Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Finally! An Outstanding Memoir About Living Cancer Free!!

Dear Lit Loves,

Lord. Bless. National Geographic Partners, LLC.  They along with a writer by the name of Mary Elizabeth Williams just published the outstanding memoir entitled A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles:  A True Story of Love, Science, and Cancer.  I pre-ordered the book as I was so impressed that there actually exists a literary agent, an editor and a publisher who all invested in a book about one woman's journey with stage 4 melanoma.  One too many times I've heard a literary agent (mostly), but occasionally an editor tell me, "Well, we can't sell a manuscript that has any kind of cancer story in it because it's considered a misery memoir."  God's honest truth.  Well, I would think to myself, one day when some form of cancer grabs that agent or editor or someone they love by the throat and drop-kicks them in the ring for the battle of their life, maybe they will get a clue about how important this subject is.  Because if you think for one foolish minute that just because no one in your family has ever had a cancer diagnosis that it won't happen to you, GET REAL.  Happens each day. 

This particular book relates Mary Elizabeth's recognition of melanoma which was initially located on her scalp.  She's a red head with fair skin just like myself.  Gals like us can't be too careful when it comes to skin cancer.  Mary Elizabeth's scalp was biopsied and the pathology report revealed stage 2 melanoma.  She had surgery to remove a portion of her scalp/head.  Fortunately, her husband and two girls helped her keep the area clean and sanitized once she was released from the hospital following surgery.  Then there comes an extended family tragedy and also, one of Mary Elizabeth's friends gets a cancer diagnosis as well so you see how they are both struggling with cancer at the same time, but with very, very different outcomes.  When Mary Elizabeth returns to the hospital for her rechecks on the melanoma, her scans show nodules in the lungs and that's when she learns that she now has stage 4 melanoma....what I call "the holy shit of cancer diagnoses".  How do I know?  I've had basal cell carcinoma myself and my dad died last year around this time of a rare lymphoma.  And oh yes, my mom survived breast cancer.  My uncle died of leukemia upon returning from Vietnam.  You could say I've had a bit of experience with the big "C".

Fortunately, Mary Elizabeth gets into a clinical trial of utilizing immunotherapy to harness the power of the immune system to fight melanoma.  Usually this type of stage 4 melanoma diagnosis also comes with the news that you only have months to live; not years, folks.  Mary Elizabeth begins immunotherapy treatment in a clinical trial of a drug now known as Yervoy.  How does it work?  Well, we all are usually blessed with T Cells in our bodies that help fight off infectious invaders including cancer.  Sometimes those T Cells have a protein on them that prevent the T Cells from recognizing a cell as cancerous.  Yervoy deactivates the protein on T Cells preventing our own immune system from recognizing and killing cancers.  Once that protein's power is disengaged, our T Cells can recognize and kill cancerous cells invading our body.  And the nice thing about our immune system is that it has a great memory so it continues to recognize cancer cells and kill them.  This drug doesn't work for everyone with melanoma though, but for Mary Elizabeth, it did.  The nodules in her lungs and one that appears under the skin on her back disappear.  Unfortunately, her friend's cancer is not able to be successfully treated and she is not able to gain access to a clinical trial.  What I think is important for readers to take away from this book is the following:  the six actions that enabled Mary Elizabeth to have an opportunity to survive an often vicious and fatal cancer.  Here are those actions:

1)  She recognized that there was something seriously wrong.  There was a bare spot on her scalp.  It was also tender.  She knew because of her fair skin she was more susceptible to skin cancer.  And she didn't delay seeking an answer for what was wrong; she went and found a surgeon who took her seriously, biopsied the scalp area, found the cancer, and operated to remove it.  If you listen to your body I promise it will tell you when something is wrong with it.  If you go see a doctor and he or she tells you, oh it's just early menopause or stress, then get a second or third opinion.  It could save your life.   Doctors can be hired and fired.  You do not have to accept substandard medical care.  If you don't think a doctor is taking your medical issues seriously; get another opinion.

