Friday, August 19, 2016

Drumroll please....




(This decidedly non-religious girl is having a religious moment.)

I had a great appointment with my surgeon this morning. I have said all along that I’ve felt positive about this whole thing. More positive than my family. More positive than my friends. More positive even than my wife, who has spent every moment of the last five months worrying about losing me. Somehow, I’ve never once seriously thought, I am going to die from this cancer. I’ve always felt that it would be difficult – I mean Stage 3 breast cancer is certainly not fun – but that it is something I could get through.  From the beginning, I had no justification for feeling this way. I had no sound reasoning for feeling so positive. I just knew in my heart of hearts that this might break me, but it wouldn’t kill me. 

Today, my stupid optimism has been somewhat vindicated. 

The first thing my surgeon said when she came into the exam room today was, “You’re MRI looks fabulous!”

My initial breast MRI five months ago showed one relatively small-ish tumor, but an additional 10.1 cm of cancer spread throughout all four quadrants of the breast.  Basically, my entire left breast was oozing with cancer cells. That is why we opted to do chemo first and postpone surgery. 

Yesterday’s MRI showed none of the disease that had been in all four quadrants, and only a 1.9 cm tumor. My cancer shrank from 10.1 cm to 1.9 cm. I went from complete and total cancer infestation to one relatively small tumor less than 2 cm wide. 

That is fucking phenomenal!

All these five months of miserable chemo seem to have payed off. The chemo did its job. And even better, it DID NOT KILL ME.

So now we move into stage 2 of my cancer treatment. We discussed all of the surgical options at length today with my surgeon (who is the same age as me and who I think could totally be my new BFF if we didn’t have the whole doctor/patient dynamic going on). Because my cancer has shrunk so significantly, I am now a candidate for a lumpectomy. We discussed the pros and cons of lumpectomy surgery versus mastectomy surgery at length. Though both surgeries have the exact same cancer survival rates, the lumpectomy could slightly increase the risk of recurrence of cancer in my left breast. There would be a slightly higher chance I would have to go through this all again, but no higher risk of metastatic breast cancer, which is the real danger.

I’ve opted to go ahead with the mastectomy rather than the lumpectomy. While the return of cancer in my breast will not kill me, it’s one hell of a buzz kill. And one hell of a hassle for everyone involved. So I am opting to minimize that outcome as much as possible. 

For symmetry’s sake and because I am rather large chested and could end up quite unbalanced and wonky-looking (that's a scientific term, by the way), I am opting for a bilateral mastectomy. Take them both, baby!

Because the original cancer was in all three levels of my lymph nodes, we are going to remove the first two levels of lymph nodes in my left armpit, as well. They can’t remove all three levels because that will give me pretty close to a 100% chance of developing lymphedema. Removing two levels, however, only gives me a 30-35% chance of developing lymphedema. I can live with that. I will also see an occupational therapist to talk about lymphedema prevention and exercises I will need to do as I heal. So I feel like all bases will be covered in that regard.

Finally, we discussed reconstruction at length. I made a decision several weeks ago and I am sticking to it. I was lying in bed wide awake at 4am one morning and had an epiphany. I decided in that moment that I did not want to have reconstructive surgery. I even woke Ruanita up to tell her…at 4:00 in the morning. She was highly amused, as you can imagine. 

Here’s the thing…I really just don’t care about my boobs at this point in my life. I can’t imagine having implants. They have no sensation. They don’t feel real. They require additional surgeries. They cause additional pain and longer recovery times. I just feel so done with all of this and don’t want to drag it out with additional procedures. My doctor was amazing and encouraged me to think about how I want to see myself in 5 or 10 years. And when I did that, I just felt no attachment to – or interest in – boobs. I can wear prosthetics. I can just live flat. I have options. And no additional pain or surgery. No additional opportunities for complications.

I am 100% content with my decision.

So, all that said, I have surgery scheduled for September 22nd. The chemo is still working in my body at this point, so we are going to give it a couple of weeks to keep working and couple of weeks for me to recover a tad before surgery. My surgeon recommended that I take four weeks off from work for recovery following surgery, so I intend to take every minute of that. I WILL have radiation after surgery, but the length and schedule for my radiation will be determined after surgery. I also need to talk to my oncologist about the possibility having my ovaries removed to suppress the hormones that seem to feed my kind of cancer. That would be a separate surgery done at a different date. I also need to talk to my oncologist about having my port removed, which can happen at the same time as my mastectomy. 
All in all, today was a day of very good news. I am thrilled about the chemo results and I am happy to have a plan in place for the next phase of treatment. I see a light at the end of the tunnel!

And I still feeling stupidly, ridiculously positive.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Attack of the Frozen Pizza

Sometimes I am just stupid.

It's true. Sometimes I do things that I know I shouldn't just to spite myself. Just to prove to myself and to the world that I can still do something - anything - normal. Even when I clearly can't. Even when it is an endeavor doomed for crash-and-burn failure.

Case in point: I ate a frozen  pizza for lunch on Friday.

Okay, I realize that sounds like a pretty lame act of rebellion. You have to realize, however,  that I have a long, storied history of frozen pizzas and my body engaging in some pretty violent smack-downs. For years, I have been unable to eat frozen pizza. Restaurant pizza is fine. Frozen pizza is evil incarnate. It doesn't matter the brand. The toppings. The crust. If I eat a frozen pizza, my body rejects it wholeheartedly. Usually in the form of pretty severe heartburn and indigestion. So I do know better than to eat one.

