The Big C

A journey through Stage Four Cancer

Money! Money! Money!

I never really understood how sick I was, until I had returned home months later.  I’m not really sure what shocked me more, reading all the things that were wrong with me that could have individually killed me, or the price to diagnose and try to treat them.

I had never owed so much money in my life! My husband had never owed so much money in his life!  I’m sure my entire living family didn’t owe that much money cumulatively!

Yes, I had insurance.  I had really good insurance, or so I thought.  There was insurance speak; non-participating provider.  Some of the charges, my insurance had paid as little as $10 toward.

For the first time I felt guilty; guilty for bringing this kind of expense to my family.  This sickness had radically changed the future of my remaining minor children.  This cancer(s) had changed whether my husband would be able to retire when planned, or retire at all.  My guilt quickly escalated, and I began to wish, to regret, that I hadn’t delayed my trip to the Emergency Room by another eight hours, because I would have most probably died and not have put this burden on my family.  Especially since statistics said I’d be dead anyway in five years.

Understandably I felt extremely guilty and began to sink into a deep depression.

I’m relating this, because what has happened to me is not uncommon to serious cancer patients.  Don’t feel this way, there is hope!

First, get organized.  What I found worked the best for me was to buy one of the large ringed, vinyl binders.  You usually find them at Staples type store. Also buy those paper board dividers with the little colored plastic tabs at the top.  Buy a three hole punch. Buy a ledger book, and an accordion file.

Now, it’s time to start.

1.  Go over the bills you have in the house now.  I know there are a million of them, and more people than you even realized you ever saw.  Make Divider tabs for them.  Some of mine were Rhode Island Hospital, Connecticut Hospital, New England Lab Services, New England Medical Devices.  You might have to buy more than three packages of dividers, I had to. Punch holes into each bill, and put it into the binder.

2. Now go over to the ledger, make a three page section for each of the bills that you have right now.  In addition, make three page sections for Miscellaneous Medical Services, and Misc. Medical Supplies.

3. Work on only a few of the bills per day, or you will exhaust yourself.  Go over each bill and look for mistakes, more than likely you will find some.  Sometime insurance will erroneously refuse to pay toward a bill and all you need to do is talk to a manager, not the first representative to talk to you.

4.  Suppose that all the bills are correct, you can ask for the institution to reduce your bill, or even write it off.  Often they will do this if you level with them and explain that your insurance hasn’t covered the majority of your bill or that the bill is so overwhelming that you just can’t pay it.

5.  Call the American Cancer Society and ask them about any grants that might be available toward your expenses.  You can also try calling different Church, Fraternity etc groups and asking if they can help toward your bill.

6.  Finally, you can’t get blood from a stone.  In other words, if you don’t have the resources to pay a bill, you just don’t have it.  Unfortunately, the days when you could pay twenty or thirty dollars a month toward a bill seem in most places to be over.  But, in the USA, at least for now, you can NOT be put in jail or prison for being in debt.

7.  FILE EVERYTHING.  All your medical bills.  Every prescription.  Make sure you enter the day, the item, how you paid and the amount you paid on the correct page of your ledger.  Make sure you keep every bill and every receipt.  At tax time, you’ll be ready!

Finally, put it all into perspective!  You are alive!  What price do you th ink your family would consider too high to have you with them, for any amount of time? 

Let me ask you a question, why do so many gamblers have such huge debt?  Because they play a numbers game, and numbers, statistics are wildly unpredicatable!! 

Life expectancy predictions don’t take into consideration the most important variable, YOU!  Your will to live, your desire to be there for your children. YOU!

Where there is life, there is hope.  Live hopefully!

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I just wanted to thank everyone for their comments, good wishes, prayers and support!

Believe it or not, I haven’t figured out how to reply to my comments, without having to post and then approve my own comments.  I know that can’t be right? Can it?

Thank-you again everyone!

