Back to Spain

Spain will always hold a special place in my heart from my treasured days on the Camino de Santiago in 2012 and 2016. Having spent weeks in the country, it’s unusual that I’m more comfortable following a yellow arrow through the mountains than navigating the streets of Madrid or Barcelona. While the primary purpose of my visit was attending the European Neuroendocrine Tumor Society’s (ENETs) annual conference, this trip wasn’t without fun and yellow arrows.

In December, the Carcinoid Cancer Foundation and the International Neuroendocrine Cancer Alliance invited me to the ENETs meeting in Barcelona. It was quite an honor given the few number of patients invited to this meeting attended by 1,500 medical professionals.

As I was sharing this with one of my best friends, Lara, she told me by pure coincidence she would also be in Spain at the same time for a wedding. So, we coordinated our travel plans to spend some time together.

Lara has been a mainstay in life since she moved across the street from me in 3rd grade. Initially bonding over our love of New Kids on the Block and Beverly Hills 90210, I’m happy to say that our tastes have improved and our friendship has grown into more of a sisterhood. In fact, we were born two days a part. We have seen each other through so many bookmarks and chapters. It’s wonderful to have not just a friend and sister, but someone who has bore witness to your life as we have for each other. Lara is now living in London and while we talk often, it had been over a year since we’ve seen one another.

Her college friend who was getting married, graciously invited me to her wedding.  It  was, hands down, the nicest wedding I’ll ever attend. The Spanish women resembled royalty with their stylish dresses and elaborate hats. The bride was stunning and pulled off a dress that was both modern and timeless. The reception was at the Casino of Madrid, a gorgeous venue containing art, sparkly chandeliers and dramatic staircases. The festivities began at 1pm, but I was contending with cancer and jet lag, so I happily took a taxi home at 11pm while Lara partied until 4am.

After the wedding festivities, we walked around Madrid talking and snapping pictures, followed by laying in bed and snacking to Frankie and Grace on Netflix. Monday morning, we both flew to Barcelona for more of the same. Our trip highlight was going inside Sagrada Familia. It’s difficult to express, but the interior is a dream – the stained glass, the light, the colors, the simple and intricate angles, curves and coves. I don’t say this lightly, but Gaudi was a genius.

After a couple of days running around the city, it was time for Lara to get back to London and the ENETs conference began.

The first day I attended was interesting. Meeting some of the doctors, patients and organizations I’ve only known through the internet was awesome. The downside to the meeting – perhaps it was a bit too much information. Let me share an example. Walking through the exhibit area containing case posters, I crossed a situation similar to mine. Okay, the 34-year-old male was diagnosed, he had this surgery, this treatment, that treatment, was doing well, oh, and then he died. I did the math and based on his path, I died a couple of years ago. So, I was able to talk myself off the ledge, but it was a little disheartening.

However, the second day and the highlight of the conference was meeting a patient I’ve dubbed, my tumor twin. Being a rare case of NETs (1 in 10 million), I’ve never met another person like me and it took travelling to the european continent for it to finally happen. And, I’m happy to report that not only is he alive, 12 years post diagnosis, but very well. He and I ate lunch together where he shared the stops along his path and the lifestyle activities he’s adopted. It meant the world to me and spotlighted the realization that I should focus on the thriving person in front of me rather than poster guy….may he rest in peace.

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Montseratt

Once ENETs ended, I had one last free day on Saturday before flying home on Sunday. Having fulfilled my Barcelona bucket list, I opted to head out of the city to Montseratt, a monastery in the mountains most famous for its black Madonna statue and children’s choir. Another conference attendee joined me and it was a gorgeous and fun day outside the city. I did the math and thanks to my time on the Camino de Santiago, this was my fourth monastery in Spain. In fact, the grounds were riddled with yellow arrows and Camino signs because this is a stop on the Catalan Camino de Santiago.

After a long day in the mountains and the city that night, I was content, spent and grateful for another adventure in Spain.

 

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Pope Francis Fever

I pride myself on being fairly well traveled, so it is with some embarrassment I confess that I have never been to Italy.  I know, gasp. In my defense, I’ve wanted to go for years, but was always kiboshed by my love and loyalty to my french husband. Let me explain.

It’s 2006, in Berlin, Germany. France versus Italy in the World Cup Finals. Tensions and stakes between the rival teams have never been higher. The score is tied when Italian player, Marco Materazzi, decides to play a psychological game and begins provoking France’s soccer king, Zinedine Zidane. Something about mothers, sisters and sexual atrocities. Zidane reacts as any hot blooded, Latin man would. Click here for a visual. Chaos ensues. Zidane gets a red card and is ejected from the final, most important game of his career. Italy scores, wins the World Cup. Even the statue France erected in Zidane’s honor (seriously) could not erase the decade long grudge my husband has held against the country.

