Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The last goodbye

With conviction I called my dad last night to cancel our trip to see Dr. Surgical Oncologist today.  The first snowstorm of the season struck yesterday afternoon and evening.  Area schools were delaying morning classes, and so it seemed like the rational choice to avoid the extra driving by rescheduling my appointment with Dr. Surgical Oncologist.  My dad, however, had a different opinion.  He was confident that the roads would be better by morning, and that we'd be fine in his extended-cab, 4-wheel drive Ford F-150.  I deferred to his expertise and driving abilities in favor of keeping the appointment.  

He picked me up just after 8am.  I tossed my snowpants in the cab just in case we had to hike out of a snow-filled ditch.  Once we hit the interstate he disclosed that the southbound traffic had been plugged up earlier, but hopefully it's cleared now?  Between this question and the thick layer of snow beneath the tread, I began to question our decision.  Fortunately my 511 road-condition app revealed that traffic was indeed flowing up ahead and that road conditions were improving by the minute.  Indeed, by the time I closed the app the packed snow had given way to pavement.  I breathed a sigh of relief and settled in for another pleasant drive with my dad.  

Dad has been my chauffeur to all of my distant appointments this entire Cancer year.  He has been gamefully unemployed approximately since my diagnosis, which I selfishly admit has been glorious.  I don't think he's missed a single distant appointment.  He packs snacks for the car ride.  In the exam room, he remembers to ask the questions that I forget to ask.  He asks me things the doctors and I forget to think about.  He thanks the doctors and nurses while I'm still reeling from whatever news has been delivered.  After the appointment, we do lunch, and we've discovered some delicious food.  Sometimes we get a chocolate shake, if it's been that kind of appointment.  Usually we just hit the road.  He makes me laugh.  

It's fitting that just as my Cancer year is winding down, Dad has found a new job.  He starts on Monday.  Congratulations, dad!  I'm glad you have an exciting new job, and I'm so glad that I have fewer appointments, but maybe we can keep the regular lunch dates?  I'm going to miss them.  <3

Today's appointment with Dr. Surgical Oncologist was a simple surgical follow-up.  Everything is still healing well.  I took this opportunity to describe my only concern, which is that when my right arm is at my side I have a sensation that there is something wedged under there.  You know how it is when you wear a shirt with too-small armholes, and the sleeve hikes up and gets bunched in your armpit?  It feels like that, all the time.  This led to my concern, which was not about the sensation itself, but perhaps I was having swelling that was causing the sensation?  She checked me out and determined that I do not have swelling (huzzah!).  She also said that although the surgical team tried to avoid damage to major nerves, microscopic nerves were certainly damaged.  She has had other patients complain of this full-armpit sensation, and she thinks that it's due to damage to these microscopic nerves.  She expects that the sensation will go away with time.  

Then the appointment turned a sad corner.  As long as I stay healthy for the next eight months, this is the last time that I will see Dr. Surgical Oncologist.  She is retiring in October, but now I only need yearly check-ups at the clinic's survivorship center.  I suppose even if she weren't retiring I would probably be graduating to the survivorship clinic and out of her purview since I no longer bear the subjects of her profession--she is a breast surgeon, after all.  Although I am sad to know that I will have to find a new surgeon should the occasion arise, I am truly happy for her at her retirement.  I am grateful to have been her patient and to have benefitted from her expertise.  I hope that she will do everything that she enjoys.  

We parted with a hug, then another hug.  There was so much I wanted to say that I couldn't say any of it.  I thanked myself for sending her a thank-you note in November and I hoped that I had said everything in that.  There's no way to fully convey my sentiments, and yet they can be summarized in eight words or less.  Thank you, Dr. Surgical Oncologist, for my life.                      

