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Boot Camp Lessons for Cancer

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Wedding of the Century-Prince Charles and Princess Diana

A long, long, long, long time ago…I went through military boot camp (Basic Cadet Training-fondly known as “Beast”) at the United States Air Force Academy. It was the summer of 81, and while Princess Diana and Prince Charles were getting married, I was in the foothills of Colorado Springs enduring the most rigorous training program of my life. Whilst (I love that word!) Anglophiles were glued to their television’s watching the “wedding of the century,” I was doing push-ups, pull-ups, and running through the Obstacle Course and Confidence Course  in Jack’s Valley, Colorado.

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Boot Camp training-Not Kym Roley

Every day, we woke at the crack of dawn and we pressed through the day until taps at 9 pm. It was the most intensive time of my life-forcing my body to do things that were not in my wheelhouse. (I was an Erudite in a Dauntless world= for fans of the book Divergent! #Divergent #Veronica Roth) I spent my high school days in ballet, drill team,  and AP classes, but then I was thrown into a world where walking across a 4×4 beam, one story above the ground, was the only measure of success.

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Jack’s Valley, CO Summer of 81-Kym Roley

Why did I not die?

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Building “confidence” in Jack’s Valley! Try walking from one side to the other untethered!

How do you get through Boot Camp? How do you get through Cancer and its treatments? How does anyone get through the monumental challenges of their life?

1. Find good friends to share the ride on the Struggle Bus with you. Life is more fun when you’re singing The Wheels on the Bus songs together. My Academy classmates are still my friends 100 33 years later. Today, my friends and family  help me laugh and forget the hard reality of what I’m going through.

2. Every day-get up, get dressed, get going. Get through. Day 1 may just be getting one foot to go in front of the other. By Day 20, you can chuckle at how little you could do on Day 1 . Your muscles learn what you expect of them. If you expect nothing, they give you nothing.

3. Give it your best…your best will get better. In the 1997 movie Gattaca, the character Vincent is asked how he accomplished such a remarkable feat, and his answer was…”I never saved anything for the swim back.” Give it all! You can’t be thinking about the next lap or the next obstacle. Give everything to each moment!

4. Believe in God’s plan(s)-Plans to give you a hope and a future! Jeremiah 29:11 There is a plan for you. You just have to trust that there is a plan.

5. Get past the bad days by reminding yourself that “Everything will be okay in the end: If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” -John Lennon There are days you wish you could just forget, where nothing goes right, but that is not the end of the story.

Finally….. My memories of that time (and now this battle with cancer) have crystallized, and while they include the struggles and disappointments, ultimately, the successful finishing of difficult obstacles is what sticks with me.

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USAFA-Class of 81 Acceptance Parade

 

 

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No Evidence of Disease (#NED)

The words that every cancer patient wants to hear-No Evidence of Disease! I was sitting on the exam room table when the nurse came in with the report and flopped it open for me to see. At first, I had no idea what I was seeing, but then, the words jumped off the page-NED!

Radiologist's Report
Radiologist’s Report

A special girl, Morgan, brightened my day with a bouquet of Star Lillies. And yes, I want to keep “filing batter” for a long time.

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“Congrats on your filing batter”-Love Morgan

What’s next for me? Three more chemos to knock out any remaining or developing cancer cells. Then, monthly (and by “monthly” they actually mean every three weeks) chemo for a year. I still have a long haul ahead of me. Blood pressure is too high (from chemo, of course) and platelets keep dipping (from chemo, of course), WBC (White Blood Count) is all over the place, and RBC (Red Blood Count) is dipping into transfusion land.

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Tripler’s Chemo Room

BUT, I am blessed! I feel lucky every day I get into work and am able to do my job and see those students. I’ve been through the ringer-surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, but because of friends like you, my battery is recharged. I can officially say I am a two time cancer survivor!

NED-No Evidence of Disease Movie poster
NED-No Evidence of Disease Movie poster
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Pet scan time-“Eyes to Thighs”

So you want a Pet?

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Leilani Kitty-Our Pet

No, not that kind…this kind…a Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Scan.

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Areas of hyper-metabolic activity light up!

Tomorrow is my six month scan. We are hoping not to see any areas light up this time!  Today (Thursday) is the prep day. Starving the body of sugar and focusing on low carb eating.

A day of eating this…

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Genoa Salame and Provolone Cheese-$4.99 at Safeway

And this…

 

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Salted Peanuts

Tomorrow (Friday) is just watery water…Nothing else!

