Sunday, June 14, 2015

Chronic Illness Teaching Moments: Tracy's Story

teaching and family with chronic illness life's a polyp

This is a guest post written by Tracy Dee Whitt.

I'm sitting in an Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor's office waiting to get a thyroid biopsy. Familial Adenomatous Polyposis (FAP) is a scary disease, it takes so much away from me and my family.

I was asked about what I've taught my children about my health and health issues. I pondered this question more as I sat in that ENT office, waiting again for a test which results may change my life again. How do you tell your children you have a deadly disease? How do you explain to your kids once again why you can't walk through the zoo, today you can't jump rope or play soccer in the yard, why you can't eat their favorite food, why you can't do so much that every parent should be able to do?

The Whitt Family - No Ordinary Family
I don't tell them everything at once, I break it down, and I don't give the doom and gloom tidbits that crawl through my mind weekly (if I'm lucky).

Before sharing how I tell my kids about my disease, I need to explain a little about my family. We're different. First, we adopted both of our children, Jeremiah is 5 and Payton is 7. Because of adoption my children won't inherit my disease, which I'm extremely grateful for. If my children were to inherit my disease I would make different considerations when educating them, so for this post I'm coming from a different angle than some who will read this.

Another factor that makes our family different is our son, Jeremiah, has autism. He doesn't understand my illness and wouldn't if I explained it to him so for this post I will only be talking about my daughter, Payton, and how I've shared with her about my disease and how she's dealt with it.

I had my colon removed when I was 18 years old (I'm now 36). The removal of such a large organ has caused some issues for me and thus we've talked to Payton a lot about the result of not having a large intestine. (I say 'we' because my husband is very supportive and helps to share with Payton about what I can and cannot do, why my body is the way it is.) This has led to discussions about my disease. 

I tell Payton that I've had my large intestine removed because if I hadn't, I would have cancer. I haven't really explained what cancer is to her because I feel it would cause her to worry too much. She knows her great-grandma died of cancer (different from what I face because this grandma didn't have FAP) and Payton's intelligent so I'm sure in some way she's connected some dots. Frankly, she probably avoids asking too much because she knows the end results of the word 'cancer'.

When I get tests done, she knows about them and knows what they're for. Although she doesn't know the scope of everything, she's aware that mommy has a disease and life is different because of it.

We try not to make life too different, but having this disease and adding a child who has nonverbal autism, life is going to be unique. We try to make it as normal as possible. We are very family-focused and we try to tailor our adventures to fit everyone's abilities.

I've also really focused on getting all I can out of my good days. I only have so much each day and there are days when I don't have anything at all - I'm exhausted and in pain. On the good days I try to spend quality time with my kids. I take them often to hug, hold them, and do any activity with them they enjoy.

Overall, Payton is empathetic to how I feel but there are times when she gets tired of not being able to do something because I'm sick or because I'm sleeping. There are many times I feel guilty because I have this disease, mainly because of how it's affected me. I get so frustrated and a large part of that frustration is around what I can't do with, or for, my family.

So, how do you tell your child about your serious rare disease? It's hard, I don't know that there's a simple way to go about it, especially when it's a disease that's trying to take your life with every breath you breathe. Cancer conversations are horrible to have with children. I think the best way to go about it is slowly and simply, making terminology as simple as possible and leaving out the catastrophic information as long as you can without shutting your child out completely.

I believe that when a parent has a serious illness it can create a compassionate child. I've seen this in our daughter, but more so because of her brother's autism, and this is probably because it's something we live with daily. Many conversations center around Jeremiah's disABILITY.

Because of living with autism and having open conversations about it, Payton has become an awesome advocate for special needs. She is extremely accepting of people who are different and so loving toward others. She is also very helpful with her brother even when I don't ask a thing of her. She knows. She has an innate ability to understand that I need help with Jeremiah and she goes out of her way constantly to assist him. I think so much of who she is stems from having the family she does (both because of her brother's autism and my illness). We explain and openly talk about so much and we are also very supportive of one another.

The family I grew up in treated this disease far differently and in the end it wasn't the best for me. This disease has killed several of my extended relatives including my Grandma, she passed at age 47 when my mother was 22. My mom saw this disease take her mother in such a horrible, unthinkable way, yet she put it under the covers and didn't face its reality. She didn't have a colonoscopy until she was 39, she's extremely fortunate she didn't have cancer and the doctors were able to remove her colon and she's still alive at age 62.

