Part 4: Good test results buoy teacher with cancer
Editor’s note: This is the fourth part of the occasional “Learning to Live Again” series on Dianne Young, the Bolton High School yearbook sponsor who learned in April 2013 that she has a rare form of brain cancer.
By Carolyn Bahm
Bolton High School teacher Dianne Young is managing monthly rounds of exhausting chemotherapy for cancer with the help of her support network. Her strength and their help are paying off, according to her latest tests.
One of her four brain tumors has disappeared, and the other three are slowly shrinking.
"Any shrinkage is good," she said. She pulled off her soft knit cap and swiftly combed through her short hair with her fingertips. "... Everything is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. So that's where I am now. I have a strong faith in prayer, and I really think that's the biggest key for me right now."
She has glioblastoma, a brain cancer that doesn't have stages I-IV like other cancers do; it is terminal. She had radiation treatment this summer and is on a rotating four-week chemotherapy regimen: one week on the pills and three weeks off. She also takes an experimental Avistan drip that helps to starve the tumors.
She was diagnosed on April 1, 2013, after going to the doctor for some nagging neck pains and unexplained hand trembling. Reeling from her diagnosis, she went online and found a site that said average life expectancy with glioblastoma is three months.
"Life-altering moment," Young said.
She is grateful for support from family, friends, and co-workers since her diagnosis. She said Bolton principal Chad Stevens, vice principal Bo Griffin, and assistant principal Janna Matykiewicz have been dynamite about her necessary absences for medical treatment. Colleagues have also stopped by her house to drive her to work on days when she cannot.
"My friends and colleagues have been unbelievable," she said, smiling. "And the support from my administration is over the top."
Young described an arc in her support network's reactions to her illness. The initial swell of support was wonderful but became almost overwhelming; she began to worry about wasting the bounty of food that friends brought her. So she asked them lovingly to back off a bit, and they responded too well, backing off to almost nothing for a while, out of respect for her request.
Young laughed and shrugged. "So, that's the way it goes. If it rains, it pours."
Donations of frequent flier miles took the family to evaluate a spa-like cancer center in Phoenix, Ariz., over the Christmas break, but she was disappointed to find out after they arrived that the center does not directly treat her type of cancer; she would have to supplement her stay there with visits to other facilities. Her doctor also discouraged the move, and so she decided against using that facility.
She doesn't rule out evaluating another center, however. At a friend's urging, she recently went back online for the first time since her diagnosis and found positive cancer treatment stories. She was encouraged to read about a woman with glioblastoma who prolonged her life by 10 years.
"I just really, really anticipate — if not kicking it completely — at least beating it down," Young said. "I just really anticipate that. I mean, if that lady can do that, why can't I?"
She feels good overall but admits to life being challenging. Her hearing is super-sensitive. She tires easily, and her legs feel particularly weak. The location of her tumors damaged her short-term memory, and she lives by detailed lists, copious notes, planners and calendars to remain organized. Driving more than short distances is confusing to her, so her husband (who has a one and a half-hour commute to work) has to drive her most places, or she accepts rides from friends. She doesn't constantly think about cancer, but she does have days of depression because of the driving burden to her husband and the worry for her kids.
Sometimes it is the small things that are a breaking point, however.
Losing her hair from the harsh chemicals of chemotherapy was the first time she cried, and it's one of the few times she has broken down since her diagnosis. Young recalled the moment after six months of chemo when she was ruffling her long blonde hair in the shower, and the hair started cascading to the floor.
"I just wigged out," she said.
A friend did an initial trim, and a beautician later trimmed her hair into a short 'do. More hair eventually fell out on top, but it has since begun growing back. A friend bought her pink and purple wigs, she said, displaying a picture on her phone of her younger son, grinning in the pink wig.
Young said, "That was the first moment he accepted that Mama's got brain cancer, when he put on that wig."
Her sons were rocked by the cancer diagnosis. She said Justin, 10, now gets upset easily and needs comforting. Jake, 12, is doing better and has learned to anticipate when his mother needs help.
Despite the challenges, Young said life goes on. She and her husband, also a teacher, are ready to start a new semester of work. She is learning coping skills for her memory loss, and she has a new practice for this semester. She plans to keep detailed class notes on the chalkboard, check things off as they are completed, and take a picture on her phone as evidence for herself and anyone who has a question about classwork.
Young explained that the new practice is designed to foil some of her seniors, who were "playing" her — trying to game her illness and convince her she forgot to make an assignment.
"That ... that was one of the hardest things for me," she said.
Throughout the past year, Young said her Christian faith has remained strong, and she is hopeful about prolonging her life. In a soft voice she concluded, "So that's our story. I just have great faith that it all works out."
Follow Young's progress via her online journal at caringbridge.org/visit/dianneyoung.
See previous Bartlett Express stories on Young at the following links:
Part 3: Returning to school means facing new challenges
Part 2: Signs of hope
Part 1: Learning to live again