After Colin Bradley, was diagnosed with leukemia in fifth grade, his mom, Martie, would get a crash course in taking the lead in game-changing medical conversations and decisions.
On Friday, March 9, Martie is part of panel of us who will share what we’ve learned about how to have those conversations and make the tough choices.
Live at LaughFest
In the spirit of Gilda Radner and Sister Sue Tracy, two women who knew a thing or two about cancer and the magic bullet of laughter in personal crisis management, Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids and LaughFest Rx presents Courageous Conversations.
Details on our Friday, March 9 event at Laughfestgr.org
Open to all; extra credit, literally (in the form of Continuing Education credits) for nurses and social workers.
Panelists also include Dr. Dave Sharp, Martie’s dad and a Hospice physician; Carol Robinson, Making Choices Michigan; Molly Keating, spiritual director of Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids; Jon Beckett and me.
In the middle of that life-changing week for the Bradleys in 2012, Martie took Colin to the doctor to see what was up with his headaches and tiredness. He had played in a lacrosse game and in a band concert in the days just before.
The next day at 7:30 a.m., in the middle of the morning rush to get all three of her sons ready for school, the doctor called. “I’m sorry to tell you this,” she said. “Colin has leukemia.”
Martie says today that was the first courageous conversation along the way: “It was her courage to call and tell me, ‘This is what it is, and this is what we need to do.’ “
The second one came that same day — with Colin.
Following more blood tests, staff members at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital took Martie and her husband, Dave, aside to confirm the diagnosis: Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a super-fast moving cancer. A port would be implanted and chemotherapy would have to begin the next day.
When they returned to tell Colin, his immediate response: Don’t do things that way again. I want to hear things first-hand from the doctors and be involved in all decisions. He was 11. Brothers Aidan and Keegan were in preschool and second grade. Upheaval would rock their lives, big time.
Martie would have many more tough talks during Colin’s years of treatment:
— Diagnosis May 2012, chemo begins
— Pancreatitis with complications July-August 2012
— Relapse of leukemia found October 2012, 6th grade
— 12 rounds of intensive inpatient chemo January 2013-October 2013
— End of intensive “frontline” treatment in October 2013, 7th grade
— End of treatment January 2016, 9th grade
— Port removal April 2016, 9th grade
Martie Bradley’s Go-To Guide to the Swamp
Here’s what Martie tells people who are thrown into a crisis:
- It’s guaranteed that something will not go as planned. You don’t know which rocks you’ll trip on during the journey, but you will definitely encounter obstacles along the way. Your rock might be a drug allergy, unexpected side effect, or complicating condition.
- Assess the situation and move on. Like a baseball catcher, you need to have the flexibility to stretch and adapt to whatever is thrown your way.
- Trust your intuition and your body’s messages. Medical professionals need the patient and their advocate to provide accurate updates.
- Don’t minimize pain or symptoms. Catching problems early and proactively is incredibly important, so pay attention to changes.
- Sometimes it’s absolutely appropriate to yell for help.
- Find your people. Use your team.You will not like every medical professional you meet. But there will be some you adore, and you can learn to appreciate the strengths of others. Some staff are excellent clinicians, but have terrible bedside manner. Go to them when you need trustworthy information.
- Some staff are palpably empathetic and understand the emotional and mental demands of treatment. Tell them about your worries and needs for spiritual, social, or financial support.
- If you encounter a staff member who truly is incompetent, disrespectful, or hurtful, they shouldn’t be on your team.
Colin celebrated the end of treatment with a party at Gilda’s Club in January 2016.
Even though chemo treatment was done, from 2016-2017 Colin went to the oncology clinic every month or quarter and saw three different specialists every six months. Now he goes to oncology clinic and one specialist every six months.
Colin pays it forward
Even before he finished treatment, Colin was paying it forward: He is featured in a slide show of photos shot by his mom as part of Blackout Pediatric Cancer, a fundraising effort between his school district and the children’s hospital which benefited the Pediatric Oncology Resource Team. Colin was the Blackout representative in September 2012, just one day after his feeding tube was removed and the same day as a major outpatient chemo treatment.
Many of the funds raised by the school district went to creating “Dream Rooms” for cancer patients with extended inpatient stays, Martie said. The rooms were customized to their personal preferences so they would feel more comfortable while in isolation.
Now a junior in high school who turns 17 this week, Colin plays trombone in marching band; bass trombone in jazz band, is the webmaster for his school newspaper and is on the robotics team.
Sometimes darkness can show you the light
That line from a song reflects the Bradleys family’s life today:
“Our lives are forever changed by the phone call from our doctor,” Martie said.
“My kids are able to be in hospitals and even ICU rooms without fear, and we’ve visited several adults who were dying, undergoing cancer treatment, or recovering from surgery.
“They accept other people’s physical differences and limitations without judgment.
“They handle adversity with confidence and tenacity.
“Our connection to our school district and community is so much deeper, and I’m so grateful to live in West Michigan with such incredible support for cancer patients.”