Cancer And The Single Gal, Part 1

It’s been a while since my last post. This blog was a bit of a security blanket during the worst of things..somehow recovery and the return to “normal” life made it less of a pressing need. Now that life is not so normal anymore, I’m feeling the old familiar urge to pour out my thoughts and feelings in black and white.

Life has taken quite an unexpected turn over the past year. My health is still good as far as I know. I mean, I get the routine pat down and once over, but my oncologist is of the belief that scans and cancer markers are only to be done if symptoms warrant them. And I’m ok with that philosophy being a firm believer in the power of suggestion to create illness. My body and I have a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement going on. It’s working for us so far.

No, what has floored me is my sudden evolution from a sometime chiropractor/fulltime domestic engineer to a single mom who finds herself navigating uncharted territory and needing to support a family. SINGLE…MOM. Not words I ever expected to actually apply to me, even though Lord knows the marriage was a roller coaster ride of alcoholism (his), codependency, and a failure to communicate. To actually take the leap and start a new life after the million times I fantasized about it…terrifying and exhilarating all at once!

Last summer, after a nasty argument fueled by a weekend binge, my husband decided to accept a transfer to another state while we weren’t speaking. I found out when my suspicions led me to check his e-mail and I saw that he had been looking at apartments in Atlanta. He admitted that he had accepted the job, and it appeared that he was leaving without us to start a new life. Things eventually settled down and we agreed to work things out and make the move as a family, selling our home in North Carolina to relocate to Atlanta. He started the new job in July while I dutifully stayed behind to pack, clean and handle every detail of getting the house ready to market while also setting up our new lives in Atlanta.

The girls and I headed South to Georgia the first week of August. No more beautiful 2 story house overlooking the mountains. We were in a dark, depressing apartment for a month with rented furniture, broken kitchen knobs and huge cockroaches in the corridors…four of us, and a dog and cat. The girls had to start new schools in the space of a week and adjust to brand new friends and a very different curriculum. My high schooler was way behind, which became evident despite doing 4 hours of homework each night. She was miserable. I was miserable. Atlanta was miserable. We would come back to Asheville to “check on things” at the house every 2 weeks or so. We let out a collective sigh of relief each time we unlocked the front door. Home.

In the meantime, our house wasn’t selling despite rosy predictions. With every passing day of anxiety and frustration, something in me snapped. I couldn’t do it anymore, so I made the decision to bring the girls back to Asheville and let them finish the school year in familiar surroundings. My husband and I agreed that we would try again this summer. My daughter would graduate and things would be easier…somehow.

Of course, once we got back, the house sold within a month. We were just about to take it off the market as the holidays approached, but we felt that we couldn’t let a solid offer get away. As Thanksgiving rolled around, we found ourselves scrambling to figure out our next move….

 

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And That’s A Wrap….(pretty please, fingers crossed..)

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This December will mark one year since I finished active treatment for breast cancer. But for those who have gone down this road, you know that the icing is always a few feet away from the top of the cake. I hope that the end of the year will be only the beginning…the beginning of many Merry Christmases not spent in the shadow of fear…the beginning of conquering demons one by one to make room for happiness…the beginning of a new but different life, one that is authentic and not based on “shoulds” and “laters”.

To that end, I finally decided last week to quit my job all the way. I made a half-hearted attempt at it a month earlier, promising to work as needed, keeping one foot in the door, not burning any bridges, blah…blah…blah. Well, I can see those suckers ablaze in the distance now. And you know what? The most profound sense of peace came over me the day after I did it. It’s as if I had been walking with a splinter in my foot for years, trying to ignore it; eventually, I learned to live with the annoyance. I think I’ll look back on this someday and wonder why the hell I wasted so much time doing something I hated.

Right now, I’m adrift in a way. I’m adhering to the Chinese proverb: “Be like water.” Water doesn’t try to be what it isn’t or force itself into a certain shape. It flows where an opening exists and takes whatever journey it is meant to take. Of course, water doesn’t have bills to pay or children to appease, so there’s that…I can only afford to be water for a few months. But I’m really enjoying this time; I feel a stillness inside that has been absent for so long. I dance with my daughter in the kitchen and sit in my pajamas all day when I want to.

