Family Blueprint

By: Lauren Thaler  |  Date: July 19th, 2011  |  Category: On Being Parentless  |  Comments: 5 comments »

This is embarrassing. I don’t exactly know how my father died.

I was at a doctor’s appointment last week, and because I was a new patient, I was asked to fill out a bunch of paperwork. Afterward, a nurse walked me through a family history questionnaire. When it was time to share my father’s medical history, I hesitated and then said:

“I know he had a heart attack (that he survived), and I know he was diagnosed with a type of lymphoma (that was treated). I think the cancer came back after several years of remission, and I assume it spread and became incurable.”

My father died when I was 18 months old. I remember my mother talking to me countless times about his death while I was growing up, but the memories are blurry. Retaining information about my father’s cause of death was never a priority. As a kid, just being fatherless was tough enough because anything that makes you different makes it more difficult to be just like everyone else, which, of course, is what you’re striving for in elementary school.

Today, I wish I had listened more closely back then. Now, being parentless, I am confronted with an issue that, for lack of a better term, I’ll call “the fading problem”.

If my mother were around, I would’ve called her for the answer to the nurse’s question. Two months ago when I had a sinus infection, and I couldn’t remember which antibiotic caused me to break out in hives when I was 10 years old, I could’ve used her help too. Last week when I had an urge to make chocolate cake – not just any chocolate cake, but the really rich kind with powdered sugar sprinkled on top that my grandmother taught my mother to make – I resorted to a couple handfuls of peanut M&Ms. Because without my mother, I was without a recipe.

Now I don’t want you to think that my family history and sacred recipes are lost forever – There’s an old shoebox with typed Rolodex cards with recipes somewhere in a special storage attic in Maryland. And what I’m fuzzy about concerning my father’s medical past, I make up for tenfold regarding my mother’s medical experiences!

But without either parent around to remind me of things, it sometimes feels like my family blueprint (a figurative genetic code of sorts) is fading along with all the tucked-away recipe cards in the storage attic.

That said, the fading family blueprint is not something that’s top of mind every day, nor does it significantly impact my mood. Never has someone stopped me in the street and said, “Quick! When did your paternal grandfather die, and was your father a light to moderate smoker in his twenties?”

And lastly, to compensate for my mourning of the chocolate cake recipe, I’m creating my own recipes and traditions that I will eventually pass down to my children one day. And knowing that makes me content.

(I just hope they like tofu stir-fry as much as I liked Mom’s chocolate cake.)

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Calling All Pain Killers

By: Lauren Thaler  |  Date: July 14th, 2011  |  Category: Cancer Chaos  |  Comments: Say Something »

Have you heard of a port?

I’m not talking about the kind where ships dock, and I’m not talking about the Tawney fortified type either.

I’m talking about the kind that’s implanted just beneath the skin of a patient – typically on the chest or in the stomach – which connects to a vein so that drugs can be injected and blood samples can be drawn.

(Bet you wish I were talking about one of the former.)

Anyway, this medical port is supposedly an innovation in intravenous drug delivery – giving providers more easy access while reducing the pain of repeatedly jabbing needles directly into a patient’s vein. Nevertheless, my mom’s acute anxiety started the moment she woke up on a Friday (her chemotherapy days), knowing the port would be accessed. She held her breath intensely and looked like she was about to take a bullet to the chest the moment before a nurse accessed the port with her instruments. Although I never witnessed the alternative, intravenous drug delivery with a medical port is no pain-free walk in the park.

In my first blog post, I said that being the patient sucks. You know what’s worse? PAIN. Pain really sucks. But today, I’m tackling pain, so here goes.

The most visceral reaction I had during my mom’s battle against pancreatic cancer was to her pain. It was around Thanksgiving in 2009 when the agonizingly sharp stomach pain started. We went through a long list of painkillers, however, nothing came close to dulling the pain. Even the most potent narcotics out there – the ones under lock and key at the pharmacy that only the pharmacist can handle – offered no relief.

The only thing almost as excruciatingly unbearable as her pain was having to witness it. I have never ached so strongly for a magical power before. I longed for the ability to reach inside her, turn the pain off or at least take on some of the burden myself.

When she said through tears, during a particularly acute bout of pain, that she’d rather die than suffer like this, I completely understood and, as morbid as it sounds, started to wish for her death to come sooner rather than later to release her from the throws of Pain.

