Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Oh, for Fox Sake!

So I’ve had an interesting couple of weeks. As I’ve talked about previously in this blog, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer almost exactly one year to the day after I was diagnosed. It was caught early and she has had nothing but good news about her treatment and prognosis, which has been wonderful and a huge relief. I am thrilled for her, but I can’t say that her cancer is not affecting me.

As a dutiful daughter – and as someone who has already been down this road before – I have been going with my mom to her doctor appointments. It’s been interesting, to say the least. The conversations have gone a little like this:

Surgeon – “Don’t worry, your pathology report is nothing like Shannon’s report.” “Don’t worry, your chance of developing seromas like Shannon did is very slim.” “Don’t worry, your cancer is much, much, MUCH smaller than Shannon’s.”

Oncologist – “Don’t worry, your treatment plan is going to be nothing like what Shannon went through.” “Don’t worry, you don’t need chemo like Shannon did.” “Don’t worry, you won’t lose your hair like Shannon did.” “Don’t worry, you may not have to take hormone-blocking medication like Shannon is taking with a cancer as tiny as yours.”

Radiation Doctor – “Don’t worry, you shouldn’t have nearly as rough a time as Shannon had.” “Don’t worry, you will only have to do three weeks of radiation instead of six weeks like Shannon did.” “Don’t worry, we don’t anticipate you having the burns and infections that Shannon experienced.”

I am beginning to think that I am a cancer over-achiever.

Leave it to me to be a slacker in all areas of my life except this one. Education? Never got around to enrolling in graduate school. Parenthood? I’m probably the okayest parent you will ever meet. Relationship? Ruanita tolerates me (but she may have low self-esteem). Morality? Questionable. Career? Meh. Ambition? Nah. Income? Ha!

The one and only area of my life in which I am an over-achiever is on the cancer front.

Stage III cancer? Check.
Twenty weeks of chemo? Check.
Debilitating neuropathy? Check.
Chemo brain? Check.
Double mastectomy? Check.
Multiple seromas? Check.
Ugly pathology report (7 of 14 lymph nodes still positive after chemo)? Check.
Radiation burns? Check.
Infected skin? Check.
Bone pain from aromatase inhibitor? Check.
Obsession with those 7 positive lymph nodes? Check.
Total conviction that the cancer will absolutely, definitely come back? Check.

It’s that conviction that it will come back that has been bothering me the most lately. It’s probably because I’ve been going to my mother’s appointments with her. I want to be there for her, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t experiencing some mild PTSD-like tics as a result. While it has been nice to see my surgeon and the radiation nurses again – I truly adore them all – the constant reminder of just how bad I had it has been an interesting development. Not many people get to RE-experience their whole cancer journey like I am, I would think.

The reminder of how dire my situation is/was/almost was/might still be has been tough. I’ve found myself obsessed with those seven tiny positive lymph nodes. Seven tiny nodes. It’s amazing to me the level of anxiety they can provoke.

For the past two weeks, I have been maintaining an anxiety baseline somewhere between a nun at a penguin shoot and a ceiling fan store owner with a comb-over. It’s a low-level, constant sense of dread. But sometimes it can work itself up into a tornadic whirlwind of doubt and fear and unease. I can be sitting on a perfectly mundane conference call minding my own business and it will suddenly take my breath away.

I’m told it will get better with time. I’m told to focus on the positive. I’m told to try to resume my normal life. Get exercise. Find a hobby. Read a good book. Embrace. Your. Bliss.  

Yada. Yada. Effing yada.

I know what I need to do. It’s just that it’s hard to convert intellectual understanding (intellectually, I know worrying will not reduce my odds of getting cancer again) to emotional solvency (most days, I have the emotional stability of a hungry toddler three hours past nap time).

And to make matters worse, today there is a new development.  

I am pretty sure I am developing lymphedema in my left arm. It’s the one complication of cancer treatment I have not yet experienced. So, of course, being the over-achiever I am...

It hurts. It’s slightly swollen. It’s sore to the touch.

I’ll call the clinic in the morning.

I hear lymphedema sleeves are sexy.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Masochism or Machismo?

You guys are big, fat, lying, poopy-head liars!

When I use the collective “you,” I am not referring to all of you. Or even most of you. But some of you are definitely guilty of some major fibbing. If not outright lying, you definitely misrepresented the facts. You know who you are. And I know where you live.

Acupuncture is ahhhhhh-mazing!
OMG, you’ll love it soooooo much!
You can’t even feel the needles.
It’s sooooooo relaxing. You will be amazed.

So I went to acupuncture this afternoon, and I am still waiting for the ahhhhhh-mazing to kick in. It wasn’t horrible, per se. But I can’t really say that I enjoyed it. Honestly, I am not entirely sure how I feel about it just yet.

