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!

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!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The First Rays of Light

Today is my last chemotherapy infusion. It marks the first positive thing that I can associate with this experience since it all started three days before Christmas, 2016.

It is not the end, by any means. I'll spend the next few weeks feeling crummy and tired. I may lose the last of this peach fuzz on my head and these ever-thinning eyebrows. My energy will be zapped, and just a simple walk will feel like I'm climbing a mountain. 

But unlike the last three treatment cycles, once these after-effects begin to wear off and I start feeling better, it will be for good.  No more looming smack-downs.  No more little voices in my head saying, "Umm, yeah.  Don't get too excited about feeling good today, because that will end soon."  With this cycle I can finally do what I haven't been able to do all year:  Look forward and start to heal.

From the moment I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, our lives have been consumed by the present.  We wait for test results, focus on surgery, on my treatment plan, our next doctor's appointment, the next test.  I worried they'd recommend chemo, and I cried and stressed when they did.  Should I do it?  How bad will it be?  What will it do to my body?  How will my day-to-day life be altered?  Can I work?  Can I go out and do things?  How will this affect my family?  It's stressful and all-engrossing.  And embarking on chemotherapy is like walking through a long, dark tunnel.  Many times I stood in the middle, not able to see light at either end and wondered if I'd made the right choice to do it.  But once you enter that tunnel, you can't go back.  You have to just keep moving in the direction you started, feeling your way along clammy cold walls and trusting the people who promise it's the right path and that there really will be light at the other end.

Today, I finally see that glimmer of light up ahead.  The relief is overwhelming.

There's more to do.  I will have radiation next and hormone treatment after that.  But more than one oncologist has told me this period is the worst of it.  I'm at the summit, and once I complete this round, it's all down hill by comparison.  Finally, I can do something I haven't done since this year started, and that is to start focusing on the future with hope, relief, and a determination to make some positive changes in my life.

Today is a good, good day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why Me?!

It's not a question I dwell on.  I tend to be the type of person who focuses more on what I'm going to do about a situation than why something happened in the first place.  But when faced with a cancer diagnosis, it's impossible not to at least briefly ponder the question, "Why Me?"

There is no history of cancer in my family.  Not prevalent, at least.  And statistically, 70% of people diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of it.  That alone is a scary thought.  Then add to it the constant bombardment of information about cancer-fighting foods, cancer-causing foods, our environment, plastics, GMOs, hormones, carcinogens....the list is endless.  Put it together and any reasonable person would, at some point, wonder if they've done something to bring this upon themselves.  Yet when I asked my oncologist that very question, her answer was a quick and decisive, "No.  It's just the luck of the draw".

Unless you believe in giant conspiracies, it's hard to reconcile those two.  How can there be so much advice, legislature and information about cancer-causing everything, yet when you get it, your oncologist tells you it's just a random thing and you're just unlucky?  It was my own physician who said that cancer is often a "three strikes you're out" kind of thing.  Most of the time, one thing in and of itself will not give you cancer.  It's usually a combination of genetics, family history, lifestyle, age that come together to create that perfect storm.  And logically, that makes sense to me.

The type of cancer I have feeds on estrogen.  It's the most common type of breast cancer, particularly for women my age, right around menopause, when hormones are shaking things up.  Couple that with being overweight for the last 10 years--another thing that raises the estrogen levels in your body--and that's probably two of my strikes right there.  But what about the third?

Though I can't find definitive scientific evidence of this, I do have my own theory.  And it has to do with over 30 years of birth control.

I started on birth control pills at the age of 18, and stayed on them until I was 30.  At that time, because I smoked, my doctor took me off them due to the high risk of heart attack when combining birth control and cigarettes after the age of 30.  It wasn't a big deal as I had been married a while and we were starting to mumble about eventually getting around to being parents.  And four years later, my son was born.  After his birth, however, I wasn't keen on getting pregnant again, and needed something better than the diaphram and "good luck timing" we were relying on before.  That's when my doctor told me about Depo Provera.

Depo Provera is another hormone-based form of birth control that is still around today.  I loved it.  You go in for a shot every 13 weeks and forget about it.  It stops your periods (BONUS!), has virtually no side effects (for me, at least), and did not carry the same heart attack warnings of traditional birth control pills.  With no reason to stop, I stayed on Depo Provera for 18 years, up until I turned 52, which was the age my doctor typically liked to take women off it.

And two years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

At first, I hadn't considered a connection, until I started seeing things about my type of cancer being caused by hormone replacement therapy.  In fact, the risk of breast cancer is so high that doctors don't even treat women with hormone therapy unless the case is extreme.  So I started looking up Depo Provera, and what I found on the internet was a lot of contradicting information.  One study found that Depo Provera raises the risk of breast cancer by something like 200%.  It also said that risk remains high within 5 years of stopping the injections. However, that study is considered controversial and other studies show Depo Provera has no impact on breast cancer at all.  In fact, you can still walk into your doctor's office and get the Depo shot for birth control.

