By CARLA OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, Oct. 10, 2017 — Hello, October, here I am, ready to celebrate you in all your glory.
It’s been a busy time of healing and recovery for me during September and these first two weeks of October, but I’m ready to welcome the world back into my arms. Gently, please.
August 30 – Five-hour surgery to remove seven cancerous tumors and dozens of potential cancerous nodules. Check.
September 8 – Head home, after thanking all those at UnityPoint Health’s Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines for 10 days of the most awesome care. Check.
Last five weeks — Recovery and healing at Simple Serenity Farm. Husband Chuck Offenburger has been caregiver in-chief, with plenty of family and friends dropping in, spending days or hours, helping make sure everything was done just like the doctors ordered. Check.
This next week, October 9-15 – Make final preparations to ensure that I am ready to return to work on Oct. 16, enjoy social activities, and resume living life to its fullest. Ready!
After surgery Aug. 30, in the Critical Care Unit at Iowa Methodist Medical Center in Des Moines.
If you need a catcher-upper, my cancer journey started in 2010 when a tumor was found in my lower jaw/throat and I was diagnosed with adenoid cystic carcinoma (ACC), a rare cancer that defies most treatment options and reappears at its own whim. After neck surgery and six weeks of daily radiation to try to keep any lingering cancer cells from my brain stem, I got a five-year break.
Dr. Qasim Chaudhry
In the fall of 2015, the cancer reappeared in my liver. Late that September at Iowa Methodist, liver specialist Dr. Qasim Chaudhry removed a six-pound cancerous tumor and 60 percent of my liver. I spent seven weeks recovering then, too.
Just a year later, in December 2016, we discovered the cancer was back again, this time smaller tumors, primarily in my lower abdomen and pelvic area. Damn.
We took time to visit physician, Dr. Barbara Murphy, at Vanderbilt Medical Center, in Nashville, Tenn. Dr. Murphy has extensive experience with ACC. She confirmed what we already knew, my cancer probably would not respond to other successful chemotherapy drugs or radiation. Surgical removal was the only option, and at some point, that reaches the limits of its effectiveness. Dr. Murphy quite honestly said, “Eventually this cancer wins.”
Still, she encouraged us, as did my oncologist Dr. Matthew Hill, of the John Stoddard Cancer Center at Iowa Methodist, to look for any and all possibilities. And we spent a lot of time – still are – doing just that. Staying healthy and positive is important so we are ready for the next “break-through.” We are always on the lookout for drug trials and treatment options for ACC.
Carla and nurse Kim Schrodt discovered on her latest stay at Iowa Methodist that both are graduates of Des Moines Lincoln High School and formed a quick bond.
But our immediate option, as we started 2017, was “de-bulking” two of the larger tumors. In February, Dr. Olaf Kaufman, an intervention radiologist, “froze” two tumors using an arthroscopic, long-needle procedure. That forces them to dissipate. Ouch!
I recovered quickly enough that, in late March and early April, we were able to go on a fabulous, 10-day trip to Cuba with a group from my Des Moines church, Plymouth United Church of Christ. That was a “bucket list” item that was much encouraged by doctors, family and friends –and I really needed the get-away.
Almost immediately upon our return from Cuba, I started 90 days of an oral chemo drug that seemed a match for some of my tumors’ genetic make-up, based on a Foundation One study that had been done on me in 2015.
With no other real treatment options available, Dr. Hill, Chuck and I decided we had to do what was available to us with the hope that a good outcome would be the result. Dr. Murphy had told me in Nashville, “try what’s available, and always ask two questions: ‘Is it working?’ And, ‘Is it tolerable?’ When the answer to either of those questions is ‘no,’ we re-evaluate.”
Chuck and I, in our nine years of cancer experience, have always been advocates for “hitchhiking” from one treatment option to the next, always looking for what is new and possible.
No matter your age, if you’re lucky enough that your mother is still around, there are times when you’d sure like her to be with you. Here’s Carla at Iowa Methodist in September, with her mom Sue Burt, of Des Moines.
So we decided I should do the 90-day oral chemo regimen.
I was healthy through most of it. Chuck and I even fit in a five-day biking adventure in Ohio and continued our two-mile morning walks. After about 30 days, I had some terribly painful skin breaks on my fingers, but with some tender loving care (and drugs), those healed and were gone within a week. Only toward the last few weeks of chemo did I develop the most disgusting and painful blisters on nearly all of my toes. The toe blisters became weeks of pain. My hair also started thinning.
Anyway, the chemo didn’t work. At. All.
So, my case was brought back for additional consideration by the Iowa Methodist “tumor board,” which certainly has come to know me well – inside and out. Both Dr. Chaudhry and Dr. Kaufman were in the room, sharing their thoughts from my previous two procedures. It was determined that another “de-bulking” was possible, and that it could be extensive enough that the surgeon Dr. Chaudhry should perform it, and take “all” the disease he could. It might then be possible for the intervention radiologist Dr. Kaufman to do additional arthroscopic, long-needle work later, if necessary or advisable.
