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.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Playing the Mind Game

It’s been a rough week. I will freely admit it. I’ve been incredibly anxious this week. Unusually anxious for me. And lonely. And not thinking the most positive thoughts. I’ve been tired. And angry. And infinitely frustrated. I think my eyebrows are starting to fall out and that pisses me off. It’s tough to think that after three months, I am only halfway through chemo. And at this point, I have no earthly clue if it is accomplishing anything or not. I like to think that it is killing all of the cancer cells, but it will be a full 8 more weeks until I know that for a fact. And we haven’t even made it to the surgical portion of this shitty ride yet. And possible radiation after that. It seems pretty never ending at this point. I am beginning to believe that the mid-point of cancer treatment is nothing but a head game.  At this point, it is entirely mental and I have not been winning this week.

It’s just a lot to swallow and I’ve had a little more trouble than usual swallowing it all this week.

That is not to say that I don’t have a ton going for me. I thought today I would make a list of the positive things I have in my life right now. An exercise in gratitude, perhaps. It’s something I used to do fairly often prior to being diagnosed with cancer, and something that I seem to have forgotten in the months since.

So here goes.

First and foremost, I am grateful for Ruanita. She is my rock. She is the one person I count on more than anyone in this world, and she has not failed to deliver a single time. She takes care of the kids when I can’t. She takes care of the housework when I can’t. She has even taken over grocery shopping (which she despises with every fiber of her being) with minimal bitching.

My kids are my greatest joys. They make me laugh. They make me want to pull my hair out (an impressive feat considering that I am currently not in possession of a single bodily hair save my eyebrows and eyelashes, which are starting to fall out). They bring me joy every day (when I do not want to strangle them). If nothing else, they remind me that I am still alive and still human by invoking every possible human emotion from me on a daily basis.

My daughter has a soccer game every Monday and every Wednesday night through June and July. I truly, truly enjoy these games. I get to sit in a lawn chair in the sunshine surrounded by hundreds of parents and grandparents cheering for young girls who, for the most part, share a profound lack of athletic prowess. And in my daughter’s age group, the teams are all named for Asian countries. Sophie is on team Vietnam. So I get to passionately yell, “Goooo Vietnam!!” How often do you get to do that in a lifetime?

My oldest son went to chemo with me yesterday. With the exception of playing two quick games of Trivial Pursuit with me on my iPad (which he lost), he spent most of the time with his headphones in watching YouTube videos on his phone and raiding the chemo snack basket. He is such a typical teenager. It makes me smile.

Chemo has not prevented me from drinking coffee. And since being diagnosed with cancer, Ruanita has even stopped bitching about commenting on the amount of money I spend at Caribou.

My dog is getting up there in age and lately has seemed to enjoy cuddling on the couch as much as I do. It’s about time she is embracing her laziness!

I have both Netflix and Amazon Prime – and a list a mile long of shows I have yet to watch.

I am reading a super charming book right now called A Man Called Ove. It is sweet and sad and uplifting and inspiring and…just plain charming. It is making me feel all the feels.

I am back at work. While this might have seemed like a bad idea earlier this week when I was feeling crappy and overcome with anxiety, it is overall a good thing to get back into a routine and to have people actually expect things from me. I’ve become so used to people tiptoeing around me. Handling me with kid gloves. Not asking a thing of me. It’s kind of fresh and exciting for people to expect me to actually contribute something to the world once again.

Ruanita and I are taking the kids to see Finding Dory tomorrow night. I’m a big fan of that little blue tang.

I haven’t had to shave my legs in three months. You have to understand that I normally have to shave my legs almost daily during the summer. When I do have hair, it grows at a super accelerated rate that I think could easily qualify me as one of the X-Men. It’s got to be a mutant trait. I could be Super Follicle Girl! I could capture criminals by tying them up with my unnaturally fast-growing leg hair. Kind of like Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth. (Okay, I realize I am mixing my Marvel and DC comic references. Please forgive my egregious faux pas.)  My point is that not shaving my legs for THREE WHOLE MONTHS is unbelievably, perversely exciting to me.

I had a friend stop by with coffee and bagels this morning. I love friends. I love visitors. And coffee. And bagels.

The super-crazy-watery-eyes I experienced with AC chemo has almost completely gone away. For a while there, I could not read at all because my eyes watered so badly I could not see the page.  I am eternally grateful for dry eyes and the ability to read once again.

I have tickets to see Dolly Parton in concert next month. She strikes me as a naturally joyous person, and I think her joy is contagious. I am looking forward to being infected.

My son, Nicholas, gives the best hugs. I think he could market them and make his first million before he even hits puberty.

It’s cloudy and dreary outside today. While I enjoy a good sunny day, clouds and rain invigorate me. Obviously, I should have been born British.

My mom and my sisters get back from their week at the lake tomorrow. I miss them. There has not been a single adult person who has annoyed me all week.

The Minnesota Lynx, our local WNBA team, is currently undefeated. I plan on purchasing tickets for the family to an upcoming game as soon as I finish this blog.  My kids, though not necessarily basketball fans, are rabid fans of arena junk food.

Lyn-Manuel Miranda recently announced that they are filming Hamilton in its entirety before the original cast members begin their mass exodus when their contracts expire next month. This means that my chances of ever seeing it with the original cast have increased exponentially (though it’s pretty difficult to go anywhere but UP from ZERO and ZILCH).

Ruanita is cleaning the house right now. I am not.