I asked my surgeon about it and he reiterated what I'd read:  That there is a debate, and right now, no one knows for sure.  In defense of Depo, it is not an estrogen-based hormone.  But it is a hormone.  And when someone has been adding artificial hormones to her body for almost 30 years, you have to wonder.  Add to that a diet that includes a lot of hormone-fed animal products.  In my perpetual effort to drop 50 lbs, I've been stuck on a high-protein, low-carb diet seemingly forever.   And with a boy at home that won't eat anything that didn't once "moo", our dinners have been centered around meat and chicken for a long time.

So there you have this intersection of many different things all coming together to put me in this spot.  At least in theory.  Decades of hormone-based birth control, a diet filled with too much hormone-fed animal products, a BMI too high, and an age that is ripe for developing breast cancer.  I may be wrong.  It could be just the luck of the draw that my oncologist says it is.  But if I were to lay odds on lifestyle choices that may have played a part, that would be it.

It may sound surprising, but there is actually comfort in thinking that I had somehow contributed to my situation.  You see, if you believe you did it, then you can undo it.  It's a matter of control versus no control.  And if you know me, you know I always opt for control.  I am, after all, the person who stupidly said a mere 4 weeks before my diagnosis:  "Man, I need a health scare to whip me into shape [to eat better, exercise more and lose weight]."  Yes, I really did say that.  I will never say it again!

On the Depo front, even the controversial study included some positive news.  It found that the increased risks taper off after a few years off of the shots. So even if that study is later supported by more research, it seems I haven't sunk myself for life.  And in the meantime, when I am watching daytime TV and hearing those class action lawsuit commercials (mesotheleoma anyone?) I will keep my ears peeled on the topic of Depo Provera.  You can bet that!

But short of that, it's where the "Why Me?" pondering ends.  In my opinion, the best way to ruin a life is to spend too much time obsessing over what might of been.  And I have no interest in doing that.  But these are definitely things that will shape my future.

Next Thursday is my last chemotherapy treatment, and I can't wait.  Not only because chemo sucks and I'm officially sick of being sick.  But I am looking forward to getting this treatment behind me so I can start really focusing on what my post-cancer life will look like.  I intend for it to be a healthier one.  Hey, I asked for that health scare, I got it, so I better damn well do something with that. But even if losing weight, eating a more plant-based diet, eating clean, exercising more and building up my strength doesn't prevent me from getting cancer again, it will definitely improve the quality of my life in between.

I can also attest that if you are faced with having to go through cancer treatment, the healthier you are going in, the easier it will be on your body to get through it.  Trust me on that.  It's a win-win no matter what.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Three Down, One To Go

I just finished my third infusion, and knowing that I only have to do this one more time is the second best feeling, behind never having to come back!

The upside of this visit was talking to a different oncologist (mine is on vacation). Not that I think one is better than the other, but it's nice to hear things from different professionals.  Sometimes they state things differently, they might throw in something the other guy never mentioned, etc.

For one thing, after telling him about the horrible aches, headaches and migraines I got from the booster shot they gave me last time, he is switching me to another booster which doesn't hit you with it all at once. Instead of one big shot that is supposed to take you through two weeks, I'll get 7 little shots over 7 days.  They will also monitor my reaction to them, and if I am in bad shape, they feel I can quit them after as few as 3.  That is a really, really great thing, and I'll tell you why:

Chemo infusions are kinda like getting into some sort of accident where you are injured and feeling horrible for days and then, thankfully, you recover. The difference when it comes to chemo is that you know what day that accident will happen. It's the dread and anticipation that is almost as bad as the experience itself. So even if this switch in booster shots doesn't improve my situation, today, it is giving me the hope that it might not. I don't know it will be bad, and not knowing is a bonus I'll take.

As a side note to this, I will add that after each infusion, I've been keeping a daily log of what I ate, how I'm feeling, how I slept, etc.  This has been a HUGE help, and if you ever find yourself going through something like this, DO IT.  I'd logged the first week after my last infusion then put the log away the moment I started feeling better.  When I picked it up today before my appointment, I realized how much I had forgotten.  Without it, I would have told the oncologist that "I just had one bad night of migraines."  The log helped me remember that I didn't have one bad night of migraines.  I had 5 days of aches and pains, headaches bad enough to keep me out of work for 3 days, a bad heartburn-like feeling in my sternum which they think was caused by the booster, and a slew of other things I'd quickly wiped out of my memory banks.  I'm not sure if the doctor would have recommended the change in booster if I hadn't been keeping this log and had understated my reaction (it's amazing how quickly we erase bad experiences from our memory once we are past them).  So if you are ever in a situation like this, log, log, log!