And that led us to my five hours surgery on Aug. 30.
I can’t say enough good things about Dr. Chaudhry and his team, especially the “head resident” Dr. Christopher Healey, who was working with Dr. Chaudhry at the time of my surgery.
Dr. Christopher Healey and Carla as she was nearing the end of her stay at Iowa Methodist.
About 30 minutes into the surgery, Dr. Chaudhry – seeing the extent of the disease inside me –felt the need to consult again with oncologist Dr. Hill by phone. And then he came out and visited with Chuck and my family on what things looked like. There were some tense moments of discussion on how much to do all at once. The surgical team, Dr. Chaudhry said, was “seeing more than we saw on scans,” and going ahead would mean there’d be “prolonged recovery time,” things like that.
I am grateful that Chuck and my sister Chris Woods, said “take it all.” Amen.
Dr. Chaudhry reported hours later that he believed he got “95 percent of the cancer – all I could see.” A few days later during a visit to my hospital room, he was confident that he added “a few more years to your life, Carla.”
We pray that is so.
Ten days in the hospital is a long time. My room was small, making visits crowded. Even the team of resident doctors and nurses, at different times, seemed to crowd each other. But that didn’t diminish the care I was given. Flawless. Life-giving. Fun. Scary. Irritating. And thorough.
I can’t count how many blood draws I had, but I do know I had two scary EKGs, one chest X-ray and countless drugs. Chuck was with me 24/7, except when I forced family and friends to get him out of the room for a few hours.
On her latest hospital stay, Carla took seriously the advisory that you can’t do too much respiratory therapy.
I did everything they told me to do, some things they didn’t tell me to do, and begged for a few things they refused (early on, ice chips and food, and later, to be allowed a walk down to the hospital lobby and outdoors for a breath of fresh air). This surgery go ’round, I had a drainage tube down my throat to my stomach. It was so disgusting and miserable, I’m not even going to share the details. And I was on oxygen and a heart monitor, thus limiting my eating and my mobility.
However, up to six times a day, we’d take the IV-pole, the oxygen tank-on-wheels, several feet of plastic tubing and the heart monitor – and do walking laps of the 6th Floor North unit’s hallways.
I also had 50 or more staples in my abdomen – across and down – to help 20.5 inches of incisions heal. Depending on how you look at my stomach area, I have an anchor, a big shade tree or an umbrella. It isn’t exactly pretty, folks.
The patient’s whiteboard on the day Carla was checking out of Iowa Methodist.
My great care continued when I got home. Chuck has been, well, the best. My book club in Jefferson has come through with incredible meals every three days – sustaining both as nourishment for our bodies and our souls. Chuck’s sister Chris Werner, of Cedar Rapids, spent several days with us, giving Chuck breaks and me lots of help. Then my sisters, Tammie Amsbaugh and Chris Woods, both from Des Moines, spent days with us as well. My aunt Karen Wiles, of Waukee, brought my mother Sue Burt, of Des Moines, to visit several times.
Friends provided jigsaw puzzles and books to keep my mind busy when my body could only sit or sleep. And they became our walking partners – starting with one lap around our circle driveway, but now I can go a good distance up the gravel road (but a long way from the two miles I was used to doing daily). I’ve gradually started “going places” – the grocery store, Dairy Queen, a few small events and, with real joy on Oct. 7, back to church at Plymouth Congregational in Des Moines.
And there’s this – my hair is thickening up again and, as sometimes happens post-chemo, seems to be changing color. I’d long-hoped it would be turning gray by now – and I think I’ve earned some nice gray hair – but my hair stylist Julie Towers, of Churdan, says I’m becoming a strawberry blonde!
On the day she got home from the hospital, Carla takes a lap around the circle driveway with her friend Nancy Teusch, of Jefferson.
Over my recovery, I’ve been uplifted with flowers, a rose bush, cards, words of encouragement on Facebook and countless prayers. I feel forever blessed.
Life is good, folks. So good. Don’t take it for granted. Don’t miss the opportunity to hug those you love, don’t miss the opportunity to spend time with friends and family. Take it all in, every precious moment.
That’s what I’m going to do for the rest of the time I have, hoping that my care team is right and that we’ve knocked the cancer away for another year or two. We’re fully aware, it will come back and it will probably win, eventually – but not right now. Not this time around.
I’m back. And I’m glad I get to start again fresh and new this October, one of the best times of year in Iowa
Carla and her sister Tammie Amsbaugh, of Des Moines, walking the Raccoon River Valley Trail, just east of our Simple Serenity Farm.
Carla with her sister Chris Woods, of Des Moins, when Chris brought a pan of her famous lasagna for dinner at the farm one evening.
Carla wooed our friend and neighbor Karen Lawton to come over to help do some essential thinning of the irises in one of our flower gardens.
You can write the columnist by email at carla@Offenburger.com or comment by using the handy for below here.