However, this approach of blanketing it and not facing reality caused me to not see what could happen to me. I lived in a sort of utopia. I knew I needed to get regular colonoscopies but I didn't really understand the full devastation FAP can cause. I skipped those colonoscopies for years, probably due to my mom being fine when she was 39 and not having any other complications. I didn't understand that it's not as simple as removing every polyp. I didn't realize how fast this disease can escalate. There was a lot I didn't know. Open communication and further learning could have helped me know what to watch for.

My mom never wanted to talk about her mother's passing, in fact, it affected her so much that she hardly ever spoke of her mom, even the good times. Her death had wrenched my mothers heart so much that she wasn't even able to talk about her. Because of this I never learned about my Grandma, what she was like, what she loved to do, what her best qualities were. Nor did I really know how FAP had taken her. I didn't need to hear every detail at age 15 but as I saw my 20s passing it was something that should have been talked about. I needed to know what I'm facing.

There are some benefits to me living in that utopia but more information would have been better. For example, there's a good chance I wouldn't have done foster care or adopted a special needs child if I'd known what I know now. However, I'm so glad I did, it's been the best decision I've ever made.

These conversations are difficult and so much more for parents who have children who inherited this disease. Take it one step at a time and know that none of us are going to do it perfectly.

Tracy Dee Whitt authors the blog LovinAdoptin, encouraging and supporting adoptive and foster parents as well as those living with autism. She can be found on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Against the Odds

health and alaska life's a polyp

When I was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital and admitted for four days, my only concern was my ability to continue with my travel plans with my husband and parents to Alaska on a cruise the following week. An Alaskan cruise is a bucket list vacation for my mother and I, we've been planning and preparing for over a year and there wasn't anything that would make me miss our cruise short of being held hostage.

Seward, Alaska
After a limited appetite leading up to my hospitalization and 2.5 days without solid food while in the hospital, my stomach has not been able to tolerate food properly since resuming a solid food diet. I have been experiencing
severe stomach pain, cramps, and bloating shortly after eating and the pain lasts for the majority of the day and at times into the next day. I attempted to return to work immediately after my hospital release but my body rejected my attempts and forcefully informed me of my inability to resume normal work and activity. I was forced home for the next two days.

Snorkeling in Ketchikan, Alaska
My parents and husband urged me to cancel our travel plans due to the onslaught of pain and how it would affect my travel and activity ability. And I must admit, I was uncertain myself although my stubbornness would not allow me to miss this travel opportunity I had been yearning for over the years. With proper rest and limiting my food intake, particularly during the day, I managed to complete a half work day prior to leaving for our cruise. I wasn't sure how much of the activities I'd be able to participate in nor how much I would enjoy even being in Alaska but I maintained my argument that I would be able to enjoy our time on the ship and venture through the cities and excursions as able. I would watch my food intake, rest when needed, and take Lonox and pain medications to maximize my participation ability. Some days were more difficult than others due to the stomach pain but to my surprise and relief I was able to enjoy the majority of our trip, complete all excursions, and participate in many activities.

Hubbard Glacier. My husband spreading awareness of FAP
We spent an evening in Anchorage before driving to Seward for our cruise departure. Docking in Juneau, Skagway, Icy Strait Point in Hoonah, and Ketchikan we enjoyed whale watching, a train ride through the White Pass Yukon Route, nature walks, local culture education, and snorkeling. Our last day was spent touring Vancouver, British Columbia and to my surprise I managed to walk 5 miles in Vancouver to visit the Hard Rock Casino for souvenirs to add to our Hard Rock clothing collection! We hailed a taxi cab for our return to the train station for time management and relief from shin splints and further risk of dehydration. In spite of daily stomach pain that required rest from activities aboard the cruise ship and mandatory consideration and preparations with food and medication, I thoroughly enjoyed our trip and I didn't want to return home. My soul was touched by the history, culture, and nature of Alaska leaving within me inspiration and peace.

Mendenhall Glacier Juneau, Alaska
Since returning home the pain has yet to subside to my previous normal levels and I am limiting my food intake during the day to allow myself to function with minimal pain at work and during activities. I have an appointment with my new adult GI doctor at the end of the month to review my biopsy reports from my stomach polyps and intestinal ulcers as well as future treatment. I did obtain a copy of the pathology reports stating the stomach polyps were hyperplastic meaning they were benign and not pre-cancerous polyps. My ulcers were typical and without any malignancy meaning I understand that I do not have Crohn's Disease nor did I anticipate I did although I appreciated the doctor covering all bases. During my early college years when I began developing stomach polyps my doctor provided the prognosis of stomach cancer by the time I was 30. I am less than a month away from my 30th birthday and I'm ecstatic to report that my doctor's prognosis was wrong. I may develop stomach cancer later on but not before age 30!