So what the hell was I thinking on Friday?

I was thinking that I was hungry because of the stupid steroids. I was thinking that nothing would taste good to me because of the hateful chemo. I was thinking that I had exactly 20 minutes between conference calls at work and could maybe heat up a pizza quickly in that time. And I was thinking, You know what? Fuck it. I have cancer. If anyone deserves to eat a freaking frozen pizza in peace, it's me. And no one can tell me what to do! Like I said, it was a lame place to take a stand, but in that moment - in that mindset, fueled by steroidal hunger and rage - it felt rebellious.

So I made a frozen pizza - sausage, to be precise. I fully intended to share it with Ruanita and Sophie. Each ate only one tiny piece (they are obviously smarter than me) and I ended up eating all of the remaining pizza. And it tasted good. Well, it tasted, so that's good.

That afternoon, we had a new couch and chair delivered to our house. Unfortunately, the couch was about 5 inches too long to fit through and door and pivot into our living room from our small entrance area without busting out a wall. So as soon as I finished with work at three o'clock, we headed out to the furniture store to find something a tad bit shorter that we could fit into our old South Minneapolis house. I was fine at the furniture store. Tired and teetering around, as usual, but fine.

The way home from the store was a different story altogether.

The furniture store was in Little Canada, a suburb of St. Paul a good thirty minutes from my house - longer in rush hour traffic. As soon as we hit the highway to come home, I began to feel a tightness in my chest. It was like indigestion, but an extreme version that took my breath away. The pain was situated in the middle of uppermost abdomen and radiated to the left. It was like the Incredible Hulk himself had reached into my chest, grabbed...whatever...and was squeezing with all his might. It was excruciating.

Ruanita and the kids were concerned, obviously. Well, Lucas was at least. He was almost in tears by the time the whole thing was over. Sophie just kept saying, "It'll be okay, mom." And Nicky retreated to his happy place and didn't say a word.

We ended up stopping at my mother's house because she lives in St. Paul and her house was closer than ours. I was sure she would have Tums I could take. She did not. But she gave me some Zantac and a glass of water, and I lounged on her couch for a few minutes. I thought the pain had started to fade, so we all piled into the car again to drive from my mom's house to our house in Minneapolis.

The minute I got in the car, the pain started anew. I felt like I was going to throw up. I felt like I was going to poop my pants. And the pain would not let up. By the time we got home, I was in tears in the front seat of the car, hunched over a small cereal bowl Sophie had brought along full of Cheet-ohs for the ride. I walked through the door, kicked my shoes off, stripped off my bra and shorts on the way through the living room and immediately curled up in the fetal position on Sophie's bed (her bedroom was the closest and her bed was the cleanest). Ruanita brought me Tums and water and asked no fewer than 3,821 times if I thought we needed to go to the Emergency Room. I had no desire to go to the hospital. It was the Open Ceremonies of the Olympics Friday night, and I have my priorities.

Eventually the pain did fade. I laid in Sophie's bed curled up in my underwear for a full hour. Our junk food fest we had planned for the Opening Ceremonies was not to be. I did, however, get to join the family in our couch-less living room to watch the ceremonies.

After all was said and done, I was pretty certain I had had a gallbladder attack. Ruanita had her gallbladder out shortly after Lucas was born and the attack I had was very similar to what she used to have.

I began to wonder if it was the chemo that caused the gallbladder attack - one more unpleasant side effect to add to the lengthy and growing list. I searched online for "Taxol chemo and gallbladder issues." I found a lot of anecdotal evidence on various breast cancer boards of women beginning to have gallbladder attacks near the end of Taxol chemo. Many women ended up having their gallbladders removed after chemo. Doctors, however, (at least from my brief research) seem to assert that there is no correlation between chemo and gallbladder issues. I'm not sure I buy that. It's awfully "convenient" that this popped up as I am only two infusions away from competing chemo. If chemo can affect my heart - if it can effect my stomach and my legs and my arms and my hands and my feet and my thoughts and my scalp and my skin - who is to say that it is not having an effect on my gallbladder, as well?  Seems like that would only make sense.

Either way, I am now extremely suspicious of every little twitch and tingle I feel. I am going to avoid fatty foods, obviously (no small task with the steroids I am on that make me want to eat everything in sight) - and I certainly learned my lesson (again) about frozen pizza. Frankly, I am a little scared to eat now. I desperately - desperately -want to eat, but I am frightened of having another attack. It was not pleasant, to say the least.

So what is a bald, chubby Weeble to do?

Two more weeks.

Two. Weeks.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Another Day, Another Milestone

I reached a new cancer milestone today. After months of preparation and weeks of slow, deliberate build-up, I finally achieved something I never thought possible at the ripe young age of 43. Something I didn't expect to achieve until well into my golden years, if at all.

Today, I required the use of a wheelchair.

I woke up this morning to pretty achy hands and feet. With my neuropathy worsening in these later weeks of chemo, working has become difficult and I've warned my manager that I am afraid it may continue to be difficult for the next three weeks until I am done with chemo. I work when I can. And I work hard when I am working. But it is not always a good day to work. My hands hurt. I have started dropping things incessantly, so I can't be trusted to carry anything of any value that you do not want scattered across the floor. That includes my laptop. And typing - or even the simple act of maneuvering my mouse around the screen - has proven a painful affair. My fingertips are extremely sensitive to touch sometimes and typing often feels like tiny hammers beating me in the fingertips over and over again.

