Tuesday, December 3, 2019

A Year of Grief and Gratitude


A year ago I was given the most devastating news of my life: Breast cancer, which I had beaten in 2015, had come back in my breast, lungs, bones and brain. The diagnosis was (is) Stage IV, or metastatic, breast cancer. Metastatic cancer has no cure, and the average life span post-diagnosis is 3 years.

3 YEARS. (Are you f’ing kidding me?)

As you can imagine, this past year has been exceedingly difficult.

It started with lung surgery, where they removed one of the tumors for testing. It was the first time I’d ever been admitted to the hospital (except one time when I was a baby, I recently learned) and it was quite an adventure!

As a result of the surgery, I ended up with a paralyzed vocal cord. As a result, I had to quit nearly all of my professional singing gigs (of which there were many) and I haven’t been able to sing for a full year. It’s only been in the last 6 weeks or so that my singing voice has started to come back.

In December/January I spent 2 months on a hormone treatment to combat the tumors, but unfortunately it did not work and the tumors grew very quickly, making me incredibly ill. At my lowest point I had to use oxygen to breathe while sleeping, and had to sleep sitting up on the couch (I could not lie flat because my lungs wouldn’t operate.) I had such trouble breathing that I could no longer use public transit (couldn’t walk to the bus and couldn’t do the stairs in the subway) and spent most of the time cooped up at home.

Compounding the breathing was my utter lack of appetite. I lost 35 pounds, lacked energy to move, and even the simplest of tasks (cooking, dressing myself, showering) seemed impossible.

And it’s been difficult to work any more than scattered part-time hours due to my energy levels and numerous doctors appointments.


BUT...

IT’S BEEN AN AMAZING YEAR AS WELL. HENCE, THIS GRATITUDE POST


In March I started ongoing chemotherapy, which has literally saved my life. My tumors have been reduced in size and number and I can breathe again. I have been gaining back weight and I can walk without too much difficulty (taking public transit again!) Every week that my body is strong enough to get chemo I do a little leap for joy because without it, I would not be alive. The tumors would have overtaken me for certain. (I'm at chemo right now, as a matter of fact!)

I can sing again! Thanks to the efforts of my ENT, Dr Michael Pitman, and my voice teacher, Eric Michael Gillett, I am on track to be singing professionally again in January. (That’s my goal, anyway!) I am so thrilled to be able to do my favorite thing in the world.

I have experienced incredible grace and love from people near and far, from friends & family to complete strangers. I have received beautiful care packages and generous donations, had delightful coffee/dinner dates, been invited to see plays and musicals, and had home-cooked meals delivered. It has meant so much to be to be celebrated and remembered. With the craziness that life brings everyone on a daily basis, I’m very humbled to have been in your thoughts.

Every day that I can wake up breathing fully, I’m grateful.
Every day that I can make someone smile, I’m grateful.
Every day that I can experience people’s full expression, whether through art, debate, or sharing, I’m grateful.
Every day that I get to express myself, I’m grateful.
Every day that I get to talk to my mom on the phone, see friends over drinks, cuddle with my boyfriend and dog, I’m grateful.

I’m grateful that I made it to one year post-diagnosis.
I'm grateful that I may have two years left.


LOOKING FORWARD


The hardest thing is that I don’t know how much time I have left. I know that none of us knows that, but I feel the clock ticking on my life in a way I never did before cancer. It’s pretty scary. It’s especially hard when I feel relatively healthy but know that it’s a tightrope I’m walking and things can change at any moment. I feel guilty when I get caught up in the mendacity of day-to-day living - expecting myself to CARPE DIEM every waking moment since I don’t know how many moments I have left. (I’ve come to terms with needing downtime, I just don’t like it!)

I have always had a severe fear of death, even before cancer. I have a wonderful therapist who allows me to explore my fears in a safe place, and I’m on medication for anxiety and depression. But I still have these fears and sometimes they are debilitating.

I’m trying to experience as much as I can while I feel well, but financial worries have made things incredibly stressful. I’m lucky to have great insurance, but not being able to work full time has made me dip heavily into my life savings and I don’t qualify for government disability at this time. Every time I pay rent or buy groceries I see my bank balance dip lower and lower and it freaks me out. So I find it difficult to enjoy things like going out for meals and seeing shows because I don’t know where my next paycheck is coming from.

So I’m going to make a request that is always so hard for me to make. My friend Laura set up a GoFundMe, which has made a huge difference for me as I’ve navigated this disease. If you find yourself able to help, it would mean a lot and put my mind & heart at ease: www.gofundme.com/erin-cronican.

OR...

If you’d like a tax deduction, you could donate to my non-profit theater company, The Seeing Place. I’m responsible for heading up fundraising (a thankless job!) and if you’d prefer your dollars go to the arts this would be of immense help to me. The Seeing Place has provided me with an artistic home for the last ten years and your support will go a long, long way. You can donate at www.TheSeeingPlace.org.

