Now What?

On September 26, 2012 I was struck with the devastating news that I had breast cancer at the age of 34.  The next 6 weeks were an absolute whirlwind of tests and doctors appointments that are, thankfully, now somewhat clouded due to medications, side effects of chemotherapy, and good ol’ emotional defense mechanisms.  By mid November I had only one breast and was beginning 8 rounds of chemotherapy.  I began this blog at that time with the intent of creating a place where people who were interested could get updates about my condition and treatment.  Almost immediately I found that there was no way I could write about what was happening in my life without expressing my sorrows and struggles.  It was evident that I needed an outlet and I discovered a certain sense of accomplishment in allowing my thoughts to translate into something concrete. Yet, as time passed and the news became less frequent, so did my writing.  My last post was over a year ago.

Two years have passed since diagnosis and now the treatments and surgeries are over.  I have “breasts” again.  Sort of.  I have silicone bags in my chest under tight, radiated skin that has been stretched to the max. I have almost no feeling anywhere on my chest and in a portion of my back. I’ve been given a clean bill of health, but those of us who have had cancer are never really in the clear.  We will always visit several doctors regularly and be monitored closely.  Scrutinizing, waiting, somehow trying to stay on top of something which we truly have no control over.  Thus, the mental challenge for me.  How do you stay vigilant and aware of your body and symptoms while simultaneously trying to scrape yourself together, close the door and move the fuck on?
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For myself, it really does mean focusing on the positive and acknowledging that as horrible as cancer is, it does bring with it some humbling and beautiful lessons. Yes, I am serious!  Cancer taught me that I am no little wimp, that’s for damn sure.  It has given me a sense of confidence and courage that I never, ever had in my life prior.  I care less about what people think about me and feel like I’m able to live more authentically.  I’m kinder and gentler with myself and others.  I know there is no one who lives life without heartbreak.  Shit happens.  Peace comes with forgiving life for not going how you had it in mind.  I may or may not live to be an old woman, but if my time is limited what a waste it would be to live it bitter and angry.  I used to be someone who complained too much.  I took things too personally.  I’m in a bad mood far less these days.  Yet, I feel a sense of limbo.  Cancer is obviously now a huge part of me, but I don’t ever want it to define me.  I hope the emotional scars are less visible than the physical ones.

Given all that, I have been debating erasing this blog as of late.  Would shutting it down help me put it in the past, or does it still have some sort of value?  I’m not sure.  I do know that doing the blog helped reignite a love I’ve had since I was young, and that is writing.  Despite enjoying it, I’ve never truly felt that I have much to say.  The last 5 years have reminded me of the cliche that everyone has a story.  Not only have I survived stage IIIA breast cancer, I’m a wife, a mother of 4 and 5 year old boys, a former middle school teacher, a survivor of postpartum depression, veteran of the restaurant business and current waitress.  Surely there is some material there!  So, I’ve decided to keep the blog, only now my focus isn’t on breast cancer itself, but on life after.  If it resonates with anyone, great.  If not, well, nobody’s making you read anything!  🙂  Still my ultimate hope is that one woman might remember something about my story and take her health seriously.  The face of breast cancer is changing and women are being diagnosed at alarmingly young ages.

I’ll never be able to fully express my gratitude to those of you who reached out to me in any way over the last few years.  The kindness of you folks encourages me to be a better human each day.

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Pinktober Blues

October has always been one of my favorite months.  It brings relief from the intense desert summer, and with it the comforting aroma of roasting green chile.  It turns the cottonwoods a most spectacular golden yellow and closes with my beloved Halloween.  Late in the month the sun moves into Scorpio, my sign.  Until this time last year, I did not realize that it is also “Breast Cancer Awareness Month.”

That’s right!  The month of October is dedicated to increasing awareness of the disease that will effect 1 in 8 women in their lifetime.  Selfish me!  I guess I’d never noticed this until I received a definitive breast cancer diagnosis myself, on September 26, 2012.  I came home from the Dr.’s office that evening and noticed that all of the new October magazines on our coffee table had some sort of breast cancer article.  At that moment it dawned on me just how shitty a coincidence it was that my diagnosis came just in time for Pinktober.  After that, I felt as though pink ribbons were everywhere.  Phrases such as “fight like a girl” and “save the tatas” jumped out at me constantly.  I noticed that professional athletes were wearing pink cleats. I was painfully aware, and the constant reminders did nothing to divert my attention from my real-life nightmare.