(It's as fun as it sounds, really.)

So I called in sick today. Typing was out of the question this morning. Ruanita also stayed home from work today because we've had an extremely stressful couple of weeks. Things are coming to a head this month and we will finally see if and how the last FIVE FREAKING MONTHS of chemo have affected my cancer. We will also have decisions to make about surgery and reconstruction. We want to do everything we can to avoid a reoccurance - something no one is guaranteed. As a natural-born worrier, Ruanita is living on pins and needles right now as we await the end of chemo and the results and the upcoming decisions that must be made. That stress and anxiety can make concentrating on work just as difficult as physical pain can. So she took an FMLA day today to "deal" with my symptoms and diagnosis. She felt extremely guilty about it (of course - guilt is what she does best), but my answer to that is, "Fuck that. This is the most stressful situation that we may very well go through in our entire lives. Her workplace has been phenomenal and they will understand. If she needs to take a mental health day to deal with all the whirlwind of shit coming her way, then she needs to do it. Guilt be damned."

That said, however, though I did not feel well this morning, I did not feel like languishing in bed all day. Other than my hands and feet, I felt generally...okay. As okay as I can feel right now without being able to work and without actually bringing money into the house. (I am pretty talented at the guilt thing, too.) I wanted to be productive, in some manner. Somehow. Then I remembered that the kids still need new school shoes before school starts later this month. And I had the utterly brilliant idea to take the kids to the Mall of America to shop for shoes.

What the hell was I thinking!?

I'll tell you exactly what I was thinking. Apparently, I was thinking that the last three weeks of being able to walk no more than a few dozen yards without my legs turning to jelly would somehow right itself and disappear the minute I stepped foot into the 4-floor, 4,870,000 square feet (I looked that up) behemoth that is the Mall of America. Only one of the largest malls in the country. What could possibly go wrong?

Okay, time for full disclosure. There is a Famous Footwear very near my house (a few short feet from my favorite Target) where we have historically shopped for the kids school shoes. We could have easily zipped in and out of there to buy their shoes. And in actuality, after looking in three or four different stores at the MOA, we ended up buying their shoes at the Famous Footwear in the mall anyway. So we could have saved ourselves a lot of time and a lot of grief by simply stopping in the shop near our house.

BUT...I had a craving.

I have written recently about being given steroids (which has worked wonders for my leprosy-like rash). The steroids are great other than that I could easily eat my own body weight in potatoes right now. And pasta. And crackers. And meat of any kind (my apologies to my vegetarian friends, but I LOVE me some meat right now). And anything that I can get my hands on that wouldn't possibly eat me first. My cravings change minute to minute, but they are always strong and usually completely and totally unhealthy.

And today I had a serious craving for a dozen or so Long John Silver hushpuppies. I am not proud. Long John Silver is not exactly a particularly popular fast food restaurant here in Minneapolis. As a matter of fact, there is only one in the entire Twin Cities metro area. There is one and only one Long John Silvers within 50 miles of my house, and it just so happens to be in the Mall of America. So - full disclosure - my brilliant idea to shoe shop today was mostly just a pathetic ruse to convince my family to stop in the food court for some Long John Silver.

So what does this have to do with a wheelchair?

I managed to make it from the parking lot, through Sears, and to the Famous Footwear store right next to Sears (with Ruanita giving me some severe side-eye the whole way) before coming to the devastating conclusion that I was walking like someone with cerebral palsy. Like someone with cerebral palsy, my legs were not following the directions my brain was so vehemently putting out there. I was dipping and dragging and swaying and scuttling. My legs were like jelly and simply did not want to move me forward as commanded. It was quite a weird sensation. I realize it is all temporary, but it was sort of scary. And it really made me feel for people dealing with permanent conditions where their own bodies do not cooperate with their minds. I can't imagine that sensation being a permanent situation.

But I digress.

After leaving Famous Footwear, we immediately walked (well, as immediately as I could, shuffling along at a snail's pace) to the front entrance and rented a wheelchair. I should have known it was likely a bad idea when my 13-year-old son, Lucas, immediately became almost giddy at the prospect of pushing me around. He did say that I was "pretty light," which was either 1.) a blatant lie, or 2.) some sort of weirdly obscure transformational property of physics that I never learned about in college. Either way, I'll take it.

My son, however, is a wee bit lacking in basic wheelchair etiquette. For example, when pushing someone in a wheelchair into an elevator, etiquette dictates that one should turn around and back them into the elevator so they are facing the front and it is easier to disembark when the time comes. What one does not do is shove the wheelchair-bound person at full speed into the corner of the elevator, knocking their toes painfully against the glass in the meantime, and leave them shoved with their nose in the corner while you laugh about how bad you are at driving a wheelchair behind their back (in a fully packed elevator, no less!). In other words, he would do well to remember that NO ONE PUTS BABY IN A CORNER!