If you chose to split your donation and donate to both, that would be INCREDIBLE and you’d be my forever hero.


Thanks for being everything that you are in my life...

Photo by Shirin Tinati


Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

A Day at Chemo: A Diary


Since I navigate my weekly chemo treatments mostly alone, I thought I’d give you a little play-by-play of what the experience is like. This happened to be a relatively tame week, but there are still so many things that go into having a successful chemo day.

Without further ado, here we go!

12:30pm - What to wear, what to wear? I try to wear clothes to chemo that service three purposes: comfort, fun, and accessibility for the port. What is a port, you ask? A port is the catheter that is implanted in my chest, and that’s what they take blood from and deliver chemo through. Today I chose to wear a full sequin tank top and cozy sweater, and a pair of kitty cat socks that I received from a friend.


Sparkly shirt!

Cute socks! Look at those little ears! (lower right in pic)

12:45pm - One hour before treatment, I put lidocaine on my port so that when they insert the needle later it won’t hurt as much. Because, folks, that sucker is FAT. Photo to come.

12:50pm - I leave my apartment, preparing to stop for food along the way and get to my appointment on time at 1:45pm. Today I will attempt to walk to chemo, which I have not done since being diagnosed - I have always taken a car. But I have been feeling well enough and I decided to test my body and its endurance. Plus, I’m stubborn & frugal and don’t want to pay for a car anymore!

1pm - I walk past a Dunkin Donuts and realize that I want to bring some treats to the nurses at my chemo center. Munchkins would be the perfect gift. But they don’t have enough left at this Dunkin. Decisions decisions. I somehow convince them to make a batch just for me, but I would have to wait for 10 minutes for them to be done. I look at the time - if I choose to eat my meal here instead of elsewhere, I’ll have time to wait. I say yes. 25 minutes later I have them. (25 minutes?!) I rush out the door.

1:50 pm- Alas, I’m late to my chemo appointment because of those darned Munchkins! But they nurses are not mad, they’re excited to get some tasty bite-size donuts to munch on all afternoon.

2:02pm - I get called in for my labs. Labs are the blood draws that they pull so that my blood counts can be assessed and my doctor can determine if I’m healthy enough for chemo. My nurse, also named Erin, comes in and asks me if I mind getting my port accessed (needled!) in the more public lab instead of a private room, because they’re so busy that a room is not available. Ever the agreeable patient I put my modesty aside and say, “Sure!” She then asks me if I’m excited about chemo being done after today. I confusedly tell her that I’m not done, that as Stage IV I’ll never be done, and she says, “Why did you bring the treats, then? People thought it was a last day gift.” And I said, “No, it’s just because I love you all.” Tears all around. I get asked if I want to wear a mask or if I want to just turn my head away from my port (they take germs seriously!) I tell them I’ll just run my head and my nurse makes me promise I won’t breathe on myself. I tell her I’m nothing if not compliant. She asks the lab tech if she agrees, and the lab tech says, “She’s awesome. 100%.” Awww...

My nurse then asks me my name and date of birth. They do this MANY times throughout the day as a safety check to make sure I’m getting the right drugs and the lab are labeled with the right patient’s info. She cleans my port for one minute (!) and prepares to stick the FAT needle in it.

The FAT needle! Zoom in!

I feel no pain - the lidocaine from earlier is very helpful. For some reason, as she attempts to take my labs the blood doesn’t want to come out of the port quickly like normal. But a combination of breathing deeply and holding my breathe does the trick. We laugh and she says that I’m a pro at breathing. I tell her it’s because I’m a singer.

This is what I look like after accessing.
I also get my vital signs done. My blood pressure is high for me - 109/68. My heart rate is high as well - 101 beats per minute. I tell them that this is because I just walked to chemo from home, so I’m a little revved up. But I’m likely dehydrated, too.

2:16pm - I’m done getting my labs drawn and I’m sent back into the lobby of the chemo center to wait for the results. Most often I’m healthy enough to have chemo, although two weeks ago my counts were way too low (low platelets, low white blood cells, low hemoglobin) so they gave me a week off. Today I’ll be in the lobby for about an hour while they wait for my blood count report to come back, for them to find a room for me to be treated in, and for them to get my chemo medicine from the pharmacy. I get myself a cup of coffee (free coffee!) and then settle down to check out social media.

2:20pm - I can’t get WIFI to work on my computer. Drats. Now I have to use my phone and drain the battery. Booooooo...

2:38pm: I get a text from a friend who I try to convince that I’m a Rambo at chemo - crushing it. I think he believed me. :)

2:50pm - There’s a woman in the lobby eating chips very loudly - the crunch of the bag and of the chips in her mouth is enough to make a woman crazy. But then I’m remind myself that I’m Rambo and can take anything. She’s very lucky.