The second thing he did was reaffirm what I've been told many times, but I just need to keep hearing it again from as many people as possible, especially oncologists who do this every day. He confirmed that yes, chemo really is the worst of all my treatments when it comes to fatigue and feeling like my body is 80 years old, and the fitness I'd worked so hard to build up is all gone, and I'll have to start from square one when I'm done, and...and.... Like so many of my wonderful friends have reminded me, it is TEMPORARY. And more to the point, I really will bounce back more quickly after this than it took me to build up the fitness in the first place. I will help myself to keep walking and swimming on days that I can, even if it's depressing and hard.  But I will keep up with it for that goal of bouncing back faster at the end.

Hearing that (AGAIN) made me happy. It all made me happy.

So here we go. Infusion day and the day after I'm always feeling good because I'm amped on steroids. The train will hit me over the weekend, and I'm hopeful this time, it's just a little Thomas The Tank train instead of high speed rail.   Today's doctor joked, "We learn from every infusion, so I'm confident that by Infusion 4 [my last] we'll have this nailed."  Haha

But no matter how this goes: I'VE ONLY GOT ONE MORE TO GO!!!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Battling Fatigue

Before I started chemotherapy, my morning exercise routine was to get up early, head off to the gym to enjoy a 30 minute swim.  Once home, I'd follow that up with a 1.5 mile walk with my husband.  I did this without much effort.  In fact, before my cancer diagnosis, I was thinking I needed to add something more challenging to my regime.

Boy, have things changed.

I learned the hard way that swimming and walking are an either/or choice now.  I tried to do both a while back and barely made it through the day, I was so tired and exhausted.  And it's only gone down hill since then.  Lately, I've skipped the pool and opted for the walk with my husband, and increasingly, even that has become hard.  Though it's just an easy walk through our neighborhood, I huff and puff as if I were climbing Mt. Tam.  And when I get home, I'm making a bee-line to my office chair to get off my feet and rest.

Today, I went for a swim instead, and it's as if 5 years of swimming fitness is gone.  I'd gone back to the easier swim routine I did when I first started at the pool, and even that was a challenge.

And it's not just exercise. This long Memorial Day weekend, I felt good enough to take on the project of creating a decorative area for the fountain my husband bought me for my birthday.  I spent two days making the wooden backdrop for this and putting together the plants.  Hubby did all the hauling and placing of the stone pavers--I knew better than to even try to help.

While I love the outcome and enjoyed getting out and "being my old self" for a couple days, I definitely paid the price.  I spent Memorial Day in my recliner, barely getting up to take a shower, and I was still tired and beat on Tuesday.

It definitely feels as though my days of being fit and active are behind me, which is an extremely depressing thought.

My oncologist continues to tell me that all this is temporary, but my psyche doesn't believe it.  Chemotherapy has knocked me on my ass, and I know that fatigue is the primary side effect of the radiation therapy that comes next.  I've also read that the hormone therapy that will follow radiation therapy for me can also drag you down.  Add all this up and I will be over 60 years old before I'm done with all this cancer treatment--and that's if the cancer doesn't come back.  Now, I know that 60 is hardly considered old these days, but when you're 55 and already feeling like your body is 80, thoughts of finally getting my energy back after the Big 6-0 does little to perk my spirit.

So is there an upside to all this?  I really don't like putting up a post that serves no purpose other than to bitch and gripe about my situation.  So in the spirit of ending on a high note, I need to remind myself that all won't be as bleak as it seems today.  Most people who went through it all say that radiation is far less taxing on the body than chemotherapy, and I hope that is my experience also.  I'm only at the 1/2 way mark through chemo (something that feels more daunting than good right now), but after my last infusion, I will have 6 weeks off before I start radiation.  I'm hopeful that I can start some sort of recovery in that 6 week period, and that any recovery I do accomplish won't get wiped out once I start rads.  Unfortunately for me right now, only time is going to tell!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Infusion 2 of 4: Hellraiser Returns

After the first infusion, I'd said I set the bar low.  If figured it I could just stay out of the hospital, this next infusion would be an improvement over the first one.

I take that all back.  I didn't end up in the hospital, but thanks to the injection I'm getting now which stimulate marrow growth and (hopefully) prevent the loss of almost all my white blood counts, in exchange for a hospital stay, I got two days of severe migraine headaches that made me want to put a gun to my head and pull the trigger.

Migraines run in my family.  I'd never had one before.  I hope to never have one again, but unfortunately, I have two more infusions to go through which will no doubt bring them back.  I am not looking forward to this.  I had 2nd my infusion last Thursday, it's now Tuesday (it is Tuesday, right?) and I'm only now just emerging from the fog.