I found it interesting, also, the looks I received wearing a head scarf and being pushed around in a wheelchair. People moved out of our way, but I got some pretty pathetic "poor sick lady" stares. And not just from the kids. Though it did seem to be "kids day" at the mall. We came across numerous groups of pre-schoolers in matching day-glo t-shirts being led around the mall by college-aged staff. All the little kiddos gaped at me open-mouthed. I simply sat in my wheelchair and smiled, but it was weird. I am not someone who likes to be the center of attention and riding around in a wheelchair sort of invites that attention. Especially when being flung forward ten feet at a time in front of my dorky 13-year-old son.

BUT, we managed to get new school shoes for all three of the kids today and, though I was unable to work today because of my hands, I was not a completely useless piece of humanity. So I am going to call it a productive day.

My only regret?

That my son picked out the most gawd-awful boring pair of size 13 wide gigantic boats he could possibly find anywhere in the entire mall.

Clearly, he did not inherit my stellar sense of style. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

I am Not Wonder Woman - Surprise!

If you had asked me two or three weeks ago, I would have said this Taxol chemo thing was a breeze. I was coasting. Back at work. Hanging out with friends. Feeling good. I was beginning to feel like a chemotherapy superstar. Like nothing could touch me. All of the horrible side effects I read about were nothing. NOTHING. I was invincible. I was Wonder Woman.

Then I hit cycle #7 and it all fell apart.

My joints starting hurting. My legs ached. Walking became difficult. I was SO. VERY. TIRED. I broke out in a weird itchy rash. Cycle #8 came and went and the rash began to spread. My hands. My arm. My elbow. My knuckles itched unbearably. I stopped sleeping almost altogether. I started taking baths at 2am to try to relax enough to fall asleep. I was only moderately successful. Working became more difficult because I was 1.) exhausted, 2.) itching like a mother, and 3.) generally sore and weepy and crabby and unable to concentrate.

I tried Benadryl cream. I tried 1% Hydrocortisone cream. I tried soaking in Epsom salts. I took numerous oatmeal baths. Monday, I was prescribed a topical steroid cream. And the rash continued to spread. Yesterday, I was casually scratching my back in front of my mom. She asked if the rash had spread to my back. "I don't think so," I replied. Being my mom though, she insisted on pulling up my shirt and looking. Sure enough, it was covering my lower back. Red. Scaly. Ugly. And ITCHY!

This morning, I was scheduled to see my oncologist and have my 9th Taxol infusion. It started normally enough. I checked in in the Cancer Care Center and went across the hall to the Infusion Center to have my blood drawn for my CBC. My nurse took one look at my rash and immediately declared that it was the worst Taxol rash she had ever seen and that it would be interesting to hear what Dr. Anderson wanted to do. She said she would not be surprised if he decided to postpone or cancel my chemo. Needless to say, this was NOT what I wanted to hear with only four cycles to go.

The nurse proceeded to try to draw my blood. My port was uncooperative, as usual. However, none of the usual finagling (standing up, laying down, bending over, coughing, inhaling deeply, etc.) worked. The nurse was unable to get even a drop of blood out of my port. So I received the Draino (can't remember what the medicine is actually called, but it is a port de-clogger of some sort) and was sent to the lab to have blood drawn the old-fashioned way. Of course, the lab technician had trouble getting blood from me because of my freakishly tiny veins. Do I strike you as someone who would have tiny veins? I couldn't have a tiny ass or a tiny hips. Nope. I have teensy tiny veins. After two sticks and lots of under-the-skin moving and shaking, she finally got enough for the CBC.

Poked and prodded and beginning to bruise, I headed back to the Cancer Care Center to meet with my oncologist. We talked for quite a while about all of my symptoms. I have a major bromance (I can say that because I am a lesbian, I think) going on with my oncologist. He is just such a nice guy and so attentive and really takes my preferences into account. To my relief, he agreed with me that stopping the chemo so close to the end would be heart-wrenching. He suggested we try to power through.

I was prescribed an oral steroid, Dexamethasone, to try to treat the rash and keep it from spreading. I took this drug for a couple of days after each AC chemo, but now I will be taking it every day. I am not looking forward to being on steroids. For one thing, I fully expect to blow up like a balloon because steroids make me HANGRY. I already gained seven pounds since I last saw my oncologist four weeks ago. Seven pounds in one month. Yikes! But I suppose I can't allow the rash to totally envelope me, making me looking like a walking, talking pimple. So I will take the steroids. Against my will, but I will take them. Ugh.

Dr. Anderson also increased my Gabapentin (Neurontin) again to try to counteract the pain in my fingers and toes. I am terrified of the kids stepping on my toes or bumping my toes. Lucas wears a size 13 shoe and he is clumsy as hell. He somehow manages to step on my toes every time he comes near me. I can't really blame him what with the size of the boats he is trying to drive on the ends of his legs. But come on, dude! Get control of those behemoths! Dr. Anderson did advise me that this may get worse before it gets better. And worse yet, that it may takes months after my chemo is over for this pain to go away. I may very well have to move into my own stub-free toe-protecting bubble. Or put Lucas in one.

Finally, we discussed my sleeping issues. He wants me to try Melatonin, but also prescribed Trazadone for me. Trazadone is an anti-depressant, but is often used to help with sleep. He suggested I try both and see what works best. He also said I can combine them (or combine one with the Benadryl I have been taking) until I find something that works.

In short, Dr. Anderson assured me that we can work on the side effects and encouraged me to tough it out until we can finish up these last chemo cycles - exactly what I was hoping he would say. We went ahead with chemo today (YAY!), so now I have three (THREE!!) left.