3:22pm - Success! Labs are positive so I get to have chemo today. I get called into Room 5 to start getting set up for treatment. They start my “pre-meds” by hooking me up to a big bag of saline (which I need because my heart rate is too high.) They give me two Decadron pills, which are steroids that will help me avoid nausea, vomiting, and other allergic reactions to the chemo that’s coming. They also give me a drug called Aloxi, which also helps combat nausea and vomiting. They dim the lights in my room and hand me a blanket, a pillow, and a TV remote. I kick up the feet of the recliner and prepare to watch dramatic daytime TV like the Real Housewives of Orange County and The First 48.

Here’s a photo from a recent chemo, showing my typical weekly view.

3:39pm - Now that the pre-meds have settled in they hang up a bag of Gemzar chemo which will drip along with the saline from 30 minutes. They confirm my name and date of birth. Gemzar’s major side effects are nausea/vomiting, low blood cell counts, trouble breathing, swelling in the hands and feet, or a rash. It can also cause red or pink urine, but I have never seen that. (Yikes!)

4:01pm - The nurses gather with another patient outside of my room in a bubble of excitement. It is the patient’s last day of chemo, and she is getting to ring the bell that signifies that she has finished an enormous battle. I’m very happy for her but a little sad for myself. Because I’m Stage IV I’ll never be done with treatment, so I will not be ringing any kind of bell under these circumstances. Well then - I’ll just have to find a reason to ring a bell in other circumstances... :)

4:17pm - They chemo pump beeps loudly, letting my nurse know that this first chemo is almost done. She adds a “flush” - which is more saline “flushing” through the line to make sure I get all of the chemo out of the tubing. 

Here's what the chemo bags and saline look like.

4:24pm - With the flush done, my second chemo arrives ready to be started. This one gets dripped over an hour. They confirm my name and date of birth...again. (You’d think I’d have to be REAL comfortable blabbing my age by now, but it never feels good.) This chemo is called Carboplatin. The main side effects for Carbo are nausea/vomiting, numbness/tingling in extremities, body pain, weakness, rash, and hair loss.

4:29pm - My chemo pump beeps again, this time to let them know that I’ve had plenty of saline solution and the machine thinks I should be done. My nurse asks me if I want extra hydration. I tell her yes, that I love peeing (ha!) She agrees to give me extra for the day. Saves me from having to drink another liter of water at home. Drinking water is very important after chemo, to make sure that I flush out all of the toxins. Grateful to have it here in my veins.

4:49pm - The music from the TV show “The First 48” is so dramatic that my nurse comes in and stares at the TV. Then a commercial for an online car buying company comes on, and we both agree that we would never buy a car online, especially without driving it first. That’s crazy talk.

5:24pm - The chemo pump beeps, letting them know that my second chemo is done and needs a flush. After that, I’m done for the day! But not quite, because they need to take my vital signs (to make sure I’m not dead?) This time I’m 95/58 (normal blood pressure for me), and 88 heart rate (which is normal for me after chemo). They’re happy, I’m happy, so we start the process of checking me out.

5:31pm - The main check out maneuver is to de-access the port (have them take the needle out.) They give me an injection of Heparin, which helps to keep blood clots from forming around the port when it doesn’t have a needle in it. Once that’s done they flush my port with more saline to make sure the chemo and heparin have gone all the way into my arteries. For their final feat of the day, they rip off the bandages that have been protecting the port (and I say rip because the adhesive and my skin just don’t mix. Ouch!) Once the bandages are off, they say, “One, two three” and then pull out the needle, which always hurts more than when they put it in. They press down hard on the port opening and put on a bandage, so that I don’t bleed profusely. (I am on blood thinners due to blood clots being prevalent with chemo - I’ve already had two blood clots in my arms which was NOT fun - I had severe swelling for a month AND they could have travel to my brain or heart!) Once they’re satisfied that I won’t bleed to death, they flip on the lights and send me on my way.

5:45pm - After all of the rigamorole I turn off the TV, take off my blanket, put my shoes back on, and get ready to enjoy my evening recuperating. But first... FOOD (and drink?)

A margarita after a successful day of chemo!

Erin Cronican is a Stage IV breast cancer patient whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.

Friday, July 26, 2019

Being Thin...Because of Cancer



Some real talk about the impact of cancer on your brain as well as your body...

I just watched a documentary about eating disorders and I’m feeling very emotional right now. I don’t have an eating disorder, but I felt such a kinship with the girls in the movie that I’m still aching for them hours later. I’m not sure how many of you know this, but I’ve had a dangerous amount of weight loss due to my cancer - about 40 pounds lost in a 4 month period. It’s due to a complete loss of appetite which has been happening since February 2019, even before my chemo started in late March. I look at food, and I just can’t eat it. I’m never hungry and feel full all the time. The thought of eating makes me completely upset - I’m mad at my body because I can’t eat and no amount of willpower makes it possible to start a meal, let alone finish one.

What’s been eye-opening about this whole experience is how the weight loss has affected me mentally/emotionally.