Sunday, November 23, 2014


It's a perfect time to write some thank-you notes. The girls are at a mindfulness for children yoga class (thank you, 100 miles to nowhere, for making that possible!), so I found a spot at a nearby coffee shop. I only wish I had more time. It's going by too quickly. Always does. Hope you are enjoying your Sunday! 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Closing the gap

I've started using conditioner in my hair again.  It still seems too short to necessitate conditioning, but it is frizzy, post-chemo hair that could use assistance in settling down.  So, condition I must.  It is rather exciting to be using conditioner again.  I have to consciously remind myself to condition after shampooing because it has been over 6 months since I last conditioned.  In the first few weeks after my hair fell out, I wasted probably a half-bottle of conditioner, measured out in quarter-sized dollops during every shower.  I would squirt the conditioner in my hand only to realize that there was no point in conditioning my scalp, then wash it down the drain.  It was terribly hard to break the habit of conditioning.  I'm finding that it is much easier to re-discover the conditioning step than it was to lose it.

In other hair developments, today was the first day that I went all day without a head covering.  I am not ashamed of my short hair, but I do get quite chilly when that is the only barrier between my head and either the outdoor elements or my chilly office.  My thin layer of hair is at last thick enough to provide some protection.  Also, I've discovered that if I keep my neck covered, such as with a scarf or collared shirt, I retain enough heat to support my hair freedom.

Also, my eyebrows are about halfway returned to normal.  This is probably the most exciting hair growth development because my face now looks more familiar to me.  My eyebrowless face always looked strange to me, not to mention pale and sickly.  My eyebrow hair is now long enough to provide some color, shape, and versatility of expression.  How exciting, she said with eyebrows raised for emphasis!  

I've been thinking a lot lately about what I could blog about, and aside from hair growth not much came to mind.  This surprised me because I would have expected myself to have all sorts of things to share, process, or at the very least document about recovering from a second episode of breast cancer treatment.  This has not been the case.

The first time I recovered from cancer treatment I felt much more emotional.  I had fear and apprehension about so many unknowns, namely what recovery would be like, how long it would take, and if my cancer would come back.  This time, the fear is gone.  I know the answers to all of my previous questions (tiring but glorious, several months, and yes).  I don't want to give cancer any more of my attention than I have to, which is plenty of attention every third Friday for my Herceptin + Pertuzumab treatments.  Instead I am trying to pick up my non-cancer life where I left it 8 months ago, closing the cancer-life gap as if it doesn't exist.  When I'm not in treatment I have largely given cancer the middle finger, both middle fingers, and stormed back into my life.

For better or worse I have not taken much time for reflection on my experience, except for a handful of great walks in the woods and yoga sessions.  It seems that it would be good for me to take some more time for reflection.  My plan to force some reflection is to require myself to finish my cancer thank-you notes by the end of November.  It is the month of Thanksgiving, after all, so it seems like an appropriate goal.  I know that no one is expecting a thank-you note, and that I probably will have missed a lot of people who deserve a thank you note, but I'm going to do my best and it will be from my heart and it will feel good.

In the meantime, cancer can eat my dust.  I hope it chokes on it.          

Tuesday, October 28, 2014


My scar is pretty much sealed up now, with only about an inch of a deep scab remaining to fall off.  The itching has transitioned from obtrusive rashes to a healing twinges.  I have resumed my weekly yoga class, and I already have better range of motion in my right arm (surgified 7 weeks ago) than my left arm (surgified and irradiated 3.5 years ago).  I daresay I'm healed.  Efforts to improve strength and energy will now be the focus of my meditations.  

Being physically healed has cleared the way for the next phase of healing, and that is the mental healing.  Interestingly, adjusting to my breastless state has been much quicker and easier than my previous adjustment to having a single breast.  I think that there are at least two reasons for this.  First of all, I'm experienced in dealing with the emotional trauma that comes with losing a body part.  Going through that loss a second time has been much less traumatic.  Secondly, adjusting to my new body shape this time around is much less complicated than it was the first time.  This has to do with the issue of symmetry.  I spent a lot of time struggling with asymmetry after the first surgery, both psychologically and when shopping for clothes.  The second mastectomy has returned me to a symmetric state, which I find suits my self-image.  Perhaps I look oddly flat-chested to other people, but to me, I'm symmetric with no breast cancer.   That look suits me.    

Throughout this first phase of healing it has been important to wear loose clothing that doesn't constrict or pinch any parts of me.  We want to ensure that the blood can flow to and lymph can drain from the sites of healing.  Now that I'm past the itching and swelling, I can explore my options for undergarments.  Clearly I don't need a bra, but some sort of torso-covering undergarment provides both warmth and comfort.  