So my drug bowl keeps growing and growing...and growing.

In addition to discussing treatment, we also talked about next steps. Glorious, GLORIOUS next steps! Next steps that will happen AFTER chemo. I am pretty excited because I had begun to believe in my heart of hearts that there would never, ever, in my entire lifetime be an "after chemo!" But we are almost there.

As you can imaging, this whole ride has been extremely stressful on both Ruanita and myself. Things are made worse for me, on a mental and psychological level, because I am dealing with the side-effects of chemo in addition to the reality of just fucking having something in my body that wants to kill me. Things are made worse for Ruanita, on a mental and psychological level, because she is dealing with  going to work every day and talking to depressed people about their depressing lives while all the while dealing with a wife who fucking has something in her body that wants to kill her. "Bitch, I don't give a shit about your fucking $2000 deductible to go cry to a therapist about how much you loooooove your ex! My wife has cancer and our deductible was double that, you psycho stalker!" Yeah...she didn't actually say that to a client, but she thought it quite vehemently. I can't imagine talking to depressed, suicidal people all day and then coming home to deal with the laundry and the dishes and the kids and all of their activities and the pain-in-the-ass that I have become in recent weeks. We are both feeling overwhelmed (and guilty - did I mention that there is no small amount of unfounded guilt infused in this whole situation?). We are SO ready for this to end.

August is going to be a busy month for us. I have chemo on the 3rd and the 10th. And then my very last Taxol chemo is scheduled for August 17th. On August 18th, I will have a repeat MRI to determine what the chemo accomplished. (Fingers crossed for good news!) On August 19th, I will have a consult with my surgeon to talk about what type of surgery I will require. I also have an echocardiogram scheduled for the same day. Then on the 24th, I will see my bro, Dr. Anderson, again. And a follow-up with the cardiologist on the 25th. Hopefully, surgery will happen shortly thereafter. Radiation will likely follow surgery. If the stars align and all works out as I hope, I could even have everything done by Christmas. I wouldn't mind a Christmas miracle, after all.

So there you have it - an update on where we stand. The end of chemo is almost here and if I NEVER have to do chemo again in my life, it'll be entirely too soon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

They Weeble and They Wobble, But They Don't Fall Down

I completed my 8th Taxol treatment today. Only four more to go. (Yay!) It's sometimes hard to believe that I have been at this for 16 weeks - four full months. Other times, it seems as though I have been receiving chemo for four full years! In the beginning, it seemed like the end would never come. Now I am four short infusions away from being done with chemo (hopefully) forever.

With only four more to go, I am starting to think about what is going to happen post-chemo. A lot will depend on what my scans reveal when everything is said and done, but I will definitely have decisions to make. Decisions that are neither simple nor black and white.

This is the point in this blog when I am going to talk about my boobs. It may end up being more than you want to know about your sister's/daughter's/cousin's/niece's/friend's boobs, so feel free to stop reading this now.

I have always been rather large-chested. Since puberty, I have had a rack. Size D cup, to be precise. At various times through my life, I have hated my boobs. They get in the way. They don't stand at attention like I think they should. They maybe have made me appear larger than I am at times (in my skinnier days). They are impossible to tuck neatly into a sports bra. When I lay on my back, they tend to take cover in my armpits. I could go on and on. There are numerous ways in which I have not appreciated the endowedness I have been granted.

Until now.

Perhaps it's the fact that my boobs have turned to the Dark Side and are now trying to kill me. Maybe that makes the difference. In some sicko, twisted, neurotically masochistic way that I am sure Freud could explain much better than me, I feel somehow closer to my boobs since they turned all nefarious on me. I feel like I need to save them somehow. Turn them back to the light. Use The Force to redeem them and pull off the mask of evil to reveal the benign, bald little troll beneath it.

I was always a sucker for a redemption story.

But I can't make decisions with my heart. I can't decide the fate of my boobs compassionately. I have to think like a dispenser of justice. These breasts tried to kill me and now they must pay the ultimate price. It's tough love. 

In other words, I am leaning toward a double mastectomy. Of course, I will take the recommendation of my surgeon into consideration when making a decision as big as this one. But come on...the cancer is rampant in my left breast and has infiltrated all three levels of lymph nodes on that side. At least that was the case prior to chemo. Barring a chemotherapy-induced miracle, I don't see a lumpectomy as a viable option. And because the cancer has been so aggressive in my left breast, I don't want to run the risk of it returning in my right and using that breast as a jumping off point to metastasize throughout my body. My right boob, unfortunately, is guilty by association. Yes, that's unfair, but no one ever said breast cancer was benevolent.

So once I make a decision about surgery, I also have to consider reconstruction. The initial reconstruction may be done while I am knocked out for the mastectomy surgery. In that case, the decision will have to be made prior to that surgery. If I require radiation (which I likely will, but it is not definite yet), the surgery would be postponed until after the radiation. So that would mean additional surgeries. I am more on the fence about reconstruction than anything else.

I mean, why do I need boobs? I am 43 years old. I am married. I am not out looking to date anyone or impress anyone with my hot bod. My children are pretty far removed from suckling and I'd probably box them in the ears if they tried. So really, what purpose do boobs serve for me?

Part of me thinks that I just really don't give a shit about reconstruction. I will have been with my wife for 20 years this December. Though she is fond of my boobs, I have the distinct feeling that she would not be going anywhere if they were to disappear. She would love me boobless just as much she does fully boobed, I am pretty sure. So as important as she is to me, my wife is not really a consideration in my decision.