2)  When Mary Elizabeth selected a doctor/surgeon she went to one of the best cancer facilities in the United States:  Memorial Sloan Kettering.  She made sure she had a darn good and experienced surgeon.  If you get diagnosed with cancer you should get the best doctor too because it's your life on the line.  Do research, ask for patient references, take a another person with you to question the doctor, and do whatever it takes to ensure you are getting a well-qualified, experienced surgeon and oncologist.  If at any time you sense red flags in terms of a doctor's competence, experience, character, or choice of treatment, it's time to find another specialist.  Pronto.

3)  Mary Elizabeth was open to volunteering for a clinical trial and she accepted the opportunity to participate in it.  And the drug that was being tested saved her life.  So many people get a cancer diagnosis and just give up, pack it in, and aren't willing to undergo the hassles and constant evaluations that are a part of a new drug trial.  If people hadn't participated in clinical trials of stem cell transplants, my dad would not have had the opportunity to participate in one that would add five additional years to his life.  So thank Jesus for people brave enough to volunteer for clinical trials of new drugs.

4)  Mary Elizabeth would not accept being examined any further by a substitute oncologist who treated her as if she were a lab specimen.  On one visit Mary Elizabeth's regular oncologist is absent and she sees another specialist who is taking his place for the day.  The doc walked in with his residents and treated Mary Elizabeth as if she were a tumor and not a human being.  On her way out of the hospital, she informed the folks at the front desk that she never, ever wanted to be seen by that doctor again.  Bravo.  Speak up if a doctor acts or behaves in an unprofessional or anal-retentive fashion. 

5)  Get regular rechecks.  Honestly folks, an oncologist or whoever is treating your cancer should always be checking your blood levels and scanning areas of your body where cancer may surface.  And it should be happening quite often and on a timely schedule.  I once lost a friend because her oncologist never bothered to inform her that once her cancer went into remission, she needed to come back every three to six months for CT and PET scans to ensure the cancer wasn't trying to resurface.  Better to find cancer early rather than late.

6)  Mary Elizabeth had a support system in terms of her husband, her daughters, her mother-in-law, friends, colleagues and she and her family all went to weekly sessions of a support group called Gilda's club.  Don't suffer alone and in silence.  Help and assistance is out there, but you've got to seek it out and you've got to accept it, okay?

This is a dynamite book.  Everyone should read it.  I know I'll be recommending it.  And I hope someday my book regarding my own journey and my dad's journey will touch lives as well.  Till my next read.....


Thursday, May 5, 2016

Memoir Review: Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder by Amy Butcher

Dear Literary Loves,

Greetings one and all.  I haven't written a memoir review in ages because I have been busy trying to take my own memoir manuscript  and transition it from its doc file and place it into a print publishing template.  I thought my nervous system might in fact leave my body, jump on a broom and take flight encircling my apartment complex while attempting to accomplish this task.  Next, I thought okay, sure, now I'll just take the manuscript from the doc file and transfer it to an e-book publishing template.  I tried reading the directions for how to accomplish this task and quickly started hyperventilating after the first three sentences.  Fortunately, my tech wizard husband noticed my crisis and assured me he knew how to take my memoir manuscript and format it to an e-book!  I've selected the cover art for the book cover and located an artist to complete the book cover so now I'm working on the marketing materials I will use to promote the book.  And people think the hard part of publishing is writing the book!  No folks, that part was easy; it's the formatting and cover art that is about to push me over the edge into a panic attack.  No worries though, I just ordered several newly released memoirs and decided to read them.  The first one I selected is Visiting Hours:  A Memoir of Friendship and Murder by Amy Butcher.

This memoir pricked my interest because it is based on a true story.  The author goes to college and meets a guy with whom she establishes a friendship.  They are both from small towns and they both attend Gettysburg College.  This is the college where one of the major Civil War battles was fought.  According to the author, the college site is where over 22,000 Confederate soldiers died along with over 17,000 Union soldiers.  And supposedly, some 6,000 dead soldiers bodies still lie underground where this college was built.  It gave me the creeps just thinking about it; I mean, excuse me, but's that a lot of souls and sacred ground.  Anyway,  the author's friend, Kevin, who she believes she has much in common with and who she spends a great deal of time with, eventually escorts her back to her apartment one evening and then returns to his own apartment where he then kills his girlfriend by stabbing her twenty seven times and then sits by her body for twenty minutes before calling the police for help.  I remembered hearing about this epic event on the news so naturally, I wondered what this author would say regarding what really happened to cause this friend of hers to essentially "lose it".  