Yet, despite appreciating the efforts of so many to spread the word about breast cancer, I am often confused by what seems to be a view seen through rose-colored glasses (pun intended).  I can’t help but feel that the “awareness” movement is awfully commercialized, and at times trivializes and even sexualizes cancer.  After all, I’m not sure what the hell football players in pink shoes have to do with my struggle, and in my opinion, saving lives is more important than saving “tatas.”  It can be disappointing and hurtful to see that the reality of this tragedy seems to get lost among all the pink feather boas, tutus, and ribbons or the “save 2nd base” T-shirts.  The truth is that cancer is ugly.  It is dangerous and sometimes deadly.  It takes an immeasurable toll on you mentally and physically.  It is not cute and pink and glittery, and we seriously need a cure.

Don’t get me wrong!  I absolutely see the value in trying to promote awareness and understanding of breast cancer.  I’m in favor of anything that may encourage even one woman to take that lump seriously or go for that mammogram.  This is why I have been so forthcoming with my story.  I believe that real women with real stories are more likely to have the desired impact of helping women, particularly young women, see that this is indeed a threat.  As I said before, prior to my own cancer I didn’t know about breast cancer awareness month.  Clearly, it didn’t make me much more aware.  I still barely did breast exams and thought this crap didn’t happen to young, healthy moms.  No athlete or pink ribbon made me consider that this was not just something that menopausal ladies and grandmas dealt with.  I now realize that I totally took my health for granted.  I know, what an arrogant ass I was.

October 2nd marked the first anniversary of my emergency mastectomy which came 6 days after cancer suspicions were confirmed.  I was a month and 9 days shy of my 35th birthday.  At the time, I was entirely overwhelmed by how I would survive the next year.  How could I handle the grief, the fear, the chemotherapy, the 36 radiation treatments?  Well, I handled it.  I’m still here, and if anything I have learned that I am one tough chick.  I used to think otherwise.  I used to fear needles, doctors, and tests.  I thought I was somewhat wimpy and had a low tolerance for pain.  I was very wrong.  In this regard, I am quite proud of myself.

I’ll need all of this strength and then some as I prepare for a surprise scan this week.  Last week I had a routine MRI.  I just had a mammogram and ultrasound in Sept that were both clear, so I had no reason to be concerned.  The following day the results call came.  I was not expecting what I heard.  Although nothing “lit up” on my MRI, my surgeon feels that the image may indicate some changes to the lymph nodes on my right side, where the cancer was.  The nurse stressed that I should not panic and that they are being extra cautious, so they scheduled me for a PET scan.  This will check from “eyes to thighs” for any signs of my cancer having returned or spread.  Wow.

This scan could show that there are no signs of cancer and I can then say that I’m cancer-free (for now) with confidence.  I’m choosing to believe this.  The alternative is more than I can bear to think about at this point.  I remain hopeful that this will reveal the best possible news and that I can finally move past all of this one-year anniversary junk.  Please send some positivity my way, and PLEASE ladies, take your breast exams very seriously.  It could save your life.  Take the time to think about what Pinktober is really all about, and please don’t make the same mistake I did.  Don’t think that this could never, ever happen to you.

Headed out for an evening with friends.  Look closely and you can see the port still in the left side of my chest.

Headed out for an evening with friends. Look closely and you can see the port still in the left side of my chest, as well as the catheter that runs up to my jugular.  August 2013

It is truly bewildering how much can happen in the span of a year.  Only twelve months ago I had absolutely no idea that I had five tumors in my right breast, or just how dramatically my world was about to get rocked as a result.  When I see photos of myself from last summer, I marvel at my ignorance.  I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that the woman in the pictures is so incredibly clueless to what lies just around the bend.  It may be hard to understand, but I still feel shock and disbelief.

As I approach my one year “cancerversary” this September, it is all still pretty raw.  I have several follow-up appointments scheduled over the next month with my various doctors.  I have a mammogram scheduled for September 11, which is one day short of last year’s mammogram and ultrasound.  That was the morning the radiologist asked me if I was alone and hugged me saying, “We can’t be certain until we do a biopsy.”  When I think about going back there, I feel much of the same queasiness and anxiety I did then.  My stomach flips when I see the breast surgeon’s number on my caller ID.  Every time I saw those digits last fall they accompanied life-changing news.  It sucks to have to involuntarily revisit so many memories and emotions I’d prefer to package up neatly in a little box and set ablaze.

