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!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Tagged And Released

There is a strange feeling that comes with being diagnosed with breast cancer through an annual screening.  You are going through life just fine, no symptoms, feeling pretty healthy and in good shape.  Then a doctor tells you you're sick.  It's weird, I won't lie.  Especially as someone who has had clean annual mammograms for years, that they found something this time around has been especially surreal.  If I hadn't seen the mammogram slides, and also seen the white blotch on the ultrasound while it was happening, I might have gone conspiracy theory on my doctors and wondered if they were faking things to make some extra cash.

Thus, I have been going through this whole experience feeling much like an animal that's been plucked from the herd for scientific study.  I confess, I spend more time being resentful of the medical professionals cutting me open and pumping my veins with poison, than listening to the logical side of me that knows they are saving my life.  And it's in that more primitive vein where today, I have been what I call "tagged and released".

Monday, I start 6 weeks of radiation therapy.  Where chemotherapy kills any rogue cancer cells that may have escaped through my blood stream and attached themselves to another part of my body, radiation targets the spot where the cancer first incubated and tries to prevent it from incubating a second time.  To prep for this very targeted therapy, they "measure and mark you".  Though, I prefer the term, "tag and release".  It feels more fitting.

These marks are actual tattoos, designed to give the radiation technicians a guide for where to position me for the therapy.  When I am done with this, I suppose I can have them removed, much like Angelina Jolie removes the names of her ex-husbands from her butt.  Or I could tattoo something over them, like many people do when they opt to cover up history instead of trying to wipe it out.  Knowing me, I will probably just leave them there.  As I mentioned to my husband, when I finally land that gig as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, the photographer can always Photoshop them out.

They are intended to look like moles.  And despite the fact that I have plenty of competing moles that appeared naturally, in addition to new freckles, age spots, stretch marks, and a plethora of other harmless-yet-bizarre skin things that have appeared with age, these little dots have me annoyed today.  I already have scars from the surgery.  I didn't need five of these little dots on my midsection to permanently remind me that, while we've come a long way in medicine, we haven't come all the way.  At a time when I'm still dealing with all the temporary side effects of surgery and chemotherapy, I really didn't need Ink Master to further distort my highly imperfect but comfortably familiar body. 

But that's enough of my pity party.  These are the times when I remind myself that there are millions of people in this world who would love to have my "problems".  It's cliche', but the notion that "it could be worse" really does comfort me.  And this will blow over and be a big non-issue for me very soon.  But today, it was a bit of an annoying way to start my day.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

7/17/17: My Best and Worst Week of 2017

Thursday started out soo good!  After months of battling the physical challenges of chemotherapy, Thursday was the first day I felt I was turning the page and seeing a glimpse of my old self.  I'd gotten a good night's sleep, woke up and stepped on the scale:  Down 2 pounds!  Finally, my effort to get in shape, eat right and lose some weight was beginning to pay off.  I was on the right track.

An hour later I was at the pool swimming and managed something close to my old pre-cancer swim routine.  Can I really get it back??  Yes, I think I can!!

I got home and went for my walk with Al.  Not as much huffing and puffing.  The muscle aches I've been dealing with for weeks had seemed to vanish overnight.  I wasn't 100%, but I felt dang close!  I thought, "How ironic that today is my first post-chemo appointment with my oncologist.  If I'd seen her two days ago, I'd be handing her a laundry list of ailments to complain about.  But like magic, most of them seem to either be gone or greatly improved."

So off I went to St. Joseph Cancer Center that afternoon, bright eyed and happy.  And the appointment itself went well.  She was happy.  I was happy.  She commented that I got through this really well.  She even said something about me being a strong woman through all this.  Which should have been a clue that she was going somewhere with it.  Because her next moves turned my best day into my most devastating day of the year.

Apparently, back in May when I was hospitalized for diverticulitis, they'd found something on the CT scan, something that had nothing to do with breast cancer.  As I was in the middle of chemo at the time, they didn't want to distract and worry me with it, because "It's probably nothing."

Here's the rub:  You can tell a previously healthy person "It's probably nothing," and they will take comfort in that.  But once you've been diagnosed with cancer and dealt with all the tests and treatments, the "It's probably nothing" comment is wired into the brain as "It's going to be something."