Eventually, the reader learns that the author, Amy, stays in contact via letters with her friend Kevin who just murdered his girlfriend.  None of the other friends in their cohort remain in touch with Kevin, but this girl does.  So the question I begin to ask myself are why would she remain in contact with him and what caused this guy to become so broken-minded that he kills his girlfriend?  Amy, the author, appeared to have grown up being quite a compassionate individual.  Even during national tragedies like Columbine and Matthew Shepard's death, she would write sympathy notes to families of the victims.  Since Amy grew up in a small, isolated and rural town, she never really knew violent tragedy and she has a compelling need to comfort others.  I believe she also wondered if whatever caused her friend Kevin to "lose it" could also cause her to also lose control as well.  As a result of the tragedy, she loses trust in men, experiences post traumatic stress disorder, fears for own safety, and wonders if there was anything she or their group of friends could have done to prevent Kevin from murdering his girlfriend. 

The reader eventually learns that Kevin had attempted suicide during a semester when Amy was a foreign-exchange student.  Kevin is hospitalized and diagnosed with major depression with suicide ideation.  The author learns this from a peer that goes to college with her and Kevin and who sends her an email to inform her of the situation.  When she returns to Gettysburg College, she and Kevin never discuss his attempted suicide or depression or mental illness.  And really, as far as I can tell, none of their peers discuss the matter with him either.  It leaves the author wondering if she should have seen what was happening to her friend, spoken with him about what he had done and about his depressive state.  And she often wonders, how come he didn't kill her that night, but instead later killed his girlfriend?  What the author didn't know is that her friend Kevin had been taking a significant dosage of the antidepressant Sinequan and because he didn't like the way it made him feel, he decided to suddenly stop taking the drug cold turkey.  This can cause a person major anxiety, agitation and can potentially lead a person to become manic and prone to suicide as well as violent behavior or at least that's what I gained from reading this book.  Kevin was actually going to kill himself that night, but his girlfriend tried to stop him from stabbing himself with a kitchen chef's knife when he suddenly turned the knife on her.  Interestingly, there was never a trial.  Kevin pleaded guilty and took a plea deal to eliminate the possibility of life in prison and instead the plea deal mandated he serve twenty seven to fifty years in prison. 

This whole ordeal leads the author to question if you ever really know someone as well as you think you do and also was there anything that could have been done to prevent this tragedy from happening?  Personally, I thought there were some signs he might have some kind of potential problem.  He certainly was fascinated with the violent history associated with Gettysburg College.  At one point he refers to the coffee in nearby Lincoln Diner as tasting like death. (At this point as a reader I was thinking, how does he know what death tastes like and why would he refer to the coffee tasting that way?)  Also, he brought his PlayStation gaming device to college and engaged in violent video games. And at one point when the author is living in a house on campus where people reside who have dedicated whole rooms to symbolic folks of the Civil War, Kevin actually picks up a bayonet and "plays" as if he is going to stab the author with it.  These would have all been red flags to me along with the suicide attempt. 

I don't know if anyone could have prevented Kevin from deciding to stop taking his medication and if he knew about the accompanying side effects of ceasing the medication abruptly.  I do wonder what doctor was monitoring him while he was taking this medication and was he assigned a doctor to work with after his suicide attempt?  Was there a doctor on campus that was following his case?  It all just goes to demonstrate that mental illness is a rampant problem in this country and there are many folks around us who suffer with a form of mental illness and we don't even know it.  It's also a powerful reminder to watch the actions, attitudes, and interests of those around us because those can be indicative of a person's nature, focus and intentions.  Or at least these have proved invaluable to me when it comes to who I hold close in my life, who I keep at arm's length, and who I won't have anything to do with period. 

Till my next read.