Friday, December 22, 2017

One Year Later

Gosh, it's 6:39 on a Friday night, I'm baking Christmas cookies and it just occurred to me that today is the one year anniversary of the dreaded call from my doctor that derailed my entire 2017.

I feel like I should put up a blog post about it, something thoughtful and intuitive, maybe inspirational and funny.  Unfortunately, I've been so absorbed in work, in our holiday plans, in shopping and baking and playing with Bad Kitty that I haven't thought up a solitary thing to say about it.

Which, when you think of it, says it all.

You go through shit, then you move on.  And if you're lucky, one year later you can be so over it that the significance of the date completely escapes your radar.

A few short weeks ago, I had my first follow-up mammogram.  It was clear.  My surgeon gave me an exam and said "See you in a year".  So there you have the bookends of this ordeal.  It started with one doctor asking, "Are you sitting down?" and ended with another doctor saying "See you in a year."  All the shit in between is the stuff that keeps you grounded, makes you realize what matters in your life, makes you appreciate the things you have and the people who love you, and makes you want to be a better friend and family member to others in return.

And it makes you want to do more living.

So Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays.  My wish for all of you--many of whom are going through shit of your own thanks to the events of 2017--is that you'll be in this place eventually too:  Grateful, healthy, and out the other end determined to some serious living!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Clean Out The Fridge and Pantry Ragout

By way of a recipe, I'll tell you what I did tonight.  But this is definitely a matter of learning the basics and then winging it depending on what you have in the kitchen.  In other words:  My favorite way to cook!

Learning how long things take to cook is critical.  I've learned through trial and error.  In tonight's recipe, I included the following:
  • Boneless skinless chicken breast
  • Mushrooms
  • Zucchini
  • Fresh chopped tomato
  • Bell Pepper
  • Canned pinto beans
Success comes in knowing what order to add these to the pot.  In this case, these cook from longest to shortest (i.e., throw in the pot first to last):
  •  Chicken and mushrooms, cook them on the dry/oil side to encourage browning.  Mushrooms will emit water, but allow it to cook out before adding the rest.  If you used onion, it would go here too.
  • Zucchini.  This will add moisture to the sauce so anything you want browned will stop browning once you add zucchini or any other watery vegetable such as eggplant or squash.
  • Fresh peppers.  Peppers especially you don't want to over cook.  Leave the soft peppers for fajitas.  In this dish, good body comes from allowing some of the vegetables to remain cooked but crisp, and peppers are a good choice for that.  I normally use sweet bell peppers, but today I included home grown poblanos too. 
  • Chopped fresh tomato.  This goes in at the very end.  The tomato breaks down adding flavor to the sauce, but you don't want to cook it so long that you've lost your chunks of tomato.  As such, you want to chop the pieces larger than smaller.  I include the whole tomato, seedy pulp and all.
  • Canned pinto beans you stir in at the end.  Don't worry about some of them getting mushed as you stir.  They thicken the sauce and give it body.
Other things I've used in this basic recipe are asparagus, green beans, peas, onions and any kinds of squash.

Tonight's recipe:

Combine and stir in a bowl and let marinate for at least 20-30 minutes:
  • 2 boneless skinless chicken breasts chopped in 1/2 inch pieces.
  • 3 minced fresh garlic cloves
  • 2 T white wine, dry or sweet depending on what you like
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 2 tsp corn starch
While the above is marinating, chop the following at roughly the same size as the chicken pieces:
  • 2 medium sized zucchini
  • 1 sweet bell pepper
  • 2 cups chopped mushrooms
  • 2 cups chopped fresh tomato
Also set out:
  • 2 T chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 T chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp dried
  • 1 T chopped fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried
  • 3 T butter (not margarine!)
  • 2 cans pinto beans drained and rinsed
  • white wine--have a bottle handy, i.e. don't drink it all, you might need it for the recipe.
I set all the above in individual containers so it is ready to throw together while I leisurely watch my pot and drink wine.  Having it ready keeps you from accidentally overcooking any of it.

