A simple question that isn’t so simple

For me, it’s a loaded question that I have struggled with for many years. Mostly because I am a four time stroke survivor who most recently underwent two brain surgeries within a week on the West coast. I struggled between being the positive, happy person that I usually am and stating the truth of my hardships. I soon learned how to handle it especially once I recovered.

This question can be trickier when tough times happen during the holidays.

Three weeks ago, all was well with me and my family. We had a wonderful fall and were excitedly awaiting the Christmas holiday and vacation. When asked that questions, I was able to say “I’m doing well. I’m back to feeling like myself. I’m busy with Christmas prep but all is well.”

However, in the past three weeks, my life is more like a bad movie. My son was very ill with stomach pains, a fever, and nausea which led to a diagnosis of acute appendicitis. Within a day, we went from a doctor’s appointment to an Emergency Room visit to an ambulance ride to Mass General Hospital for an emergency appendectomy at 11:30pm that night. At each of the first two locations, doctors suspected constipation but our aggressive advocating for Zack led us to the correct diagnosis. Thank goodness we didn’t go home and just watch him. Twenty-four hours later we were home with a recovering, brave boy who now needed to avoid all physical activity (sports, gym and recess) for a month. But he was well and recovering.

At the same time, my husband found a suspicious lump in his groin. On the same day as Zack’s surgery, Brian had an appointment with the primary care doctor. (He thankfully insisted on keeping the appointment.) Within the next three days, Brian underwent an ultrasound that questioned cancer. We then saw two urologists who eased our mind a bit. We scheduled surgery four days later to remove the mass a week later. Surgery went smoothly but Brian still had to recover. Immediately post-surgery, the renowned surgeon and expert pathologists didn’t think the mass looked malignant. Despite an uncomfortable recovery, we had a lovely albeit low key Christmas.

Two days after Christmas, Brian went to his post-op follow up appointment in Boston (alone as we didn’t suspect anything) and heard some shocking news. The pathology report indicated that there were cancerous cells and Brian was advised to make an appointment with an oncologist.

We were shocked and terrified. We did everything that we shouldn’t….We googled. We stalked medical studies. We stayed in and spent time alone as a family (that we should do!)

I cried a ton as I was truly worried that he would die. What we read didn’t say this but it was hard not to go to worst case scenario. It was a terrible week!!

When people asked me how I was doing that week, I could barely answer. Terrified. About to cry. Worrying about what life would be without my husband. Wondering why we have to face more adversity. (Yet thankful that I am well enough to do so.) Unable to focus on anything. Angry that our family may need help again. Pleading with God for a good outcome.

I never thought we would come out of our Tuesday oncologist appointment feeling relieved that Brian has lymphoma. Yes, he has Extranodal Marginal Zone Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. It’s a shock to both of us that he has cancer. Fortunately we were relieved this lymphoma is highly treatable and generally non-life threatening. Whew! We rode home from Boston anxious to hug our kids and relieved that he would live.

However, now that we basically know what he has, we are faced with the yucky reality that he will need to undergo further testing (at the least) and possibly more treatment and/or lifetime surveillance (at the worst.)

I’m journaling here are Target and have run into a couple people I know. I’ve gotten the casual “How are you?” question. I smiled and said “fine” to one person but opted to explain to a couple others.

I know this can be much worse but it still stinks. Zack has recovered and is back (earlier than expected) to physical activities. Brian is recovering from his surgery and will undergo a PET/CT scan as well as more labs next week followed by another oncologist appointment. My husband has cancer. Yes, it’s treatable and generally not life threatening, but it’s a new reality for us.

How are you?

I’m a bit overwhelmed, relieved and anxious for what the next couple of weeks will bring.

But I am also blessed by a strong and determined husband, a close loving family, awesome friends and a positive mindset. #TeamLisaAndCrew

 

 

5 lessons learned; Reflections a Year After Brain Surgery

Today is a day of reflection. It marks the end of May (which was stroke awareness month) and leads into tomorrow which is the first anniversary of my first brain surgery!

I’ve looked back at the notes, messages and support from last year at this time and I’m just overwhelmed with emotion. I thought I would take a moment to review what I’ve learned during this past year. I hope my reflection serves as a Thank You to all of you who supported me AND reminds you to reflect on such lessons in your own life.

Strength

I have learned that I am braver than I thought. When faced with the tough decision of undergoing two brain surgeries, I made the decision firmly and with determination….and a little help from my friends and family. I was terrified but knew this is what I needed. Now, a year later, I see that it was the right decision.

Support

I don’t have the right words to adequately express how much and meaningful support I received this past year. My family, friends, community, old classmates, old teammates, my kids’ school, Brian’s work, American Heart Association colleagues…the list goes on and on.  I truly think that I had the biggest army of supporters ever 😉 I could write a book about ways to help somebody going through a tough time only because I experienced such amazing acts of kindness firsthand. Thank you #teamLisa. I will never forget what you did for me and my family.

Anxiety

I learned what anxiety feels like and how challenging it is to live with. Pre-surgery, I was fiercely optimistic but had many anxious thoughts and what ifs about dying. Post surgery, I was afraid to get back to life and didn’t have trust in my body. Losing my speech and suffering from TIAs were super scary. I felt nervous and anxious to do simple things like school pick up. I still have some anxious thoughts but I have come along way. I have gained a new understanding of people who suffer with anxiety on a regular basis and have become more empathetic.

