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.

Day 1 of 84: The Chemo Saga Begins

Infusion 1 of 4

 Day One: Overriding theme for the day: "One down, three to go." 

 I started the day with a good swim at the pool, a walk with Al and then a protein breakfast at Peppers Cafe. Egg scramble, yummy. It was all the perfect prep to put me in high spirits, have me feeling good and ready to get this first treatment over with. 

All I kept thinking was, "No matter what, after today I will only have three more chemos." That count-down helps a LOT.

I took with me the big bear Tommy gave me after my lumpectomy, as well as the blanket a dear friend crocheted for me. LOTS of water, gummy bears (my preferred snack), magazines, Words With Friends, Facebook, and Animal Crossing. With Al by my side in and out, it all went by completely uneventfully, thank GOD. Time whizzed by fast. Chemo is painless, only the IV in my hand was annoying and cold, but they give you a pillow and a nice warm electric blanket to wrap it with. The chairs are comfy, the room is sunny. I could have stayed there a couple more hours. I felt like being a little kid again, in the back of our family's Rambler station wagon, surrounded by pillows and puzzles, and all the fun things my mom gave me to keep me busy on road trips to Crater Lake and Mt. Hood.

The only problem with the three chemo days (day before, day of, day after) is the steroids they have me on.  They prevent allergic reaction and help with nausea, etc.  But they give me splitting headaches and almost nothing takes them away.  I'm only able to get them tolerable with Lorazepam and THC, the combination of which zones me out and makes me sleepy.  Luckily, the headaches don't come on until later in the day and evening, so I'm pretty functional otherwise.

Saturday, that nuisance will be gone, but they tell me it will be the "big crash" and the effects of chemo will start setting in.  I need to keep up with my healthy diet, tons of water and exercise to stave those off as much as possible.  Time will tell.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

A Good Oncologist - The Best Rx for Google Depression

Yesterday, I burst into (happy) tears when my oncologist told me I could still go to my gym and swim through chemotherapy.  In fact, she not only told me it would be fine, she looked at me quizzically, wondering where the heck I'd gotten the idea that I couldn't.

Well, Google, of course.

It was Thursday when she'd phoned with the dreaded word "chemo".  Our in-person appointment wasn't until Monday.  That gave me three days in between to sit on the internet and work myself into sleepless nights of anxiety, depression, and gloom.

I'm a researcher.  When I embark on anything, be it vegetable gardening, mosaics, romance writing, I dive into the internet, talk to people who have been there, read articles, join discussion forums, and in general, search for all the knowledge I can possibly gain on the subject.  That's been amazingly fun and effective when it comes to fun hobbies.  Not so much when it comes to cancer.

I'm not saying there's a lot of bad information out there.  Much of what I learned off sites like or through the American Cancer Society was accurate and valuable.  But it can also be terrifying if it's not tempered by the details of your own personal situation.  And it gets worse when you wander into the on-line support groups and forums and start reading accounts from people who have been there.  They can paint a pretty bleak picture, no matter how much you try to slant your Google searches to something that might give you hope.  In fact, by the time Al and I walked into the doctor's office Monday, the following thoughts had already set up shop in my psyche:
  • It's like I'm on death row waiting out my last days before chemo ends my life.
  • I will come out of this permanently impaired.
  • Things I love about my body--my hair, my skin, my nails--will be forever destroyed.
  • Next year at this time, I'll be in the 300 lb club, facing double-knee surgery, I'll be an alcoholic or drug addict from the permanent, chronic pain.  
  • I'll have to give up all the hobbies that bring me joy.
It was so bad by Sunday night that I had to download guided meditation tapes and listen to them through the night just to get a measly 4 hours of sleep.

Needless to say, I am done with the internet.

It's not that I regret giving myself self-inflicted pain.  Knowing me, there was NO WAY I would go through something like this without scouring for information to get as informed and prepared as possible.  Doing so helped me track down things that might be especially worrisome to me but not the next guy, and make sure I covered those things with my doctor while I had her time.

