humor. Well known for her big ideas and unconventional wit, Ann was a true gift to all who were lucky enough to know her. She was preceded in death by her father, Jerry Clarke. She is survived by her husband of 18 years, Michael Dollard, her beloved daughter Stephanie, age 9, and her mother Mary Clarke of Manassas. She is also survived by her siblings, David Clarke, twin sister Joan Clarke-Beahm, Daniel Clarke, Paul Clarke, Joseph Clarke, Elizabeth Kelso, and Jennifer Layden, 13 nieces and nephews and countless friends. Family will receive friends at Pierce Funeral Home in Manassas on Wednesday October 5th from 6-8. Funeral services will be held at All Saints Catholic Church in Manassas, VA on October 6 at 10am. Interment will be at Stonewall Memorial Gardens with a reception to follow at their house in Clifton, VA. Memorial donations can be made to Life With Cancer in Fairfax, VA

Monday, September 19, 2011

Quick Update About BTBO Party and New Chemo

Hi all. I'm not up to full strength at the moment, but there are a few things I'd like to put out there at least briefly in the interim. I apologize if it comes out curt. You deserve more.

First and foremost,
from the bottom of my heart

for attending and/or donating to the Black Tie Breast Optional Party this 9.10.11. I am so honored by your support I don't know what else to say.   I heard our guests had a good time.   I, alas, wasn't able to attend! Which leads to my next update...

As many of you know, I was feeling very ill and stayed upstairs close to a bed pan and warm bath all evening. It turns out that my cancer has spread. This time it's crossed into my spinal and brain fluid. I've been undergoing a series of tests and procedures, etc, to figure it out, and I have a spinal tap scheduled this week to try some new chemo. We'll see where it goes from there.

Prognosis is 4-weeks to 6-months if you believe statistics. I plan to stick around at least another year that so I can actually enjoy a 2ND ANNUAL Black Tie Breast Optional Party, given I missed the inaugural one!

More later...

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Dancing to a Different Beat

I've always known I can't dance.  I don't have any rhythm.  It's not in my proverbial blood.  But it's usually not a problem that a few cocktails can't fix.  Lately, however, it's been getting a little crazy with my real blood. 

You'll recall that hours before leaving on vacation, my red cell count was so low that I had to get an emergency blood transfusion. Well, upon my return 11 days later, lab results showed that while red cells were back to normal, my platelets and white cells were too low.  We got back from Hawaii late in the afternoon last Monday, Aug 22nd.  I went to see my doctor for lab tests and chemo the following Tuesday morning.  Unfortunately, I was DENIED treatment for the week. 

I wasn't really surprised by the platelets results.  I suspected they were low because I was covered in bruises, but also because when I nicked my thumb opening a beer on some beautiful beach in Hawaii, it took over 5 minutes to stop bleeding.  (I know, I know -- drinking on the beach is dangerous work.)

At the same time, it didn't really cross my mind that low white cell counts might be why I was tired and light-headed occasionally.  I figured that was standard, vacation-overindulgence.  It wasn't until the lab report came back that it dawned on me the count had dropped so low because I didn't take Neupogen shots during vacation.  I'm supposed to give myself injections on certain days of every chemo cycle.  The vials cost thousands of dollars and have to be kept refrigerated.  I thought it would all go bad en route to Hawaii for 14 hours and/or because the ice packs would melt and fail TSA inspection, so I didn't bring any.

As a result of no shots, when I went back to the doc for the follow-up tests this past Monday, Aug 29, I was denied treatment AGAIN because, while platelets were back up, my white cells still hadn't rebounded and remained too low for chemo.  So we're up to two weeks in a row, plus my vacation week, that I haven't been on the program. 

I sure wish these side effects would get in sync.  If there's trouble with my blood, it'd be nice if all three parts - red, white and platelets - act up at the same time.  As if chemo and lab tests weren't disruptive enough, it's nuts being up and down and all around, never knowing which cells are gonna go haywire from week to week.  It's throwing me off tempo.  I've concluded that dancing is even more of a challenge when, besides lacking rhythm, you're also literally lacking some pulse in your blood.

Guess I'll keep drinking on the sidelines while "the beat goes on," probably laughing under-my-breath at people like me who can't dance but will do it anyway.  But I don't want to discourage anyone from coming, so I promise I won't don't that at our Black Tie Breast Optional Party.


