Friday, May 06, 2016

Brain Surgery Light v2.0

Having been through the halo version of SRS (stereotactic radiosurgery) and the fancy new frameless "Edge" technology, I definitely prefer the latter. This time, they didn't need to numb my head (which didn't regain full sensation for about 3 months), or puncture four spots around my head to anchor the frame (leaving bruising and swelling, plus paralyzing one eyebrow for about a month). 

Instead, I was fitted with this snug little mask which they clamped into the machine. There were also cameras around the room which projected motion-sensor beams, similar to the kind you see in spy movies. If I moved more that 0.5 mm, the beams would break and the treatment would stop. This is how they are able to target a brain met that is only 5mm while causing minimal damage to the surrounding brain tissue. Amazing.

The whole thing only took around an hour, which included getting into the machine, the treatment, and a quick check in with my doctor afterward. 

The mask was much less invasive than the halo, though I found it incredibly tight fitting, almost to the point of me thinking that if the treatment lasted much longer I would need to speak up. I kept reminding myself that I went through unmedicated childbirth, I can handle this. After the procedure I told my doctor about the painfulness of the mask, and he said that he has had two people complain about it, me and a small child. It seems that those of us who don't have a lot of padding have to put up with it basically pressing on bone. Yay.

See the marks it left all over me? That thing was ridiculously tight.

I got to keep the mask, and my kiddos enjoyed playing with it. Each wanted a turn wearing it and lying very still as they pretended to have brain radiation. The other two would pretend to be the robot arm of the machine that delivered the "laser beams" and the other would make the zapping noises. I love how kids process tough situations in such a literal play-acting way. 

Now I am dealing with all the awesome steroid side effects - and thankfully I only have to take them for a few days. Hats off to my friends who have to be on them long-term. They are no fun at all, but they keep the brain from swelling which is, ya know, pretty important. So I've got the body aches, flushed cheeks, weird sleep challenges despite being really tired, and the stomach feeling where I can't tell if I'm ravenous or nauseated. 

The post-SRS effects are primarily a headache (though not nearly as bad as last time), and fatigue, like feeling really exhausted kind of fatigue. 

I will have another MRI in two months as follow up, and the plan is to keep going on Xalkori as long as possible. It has already worked longer than average (1.5 years is the median for ROS1; I have been on it for 2.5 years). In the metastatic cancer world, if something is working you don't want to jump ship too fast. There are a finite number of things that can keep this in check. If the brain mets come at this slow pace, one at a time every 6 months or so, the rad onc feels that it is safest to just keep spot zapping them as needed. If the pace changes, then we will have to look at other options. So, I just keep chugging along.

But ya know? It's not easy. So here's the straight dope.

This is hard. Living with terminal cancer is really, really hard. I think my little family handles it mind-bogglingly well, but don't let our semi-together appearance fool you into thinking this is easy. We have been lucky to have stretches of time where we can let cancer sit on the back burner for a while, but it is always there, always waiting to bubble over and demand attention again. 

Things that are hard while recovering from "brain surgery light":
- 2 screaming 5 year olds
- telling your kids during bedtime stories that no, I will not go downstairs and get you a glass of water. If you really need one, go down and pour a glass yourself. And then hearing a scream and "Mommy! I spilled water everywhere!" And realizing it would have been much easier to just go downstairs in the first place, but lying down felt oh-so-nice.
- cleaning up a 5 year old's poop accident
- feeling guilty as I wonder how many 7 year olds are expected to do the washing up after dinner because mom doesn't feel well
- comforting a screaming 5 year old who had a wipe out getting out of the bathtub and hit her head
- jumping out of bed in the middle of the night because you hear "Mommy, I'm gonna throw up!" (Fortunately, she didn't.)
- explaining to your kids that a beloved teacher has just died of cancer. "But Mommy, YOU have cancer!"
- After thanking your eldest for always stepping up and handling things so well when Mommy isn't feeling good, to hear him say, "I remember before you had cancer, Momma" and hoping he really does remember.

So many of those things are just typical life with small children, which any parent will tell you is not easy on a good day. Throw a major illness in there, and it is just really really hard.
And while I have become very adept at managing the host of fun side effects that come with my daily cancer treatment (my purse looks like a walking pharmacy) and I can give myself shots without batting an eye, it is a daily trudge. We hear so much "rah-rah-rah! Beat that cancer" rhetoric out there, but the story is totally different for the metastatic bunch. There is no end to this. I will be in treatment forever, well, until I die or decide I've had enough. Don't get me wrong, I am immensely grateful to be alive, but it is a strange reality. I remember on a form I had to fill out at the hospital one time, that asked if I ever had suicidal thoughts, and I laughed out loud. I actively choose not to die every day when take my pills. Those of us on this metastatic path are just hoping for a few more weeks, months, dare we hope years of this uncertain life. (I know suicide is nothing to laugh at, and my heart aches for people dealing with mental illness, but the absurdity of that question in that moment struck me as funny.)

So this is hard. Really hard. And I'll reiterate what I thought last time I went through SRS, that whoever said SRS is a breeze clearly didn't have 4 year old twins. They are 5 now, and it still wasn't much easier. Don't get me wrong, I know that this was MUCH easier than having a craniotomy, that Xalkori is much easier than chemo, and that there are much harder things coming for me down the road. But it is still really freakin' hard.

And yet, this is the path I am on, and I desperately hope to keep walking this path for a long, long time. So it goes.