Into a hot pan, pour your chicken mixture and cook until pieces start to whiten and lightly brown.
Add the mushrooms and continue to cook until the liquid is gone and you are left with just the oil. You want this relatively dry but not so much to burn the garlic.  If needed, add a little more olive oil if the pan gets too dry.  Salt and pepper this mixture while cooking.

Once the chicken and mushrooms are cooked through and have started to brown, add the zucchini and toss for a minute or two until it warms.  Then add the peppers, parsley, basil and oregano, keeping your pan on high heat.  Pour in a little more white wine if you didn't drink it all.  If you did, dammit, you'll have to open another bottle.  At this point, you want to start building a sauce, so a medium amount of liquid in the pan is good.  But not too much.  Tomatoes will add more liquid and you're trying to make a stew, not soup.

When the peppers have begun to cook but are still crisp, and the zucchini is just barely starting to soften, add the chopped tomato and canned beans.  Keep this at high heat while letting the tomato soften and break down a bit.  Some of the beans might mush up.  That is okay.  They will add body to the sauce.

At the very end, turn the heat off completely and add 3T of butter in pats.  The butter will flavor and thicken the sauce even further.  You want it to melt but not cook while incorporating it into your mixture.

Here is a photo of the stew in my pan.  I've cooked this in a teflon wok, but a large sauce pan works too.

Here is the final product in the bowl.  Managing the liquid is key.  I like it on the thicker and dryer side, but watch it as you go and add wine as you desire to get the consistency you want.

You can top this with grated Parmesan.  This would be delicious with crusty bread and a nice glass of wine.  Enjoy!!

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Finding A New Me: The Next Step In My Cancer Journey

Thanksgiving, 2016

I was enjoying our holiday meal with two friends who had lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off over the last couple years.  As I've spent the last 8 years trying to lose the weight I'd gained from quitting smoking, I admired their accomplishment.  They were motivated by a family history of heart disease, and as we talked about it, I flippantly said, "Man, I need a health scare to get my ass in shape."

A week later, I had my mammogram, and trust me, I will never taunt fate by making a statement like that again.

But the original sentiment still stands.  Something positive needs to come out of this shitty year, and the best thing that will make me healthier and improve my quality of life would be to drop the 50+ pounds I've been carrying around for 10 years, and get my mind and body back in shape.

So tomorrow, I am starting a diet recommended by the Kidney Foundation for people like me who have a genetic disposition to kidney disease.  If interested, you can read about it here:  DASH Diet

There's nothing terribly weird about it.  It's your basic balanced diet that emphasizes more plant based food over animal products (though it's by no means vegetarian).  You cut out sugar, excess salt and processed food. Animal fat is limited to lean meat such as chicken and fish.  Alcohol only in moderation.

If you want to splurge on something, you do it once every two weeks, and I really like that.

When I was on Weight Watchers, they gave you weekly bonus points.  The concept allowed you to splurge on something once a week, as long as it remained within the bonus points allotment.  Not only did this put me in a perpetual state of having to weigh and measure everything I ate every day,  I found I never lost weight if I used those bonus points.  I'd be down 2 lbs by Friday, splurge on a couple slices of pizza Saturday and be back where I started the week before.  So this idea that you really need to go two weeks before splurging on something fattening makes more sense for me personally.

If you know me, you know there's very little I do half way.  When it comes to work, crafts, hobbies, that's a good thing.  But when it comes to eating, it is not.  When people say "everything in moderation", I literally don't know what "moderation" is.  Does that mean if I have a Sausage McMuffin for breakfast, I can't have a Big Mac for lunch?  I'll never forget one holiday season, my Doctor had said, "When Thanksgiving comes around, only have one piece of pie."  And I asked, "You mean, one a day or one for the whole holiday?"  She laughed and thought I was joking, but I wasn't!

So I very much do struggle with finding that middle ground between over-doing it and never losing weight, and getting too strict, losing 30 only to gain it all back again once I'd exhausted myself by over-dieting.