You could certainly say that cancer looms over me, despite my efforts to “move on.”  I am eager to believe it’s all over and that I’m totally cancer-free, but I know that it is really just too soon to tell.  This first year or two is crucial, and I’m working hard to gain confidence.  I am also all too aware that in spite of what folks want to believe, no amount of positive thinking or “right attitude” can guarantee cancer’s defeat.  You can do and say and eat and believe all of the right things, and it can still reoccur.  Last month’s passing of a beautiful, upbeat, positive young wife and mother that I grew up with is a brutal reminder of that. Also diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34, she only lived to see her 37th birthday. Nobody could have been more optimistic than she was. It is sickeningly unfair and absolutely terrifying.

The emotional and mental aspects of cancer have actually been far more challenging for me than the physical.  Here I am, 6 months since the last of my 8 chemo infusions in February, feeling pretty well.  I feel very fortunate to not be experiencing any long-term side effects at this point. My 36 radiation treatments were completed on May 8th, and I began taking the drug Tamoxifen on the 1st of June.  My cancer is estrogen and progesterone receptor positive.  That means that those female hormones work as fuel for my cancer.  In fact, it’s quite likely that my tumors really took off during my two back-to-back pregnancies because of the hormonal flood.  Tamoxifen is an estrogen blocker and a targeted therapy.  The idea is that if you block the hormones, you cut off the food supply for the cancer and can lower your chances of recurrence.

There are a few catches.  I have to take it for 10 years, whereas most women take it for only 5.  The drug works to put you into early menopause essentially, but fortunately I’ve had very few symptoms.  Chemo did not fry my ovaries as is possible, and if the Tamoxifen can’t block my levels enough I may have to have an additional surgery to remove them.  In an ironic twist, the drug can increase your chances of ovarian cancer, which is related to breast cancer.  It’s probably the smartest thing to do, but I’m in no hurry for that.   I also still need to have my chemo port removed.  It’s the weird looking metal disc that lies just under the skin of my chest on the left side, necessary for infusion.

Next on my list is the removal of my non-affected breast and the beginnings of reconstruction.  From the start I knew that if I was going to have to have a mastectomy on one side I may as well do both.  To me, they are a pair.  What’s one without the other?  If I lose one mitten I’m throwing the other one away, ya know?  Ideally, it would’ve happened at the same time, but since my case was considered an emergency there was no time to do anything other than remove the cancerous breast.  This has left me lopsided and bummed.  I’d rather have none than one.  Fortunately I have a prosthesis, which is basically just an insert that goes in a pocket in your bra.  I affectionately refer to mine as the “foob”.  As in fake boob.  It actually looks incredibly real in my clothes and you’d be hard pressed to guess which is my real one.  Yet, I still have to wear a higher neckline and certainly can’t wear a swimsuit.  I’d like to say that boobs don’t matter to me, but that is bullshit.  I am still a young (ish) woman and I don’t think I’m ready to give up on the normalcy, confidence and comfort that existed in my life prior.

Getting my cleavage back will be no small feat though.  Due to my frame, weight, and extensive radiation I really only have one surgical option.  I don’t have enough fat stores to make new boobs out of my own tissue, so implants will be a must.  When you just get breast implants, they go under the breast tissue and on top of the muscle.  When your breast tissue has been removed, the implants go under the pectoral muscle, but only after expanders have gradually been filled up with fluid in your chest to stretch out the skin.  Sounds pleasant, right?  I’ve been assured I will be in a world of hurt.  I will also have to have a procedure called a “lat flap” as part of my reconstruction.  This involves cutting a flap of skin and muscle from my back (latissmus dorsi) and “tunneling” it under the skin of my armpit, around to my chest so it can provide the extra tissue on my tight, radiated right side.  This ensures that there is enough of a pocket to place an expander and eventually implant.  When you have radiation it thins, damages and tightens the skin.  This makes it very difficult to place expanders/implants without bringing some supple, healthy tissue to the site.  Got all that?  Google that shiz.  It’s freaking amazing.  Hopefully I’ll have a surgery date within the next two weeks.  I’m aiming for the first of the new year, when I can get some help over winter break.  I’m really not sure how I can be completely incapacitated for 4 weeks, unable to lift anything for 6 weeks, and still take care of my kids.  I won’t even be able to care for myself, realistically.  My mastectomy last October was a scrape on the knee in comparison. Regardless, depending on how long the expansion process takes I should be able to exchange the expanders for the implants in time for next summer.  Yeah, bikini shopping!

