Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Our life is a Roller Coaster... I don't want to ride

I love irony. Well, sometimes I hate it a little, but it makes me laugh. The only thing worse than diarrhea is constipation. I expected either one. After my first chemo treatment, I was on the toilet at 4:00 am in the dark laughing. Constipated diarrhea?!? Who knew? I tell you, if there’s a God, She’s got a wicked sense of humor. (God is a She in the bathroom,).

Breast cancer + chemotherapy is a lot like pregnancy except that strangers don’t rub your belly. Otherwise, the two are remarkably similar. Strangers still tell you too many stories about people they knew and give you lame advice. Of course, there’s the obvious nausea and fatigue and a whole new relationship with the bathroom. For those 3 days after the treatments and sometimes even a day or two before, because of nerves, my morning routine included light throwing up before a few sips of coffee, a little more throwing up, get the kids to school, take something for the nausea, watch episodes of Monk starring Tony Shaloub. After losing my appetite for everything except Orangina and watermelon, I regained it only for sugar and chocolate.

Sidebar: A note about watermelon, I say it is the BEST food for pregnancy and chemotherapy. High in vitamins A and C, iron, fiber and water, easy on the stomach. http://www.almanac.com/food/watermelonripe.php Now, back to the ‘blog.

It was rare I ever felt too sick for my evening hot chocolate with whiskey. It goes nicely with cookies. That is another difference, at least with chemo you can drink if you feel like it, you can take something for the nausea, although it will definitely cause drowsiness – some remedies less than others. See www.CANORML.org, and I lost weight rather than gained it. (I’ve kept it off, too!) But the thing I feared the most beside leaving my family to an unknown future because I must go into a dark, frightening unknown place is having people feel sorry for me. That’s another thing. People sure react differently to the news that you have breast cancer than the news you’re having a baby. I was pleasantly surprised though. People generally hung back a little and will went along with whatever approach I wanted to take. I made it pretty clear, that all things considered I was pretty damned lucky. My probabilities we VERY good, I didn’t have to work, and I was INSURED!!! – more on that later. Remind me. The independence I had nurtured in my kids would help all of us get through it just fine. There was only one person at our school who continued to give me that aww, poor you, how are you poor thing treatment. She’s otherwise a very nice lady so I’m glad I didn’t punch her in the face. Just kidding, I’m not violent. But that leads to the final similarity, the hormonal roller coaster.

Since my cancer was hormone receptor positive it feeds on estrogen. The chemo drugs sent my estrogen levels from normal 40-year old to a Newtonian zero (That means it’s so close to zero, it might as well be zero.) It’s the change in hormone levels that makes you crazy and the insanity is contagious. Pretty soon, I was making my whole family a little crazy, then everyone around me. I could handle the crying and even the mild depression, but the RAGE sometimes scared me. I was alone with my kids and I would yell at them for minor things in major ways. Sometimes I quarantined myself. I told them I was sorry I was so bitchy, but please try to stay out of my way. “If I fall asleep, don’t wake me unless you really have to. If you can’t wake me, call Dad, go to the neighbors or call 911. Is there something in the fridge you guys can make for dinner if Dad gets home late?” They did. Then they cleaned up after wards and my husband, Eric, rotated the dishes after his 12-14 hour day.

It’s getting through these tough times together that makes them strong. You should see their report cards. Austin, my oldest is not only brilliant, he’s becoming a patient and popular leader and Dallas’s increasing self-discipline capitalizes on his amazing imagination and makes him feel more competent. They are the embodiment of hope, my (our) gift to the world. You can thank me later.

Next: Breast Cancer and Marriage.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Lost hair, kept Bush

The goal of the next surgery was clean margins – that means they have to ensure they take out ALL the cancerous tissue, plus a little tiny bit more so there isn’t one little cancer cell left. Kind of like the way really fussy people cut the fat off of their steaks. Also, they took out the very first, sentinel, lymph node, plus the next 3 in line.

After more waiting, I learned they’d found the teensiest little bit of cancer in the sentinel node, but the next 3 were okey-dokey as far as anyone could tell. This meant that I’d need chemo and radiation but would probably live happily ever after. But, yes, I’ll lose my hair. He said, oddly, that’s often the hardest part. Oddly, he’s right. I know it’s just hair and losing it is so much better than losing everything, but it’s just a whole new dimension in nakedness.

I love hair. I’ve always loved hair (on heads). When I went to rock concerts, I liked to sit in the bleachers between bands watching all the heads of hair walk across the floor below. And I know we women tend to complain about our hair. I’d always wished for a little more wave, but I had recognized by my 30’s that I’d been follicly blessed always. I mean, my hair wasn’t too thin, or too curly. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a close as one could reasonably wish for.

The stages of grief are: Disbelief/Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

Bargaining is not possible unless you have someone to bargain with. I’m agnostic. Sometimes life is so incredibly wonderful and nature so beautiful that I can’t imagine it’s the result of random coincidences. Other times, I look at the evidence for evolution, contemplate the possibilities of zillions of varied attempts over billions of years, and I look at the senseless cruelty and say this can’t be anything but accidental. I’m pretty sure there’s no hell. There’s no reason for it. To the extent it exists, it must be here on earth, so to have another after death would be redundant. Anyway, I just talk myself into circles, but while I was waiting to learn whether I’d live or die, I figured I could use a friend in high places. Even if He was imaginary, it wouldn’t do any harm, and I was sure it would probably do me some good personally and He might just be real and have a really elaborate plan that he’ll let us know about someday.