And while Sunday was one of the most anxious and depressed days of my life, by the time we walked out of the doctor's office Monday afternoon, I felt cleansed.  Like I'd looked all the worst case scenarios in the eyes and stared them down until they backed off and crawled away.

Al asked her if we came with more questions than the average chemo patient, and though I forget her actual response, it was definitely in the "yes" category.  But she said what's more troubling are the people who come in and don't ask anything at all.  People are different.  We all face challenges using the tools that have worked for us in the past.  I'm sure many simply turn themselves over to God, stay in the present and pray for strength in the future.  They don't need to know what might be coming, and will deal with it when it does.  I admire those people, but there really is no wrong answer to how to face a challenge.  For me, this was my way.

Sunday was bad, but today I am feeling relieved, confident and strong.  BIG shout-out to the group at St. Josephs Cancer Center.  They are an amazing group of people.  After my appointment, the scheduling nurse walked me around the facility and showed me the room where people were receiving their chemo treatment.  It looked like a nail salon, and the people there getting treatment were as calm, relaxed and unaffected as folks getting pedicures.  That one tour alone wiped out more fears than you can imagine.

Like I said, I am officially done Google searching.  I went there, had my fill, turned over every rock and now I'm done feeling clueless and afraid.

I've got a tentative date of 4/13/17 to have my first treatment.  It was a date I chose as I looked forward on the calendar and figured what would work best for me.  (Yes, I showed up at the doctor's office with a 2017 calendar and marked all the dates for everything.  I am nothing if not my mother's daughter.)  Between now and then I won't be stressing anymore.  And that's a good feeling.  I'm in a good place now, so my work will be focused on staying here.  But it was definitely a bumpy ride.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Presents for me and the importance of having a happy place

I'm someone who does well when I feel ready and prepared.  Having outstanding to-do's gives me stress.  So with the decision made about chemo, I went on a shopping trip this morning at Amazon.

I'm giving two chemo hats a try, knowing I can return them so easily if they don't work (love you, Amazon):

Next on the list was something I've wanted for a long time:  A waterproof iPod for the pool and spa.  I need to pick up my long lost practice of meditation, which I mostly did in the morning when I swam.  It's hard to get the voices out of my head, though, so I'm going to give this a try.  I intend to fill it with quiet meditation music.

Quite a few swimmers use these, though they always seem to have to mess with the ear buds while swimming.  If that's a problem for me, I still plan to use this after my work-out while relaxing in the spa.  It is a great way to start the day.

And then I'm going back to yoga.  I took a class at my gym when I was 30 lbs lighter.  I loved the strength, flexibility and feeling of accomplishment I had when finishing the class.  But it was WAY too challenging for me to keep up.  My back constantly ached.  Even with the modified poses the instructor offered, it was an aggressive routine that even the thin, experienced people in the class said was challenging.  So I bought two yoga DVDs directed at older, larger women.  I'm not sure when I'll have the time for them, but this is supposed to be the point of doing less cooking and hiring a cleaning lady.  I must remind myself that I should fill that spare time with rest and things like this.

And lastly, I picked up an Animal Crossing Amiibo set for $6.00.  What is an Animal Crossing Amiibo?  I HAVE NO IDEA!  But I'm playing this Nintendo game on my son's DS XL and from what I understand, I can do more things in the game if I buy and scan some Amiibo cards.

For me, having a "happy place" to go has been a very big saving grace.  Animal Crossing is a video game that I used to play with my son when he was young.  It's not a racing or timed-type game, as those stress me out.  Think Sims with animals for neighbors.  It runs in real time (yesterday was really St. Patrick's Day in the game), and you just wander around, catch some fish, dig for treasures, complete little tasks, or play easy little games to make money to buy stuff for your house and your town.

It's not a thinking game, for when I'm too tired for Words With Friends or other strategy games I'm fond of.  It's a completely simple little activity that allows me to decompress, and most importantly, step away from reality.

I've found since going through this stressful period, I have less tolerance for Facebook, as you never know what is going to hit you on your news feed.  People often share very depressing things and you can't control the content.  Television is the same, commercials make me hungry, news blips can get my blood boiling.  Even a good book requires conflict in order to make a good story.  And when going through cancer treatment, there are times I don't want any of it.  So my favorite activity at the end of the day has become sipping a mug of bedtime tea, eating 2 oz of yummy dark chocolate, and  sitting with my husband while he's watching sports and I bury myself in this little cartoon land where everyone is happy, no one is sick or dies, and no one struggles to get through the day.