For the remaining 12 weeks of her life, I made her palliative care my personal mission. We visited pain specialists at various hospitals, went through several more lists of pain drugs and regimens, and I ultimately convinced her oncologist to approve the implantation of an intrathecal pain pump the size of a hockey puck in her abdomen. (We enjoyed several sports metaphors as a result.) Although it’s somewhat hard to know, I believe she died comfortably and pain-free for the most part.

I hope that the wonderful medical researchers out there searching for innovative cancer treatments and cures are also devoting time and attention to pain management. Because with the type of pain that patients like my mom endure, finding a pain remedy is like finding a needle in a haystack…in the middle of a tornado…with biting red ants climbing all over you…while you traverse a field of broken glass barefoot.

With that, I’ll close and wish you a pain-free day.

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Top 5 Things NOT to Do the Day Your Parent is Diagnosed with Cancer

By: Lauren Thaler  |  Date: July 12th, 2011  |  Category: Cancer Chaos  |  Comments: 4 comments »

Number one is so important that I’m just going to dive right in.

1.  Do not Google your parent’s disease. Step away from that search engine; don’t even think about typing the letters W-e-b-M-D, and by all means, resist the urge to browse cancer-related forums or group chats. You really don’t know how hazardous this can be until you do it, but I promise you this: You won’t find any comfort in what you’ll encounter.

My father was a psychiatrist who spent a large part of his early career devoted to research. Here is what he used to say about statistics: “It doesn’t matter what the statistic is; all that matters is the side of the statistic you’re on.”  In other words, survival rates, percentages and other statistical data only go so far. Your parent is not a collection of patients. Your parent is one person. Focus on your sample size of one.

2.  Do not forget to wash your hands. That’s right. Wash ‘em. Lack of sleep isn’t the only thing that compromises the immune system. Stress, especially in large quantities, can weaken it. You’re going to be forced to deal with a lot of stress during the first week of diagnosis, and coming down with a cold or sinus infection will make things worse.

Because of the circumstances, you may find yourself in the hospital or doctor’s office with your parent more than usual, and these are the best places to pick up unwanted bugs. So, wash your hands and keep yourself healthy. Purell it up.

3.  Do not think about work. If you try to take on everything that you usually take on during a typical day as Lawyer, Student, Name Your Occupation, you will either go crazy or break down into a blubbering mess of tears before the day is over. If you can, give your mind and emotions the day to adjust to your new reality. This new reality will be a focal point for a while, and your brain needs to walk around it, sniff it, touch it and get used to it before figuring out where to place it in the jigsaw puzzle that is your frontal lobe.

4.  Do not be late paying your bills. In other words, don’t forget the small (but important) stuff. Some of these to-dos may happen to fall on diagnosis day, however, you will more likely face upcoming due dates throughout the following weeks. If your internal alarm clock goes off instinctually on every first of the month to pay bills, rent, etc., don’t be surprised if the alarm isn’t quite as reliable after your parent’s diagnosis. You may need to use a couple extra post-it notes or put a few more reminder alerts in your Outlook calendar. And if you accidentally miss a PG&E payment, try not to beat yourself up. You’re fragile right now, so go easy on yourself.

5.  Do not stay up all night. I’ll tell you what’s worse than your parent’s diagnosis: Your parent’s diagnosis when you’re sleep-deprived. Get some sleep. If you’re having trouble falling asleep, take Melatonin or read the most boring book you can get your hands on. I tried a Financial Accounting textbook once, and I was asleep before I finished the chapter’s executive summary.

One last thing: While it did not make the top five list above, please do not think you’re alone. Several people in your extended network have been faced with similar hardships. (Your network includes me whether or not we’ve met because you’re reading this blog and are therefore connected to me.)

Ok, I lied. One more final thing: Do not be a stranger. If your parent (or loved one) is diagnosed with cancer, and you feel an urge to talk to someone who has been in a similar spot, please call me. If you want more suggestions, some support, words of comfort, or simply the name of that Financial Accounting textbook, email me to set up a time to talk. I’m serious. – That’s me.

PS. A big thank you goes out to a friend who inspired this post — Because sometimes it’s just as important not to do something as it is to do something. She is currently dealing with a parent’s fight against cancer, and she emphasizes the importance of #1, do not Google your parent’s disease. So if my warning doesn’t dissuade you enough, take it from the both of us!

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