The CT scan showed something on my kidneys.  She said they probably were cysts, which are common and don't cause harm.  But more tests are needed to find out for sure.  She said not to worry, but as a person who'd been down this road before with very bad results, this news was absolutely crushing.  I would need an ultrasound, and if that didn't come back definitively, they would order a biopsy.  The biopsy could bring me another cancer diagnosis, but she said, "let's not go there because chances are very very high that they're just cysts".

I walked out of her office stunned, horrified, and seeing history repeat itself before I'd even had a chance to get over the first worst thing that has ever happened to me.

I called my husband from the car and tried not to cry.  He gave me the same "stay positive" assurances he gave me the last time things turned out bad.  He said, "And no matter what, we'll get through it."  And I wondered, "Can we?"  He might be able to.  But if I'm told I need more chemotherapy for a completely different and unrelated cancer, while I'm still bald from the last round.....let's just say, it was the first time in my life I ever considered suicide.

Now, let me pause and mention that I have friends going through much worse than I am right now.  I don't want to disrespect them or the depths of their battles.  I am lucky.  If I have kidney cancer, I should be thanking God that I had cause to find it early.  My five days in the hospital battling breast cancer could have actually saved my life.  I'm not ignorant of that fact.  But Thursday, none of those things left me thankful or comforted.  Remembering it could be worse is what takes you through the treatment when you have to be strong and suck it up.  But when you walk out of the office first hearing another blow, your honest reaction is "I don't want to do this. I don't want to fight this fight--AGAIN!"

So like I did the first time around, I spent most of that afternoon and evening scouring the internet.  I remembered that Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD) runs in my family.  Maybe that's what this is. That wouldn't be great, but that's better than malignant tumors.

I broke down that night and cried to Al.  I think it is one of the few times I've cried through this.  I'm not someone who cries often, but Thursday night, I cried over the thought of going through all of this over again.  I just can't.  Not this soon.  I was prepared for maybe years from now.  Maybe there would be another Bad Mammogram, but it wouldn't be NOW, before my hair even had a chance to fill in.  And he said again, "We will get through it.  Whatever it is, we will get through it."


Miracles started happening the next morning when I called radiology.  They had a cancellation and could get me in at lunch time.  If I couldn't make that appointment, they were booked two weeks out.  (TWO WEEKS???)  People who have been through health issues will tell you it's the waiting that does the most damage, so I easily told the woman I would be there.  I would move mountains to have this ultrasound done NOW.  I then did the other best move of my year:  I emailed my primary care physician Dr. Lana Nguyen.

Let me pause once more to tell you about Dr. Nguyen.  She has been our family physician for over 25 years.  She's an OB/GYN/GP, which means she not only delivered our son, but has been our family doctor "in old school terms".  The person you talk to, not just about health matters, but what's going on in your life and things like that.  I consider her a member of our family.  She has seen us through our most challenging days.  She's the woman who had to deliver the bad news about my breast cancer.  But I cherish that the news came from her.  She's the right "fit" for me, she communicates in a language I understand and relate to.  So when I was in total distress over this, I emailed her and asked her if we could talk.  I was devastated by this news, terrified of what might be the results, and needed to talk to someone. I sent off that email and went to get the ultrasound.

And then I waited.

The lab technician told me the results would probably be sent to my doctors on Monday so I should be hearing from them Monday or Tuesday.  Gotta love tests taken right before a goddamn weekend.  And this was going to be a horrible weekend of repressed fear and worry.  So I tried to put it out of my head, knowing that it would be at least 3 days before this nightmare either started or ended.

And then, at 4:37 p.m. on Friday the phone rang.  It was Dr. Nguyen.

There are two things Doc Lana has said to me that are burned in my memory forever.  The first was when she called to tell me Bad Mammogram was cancer.  She'd asked, "Are you sitting down?"  The second was Friday at 4:37 when she said, "I've got good news for you."

As she told it, she'd been sitting at her desk, thinking about how to respond to my email with reassurances that would get me through the weekend, when her assistant plopped the ultrasound results on her desk.

The cysts are just cysts.  I don't have malignant kidney tumors.  I don't need biopsies or more tests or treatment or agony.  They are common cysts that many people have and I am fine.