So I am approaching this next step with apprehension but a lot of hope and promise.  I want to celebrate 2018 in a big way.  We've got a cruise and a Vegas trip planned and I've got 7 months to get my body in shape for both of them.

I want to get back to this place I was before I quit smoking and was hot in leopard skin pants, LOL!

It all starts tomorrow!!  Wish me strength and discipline!!  (I need that more than luck!)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

I Thought It Would Be Weirder

They say it takes three months to make a habit.  It's now been nine months where my focus has been entirely treating and beating cancer.  Aside from working part-time and an occasional gathering with friends, every day of 2017 has been nothing but doctors, surgeries, being sick, feeling injured, more doctors, nurses, hospitals, medications, ointments, special bras, special diets.  It has literally been non-stop, day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month.

And as the end neared, I expected to have an emotional reaction once it was all over and I was free to let any repressed feelings surface. 

I wasn't sure what kind of reaction it would be.  I thought it might be giddy and celebratory.  But while it was a good feeling walking out of radiation last Tuesday, there have certainly been other times in my life where I've felt even more relieved and excited and ready to start life anew.

I also thought I might react with a sense of shock.  I'd imagined sitting in my garden over the weekend, looking around and asking myself, "Wow, what the hell have I just gone through?"  When you're in the moment, you only focus on the moment, the immediate task at hand.  I thought when it was all done, I'd finally have some sort of epiphany about this year as a whole.

And then I thought I might react with anger now that all the fear and effort is behind me.  It's not fair!  Why me?  I just lost a year of my life!

So I took these last few days off work, intentionally didn't plan to do things with friends or family.  I just wanted to have my space, spend some time alone, absorb what I've been through and allow myself to feel whatever I felt.

And you know what surfaced?

"Hmm, I should prune the roses and clear out that bed of bearded irises.  I gotta seal that post in my garden so I can get the bed ready for a fall planting of garlic.  I really want to go see IT.  I think by next weekend, I'll be in good enough shape to turn the compost bin.  Door stops.  Next time I go to Lowes I need to get some door stops."

Seriously.  I feel like a bear that was leisurely foraging for berries in the forest, got shot with a tranquilizer, tagged, captured and studied for 9 months by animal scientists, then released back into the forest, and my first thought is, "Okay so what was I doing?  Oh yeah, berries, I was looking for berries."

One might say all this will come to me later, but I don't think so.  I think there will be moments where I stop and appreciate being alive more than I might have before.  I'm also slightly more of a hypochondriac now.  I no longer have that sense that I'm immune to illness because "nothing ever happens to me".  Future mammograms are going to be extremely stressful, and I do carry around fear of ending up in this place again.

But as for any post-traumatic reaction to this, I've found the end to be very anti-climactic.  And I think it's thanks to writing this blog through it all.  I've already done the "Why Me?" thing, I've already expressed anger, fear and joy through the process.  I'm very been-there-done-that, and now that it's over, I just want to go back to my berries.

The moral of this story is, never underestimate the power of journaling.  Regardless of whether you share it with the world or keep it to yourself in a box under the bed, there is something very healing about putting your feelings down on paper as they happen.  You don't have to be good at writing.  It doesn't have to rhyme or be witty.  It just has to be you and how you feel at the moment.  Because, for me, at least, once I've written it down, it's gone I can move on.  So today, I am moving on!

Part II will be coming.  I have goals to lose 60+ lbs, and that will not be an easy thing to accomplish.  But for now, I'm just going to go outside, water some plants, and think about groceries for the upcoming week.  And believe it or not, that's a very good feeling!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

For Whom The Bell Tolls!

Today, I am officially done with cancer treatment.

The surgery, the chemotherapy, the radiation is all--officially--behind me. And it feels really, really good.

At St. Joseph they give you a pretty certificate that basically says, "You are strong and awesome and DONE!" Everyone hugs over and over. Then we ring the bell and take pictures.  Here is mine.  The three women in the photo are the staff members who got me through this last hurdle. They are saints. They deserve so much praise, and I spent time last night filling out the "Recognize a special St. Joseph employee" forms on each of them.