I promise.

I'll be too busy.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ziplining in Hawaii - To Count or Not to Count

Aloha! We're back from Hawaii and I'm here to tell ya the Big Island is INCREDIBLE! Gorgeous, interesting, and fun.   Spent a couple of days at different beaches.  There were green, white, and black beaches, with sand textures ranging from soft and fine to pebbles the size of couscous.  A few other beaches weren't sand at all, but rather solid, black lava.  The water was crystal clear and various shades of blue depending on the depth.  It was amazing.  The area was less developed than the I thought it would be, with only 5-6 "main" (i.e. one and two lane) highways to get around the entire island.  The climate/environment ranged from rainforest to coastal to pasture to mountainous...with a lot of hardened lava/volcanic ash in between. 

We toured a Kona coffee farm and walked through macadamia ("macnuts") groves. We went kayaking, snorkeling, and ziplining, and we hiked to waterfalls, craters and volcanoes.  Some of us adventurous types got as muddy as possible riding an ATV while others elected to go horseback riding instead. Everything was a blast but my favorite activities were kayaking, the ATV ride, and of course, ziplining! 

Which brings me to a quandary about my bucket list.  Technically speaking, the plan was to zipline over a waterfall. Unfortunately, the operator switched the lines to new locations just a few weeks prior to our trip and hadn't updated their website. The original tour included lunch by a waterfall and lines that went over a few more, but the tour we ended-up with didn't have ANY waterfalls, much to my surprise and disappointment. Hence my quandary: does the trip count towards my bucket list?  I'll go with "no, not really," and consider it only partially fulfilled.  That way I have an excuse to go ziplining again in order to properly complete the waterfall portion.

Nothing Normal 'Bout Me

I often wonder if my body will ever get used to chemo.  I suspect the answer is, "no," and to the contrary, it keeps getting worse.  The day before we left for Hawaii, I had chemo (as originally scheduled).  About an hour into my infusion, I noticed that my vision became severely impaired.  I alerted my nurse, Meg, about what was happening.  To try to figure out a possible cause, she ran another blood test.  Turns out that once again, my red blood cell count had plummeted and the test results showed that I was "critically low."  My case manager/patient advocate, Bridget,  who knew I was leaving for Hawaii, promptly scheduled me for an emergency blood transfusion. 

I was admitted to the hospital immediately after chemo.  I insisted to the hospital staff that I had a plane to catch the following morning so they needed to get me outta there.  I laid there in my bed for about 8 hours, tethered to an IV while waiting for two units of blood to drain into me.  The upside was that I got to order whatever I wanted for dinner.  I had trouble deciding on chocolate pudding or strawberry shortcake for dessert, so I didn't get either.  I don't remember what I ate for the main course. Too bad, because it was the highlight of my day.

They finally let me go at midnight.  I went home and slept for a couple of hours, got up at 4am and arrived at the airport around 7am.  Thereafter, we spent a grueling12 hours in the air.  There was also a 6 hour time difference, so by 8pm Hawaii time, it felt like 2am hit-by-a-truck body time.  I was exhausted and didn't care if I was in paradise.  I rationalized that with an emergency trip to the hospital less than 24 hours prior and barely any sleep since then, I had a valid excuse for my lacklustre enthusiasm.  I went to bed sensing that that was NOT how normal people start their vacations.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Black Tie Breast Optional Party

I've had a couple of people ask me for clarification about the upcoming BTBO party on 9.10.11, so I thought it was worth mentioning a few things here. Besides raising money for the Life with Cancer Family Center, the party is also an excuse to dress-up, drink martinis and play like we're grown ups.

First, the "requested" formal attire doesn't mean it's "required" attire.  Wearing a tux or evening gown won't look out of place, but I don't expect people to run out and buy anything special; a cocktail dress or suit is totally acceptable. Black and pink are the party theme colors, so if you happen to have a dress, scarf or other accessories that are pink or have pink in them, then that'll work just fine. Furthermore, as far as I'm concerned, "pink" is whatever light-reddish hue you decide looks good on you (eg, fuchsia, bubble gum, dusty rose, hot pink, pastel pink, cotton candy...whatever shade you prefer). Again, don't feel obligated to go out of your way if you don't already have something on hand.