That said, however, there’s a teensy tiny chance that my disillusionment may be more my fault than yours. (Though I prefer to blame you.)

First and foremost, I convinced myself that my acupuncturist would be Mr. Miyagi from Karate Kid fame. This may be slightly racist – I’m not completely sure – but I was looking forward to waxing on and waxing off. I mean, how cool would that be? Mr. Miyagi poking me with sharp needles while whispering in my ear, “First learn stand, then learn fly. Nature rule Daniel son, not mine.” My name’s not Daniel, but I could be convinced to answer to Dani. Anything for Mr. Miyagi.

Okay, I didn’t really expect it to be Mr. Miyagi. A girl can dream, of course. But if my acupuncturist wasn’t going to be Mr. Miyagi, I had a definite “type” in mind. He would be tall. Probably bearded. A man bun would be perfectly, sloppily balanced on top of his head. There would probably be quinoa involved….somehow. And maybe kale. A bicycle would likely be propped up in the corner. He’d smell of baking soda deodorant and craft beer. You know…the type who would be into alternative medicine and Eastern philosophy.

Imagine my surprise when a tiny middle-aged Asian woman walked in. I hate to say it, but her complete normalness was a bit of a disappointment after my man-bun/quinoa/craft beer fantasy. But she was perfectly pleasant, so I recovered quickly.

That is, until she pulled the needles out from under her sinister cloak of doom. Yes, the needles are narrow. Yes, the tips are tiny. But those mothers sting like a bitch! Whoever told me that you can’t feel the needles at all obviously has 1.) A sadistic sense of humor, or 2. Irreparable nerve damage. Since I consider this person a dear friend, I am going to call it irreparable nerve damage and hope she accepts my condolences.

So the needles stung going in. That was no fun. I won’t sugar-coat it, the needles sucked. But then to make matters worse, the acupuncturist (who smelled of lavender and not beer) did not immediately remove the needles. As a matter of fact, she just left the room. Just walked right out the door. There I lay on my back on the exam table like a pleasantly plump Edward Scissorhands. Unable to move. Unable to flex my toes. (Flexing my toes is a weirdly big deal to me.) Unable to scratch my nose for fear of piercing my left nostril. All alone.

For Twenty. Freaking. Minutes.

Nothing to do. Nothing to look at. No one to talk to. All alone with my thoughts. Inside my own head is a dangerous place to be at the best of times. But when I have twenty needles protruding from my hands and knees and feet and ears (my EARS, for heaven’s sake!), it is downright dangerous.

It was not relaxing. It was not peaceful. I did not enter a Zen-like meditative state. Instead, I lay there for twenty minutes relentlessly tapping my fingers on the table while seriously considering the social and medical ramifications of running, screaming from the room with needles poking out of my kneecaps.

I might be a wee bit high strung.

Eventually, the needles were removed and I left the office smelling of mint from both the oil the acupuncturist rubbed on my feet and legs afterwards and the two giant adhesive pads (?) that I was told to leave stuck to my ample hips for 24 hours. I assume they are pain pads of some sort, though I did not receive an explanation and was in no mood for extended conversation at that point anyway.

I have at least three more appointments scheduled at this point – once a week for the next three weeks. I haven’t decided yet if my masochistic streak runs deep enough to eventually enjoy acupuncture or if I will simply grin and bear it on the off chance that it may provide me with some relief from my constant joint pain. Those are the only two options, as far as I see it. Masochism or machismo.

There is a really good chance I may not be the ideal candidate for Eastern medicine.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

It Keeps Getting Better and Better

I am beginning to believe that I might have multiple personality disorder. Or perhaps I am bipolar. Or maybe it is some sort of dysphoric disorder. Or it could just be your plain old garden variety low self-esteem.

Whatever my official clinical diagnosis, I am blaming cancer.

Here's the thing about breast cancer. Some days you feel like a warrior woman. Nothing about cancer is pleasant, but there is something about getting through chemotherapy – about surviving a bilateral mastectomy, toughing your way through radiation – that makes you feel somehow stronger. Yes, your body is turning on you. Yes, your boobs totally tried to kill you – traitorous bitches! Yes, your mind is making up terrifying scenario after terrifying scenario. But you got through. You managed to come out the other side. Some days, you just feel like Wonder Woman.

Other days, you feel like a shitty human being.

Today was a shitty-human-being sort of day.