It would be nice to be done once the mastectomy is complete. To have a quicker recovery time. No flap hacked from my hip or back to create boobs. No tissue expander (doesn't that sound horrible??). No saline implants. No additional surgeries. No more procedures. No more visits to Regions Hospital and it's horrendous parking garage. And no more boobs. Part of me would be completely and totally okay with that. Like I said before, I have not always been  their biggest fan.

But then there is the consideration of how I will look in clothes. Do I "live flat" or do I wear breast forms that have to be inserted and removed? With adhesives or magnets? What about polyurethane nipples? They are adhesive, but what if one falls off while I am at work or out to dinner with friends. How do I explain a nipple suddenly bouncing around on the dinner table? (These are the things I think about.) And what about special (translation: expensive) bras? And if I decide to live flat -  because I am also endowed with wide hips and large thighs - will I end up looking like the Weebles from my childhood? You know the ones...they weeble and they wobble, but they don't fall down. And what about bathing suits? Will I weeble and wobble down the beach?

Then there is another part of me that wonders if I will still feel like a woman if I am boobless. I'm a feminist, so this thought is abhorrent to me and I want to throttle myself for even thinking it. A woman is not defined by the size or shape of her boobs. I mean....obviously. But there is a shallow, petty part of me that can't help but wonder. And it won't shut up no matter how hard I try to gag the bitch. I wasn't exactly fond of my period starting when I was 12 years old, but getting real, honest-to-goodness boobs almost made up for it. Almost. I felt like a woman when the boobs arrived. Will I still feel like a woman when the leave again? Will I feel whole without them? I don't know the answer to that question, but it is one that plagues me.

So I am nearing the end of my chemotherapy run, which I am beyond thrilled to report. Chemotherapy sucks. There is no way around it. It just sucks.

But I am beginning to wonder if the hardest part is not still to come...

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Missing Caterpillars

Disclaimer: I am trying to reconnect with the positive tone of my blog posts from the beginning of my cancer treatment, but it's not been easy. While I completely and totally maintain a positive attitude about the effectiveness of my treatment, my treatment team, and my prognosis, there is really just nothing even the least little bit fun or pleasant about chemotherapy. Please read on with that in mind.

The last week has not been my greatest week to date. My legs don't want to work correctly. I'm seriously considering a cane because I am stumbling around like an 80-year-old who's lived her entire life on bacon and booze. All of my limbs feel like they've been filled with lead. My nose is bleeding constantly. And it's so dry that when I squeeze my nostrils together, they stay that way. The membranes fuse together and I have to physically pull them apart to breath through my nose again. My fingernails hurt. My teeth ache. And I keep getting sharp pains in my ovaries and weird charley horse type cramps in my feet. All of this is horribly unpleasant, but there is something far worse happening with my body. There is an inexorable doom lurking on the horizon. A preordained inevitability that I can barely bring myself to talk about - but I will because I promised transparency in this cancer shitshow - and that I dread more than the weekly needle puncture in my chest. That's right. You guessed it.

My eyebrows are falling out.

I've always had a complicated relationship with my eyebrows. Puberty gifted me with, uh...healthy brow. (Alternative adjectives would be bushy, unruly, and yeti-like.) I was late to the waxing game for whatever reason (Naivete? A complete rejection of social norms surrounding beauty? Rampant lesbianism?), so spent most of my adult life walking around looking like I had two gypsy moth caterpillars snoozing on my forehead. Ruanita always said she liked my eyebrows, but we've been together for 20 years. It's highly likely she hasn't actually looked at my brows in the last 15. These days I wax, but I still have what would probably be considered an ample brow.

When I was 13-ish, my gay uncle said to me, "Girl, only you and Brooke Shields could pull off those eyebrows!" At the time, I took it as a compliment. My uncle (the only person I ever knew at the time who had actually - gasp! - left Kentucky) was the epitome of cool in my eyes, so I was thrilled that he even noticed me. In hindsight, however, I realize that my uncle was likely 1.) Drunk on cheap beer and sub-par basketball like the Hoosier he had become, and/or 2.) Stoned, and/or 3.) Speaking in the ironic vernacular common to gay men of a certain age. I looked nothing - and I repeat nothing - like Brooke Shields. Case in point:

But now I am losing my eyebrows and I am not happy about it. I have counted the hairs I have remaining and it is around 18 on the left and 16 on the right - give or take a few since my eyesight has also become quite octogenarian-ish as of late. This may sound like a lot, but it is actually downright wispy compared to the caterpillars of my youth.

Let's be honest. Human beings look just plain WEIRD without eyebrows. I don't say that to in any way disparage the brow challenged, but it's pretty common to take a second look at someone who has no eyebrows. It's just doesn't appear normal - it's not what we expect a human face to look like. Take Star Trek for instance. Just think about how many strange Star Trek aliens are lacking in eyebrows. It's not a coincidence. There is obviously a correlation (at least on television) between eyebrow thinness and level of freakiosity, right? The fewer brow hairs one possesses, the odder they appear.