Second, we're having food brought in by a caterer. The menu consists of a range of hors d'oeuvres only.  Said another way, please note this is not intended as a "dinner" party. Those with a hearty appetite and/or who plan to drink freely throughout the evening would probably do best by having a main course at home prior to the party.

Since this is our first attempt at a fundraising event (not to mention I'll likely be feeling some side effects from my chemo that week), we're keeping things simple. Once we have a few years under our belt and figure out what works and what doesn't, maybe we'll try to add dinner, a greater selection of drinks, more catering staff, live entertainment and possibly some silent auction items.

Third, the BTBO party isn't necessarily a "private" affair.  Obviously I can only invite people I know, but you're welcome to bring guests and/or invite other folks to join us.  The more the merrier and the more funds we'll raise for the cancer center.

Similarly, if you live outside the Northern VA area and you did NOT receive a save-the-date postcard and/or invitation, I apologize in advance if I've inadvertantly slighted you. As mentioned, I want to keep it simple, and I don't see this is as a party that merits a road trip, travel expenses and possible time away from work, so I only invited local guests. Nevertheless, if you'd like to attend the party despite coming from out-of-town, please let me know asap and I'll send you more details. We'd be happy to see you.

Finally, for purposes of planning your babysitter's time, the party "officially" opens at 6pm and I estimate it will knock-off around 10pm-11pm (but it's certainly okay to hang out later if you like).

I hope this answers most of your questions, but if there are any other concerns in the meantime, please don't hesitate to contact me. 

I look forward to seeing everyone!  *Remember to RSVP in writing so that I have correct headcount.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Another Scan, Another Success (I Think?)

Hi all.  Just a quick update about my PET scan from last week.  The report indicates that the soft tissue cancer sites appear to be disappearing!  Unfortunately, there wasn't any measurable progress with the bones, but stable is better than getting worse, so I'll take it!! 

Also, I've been laid-up with nasty, prolonged headaches that won't go away with over-the-counter pain medicine, so I spent yesterday at the imaging center getting an MRI of my brain.  Good lord if I didn't have a headache going into the machine, I sure had one coming out.  It was SO INCREDIBLY LOUD. I can't imagine what it would have been like without with my ear plugs in.  It was a 30-minute assault of tones, beeps, pounding and pulsating noises that I can't really describe.  The closest I can come is that it was a barrage of emergency broadcast signals on steroids, machine-gun fire skewed through a synthesizer, and electronic fusion'ized jack hammers, all coming from random directions in random tempos at random times. My brain must've been lighting up like a pinball machine.  None of the sounds ever made any sort of musical "pattern," which drove me insane.  I tried to figure out a rhythm and at least turn the noise into a mental chant of some kind but it was utterly impossible.  In terms of decibel, it was as if every note was being funneled out of a jet engine then compacted and sent directly into my eardrums.  Maybe they should use brain MRIs to get the terrorists to talk.

But enough about that.  The results of my torture proved useful in the sense that there's nothing wrong with my skull or brain.  Whew!!  I was worried they'd discover all those dead cells and empty spaces I managed to develop from chemicals and other illegal substances I used back in my pot-smoking days.  Sorry Mom. 

So now that we've eliminated a worst-case reason for my headaches, I probably just need my vision checked (even though I think I can see pretty well, maybe I don't know what I'm missing).  But the eye exam will have to wait.  We're off to Hawaii for a vacation in paradise, where I plan to zipline over a waterfall or five. I'll try to think of you losers while I'm gone.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Just Finished My 36th Infusion

Hi all.  I've officially completed 9 cycles of chemo.  That's 36 infusions since December 2010, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer for a third time.  I have no idea how many more infusions lie ahead.  Until they stop working, I suppose.

Speaking of them not working anymore, I had a PET scan earlier this week and I'm worried.  Two previous scans showed I was making good progress.  Tumors were shrinking in size or "fading" in density (my translation).  It felt great to hear.  I was ecstatic.  This time, however, I'm really nervous about the results.  I know the clock is ticking.  I know the ride can only last so long. Eventually the chemo train will return to the station.

If I'm reading them right, some studies of the clinical trial drug I'm being given report that patients lived about 5 months longer, on average, than if they hadn't received the drug.  And if I've extrapolated the numbers correctly, the benchmark for starting the 5-months-longer meter is 7 months.  I'm at the end of my 7th month.  I'm terrified that the effectiveness of my chemo has either slowed or already stopped working and that the 12 month window is closing-in on me.  But it's not the studies that are influencing me, at least not consciously.  Rather, it's my intuition that's eating at me, and I pray it's wrong.