Fortunately, time has started to heal his wounds (and it didn’t hurt that Italy did not qualify for the next World Cup) – I talk him into a few days in Rome in exchange for my pledge that I will cheers all my drinks to Zidane and allow him to vent while in the city (ie, allow him to call Italians dishonorable cheaters a few times a day). Deal.

We did all the things one does, when in Rome, however, my favorite was Vatican City. I booked a “Highlights” tour weeks in advance, which was three hours containing an overwhelming amount of interesting history and information. I was most touched by the story of Michelangelo, who was called on by Pope Julius II to bring the story of Genesis to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. See, Michelangelo wanted nothing to do with painting. He was a sculptor, but after several refusals, he eventually submitted, agreed and created one of the most important works of art in the world. His story was another testament to the Hero’s Journey and how we are often called to do things we don’t want to do.  And it is in those answers of the call that we find our greatest life’s work and purpose.

No photos were allowed of the ceiling and if there were, I wouldn’t have taken any. It is just one of those things you have to see with your own eyes and not through a screen or crappy smart phone photo.

We did return to the Vatican on Sunday to take part in Pope Francis’s weekly angelus (blessing) which resulted in me contracting Pope Francis fever. As a striving minimalist, I threw my values out the window and bought way too many trinkets dedicated to his Holiness. Basically, if you need a statue, rosary, pin and/or postcard with the Pope’s face on it for the next decade – I am your gal.

IMG_5337The rest of the time in Rome was spent walking around, watching fireworks over the Colosseum on New Year’s Eve, leaving no carb behind, dodging crowds and coughing at the clouds of cigarette smoke they must be pumping out of the sewers. Haven’t you gotten the memo Romans?

On January 3rd, it was time to return to reality, the United States and specifically Houston for my last Peptide Receptor Radionuclide Therapy on January 11th…to give cancer another head-butt.

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Long live the King

World NETs Day

Friday, November 10th is World Neuroendocrine Tumor (NET) Awareness Day, where those impacted by the disease take to the streets, cafes, medical facilities and, most of all, social media to raise awareness about a relatively unknown disease with an increasingly high incidence rate.

Last year, I attended a luncheon hosted by the Healing NET Foundation featuring a popular specialist, Dr. Eric Liu. Up until that point, I had only met one other person in real life with the same disease, so it was pretty neat to be in a whole room of fellow zebras*. While there, I quickly noted that myself and another girl were the youngest people in attendance, so naturally, we gravitated together and exchanged info.

Let’s just call her, “That Girl”.

Over the past year, we’ve gone on regular lunch dates and supported each other through trying times, both cancer and not cancer related. While our “cases” are completely different we share similar mindsets, aches and pains. BUT, we also have a lot of fun and are both willing to yell “YES” to things outside our comfort zone.  For example, at our first lunch, I also told her about First Descents, a group that takes young adult cancer survivors on adventure trips. The next time I saw her, she was signed up to spend a week whitewater kayaking with organization. And not only did she embrace kayaking like a badass, but she returned from the week to face some hard, life changing decisions. She’s a fellow dream chaser, giver of zero fucks and is pretty darn inspiring.

NET Cancer Day is technically our anniversary, I figured we should do more than lunch. Plus, since we are both First Descent Alumni, we needed to fulfill the “Outliving It” motto. So, with “That Girl’s” signed permission slip of, “if you do it, I will too,” I planned our day, which was a surprise to her until she showed up at my house Friday morning….to go hang gliding.

We drove two hours away to Chattanooga, talking, excited, nervous and not knowing what to expect. Upon arrival, we were both relieved I didn’t buy the “run and jump off a mountain” package. Instead a plane pulled the glider from the ground. It was a cold, but beautiful, clear day and we were lucky enough to catch the last weekend of gorgeous fall colors as we sailed through the sky from 2000 ft. above Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama. It was a lot of fun and I would love to do it again.

After a lunch of laughs, sandwiches and hot soup, we walked around downtown Chattanooga enjoying the sunshine and city before making a last stop at Pointe Park to watch the sun slide behind the mountain. With both of us content and exhausted, the two hour drive home went fast thanks to podcasts, gummy bears and one of the most gorgeous sunsets I can remember.

I hate that I even know NET Cancer Day exists, but love that I got to spend an absolutely perfect day with That Girl. We’re already planning for November 10th, 2018.

*Why zebras? “When you hear hoofbeats, sometimes it’s a zebra and not a horse.” The NET Cancer community has adopted this animal as a mascot and international symbol, because in the medical community it is universally used to reference a rare disease or condition. As a personal disclaimer, I dislike the reference but can’t quite articulate why…

To learn more about Neuroendocrine Tumors (NETs) visit www.carcinoid.org.