The guy in the photo is a character named Ray. I don't even know what his treatment is for, but we've had appointments at the same time, 5 days a week, for over a month now.  Ray drove me crazy because, as we sat waiting our turn, he wouldn't STFU or sit still.  He was constantly moving, his mouth constantly running, and being first thing in the morning:  Lets just say, his wife must be a pretty special woman not to have killed him by now.  But in the end, I'm happy to have such a colorful personality as part of my memory of this experience.  So when it came time to ring the bell, it was fitting that Ray would be there, insisting on being part of my ceremony.

I went from there to work, and a number of people wondered why I didn't take the day off to celebrate. My answer was; A) Though it was my last, today still started out with a radiation treatment, so why waste a vacation day on that?!  True freedom starts tomorrow, and trust me, I am OFF the rest of the week!

And B) I actually LOVE the people I work with and wanted to share my celebration with them. Along with Al and Tommy, these are the people who had to literally live with me through this ordeal, and I wanted to share this great day with them.  I am amazingly blessed to have a job that actually got me through cancer treatment.  For more than 30 years, my Fireman's Fund family has seen me through weddings, babies, funerals, and now cancer.  And even though we are few, we are still a strong family and will stay that way no matter where we go.

So here we go.  There have been many chapters in this journey, but this is really only Part I of the bigger novel, and I plan to keep blogging the second half of the story.  There will be a Part II that will deal with life after cancer.  I have hormone treatment ahead of me and goals to get back the body that was once strong, thin and confident.  I'm determined to make this a positive life-changing event that leaves me better than I was before.  So stay tuned. 

Thursday, September 7, 2017

When The Cure Seems Worse Than The Disease

In this quest to rid myself of cancer, I've been stabbed, poisoned, and now burned.  At this point, it seems the only thing left is to drive me out to a remote area and dump the body.

Okay-okay, I know.  My brain knows that these last nine months have been life-saving.  I know that I do NOT want to experience the alternative, and hope I never do.  But sitting here, still bald, with scars and now a blistering purple-red boob, it's hard not to feel like I've spent the last year living within the pages of my own serial killer mystery novel.

It's been a long haul of tearing me down, bringing me back then tearing me down again, only to bring me back so they can tear me down just one more time.  It's exhausting and I've had my melt-downs.  It was Monday when the Petaluma radiology lab called to tell me their machine was broke and my treatments would need to be delayed two days.  Now, understand that I've been looking at the calendar every day for six weeks now, staring at that ONE DAY when this would all be over.  I've been counting down the number, crossing each day off the calendar.  Now they were telling me that my golden day would be two days later because a machine broke.  I went ballistic.  From the halls of my office, I paced around while on the phone in tears.  I told them if they couldn't move me to Santa Rosa for those two days, I wasn't extending my treatment.  9/19/17 is My Done Day, I'm not moving it out.  So if that means they can't finish my treatments by then, I guess I just won't finish and I'll have to take my chances.

They called me back a few minutes later and said they would stay after hours to squeeze me in if I could get to Santa Rosa by 6:00.  I did, and this morning I brought them all a big bunch of cookies along with apologies for being a butt.  (If you didn't read my other blog post titled "Hug A Radiologist Today", go read it.  They deserve appreciation!)  These poor people are dealing with me at a time when I'm at the end of my rope, fed up and plum out of Good Sport Tokens.  And they've been amazingly supportive and understanding.

But this has been a long haul.  Lots of physical pain, emotional fear, frustration, worry, anxiety, not to mention missed opportunities and a year of sitting on the sidelines watching the rest of the world go by.  But 9/19/17 is the day it all ends.  That's my last radiation treatment and I'm following it up with 5 days away from work and doctors and everything that isn't just me taking a breath, kicking back and basking in the glory that this is all--finally--behind me.