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Watery water

Then, they inject the radioactive tracer…and allow it to circulate in the bloodstream.

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Injection of radioactive tracer element

One hour of sitting “Quietly”…no music, books, talking, moving, etc. They really mean it when they say sit quietly. After 1 hour, the dye has had a chance to circulate through the whole body (organs and tissue) and you’re ready for the scan to begin. Any areas of hypermetabolic  hungry cancer cells, will be activated and light up during the scan.

Then, the tube. It like a crystal ball to look at your innards.

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Pet Scan machine

And then waiting…for results…till Monday-an exercise in patience impatience. What makes you impatient? How do you cope?

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Seeing the doctor Monday after school.
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Struggle Bus

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Struggle Bus

Admit it…there are some days that you start the day off on the Struggle Bus to Struggle CityWednesday was that day for me. I woke up nauseated, but it was too late in the morning to call in sick and I had a full day of teaching ahead.  I asked my husband if he thought it was something I ate.  His response: “Kym, you just had chemo, so no, I think it’s the chemo.”  I always try to ascribe the bad days to something else…virus, fatigue, food poisoning, etc.  but it just keeps coming back to the fact that I am putting poison in my body in order to fight the cancer. Then, I spend most of the next week fighting the poison that is fighting the cancer. Like the shampoo bottle says: Lather, rinse, repeat.

It just doesn’t seem right.

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Chemo Infusion

In English classes, we teach that there is no story unless there is a conflict. Something has to happen to the main character in order to make the story interesting, and unfortunately, as the protagonist for our own individual story we mostly don’t get to choose the conflict.   Every time I check social media, I see so many battles that my friends are fighting…injury, injustice, illness, heartache, senseless crime, etc. My battle is unique to me, but I know we’ve all felt that feeling-How will I get through this day?

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Cancer Playlist
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Cancer Playlist

Start with the Cancer PlayList

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dig Deep.  Going through something life changing requires all your personal resources. Reach to your faith, your friends, your family. Wednesday, I reached out to my friend, and she was there. She is going through her own battle with debilitating back pain, but she searched  all over the office  just to find me some ginger!  I had one hour before class was to start to get control of the situation.  I was calculating distances to the closest  bathroom in case of emergency vomitting or worse-as one teacher-contract I had so succinctly put it-“explosive diarrhea.”

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Cancer patient

Whenever I start to feel sorry for myself, I think of the sad young man I see weekly in the chemo room. He speaks to no one and he appears to be young, mid-20’s.  His answers to the nurses are monosyllabic. His agony is evident on his face each time he comes in.  His mom comes in with him and does what she can do to ease the suffering. It just brings to mind how unfair and indiscriminate cancer actually is.

We all have conflict-some big and some small-but all achingly real. Our lives have so many pitfalls along the way that the only real solution is to reach out to each other to create a resolution to our own story. I couldn’t do this without you!

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Building a tower!

This week marked two weeks of school and crossing over the halfway point in chemo. It reminded me of building straw towers in physics class.  Students started out the week with 50 straws and 2 meters of tape and were tasked with building a tower that could support a golf ball on the top. The best towers had a strong base and a lot of support. Some towers never made it off the ground: they were flimsy and poorly thought out. The winning towers were the ones in which the builders created alternate plans when encountering disappointment.

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Straw Tower to support a golf ball.

 

I want to model my school year on those successful towers and teams. Each week my actions need to mimic the successful characteristics of the soaring towers! It needs to be carefully planned with lots of support, and a fallback plan if things don’t go the way I intend.  Last weekend, I think my tower went too high. I pushed myself a little too hard and paid the price over the weekend with a brutal headache and record breaking vomitting. I was reminded of Buster’s quote from Arrested Development, “Yes, I was flying. But a little too close to sun.”

This week I had Back-to-School night on Thursday followed by chemo on Friday. Week two has been better because I know the students now and everyone is getting back into the mechanism that is school. My son’s Cross Country coach says it takes two weeks of training before the initial pain subsides. Well, I have completed two weeks of training, and I am optimistic that Monday will be my best day yet! My lesson plans are ready and alternate routes are planned as well.

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Fortunately by Remy Charlip

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The test of my chemo/work schedule will be this weekend as I deal with the side effects of Carboplatin/Gemzar/Avastin. Fortunately, we had a great meal delivered by some friends at church and I had a delicious nap this afternoon. So that helped mitigate the lengthy chemo process.