At first I was pretty excited about losing weight, because my weight has been anxiety-provoking for me my whole life. From the time I was a teenager I’ve hated how I looked. I’ve always had extra weight around my thighs/butt - no matter how athletic I was. My high school boyfriend told me I had a “butt crinkle” - his term for the fat beneath my butt. No matter how hard I’ve tried, no matter how much I worked out and ate healthfully, I’ve never been able to get rid of that “butt crinkle.” I’ve hated myself for having it. And I’ve never been able to get rid of the devastating memory of being told that. That self-hatred has impacted every romantic relationship I’ve ever had, every piece of clothing I’ve ever purchased, and created deep anxiety every time I’ve tried on costumes for a show I’ve done. I always felt like I was too large to be considered attractive. And being an actor, attractiveness is EVERYTHING.

I’m not sure why I’ve never had an eating disorder. The negative thoughts certainly were there. Part of it is probably a willpower thing - I simply love food and drink too much and that outweighs the negative self-image. I’m not strong enough to resist. (I know what that sounds like, but I can’t put it any other way.) Especially living in NYC... I have too much wonderful food and booze at my fingertips, and too many social occasions are centered around these things to ever have been able to cut back. So I resigned myself to being “fat,” even though in my heart of hearts I knew that it probably wasn’t true.

Fast forward to being diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer... one day a few months ago, my boyfriend said, “You don’t look so good. You’re losing weight.” I asked him why that was a bad thing. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but it was something along the lines of, “you haven’t lost weight in your whole body, just the bottom part. Your upper part still looks like it did.” I immediately began to obsess over the fact that my upper body was obviously disgusting. I started looking at my upper body every day - when would I lose weight there? When would I be able to buy smaller clothes and finally feel good about myself? I was mad that I would still look fat in pictures, even though my weight was decreasing.

I hadn’t been trying to lose weight and yet my weight was dropping. Which was weird, because weight loss had always been so difficult for me. I went on an extreme diet from Oct-Dec 2018 and only lost 10 pounds. I was torn - on the one hand I was excited to know that I was getting closer to my “goal weight” of 130, but I knew my health was on the line. How was this happening?

Looking back, I noticed that I wasn’t finishing my meals - my eyes were always bigger than my stomach. I yearned to finish but I just couldn’t eat any more. I chalked it up to being busy - I was producing two shows, directing one and starring in the other. But shortly thereafter, my body stopped wanting meals at all. No matter what favorite meal was put in front of me, I couldn’t eat - the thought of even taking a bite made me incredibly nauseous. It got to the point that I was taking in less than 500 calories a day. 500 calories, in fact, was a GOOD day. I noticed that drinking my calories was easier than eating, so I started drinking Ensure Plus in the mornings which would guarantee at least 350 calories (with protein and vitamins) and I would usually be able to eat part of a small meal at night. I celebrated every bite I was able to take and yearned to be able to do more. Unfortunately, many times I would be able to get food down and then I would become nauseous and throw it all up, negating all of the hard work I’d done just to finish the food.

I felt defeated all the time.

I was weak. My blood pressure was really low. I had no energy. And no matter what I did I was unable to eat. I was prescribed a drug that increases appetite but the side effects were so bad that I needed to stop. People keep tell me to smoke pot for the “munchies” but I hate the way pot makes me feel. Each week I was weighed before chemo, and my weight was dropping significantly.
• I started at 144 in January.
• I was 128 when I started chemo on March 21.
• 121 on April 23.
• 115 on May 28.
• 109 on June 18.
Due to the loss of muscle and rapid fat loss, my skin hangs off my bones. I have wrinkles on my arms and legs, and what fat I have left in my breasts and butt just hangs there. I look like a little, old lady. It seems really unfair - I finally am at a weight where I could *consider* getting into a bathing suit for the first time in 15 years, but my body looks really unhealthy.

Fast forward to watching the documentary today. Even though I don’t have the emotional compulsion to restrict my diet the way that typical anorexics do, cancer has made the result the same. I still have an anorexic body. I’m still visited by a nutritionist every time I have chemo because my weight is of such concern. My life is still consumed by thoughts about food - will I be able to eat today? How much? How often? I’m counting calories like a fiend and trying to add more every possible way I can without getting sick. It’s exhausting.

I’ve had a turn-around in the past few weeks. For the first time since February, I have been able to eat several small meals a day. I’ve been holding steady at 108 pounds for the past month, when the trajectory would suggest I would have lost another 10 pounds. I haven’t thrown up in about a week and a half (which was happening daily, so that’s a real win!) I’m probably up to about 750-900 calories a day over the last 2-3 weeks. It’s been HARD to accomplish. I’ve been extremely frustrated that I haven’t gained weight, but my mother reminded me of something that has made me feel better. First, I’ve been eating enough to fuel my body, so it hasn’t needed to eat itself to survive. Yay Erin! But she also reminded me that 1 pound equals 3500 calories - I would have to take in an extra 3500 calories to gain one pound. That seems impossible! So I’m celebrating the small wins as best I can and am trying to go easy on myself.