I can't wait.  12 days and counting.  I. Just. Can't. Wait.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hug a Radiologist Today

I have a newfound respect for radiologists.  Many of them are seeing people at the tail end of what is a very l o n g  course of treatment.  Take my case, for example, which is not uncommon for breast cancer patients:

11/29/16:  Routine Mammogram Screening

12/14/16:  Follow-Up Mammogram & ultrasound because "they saw something".

12/21/16:  Biopsy because "what we see doesn't look good"

12/22/16:  Notorious call from Doctor:  You Have Cancer. 

1/12/17:  First visit with surgeon in new role as A Cancer Patient

2/13/17:  Partial Mastectomy surgery followed by two weeks of recovery.

2/24/17:  Radiation Oncologist explains radiology treatment some day in the future.

3/3/17:  Medical Oncologist explains possible chemotherapy and hormone therapy after that.

3/17/17:  Notorious Call #2:  Yes, possible chemotherapy is now certain chemotherapy.

4/13/17:  Chemotherapy begins.

4/23/17:  Start 5-day stay in hospital thanks to complications from Chemo Infusion #1

5/4/17:  Have head shaved because hair is falling out.  I now officially "look sick".

6/27/17:  Three months of Chemotherapy treatment finally ends.

8/2/17:  Preparation for radiation treatment begins.

If you count the months on this timeline, they total nine.  That's three months shy of a year.  A year of worry, bad news, stress, sickness, more bad news, more sickness, fatigue, hair loss, more fear:  All thanks to a tiny 7mm mass that wasn't there a year ago. 

And I've kept my chin up and been a trouper through all of it.  Until now, faced with even more treatment in the form of two more months of radiation therapy. 

People all along this long road have said about radiation, "You're at the easy part now!", "The worst is over!", "Radiation is a piece of cake!", "It's a big nothing!", "It's quick, 15 minutes you're in and out!"  And don't get me wrong--I'm glad everyone said that!  Seriously.  No one gets through surgery and chemotherapy by being told the rest of this is all shit too.  Cancer treatment is a marathon, and no marathon runner wants a guy on the sidelines saying, "Dude!  Those last 4 miles are going to SUCK!".  No, we want cheering sections telling us we're almost there and we can make it.

But with that encouragement does come a dose of let-down when you finally get here.  Yes, radiation is WAY better than everything that came before it.  But it's not quite the big nothing everyone said it would be.  Not only does the treatment give you new side effects to freak out over, radiation therapy is daily.  That's a doctor's appointment, every single day, 5 days a week for two months.

Raise of hands:  How many people think a doctor's appointment is no big sweat off a busy workday?  Anyone?  Hands?

I feel bad for my Radiology team.  These are kind, caring people here to help me.  Like all the medical professionals I've seen before them, they have devoted their careers to caring for people like me, who are scared, dazed, and just trying to survive this sudden disruption that has turned everything upside down.  Lets also not forget that they are humans with lives of their own.  Who knows, maybe one of them was handed divorce papers this morning?  Or maybe someone had their own "Notorious Call" from a doctor today.  They still have to smile and comfort and try to bring light to people like me who are JUST FUCKING TIRED OF ALL OF THIS AND WANT OUR GODDAMNED LIVES BACK!!!

Ahem, sorry.  That just slipped out.

So here is my request to you:  If you know a radiologist--especially one who works in a cancer center--go give them a hug.  Tell them they did good today.  Their jobs are tough.  They are basically that poor guy at Tech Support who has to talk to you after you've spent hours trying to fix your computer, then more hours trying to get through the infuriating automated phone maze in an effort to reach an actual human who can get you back on-line.  You're angry and ready to slam your fist through the monitor before they can so much as say, "Hi, I'm Sam, how can I help you?"   Except, unlike your basic tech support guy, radiologists are dealing with real life situations with people who are tired and scared and trying to keep life going for as long as we can.  Their jobs are hard, and the situations they're dealing with are a a lot bigger deal than not being able to get on Instagram for the afternoon.

So go hug a radiologist today!!  And tell them their patients appreciate them, even if they didn't say so!