I’m so thankful I caught this when I did.  Any further delay would’ve likely had dire results.  When I was first diagnosed many people would say, “Well, thank God you caught it early!”  Not really comprehending that it wasn’t quite as early as one would hope.  My surgeon said it likely started growing 5 to 10 years ago!  After some debate between my docs, I was finally labeled stage IIB.  It was that or IIIA, depending on if you view my tumors as one large tumor or 5 separate ones.  There were small threads or “bridges” that connected them, spanning 8 cm from my armpit to nearly the nipple.  Given the size of my cancer, it was a huge surprise that it had not spread beyond the breast tissue, with the exception of “micro-cells” found in my first lymph node.  The next 9 nodes that were taken were clear.  However, staging is really pretty arbitrary.  It’s just a label and didn’t effect my course of treatment no matter what we called it.  It’s unfortunate that mammograms are only given beginning at the age of 40.  A mammogram likely could’ve detected mine back in my 20’s.  Back when it actually was “early.”  Most breast cancers seen on routine mammograms are so small that a woman couldn’t possibly even feel the lump yet.  I don’t think there would be any good news had I gone on another 6 months without discovering a problem.

Meanwhile my hair continues to grow back quickly.  It’s not the thick, stick-straight hair that I had before, but nothing in my life is really quite like it was before.  My new, dark, coarse almost-curls are so foreign and unfamiliar, yet I am learning how to make it work.  I’m pretty happy just to have hair.  I’m actually am very fond of my little pixie and plan on keeping it for now.

Each morning I wake with the goal of choosing joy over resentment.  I’m not always successful, mind you.  By nature I am not the world’s sunniest gal and I have to make a concerted effort to stay positive.  It’s been one of cancer’s most obvious lessons to me; to truly aim for a life of love rather than bitterness.  There is something grotesquely beautiful about being confronted with your own mortality.  It amplifies your emotions, both good and bad.   It demands that you examine every facet and relationship of your life on a deeper level.  It dangles the fact that tomorrow is not guaranteed to any single one of us over your head as a relentless reminder to LIVE!  Cheers to making each day count!

Clownin' round in nature

Clownin’ round in nature

“What is to give light must endure burning.”

Musings on baldness, burns, blessings and breast cancer walks….

With my boys at the Cycle for Siblings bike rally

With my boys at the Cycle for Siblings bike rally

Only 9 more days of radiation!  As long as the machine doesn’t break down again, tacking on an extra day, May 7th is my 36th and final treatment.  A week ago I discovered that my total number is 36 and not 33 as I’d previously been told.  Disappointing.  Each day the area of skin where my right breast used to be darkens and reddens.  It looks like a deep sunburn and is even developing little sunspots and starting to peel.  Unpleasant to envision the damage after 9 more zaps.  At this point anything additional feels like a challenge to my trust that there is an end in sight to all of this.

It’s been a rough few weeks.  It can be so easy to sort of turn inside myself and let my situation get to me.  I really try my hardest to stay up, but I’m only human.  I get frustrated and impatient.  7 months and counting is a long time to have to focus on cancer everyday.  I get exhausted and short.  Having a 2 and 3-year-old is draining enough in and of itself.  The demands of life get intense.  I get scared and I worry.  Are there still cancer cells lurking in my body?  Will I be able to end this and move on with my life?  Will I be here for my kids as they grow up?  I get angry.  How unfair is it that my children have been somewhat robbed of their mom for the last half year?  Or that my parents have stepped in to help with them so much?  Why did this happen to me?  Why now?  I get lonely and sad.  How come I’ve seen so very little of some of the people I thought cared about me most?  I realize everyone has their own lives and their own problems.  I really do.  However, not everyone has 2 toddlers and cancer. Trust me, I know cancer is a real downer.  Not a real fun topic to discuss.  People don’t know what to say so they avoid it entirely.  I get mournful and I grieve.  I miss my carefree spirit of the days before breast cancer changed my life forever.  I miss feeling positively about my body and my physical appearance.  I long for the days when I could go out (and especially wait tables!) without stares, looks, and in some cases, even questions.

During a shift this week I set down drinks on my second visit to the table of a middle-aged couple.  The man cleared his throat and stammered, “Uh, can I ask you something?”  I knew exactly what was coming.  It was only my second shift without the shielding comfort of my baseball cap.  I glanced at his female companion who was giving him that look that said “I can’t freaking believe you!”  I think she was kicking him under the table.  “Why do you have your hair cut like that?”  What an asshat.