I’ll tell you one thing - I never thought I’d ever complain about being too thin! Yet here we are. Thank you, cancer, for that surprise!

I’ve looked back over what I’ve written and started having doubts about being so vulnerable. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked so openly about something so fraught for me. But I’m hoping that my openness will help me start addressing the inner demons around this topic. I have a great therapist with whom I’ve started to express these demons. Who knows, maybe sharing my story here will help people who are going through the same thing. I am getting a certain amount of catharsis just from writing, so I thank you for reading this far and being so supportive...

EDITED: Some people are asking about the GoFundMe page to help with my expenses. Here it is: https://www.gofundme.com/erin-cronican


Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

The Daily Grind of Cancer



It’s been a couple months since I’ve last updated you - I’m sorry I’ve been away for so long! So much has been happening with my treatments that, frankly, I spend most of my time just trying to navigate my health day to day. And the quality of my health can swing wildly within a day, so there are surprises around every corner.

After I last posted, I had radiation for the tumors in my brain. The procedure was much easier than I expected it to be. It was definitely anxiety provoking, but nothing that I feared would happen put me over the edge (coughing while lying down thus screwing up the radiation, not being able to breathe in the mask, feeling claustrophobic, etc.) I was able to get through everything without having to stop, which meant that the procedure was able to go as quickly as possible - it lasted about an hour. I don’t know how well or not the radiation went - they need 3 months for the radiation to take full effect - I’ll be having a brain scan in early June to see if the tumors have been reduced, or at least stopped from growing.

I started chemo in March. For those of you who like to do research on such things, I’m on two kinds of chemo in combination: Carboplatin and Gemzar. Both are done intravenously at the chemo center, and I get it weekly (with a time off every 3rd week for recovery.) For the first few weeks I had nearly no side effects, which was awesome. I was a little tired, but it was as if I weren’t on chemo at all. But my third chemo session, things started going a little wonky.

The first thing that happened was that I noticed that my arms and hands were swollen, so much that my FitBit and rings didn’t fit anymore. After a few days they got way worse, so I went to the doctor and after doing an ultrasound of my arms they found that I had developed several major blood clots in my veins (known as Deep Vein Thrombosis, or DVT), which were making it impossible for my body to drain lymph fluids. Friends, talk about painful. The swelling has been intense - for a while I could barely bend my fingers, wrists and elbows. The pain from having your skin stretched that much is excruciating. My doctors put me on a high dose of blood thinners (which I’m still on) to help break up the blood clots and keep new ones from forming. After about 3 weeks I’ve finally started to see some of the swelling go down - my hands and wrists are now fine but upper arms are still swollen. My ankles are a bit swollen as well. They are painful to the touch, like I’m covered in a giant bruise.

I also have started to get severe nausea and vomiting. I spend most of my days trying to keep the nausea at bay. Feeling this way has become my new normal - never thought I would need to have a barf bag near me at all hours. Add this to my already severe lack of appetite, and weakness & weight loss has become a huge problem for me to manage as well. Eating has been extremely difficult for me. Sometimes the issue is that I’m nauseous and everything makes me want to throw up. Sometimes I’m hungry but once I go to eat I’m full after 2-3 bites. But most of the time I’m simply not hungry and I can’t imagine trying to force myself to eat. There are certain things that I know I’m better at getting down: liquid rich foods like soups, smoothies, fruit, vegetables are easier than carbs (breads, grains) or protein (meats, meatless substitutes). But even knowing that doesn’t help. I’ve lost almost 30 pounds, which on a frame like mine is a lot to lose. I’ve lost a lot of muscle, so I’m not very strong and feel weak much of the time. I’ve lost so much weight in such a short amount of time that my skin has not stayed elastic - it sort of just hangs there in a wrinkled mess. Seriously. Also, may I mention how painful it is to sit for any length of time if you lose the muscle and fat in your butt? Sounds funny, but dear lord my pelvis hurts ALL THE TIME.

I’ve also started getting mouth sores, another side effect of the chemo. They’re basically like canker sores but bigger and right now I have them right at the back of my mouth behind my molars. My mouth is so swollen and painful that I can barely open my jaw, so eating is even more of a challenge.

These side effects from the chemo add to the regular symptoms that I have from the cancer itself, primarily the severe difficulty breathing. The tumor in my chest obstructs my ability to breathe deeply, which makes even walking a challenge. I can no longer take the subway or buses, because the walking to public transportation is too difficult (not the mention the subway stairs.) I take a car everywhere I go, so in order to save money I don’t really go anywhere. Lying down compromises my breathing, so I sleep on the couch propped up on pillows and I use an oxygen tank overnight to make sure my O2 levels don’t get too low while I’m lying down. It’s pretty humbling to be stuck to a machine in order to do something as simple as lie down.