If you are reading this for yourself or for a loved one who is going through something like this, I HIGHLY recommend thinking up an activity like this.  Maybe adult coloring books would be another option, or learning how to knit.  Something that doesn't require thinking too hard but is relaxing to do.  For me, it's Animal Crossing, and I am looking forward to seeing what the heck these Amiibo cards are.

A Breast Cancer Journey

Three days before Christmas, I get the call from my doctor.  She says, "I got the results of your biopsy."  There's a long pause then a sigh and then she says the phrase I'll never forget.  "Are you sitting down?"

Needless to say, it ruined our holidays, but we insisted on remaining positive and not worrying until someone gave us something to worry about.

Fast forward 11 weeks.  I sailed through my lumpectomy, or what they call a partial mastectomy.  I took 2 weeks off of work for that, which was plenty, and while my body is healing nicely, this is basically just the first course in what will be a long meal of recovery.

The next course of treatment would be based on my Oncotype score, where they test the mass that was removed during surgery and predict a recurrence.  It took 4 weeks from the date of my surgery to the day I got my score, and it was one of the most stressful times of my life, I won't lie.

And the news wasn't good. 

My score was 27, which isn't an automatic "Yes" for chemotherapy.  But these factors matter:

  • I'm "young" by BC standards at the age of 55.
  • I have no other real health issues that would be jeopardized by chemotherapy.
  • I'm clinically obese with a BMI of 39 that puts me in an even higher risk of recurrence.
  • I'm close to post-menopause which increases the risk of recurrence even more if you are also obese

Add those things together and I have to concede to doing whatever I can to keep from never being in this place again.  So I am facing chemotherapy, followed by radiation, followed by hormone therapy.  A triple-whammy.

And I am terrified.

I'm a researcher by nature.  Give me a challenge and I hit the internet on high speed looking up everything I can to educate myself.  There is an abundance of information out there, but it also comes with an abundance of horror stories.  You can literally convince yourself that today is the last day you will ever feel healthy if you read too many forums and articles.  I need to stop reading forums and articles.  So instead, I've decided to revive my garden blog and start a section that dialogues what will be a 12-month (or more) battle with breast cancer.

For anyone in the know, here are my specifics:

Dx 12/22/2016, IDC, Left, <1cm, Stage IA, Grade 2, 0/1 nodes, ER+/PR-, HER2-  
Surgery 2/13/2017 Lumpectomy: Left  
Chemotherapy Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide), Taxotere (docetaxel) 
Radiation Therapy Whole-breast: Breast 
Hormonal Therapy  Unclear right now.

Through this, I have these goals:

Try to stay sharp and keep working through treatment.  My job is important to me.  I'm the primary income in my household, and if this treatment renders me incapable of working in my field, puts me on long-term disability or something of the like, we lose our house and all the things you see on this garden blog.  The likelihood of that happening is small, but.....when you read too many forums.....

Get going on a solid exercise routine, and keep up as much of it as I can through this process.  From everything I've read and been told by my oncologist, this is the greatest predictor of how well I will be responding to treatment, fighting fatigue, minimizing side effects, and healing as rapidly as possible.  This won't be easy for me.  I loathe exercise, and give me any ailment as an excuse, I will opt for the couch.  This will be extremely hard, I'm already preparing for that, but I'm going to try.

Try not to gain weight, and if possible, lose weight.  Like I said, my BMI is 39.  There HAS to be a silver lining in everything I will be going through.  I have a goal of losing 60 pounds, and I know that will be laughable to some people reading this.  I may look back on this and think, "What an ignorant fool I was."  But I've got to try.  I can't end up part of the 300 club through this.  If I do, there will be absolutely nothing positive coming out of this experience.  At least, that's the way I feel right now.  I eat to comfort, I eat to celebrate, to stimulate and to calm.  Pretty much every point on the emotional scale I have a food for.  This challenge already feels daunting and I haven't even started.  But lets see where this goes.