Scientists believe the purpose of the arched human eyebrow is to avert moisture in the form of rain or sweat around the face and out of the eyes. Eyebrows serve a useful purpose in that regard. They are also one of our most important nonverbal communication tools. We all know how to read a grimace or a raised eyebrow. But they also serve a perhaps less important aesthetic purpose. They make us look...well, normal. Without eyebrows, it is obvious that something just isn't quite right with a person. More so than a bald head (lots of men are bald - both willingly and unwillingly) or a limp (perhaps I just sprained my ankle at the gym) or a bloody nose (allergies, anyone?), a lack of eyebrows tells us immediately that someone is sick. Probably seriously so. And we all know how people who are obviously sick are treated.

That's right. Like invalids. Like someone who needs to have hands laid on them and a prayer circle formed around them at a BP gas station. Like someone for whom we should feel sorry. I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me. I don't want to be that person. I don't want my identity to be that sick woman. I know what you are probably thinking.  

So, Shannon, don't you feel like a complete and total shallow asshole for being so concerned about your appearance when cancer could very well be eating its way through your chest this very minute?

Why yes, yes I do. But I can't seem to help myself. It's stupid to be concerned about how you look when your body seems to be failing you on so many levels. But it's difficult not to be. The reflection we see in the mirror is very much tied to our identities. And when the YOU you are used to looking at suddenly looks nothing like YOU anymore, it's more than a little disconcerting.

I miss my little caterpillars.

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Natural Instincts Be Damned!

Re-reading my last few blog posts, I noticed that I have been tending toward overt pessimism lately. That is not like me. I am an optimist by nature, so I am a bit surprised by the downer tone of my recent blogs. I guess if anything can turn a sunny optimist into a bleak pessimist, it is a little bout of stage 3 cancer, huh?

I know exactly what my problem is, however. And I know how to fix it. But the fix is not a super easy one for me to swallow.

Here's the thing. I am halfway through my chemo treatment now. I endured the horribly debilitating AC chemo and I've moved on to a kinder, gentler chemo (if such a thing exists). I've been lucky enough not to have some of the more unpleasant side effects of Taxol. As a matter of fact, since starting the Taxol portion of my treatment, I have had very few side effects at all. I am easily tired, but that is kind of a given with anyone undergoing cancer treatment. And sometimes, when the weekend hits, I have some minor bone pain. Actually, it's not so much pain as an inkling feeling that I can't trust my legs to hold me up. Jello legs is what I call it. It usually hits on Saturday and is gone by Monday. So all in all, I have no real complaints.

That said, because my head is freed from the duty of processing multiple unpleasant side effects, it has more time to roam. To think unpleasant thoughts. To focus on the negative. To careen from one wild idea to the next with wanton abandon.

And careen is does!
  • Who is going to buy my daughter cute clothes when I am gone? 
  • Who will cook for my family? Will they eat McDonalds every day?
  • Who will take care of Ruanita when I am gone? 
  • What kind of men will Lucas and Nicky be? Will they know to be kind if I am not around to keep them in line?
  • Who will ever love my children the way I do?
  • Will they forget about me?
  • Will they be better off without me?
  • Will they be glad to be done with me and my annoying problems?
  • Will Ruanita remarry?
  • Will she love her 2nd wife more?
And so on and so forth. It gets quite dark if I let it continue.

Part of the problem is that I spend a lot of time alone. Too much time alone. Ruanita and I are committed to giving our children a normal summer, but there is so much that I cannot do. So Ruanita takes them to the lake. Ruanita takes them to the pool. Ruanita takes them to the library. And bike riding. And gardening. She is the fun mom and I am the stay-at-home-because-I-can't-handle-the-fun-stuff mom. All that time alone gives me lots of time to think. Too much time to think.

The solution is simple. Spend more time with other people. So I can't go to the beach, but I can call up a friend to have lunch while Ruanita and the kids are gone. I can't go to the pool, but I can have coffee with a friend. There are things I can do to avoid being alone. I just have to force myself to do them.

As a lifelong introvert, I enjoy the company of people...until I don't. If I'm being honest, I have to say that socializing is exhausting at times. It sometimes takes every single ounce of energy I have to not crawl under the covers of my bed and hibernate there for days. I could easily become a cave-dwelling hermit if left to my own reclusive devices. Calling up a friend can be tough for me because, frankly, I don't always want company. I don't always want to "be nice" and "make small talk" and "open up." Sometimes I just want to be grumpy, all alone and silent in my own bed. In a hushed house. With only my mute dog for company. But there is a difference between what I want and what I need. In the intense head game that is stage 3 breast cancer, I have to force myself to do the things that will keep me on top. That will keep me positive. That will keep me from drowning in all the crazy thoughts that careen through my brain. That means that I need to avoid being alone for my own sake. For my own sanity. And for the sake and sanity of my family.

A couple of days ago, I met a coworker for dinner. We sat - just the two of us - and chatted for two solid hours. About everything and nothing. We talked about my diagnosis, but we also talked about her kids and my kids and bugs and dogs and everything in between. I left that dinner feeling energized. Alive. Better than I had in weeks. And I realized as I left that it was not because my friend had any special gifts. There was nothing about our dinner out of the ordinary or magical. It was simply being around another person that energized me. Being around a friend who spoke to me as if I was a person and not a disease. It made me feel like maybe I was okay, after all.

Attitude is everything. Or, if not everything, it is at least a HUGE chunk of my total well-being. And if I do not do the work necessary to cultivate a positive attitude, then I have lost. I've lost before I even hit the half-way mark.

