On Mission to Heal

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| This is the 286th story of Our Life Logs |


“Behold the turtle. He makes progress only when he sticks his neck out.”

-James Bryant Conant

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I was born in the beautiful state of South Carolina in the late ‘60s. Ever since I was in elementary school, I knew I had a great empathy for others, and I always wanted to help them heal. I watched a lot of suffering as a teenager, most poignant being the death of my grandmother on my 16th birthday and, soon after, when one of my friends lost her mother to cancer. Watching my family and friends suffer was soul crushing, especially knowing I couldn’t help. All the while, I felt a sense of urgency to get a medical degree. I knew that I could try and make a difference in the lives of those struggling with illness.

And so, off I went to medical school! From an intellectual standpoint, I saw medical cases as detective work or like solving a puzzle where it was my job, given the patient’s history and test results, to make that important diagnosis, and that made it an interesting challenge.

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Somewhere in the long hours of study, clinical rounds, and missed sleep, I met Chris. I was good at talking and he was good at listening! He had a calming sense about him that meshed perfectly with my energized personality. We married in March of 1994 while we were both still in medical school, and later that year we begin our residencies in Houston, Texas.

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With Chris.

Before long, our kids started coming along, three daughters in all. In 1998—once we were ready to actually practice medicine and be “real doctors,” with our licenses—we set up home and shop in Atlanta, Georgia. Chris started a Child Psychiatry Fellowship, and I started working in an Internal Medicine Practice. I faced a variety of medical issues over the course of one day. I could go from diagnosing bad colds to diagnosing cancer. Although at times it could be rough, I was blessed and honored to care for a variety of patients who became my friends. I was finally living my dream of healing and making people’s lives better!

We spent many happy years there with our little ones, but eventually moved to a beautiful home on the marshes of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Chris and I found good positions available, and settled in. The kids were in great schools and life was (chaotically) rocking along.

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In 2010, I started experiencing persistent back pain and promptly scheduled a medical examination. After scans and a biopsy, the results showed advanced stage four Thymic Carcinoma with metastasis throughout my chest. When the words left my doctor’s mouth, I felt my body tense with fear. He didn’t have to translate that jargon for me. I knew I had a rare form of cancer that was hungrily chomping at my healthy cells—at an alarming rate.

As a physician, I knew I was headed into a situation with uncharted waters, the cancer being so rare. Thymic Carcinoma has a 30% to 50% five-year survival rate. And to add injury to insult, we learned that the cancer was spreading.

Sure, I was scared. I would even say that for a moment upon hearing my diagnosis I was paralyzed by fear—but not for long. I attribute that to my God-given, experience-driven doctor’s brain. Within what seemed like record time, I vowed to stop asking myself questions like, “Why me?” and changed my motto to “Why not me?” Because if anyone was going to get to the bottom of this, it was going to be me!

My first priority was to get in touch with physicians at MD Anderson Cancer Center, a specialized facility known for their progressive cancer treatments. In fact, I had completed part of my residency there, so I trusted their expertise. I contacted a friend who put me in touch with a Thoracic Oncology Physician who told me, “You will never believe what our Grand Rounds Lecture was yesterday—Thymic Carcinoma!” Now that’s what I call a ‘God wink’!

It was surreal to go from once taking care of patients in this center to becoming a patient myself. At first, I felt like a bystander just like I had been in my adolescence. All I wanted to do was sneak a peek at the medical charts and form my own theories and solutions. But I was the one in the gown this time, and I willed myself to receive care and let others take charge.

And great care I received (I mean, that shouldn’t have been a surprise!). During treatment at MD Anderson, my tumors shrank 80%—even though my type doesn’t usually respond to chemotherapy—making me a surgical candidate! I wasn’t in the clear yet. But it was a start.

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Because of all the time I had to be away due to my own treatment, I made a mutual decision with the head partner of my practice to resign in 2011. It was heartbreaking for me to leave behind the medical practice I loved and had spent so, so many years working to have. At that point, my patients were like my family, and because taking care of people was my purpose in life, I didn’t want to give it up. Who would have thought that a doctor would have the hardest time taking care of herself?

But this was necessary. If I wanted to go back to my practice, then I had to be healthy. I kept my motto on the tip of my tongue…why not me…repeating it over and over in my thoughts…why not me…and in my actions…why not me…until it clicked! I was going to find a cure for myself and for others!