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The Stalker

    Most of us have heard about “stalkers,” people who fixate on a certain person – usually a celebrity, and dog their every step.  At one time, stalkers were more of a nuisance than a threat.  Not anymore.  From Rebecca Schaeffer (My Sister Sam) to John Lennon, stalkers are now considered heavy duty menances.

   People who have had cancer feel like we have a stalker too.  With the earlier stages of cancer, after treatment, patients can assume that they are cured.  But as the stages of cancer increase, there is an increased waiting time before a patient can feel “cured,” usually five years.  Stage four cancer can never assume that they are are “cured.”  We can be in remission, but never cured.

Remission can feel like “cured,” except stage three and stage four cancer patients have to remain vigilant and get tested often.

No matter how well we feel, when it comes time to be tested, we begin to worry.  Will the test reveal that cancer, the stalker, is back?

For a friend, I call her my “cancer buddy,” the stalker has returned.  She has gone through another operation to remove the tumor.  The other day, she had to get a medical port installed again into her chest wall.  In the coming days, she will go through another round of chemotherapy.  I ask that you please pray for her and her family as her body is deliberately poisoned (chemo) in hopes that any remaining cancer cells get poisoned and destroyed.

And  please say a quick prayer that her stalker, and mine, doesn’t return.


Feeling shaky, or Why I Began to Write This Blog

I tried to find this blog on the web, but I couldn’t find it because I had put stage four first, instead of cancer.  What I did find was a plethora of entries about stage four cancer;  how long can you expect to live after a diagnosis?

Then it came back to me, the hoplessness, the feeling as though there is no escape, the finality of the “sentence” of stage four cancer, that happened to me when I first looked my diagnosis up on the web.  Learning that you have stage four cancer is more than a diagnosis, it is a sentence.

A death sentence.  If this was a play, the stage directions would indicate a mournful sound, and the stage going black.  And then blacker.

I can’t argue, finding out that you have stage four cancer is a death sentence.  But guess what?  Being born is a death sentence too!  Yes, from the moment that you are born, it’s a count down to the day that you will die.  The only difference is usually on the day of birth, the lifespan of the infant seems to stretch on and on through the decades.  On the other hand, being diagnosed with stage four cancer seems to contract the years in a few years, months, even weeks.

To put it into perspective, as my cousin Tara pointed out, tomorrow morning you might step out of your house and get hit by a car.  In that case, it didn’t matter if you were 100% healthy or if you had stage four cancer.

My diagnosis was over a year ago.  I’ve had chemo three different times, and radiation once.  My fingers and toes tingle as a result of it, but otherwise with a few restrictions, I feel fine.

The statistics say that I have roughly three and a half years left.  I feel good.  My doctor reports seem to find that I am healthy.  I remind myself that it is the exception that makes the rule.

So, if you are feeling depressed because of all the non- encouraging facts that turn up when looking up about stage four cancer, feel heartened.  Yes, take care of yourself and don’t “do” to excess.  Get sufficient sleep, rest throughout the day.  Enjoy time in the sun.  Enjoy doing things with your family, your friends and your church.  Don’t let the specter of mortality hover over you. LIVE!!!!!

And be careful when leaving your house in the morning and crossing the street!

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About Me

Hi! I’m Mary Bennett, diagnosed with Stage Four Colon Cancer in February of 2009.
My other blog is if you’d like to read more of my writing.

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In Search of Peace

It might seem strange, but getting cancer has been a gift of sorts. A gift that I would rather not have received none the less, but a gift.

Think about how you would act right now, if you knew this morning, that you were going to die tonight. You might break into tears, but you wouldn’t waste any of your time crying. You wouldn’t have time for many tears.

What would you do? I’m sure if your spouse was next to you, you would reach over and hold him/her for a minute or two, drawing strength from just their embrace. Your next step would be to hold onto your children, wondering how they will make it in life, without you there – to chauffer, to console, to motivate, to arbitrate, to cook and to insist they do their home work, brush their teeth and sleep.