The last piece of my breast cancer odyssey will be complete December 1, when I get my “tats”. There is a lady here in Asheville who does areola/nipple tattooing for free for breast cancer survivors. She does this to honor her mother who died of lymphoma, and it is really a special gift.

I toyed with the idea of getting flowers and vines or some deep words of wisdom to cover the scars, but in the end, I’m a fairly traditional girl. I think that most breast cancer survivors just want their bodies to look somewhat like they did before things went wrong, kind of like a reboot. I’ll be perfectly content to have regular breasts with regular areolas and nipples. They’re not ever going to be the same as they were, but I’m grateful to have them. And they’re not too shabby…

Of course, there will be fairly frequent check-ups for the next year or so. Everyone asks me what the doctors do to see if the cancer has returned. When I answer “nothing”, people look a little uncomfortable and surprised. Unless there is metastatic disease at diagnosis, there’s really nothing to “monitor”. There are blood tests for tumor markers, but these can be elevated for other reasons, so they aren’t regularly done. As a matter of fact, my tumor marker (CA 29-9) was in the normal range with Stage 3 disease. So much for that.

So what do we look for? Mainly symptoms. The most common signs of cancer recurrence are: shortness of breath, constant headaches, unexplained weight loss, and unusual pain. Naturally, survivors are always hyper vigilant when anything out of the ordinary occurs. “Could this be it?” “Why does my back hurt?”

For now, I’m happy to be alive and in good health. I’m toying with the idea of running another half marathon in February. I’m going to start the training and just see how it goes, one day at a time. I don’t want to stress out my healing body. And if I’m being totally honest, that little voice inside is saying this is probably not a great idea just yet. I’m working hard to honor that voice when it speaks. Maybe we can negotiate…

Daily Wisdom With Dr. Boob

Photo: doodlekisses.com

Photo: doodlekisses.com

As you recall, I told you about my witty repartee with the plastic surgeon in yesterday’s boob update. At today’s post-op appointment he was in rare form.

First, I have to say that I feel so much better than when I had the tissue expanders inserted in March. I’m almost scared that I’m headed for some colossal steroid crash and burn, and this is the calm before the storm. I’m just much sleepier today, so let’s hope that this is the extent of it.

There is, however, one very odd remnant of the surgical experience. I have a fat lip. Just on the right side. Now, I work beneath the OR floor, and let me tell you, it sometimes sounds like they’re tossing midgets up there for amusement. Bam! Crash! I’d love to be a fly on the wall some days.

So, when I graced Dr. Boob’s office this morning, neatly coiffed of course, I wanted to ask him what in the world had gone on the day before.

Me: So, take a look at this lip. Do you know what happened while I was under?

Dr. Boob: You probably bit your lip next to the trach tube, that’s all. (Really! that’s all you’ve got? Quid pro quo, Dr., quid pro quo)

Me: (sure that he was off his game and it would be an easy victory today) I’m thinking that the anesthesia dude, Dr. Hopper, Harry Potter, whatever his name was, got miffed when I told him they screwed up last time. He probably smacked me around a little.

Dr. Boob: Nope. He only hit you lightly, not enough to leave a mark. I saw it.

Me: (he’s back) You mean, you saw me being physically abused and you just stood by and let it happen?

Dr. Boob: Well, I was kind of tied up doing surgery.

Me: I understand, but the least you can do is show me some sympathy now. (I put on my best puppy dog face)

Dr. Boob: (with a totally straight face) Do you know where you find sympathy in the dictionary?

Me: (feeling victory slipping away) No, where?

Dr. Boob: Somewhere between “shit” and “syphillis”.

Dammit! Quid pro quo. It puts the lotion on it’s fat lip, or it gets the hose again.

 

It’s D-Day…No Really

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If it looks like I’m slightly off-kilter in this picture, it’s merely a temporary unevenness caused by the drugs, making it somewhat difficult to stand in place without listing to one side (and to make sense, according to the number of times I’ve had to re- type words).

This morning I had surgery to exchange my breast tissue expanders for the permanent implants which will call my chest home. This will be almost the last step in a breast cancer treatment odyssey that began last March. The surgery itself lasted only an hour and a half, but I had to be there as the roosters were standing in line at Starbucks, getting coffee before crowing.

Nothing to eat or drink after midnight, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t eat, but I did have a few slugs of java and a little water. I know, I know.  Poor listening skills. I was simply trying to avoid the all-out tactical assault that was involved in starting my I.V. last time due to dehydration. I have to say that went stunningly better this go round.