Knowing my spirit, my father identified some clinical trials taking place at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I applied and was quickly accepted. I was so thrilled—not only with the potential of advancing my healing, but also my contribution to the protocol development on how to treat this rare cancer for anyone suffering.

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Over the last nine years, I’ve been through chemotherapy and lost my hair from it twice. I’ve been on medications to hopefully prevent the cancer from growing, but it has never truly vanished. Treatments, medication changes, and scans have filled these years, but even in dealing with it, I’m doing my best to keep life as normal as possible for my family. I have kept staying involved in their activities, traveling to their events as much as ever. I want them to see their mom there, present for them. I hope I have set an example for my daughters of how to deal with adversity with a spirit of hope and positivity. 

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My beautiful daughters.

But while I’m hopeful, make no mistake, this has been a fight. A little less than two years after my diagnosis, I had a second thoracotomy surgery to have as much of the cancer removed as possible. Complications related to herniation and perforations of my stomach occurred and caused me to have a third emergency surgery that lasted nine hours. My life was at risk. I woke up unaware of how close I’d come to dying after being on a ventilator in the ICU.

Because my body was so fragile, I was forced to remain in the hospital for two months with a feeding tube in my stomach—including Mother’s Day—away from my three girls, my husband, my life, and essentially, all my normal. My goals and routines were put on hold. My days blurred together. Thankfully, my mom stayed with me so I wasn’t alone.

When I finally returned home, I had lost so much weight, I was walking with a cane, and honestly, I felt discouraged—which is not me! I wondered, would the cancer ever go away? For the first time since 2010, I let myself sit with my fear. I let it curl up beside me and claim pieces of my spirit. That was such a low point.

But, fear can’t last forever—especially not with the family, friends, and colleagues that are in my corner. Bit by bit, I began regaining energy and my positive attitude. I dialed phone numbers for appointments, and I dialed twice as many for supportive words. It was a long haul of recovery, but I got myself back! I will clarify though that I have never been considered cancer-free. My situation is more one of “managing cancer” and making it part of my life.

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I made it to my 50th birthday!

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After becoming a bit stronger from recovery, I decided to find a way to help out in the medical community even if I couldn’t practice. I had to get back to business!

I worked with the National Organization for Rare Disease to have February 28th declared Rare Disease Awareness Day in South Carolina. I also became a member of the International Thymic Malignancy Interest Group where I help mentor and educate newly diagnosed patients and participate in fundraising efforts for our rare cancer.

Treatment wise, progress has been a rollercoaster. Every time I have CT scans performed, there is a chance new cancer will be found. Recently, that has been the case. To attack those, I opted to try “single dose radiotherapy,” an innovative operation that is similar to a cyber knife for areas in my spine and have had surgical ablation for part of my liver.

Another new treatment I am currently attempting in lieu of chemotherapy is “immunotherapy.” Its purpose is to help enhance the resistance and build up immunity to diseases like cancer. So far, it is giving me some troublesome esophagitis and skin irritations, but I’m not losing hope that we can find the right balance to work for me—and for others!

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Although it is not a journey I would have ever chosen, I have learned how to make the best of this challenge. As much of my life is taken up with cancer, I am happy to say I have cancer—but it doesn’t have me!

 

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  This is the story of Anne-Marie Fields

Anne-Marie Fields, MD, is an Internal Medicine physician living in South Carolina. Anne-Marie always had a dream to help others by becoming a doctor, but was completely blindsided when she was diagnosed with a rare cancer which made her become the patient instead of the doctor. Despite the diagnosis, she’s determined to keep fighting the cancer and find a solution. As a member of the International Thymic Malignancy Interest Group, Anne-Marie and her husband try to attend as many annual meetings as possible to help make important decisions. One source of hope during her treatments has been a turtle her family found with an injured flipper that was taken to a turtle hospital to get proper care. The turtle was named Dawsey. Anne-Marie followed Dawsey’s progress and drew strength from the turtle’s determination to recover and return to the wild. She saw herself in the turtle and vowed to keep that same determination and persistence in her own fight.

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Anne-Marie and her family with Dawsey the turtle.

Anne-Marie’s illness has inspired her younger brother to start an initiative called “Sustaining Way” in Greenville, South Carolina, building a home called “Annie’s House” (named after her) in a low-income community with the purpose of bringing “together diverse individuals and organizations to find and implement sustainable ways to build a thriving community and environment.” (sustainingway.org)

 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on February 22, 2018.

| Writer: Laurie Epting | Editor: Colleen Walker; Kristen Petronio |

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