I also found out that I’m extremely anemic - so much so that last week I had to have a blood transfusion. My hemoglobin count was dangerously low, but luckily it only took one unit of blood to get me back on track. I have to say, that was a whole new adventure! To see a bag full of bright red blood hung before you is pretty freaky - I felt like some kind of vampire getting a fix. And it was a color of red I’d never seen blood have before - light and opaque (almost creamy) as opposed to dark and more clear.

I think, though, that some of the most difficult side effects and symptoms are not physical in nature, but emotional. You have to remember - a diagnosis of Stage IV breast cancer is considered a terminal diagnosis. There is no cure. You may be able to push back the disease for months or even years, but no one yet has been able to cure someone of Stage IV breast cancer. Is a cure coming? Maybe. But it’s not here yet. So what my doctors are fighting for is to manage symptoms and to give me a quality of life that’s bearable - they’re not trying for a cure. I was very upset when I first learned of this - one of the only times I’ve cried about my diagnosis was when I discovered they wouldn’t do surgery to remove the breast tumor because my cancer was deemed too advanced for preventative care (which is what surgery is commonly considered.)

This makes contemplation of death very present for me. No matter how optimistic I am as a person, there are realities I have to face if I’m to stay mentally well. I have to face my fears about death and not hide from them. I have to look at the what-if’s without prejudice. Luckily, I have a really amazing therapist who helps me navigate those feelings, but it’s hard to isolate my thoughts about death to the therapist’s office. Because death is everywhere, and when you’re diagnosed with a fatal illness you can’t escape it. Did you know that most TV shows have a cancer storyline in their season (and if the story involves a woman it’s usually a breast cancer storyline)? Do you know how many GoFundMe campaigns are posted on social media daily with heartbreaking stories of love and loss and a broken medical system? These are in addition to every ache and pain that come up for me - I constantly wonder if is this a new tumor that the chemo can’t touch?

This is also the first time admitting this - my aunt is also suffering from Stage IV breast cancer and has been going through it longer than I have, with poor results. I have been watching her with the ominous knowledge that someday I’ll be going through the same thing. Chemo has eradicated her white blood cells so much that her body cannot tolerate chemo. So while she’s still doing radiation to help alleviate the pain from the tumors, there’s no longer anything systemic she can do to keep new tumors from growing. Right now she is bleeding internally due to cancer in her bone marrow, and there’s nothing they can do to stop it. They don’t know how long she has - no one does - but she’s scared and this in turns scares me for so many reasons. Luckily my white blood cells have held up so far but we don’t know if that will continue. And I’m human - I can’t help comparing myself to her and worrying about what’s next for me. How am I going to die? Which organ - brain, liver, bone, lung - will eventually give out because of the tumors? For my aunt it’s her bones. Right now for me it’s my lungs.

It’s morbid. I know. And I’m aware that me speaking about my fear of death make things REALLY uncomfortable for people. The first instinct is for people to say, “It’s ok, Erin. You’ve got this,” because as humans we can’t let ourselves be overcome by fear and the unknown. Letting me sit in my fear seems like being a bad friend. I’ve had people worry about my mental health because of my fears, but not being able to share those fears makes my mental health worse. Because them I’m isolated in a situation that is already so isolating.

Now... there is some good news through all of this. After months of rapidly declining ability to breathe, about three weeks ago I noticed my breathing starting to get better. My doctor says my lungs sound a little more clear. And after this next round of chemo we’ll be able to do some scans and see if what we suspect is true: perhaps the tumors in my lungs (and elsewhere) are shrinking. It’s very hard to contemplate getting my hopes up given all of the things I’ve said above. And some of you might use this news and say, “See, Erin? You just need to stay positive - I know you’ll pull through this.” But here’s the thing:

I need to be able to live in a world with both fear and hope in order to survive emotionally. Not either/or.

I didn’t understand that before Stage IV (metastatic) cancer.

Well, frankly, I didn’t understand a lot of things that have recently become a lot more clear.

None of us know how long we have to live - I just know it more acutely than the next person who can be blindly unaware of their daily health status. I wish I could say that this makes me more ready to seize life by the hands and do all of the things I always wanted to do. But weekly chemo makes that an impossibility, because doing what I want requires energy and time, two things that are hard to come by with so much medical stuff happening on a daily basis. So I’ve learned to value the little things - a day when I’m not nauseous (win!), spending the afternoon with my dog (win!), having enough energy to get coffee with a friend (win!), the ability to nap when needed (win! win!)

So what does this all mean for me day to day? Well, I wake up in the morning and assess how I’m feeling, and then I look at my daily schedule to see what I’m able to accomplish. On days when I feel terrible (and there are more than a few) I humbly have to cancel engagements with my amazingly understanding friends and colleagues. On days where I feel decent I’m able to socialize for short lengths of time and am able to do a little bit of work on the theater company and my various ventures (coaching, design work, etc). I never know day to day how things are going to go but I’ve finally gotten up the courage to schedule my time as though I’ll feel well and then beg my body to do all of the things I planned to do. I get chemo. I go to therapy. Rinse and repeat.