Icy Strait Point, Hoonah, Alaska

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Health Maturity: Reaching New Milestones

milestones life's a polyp

Living and coping with a chronic illness from a young age pushed me into a level of maturity my peers wouldn't reach for decades. The responsibility of taking care of my own health, appointments, medications, diet, and more aren't typically tasked by most individuals until they reach at least young adulthood and if in good health, even years afterward. In my young years I learned a multitude of lessons providing invaluable skills and values to last me a lifetime. I learned perseverance, ambition, how to thrive and survive, hard work, responsibility, compassion, empathy, health intelligence, my body, fear, distrust, hopelessness, and anxiety. It is these last lessons that became so ingrained within my psyche that I was left with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and emotionally crippled, fixated in an inability to mature and grow to complete independence and trustfulness. During health crises, I would regress to a child like state and mentality filled with terror.

Due to this fixation, I remained with the same doctor, a pediatrician for 20 years. My parents are always available to help support me through my health issues and in the past I required 24 hour care while in the hospital. I feared being alone and I feared doing too much myself while hospitalized due to pain and risk of increased pain. For example, I usually require multiple tries for an IV and once successful  I refused to move my IV arm as I learned that increased movement causes the IV to require replacement faster and I typically required a new IV at least once per hospitalization. I was rarely left alone due to the combination of lethargy, pain, fear, and difficulty completing tasks.

After 8 years of stabilized health and no hospitalizations, my streak ended. I was unexpectedly faced with multiple challenges I've been dreading for years in addition to hospitalization. I am in the process of obtaining an adult GI doctor and my doctor has been out of the office due to her medical assistant's death. As a result, I didn't really have a doctor assigned to follow me and provide orders when I suddenly required an adult GI doctor.
Due to ongoing depression, I restarted taking Zoloft medication and began experiencing lack of appetite. I was surviving on primarily cheese and crackers for 1.5 weeks. During this time I became dehydrated and Wednesday morning my blood pressure bottomed out to 88/58 resulting in near fainting. I fell backwards and hit my head at work. My coworkers forced me to the ER. My stubborn self wouldn't have gone to the hospital had I fallen anywhere other than work and  my coworkers knew it. I happened to be having a GI bleed this day as well - a normal monthly event for me. I was to be released from the ER after receiving fluids and I was scheduled an appointment with my to be  new GI adult doctor for the next day to be followed by a scope. As I was leaving the ER my blood pressure bottomed out again and this time I would remain in the hospital for four days. The hospitalization would lead me to new milestone achievements in my level of maturity. I was given a new IV without any tears this time. After I settled into my room, I sent my mother home and I spent the majority of the days and throughout the nights on my own. I provided my own care, even taking a shower. I received upper and lower scopes - my first ever scope with my pediatric GI doctor to be present. I require general anesthesia for scopes as I wake up otherwise and I have a preferred anesthesiologist who my pediatric GI doctor always tries to schedule with due to my level of comfort and trust with this particular anesthesiologist. These scopes would be performed with another anesthesiologist and a partner of my new adult GI doctor. I was anxious regarding the anesthesiologist and although I previously visited with the GI doctor and felt comfortable with him, I was overcome with anxiety and tears in the procedure room. The anesthesiologist and nurses provided reassurance and I quickly drifted off and awoke in the recovery room. I was informed that I have a few stomach polyps and four ulcers in my ileum and biopsies would be performed to test for cancer and Crohn's Disease. The GI doctor explained that ulcers in the small intestine are common in Crohn's and would like to cover all bases in my care. At my last scope in 2007 I had polyps in my stomach and small intestine. It was at that time my pediatric GI doctor gave the prognosis of developing stomach cancer by age 30. I'll turn 30 in just over one month. I anxiously await the result of my biopsies.
That night I ate my first solid food since prior to the hospitalization and that night I suffered the consequences of severe diarrhea and pain. I was given morphine for the pain and experienced negative side effects including intense nausea and intoxicated symptoms. After receiving Zofran, I required Phenergan to stop the nausea. The following day another partner of my new adult GI doctor visited with me and released me once I felt ready, stating he understood that I know my body and what I need better than any of the doctors.

I was discharged and I'm still coping with the inability to eat very much food due to severe pain. This is similar to how food affected me after my surgeries in high school. It took years for my body to adjust to food and only experience intolerable pain after large or rich meals. I'm extremely frustrated with this return to debilitating pain with any amounts or types of food but am taking it a moment at a time to readjust and resume my normal eating habits.