Firstly, I wear 2 breast cancer pins on my apron in hopes that questions such as these can be avoided.  Secondly, this dude obviously thought I had chosen to shave my head.  An understandable mistake considering I now look more G.I. Jane and less Mr. Clean.  However, what damn business is it of his?  What is the major hang up about women without hair in our society?  Why does this guy think he has the right to question what he has misconceived as my decision?  It felt really sexist and belittling.  Like this man thought I owed him some sort of explanation for offending his social hang-ups with my buzzed head.  I should’ve asked him what his excuse was for his bad haircut.

I’ve been bald since late November.  Since then there have been countless looks, but only a few insulting experiences.  All of them by men who found my bald head to be either uncontrollably hilarious, or somehow disgusting and insulting to their sense of how a woman is “supposed” to look.  It’s been thought provoking.  I have to say, though, that most people are incredibly kind and encouraging.  I’ve had more positive bald experiences with strangers than negative ones.

There was the lady in Seattle, herself a survivor, who looked me in the eye and told me I was going to live.  She hugged me tightly and offered to buy our dinner.  There was the young dad, about my age, and his teenaged daughter eating at the sushi joint one evening.  It was my first night out during chemo, willing to sit in public without a hat or scarf or wig.  They passed me on their way out and the father said, “My daughter says you look beautiful.”  There was the charming little old lady I bonded with in the infusion room at the cancer center during chemo.  I would see her there every other Monday my last few rounds.  She liked my laugh and teared up when I answered if I have children.

I’m so very grateful for what I DO have and the immensity of love that has been shown to me.  Some ways and moments that will be dear to my heart forever.  People are amazingly thoughtful and generous.  Ladies I hadn’t seen since high school brought my family home cooked meals.  A couple I grew up with left “Secret Santa” gifts on our door step during the holidays.  People knitted me hats and scarves.  Friends from all different time periods of my life have sent sweet messages and cards.  I even heard from my favorite high school teacher!   My husband’s coworkers have been so thoughtful and understanding.  The unending support of my parents and step-parents is amazing.  My brother, Eric, went out of his way to do something special with the bike rally, Cycle for Siblings.  Cancer survivors and fighters who hadn’t even met me prior came out to show support.  The turnout was awesome, the love was felt.  My devoted and loyal husband E, who loves me even bald with one boob is my rock.  My dear friends that that have helped keep me steady:  Tessa, who says “let me know if you need anything” and means it.  Ivan, who showed up at my house with pastries and chai lattes on many of my sickest, most lonely days of chemo.  Katy, who checked on me daily, offering kindness and concern always.  Sally, who was the first person to lay eyes on my bare chest after surgery.  She unwrapped the bandages while I hid my eyes and said, “Don’t worry, Sara.  It’s not that bad.  It really doesn’t look that bad!” Because of her reassurance I found the strength to look down.  She sat next to me on my bed and rubbed my back while I cried about it.  With her I faced it head on.

I am so incredibly thankful.  Thankful to be alive.  Thankful the tumor was discovered.  Thankful to have had a successful surgery and that only one lymph node was involved.  Thankful to have accomplished and competent doctors that I trust.  Thankful that treatment is so close to completion.  Thankful that I’ll have the opportunity to “reconstruct” things down the road.  Yet, none of that detracts from how bad this all sucks.  I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

In the meantime, we’re ready for the Making Strides breast cancer walk this Sunday, the 28th @ 7:30 am @ Cottonwood Mall.  It would be wonderful to have a large team there.  You can register online.  Our team is called Sara’s Supporters and we are so close to our fundraising goal.  You do not have to donate to attend or join the team.  I repeat, it’s free!  Donations are appreciated, but optional.  I want to extend a most heartfelt thanks to everyone who has signed up and/or donated.  It is so very appreciated.  It should be a warm, gorgeous spring morning in Burque.  The walk is way low-key, not an athletic competition.  A few miles along the gorgeous bosque for a good cause with fun people is deserving of your time, right?  Hope to see some of you fine folks there!

“When you are walking through hell, just keep walking”

It’s been six months. Six months since that early fall evening when I was told I have breast cancer. Eight rounds of chemotherapy followed surgery and I hit the halfway mark, completing my fourth infusion on Christmas Eve. I spent the winter bald, isolated, lonely, and often sick. With spring on the horizon I completed chemo on Feb 18th. As we move into the season of rebirth and new beginnings, I too am coming back to life.

