Thursday, December 3, 2009

Round 5 (Road Trip...Go Tarheels!)

It was the Monday before Thanksgiving and the phone rang at 8 am that morning. First it was my home phone, which I didn’t reach in time. Then my cell phone rang, which if I had been working I would have assumed to be Kim Schwandt or Justin (and ignored - just kidding, Justin). Few call me at home on my cell phone because we live so close to the Vice President’s house near the Naval Observatory and they send out periodic pulsating signals that block most ATT calls. (Perhaps that is why myself and 3 neighbors are undergoing chemo right now - but we won’t go there.) So most people who know me don’t bother to try my cell unless it is an emergency. I hopped up to get it on a whim and, boy, was I glad I did.

The week before I had written to Dr. Lisa Carey at University of North Carolina. Her name had come up over and over in literature and in conversations as being the “Triple Negative guru”. I had sent her a rather over the top, somewhat emotional e-mail the week before asking to see her. I told my sister Caitlin on Friday that I would be patient, adding that she had until 5 pm Monday to get back to me before I pulled in the big guns. Well, it turned out I didn’t need any guns. She, like so many of the top oncologists whom I have been consulting, is so committed that you don’t really need to pull strings to get into see these extraordinary doctors. They do get back to you and fast because this kind of doctor, I am finding, is a special breed - this is a mission and they serve their patients in a way that I have only encountered at church. Dr. Carey and I spoke and she said she could see me within the week. So my mom and I planned our road trip down to Chapel Hill. (I didn’t used to road trip with my mom but, hey, I also didn’t used to be bald!)

A lot of you have asked why my doctor, the fantastic Dr. Claudine Isaacs, appeared to change the protocol halfway through my chemo treatments (especially when they seem to be working so well) and why the treatments are now scheduled weekly and will last a month longer than expected. They are now expected to end February 16, which delays surgery by a month. Well, that was the plan all along that I would start with 4 rounds of the Adriamyacin and Cytoxan and then switch to Taxol (which it turns out is best handled if it is administered weekly.) The wild card was always the addition of carboplatin (a platinum drug) that has shown a lot of promise with Triple Negative breast cancer, but which is still a little “out of the box,” even according to Dr. Isaacs. She was waiting to consult with the doctor conducting a clinical trial at Brown using carboplatin to decide how frequently to give it to me. The most recent data suggests every 3 weeks is ideal. So 12 weeks Taxol and 4 doses of carbo every 3 weeks meant that my schedule was extended, but it wasn’t because of any problem. It’s just that we are really looking at very cutting edge treatment (aggressive, which I like, and apparently effective.)

Round 5 was last Tuesday and now like a tsunami I am going to get hit every week. (My kids used to tease me and call me “Mommy Tsunami” after I returned from covering the tsunami in Thailand in 2005. Greg, I am sure, egged them on. Now they call me “Baldy Vivaldi,” which has a certain ring to it!)

Andrea Wilson pinch hit for Greg last Tuesday and accompanied me to some tests and braved the chemo ward at Georgetown. She even brought snacks. She sat in with my surgeon, Dr. Shawna Willey (genius) who spent an hour with me going over what my options are after chemo is done. And she was with me when I got the good news that my tumor (according to the sonogram, not by feel) is now officially 1 cm by 1.4 cm. Extraordinary when you consider that the radiologist showed me how it was so big when we started (no one really knows how big) that it was off the screen - too big to measure on the normal sonogram screen, which meant it was larger than 5 cm by quite a bit on either side.

The next day (Wednesday) my mom and I packed a vegan cooler and headed south in the pouring rain. I felt sorry for the Sheriff just across the state line when we entered North Carolina and were still driving 80 though the speed limit had dropped back to 60. He was so nice when he came up to the vehicle and asked for the registration. I didn’t have my hat or wig on and he kindly pretended to go back to his vehicle while we assumed we were getting a ticket and then came back with a nice warning. It really wasn’t fair. (Go Tarheels!)

We arrived at UNC in time to check into the Carolina Inn and make a 12 noon appointment (remember we drove 80). We had back to back meetings with the oncology team - each member of the team spent nearly an hour with us. But here’s the kicker...when Dr. Carey came in, the first question she asked me was not “How do you feel?” (I felt great.) Instead she looked at me quizzically and asked, “Did you go to a small girls’ school in Alexandria called St. Agnes?” I said, “yes.” And she then smiled and told me that her colleague, Claire Dees, had recognized me when my case came up before the tumor board that morning and wanted to know if it was the same Jennifer. It was. (Not crazy about being recognized at the tumor board, I might add.) Claire (two years older) and I had played on the same field hockey team at St. Agnes. Wore the same green kilts and said the same chant that Coach Marsha Way had us say every time we geared up to beat Sidwell: “She who has the will to win, never shall be beaten....” We usually said it so fast no one could actually hear the words because we were also hitting our hockey sticks so solidly in a circle on the ground that it was incomprehensible. So there was Claire Dees, a renowned breast cancer oncologist and researcher, St. Agnes Class of ’85. She hadn’t aged a day.

Dr. Carey essentially agreed with our treatment plan and kept being somewhat amazed that the chemo hadn’t knocked me out more. They kept saying, “Are you sure you don’t feel any pain? No side effects?” We felt reassured that our course was correct.

My mom and I went back to the Carolina Inn across from the DKE house and I went to the gym. Then we walked to Elaine’s for dinner on W. Franklin Street but soon realized there was nothing I could eat on the delicious gourmet menu so we opted for an Asian bistro that was just perfect across the street. I had duck soup with bok choy.

The next morning feeling that we had really confirmed everything that we had been told by Dr. Isaacs, we prepared to leave. But not before my mom took a picture of every artist installation of the Twelve Days of Christmas that the hotel had commissioned to decorate the inn. She wanted to give the pictures to Annalise and Amelia so they could make a book. It took an hour. 12 drummers drumming all the way down to a partridge in a pear tree. (The two turtle doves cooed the whole time I waited on the couch.) The valet parkers eventually turned off her car and I nearly caught a chill because I didn’t have my hat. Round 6 is Tuesday. Go Tarheels! (Sorry, Cass.)