This has all been made worse by the fact that Al is now sick, and the doctors have been taking samples trying to find out what's wrong.  We thought he'd caught one of the infections I came home with from my hospital stay, but that test came up negative.  Now, we are waiting for more test results.

So, pretty much since Saturday, this house has been a giant tomb of misery.  No one sleeps, no one eats.  We are all patients and no care-givers.

On the upside, I think I am beginning to come out of my fog, at least.  But I will tell you this:  Chemotherapy can NOT end soon enough.  And if I should ever be put in this situation again, I will not immediately agree to it.  It will be a very hard sell for the next oncologist. 

My only hope is there will never have to be such a thing as a "next time"!

Friday, May 12, 2017

A Slice Of Normal Life!

Oh what a glorious day, I got to go back to the pool, even though it's just for a few days.

You see, there are two things good about Infusion Day.  One, I get my blood work done, and yesterday I got the a-okay that all my counts were good, my immune system is strong, and for the next few days, at least, I am safe to operate as a normal human being.

Second, they put me on 3 days of steroids surrounding the infusion to prevent allergic reaction, and to generally hold back the worst of the side-effects.  If you've ever had reason to be on steroids, you will understand why athletes are drawn to them.  You feel pretty strong and invincible.  It's a short-lived high that leaves you with a big crash after, but when you're grasping for a little bit of feel-good normalcy, I'll take it!

So the first thing I did was get up early and get my butt to the pool!!  It was my first swim in 4 weeks and it felt WONDERFUL!  I was also blessed to meet up with two of my favorite swimming buddies, Diane and Jill, who were gracious enough to take a swim cap selfie with me to commemorate the occasion.

I am safe to go back in the pool tomorrow too, and maybe Sunday if I am up to it.  I plan to get the swims in while I can.  After that, I'm back in danger of my blood counts going down, so I will probably sit it out again until I know I'm in the clear. My doctor keeps telling me that, since the pool is chlorinated I shouldn't have to worry.  She knows how good it is for my mind and body and she encourages me to not stress so much about catching a bug in the water.  But after that hospital stint, I think I'd rather play it safe than sorry.

But ohhh was today wonderful.  The pool is my zen.  I love getting there early, before the sun comes up if I can because it's so calm and serene.  Today I was jumping in at an ungodly 5:20 a.m. (steroids also keep you amped up and awake).  But it was great.  I'd do it every day if I could consistently get up that early.

In the pool, I am thin and fit and in shape (a concept that always reminds me of Shelly Winters in the Poseidon Adventure, heh). Physically, it's a great workout for me because it's low impact, but it also forces heavy rhythmic breathing. My body gets a good dose of oxygen. Throw some music on my waterproof iPod and it's my favorite way to start my day.

Right now, I have a lot of upbeat music on my swim shuffle, happy "life is good" kinda music. It's a great reminder to me that even though I have been finding The Dark Side lately, life really IS worth this fight, and before I know it, I'll be able to enjoy many more of these simple pleasures I used to take for granted.

My swim song list, in case anyone is wondering:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Voices From The Dark Side

All of this will be for nothing.  This cancer is going to come back, I'm sure of it.  I know this because, ever since I had that stupid mammogram back in November, 2016, not a solitary thing has gone my way.  They said, "Don't worry, we caught this early and it's teeny tiny small!"  As if that mattered one iota.  It didn't save me from chemo, and chemo has been The Shit.  Everything bad that could happen has happened.  So why expect a big shift now?  The radiation will go badly too.  Then the hormone pills will completely fuck me up.  They'll make me gain 50 lbs and I'll never sleep again thanks to heart palpitations and night sweats.  I'll be a sleepless, sweating, bloated alien with no body hair and one red boob.  And maybe, if I'm lucky, by Christmas 2017 I will have a short peek at what my old life was like before the next mammogram is due and they find a new spot.  Basically, my life has been summed up like this:  There was a good healthy confident life before the mammogram.  Now there is a shit life after.

These are the Voices from The Dark Side.  And they are nasty and mean.  On bad days, they even have me resenting my oncologist for trying to cure me.  Is she even competent?  Is she just making me do all this to rack up fees?  Is she getting kick-backs from all these pharmaceutical companies?

I really hate TDS.  It's destructive, it serves no purpose, and it creeps up on you when you least expect it.  It makes a hard time even more difficult than it has to be, and sucks the joy out of the day or night.

I'm fortunate that I don't go there very often, but staying away doesn't come easily.  I've had to distance myself from the negative--or just ill-witted--people who try to drag me in there with their doomsday comments.  The people who, for reasons I will never understand, seem to think I need to be told about all the bad cancer shit, instead of working to keep me focused on the positives.  (I promise that if you or a family member are ever diagnosed, you can talk to me because I will NEVER do that to you.)  Seriously, if there is ever a time in a person's life when they need to stay focused on the positives, this is it.  And it's a fucking hard thing to do.

