Episode 15: Living in the Now with Christine Buttigieg

In the final lines of his poem, Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson writes:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;

One equal temper of heroic hearts,

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

What do we talk about when we talk about resilience?

What is it that makes something resilient?

Resilience isn’t necessarily the inflexibility to withstand impossible forces or obstacles, but the strength in yielding, the suppleness to respond, to bend with the forces that come at us.

Resilience isn’t hope, and it isn’t fear, but it’s a recognition of both of those things in which neither overtakes the other. It’s a nest, woven with threads of both anticipation and expectation, with the full recognition that it may be blown from the tree where it sits, but at the same time, it presently is still secure in its current – much safer – location.

I received some pretty tough news last night – at the time I’m recording this, it’s still incredibly fresh, and difficult to wrap my head around. A few weeks ago, when I last saw my oncologist, I mentioned some unusual headaches I had been having. They weren’t terribly bad, but were not easily explained, and were, well, just strange. She ordered a brain MRI to follow up with them. You know where this is going.

My oncologist called late last night – after 9 pm. I almost always know when she’s calling because her number shows up as “No Caller ID” on my phone, the only number that does, and if anyone else from my cancer center calls me, the main line shows up on the screen. Before I even picked up the phone, I knew. My stomach coiled into a weighty ball, and I braced myself for the news I was terrified to hear.

I have metastases in my brain.

Now currently, I really don’t want to be talking about this. I don’t want to be even thinking about it. But, unfortunately, I don’t have a choice – it’s my life now. For those of you who are finding out about this for the first time through this podcast, I apologize. This news is less than 24 hours old, and honestly, we just don’t have a lot of information right now, and I can’t answer the same questions over and over.

And that is where this place of resilience comes in. Resilience, in many forms, recognizes the space that we need to create for ourselves and says “to hell with everyone else, I am claiming this for myself.” It recognizes and honors the shitty things that can, and do happen, and gives us the roots to bend, but not break.

When I first got diagnosed with breast cancer, then metastatic breast cancer, then when I had progression in December, then basically all of 2019, culminating with the phone call last night with my oncologist, I found myself sobbing that I was so afraid – that I didn’t want to die. When I finally secured enough Ativan to get me to sleep (disclaimer, it did not exceed the prescribed therapeutic dose) I took a hot shower. As I stood in the water, and the bathroom filled with steam, I choked on sobs, finding myself closer and closer to the most terrifying fear that I have ever felt.

And then it dawned on me. I felt so close to death and felt that fear so viscerally because it was so real, so concrete. We all know we are going to die. But we don’t know how, or when, we’re going get there. We don’t know what the in-between spaces look like, or how they will play out. I was trying to push against the inevitable. I eventually will die, and by immediately letting my mind exist in that place fails to recognize that I am currently not dying. Yes, I have a very serious disease. But that willingness to recognize the strength in yielding to what comes in the interim, to see it, to acknowledge it and give it no more and no less time and energy than it needs, that gave me power. It’s giving me power right now. I’m not in the process of dying, I’m recording this podcast. I’m going to pick my son up from school, and we’re probably going to read some books together. I can exist in the unknown space, fully aware that I don’t know what is to come.

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will. To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

My guest today is Christine Buttigieg, an incredible example of resilience through almost every facet of her life. Christine is a working mom of two who was diagnosed with appendix cancer at age 34 in February of 2015, less than a year after her second child was born. Throughout her diagnosis and treatment, Christine’s journalism background provided her the tools to research, ask questions, and more fully understand what she and her family were going through. She is also a 4 time Emmy and 4 time Murrow award winner.

Appendix cancer is incredibly rare, affecting 0.03% of people.

Christine originally thought she was being treated for routine appendicitis, but after seeking out a second opinion at Memorial Sloan Kettering, her oncologist discovered additional tumor sites on her abdominal lining, making her stage IV. Christine went through some seriously intense chemo regimens, including a nonstop chemo fanny-pack with a pump, and both EPIC and HIPEC chemo, which are intra-abdominal chemotherapy that is super-heated, and then you soak in it for almost two hours before it’s drained. After a recurrence in 2016, Christine is currently in remission.

Christine’s Facebook

MSK Patient Feature – Christine’s Story

MSK Patient Feature – When Appendix Cancer Returns