Going through chemo is one hell of a test. I am very fortunate to have not suffered as terribly as many do. After the first round I was horribly ill. Vomiting and nausea worse than I’ve ever known. After a medication change I felt far less nauseated through the remaining treatments. The hair that I’d already cut very short began to fall out in clumps on day 16, two days after round 2. That day I picked up the clippers and buzzed it off. No crying or anything like that. I was ready. Ready to be done with it and to finally see what I looked like.

Around the same time the debilitating fatigue set in, making motherhood even more of a challenge. Some days I was not sure I could get up to even get a glass of water. Without the help of my parents there is no way I could’ve cared for my kids. The second four rounds of chemo were a different drug than the first. Although I did not get the numbness in my toes and fingers I was promised, I did have constant headaches. I feel blessed to have not lost finger and toenails as I was told I might.

The mental challenges during that time were far more intense for me. Feeling crappy continuously for three months is rather depressing. I missed my job. I felt like a bad, uninvolved mother. I was home lonely and bored and tired. I spent many days drowning in disbelief. How in the hell had this happened to me? Why? I had way too much time to think. To ponder if all these treatments are working. To imagine what my fate means for my family, whatever it may be. To wonder if I’m going to die from this. To dwell on the fact that the image reflected in the mirror is not really how I see myself, but an older, hairless, stripped down version of who I once was. Every now and again I am still shocked when I catch that first quick glimpse of myself in the morning. Who the f#*k is that? There are still many days where I feel I just can’t believe this. Call it denial. Call it shock or survival mode. It’s probably all of the above.

But, I did it. It felt so hopeless and infinite, but I did it. And then I had a month off.  During that time my husband and I took a wonderful weekend trip to Seattle to attend a conference for young women diagnosed with breast cancer.  We had a great time, took in the sights, and gathered a tremendous amount of information.  On St. Patrick’s Day my brother Eric, organized a bike rally and raffle called Cycle for Siblings that was a great success.  I was honored and humbled by the number and variety of folks who came out and so proud to be Eric’s sister.  It was a lovely thing to do.  The proceeds from the raffle paid for a large medical deductible bill I’d acquired for my biopsies taken back in September.  The words thankful, grateful, and appreciative don’t really do my feelings justice. ❤  It was an emotionally overwhelming experience, but it gave me a needed boost in order to begin the next phase of treatment the following morning.

March 18th was my first radiation treatment. I will have 33 of them total. I go 5 days a week for six and a half weeks. I lie on a table and get unhealthy doses of radiation to my chest daily In hopes that if there are any remaining cancer cells there, they will be too damaged to grow and spread. I don’t feel great about it, as we know radiation does its own harm to the body. But, then so does breast cancer. I had to weigh out which is worse. If this comes back, I know that I have to be able to say to myself and my family that I did everything I possibly could. I have to fight back. I have to attack it harder than it has attacked me!

So, spring is nearly here. I’m back at the gym. My hair is returning, a little. It can’t come fast enough for me at this point. I did not realize that I’d lose my eyebrows AFTER chemo.  Apparently, the dead stuff falls out before the new cells begin regrowth.  So I look even worse, though I am feeling so much better.  I am so incredibly sick of the stares. With the warmer weather means less hats and everyone close to me knows I do not do wigs. I tried. I really did. They are hot and itchy and I felt even more conspicuous in them than I did bald. So, come on hair!

My spirits are up now that I feel better. Exercise helps. Working a few shifts a week helps too. I don’t do well with too much down time, so having some routine in my life is beneficial. I want to thank those people who have been so supportive. The kind words, messages, cards and thoughts are incredibly appreciated. The fight goes on!

Ch…ch…ch…changes….

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives.  It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”  ~Charles Darwin

I’m already slacking.  I haven’t posted in over a month and November has been full of action on the cancer front.  Tomorrow morning I will be infused with powerful chemotherapy drugs for the second time.  I am to have a total of 8 doses.  One every two weeks for 16 weeks.  That means it will be mid-February before I’m done.  At least I’m already two weeks in.

My first round of chemo was on November 12th.  The morning after my 35th birthday.  Sort of a strange, conflicting coincidence since I have been having rather unpleasant feelings about my 35th birthday and age for the first time ever.  I didn’t have anxiety about 25  or 30. But, 35?  It just seems so… mature.  Yet, there I was on my birthday thinking that I am way too young for this cancer bullshit.  My perspective is a bit different now.  I don’t ever want to take anymore birthdays for granted.