Stay as healthy as I can through this.  Before this, I was blessed with a great immune system.  Especially after I started swimming 5 years ago, I can literally be surrounded by colds and flus and never catch it.  From what I read, those days are probably over, and possibly permanently read those dreaded forums.....  So losing weight, exercise, eating right are going to be a big deal.  I once wished that I had the right motivation to whip myself in shape.  (Note to self:  Never wish for shit like that again.)  But I wished nonetheless.  So here is my motivation.  What will I do with it?

So here we go on this journey.  I got the call from my oncologist yesterday that chemo was in my future.  My husband and I meet her on Monday to talk in person and get more information.  I've spent the last 36 hours looking up everything I can about my treatment and have a 3-page typed-up list of questions and topics I want to discuss, as well as my calendar.  In case you haven't guessed, I'm slightly OCD.  So today and tomorrow will be about setting all this aside for a while and just enjoying life and getting in shape.  I'm off to the gym to start putting my money where my mouth is.

Until next time.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Rat Update and a Compost Bin Retrofit

Well...the rat wouldn't leave.  And my attempt at throwing kitchen scraps in a sealed-up bin didn't work that great either.  I just ended up with a stinky sealed up bin of kitchen scraps and a rat still in my compost.  So after a lot of research and pondering, I ultimately decided to retrofit the compost bin I already had, and simply seal it off from rodents.

Really, I love everything about my compost bin.  It has been a huge success, if it weren't for the one annoyance of a rat.  And after many hours of internet browsing on the subject, I realized I was half way to having a bin that rats couldn't get into.  I didn't need to break it down and start with something else.  I needed to simply make some design modifications.

So I emptied out my bin, which was half a day's work in it's own.

The uncomposted material got buried in the beds I don't plan to plant in for a few more months.  The finished dirt got thrown on the top of my spring garden beds.  The upside is my raised beds are ready for planting.

Then it was time to retrofit my compost bin.  I found my inspiration on the internet with this compost bin that is purportedly rat proof:

I loved the design elements of this bin, and decided to copy it, using the frame of the bin I'd already made. Gone was my warped plywood top and the big (also warped) front panel that has to be taken off in one large piece.  In it's place were lids like these, and front panels on "tracks".  Having the front come off is HUGE for me, as I find it a total design flaw to have closed compost bins that only open in the top.  Anyone who has tried to shovel and turn compost knows how problematic that is.

I started with the bottom.  Unlike the inspiration bin pictured above, I want my bin sitting on the ground.  My bin attracts worms, so it is very much a vermicompost.  But to make that work, worms need to come up from the ground.  I also don't like the idea of space under the bin, as that's the perfect hiding spot for rodents to gnaw their way through wood.

Instead, I put a double layer of 1/2" galvanized hardware cloth along the bottom.  I edged it in metal galvanized strapping tape, screwed down so the cloth wouldn't pull off with the weight of the compost on top of it.

I then put a single layer of hardware cloth across the back and sides.  Instead of simply relying on staples, I edged off the hardware cloth with wood lath (cheaper than the galvanized strapping tape), so it couldn't be pulled away at the edges.

With the bottom, back and sides done, it was time to work on the front panels.

I laid in tracks for 1 x 6 x 6 (cut to 3' lengths) redwood fence boards to slide into.

And here we have the finished panels!

The last addition was new lids for the top, heavier and sturdier than my original design.  

I framed out the lids, and used another double-layer of 1/2" hardware cloth for the top.  Another design alteration from my original bin was to make the top of cloth instead of enclosed wood.  When you research compost bins on the internet, they caution you to cover them to prevent them from getting too wet.  I've learned, that's advice for people who don't live in California.  Here, we want to take advantage of any rain we get to wet down our bins.  In the event we have major storms that could flood the bin, I can always put a tarp on it.  But for 99% of the time, I want to use free rain to water my bin, instead of hosing it with water I have to pay for!


And here is the finished bin!

Will it be rat proof?  Only time will tell.  But you can be sure that I will keep you posted!