In my talks with God, I didn’t ask why me. Someone has to get cancer, I reckon, so why NOT me. Even if I had to go at 40, the life I’d had was much better than expected, so I couldn’t complain. I did offer, however, that I thought the world was better off with me than without me. And in October of 2004, I told Him one more thing, “ I realize I don’t get to call the shots on this one, but if you take me and leave George W. Bush in the White House, I’m gonna be PISSED!”

So I’m still here and W’s still there. If you believe in God, but not W, I guess you can blame me. Still, I won’t apologize.

Next: I feel sorry for anyone who pities me.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A lump, a lump, a lump; it's in my breast...

After 1 ½ years, I’m ready to talk about my experiences with breast cancer, what I learned about myself, what I really care about (i.e. who I am) and what happens when the chips are down and instincts become more primal. I’ll do it as a diary.

CAUTION and DISCLAIMER: I’m no cancer expert, so please get your cancer facts from a RELIABLE source on this, not me.

When the little lump in my breast started to hurt, I decided it wasn’t going away on it’s own, so I’d better get it checked out. I seriously doubted it was cancer. Cancer doesn’t run in my family. My mother had said about our family medical history, “We don’t get cancer, we get heart disease.” So deep down, I was a little worried, but mostly sure I’d hear it was nothing to worry about.

“I wouldn’t worry too much. Cancer doesn’t usually hurt,” the Nurse Practitioner told me in May. She gave me an 8-1/2 x 11 paper ordering a mammogram. After a fun-filled summer with my boys, Austin & Dallas, then 8 and 6 and my husband, Eric too, when he wasn’t work, work, working… Sidebar: No, we’re not from Texas, those were the only 2 names Eric and I could agree on. They’re actually named after the rock band, AC/DC. Their names are Austin Cesar and Dallas Cole. Anyway, just after my 40th birthday (on 9/11 incidentally) when the slightly painful lump began to “spider”, I had my first mammogram, but only after the machine’s operator promised me that my breasts would returned to their original shapes after she was done flattening each of them in new and uncomfortable ways. She was true to her word.

I don’t remember how I learned the mammogram was “abnormal” . I mean, I knew that going in, but I remember the next step was a surgical biopsy. In other words, we we’re going to take the whole lump out, then find out what it was. I say "we" because I figure their job was to sedate me and remove the lump, my job was to get umpteen blood tests, show up for surgery on an empty stomach and recover. I was pleased to learn after the surgery that the lab report with the biopsy results was expected in by Tuesday of next week.

I didn’t hear from anyone on Tuesday, so I called on Wednesday. No results yet. Same answer on Thursday and my surgeon left town Friday. I was no longer nonchalant. I was simultaneously planning for, and postponing panic. I was not willing to wait until Monday to learn whether or not my children would grow up without a mother. I called the lab about MY results which I paid for. They’d sent them to both my surgeon and regular doctor. My surgeon was gone by the time the paperwork arrived at his office, so my regular family doctor did her best to interpret the report. She’s not an oncologist, but her mother had cancer, so she’s familiar with biopsy reports and patients’ reactions to them.

I understood her to say I had stage 3 breast cancer. Breast cancer goes from stage 1 (outpatient surgery and much worry) to stage 4 (terminal). My research said Stage 3 meant I had a 30% chance of surviving more than 10 years. I probably cried my way home, then I became my mother. I decided to act now, fall apart later. Quick assessment: Best case scenario: radiation and/or chemo therapy followed by a happy ending; Worst case scenario: radiation and/or chemo therapy, I die and my family falls apart. Distracted and overwhelmed, my husband’s business fails so he turns to alcohol then dies from a heart attack. My brilliant children turn from promising futures to lives of drugs, crime and misery. I didn’t know if or I’d die and had little control of that situation anyway, but I knew I had 2 boys and a husband I had to prepare to carry on without me. I developed a plan:

1. Teach my sons to be as self-sufficient as possible given their age. Further, ensure they functioned as a SUPPORTIVE team. One of the best ways to deal with pain and loss is to help someone. They could do this both for each other and for their Dad.

2. Lockdown our home routine. You know, dinnertime, bath time. I even created a list for the grocery store on computer. It included brand names so things would taste more like Mom made. The kids could print the list and just check off what was needed. They already knew how to make rice, noodles and toast; they could heat chicken nuggets, hot dogs and raviolis.
Routine is very comforting, especially when everything else feels out of control. As I write, I realize I did it as much for myself as them.

3. Teach my husband that he can not rely too much on our oldest, Austin, to carry the additional responsibility. This is too much weight for Austin and effectively denies Dallas the chance to learn, contribute and feel capable. In the extreme, Dallas would feel like a burden and Austin would feel burdened. Toss in sibling rivalry, adolescence and puberty… it don’t look don’t. If he were, as he’s been tempted to do, make the older child responsible for the younger one, it gets worse. Typically, the older child often makes unreasonable demands and bad decisions (because they’re children) which they can only enforce through intimidation and force. It’s just wrong on many levels and it doesn’t work. I feared Eric would be so busy and overworked as a single parent, he’d hand too much to Austin because it’s easier. I was the oldest daughter of a single mom whereas my husband was the youngest son of a single parent, so I understand some things he doesn’t.

Eric and I met with my surgeon Monday. He listened patiently and compassionately while I gave several pieces of my mind. He gave me some good news and some bad news. The good news, it was a SIZE 3, not a STAGE 3. Size 3 on a scale that runs from 0 cm to 10 cm is very encouraging. The bad news, I still needed another surgery. It may have spread to my lymph system in which case it would be stage 3 cancer. In the week before the next surgery, I began to implement my plan.

Next: How an agnostic confronts God.