Brain Cancer “Questions” – guest post

Duck Pond - Boston

What great email I get!  One is from a Lynette Warner.  Her husband was diagnosed in the summer of 2008 with stage IV liver cancer.  Miraculously he is celebrating his third year of survivorship.  Their blog is called The Walkers .  They are just the fourth liver cancer blog on our list.

Also in my inbox is an announcement from Stephanie Lancaster who writes at Just My Current Perspective“My 67 year-old father, a lifelong competitive athlete and a commodities broker working full-time, was diagnosed with an aggressive type of brain cancer, in October of 2010. He underwent surgery and chemotherapy but died only ten weeks after the initial diagnosis. I am writing this blog to help organize my rambling thoughts as I try to wade through the grief.”


Nope, this is not going to be about what you think it’s going to be about; I’m not going to bring up questions like how did a very healthy person get brain cancer, how did the “Magic Bullet” treatment not work at all, what happened that caused his rapid decline at the end, etc., right now.  This is about a different set of questions.

From the time Dad was admitted to the hospital on October 23, 2010, every time a medical professional entered the scene, he or she asked Dad a set of questions as part of a check on his neurological status.  Sometimes the questions were more detailed and complex, but the basic ones were always the same:
*What’s your name?

*What’s today’s date?

*How old are you?

*Where are we?

And sometimes, a Bonus: How did you get here?

As I’ve mentioned, Competitiveness runs in our family.  For example, when my grandmother was mobile and somewhat alert in the nursing home where she spent the last few years of her life, she told us repeatedly (and on several occasions actually demonstrated for us) that she was the fastest person there on her walker and, later, in her wheelchair.

I don’t think Dad fully realized why these Questions were being asked of him on a regular basis, but, because of this Competitiveness, he did NOT want to answer any of them incorrectly.
The first few times they were asked of him when he was awaiting surgery in the neuro-ICU, he threw out guesses for all except the first one. I’m sure he could see the shock and disappointment all-around when he didn’t get the majority of them right.  That plus the Competitiveness equaled Fierce Motivation: Dad started saying, “I’ve got to start getting those damn Questions right!”
And so, like any good nerd/competitive person would do, we started a Study Group.  “Quiz me!” Dad said, over and over, especially when he thought the nurse or doctor was about to come into his hospital room.

I’m sure any of the medical people who suspected that quizzing or prompting might be going on thought it was because we were all in Denial that something was so wrong that Dad couldn’t correctly answer the Questions.  And maybe that was part of the reason, but, honestly, it was more the Competitiveness.

And so I coached him, just like Dad had coached me in so many training sessions when I was running competitively in middle school and high school.  Sometimes his answers were correct but in a veiled way that required explanation from one of us who knew him so well and knew what he meant; for example, the first dozen times he was asked about his location, his answer involved something about working out or swimming, as in “I’m where I can swim laps in a great pool.”

Admittedly, this seems like an answer that should have resulted in a Big Red “X” going into the chart, unless it was accompanied by the Assist:  The hospital was directly across the street from a very nice gym that was one of the places Dad went to train for the Ironman, including swimming in their Olympic-sized pool.  HE WAS CORRECT BY PROXY, and we wanted the record to reflect that.
The other question for which he needed back-up when it was posed to him the day before his surgery was the Date Question.  He repeatedly said the date was “10-26-43,” which seems like material for another Big Red “X” until it’s put into context:  that was his date of birth; it was his birthday that day, and, instead of saying the month, day, and year that it actually was, he was substituting a rotely-learned year, one that he had written countless times over his 67 years.

He eventually got most of them right, at least when we provided the Assist, except for the Bonus Question, which he was never really clear on.  But then again, neither was anyone else, so let’s just say that one doesn’t count.

~ Just My Current Perspective


About Dennis Pyritz

Dennis W. Pyritz, RN, BA, BSN, has been a cancer nurse since 1987 and a cancer and bone marrow transplant survivor since 2004. In December 2001 he was diagnosed with t-cell prolymphocytic leukemia (T-PLL), a rare aggressive form of chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL). Dennis was treated with the then new monoclonal antibody, alemtuzumab (Campath) as this disease has a median survival of 7.5 months. He achieved a 26 month remission but relapsed in February 2004. He was retreated with Campath and went into a second remission. In August 2004 he underwent an allogeneic peripheral blood stem cell transplant with his brother, Mark, as donor. Dennis has remained in remission since - a near miracle. Throughout his career as cancer nurse and patient, Dennis has had the opportunity to speal to both lay and professional groups. Dennis has spoken on cancer topics and survival issues across the country as well as in the United Kingdom, Norway, Austria, Portugal, Honduras, Panama, Guatemala, Trinidad, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Cyrpus, Israel, and India.

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