Here is the post-cancer new normal.  In the past, I was pretty good about not stressing over screenings and tests.  I always kept it positive.  And why wouldn't I?  I've never been really sick.  Neither has anyone in my immediate family.  I come from "good stock" as you'd call it.  Short of an accident, nothing horrible ever happens to people who come from good stock.

But this endeavor with breast cancer has changed that, and has changed it for good.  The days of shrugging off health scares are behind me, and that really sucks.  Because we all know that health scares involve tests, and waiting for results, and trying to go on with life while waiting for a call that might change your life for the worse.  Some people can just give that up to God with a "It will be what it will be" attitude.  And I genuinely admire those people.  That takes strength, don't ever think otherwise.  And that is something I plan to work on developing within myself.


I'm a control freak.  I don't like the unknown.  I don't like living without a plan.  And for 55 years, I've managed to hang on to that way of life.  But I also know that inner strength, peace, and true happiness comes from learning how to let each and every day unfold as it will.  We don't get to go to sleep every night with answers.  And we can't rely on answers to bring us a good night's sleep.

So my kidney scare is yet another life lesson I am being handed in 2017.  Spiritualists like Deepak Chopra and Eckhart Tolle call it "living in the present", a way of thinking that takes schooling and practice.  For sure, it's something I need to practice more as time progresses, as facing mortality is something we do more of as we age, not less. 

There is a saying, "Old age isn't for the weak, but it sure beats the alternative."  No truer words have been spoken!!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Way Back, One Step At A Time

Mother's Day 2017, I'm smack in the middle of 12 weeks of chemotherapy.  I told my son that, as a Mother's Day gift, I'd love a box of Sees candy.  Instead, he bought me a Fitbit.

Now, before you pass judgment on that move, full disclosure:  He knew his dad had already bought me the box of candy.  The Fitbit was his very thoughtful and sincere attempt at finding an alternative I would like.  Unfortunately, what he didn't know is that I've been personally rebelling against any device like a Fitbit since these things hit the market several years ago.

The problem with me is I don't like to be told what to do.  Insinuate, in any way, that the 5,000 steps I walked today isn't good enough, and tomorrow I'll only walk 2,500 steps just to remind you who's in control of my life.  Thus, when people tout Fitbits as awesome because they "let me know when I didn't move enough today", my first thought is, that's the worst device I could possibly own.

But I'm a mom, my kid went through the expense and trouble of thinking up a gift for me.  And it was me who had been saying all year that once I'm past this cancer treatment, I'm getting my shit together, losing weight and getting in shape.  I said it, he listened.  He'd made sure the Fitbit was water proof and equipped to track swimming, my most favorite exercise.  And for the cherry on top, he'd bought it in "breast cancer pink" as a symbolic reminder of why I need to stay motivated.  In the ball park of thoughtful gifts, the kid had just hit a walk-off home run.  Responding with, "I've always hated the idea of these things" would have been cruel and downright irresponsible as a parent.  So I just smiled, hugged and thanked him, then promised to check it out "once I was done with my chemotherapy".

Well, today I am 9 days past my last infusion.  I had originally decided to give myself two full weeks of sitting around, eating poorly and feeling sorry for, I mean "healing"....before engaging in any get-healthy diet and exercise plan.  But honestly, I'm too sick of being sick to sit around for that long.  Even though my final round of chemo isn't technically over, I'm anxious to start taking back as much of my old life as my body will allow.  So three days ago, I started back with the morning walks.  Yesterday, I purged the house of the junk food and filled the fridge with fruits and vegetables.  And today, I opened the box to my Fitbit.

I have to say it is pretty cool.  I may be someone who hates to be told what to do, but I'm also a sucker for gadgets and technology.  When it comes to the Fitbit, the latter may actually win out.  I also didn't realize it had diet and weight tracking which I have used in the past with apps like SparkPeople and Weight Watchers.  That is a big bonus.  I've set it up for swimming, and am curious to see exactly how much activity this thing records.  Will I get credit for gardening or walking around the office? There are days when I'm up and down a lot.  And exactly how does it know when I'm moving and when I'm not?  I guess those are things I will find out now that I've got this thing set up and on my wrist.

SO ready or not, here I go in search of a new me.  I'm starting slow and steady with modest goals that take into account my current limitations.  And if those prove too hard, I'll set them back a little more.  It doesn't matter much to me where my starting point is, but just that I'm starting.  And that's a really good feeling!