9 posts from January, 2015

“The human spirit is more resilient than we think” – PatientsLikeMe member mmsan66 shares her journey with ALS

Posted January 29th, 2015 by

PatientsLikeMe member mmsan66 was diagnosed with ALS back in 2008, but she’s been fortunate to experience an unusually slow progression, which currently affects only her legs. As a college professor, financial planner and ALS advocate, she raises awareness through her work with the Massachusetts Chapter of the ALS Association. She even finds time to visit places like the Grand Canyon, and she shared all about her life in a PatientsLikeMe interview. Read below to learn about her personal journey. 

What was your diagnosis experience like? What were some of your initial symptoms?

I was diagnosed in 2008 at the age of 66 but, looking back, had definitely exhibited symptoms in 2007 or earlier. I had retired a few years prior, after a long career in Human Resource Management that included positions in the fields of health care, the Federal government, higher education (Northeastern University), and high technology (the former Digital Equipment Corporation).  But, rather than slow down and enjoy retirement, I started a second career in tax and financial planning. I became an IRS Enrolled Agent (EA), earned a Certificate in Financial Planning, and obtained my securities and insurance licenses.  I started my own business as a tax and financial advisor (Ames Hill Tax Services) and also began teaching undergraduate courses in Finance, Accounting, and Investments as an Adjunct Instructor at several local colleges and universities.

I definitely noticed a change in 2007, when I experienced a number of falls (for no apparent reason), culminating in a fall while on vacation in Florida in which I fractured my left wrist. Upon returning home, I scheduled appointments with several specialists to have my legs checked out and, after a series of neurological tests, received a diagnosis of ALS at the Lahey Clinic in July of 2008. I wasn’t completely stunned, as I had done a lot of internet research on diseases with symptoms similar to mine, but had gradually eliminated them one-by-one as each test result came back negative. However, like all PALS, I was hoping against hope that my suspicions would prove false. The one thing that kept going through my mind in the days following my diagnosis was that my life—— as I knew it—– would soon be over.

How has your ALS progressed over the past few years? 

In 2009, after learning that the average life span of a PALS was 3-5 years after diagnosis, my husband and I decided to sell our home of 36 years rather than modify it. Fortunately, they were in the process of building a luxury apartment complex on a hill in town, and we were able to move into a brand new handicapped-accessible apartment, complete with roll-in shower, and overlooking a pond complete with wildlife.

By 2010 I was no longer able to walk at all, and had to rely solely on a power/ manual wheelchair, as well as a scooter. Although confined to a wheelchair, I still maintain my active tax practice, preparing individual, corporate, and trust tax returns as well as representing my clients at IRS audits. When I realized it would be too difficult to travel to and from the various campuses at which I taught, I applied and was hired as an online instructor by the University of Phoenix, where I’ve been teaching Personal Financial Planning since 2010. At this point in time, after living with the disease for 8 years, still only my legs are affected. Thankfully, I still maintain my upper body strength, and my ability to speak, swallow, breathe, etc. remains completely normal. Somehow, I can’t help but feel that this slow progression might be due in part to the upbeat, positive outlook I continually strive to maintain, and the fact that I keep very busy with my family, clients, students, attending online CPE seminars (to maintain my professional licenses), and participating in ALS fundraising walks.

We read you like to travel – what are some things you’ve done to make traveling easier?

We’ve done some travelling since I’ve been unable to walk, but nothing extensive in the last couple of years. Our last long-distance trip was to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and several other National Parks such as Bryce and Zion. At the time, however, I was still able to transfer with my arms from my wheelchair into the passenger seat of our van. Now, since my legs are completely useless, a handicapped van is a necessity.  We will be going to Austin, Texas in October for a niece’s wedding. We’ve found travelling is a lot easier if you call ahead to lay everything on with the airlines. Reserving a wheelchair or a power chair at each destination makes things a lot easier. And, it’s of the utmost importance when making hotel reservations to specify a “wheelchair accessible” room, not just one that’s “handicapped accessible” (a motel that has a roll-in shower is the best!).  Also, contacting local ALS organizations in the areas you plan to visit well in advance can be very beneficial. They can direct you to rental agencies or, better yet, lend you the mobility equipment you will need while you’re there.