And then on the flipside are the wonderful people who do keep it positive, who come around often and make sure I'm okay.  I torture those poor people, because I flip between needing to get out of the house and needing to stay home and decompress in solitude.  And that need changes day-by-day, hour-by-hour.  I don't expect anyone to anticipate my current mood, and will never fault any of them for getting it wrong.  I'm a hard person to figure out right now.

But what ultimately works against me is that I can so easily become a couch potato.  And now that I'm working fewer hours and have doctors telling me to rest, I could pretty easily get up in the morning, sit on the couch, eat almond milk ice cream, chips and guacamole and watch TV all day.  From early childhood, it was my tendency to lean in that direction (growing up in rainy Oregon helped).  But too much of that isolation sends me over to TDS.  So unless it's a day when I'm feeling physically bad, I'll have to stop that no matter how much the Itty Bitty Shitty Committee in my head tells me I have every right to sit and do nothing but watch TV and eat sugar. 

Because, of course, the best cure for TDS is to get up, move around, breath air and do something constructive with at least a good portion of the day.  That really is the answer.  You've got to stay busy enough that you don't have time to sit down for hours and start living in your own head.

From the time I took off work at 3:00 on Friday until the time I went to bed Saturday night, I couch potatoed for no good reason.  My stomach is feeling better, so I used it as an excuse to eat crap all day.  And what I got for it was a night of insomnia filled with Voices From The Dark Side.  It's why I'm up at 3:21 a.m. writing this post.  I had to get up and do something that would start me moving in the other direction.  The Voices want me to feel sorry for myself, be sad and depressed, but the rest of me can't tolerate that kind of existence.

So I'll start tomorrow with new rules designed to keep me out of TDS.  From now on, Couch Potatoing is for those crummy-feeling days when I physically can't do much more.  There will be enough of them in my future, so I don't have to worry about missing my favorite shows.

Days like this beautiful Saturday we just had, when my body is feeling good and the sun is shining, are not the days to sit around and be lazy.  Those are days to get out and go shopping, or get on my orange and white Cruiser (I call it my Creamcycle, heh) and go for a bike ride.  This last week I worked from home (more isolation=bad) but I'm back in the office on Monday and will be happy to be there.  I love my coworkers and enjoy being around people and talking about non-cancer things like work and hobbies and other people's lives.

It won't be easy because I really do like to sit around and be lazy and have the house to myself to do what I want.  Give me the option of sitting on the couch with ice cream or sitting on the weight machine in the garage pumping iron, the couch will win every time.  But I've got to muster the will to change that going forward, as the price I pay for it is too high.  I've got WAY too much more shit to go through to have my psyche derailed on me now.  I'll never get through it if I stay on this path.

So, sorry Itty Bitty Shitty Committee, but you will have to go back to your Sith Lord and tell them The Force is too strong with this one.  I've got my army of Jedi Knights've seen the movies.  With the right plot, the good guys always win.

(Gosh, I guess I shoulda posted this on May the 4th. :) )

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Blueberry Pancakes From Mom

I went through a very difficult time in the weeks after my son was born.  He was a big baby, born the old fashioned way.  And as things worked out, we were sent home less than 24 hours after he was born, on two nights without sleep.  Neither grandma lived nearby, and we hadn't arranged to have family there to help right after the birth.  Our Lamaze teacher had told us that "we'd want this time alone with our child", and because we were naive, we believed her. We'd arranged to spend the first few weeks alone before any family came to stay with us.

That ended up being a very stupid move.

When my mom showed up three weeks later, I was exhausted, strung out, an emotional wreck and in need of rescue.  She took one look at me, told me to give her the baby and go to bed.  And I was happy to do it.  I woke up hours later to a happy baby boy, an organized house and a plan that would get me healthy again and prepared to care for a newborn.  To this day, I don't know what I would have done back then if my mother hadn't been there to pull us out of the deep hole we were drowning in.

Those days came back to me as I spent this last week in the hospital.  My first night there was spent on a gurney in the ER.  My second night there was--no joke--the most traumatic night of my life.  To avoid TMI I will just say it involved their need for stool and urine samples and the devices they gave me to carry that out.  It did not go well, and I ended up hysterical in my room surrounded by nurses and aides.  I was kept awake the third night by an IV machine that sounded off alarms so loud you'd think the country was being invaded.  They kept trying to fix it, then every 30 minutes it would go off again.  When the problem was finally solved and I was close to almost dozing off, an idiot orderly waltzed in to take my vitals and then proceed to chat me up like we were two guys in a bar getting to know each other over a beer.  He apparently didn't understand the concept that when you've literally shaken someone awake at 3:00 a.m. to take their blood pressure, they aren't real interested in hearing your life story. 