One of my favorite books growing up as a child was Fortunately by Remy Charlip. For every bad thing that happened to Ned (the main character), there was an equal and opposite good thing (Newton’s 3rd Law!).  “Fortunately, Ned was invited to a surprise party. Unfortunately, the party was a thousand miles away. Fortunately, a friend loaned Ned an airplane. Unfortunately, the motor exploded….etc.”

Fortunately for me, I have some wonderful family and friends and coworkers, so I am expecting great results from this year!  What’s your favorite childhood book that still speaks to you and motivates you?

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Ned, being chased by a tiger…Fortunately, he can dig!

Won’t you take me back to school-patient/teacher

Won’t you take me back to school…I need to learn the Golden Rule.  This song was rolling through my head this morning as I drove to school. Remember the Moody Blues?  It feels good to be back to work and teaching once again. Students rolled in on Tuesday, and their energy motivated me as it always does.

Mid-Pacific

Fall Summer is in the air at Mid-Pacific! After a week of preparation, the real work began on Tuesday. In addition to making sure students are ready for college, I have the added challenge of Friday chemos.

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Kawaihao at Mid-Pacific

The students are like a shot of adrenaline to the system! One of the things that I love about students is that you always know exactly how they feel about things. There is no holding back!

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Student tables at Watase Courtyrad

After a week of school, I am exhausted but happy. I went to bed before 9 o’clock every night and up by 515 each morning. Add the 45 minute commute both ways, and it is a challenge, even for a healthy person. I know that next Friday will be the real test of my mettle. Mega chemo (Carboplatin, Gemzar, and Avastin) followed by a all-too-short weekend and then back to school on Monday.

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Today after reviewing Scientific Notation with my students, one of the boys said, “I finally get this.” That is enough to keep bringing me back every Monday-chemo or not!

Double Trouble-Iselle and Chemo

 

It was a crazy week getting ready for Hurricane Iselle,  Friday Thursday chemo, and the start of school next week.

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Double Trouble as Hurricane Iselle and Julio track to Hawaii

Yesterday, Friday chemo turned into Thursday chemo because Hurricane Iselle was bearing down on the Big Island of Hawaii.  This is the first Hurricane to hit the Hawaiian Isles since Hurricane Iniki in 1992. The earlier part of the week we spent scurrying around getting water supplies, filling up the cars with gas, and course buying the all important jelly beans, pop tarts and Cheetos. Not surprisingly, the kids were a large influence in determining which supplies were important. I did buy 6 cans of Spam (the Hawaii staple) which will probably make their way to the Hawaii Food Bank in the coming weeks.

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Number 1 Hawaii staple

My chemo nurses said to come in Thursday for blood work and chemo as the Chemo Clinic was meant to be closed on Friday. For the first time in months, my white count was in normal ranges. I guess that Nuelasta is actually working. My red count is creeping lower, but that is a problem for “future” Kym to worry about (if it gets too low a blood transfusion will be in the works….”future” Kym though, right?) The chemo room was packed with all the patients trying to get it their treatment done ahead of the storm. I was happy to get the last chair open in the room. The Gemzar transfusion went fairly smoothly.

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Chemo trio

 

We were tracking chemo symptoms and the storm last night. The storm slowed down as it approached the islands, but my chemo side effects did not. My effects hit at about 2 am and the storm hit at 2:44 am. Feeling better this morning, and happy that I can just reset and relax today. I have set an alarm for my Neulasta shot this afternoon, so that is my next big event for the day. As of this moment, I am halfway through the chemo treatments. Time for a celebration! Maybe some Spam?

 

 

Back in the Saddle-Getting the job done

Weekly reality TV shows start each week with a recap of the past weeks’ episodes including the most dramatic moments.

Does not include the Phernegen IV

So, if you are just turning in to this show, here’s what happened in previous episodes of “Kym’s Ovarian Cancer.” After successfully beating Ovarian Cancer in 2012, I received an ominous phone call from my docctor.   My blood cancer marker had unexpectedly doubled. To be specific, it was February 14th, and I was driving on the H3 from one side of the island to the other. When the doctor told me the news and indicated that the cancer was probably back, I had to pull over to the side of the road to take that information in. That was easily the worst Valentine’s Day ever!