Can you tell us a little about your work and advocacy with the Massachusetts Chapter of the ALS Association?

A few years ago, I decided to become involved in ALS Advocacy with the Massachusetts Chapter of the ALS Association. I was invited to speak to groups of scientists at Biogen Idec in Cambridge, MA on the topic of living with ALS, and was interviewed by the Boston Globe and WBUR radio when Biogen discontinued the Dexpramipexole trials. I also attended the NEALS Consortium’s first Clinical Research Learning Institute held in Clearwater, FL in October 2011. There I was fortunate to personally meet many fellow PALS from around the US, as well as prominent researchers and clinicians engaged in the fight against ALS. (I also had the pleasure of meeting Emma Willey from PatientsLikeMe.)

In addition, I have spoken to groups at various other fundraising events sponsored by organizations such as ALSA, the ALS Therapy Development Institute (ALSTDI), etc. and have represented these organizations at ALS Awareness events at Fenway Park. Because of my visibility as a PALS, I was elected to the Board of Directors of the ALS Association’s Mass chapter, and currently serve in the capacity of Secretary. 

What have you learned about yourself that has surprised you and/or your loved ones? 

I think the first and foremost thing I learned, is that the human spirit is more resilient than we think. I would never have imagined that I could be diagnosed with such a terminal disease, and still continue on with my life as best I could, finding pleasure in simple daily activities. We had travelled extensively around the world in the early years of our 47-year marriage (lived in Hong Kong for 2 years) and planned to travel internationally once again once we retired and our daughter embarked on a career of her own. Now, I appreciate just being able to get into our handicapped van and take local day trips with my husband. Never mind viewing the Taj Mahal by moonlight, now an excursion to the grocery store or taking in a local college hockey game is a welcome diversion and takes some planning.

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“Strength will come, somehow, from somewhere” – PatientsLikeMe member Glow4life shares her journey with lung cancer

Posted January 26th, 2015 by

PatientsLikeMe member Glow4life was diagnosed with lung cancer (adenocarcinoma) this past June, and her story is a testament to never losing hope. She recently shared her experiences in an interview, and she spared no details in describing her challenges. Despite her terminal diagnosis, four rounds of chemotherapy and the sudden loss of her husband, Glow4life has remained positive, and she’s learned to take every day as it comes and live in the moment. Learn about her journey below and how she shares love and hope whenever she can.

How did you react after getting diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013? What was the diagnosis process like?

I had a routine X-ray in February 2013, after attending A & E with chest pains (which turned out to be nothing). A few days later I received a letter asking me to return in 6 weeks for a follow up X-ray, as there was a suspect area, probably scarring from a previous chest infection but best to check. My general practitioner reassured me it was unlikely to be sinister, if cancer was suspected I’d be looked into immediately. I thought no more about it and returned for the repeat X-ray as scheduled. The following day my GP rang me to tell me there was a tumor on my left lung that required further investigation, and gave me the number to ring for a scan, which took place within a couple of weeks. I asked if this was likely to be cancer, and he told me it almost certainly was. The scan did, in fact, reveal a cancerous tumor, and I was referred for a PET scan and bronchoscopy. On the 27th of June, I was seen by the specialist who gave me the news that adenocarcinoma was confirmed, and had spread to the other lung, and right adrenal gland, and was given an appointment with an oncologist, who would assess appropriate chemotherapy. It’s impossible to describe how this feels, but you know that your life has changed forever. I saw the oncologist on the 7th of July and was offered a course of cisplatin/premetrexed, a course of 4 to 6 treatments, every three weeks, in an attempt to shrink the tumors and prolong life.