I meet with my oncologist on Monday, August 1, to discuss my scan results.  For the first time, I almost don't want to know.  I'm feeling down but I know I must press on.  "I can do it.  I can beat this thing."  It's all I can think about.  There will come a day when I can no longer outrun this. There will be a time when I'm too weary to fight anymore.  But fortunately, today is not that day.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vacation Details

Okay, let's see.  Where were we?  Oh yeah, our shuttle launch vacation.  First, let's talk transportation. Don't ever fly through Atlanta on Delta Airlines if you can avoid it.   Prior to winning the launch lottery, my nephew, Michael, and niece-in-law Alicia, were planning to spend the 4th of July holiday here.  They had already purchased Delta tickets to fly to/from Dulles from their home in Atlanta.  When we won the launch tickets (notice I said "we"), they simply tacked-on another flight from Atlanta to Melbourne, FL. 

Initially I had no idea that Michael and Alicia were planning to fly into Melbourne, but it just so happened that that's where I wanted to fly rather than into Orlando, and the only way to get there from Dulles was on Delta via a stop in Atlanta.  Naturally we opted to take the same flights as Michael and Alicia.  It worked out great in terms of all six of us spending more quality time with eachother, sharing rides to/from the airports, sharing the car rental and condo, etc.  But that's where the greatness ended.

To start with, the flights were very crowded.  On both legs to FL -- from Dulles to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Melbourne -- most of us were separated, and Stephanie and I were seated near the engine. On the first flight we were right next to it, and on the second flight we were directly in front of it.  It was awful. The engine noise is obnoxiously loud.  To add to the insult, our connecting flight from Atlanta to Melbourne was delayed for an hour.  Apparently Delta was missing an entire crew.  Delay number 1.

On the way back, our flight from Melbourne was delayed because our plane, which was coming from Atlanta, was late leaving Atlanta and thus late arriving in Melbourne.  Delay number 2.  Once on the plane from Melbourne, we arrived in Atlanta 5 minutes too late to catch our connecting flight to Dulles. The next flight was two hours later.  Delay number 3.  Needless to say, we weren't very happy about it. 

Fortunately, Alicia was adept at expressing to the gate supervisor that it was the Delta's fault we were late and they owed us some sort of compensation.  Atlanta was her final destination so it didn't really matter to her that we were late, but she fanagled $200 worth of vouchers for future flights and about $45 in meal vouchers so that we could go have something to eat while waiting for the next plane.  That turned out to be a good thing, because our substitute flight ended-up late too!  Delay number 4.  We finally flew out of Atlanta and got back home to Dulles about three hours later than originally scheduled.  Amazingly, I didn't get my panties in a twist the whole time!  With 3 out of 4 flights operating behind schedule (and all due to one airline and one airport), I normally would've been agitated.  But for some reason, right from day one, I just accepted these and any other inconveniences as part of the whole vacation package, and that seemed to make everything okay. 

Monday, July 11, 2011

Roger That; We Have a Go

We're back from our Cape Canaveral vacation. I'll tell you more about the adventures and events surrounding the launch, but suffice it to say that the trip was definitely "an experience."

The launch was absolutely BEAUTIFUL! I can't describe how good it felt to watch. I was always amazed when I saw newscasts of previous launches. But to be there live? STUNNING! I just loved it; and my admiration and affection for the shuttle - for what it is and what it represents - has only grown more rooted now.

The simplicity of the shuttle's lines as it clung to the fuel tank, the rumbling and thunder of its rockets, the marshmallow clouds and brilliant light... "AWEsome" in the purest sense of the word. I can't quite put my finger on it, but the shuttle seemed both vulnerable and almighty as it lifted from the earth and soared.

Despite my joy at seeing the launch, I'm genuinely saddened that we're losing such an icon of America's strength and achievements, and a show of its mettle. The now-empty launch pad will stand as a ghostly sign of our nation's declining leadership status among the world (in my opinion) and a foreboding symbol of where I think this country is headed.

I'm so grateful I was there to witness a piece of our history; it's truly the end of an era.

Now that we're home from our trip, it's back to earth, back to reality. And unfortunately, it's back to chemo. T-9 hrs and counting.