Many of you continue to ask how you can help. I’ve discovered over trial and error that the best way to help is actually financially more than anything. I’ve loved having meals delivered but with my appetite issues I’ve let a bunch of food go to waste, which is terrible. I no longer find need for gift certificates because there’s really nothing I want for. My main hurdle is simply the fact that I cannot work full time so meeting monthly expenses is extremely stressful. If any of you could consider making a monthly gift of even just $5, so that I have something steady coming in each month, that would make a huge difference. GoFundMe allows for this when you make a donation - you can do so here: www.gofundme.com/Erin-Cronican. (EDIT: It looks like GoFundMe does NOT have a recurring feature - so if you want to help recurrently you'd just have to visit again and make another donation. I'm sorry about that!)

Thank you for reading this far, and for being so supportive. I count myself very, very lucky to have you all in my life.


Erin :)


Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Update on Diagnosis


Hello, friends. I had my appointment with my oncologist, and as I suspected the treatment I was on was not effective in stopping the cancer. In fact, the cancer has spread further in my body. I now have more tumors in my lungs, and they also discovered 4 small tumors in my brain and a tumor on my ribcage. I suspected this to be the case because if the treatment was working I should have noticed my symptoms getting better, but instead they were getting worse.

The brain tumors, though, were a surprise. I’m not having any symptoms from those. So it was just luck that they found them. Because I had fainted I had a brain MRI as a precaution, but I don’t have any symptoms one would expect from brain tumors - no headaches, cognitive changes, or anything. I’m lucky that the tumors were caught early and are very small.

This all changes my treatment plan. What I had been on was a daily dose of bicalutimide to block the androgen in my body. I’ve now stopped that, and my next course of treatment is to get radiation to the brain. Luckily I’m a candidate for stereotactic radio surgery, which is a very precise 1-time treatment that is able to deliver high doses of radiation to very small portions of the brain without having to radiate the whole head. This means my side effects should be minimal - they will be giving me steroids to make sure that there is little inflammation in the brain as a result of the trauma of radiation. They say I will be very tired for a few days, but that should be all.

The scariest thing for me about the radiation is not actually the radiation, it’s the plastic mold they make you lie in in order to make sure you’re perfectly still for the treatment. I’m asthmatic, which makes me claustrophobic when my breathing is obstructed. This mask partially covers my mouth and holds my jaw in place, so if I wanted to breathe through my mouth I won’t be able to. I was able to handle the molding/fitting they did a few days ago but I was only asked to be in the mask for 6-8 minutes. I’ve been told my radiation could take as long as an hour and I’m freaking out about it! Here’s a stock photo of what the mask looks like:

Stereotactic Radiosurgery mask
Once I’m done with the radiation (which is happening this Tuesday, March 12) the next step is to get me on some sort of chemo. My doctor thinks that I may qualify for a clinical trial, and I have an appointment with him on March 14 to discuss. The hope is that whatever treatment I get will shrink the tumors and help me alleviate some of the symptoms I’ve been experiencing. I’ll be on that treatment until it stops working (which is common, because cancer is smart and learns how to outlast the treatments we throw at it.) And then we’ll choose another chemo and start the ride again.

All in all, I guess I’ve been pretty lucky. I read about other patients’ experiences on message boards and there are dozens of other symptoms I could be experiencing. So though life is difficult, I’m still really grateful. I have enough breath to live, enough energy to snuggle my dog, and tons of friends around me to lift me up. And your financial support has made a huge impact, making it possible for me to take cars when I’m too weak to walk/take public transit and allowing me to have enough fresh food to keep me going. You’ve also helped me pay for co-pays, medications, and have brought me such joy in a dark time.

For those of you still interested in helping... here’s a post with all of the things that I need - I’m eternally grateful for anything you’re willing and able to do to help: https://www.erincronicals.com/2018/11/how-you-can-help.html 

Or, if you want your gift to go even further, consider donating to my theater company as we embark on our spring repertory. As you know, The Seeing Place has been my artistic home and donating here means I don't have to use any personal money to get these shows up and running. Plus, you can either choose a great perk, or get a full tax deduction by bypassing the perks and entering your own amount at the bottom. Donate here: www.TheSeeingPlace.org



Erin Cronican is a breast cancer survivor, whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Symptoms From Cancer



I know it’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog, and people have been wondering how things are going. It seems curt to say, “I’ve been busy dealing with cancer” but that’s kind of the truth.

You wouldn’t believe how much effort goes into trying to stay well once you get a terminal diagnosis. There are so many symptoms from the cancer, side effects from the treatment, and then difficulties from trying to live - and they all exhaust me. I try to stay positive, because being positive is one way I have control over what’s going on. But I have to be honest. This whole thing is really, really hard.