Strange how this applies to both cancer treatment and life, in general, huh?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Lazy Days Suck

I hate lazy days.

I'm just putting it out there. Lazy days suck. Yes, this seems to run afoul of everything I hold sacred and holy. I can't even believe it myself that I am typing these words. But it's true. I hate lazy days.

This has not always been the case. There was a time mere months ago when I relished lazy days - when I wholeheartedly grabbed lazy days by the horns and had my way with them. I was a prodigy-level connoisseur of lazy days.

Let me back-track a moment. You do know what I mean by a lazy day, right? Those days that will typically fall on a Saturday or Sunday (though they have been known to occur on a particularly work-adverse weekday) when you manage to perform no more and no fewer than the following activities (in this order):
  1. Sleep in until 10:00 am.
  2. Drag yourself downstairs in your pajamas (the unofficial uniform of the lazy day) and make yourself a cup of coffee.
  3. Toss a couple of Pop-tarts and juice pouches at your famished children. 
  4. Schlepp yourself to the couch and assume a reclined position. 
  5. Explain to yourself (internal dialogue is a pretty big component of lazy day) that you are only going to lay down for a few minutes before you accomplish the myriad of tasks you have on tap for the day.
  6. Nap until noon as your coffee gets cold.
  7. Wake up momentarily to advise your children that they should get a bowl of cereal for lunch if they are hungry. 
  8. Curse yourself for not having the foresight to teach your children how to use the Keurig machine. 
  9. When you can't go back to sleep (damn the children and their complex culinary requirements), spend an hour playing Spades on your iPad. 
  10. Remind yourself (internally, of course) that there are still several hours left before the wife gets home from work to accomplish all of the tasks  you intended to wow her with on this Productive Day.
  11. Ask your son to turn on the television (the remote is sooooo far away) so you can watch the last two episodes of Season 4 of Vikings.
  12. Curse loudly (though only halfheartedly because it is a lazy day, after all) that  season 5 is still being filmed somewhere in Canada. 
  13. Fall asleep reading a book on your Kindle - which also happens to be on your iPad because who has the energy to keep track of two devices on lazy days?
  14. Nap for two hours while your children entertain themselves with flashing screens. You are vaguely aware that their lazy day screen time exceeds the American Pediatric Association's age-specific screen time guidelines for by...oh, I don't know...9 or 10 hours. But your ability to care is somehow impaired on lazy days.
  15. Wake up and beg your daughter to climb onto the kitchen counter to get you the box of Hot Tamales you have stashed in the back of the snack cabinet and bring them to you. Offer to be her best friend. When she snarks back that she doesn't want you for a best friend, pretend it doesn't hurt your feelings and bribe her with a dollar. 
  16. Eat an entire movie theater sized box of Hot Tamales in one sitting. 
  17. Play a little poker on your iPad.
  18. Order pizza for dinner. At 4pm, of course, because that is when geriatrics (and derelicts, vagrants, slugs, and ne're-do-wells) eat dinner. 
  19. Soak in a warm bath until your fingers and toes look like you are 136 years old. 
  20. Scootch the dog off the couch and re-assume your position - cleaner, but no less lazy. 
  21. Spend the evening channel surfing.
  22. Drag your happy ass upstairs to bed at 9:00pm.
So now that we've established that we are on the same page as far as lazy days go, you are probably wondering how I could possibly hate lazy days. Right? I mean, on the surface - on paper - the lazy day looks like nirvana on Earth, amiright?

A few months ago, I would have agreed with you. A few months ago, amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life with three kids, I LIVED for lazy days. They were few and far between, but oh so freaking sweet! I would declare a lazy day any chance I could get and fully participate in all lazy day activities with wanton abandon.

These days, there is nothing I hate more than a lazy day. Since being diagnosed with cancer, lazy days are no longer a luxury. They are an everyday reality that I did not chose. That I do not chose. Lazy days are thrust upon me these days. "You need to rest." "You need to lay down." "Please don't try to do anything today." My wife has my very best interests in mind when she asks me to do nothing - and she is right, it probably is best that I rest on the weekends - but that does not make the reality of it any easier.

I can't take the kids to the beach because it's too hot. My medication makes me more susceptible to the sun. And who wants to be the bald girl at the beach? I can't take them to the park because I get too tired - too easily winded. I can't go to the mall because I can't walk that far. I can't go to museums because I can't stand that long. I am exhausted all the time, but bored out of my mind. I'm gaining weight because all I can do is sit on my ass. And eat. I am an expert eater.

I've never really considered myself an active person, though I am realizing now how much I enjoyed my activities. I've never really considered myself an outdoorsy person, but I am realizing now how much I miss the outdoors. I am developing a great appreciation for the simple freedom to act. To do. To move.

You hear about people who are diagnosed with cancer and, afterwards, completely change their lives. Couch potatoes who become marathoners. Slugs who become ninja warriors. It always seemed weird to me that cancer could change a person so completely. Change a person to her very core. But I can see it now. I never appreciated the abilities I have - the simple ability to do and act and move at will - until I was forced to be lazy. Until lazy days became compulsory. Until lazy days became synonymous with...days.

I have eight weeks of chemo left. Then I have surgery. Then I may have radiation. It's a long road ahead, but one day I will have my life back. One day, I will be be in control again of how I spend my days.

And when that day comes, lazy days will be be a thing of the past.