My friend J recently sent me an article about breast cancer survivors who started businesses to help fellow cancer patients and survivors, and one of the businesses sells appealing undergarments to women whose chests have been modified by cancer treatment.  There probably was a time when I would have thought this sort of thing unnecessary ("Why not just wear camisoles? They are cheaper and cover more area," I may have said), but now that I am in this situation I am excited to have found someone who is actively creating a resource for people like me.  Perhaps with a bit more shopping I'll decide that I don't actually need something necessarily bra-like, but a person does like to have options.

Speaking of options, I still have the prosthesis that I received after my first surgery.  I think it's under my bed or something.  I only wore it a handful of times.  Soon I will be sufficiently healed to get a prosthesis for the other side, and then I will have yet another option for optimizing symmetry and self-image.  

Finally, on a lighter note, guess who surprised me for my birthday on Friday?  
Surprise!  Happy birthday to me!  Look how symmetric we are--there are two of each!
All of my beautiful siblings!  Even Ryan, who flew in from Seattle for the surprise.  I have the best family ever.  I love you guys.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A week-long celebration

My friends.  Oh my, my friends.  How I treasure you.

Bike World, the corporate sponsor of 100 miles to nowhere set up a tent in my yard.  Photo by Kathryn Corones  
 On Saturday, two of my friends rode their bikes 104 miles around and around my block.  They intended to ride 100 miles, but rewarded pledges of $200 or more with an extra mile.  My mom was one of those extra-mile donors, but her donation was electronically received right after the bikes were shed following the 103rd mile.  Woops!  My friends got back on their bikes and dutifully rode one more mile.  And look at those smiles!
The queens of going nowhere (among other achievements):  "Norman" (left) and "Panda"
My dad joined them for a casual 84 miles.  
Nothing casual about this guy.  He proceeded to run a half-marathon on Sunday.  Love you, Irondad!
Several other friends, neighbors, and family also rode for various miles.  Ian and the girls probably logged nearly 10 miles, and I pedaled for a mile or two myself.
photo by Kathryn Corones

It was the most beautiful day.  Panda has some more details about it on her blog.  One of the things she said is true for me, too, and that is, "I feel like I didn't have the mental ability or energy to truly thank everyone that came to support."  I felt that way, too, and I wasn't even biking!  I tend to feel overwhelmed as the frequent recipient of the outpouring of generosity and support.  During 100 miles to nowhere, much like during the Huzzah party in June, I found myself trying to enjoy it a bit anonymously, as if I were attending a festival or event that was for someone else or everyone.  The good thing about the anonymous feeling is that being overwhelmed did not spoil my ability to have fun.  The bad thing is that I did not properly exhibit the humility or gratitude that continues to fill my heart.  I had a wonderful day at 100 miles to nowhere, and I won't soon forget it.  Thank you, friends, for doing this for me and my family.  Also, thank you, Carnation Nation, for being such a large and powerful place.  Thank you for being a part of my life.

Saturday was the beginning of this awesome week that is my celebration of life.  My life, which I happily continue to inhabit.  It has once again been proclaimed by the governor that this week is Inflammatory Breast Cancer (IBC) Awareness week.  I'd like to remind everyone that the signs of IBC are different than other types of breast cancer that commonly present as a lump.  IBC often has NO LUMP.  IBC can turn up as itchiness, redness, or firmness that feels like inflammation, or all of these things.  For more information please see www.eraseibc.org.  When in doubt, rule it out!  (If you'd like to buy our T-shirt that says just that, please email me at 30carnations(at)gmail(dot)com.)

Finally, this week will end with my birthday!  I will be 34 on Friday.  I can't wait.  I have always loved my birthday, but I will be particularly happy to celebrate it this year.  I had several low moments this year when, with a certain amount of bitterness, it crossed my mind that I might not make it to my 34th birthday.  Yet here I am!  With lungs full of oxygen and no more breasts to poison me!  Who knew that 34 would feel so good?  