I’m willing to bet, that as a Catholic, and after the initial shock of the news that tonight you leave mortal life behind, your next thoughts would turn to the here after. You’d look at the kitchen calendar. When was my last confession? Did I go before First Friday this month? Last month? When? How do I schedule a confession when it isn’t a Saturday? Can I schedule it for the same day that I call in?

And if the answer to the last question was no, I bet this is one time that you would not accept “no” for an answer.

Would you go to mass and communion? Would you keep watch in front of the tabernacle? Would you commune with the sacramental Jesus; Jesus really with us, body and blood, soul and divinity?

Eventually, you would have to return home to your puzzled family that has already begun to grieve. “Why Mommy? Why is it you that is going to die? We pray, is God mad at us? Did I do something wrong?” Because just like when parents divorce, when a parent becomes critically ill, children blame themselves. When they disobey, did that make Mommy sick? When they fight, did that stress make Mommy sick? Was their birth the cause of Mommy becoming sick?

So you will have to explain to your children, that no, God isn’t mad at the family, even though you wonder yourself why you are the one. You will have to gather your children and comfort them and make them understand that they did nothing wrong. That their birth was one of the best days of your life.

Then what do you do? You spend every minute that you can with them. You play the games they love, and no matter how tired you are, you get off the couch to see whatever wonder it is that they want you to see. You squeeze as many minutes into every hour that you can.

Cancer was my herald that I didn’t have the unlimited time that I thought stretched ahead of me. I don’t have an “expiration” date, but I know my “shelf life” is limited and that knowledge is a blessing. It is what makes me get off the couch to take neighborhood walks with my kids when I’m tired. It is what makes me go to bed at a reasonable hour, so that I can be awake the minute my children are the next day. I don’t waste a minute.

Cancer is the reason that I not only take pictures, and allow pictures of myself to be taken, but also get them dowloaded, printed and into albums with captions.

It’s what makes me not take “life” too seriously, not sweat the small stuff, and not allow people, even family members, to draw me into dramas. I desire peace in my final days.

Cancer has made me drag myself out of bed no matter how tired I am, and get to mass. It makes me listen more closely to the sermon. Worship more conscientiously the Eucharistic Jesus. Find comfort in the common sense of the Gospel.

Cancer has made me start saying The Morning Offering every morning, as the Dominican’s tuaght me over 40 years ago. “Oh Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my joys and sufferings of this day, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass throughout the world. I offer it in restitution of sins against the Sacred and Immaculate Hearts of Jesus and Mary, in restitution for my sins and the sins of my family, and for the Consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. I ask for grace sufficient for the day, and do not let me be ignorant of the graces given by Christ my Lord. Amen.”

In other words, cancer has made me do better, what I should have been doing anyway!

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The New Normal

In my dream, I am running barefooted down the beach. I am not running from anyone, not toward anyone. I am running just for fun. My strides are long, stretching my legs to their limit. It feels good. My hair streams out behind me, caught by the wind created by my own speed. I run, and I am never tired. I am smiling. I am whole and healthy.

When I wake, reality hits. I ache when I sit up in bed. Always, some part of me has an outright ache or a pale shadow of one. My hair is no longer glossy and smooth but frizzy and extremely curly at the ends. On a humid day, it sticks straight out. I can be the hair double for Marge Simpson! When I put on my socks, they always feel like I have a good half to a full cup of beach sand in each one. And I am probably more quietly happy now, than I have been in my whole life. I am grateful, for life itself.

You see, in the last half of 2008, I was being treated for hyper thyroidism. The pills made me tired, and feel sick to my stomach. It was the expected side affect, and I learned to live my life around the symptoms. Then one night in February of 2009, I had pain in my stomach and I asked my husband to drive me to the emergency room. Only one of my children were up at that late hour, so we told him where we were going, and I kissed him goodbye. I didn’t kiss any of my other children, what was the sense of waking them when I would be back by the following morning? In the car, I felt a surge of adrenalin and I thought ‘how silly.’ The only other nights I’d gone to the emergency room with stomach pain was to give birth. This time, there was no happy purpose.