In my last blog post, I wrote about the aches and pains I have been experiencing as a result of the aromatase inhibitor, Letrozole, I was taking. I met with my oncologist on Friday to discuss the pain. He explained that he would typically treat pain related to the aromatase inhibitor by prescribing Neurontin. Guess what? I am already taking Neurontin. His second option to combat the pain would be to prescribe an anti-depressant like Celexa. Umm…yeah. I already take that, too. (I suspect there are probably very few drugs in the entirety of the Physician’s Desk Reference that I do not currently take.) The third option would be for him to prescribe a pain medication like Vicodin. I come from a long line of addictive personalities and, as a result, I don’t really like to take narcotics unless I have to.  That may sound weird but, though I love my family dearly, I am quite cognizant of my genetic shortcomings.

With no additional pain relief options available to us, and with my pain having reached a level that was not conducive to a pleasant home life for my dear family (my apologies, dear family), we decided to switch me to Tamoxifen. Tamoxifen has side effects of its own – primarily Menopausal-type side effects – but bone pain is not one of them. Though Tamoxifen is a tiny bit less effective at preventing cancer recurrence than the Letrozole I had been taking, I felt confident that our decision was the right one for me.

That was Friday.

Today I woke up feeling somewhat better than I had in a while, but I still had a lot of pain localized in my right hip. Though I’ve been dealing with bone pain all over, the pain in my right hip has been a tad bit worse than the rest of my pain. I’ve been telling myself that it is nothing. That it is simply the medication. That I need not worry.

But the truth is, the pain in my right hip has always felt…different.

When I had my mastectomy surgery, my pathology report left something to be desired. I had already had 20 weeks of chemotherapy that had shrunk my cancer considerably, and I went into surgery hopeful that the post-surgical pathology report would come back with no lymph node involvement and a clean bill of health. Instead, I had 14 lymph nodes removed during my surgery and seven of those were still cancerous. Not the report anyone wanted to see. But we proceeded with radiation and hormone therapy, hoping (confident, even) that they would keep the cancer at bay.

And so far, so good.

But today I woke up feeling different. I was being honest when I told my oncologist on Friday that I was having pain all over, but I was fooling both of us when I said that all of the pain was of the same intensity. So today, after a tearful conversation with Ruanita, I decided to call my oncologist and discuss my concerns about my hip.

Of course, keeping in step with my usual luck, he was out of the office today.

I spoke with his nurse, who promised to speak with my doctor tomorrow morning and call me back. I would have to wait. If I have perfected anything during my cancer “journey” (that word again…blech!), it’s patience. I would not have to wait long, however, this time. A couple of hours later, the nurse called me back and said that my doctor had been checking his messages and saw that I had called. Obviously, he was concerned because he immediately ordered hip and pelvic x-rays for me, to be completed at my earliest convenience. My earliest convenience happened to be right after work today.

So now I wait. Tomorrow, I will either find out that the cancer has metastasized to my bones and is, therefore, no longer curable – OR – I will know that my mind is playing tricks on me and this is the first of what will surely be many more “freak-out” sessions about my cancer coming back.

So how does that make me a shitty person?

As many of you know and some of you may not, my mom was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. Almost exactly one year to the day after I was diagnosed (what are the fucking odds, really??), she found a lump that proved to be cancerous. Last Friday, the same day I met with my oncologist, she had a lumpectomy performed by my surgeon. At my hospital. In a couple weeks, she will be seeing my oncologist.

This afternoon, as I was driving home from my x-ray appointment, I got a call from my mom’s surgeon – my mom had given her permission to also call me with her pathology report from Friday’s surgery, as my mother is an extremely poor disseminator of information.

The verdict?

Nothing but good news. Her cancer was determined to be Stage 1 breast cancer. Her tumor was only ½ a centimeter in diameter. There was no cancer in her lymph nodes. She will require no additional surgeries beyond the lumpectomy. She will not need chemotherapy. She will have to have radiation because it goes hand-in-hand with a lumpectomy, but her pathology report was about as good as it could possibly get. It was fabulous news.

But my first thought was not one of elation. Nor excitement. Nor relief. My first feeling was not gratitude, as it should have been. It was not happiness for my mother, who I love completely.

No. Instead, I thought, Why couldn’t that have been me?

That’s why I am a shitty person. That is how cancer makes you feel like less of a human being. Because you want nothing more than to be rid of it. Nothing more than to be safe. To be healthy. To be whole again. To look at your daughter and feel confident that you will see her grow up. To tell your son, with the arrogant certainty of a person never touched by cancer, that you will always be there for him. You want it so much you can’t see straight. You can’t think straight. You want it so much that when another person gets it – even someone you love with all of your heart – you can’t feel anything but envy. Ugly, repugnant envy.   

So yeah…today I am a shitty person.

Tomorrow, I may very well be a shitty person with incurable cancer.

Cancer sucks.