I had to bring my new front-zip sports bra into the OR with me so they could bend my arms backwards and jam me into it lovingly slip me into it to hold the new cleavage down and reduce swelling. My post-op appointment is tomorrow morning, and you better believe I’ll fix my hair before I see the doctor this time.

When I came in after my last surgery, he asked “Did you even comb your hair today?” Now, mind you that I had been throwing up for the previous 24 hours due to anesthesia, and he was really lucky I made it at all. But Dr. Boob is a character, and I really love his smart-ass dry sense of humor (perhaps because I share it), so I had to take it in stride.

Here’s an example of an exchange we had yesterday:

Me: I think your medical assistant screwed up. She said something about a bilateral testicular implant.

Dr. Boob: Yes. We’re throwing that in as a promotion.

Me: (reflecting for a moment) Well, I have always felt like a man trapped in a woman’s body.

Dr. Boob: And now we’ll be making that a reality for you.

And this is how we roll on any given day. It’s a game to see who has to think longer before replying.

Right now, I’m feeling about a thousand percent better than after my last surgery, but it realize that part of that is the rather large dose of steroids they gave me through my I.V. I brought my anesthesia records with me so we could go over them and come up with a better game plan for nausea. I got Emend, like they give before chemo, and a Scopolamine patch behind the ear. So far, so good. Always be your own best advocate!

Apparently, from what I’ve read about implant reconstruction, there is a “drop and fluff” period of a few weeks, which sounds like you brought some dirty towels to the dry cleaners. What this means is that your implants will settle and look fuller as they begin to heal.

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It’s truly anyone’s guess as to what size you will end up when all is said and done, as there are so many variables of chest width, body type, height, etc. Dr. Boob told me to go by the tissue expander on the non-radiated side, so I hope that’s what I get in this odd box of Cracker Jack boobs. All I can say is that I was fitting into a 34D before surgery, and that’s the size of the sports bra you see.

I’ll post some pics as the “drop and fluff” progresses. As for now, I have to go was my hair and style my hair so I’ll be ready for tomorrow!

Turning Points

 

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Here I am again, feeling like life has thrown a fork in the road, like someone is trying desperately to send me a sign. This has become a very familiar spot, yet I’ve always been too scared to go down the path less traveled. So I forge ahead with the familiar, a sense of dread engulfing me like a giant wave.

For the past few weeks I’ve been on medical leave from my job as I recover from my tissue expander surgery. I haven’t done anything particularly productive or exciting. Far from it. I’ve enjoyed a kind of peaceful solitude, spending hours in the comfort of my home, no children, no television, no stress. I’ve played in the dirt in my garden and spent long, self-indulgent afternoons having lunch or coffee with friends.

So why the sense of dread? At the end of the month, I return to my job, which I have honestly been trying to find a way out of for the past six years. At times like these, where I’ve gained the clarity only distance can bring, I swear that this is it. I will finally turn in my notice and set myself free. But I always go back and get sucked into the vortex, going through the motions, living for long weekends.

I know why this happens. I remind myself that I’m not independently wealthy…it would be too hard to cut back…I’m afraid we couldn’t make it without my income…and boy do I love those Disney trips! I am a prisoner of the lifestyle we’ve built. And a slave to an employer’s job market.

I wrote a lot early on in my breast cancer adventure about how I believe emotions can make us sick. Especially those of us who tend to bite our lip and suck it up. The anger that gets turned inward, the resentment that builds over years, the longing to find our authentic selves, all of that energy has the power to destroy us if it is never given a voice, if we never have the courage to face our fears.

I know I sound somewhat like a spoiled child complaining about having a well-paying job when so many are struggling, but I feel that a life without meaningful work can never be truly fulfilling. I want to find a calling, a passion, a career that stimulates me and feeds my mind. I just wish I knew what that was. I so envy my blogging friends who talk about their work with glowing enthusiasm.

One day I may find my niche, but for now, I think I just need a break to assimilate all that has happened, to “reboot” my system. I need space to play in the sunshine, to plant roses, to wander with my thoughts and find new adventures. I just need to be alive.