That was the night I started crying, and once I started, I couldn't stop.  I'd been sick for four days, traumatized by all the tests and samples.  I was repeatedly stabbed with needles, fed pills and sour liquids and chalky tablets.  I had a tube in my arm 24/7, hooked to a machine that sounded off alarms day and night.  I had no appetite and no sleep, and every day that went by, it only got worse.  I needed my mom again.  I needed her so bad, my heart ached.  I needed her to swoop in and fix all this just like she'd done 21 years ago.  To rescue me.  And through the exhaustion and darkness that is the dead of night, I'd never felt so desolate, alone, helpless and sad.

That following day, I ramped up my communication with the nursing staff.  I started telling them very clearly what was and wasn't working for me.  I told them I didn't want to see the chatty night kid, that it wasn't acceptable to have a nurse wake me up to give me a pill, then an hour later be woken up again to have my vital signs taken.  They needed to start putting some of these things together so I wasn't bugged all night.  I told them I was done giving samples unless they could come up with a better way.  And I wanted meds to help me sleep.

I didn't realize it at the time, but I was basically doing for myself everything my mother would have done had she been alive and there handling things for me.

I wasn't bitchy or rude.  My tone was I'm in trouble and I need you to help me fix this.  And the woman who was my night nurse that day responded.  Her name is Kelli and she is one of the head nurses in the cancer ward. Kelli changed around my night schedule, bundled things that could be done together, stretched some hours between meds, and talked to my doctors to adjust my plan.  She stopped all the "collection" that was going on, and came up with a way to make the real necessities bearable.  And thanks to her, that night I got six deep, blissful hours of uninterrupted sleep.  When I woke up the next morning, I not only felt rested and healed, but everything about the world and my situation seemed okay.

And then the blueberry pancakes came.

When I was little, our family vacations took the form of road trips, and the tradition was to get on the road early and stop for breakfast.  I would always order blueberry pancakes, and insist on having my very own stack.  My mom would try to get me to share a meal instead, but I had to have my own blueberry pancakes.  And, just like she knew I would, when the plate came, I would take about 4 bites and say I was full.

Blueberry pancakes were a running joke between me and my mom throughout my life.  So needless to say, when I opened the lid on my breakfast that morning and saw blueberry pancakes, I burst into tears.  Two nights before, I had cried and cried wishing she were there to help me through this.  And when I saw those pancakes, I realized she had come. And like I'd needed so badly, she'd rescued me.

I'm not a religious person.  I don't know if the spirits of our loved ones who have passed remain literally with us, or if they simply live on through us.  Maybe mom didn't rescue me, but I rescued myself through her example of how to handle life in crisis.  Maybe the whole thing was just a coincidence.  But my heart tells me it was more than that.  My heart tells me those pancakes were sent by my mom to let me know she was there, that we got everything fixed now, and that from here on out, I was going to be okay.

And in response, I ate my 4 bites and was full.  :)

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Lessons We Learn From Major Life Events

My approach to chemotherapy was very much the same as my approach to being pregnant with my son.  The moment I got the news I was expecting, I read up on everything, made a plan, asked lots of questions.  I got myself educated and prepared, and went into it with a total "I Got This" attitude.  I won't call it arrogance.  I'm enough of a realist to know that things never go smoothly, that every major life event brings challenges, but I felt I was at least braced and ready to be a new mom. 

And then the baby came.  And I found out fast that--for me, at least--there really was no such thing as being ready for parenthood, much less controlling the outcome.

There's a connotation to the phrase "I Got This" that speaks to empowerment. That speaks to control.  But just as I learned when my son was born, some things won't be controlled.  And there are some things you can never fully prepare for.  My chemotherapy experience has been very much the same, just without all the cuteness and fun stuff that you get with a kid.

In this journey, I was not prepared for the loss of almost all my white blood cells after my first infusion.  The medical term is Neutropenia.  That opened the door for infection and what ended up being five very sick and horrible days in an isolation room at the hospital.  I've never been hospitalized before.  I hope I never am again.  All of it is bad.  All of it.

They told me the odds of developing Neutropenia were relatively small, and I felt my odds were even smaller in my case because--of course--I was the well-informed, model, sit-in-front-of-the-class chemo patient.  I did everything by the book, followed all doctors orders.  I was supposed to get something for that.  But just as I discovered after having my son, there's no guarantees no matter what you do, no matter how many books you read, or how many people you've gleaned experience from.  These are times in our lives when all bets are off and our only choice is to give it up and go with what life hands out.

I remember when my son started school and the teachers started wanting to talk about my very chatty child.  I eagerly jumped in with that "I got this!" champion team spirit.  Together with my husband and the teacher, we were going to nip this thing in the bud. Then over the years, the calls kept coming.  I'd given birth to a lovable-but-annoying class clown, and there was nothing anyone could do to fully change his personality.  Somewhere along that journey, my sparkly "I got this!" attitude converted to a sigh and an "Okay, just bring it" way of getting through it. 