I hope you all are having an excellent week.  Please help me spread awareness of IBC!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


"Let's go jump in a leaf pile!" said my daughters after another pleasant family dinner.  It was so temperate outside this evening that we didn't even need our jackets.  Everyone put on their shoes and tromped around the house to the backyard.  The majesty of the mature maple appeared as we rounded the corner of the house.  The maple tree is about the same size as our modest two-story home, with its oversized red-orange leaves glowing above our patio and yard.  Half of the leaves presented their beauty yet on the tree while the other half were scattered about the yard.  Ian and I used the large red rake to scoop the leaves into an orderly pile, building it ever taller at the request of the children.  They took turns alternately scattering the pile and burying each other in it.

I found myself standing with the rake in hand, waiting to be summoned to repair the pile.  I looked up, admiring the leaves yet attached to the tree as they twisted in the crisp fall breeze.  How did we get so lucky to buy a house with such a perfect tree?  "Full and colorful maple tree" was not on our must-have list when we were shopping for houses, and yet I can't imagine living without it.  So many happy times are associated with that tree:  grilling on the patio under its shade, pushing babies in the swing that hung from a low branch, frolicing in a leaf pile unrivaled by any in my childhood.  I wondered what future happy times are in store for me under the tree.

My gaze drifted up above the tree to the darkening sky.  The darkness descended much earlier than I expected, reminding me of how quickly the autumn is passing.  Where is autumn going?  Where did spring and summer go, for that matter?  Oh yea, I was sick.  I thought about how 4 months ago I had a PICC line and neutropenia.  Now I have a port and health.  With my health I have walked the girls to school, visited grandparents, attended the circus, cooked all sorts of foods, eaten all sorts of foods, and worked on my science.  And raked leaf piles.

"Mom, we're ready for you to fix the leaf pile!"  I turned my attention back to the girls, the rake, the leaves, the earth.  As I dragged leaves with the rake I felt the power of my legs, torso, and arms.  Both arms.  Whole body.  I was complete.          

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Well, that didn't take long

This weekend proved that my re-entry to Life is speeding right along.  Can you believe that I walked the 5K at Race for the Cure on Saturday morning?  Three weeks and three days post-mastectomy #2.  Boom.

That's me in the middle of the back row, surrounded by a bunch of awesome family members.  For additional awesomeness, check out my dad's wig (front row, left side).  
After the race, I came home and cleaned my toilets for the first time.  You might think that this is mundane, gross, and unworthy of highlighting, but I beg to differ.  I have not had the energy to spend on toilet cleaning in seven months.  Seven months!  This weekend I had the energy, and the confidence that my energy would be sustained following the toilet cleaning.  It was therefore with a certain amount of gratitude, if not outright joy, that I cleaned my toilets between the hours of 2:00 and 3:00 on Saturday, October 4th, 2014.  Afterwards I bypassed my former rest on the couch and went for a victory lap by tidying up the kitchen.  Chores have never felt so good.

Having energy to perform a task is only half of the solution.  The other half of the solution is a side-effect of having energy, and that is the reclamation of my time.  During cancer treatment I spent gobs of time sleeping and resting.  By the time I had attended to my bodily chores (appointments, eating, bathing) I had scarcely any energy-charged time for the family, let alone activities of my choosing.  The gift of time is almost as sweet as the energy itself. 

This weekend I possessed energy-charged time for the family.  Race for the Cure was invigorating, toilet cleaning was satisfying, and throwing my daughter's 7th birthday sleepover was...surely there's a word for the warm loving glow that has surrounded my heart all day?  It was wonderful.  She had her three best friends over for a sleepover.  We made pizza from scratch, frolicked in the leaves outside, built a fort in the girls' bedroom, and gobbled Ian's famous stovetop buttered popcorn with Mary Poppins.  Ian and I didn't even stress with additional organized activities, we mostly just let them play.  They all fell asleep between 9 and 10 pm, and they all woke up just after 7 am.  They drew pictures quietly for half an hour before I got up to make pancakes (also from scratch--I do love homemade foods!).  Just over half of them let me braid their hair while we watched The Magic School Bus.  Then we turned off the TV and played Twister until parents started to arrive.  A glorious time was had by all.   

This is the life.