As my son would say, “First-world problems, Mom”.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Street Scene 2


 

 

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What could be more natural than a Spartan running down the boardwalk in Wilmington, NC? In Asheville, this wouldn’t even turn heads. Actually, there was a logical reason (I suppose) behind the costume. You see, this was the marathon portion of an Ironman Triathlon.

In true Greek spirit, this guy re-enacted the heroic tale of Pheidippides, the fleet-footed warrior who is fabled to have run 25 miles to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated in the Battle of Marathon. Of course, we didn’t have the heart to tell him that Pheidippides dropped dead right after.

What is an Ironman, you ask? It isn’t for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. The full Ironman distance consists of the following:

2.4 mile swim (in the Atlantic ocean for this race)

112 mile bike ride

26.2 mile run

My brother did this race in 2012 in a little over 13 hours, so he still holds the family record for athletic prowess.

If you’ve never witnessed this event, I strongly encourage you to get out and watch one. The atmosphere is electric, as hundreds of excited spectators mingle against a colorful backdrop of music, food and street vendors.

You can feel the nervous tension of the athletes at the starting line, like thoroughbreds twitching behind the gates at the Kentucky Derby. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it, and the adrenaline stayed with me long after.

Do I sense a new goal starting to take shape??? My heart says “Yes, yes!” but the little men with spears under my chest where my tissue expanders are say “Later, later (maybe)!!”

Houston, We Have Mosquito Bites!

mosquito bites

Well, today I’ve decided I might actually live. It was touch and go there for 48 hours. I had the beginning of my breast reconstruction surgery Wednesday at 10am, during which I had tissue expanders placed under the pectoral muscles.

Apparently my veins have gone into hiding since having chemotherapy, even though I received my meds through a port in my chest. So, needless to say, starting my IV was fun. The nurse tied a tourniquet, slapped me around a little, and gave up without a fight. “I’m not even going to try. Luckily we have someone from radiology here today training us on how to start an IV with ultrasound. I’ll have him come in.” Thank God for small favors. The IV guru arrived with trainee in tow, and he decided to let her have a go at it first. Fail. He pulled the six foot needle back out and started over. I could feel my needle-phobic husband trying his hardest not to pass out in the corner. After 20 minutes or so, we had a successful stabbing.

Next, the nurse anesthetist came in to give me some medicine to “help me relax.” This always cracks me up because, for me, this translates to “see you next Tuesday.” I don’t take medication very often, so it works fast and dirty. I barely remember getting into the operating room. After that, lights out, see ya later. I woke up after what seemed to be 5 minutes in the recovery room with the nurse trying to wake me up. The surgery had actually taken about 90 minutes.

I started to get a little queasy in the recovery room, but I was given some Zofran and all was well. Until…I rode in the car. The minute I stepped in the house, I had to rush to the bathroom to be sick. I went to bed thinking that I just needed some more rest, but it wasn’t to be. My head hurt and I vomited for the next 24 hours with an empty stomach. I couldn’t even keep water down. So, needless to say, that prescription for Vicodin sat untouched on my bedside table.

My husband called the doctor, but apparently they were having a phone issue, so the answering service kept coming on. But they never paged the doctor. Eventually, by sheer luck, the office assistant called to check on me and I got a prescription for anti-nausea meds. They are addressing the phone issue today; it’s not a good idea for the doctor to be unavailable after surgery.

Anyway, when I woke up this morning and managed to get some Tylenol and caffeine on board, I felt almost human. I went to the doctor, and after he told me that my hair was a mess (he’s a piece of work!), he took the bandage off to reveal my brand new Barbie mounds. He managed to get 180 cc’s of saline in each side during surgery. Thankfully, knock on wood, I’m not having intolerable pain thus far. A friend who had this done 5 years ago said that it felt like she had ground glass under her skin every time she moved. I can’t tell you how much I was looking forward to that. The only thing that may get irritating is the edge of the right expander, which looks like a little unicorn horn sticking out. This should fill in when he adds more saline.

Next up, I will get my stitches out April 8, and then the filling process can begin in earnest. The doctor said that the radiated side has a lot of scar tissue and is tighter, so we may have to fill every 2 weeks to allow the skin on that side to stretch and catch up.  My husband is going for something the size of cantaloupes. I’m thinking a smaller, firmer fruit will suffice.

Oh, and please remind me the next time they ask if I’ve ever had a problem with anesthesia to shout a resounding “YES!!”