In honor of that spirit I treated myself to a birthday/chemo-ready tattoo.  I chose my birth flower, the chrysanthemum on my right arm.  It’s symbolism varies by culture, but generally means strength, good luck, perseverance, and rebirth.   A fall flower, it blooms in the cold and dark.  I wanted some pink tones, for obvious and probably cutesy reasons.  It took 5 and a half hours and I did it in one sitting.  I needed to prove some things to myself and it’s almost silly how much it has played a role.  It was one of those sort of “go big or go home” moments, which is kinda how you have to view cancer.

I have not really been all that comfortable with some of the lovely, but misinformed comments I’ve received about how “strong” or “amazing” I am.  I’m totally not any of that.  I am just your average thirtysomething woman who is pretty damn unlucky.  If I had volunteered to fight cancer or something, than maybe I’d be awesome, but the fact is cancer drug me out kicking and screaming.  I did not want this and it’s not like I’ve been cool as a cucumber about it all.  Don’t think I’m not sad and/or angry at times on many days.  I’m fighting this because I have no choice.  Just like anyone else who has ever shared this diagnosis.  Just like anyone reading this would.  You would do what you have to do.  Maybe some people handle it better than others, but we all just really want to keep on living, right?

I was originally supposed to have my other breast removed and the beginnings of reconstruction on that same date (Nov. 12th), but my oncologist felt it wise to postpone the cosmetic in favor of taking care of the real business first.  I was not that excited about this change in plans initially.  Chemo terrifies the hell out of me and I had done my best to avoid thinking about it.  The news just got better when I learned that I would also be having a procedure the same morning  to insert a “port” under the skin on my chest.  The port serves as a site for all infusions and blood draws throughout treatment.  This prevents you from repeatedly being stuck by needles and damaging the veins.  A tube runs from the port up into my jugular, allowing direct access to the bloodstream without risking the toxic chemo cocktail corroding soft tissues.

We rose early to have my port placement procedure and straight from there I went to my first chemo treatment.  The infusion itself was not bad.  There, Emilio traded off my care and company to my dear friend of 20 years, Sally.  I was a bit doped up so she took notes for me when we met with my doctor, made a list of all the meds I should be taking and drove me home, stopping for prescriptions and lemonade along the way.  We laughed and talked while I sat in the big black lazy boy and tried to ignore the toxic medicine dripping into my brand new port.

I felt weird, almost hung-over the following day, but it was completely tolerable.  It hit me in the wee hours Wednesday morning.  Nausea, headache, just general misery.  I spent all day Wed. and Thurs. in bed.  I got up some on Friday and Sat.  By Sunday I was feeling nearly normal.  As it turns out, there is an additional anti-nausea medication that I should’ve gotten, but did not.  Hopefully having it will help me with my upcoming rounds.  I’m such a huge baby about nausea and I’m a rather pukey person as it is.  Air sickness?  Occasionally.  Car sick?  On curvy roads, yes.  Seasick?  Yup.  Even snorkeling on choppy water.  Just a tiny little bit too much too drink?  Youbettcha. Rides that spin?  Oh, hell yes!  I thought I’d hit pay dirt when I made it through two pregnancies without puking once.  Finally, the vomit gods smiled upon me.  Only to now have to do chemo.  I cannot express how hopeful I am that the new meds will be effective.

In other news, I chopped off all my hair.  My lovely and fabulous hair artiste of nearly 10 years and buddy Carron cut it in a cute little pixie.  This will be easier if my hair falls out, or if I decide to shave it, or whatever.  I have never had it this short, but I love experimenting with new looks and my hair grows fast.  If it’s going to fall out it likely will within the next week.

Again I’d like to thank everyone who has been so helpful at this crazy stressful time!

What do martinis and tits have in common?

Three is just too many, but one is not enough.   🙂

One Bound

2 weeks post-op. Must keep chest tightly bound. Left one smashed flat as a pancake and the right one gone. The new me, for now.

The night I was diagnosed with breast cancer, it quickly became apparent that the right tit was gonna have to go.  I could see for myself on the mammogram image that the tumor covered an extensive area.   I went to bed knowing a mastectomy was in my near future.  Lovely.  Why does it have to be such an awful sounding word?  Mastectomy.  It sounds as unappealing as I feared it would look.