I made it home with my health, sanity, and a lot of milestones to be proud of. I survived a hospitalization without constant care, stayed the nights by myself, without my pediatric GI doctor overlooking my care, my first scope in 8 years, and changed doctors. I truly dreaded all that was to come about during this trial but I survived and am filled with a sense of hopefulness, relief, and pride. I can't believe I made it through especially with minimal difficulty and only brief PTSD symptoms.  I've been frightfully dreading these milestones for decades and all in one week I finally surpassed each one. Reaching a new level of health maturity has provided me confidence in my ability to face future hospitalizations, procedures, and changes.

Celebrate your milestones for each takes thousands of small steps 
to reach that moment in your life.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Depression: An Ongoing Battle

depression  life's a polyp

Depression has settled into my life uninvited like a tag along side effect of chronic health issues. It enters and leaves me with little warning at times, the triggers barely recognizable to others. But I notice them. It's a battle that has been waged for nearly 20 years now, beginning with my first year of surgeries. The medical trauma I endured left a mental stain upon my psyche, a reminder of what transpired and what I wasn't able to escape. It accompanies the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that has been quietened over the years but remains lurking in the dark waiting to be resurrected at the most unwelcomed times once triggered. Together they lie at the edges of my life, waiting for entrance cues.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Adjusting to Change

adjusting to change  life's a polyp

My doctor is one of my primary foundations in life. She is the only GI doctor I have ever had and she has kept me alive during the hardest times of my life. She has stood by me even in hate filled years when I blamed her and others for my health issues. She is one of my biggest advocates and always looks out for my best interest with an intense empathy and understanding of my physical and mental needs. She has maintained me as a patient for these very needs for 20 years, well past the age of a pediatric patient-doctor relationship. In her 84th year, she's begun to further prepare me for transitioning to adult care. This has been no easy feat due to my trust issues of medical providers. I understand her reasons - she's gradually preparing to retire, she has her own health to consider, and wants to ensure I'm medically taken care of and not thrown to the wolves. She has assured me she will continue to follow me and wants reports from my new adult GI doctor and will remain available to me. I was doing well with this forced separation that is beginning. So I thought.

I made another call this week to a group of GI doctors for a new patient consult. I'm lining appointments up with doctors to interview to find the right fit. As I was speaking to intake and was asked what I'd like the scheduler and doctors to know prior to my appointment as well as what kind of doctor I'd like the anxiety and fear began to flood over me, my voice became shaky, and my eyes wanted to tear. I want a doctor like my doctor. A knowledgeable, empathetic, trustworthy doctor who understands my limits and won't push me over the edge. A doctor who doesn't brush me off and tell me I'm "just whiny" like the doctors and hospital staff did when I was a child. I want to be believed and trusted about my physical and mental needs and limits. I don't want to be sent to multiple doctors.
I want my doctor.

Like with any transformative experience, chronic illness changes and shapes us. One way this occurs is our outlooks on life. Some are very cautious while others become risk takers. I believe though in both types, none of us like change. Even a risk taker wants to continue the ability to take risks in spite of the consequences, there isn't an expectation for change.
I am the more cautious type. Change has never been easy for me regardless what the change was. I like my routines, I like to know what to expect. Change is scary for me. Bad things can happen when there is change.
My life was smooth until my first surgery when everything changed from what I had known. My body changed repeatedly within 1 year and so did the expectations as each surgery changed the plan. Originally, I was to have a temporary ileostomy ending with a jpouch. Due to complications from my intestine wrapping around itself and other organs, delayed response by the surgeon and emergency room staff, a portion of my small intestine died including the formed jpouch that awaited my ileostomy to be taken down. Next a straight pull thru was attempted but too much had been removed and a straight pull thru was deemed impossible. Finally, I was left with a "permanent" ileostomy until 6 years later when a straight pull thru was attempted and achieved by a different surgeon. In high school with my second round of surgeries, I once again didn't know what to expect as my health became a roller coaster of instability. That roller coaster gradually leveled out to rolling hills compared to the peaks and valleys previously experienced.

When you're on a never ending roller coaster of instability you remain at a high level of readiness and alertness, maintaining a level of preparedness for the next worse thing to happen. It's exhausting to remain on alert with your adrenaline pulsing at high speed. Such a high level adrenaline for an extended period leaves you longing for the mundane with your health. I lived like this for years: never knowing if I'd live to the next day, when the next hospitalization would be, if I'd be able to complete all of my school work and pass that semester, make it through a work day. Since the roller coaster has slowed I've become accustomed to the predictability of more stable health. I know what my day is likely to consist of and there is predictability even with my flare ups. I know what I can do to reduce flare up triggers, what most helps ease the flare up, and when the flare up will likely end. I can prepare myself and make it to the other side.