After a week in the hospital, I'm now at that, "Okay, just bring it" stage of chemotherapy.

And really, this is not a bad thing.  Surrender does not always equal defeat, especially in this case.  I'm no less determined to see this though and come out strong.  But just like the days of getting my son through public school, I no longer think I have a majority stake in controlling how this will go.  And it's not a bad life lesson for someone like me.

My husband and I are control freaks.  It's 100% the reason our son is an only child.  We like everything in order.  We like a tidy house and clean cars.  We make plans.  We map out dinners days in advance and we expect time to ourselves to pursue our own personal hobbies. And because of that, we've never handled the unexpected very well.  We are the types who could use a little surrender in our lives.  Having a child forced us to adjust to life with a certain amount of chaos, and as a result, we became more laid back and less prone to sweating the small stuff.  This chemotherapy experience is taking that personal development and kicking it up a notch.

So thanks to this, I'm done spending energy fretting about what's to come.  Right now, my mind is in the present, where I intend to keep it.  I spent the bulk of the last 24 hours feeling pretty damn good.  Great even.  It's a gift I'll take, thankyouverymuch.  If tomorrow brings a set back, well...."Okay, just bring it".  Al and I will handle it and come out the other end.  And when this whole experience is past us, I hope to have developed an even stronger sense of what is important and what isn't.  Those are the gifts that will stay with us.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

But I'm Not Lactose Intolerant

Well, Ms. Borrill, you is now!

Unfortunately, I had to find out the hard, very bad way, after a week of not really making the connection as to why I was feeling a little crummy after eating some things.

I read that chemotherapy messes with your digestive track.  In truth, it pretty much messes with everything, since it's the gardening equivalent of getting hooked up to an IV of Round-Up.  The idea is to "just kill everything" in the hope that cancer gets killed to.  And because I knew this, I knew to stay away from the obvious things like alcohol, fast food, anything overly spicy or fried.  Instead, I've been eating that "healthy, high fiber, balanced diet" that is the cure for everything.

Plus a lot of dairy.

Yesterday started out SOO good.  I went to the pool, had a great morning swim.  I got to work and, for the first time in a week, felt sharp and clear-headed.  Started cranking out some filings and other reports I needed to get off my desk.  I'd started the day with a great big banana peanut butter protein shake made with a cup of 1% milk.  I did notice some stomach problems, but didn't put 2 and 2 together as I went on to eat a lunch of cut fruit topped with greek yogurt and Grape Nuts (lots of dairy-topped fiber!).

By 3:00 I had the worst stomach cramps ever and couldn't get far enough away from the bathroom to even make the 15 minute drive home.  It was awful.  AWFUL!

When I was finally able to get home and in touch with the on-call doctor, I ran through my day and he informed me that chemo had given me lactose intolerance, and from here on out, dairy needs to be OFF my list.

Some might consider that a bummer.  (No melty cheese??)  But after yesterday, I'm just thrilled to have a quick diagnosis and a plan that will keep that from happening again.  I am still feeling the repercussions today, not quite as sharp, more tired, restless sleep.  But I am on the mend, and a day smarter.

On the upside, talking with a different doctor had an unintended bonus.  My own oncologist had led me to believe that each chemo infusion would get more difficult to deal with.  The symptoms get worse, the recovery takes longer.  When I mentioned that in passing to the oncologist on-call last night, he acted confused and said that wasn't the case.  In fact, it's usually the first infusion that's the hardest because nobody knows what side effects I will have (case in point: lactose intolerance), and by the time I have the next infusion, I've "figured it out" and don't end up with so many problems.  In his experience, most people have an easier time the farther they go.  He'd added that it's only fatigue that gets worse, but not all the other symptoms.

This was total news to me, and it caused me to rethink the conversation with my own doctor that led me to believe it would all be down hill from here.  Now that I think of it, she may have only been talking about fatigue getting worse.  I took it to mean everything.  I won't know for sure until I get there, but it's another example where even a bad spell can have a little silver lining.  I was really happy to hear this and definitely hope it's true! 

In the meantime, my son can go back to drinking milk straight from the carton, since we won't be sharing it anymore.  My weight is also trickling down, not because I'm dieting but because the chemo is forcing me to give up all the bad things that put on pounds.  So here is that!

Monday, April 17, 2017

Chopping off the Locks

Since my hair will start falling out any time now, I chose to take matters into my own hands and have the bulk of my hair cut off. Honestly, after the fatigue from this first round of chemo, I'm too tired to deal with my hair anyway.

What I did NOT know (because this is the shortest my hair has been since I was a toddler) is that the cowlick that makes my hair stick up in front goes all the way to the back. In fact, all my hair will stick straight up if you let it.