On the morning after I was diagnosed I rose bright and early for an MRI and a meeting with the surgeon’s assistant/scheduler.  She was an awesome, friendly girl my age who assured me that I should be optimistic.  She did confirm what I’d already suspected.  The right breast would need to be removed.  In fact, the recommendation was that I remove both even though the mammogram did not indicate any cancer on the left side  Given my age, the chances of having eventual issues with the left one are high.  Also, if the equally lovely sounding breast “reconstruction” is in my plan, a pair of fakes is likely to look more natural and even than one of each.  We decided on the double mastectomy and scheduled it for what would’ve been last week.  I’d have nearly a month to digest this.  I would be back that afternoon to meet with the surgeon herself to review the results of the MRI.  I’d have the CT scan and chest x-ray the following day.  I left feeling a little more grounded after a miserable night.

Any reassurance I’d gained about the situation disappeared upon returning to see the surgeon that afternoon.  Emilio and I sat in her office as she very casually turned her computer screen towards us to reveal the image results of my MRI.  She didn’t really need to explain much.  My right breast was lit up like a Christmas tree.  I saw several colors there, as opposed to the virtually colorless image of my left.  She said that the cancer was larger than she initially suspected and probably more aggressive.  The real bombshell though, came when she said that this was an urgent matter.  Urgent enough to move my surgery up from Oct. 24th to Oct. 2nd.  That was the following Tuesday.  A mere 5 days away.  There would be no time to see the plastic surgeon and begin the reconstruction process along with the mastectomy.  Therefore, they wouldn’t bother with the left one yet either.  The goal was to remove the diseased cancer boob and basically, to do it right damn now.

There would be no month to digest this after all.  Just 5 days.  5 days to mourn my former life as someone for whom cancer is not a concern.  5 days to appreciate the body I was born with.  5 days to mourn my chest as I knew it.  5 days to say good-bye to a piece of myself that I was actually quite fond of, thank you very much.  5 days to prepare my house, my family, my job and my life for 2 weeks of mom down.

That night I just could not shake the fear.  That kind of fear that takes over your entire body.  Shaky, queasy, crampy, sleepless fear.  If my boob was that full of cancer, how could it possibly not have spread elsewhere?  Each time I thought of my upcoming CT scan and chest X-ray I’d cry.  Oh my god, what if this too advanced to be stopped?  Never before have I stared my own mortality in the face.  5 years ago I may have seen this differently, but now I have two boys to raise.  They are so young that they won’t likely remember much about this cancer crap, but if it’s my time they likely won’t remember much about their mother either.

I had the scan and x-ray on Friday, September 28th and I got the results first thing Monday morning.  Both were totally clear!  Finally, some good news.  Although the cancer had made its way across my right breast, there was not yet any indication that it had spread anywhere else in my body.  The relief was immense!  It was the first time I actually felt lucky in this mess.

For the remainder of the day I tried to really process the fact that A) I have cancer and B) in the morning I will get my right tit cut off.  Un-freaking-believable!  One week before I was just having my biopsy and hoping this was nothing.  That evening we dropped the kids off with my dad and step-mom and went out for dinner.  My last outing with my body intact, unmutilated.

We had to be at the hospital by 6 am on Oct. 2nd.  Thankfully, I remember almost nothing about that day until I starting waking up after the surgery.  I have spotty memories of my mom, dad, brother, and E being there.  I remember an immediate sense of relief that the surgery was over and that I was in no pain.  After my brother walked me around a little, they got me dressed and sent me home.  The surgery itself didn’t take quite 2 hours and I was home  by the afternoon.

At some point, somebody told me that the surgery had been a total success.  They did not find any cancer in my chest wall, skin, or nipple.  They had also managed to achieve “clear margins”, meaning they got all of the cancer.  Of the 10 lymph nodes they removed, only the first one contained any cancer cells.  All of this was exceptional and unexpected good news.  There was some disturbing news too.  A total of 5 separate tumors had been found in my breast tissue.  The largest was 3.5 cm!  That’s about the size of a really large marble.  Nearly a ping-pong ball!   2 more tumors were each about 1 cm and the other 2 were around a half cm.  Upon hearing that I can say I felt glad the boob was off.  I felt somewhat repulsed thinking about that cancer just hanging out in my body, working to spread and disease and poison me.  It was an important turning point for me.  I began to realize that I had to try my best view this not as a lost body part, but as a removed cancer that wanted me dead.

I spent the next couple of days absolutely showered with love.  Even though I was rather doped up and hazy, I remember the visits and calls and messages and flowers and well -wishes.  They meant, and continue to mean the world to me.  As cliche as it may be, this experience has enabled me to see the positive in humanity again.  It has reminded me that most people are generous, kind, thoughtful and caring individuals.  Thank you so much to those who have sent any kind of healing energy or prayer my way.  I really do feel it and it helps.