There's a comforting sense of security in predictability and routines. For me, it's like a security blanket wrapped tightly 'round, hugging and holding me in the arms of safety. This need for security expands beyond my health to my home and family life, friends, and work. The stress of drama and the unknown are too demanding on my psyche and can lead to negative health effects. Being a Type A Personality, I require goal setting with extensive step by step planning for how I'm going to move from point A to point Z in life. Without this extensive plan, I feel lost in the world. As long as I can readjust my plan I can find my footing once again but if I have a difficult time establishing that new plan, it's a major upset to my mind. Not knowing what to expect is also distressing even in the most insignificant situations. This seems to be common among Highly Sensitive Persons. The unknown is overwhelming and uncomfortable for me. Once I become familiar with the individual, setting, or situation I am able to relax more and find my way. But it's that initial plunge that is highly stressful. And so I don't like those changes either. I become comfortable within my work and social groups, enjoying the warmth and security of the familiar. Changing such environments require me to let myself let go of comfort and plunge into the unfamiliar. This is not always an easy feat.


And yet, regardless of the reasons for resistance and dislike for change it is a requirement of life and we must find ways to adjust to the changes we face. We all tackle change differently and through trial and error will find what works best for us. I've found these techniques to be particularly helpful during a change process. Depending on the size and challenge of the change, these techniques may require prolonged use or may be accomplished in a seemingly quick fashion.
  • Changing the thought, feeling, behavior cycle. There is a connection between our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. We change one and we change them all. It can be a vicious cycle of negativity or it can be a healthy cycle of positivity.
    • Thought: I'll never find another doctor I'll trust or like
    • Feeling: Hopeless and Scared
    • Behavior: Discontinue medical services, guarded or defiant attitude with new doctors, depression, delayed action to find a new doctor, etc.
Change the cycle to:
    •  New Thought: I'll find a doctor I like and trust, it just may take some time to find the right fit
    • New Feeling: Hopeful and Determined
    • New Behavior: Continued pursuit of a doctor for the right fit, openness with new doctors
  • Reframing. We have negative thoughts all the time even without realizing we're having them. They're often those fast, immediate thoughts we have that fleet in and out of our minds. These thoughts feed into the thought, feeling, behavior cycle. We can help stop the cycle with recognizing and altering our negative thoughts. This reframing also helps us remember what is possible, our strengths, and gives hope. I like to make "coping cards" and list positive thought reminders, coping techniques, and helpful tips as a visual and tangible reminder.
    • This doctor won't be anything like my doctor ---> I'm going to give this doctor a chance and if I don't feel comfortable I can try another doctor.
    • I hate finding a new doctor ---> It can be difficult to find the right fit but I will, there are a lot of good doctors around
    • I can't do this ---> I'm stronger than my fears and anxieties. This is just one more challenge and I will conquer it
  •  Goal Setting. Any change in behavior typically requires some goal setting, even if we do this automatically without thought. It's easier to tackle change by breaking it down into manageable, realistic steps. This keeps our motivation going and reduced the feeling of being overwhelmed.
  • Relax. Keep your frustration to a minimum to prevent burn out during the change process. Maintaining motivation will keep us moving forward to the other side. Relaxation helps keep the frustration reduced and motivation high. Find what works best for you: hobbies, relaxation techniques, socialization, etc.
  • Re-evaluate. When you feel like you're hitting a wall or spinning your wheels, take a moment to breathe and re-evaluate the situation. What is working and what isn't working? Do your goals need to be changed, do you need to readjust your attitude and mindset, is there a better way to tackle this change?
  • Support. A support partner during a difficult period of change can make a huge difference in your moral and navigation through the change. Talk about your fears and your challenges rather than bottling them up. Seek your support partner's opinion, set goals with your partner and let your partner hold you accountable to your goals.
  • Allow Change to be an Opportunity. Good things can come from change even if it's scary at first. Without change we can't grow as individuals. New jobs challenge our skill sets, broaden our horizons, may alter our economic development. Meeting new people exposes us to new ideas, information, and cultures, allowing us to learn from others and grow our networks. Moving residences lets us experience another area with its own unique community. Challenges and changes add to our strengths and our accomplishments as we progress through the process.