Part 6: Retired Bolton educator manages life, cancer
Editor’s note: This is the sixth part of the occasional “Learning to Live Again” series on Dianne Young, the former Bolton High School yearbook sponsor and Millington resident who learned in 2013 that she has a rare form of brain cancer.
Diagnosed back in April 2013 with inoperable brain cancer and given just three months to live, Dianne Young remains alive, active and positive in December 2014, despite health crises and limited funds. Today, her home is bright with crisp red poinsettias, and boxes of ornaments lie near the family’s tree, which is stripped of broken lights and ready for decorating.
Her voice is clear and steady, her balance is good and she has ditched her walker with her doctor’s blessings.
“I’m so excited about Christmas this year,” she said. “It will be small, but it will be nice.”
She has reason to relish this season. Although her glioblastoma multiforme is a terminal form of brain cancer, doctors say one of the four tumors has disappeared. A recent scan shows that the others have either shrunk or failed to grow any bigger.
Her treatments of Avastin, an experimental tumor-shrinking drug, were working well, but she had to suspend them back in February. She can only have the treatments when her platelet count is high enough, and the past year has challenged her.
Her oncologist stopped the Temodar chemotherapy because it was ravaging her body. “It’s poison,” Young said.
After recovering from a near-fatal case of double pneumonia in March, she passed another scary medical milestone in April when an aggressive infection in her right shin overcame her weakened immune system. Her leg was swollen, hot and red, and she could not put any weight on it by the time a friend insisted she go to a medical clinic.
Young said she had no idea it was an infection until they got to the clinic. “They took one look at me and said, ‘ER!’”
She recovered after weeks of hospitalization, IV antibiotics, surgery to remove damaged tissue and then a second surgery to cover the wound with a 5-by-9-inch skin graft from her right thigh. While her leg healed, she administered her own IV drips and had to walk around with an ever-present over-the-shoulder pouch holding a five-pound vacuum that kept her leg wound clean.
“Everything that has happened to me, this has been THE most painful,” she said, tapping her leg.
The infection destroyed one tendon that lifts the foot, but she has exercised and regained her strength and ability to walk on her own. At one time, she was too weak to stand back up if she fell.
Adjusting to staying home
In June, she retired from her career as a Bolton High School teacher because her voice and body were too weak to do the job anymore.
In her online blog on June 25, she wrote, “It is bittersweet, but I knew it was time. I still cry about it, in honesty, because I'm not ready to be finished teaching. However, my friend Renne reminded me that I will continue to teach, just not 12th English students. I now teach my boys how to be men. Through my battle with cancer, I will teach patience, perseverance, persistence and how to beat it!”
For a busy woman with a structured and task-packed life, Young had trouble adjusting to a slower pace at home.
“At first I was miserable, thinking I was a failure. I had probably about five or six weeks of kind of a depression kind of thing, because I had always worked. Since the moment I graduated from high school, I have worked all the time. So it was very, very different for me not to work.”
She slowly developed a routine and found ways to keep her mind engaged. She rests, exercises and administers her at-home medical treatments in between enjoying her family, crafting, doing a little housework, researching financial support and medical research online, and volunteering at her sons’ school, where she assists the yearbook teacher. She wears pink plastic gloves around the house to help protect her arms from bruises, which reduce her platelet count. A neighbor walks with her daily to help her stay strong. And the family’s golden retriever, Jester, watches over her.
She can only sleep for four to five hours at night, so she wakes around 3:30 or 4 a.m. to study her Bible, pray and journal about God’s blessings as she sips a cup of tea or coffee.
“It’s sometimes hard to hear God whisper to me over the loud frogs outside, but I listen anyway,” Young said.
This year, her mornings are smoother because both now sons attend the same school, Barret’s Chapel, and a teaching friend picks them up each morning on his way to work. Her husband, who was commuting 45 minutes to work daily, has since been hired to work at Bolton High School and works only five minutes away from home.
With support from family and friends, she has progressed so much that she she is no longer needs physical or speech therapy.
“Health is pretty darned good,” Young said.
Her treatment now is an Avastin drip every two weeks and a Lomustine chemotherapy pill every six weeks. A portacath installed under her skin makes it easier for her to take drips and gives her exhausted and bruised veins a rest. The chemo nauseates her, but Young said it’s worth it.
While she manages her treatment, she and her husband, Robert, have tried to keep life as normal as possible for her children, Justin (11) and Jake (13). The boys took a summer trip with their aunt and their grandmother. The family shared a cabin-camping trip with another couple and their children and dogs. This month, Young made an Advent calendar with little boxes that contain treats and surprises for the boys. Her sons have had normal daily lives with saxophone lessons, Boy Scouts, birthday parties, overnight visits with friends and crafts like mixing glow-stick liquids with water and spraying the inside of the garage to see the bright splashes in the dark.
Her greatest challenge has been the decision not to drive. Although her doctor cleared her, she doesn’t think it’s safe, given some of her short-term memory problems.
It makes going to doctor’s visits more difficult, and she has fretted over problems like a bus route change that stranded her children one day earlier in the school year. She feels like a prisoner in her own home some days, and she remains grateful for the friends who offer to drive her places.
In her online blog on Aug. 11, she wrote, “Thanks for all your prayers as I enter this new phase in life. I know it is sometimes the only thing keeping me going.”
One friend brought her chickens to replace the ones killed by coyotes, and another takes her out weekly. A few friends drive her to appointments when needed.
She completed state and Social Security paperwork this fall, and the couple worked on refinancing their mortgage so they could live on her husband’s income alone once their savings are depleted. Her Social Security check will start this month, and she is still grappling with state disability and her retirement funds.
“Things are a little tight right now because I don’t have disability yet, and it take a long time to get it,” Young said. “And everybody told me that, but I didn’t believe them.”
A friend set up a fundraising site where people can donate to help Young and her family bridge the gap until her disability payments kick in. Supporters can visit the page at youcaring.com/youngcelebration.
In her online journal earlier this year, Young wrote, “I love you and would love to hear from you all! Remember to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org when you get a chance. I lost all my contacts when my computer was turned in at my resignation … didn't even think about forwarding my contact list to my home computer.”
See earlier coverage of Young and her cancer management at these links:
- Part One — July 3, 2013: The diagnosis
- Part Two — July 18, 2013: Shrinking brain tumors
- Part Three — Aug. 8, 2013: Back at work, with its challenges
- Part Four — Jan. 16, 2014: Good test results
- Part Five — April 23, 2014: Near-fatal bout with pneumonia
Written by Carolyn Bahm, Express editor. Contac her at (901) 433-9138 or via email to email@example.com.