I was told my prognosis was terminal, and that with successful chemo, 20 percent of patients survive a maximum of 12 months. If we were shocked before, nothing compared with this, it was like being hit by a wrecking ball. I started my chemo on the 23rd of July and had the fourth session in October, which was followed by a CT scan. This showed that the tumors had shrunk and no further chemo was necessary. A maintenance course of premetrexed was available but not recommended, as the chemo had made me very ill. Since then I have been on watch and wait, every three months, last time extended to four. I go for X-ray and blood tests before my appointment with Dr. Brown, my oncologist. My cancer is stable, though not cured, and my general health is good, as is my quality of life. I do tire very quickly, but then I’m getting on a bit!

You’ve received treatment for your tumors – what’s it like being on a “watch and wait” plan?

Being on ‘watch and wait’ is like having the sword of Damocles hanging over your head, you never know when it might drop. But I try not to dwell on that, it would be wasting the extra time I have been given in pointless worry and speculation. I try to forget about it between visits, and for the most part I do, though I must admit to a certain amount of anxiety in the couple of weeks prior to the next appointment.

How has your day-to-day life changed since being diagnosed and treated for lung cancer? 

Well, I thought the worst possible thing had happened to me and things couldn’t possibly get worse. But I was about to find out different. It’s hard for me to answer this objectively, as 3 months after the diagnosis, and while I was in hospital having my 2nd chemo, my husband Tim was found dead at home, having suffered a cerebral occlusion. Tim was 11 years younger than me, and in perfect health, so the shock was profound, for all of us. I passed the next few months in a fog of chemo and grief, it was the hardest time imaginable, but the days passed and I got through it.

My life has changed beyond all description and I can say with all honesty that living without Tim is much harder than living with cancer. Loneliness is my biggest issue now, and wishing he was here to help me through this, which I know he would wish he was here to do. One thing I did learn was that having a terminal illness doesn’t make us closer to death than anyone else, and that life can be taken from any of us, at any time. So it’s important to take each day as it comes, and make each one count. When I die, nothing will be left unsaid, no actions regretted or opportunities missed.

I fear death much less than I did, while still embracing what life is left to me. We all have a time to leave this world and move on to whatever adventure lies beyond, and I know that the time is coming when Tim and I will be reunited in spirit. I will be sad to leave my beautiful family, but happy that I’ve been given this time in which we’ve all been able to prepare, and make the very most of the chance to let them know how much I love them. And we all have to leave sometime!

What have you learned from using the InstantMe feature on PatientsLikeMe?

What I’ve learned from PatientsLikeMe is that I’m not alone in this, so many of us are dealing with similar issues, and that while cancer is different to each individual, what is the same is that most of us are devastated by the effect it has on our loved ones. It’s so hard to see their sorrow, and know you are the cause and can do nothing to stop it. I’ve also learned that many people are much worse off than I am, having succumbed so much faster, while I am still here and comparatively well. Each time I go for a scan/bloods/chemo, or to oncology I see the waiting room full, and think, so many of us, all with similar fears and trepidation of what is coming our way.

We read that your motto is “Never give up, never give in” – along with that, what else would you say to someone who has been recently diagnosed with lung cancer?

What I would say to anyone recently diagnosed is this: You will wonder how you are ever going to find the strength to cope, how do people do it? But be assured that the strength will come, somehow, from somewhere, and you’ll find your way through. Take one day at a time, and make each one count. Prepare for every eventuality, but never lose hope. Follow good advice, not fads. Try not to look too far ahead and live in the day, or even the moment. Don’t think of yourself as dying from cancer, but as living with it. One of Tim’s favorite sayings, when the times were tough, was “Head up, son” I say that to myself every day.

And don’t Google! You’ll frighten yourself with out-of-date misinformation and meaningless statistics. Listen to the experts.

Finally, share love and hope wherever you can, while you can.

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