Screenings and pre-surgery appointments followed. My exploratory (never-sounds-good-when-you-say-it) surgery was on March 10th. The affected area this time was the peri-aortic lymph nodes. This is apparently a dicey area in which to operate because the area is filled with a tricky vascular network. Four weeks post surgery, I began a series of 25 daily radiation treatments (I think we landed on 4500 CentriGreys) concentrated in the peri-aortic lymph node area. About a week after that was finished, we started on chemo. I was labeled Platinum sensitive, so Carboplatin was chosen again, along with Gemzar and Avastin. All medication is delivered via a port that has been surgically implanted in my chest wall. Fast forward through several failed WBC’s (White Blood Count) and unfortunate vomiting parties, we made it to July 4th!  We are again playing the  low can your white count go?  Then there was the Give yourself a Shot Day (Neulasta category),  If you were producing this as a show, it would make an excellent storyline with a huge cast of characters and a dramatic plot.  Maybe Christina Applegate will play me. Who will play you?

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In this week’s episode of Kym’s Ovarian Cancer, we get a major dose of fun! The first chemo of the cycle is all of the meds to include Carboplatin, Gemzar, and Avastin.  The prelude is a nice fat bag of anti-nausea meds. Today, they’ve added an extra bag of anti-nausea meds. (Today’s total of IV bags was 7: 2 bags of hydration, 1 bag of steroids/antinausea, 1 bag Carbo, 1 bag Gemzar, 1 bag Avastin, and a bag of Phenergen.) Next Friday will be a few bits of steroids and Gemzar. After the next treatment,  I’ll be halfway though  chemo. This will be a major milestone. Despite the fact that I am not even halfway now, I am still ecstatic! Why? I am going back to work next week! I am beyond excited about seeing the students and my fellow teachers. Just to be normal again (even with these Friday blips) is one of the things I am most looking forward to (did it hurt when I ended that sentence with a preposition?) On March 7, the last day I worked before my surgery, I went outside and the beautiful Mid Pac campus and the sweet Manoa air almost made me cry (Seinfeld’s Newman once said this about Hawaii…”The air is so dewy sweet that you don’t have to lick the stamps.”)

My favorite day of school is always the first day of school. It’s like the first hole on the golf course, no mistakes and everything is awesome (Check out the Lego movie). I predict now it will be a great first day. The chemo will drag on into October, so will keep the spirits up by hanging around fun people who make me laugh.  Maintaining that energy will be the largest problem through the fall terms . Side effects from chemo can last up to 6 months, so even if you’re done, you’re not done.

SPOILER ALERT: In future episodes, Kym will go on maintenance chemo. PET scan will occur in November to see if these meds are arresting the growth of the tumors. Watch the hilarity ensue!

 

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Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap serves as a warning to train passengers to take caution as they travel from train car to platform. It’s also the title of what is apparently a 2004 film of the same name about “Five people that take huge risks in their personal lives in an effort to find happiness.” One of my favorite reviews of the movie calls it “a very small film with a big heart.”
I am about to travel across a huge gap, literally, as I head back from a well-deserved vacation across an ocean and back to a job and a life that I love. I’ve been gone for more than a few months-first surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy for recurrent Ovarian Cancer. Then I had this lovely little family vacation for two weeks in Washington State. I watched the Mariner’s beat the Mets! I ate too much (including questionable ball park food), I didn’t sleep enough, I was moderately careful about touching the shopping carts, but I did not have my guard fully up. Many hugs were disbursed against medical advice as I tried to pack in many family and friend visits. It was a lazy and fun vacation. I got to hug on family members that I haven’t seen for five years, and some I have only missed for a few months. I ate some of the most delicious food I have had ever! My tummy might argue the point a bit, but even that didn’t deter me from getting out there. If I wanted cake, I ate it. If I wanted cookies, I ate those. Hopefully, I didn’t eat any of the recently recalled listeria tainted produce sold throughout Washington State.

All in all, a successful vacation. I also found out there is a rib fairy who delivers ribs to your house, if you’re nice. You probably don’t know her though. The cheesecake fairy exists too, but clearly, she is a different person. The massage fairy was at work too! Busy time of the year for them.

As I travel back, it is time to shift gears back to treatment and back to work. There is definitely a worry about the gap in time between chemo treatments. It settles in the back of my brain reminding me that each day without chemo is another day the cancer could be mobilizing its forces. All I can do is choose to be mindful. I will start back next week with chemo…the following week with school. I need to reintroduce myself to Prilosec and Phenergen, and crank up the water intake. Nurse Jackie will be ready to take my blood and see what damage has been done, if any. As I head back to the love and support on Oahu, I can’t help but think that this gap in medical treatment was enhanced by an improvement in mental health and a reminder to not let my treatment get in the way of life. I can’t thank my family and friends enough. My current chemotherapy should last until mid October (with maintenance chemo afterwards) so a long road ahead.

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Fighting the battle-Round Two!

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