Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D.

"I look for zebras because other doctors have ruled out all the horses." Gregory House, M.D.

Last May, I wrote a blog post chronicling appearances of "carcinoid" on the popular show House, M.D. (one of my mom's favorite shows). Recently, I came across this "insider's guide" to House - with a title too good not to include in my blog.


“It is an axiom of medicine: 'when you hear hoofbeats, you think horses, not zebras.' Dr. Gregory House and his elite team of diagnostic fellows chase medicine’s “zebras” — the anomalies, the odd presentations, the diseases so rare that most doctors would not have encountered them in a normal medical practice.

House, M.D. is, itself, a zebra in a herd of horses. It is a rare find of a show blessed with consistently sharp, intelligent writing: densely packed and multifaceted. It features one of the most complex characters ever to have been written for the small screen, Dr. Gregory House, brought to life through Hugh Laurie’s brilliant and nuanced performance."

Title: Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D.
Author: Barbara Barnett
Genre: Television Nonfiction
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Ecw Press (September 1, 2010)
Available on Amazon

Zebra Cover: Smithsonian Magazine

A friend of mine texted me the Smithsonian Magazine cover for March 2011. Pretty neat!

After reading the magazine's featured article about the 20,000 plains zebras that wander through Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pans - I'm even more convinced that the zebra is the PERFECT mascot for carcinoid survivors, because we share many of the same qualities ...

* Spirited: zebras have a wild spirit that makes them nearly impossible to tame or domesticate;

* Unique: like a human fingerprint, each zebra stripe pattern is identifiably different;

* Resilient: zebras "walk 34-mile round trips every two to four days to get from water to food, to water again, on an endless journey between thirst and hunger"; it's estimated that they travel more than 2,300 miles a year.

To Read the full article in the Smithsonian Magazine: "Nothing Can Stop the Zebra" click HERE.

iphone picture 6/1/11

A few weeks ago, I chaperoned the senior class trip to Six Flags Great Adventure and escaped the 94 degree heat for a while by partaking in the largest drive-thru safari outside of Africa. The 350-acre wildlife preserve has more than 1,200 exotic animals - including zebras of course!

But the Smithsonian article has me thinking - maybe I should take a trip to Africa to see these magnificent creatures, that hold so much meaning for me now, in the wild.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Representing Zebras at Relay for Life...

Two hours from now, I will be speaking in front of 300 people at the opening ceremonies of our school's Relay for Life event, sponsored by the American Cancer Society. Below is my speech; I have to say... I'm really nervous.

Relay for Life Speech

Many of you know me as Ms. Johnston or Ms. J – an English teacher here at PC. Some of you know me as Marlena, a cancer survivor and advocate; but my friends and family know me simply as Mar or MJ, and they have stood by my side this past year as I’ve struggled to balance being both a teacher and a cancer patient. While cancer has not taken over my identity, it certainly has changed it.

When I was first asked to speak at Relay as a cancer survivor, I was honored, humbled and a little baffled as to where to begin. So, I did what any good English teacher would do – and looked up the definition of “survivor” in the dictionary. This is what I found:

Survivor (noun)
1. a person who survives.

Not a particularly useful definition; so I looked up the word “survive”:

To Survive (verb)
1. To continue to live or exist, esp. in spite of danger or hardship
2. To manage to keep going in difficult circumstances

I like this last definition best because that’s what cancer patients do every day – they “manage to keep going” despite getting plucked out of their normal lives and plopped into a foreign land of needles, and survival rates, and doctor appointments, and chemo, and surgeries…

Susan Sontag said: "Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick. Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place."

Every cancer patient knows the exact day their obligatory stay in the “kingdom of sick” began… it’s their diagnosis date. The day you get diagnosed with cancer, everything changes. In fact, Lance Armstrong doesn’t even celebrate his birthday anymore; instead, he celebrates October 2nd - the anniversary of his cancer diagnosis.

On April 27th 2010, I was diagnosed with carcinoid cancer and began my own journey into a world which was not only foreign to myself – but to most of the medical profession as well.

Prior to my diagnosis, I had been sick for at least 6 or 7 years – but no one could figure out why. Last year, they found a suspicious looking ovarian cyst, and thought it could be ovarian cancer, which would account for my abdomen pain, weakness and severe nausea; so I had surgery to have it removed.

When I woke up from surgery, my oncologist had a big smile on her face, and told me that they had done an immediate biopsy of the cyst and were 99% sure it wasn’t cancer.

She also explained that – strangely - they ended up having to remove my appendix because it looked “deformed” and that I probably had recurring appendicitis, which would explain a lot of my symptoms.

A few days later, I was resting at home when my doctor called: she said, “I have great news Marlena, I just got the biopsy back on your cyst, and you don’t have cancer…let me see if the pathology on the appendix came in yet, I’m sure it’s nothing, just routine” … I waited a few minutes while she checked the computer – and her voice changed as she said “I have to call you back.”

About 15 min later, she called back to tell me that they had found a 3 cm carcinoid tumor in my appendix that had grown into the abdomen wall, and that I would have to have another surgery called a right hemicolectomy to remove half of my colon and about 20 lymph nodes.

I had never heard of carcinoid cancer before… most people haven’t. Only about 11,000 people are diagnosed with carcinoid cancer every year in the US. It’s rare, and it is unlike any other type of cancer out there. It is caused by neuroendocrine tumors, or NETS, that secrete hormones into the system … these tumors aren’t confined to any one specific area in the body – and can develop in the digestive system, liver, pancreas or lungs.

Out of the approximate 11,000 cases of carcinoid cancer reported each year – less than 150 people are diagnosed with the type and stage of appendicenal carcinoid cancer that I have.

I had hit the “unlucky lottery.”

There are only a couple of doctors in the country who specialize in treatments – and because the mainstream medical community doesn't know about carcinoid, an estimated 90% of neuroendocrine tumors are incorrectly diagnosed, and the average patient waits over 5-7 years for a proper diagnosis.

The ribbon for carcinoid cancer is zebra striped, and zebras are sort of our mascot along with the slogan “if you don’t suspect it, you can’t detect it.” The zebra is to remind doctors: “if you hear hoofbeats, don’t automatically assume it’s a horse – it could be a zebra.”

Over the past year, my role as an educator has grown. I now find myself not only talking about Shakespeare and Dante on a daily basis, but also sharing my story as a carcinoid patient – and advocating the importance of educating the general public - as well as doctors - about this rare, potentially deadly disease.

That’s why events like Relay for Life are so important. It’s a time to share information as well as hope; a place to celebrate those who continue to fight, as well as remember those who fought bravely. Thank you for joining me and everyone else here tonight in helping to make the American Cancer Society’s dream of “more birthdays” a reality.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Alien Autopsy

The problem with having a rare cancer is that every unusual symptom is cause for a trip to a specialist, who pokes and prods you as if you were some strange alien they just brought in from Area 51 for scrutiny. It gets sort of annoying after a while.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Senior Graduation

My seniors tagged my car...

Every teacher calls their students their "kids" - and years ago, I purposely decided that my school "kids" would be the center of my life, rather than having biological children of my own. So for me, graduation is kind of what I imagine Mother's Day to be like - I get these heartfelt cards and sweet presents, and my kids cry and hug me as they tell me how much I helped them, and how much I mean to them ... it's pretty amazing. The only problem is - I really miss them already.

Senior Prom: two of my boys, who always made sure I got my daily dose of shenanigans

A few of my girls at graduation ...aren't they beautiful?