I was prepared for Rachel Maddow. I was NOT prepared for Don King!

But thanks to my wonderful long-time hair stylist Michelle (at Ferrari Salon in Cotati if you are looking for someone good), a little gel works miracles.  Thanks also to BFF Kathy Conant for going with me and holding my hand. Next step for my hair may be an all-out shave off, but at least this will get me going.

Day 5: Over The Hump With Round 1 (Hopefully)

Started the morning with a 2.5 mi walk, a little shaky and slow on my feet, but by the time I got back, I was much improved.  Not 100%, but definitely better.

Al will be mad that I went out by myself (I took my phone), but the heavens gave me a perfect morning for a quiet, restorative walk.  School is out so the streets are quiet.  It rained all day yesterday, so the air was clean and the grounds were moist and fresh.  A nice overcast morning keeps the sun from my eyes and raises the scents of all the blooming flowers and wet earth.

I'm tired, but it was worth the energy.  I'm hopeful today starts the steady improvement over these next 2.5 weeks between Round 1 & 2.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Day 4: The Truck That Hit Me

First thing I will say is this isn't bad.  It's not unbearable.  And from what I understand, it comes from the Taxotere, so if you're reading this because you're facing chemo also, this may not even be you.

But two days after my first infusion, I was smooth sailing for the most part.  Then somewhere around midnight last night, I'd fallen asleep on the couch and woke up with the worst stiff neck ever.  You know the kind:  You slept wrong, can't turn your head.  Add to that, general joint pain which I have also experienced before at times when I've overdone it in the yard.  Inflammation type pain.  Stiffness in the backs of my knees.  That flu-like feeling when you know you're coming down with something.

It had me tossing and turning in bd until I finally woke at 8:30 a.m. and got up.  The good news is, some XS Tylenol, a nice warm neck wrap, lots of water and a hot shower have done wonders.  I'm fatigued, but not uncomfortable.  And I will be thrilled if this is the low spot for this first round of chemo. 

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Importance of Blogs and Logs And Giving It Up

The Blogs

I'm finding Facebook and this blog extremely helpful in not only creating a therapeudic diary of this journey, but also in helping me keep friends and family updated.

While I'm immensely thankful that people care--that means a LOT to me--I'm also finding it difficult to repeat the same updates to all the wonderful friends and family who send me emails and IMs asking how I'm doing, while still keeping up a schedule of work/rest/exercise/cooking, etc..  It is an aid to me when people check here first, and in return, I'll try not to bore you with a bunch of extraneous information that puts you to sleep. :)

The Logs

All my coworkers in Finance will completely understand my ingrained need to chart and graph my statistics through these 84 days.  So, of course, I started with Excel and created a daily log.  It has the following columns and up to 13 individual hours can be logged on one day:
  • Time of Day
  • How I'm feeling
  • What I've eaten
  • What I've drank in the way of liquids
  • Drugs I've taken
  • Exercise I've done
 I've got spots to track my daily weight and the hours I slept, etc.

I'm the worst one for going to the doctor with complaints then never being able to articulate exactly when and how problems come on.  So I plan to be diligent in keeping this up, even though it does suck quite a bit of time out of my day.

If you are reading this post because you're going through something similar, I highly recommend and log or journal.  It will help you see trends in what's working, what's not, but also keep you in tune and conscious with your body.

Giving It Up


Here is a lesson that started long before I got my first chemo infusion:  To get through something like this, you've got to take your body OFF of life's schedule, and put your life ON your body's schedule.  That's easy for me because I don't have a lot of set meetings, no kids to get to school and sports.  I can work from home, make my hours, and I belong to a 24-hour gym.  I know everyone doesn't have that luxury, but in whatever way you can, you need to do this.

Early on, with anxiety of this diagnosis, the unknown, the waiting, fear, worry, I stopped sleeping regularly.  It was like being in the Amityville Horror movie, waking up at 3:15 every damn night.  The old me would have panicked fearing I'm going to crash in the afternoon if I don't sleep until at least 6:00 a.m.

But then out of frustration, I did something amazing:  Instead of lying awake for hours calculating how much sleep I could get if I fell asleep "RIGHT NOW", I got up and started my day.  I turned on my work computer and started handling business.  I got to be pool early, swam.  When the afternoon came around, I didn't crash.  Clearly, my body had gotten enough rest even though my brain insisted that was never going to happen.

If you run your life on a fairly set schedule, be prepared to let that schedule go.  This doesn't have to be a bad thing.  It relieves a lot of stress to realize that, when my body says it's done sleeping after 4 hours, I can go through the day pretty well.  All the horrible things I thought would happen didn't.

In short, you stop the process of feeling you always need to be in control.  And that is a good life lesson.