The Emergency Room personell took a long time to even sign me in, and even longer to see me. Even when I went into the bathroom with a strong urge to urinate, and the inability to, no matter how long I waited. Not even when I came out of the bathroom and vomited on the floor. When they did finally see me, I was shaking from fever. But I had no fever. What I was doing was going into shock. I remember them giving me a johnny coat to put on, and a bed to lay on, but I don’t remember putting on the johnny coat, or getting into bed.

I don’t remember any whole thoughts of that time. I remember an ambulance ride to another hospital. I remember waking up and not really being aware of where I was. I remember being in a bed, in a room with other non-responsive people and only being able to blink my eyes and try to smile in order to communicate. I don’t remember any of the treatments, although the smell of French Vanilla anything now makes me sick.

I remember being conscious, I don’t know what month – February, March- and realizing that I couldn’t move my arms or my legs. I remember the word “cancer” and “hospice” knowing that you only get sent there to die.

“Well then,” I thought. “At least I’ll get to see my children before I die.” I didn’t realize how many times or who, had stood vigil at my bed while I “slept.”

A doctor I didn’t know, saved my life. When I was finally conscious for a few hours at a time, he came in and told me that they hadn’t expected me to live through the night. Or the next day. He said I had an incredible will to live. I think I had an incredible will to not die. I went into the Emergency Room wearing my worn brown scapular. I remember praying a few times as I waited in the ER “Oh Mary, conceived without sin, pray for me, who have recourse to thee.” Once I had asked God to not let me die daughterless; that night I asked God to not let my children be motherless.

My prognosis wasn’t good. My ovaries were filled with cancer, and had been removed. I had stage 4 colon cancer, which had traveled and attacked the ovaries, and some lymph nodes.

I remember many nurses, but not their names, and their kindness, that I remain comfortable with my legs that were so swollen and big, I knew they couldn’t have been mine.

I thought for sure, I would never be able to walk again, but day by day, my legs did move when I wanted them to. I relearned how to walk, and gained a new sympathy for babies just learning how.

Then, just after my birthday, in the lasts days of April, I went home with a walker. Me. The person who used to drop down to rest my butt on my heel, to be on the same height level as children as I talked to them.

When I was strong enough to sit at a computer, I looked up all I could about stage 4 colon cancer. And then I cried. Only 8% of those diagnosed will be alive 5 years from the diagnosis. I had chemo and radiation treatments, that left my exhausted. They left me depressed.

“If I’m going to die in 5 years anyway, why am I taking these treatments?” I asked myself. “Without them, I can do more with my kids with the little time I have left.”

Being body tired, but mind alert gave me so much time to think. I thanked God for still being alive, instead of allowing me to die that night without having gone to confessions for months previously.

I counted the five years, and compared them to my youngest daughter’s age. She would be in her last years of high school, and although she would still need a mother, I knew her older sister would be mature enough at that time to help fill the gap. The rest of my children would be adults. They would be able to live life easily without me there.

Right now, I am fine. Well fine, except for my new normal. I go for testing every few months. My doctor said that I can never really consider myself “cured.” Cancer is like having a stalker, you never know when it is going to strike. On a bad day, it gets to me and I cry. I don’t want to have cancer. I want to die from old age.

I realize, I probably won’t die of old age. I realize that I probably will never retire with my hard working husband. There are projects, like writing a book, that I will probably never have the time to do.

Sometimes I talk to my totally down to earth cousin Tara when I get too down. Once she said to me “Holy Cow Mary, you could walk out your door tomorrow and get hit by a car!” I laughed.

Jesus never promised us a long life, He promised us Eternal life. So I’m happy for today. The todays when I get to cook for my family, and eat with them. The days I get to brush my daughter’s hair, and get my toenails painted by her. I’m even grateful for the nights that I sit in front of the television with them and fall asleep.