Over the last few months there has been quite a lot that I’ve been dealing with physically:

Shortness of Breath
This, my friends, is no joke. My shortness of breath is extreme. I can’t walk AT ALL without getting winded, and doing anything strenuous (including climbing stairs or lifting packages) puts me into a huffing and puffing mess. And this kind of breathlessness is not like normal breathlessness, when you push yourself too hard. I literally cannot catch my breath because my breathing is too shallow to begin with - my chest is tight and I can only breath in a short amount before I have to breath out again. So doing anything strenuous causes extreme discomfort - and worse, it creates a panic response and can trigger a panic attack if I don’t actively calm myself. This difficulty happens EVERY TIME I climb stairs - in the subway, in my apartment, in other buildings. In order to make sure I don’t pass out, I have to walk VERY slowly up the stairs (much to the annoyance of other subway passengers - I usually wait for the rush to pass before I try to go up the stairs.) And by the time I’m at the top of the stairs, I’m breathing so heavily that people either stare or ask me if I’m ok. I have to breathlessly thank them and let them know I have a lung condition.

Loss of Appetite
Food is not very much fun these days. Because I can’t really eat it. I have 2-3 bites of something and immediately feel full. For the past month, I’ve lost weight and lost energy. (Although, I admit that losing weight is kind of fun, the lack of energy really sucks.) Which leads to...

Fainting
Yeah, so this is a thing. I happen to have low blood pressure and for the past two months I’ve noticed that I get very lightheaded when I stand up. Well, one night I stood up too quickly and got lightheaded, and I leaned over in the kitchen to try to steady myself. Next thing I knew I was on the floor with blood pouring out of my face, because I had fainted and my glasses had gouged my brow bone and eyelid. I was very, very lucky - no real damage other than two cuts and massive bruising and swelling. It could have been so much worse. But it was really scary. Not sure if it's the low blood pressure or the low energy or a combination of both, but all of this has led to me getting a brain MRI, which I'll get to results for next week.

Paralyzed Vocal Cord
After 3 months of speaking difficulties, I finally got a diagnosis - my right vocal cord is paralyzed. This likely happen as a result of the lung surgery I had in November. Strangely, the nerve that serves the larynx wraps down into the lungs and it can often be damaged during surgery. This was the case with me, and it took so long to diagnose because I assumed that I was simply recovering from the breathing tube that they used during surgery. But I wasn’t getting better, and no speech therapy or medicinal fixes worked to solve the problem. Once I got diagnosed, everything began to make sense and I could finally find a specialist that could help. Paralysis can be permanent or temporary - some cords/nerves heal themselves over time, and that’s the hope for mine. I had a procedure done last week to put a temporary “filler” in my vocal cord to strengthen it, and I’ve noticed a huge improvement already. The filler will solve things while my nerve (hopefully) heals itself. The doctor said the filler will last 3-4 months, and it can be done again if my nerve hasn’t regenerated by the time it wears off.

Coughing
Due to the tightness in my chest and the immense amount of mucus and fluid that comes from the cancer, I have a very labored cough. It’s especially bad in the morning (after lying down all night) and most mornings I cough so much that I throw up, sometimes multiple times. It’s very difficult for me to have what they call a “productive” cough, because of my paralyzed vocal cord. The vibration from the cords when coughing can loosen mucus, but since one of mine doesn’t move coughing doesn’t really work very well, so I end up drowning in my own mucus. (Gross, I know, but it’s a fact.)


All of the above has had its weight on me emotionally. Not being able to speak fully, not being able to breath, not being able to move fully for fear of fainting... this all makes it difficult to socialize or find the energy to do anything fun. Thank goodness for social media, where I can stay connected to people and live somewhat vicariously through them.

It’s also had a huge impact financially. Since my doctors' offices are often far away from public transit, I’m forced to use taxis and hired cars to get to doctor’s appointments because I can't breathe well enough to walk. I’m also using Seamless more often than I’d like to admit because it’s hard for me to get to the store to buy food and even when I have food it's hard to get the energy to cook. Working is very difficult with all of the physical ailments I have (and doctor’s appointments take up so much time - I had 6 last week alone.) So finances have taken a huge toll. So many of you have written and asked how you could help. I’ll refer to you a blog post I wrote about that - I’m eternally grateful for anything you’re willing and able to do to help: https://www.erincronicals.com/2018/11/how-you-can-help.html

I’ll have a further update on my health next week after I meet with my oncologist - I’ll be learning whether or not my treatment has been working or whether my cancer has spread. Please keep me in your thoughts...

Erin :)



Erin Cronican is a breast cancer patient whose career as a professional actor and career coach has spanned the last 25 years in New York City, Los Angeles and San Diego. She has appeared in major feature films and on television, and has toured nationally with plays and musicals. She has worked in the advertising & marketing departments of major corporations, film production companies, theater magazines, and non-profit acting organizations. For more information, please visit www.erincronican.com.


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