New purpose

I have been a volunteer for the American Heart Association and the American Stroke Association for years but this past year has given me a new story to share with others.  In just the past few months, I have been positively rewarded with various opportunities to use my experience for good.  I served as a keynote speaker at the Go Red for Women luncheon in Boston and even filled in as a Passion Speaker at the Providence Go Red for Women luncheon. I flew to Atlanta to be part of the #StrokeHero campaign photo shoot and I was featured as the face of Alex and Ani’s Wings of Change stroke awareness bracelet.

I also became involved with a new cause, my new disease, Moyamoya disease. Never have I seen such a devoted group of patients,caregivers and doctors as I have found in the Moyamoya Facebook community. I was honored to represent this disease population when I attended Rare Disease Week in Washington DC.  I have lobbied at the State Level to increase awareness of Moyamoya Day and also hosted a small party for other local patients. Being able to take part in these activities and giveback has given me a new sense of purpose and a reminder of how amazing I feel when helping others.

Love

The most important lesson I have learned is recognizing what is important…which is love. I am blessed with tremendous, unwavering love from my family and friends.  I didn’t need to test that strength…but life-threatening illness will remind you how important you are to someone.  May each of you find such deep, thoughtful and compassionate love and friendship in your life like I have.

Flashback…Feelings during the wait for a plan

This is what I am happy to share…some of my writing from last year that really gets to the heart of my situation. My journal, while my life line last year, is enlightening to look back on…

At this point last year, I was out of the hospital and having various appointments to follow up on my fourth stroke. I had reassuring appointments with two doctors but was still having the heaviness in my left arm and leg without an explanation. Those doctors reiterated that I was a complicated case and that it was possible that I would never find out what was causing my symptoms to show up again. I was laying low until my scheduled angiogram on April 7th that I hoped would show insight. Here’s what I was thinking at the time…

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“Why won’t my left side come back? I need it to “un-numb.” The frustrating fact of illness is that positive thinking can’t make it better. Working your hardest doesn’t guarantee anything. Isn’t that the kicker in life?? I think so! Generally speaking, hard work and perseverance pays off. That isn’t always the case with illness. I can’t stand that my left side is numb. It is also frustrating that it’s a total subjective feeling at this time. The docs certainly believe me especially given my pass but it’s not obvious…to them, to others and even to the basic medical tests.

I’m not like everyone else; this is a difficult and a tough lesson to learn. Not in the sense that I am comparing my accomplishments or looks or any of the things that women often do (but shouldn’t)…but in that my body isn’t the same as most people. I think I have gone so long feeling well and not having any issues that I started to forget that I’m unique.

I’ve only heard of a few other people in my life who have this feeling of left sided heaviness/numbness/ache. I think many stroke survivors have this feeling yet it’s amplified and renders their limb unusable. Some MS patients have this feeling intermittently.

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Then there’s me…CNS Vasculitis patient whose symptoms mirror Moyamoya disease. Still a rare disease and one that every single doctor I meet questions. Yet, I have gone 14 years without major symptoms. So, I started to think I was like everyone else. I dove back into life with a passion to do it all. After all, I seemed fine. I look like everyone else, I have a similar family to many, I enjoy doing the same things as my friends. BUT I AM DIFFERENT. My body reacts to stress, medications, exercise, food, etc. differently then others. My left side goes numb when I do too much.”

I was still resting at this time, so grateful for all the support of meals, cards, etc…and hugging my kids super tight since I didn’t know what the future would hold.  What a rollercoaster of emotions!

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5 ways school vacation rocks even for Mom!

As a stay-at-home Mom to two school aged kids, school vacation certainly has its pros and cons. I find my perspective forever changed after being away from the kids for almost a month last year. Now, I love time with my family! Not that I didn’t before…but it’s cherished even more once it’s been taken away. So, vacation arrived with an actual weekend off for my husband (who had been traveling for over two weeks!) and a relatively open schedule. Here’s the best parts:

  1. No early commitments! As a busy family, most mornings include me yelling at (ah, encouraging) the kids to do the routine! I never realized how difficult it is for two kids to get dressed, do their hair and teeth. After six weeks of 8:30 activities on Saturday and Sunday, I was tired of the morning scramble to get out the door on time. It was golden to have slow, stress free mornings throughout vacation.
  2. Wide open days! I admit, as a planner, days without a plan often give me stress…what in the world will I do with a whole day free? I have reshaped these days in my mind as opportunities. I’m actually able to ask the kids what they would like to do and do it! Our adventure this past week was to try skiing. I know they were nervous but they wanted to try so I brought them to their first one hour lesson. Ski weekends, here we come! 😉

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3. Quiet times with the kids…to do whatever they would like. We didn’t have to run to practice, hustle for homework, or squeeze in a shower. We played with playdoh, painted canvases, built lego ships, played Mario Chase as a family and watched movies while cuddling. Real life sometimes doesn’t allow for these precious moments.

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4. Reconnecting with other friends. We have a wonderful community of close friends who make up our everyday life. They are the kids’ best friends and my village of friends who support me and allow for a fun life! However, our busy schedules often prevent us from seeing other friends- my college friends, high school friends and relatives that we often see just for holidays. It was fantastic to catch up with some of these people over the break. It was even better knowing that I did some reaching out- which I haven’t done that much since my surgeries. Things are coming along.

5. Sibling bonding. When my kids have time together, they truly like each other and playing with each other. Vacation gives them this much needed bonding time. They hit the ski slopes together, negotiated watching movies together and had time just to be silly with each other. We often have the usual grind which doesn’t provide for time with each other so seeing them together just warms my heart.

I know vacation is over now but it was a nice break from reality. Now…where’s summer??