Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Cancer, take a hike!

It's a soul-shaking moment when you're told you have cancer. Even when you're pretty sure those are the words about to be spoken, it's still a slap in the kisser. I had plenty of clues -- the exam when the doctor said she didn't like the feel of the lump -- should have rolled over like a grape, but it didn't; looking at the image of the tumor on the ultrasound screen and seeing its evil personality; waiting for at least a half hour on the table after the ultrasound for the attending physician to come in and talk to me. I knew. At each one of those moments, I knew. Yet...

It's one thing to suspect. It's another to hear it voiced. Flat out. "You have cancer." Imagine how stunning those words are to those who don't suspect. Imagine too how difficult it is to call and tell those you love and those who love you right back that you have cancer. Maybe that, in itself, is even harder than hearing the diagnosis yourself. It was for me.

And now, someone I love very much -- my cousin -- is saying "I have breast cancer" to friends and family. I know the pain. I've been there. Done that. And yet, even with that experience, I feel helpless and stunned. And, truly, it enrages me. Hey, I took your attack and handled it, you lousy cell invader. Leave my family alone. Go take a hike. Long walk, short pier. Go for it.

Better yet, take a hike yourself when the Walk for Cancer or Walk for the Cure is staged locally. Tell your friends and rally in record numbers. Is there anyone out there who hasn't been touched in some way by this disease? Not likely. It's epidemic. Let your voices be heard. Let your shoe leather hit the pavement. It's not only time for a cure, it's past time.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

I'm back. And I'm mad.

Most people, whether of Irish descent or not, recognize March 17 as Saint Patrick's Day. This year it offered a different celebratory context for me -- it marked the one-year anniversary of my last chemo treatment. I don't know what kind of a meal that calls for -- as opposed to corned beef and cabbage. Chicken breast, perhaps? Pink food? Although nothing comes to mind.

The most remarkable thing is, I didn't even realize it was my own personal anniversary until two weeks later. That's a good thing. It means breast cancer isn't my focus any more. It's now an afterthought. Past history. A fading memory.

Of course, fading memories have a way of reconstituting when poked by a similar occurrence. Last year, my college roommate and maid of honor was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a lumpectomy, followed by radiation. The wife of one of my designers was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy, chemo and reconstructive surgery. In the past two months, the daughter of one of my cousins was diagnosed and is scheduled for a mastectomy. Today, another cousin -- who is like a sister to me -- called and told me she too has breast cancer and will be having a mastectomy and most likely chemo.

What is going on here? I remember hearing a radio commercial about breast cancer within a day after my diagnosis, and suddenly thinking, oh, hey, that's me they're talking about. That's my life now. I'm in that club nobody wants to belong to. The club with ridiculously high dues.

And the membership keeps growing exponentially. It's a club that needs to be shut down, with the door nailed shut, so that nobody else can get in. Everyday, somewhere in the world, a diagnosed young mother is lying awake at night wondering who will raise her children if it ends badly. And her mother is losing sleep too, worried about the battle her daughter is waging. Husbands are frightened. Fathers. Children. Siblings.

When will this insidious disease go the way of the plague and let us all get some well-deserved sleep? I don't know. Some day. Not soon enough. So tell your wives, daughters, cousin, mothers, best friends to get checked annually so that if they get tagged by breast cancer, they can evict the little tenant before it damages the property.

I haven't blogged for awhile. Took a little time off to get my aching knees operated on and to distance myself from the breast cancer saga. But I'm back. And I'm mad that those I love and care about are beginning their own saga. And I think I want to talk about it. Yeah, I've got more to say about it. How about you?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Flipping my wig

My wig, or the muskrat as I referred to it, was my daily accessory from the end of January 'til mid July. It traveled to Florida and St. Louis with me. It went to church. It went to the theater. It went to work. It went to garage sales. It went to dinner. All in all, it had a good life. But after six months of pretty reliable service, it was finally laid to rest about three weeks ago.

My wigless test run was in June when we went to Myrtle Beach for a week with Scott, Chloe and Livy. There was no way I was going to sit on the beach with the rat on my head. Not only didn't I want to get sand in it -- although it's washable -- I really didn't want to swelter in the heat. Nor did I want to get hit by a wave and watch it wash out to sea, bobbing along like a hairy jellyfish.

So, it stayed home and pouted while we went on vacation. By mid-June, I had speckled hair, about 3/4 of an inch long, all over my head. It was white and winglike above my ears, with a black/silver/white combo on top and back, tightly curled. Taken in tandem, the effect was Clarabell on the sides and a sheared poodle on the top. I had gone to Hobby Lobby and picked up five bandanas in solid colors, and the day we left I wore one. I looked like Lucy Ricardo in the stomping-grapes-in-Italy episode. The bandanas never saw daylight again after that first day. I went "au naturel". Scott thought it looked great. The girls loved rubbing my head, as the new hair is soft as a chinchilla's fur. I can't resist rubbing my head either. It's like my own personal security blanket. But every time I catch my reflection in a mirror or window, I wonder who is that old poodle?

It really didn't bother me on vacation. Other than my family, everyone we met along the way was a stranger, and I would never see them again, but going without my wig to work was a little scarier. The established staff members knew I was wearing a wig, but there were some employees who were hired during that January-July wig era who thought I was sporting my own hair. In addition, we had just acquired five publications and there were new hires showing up in the office each day. Thus, when I returned to work after being an old poodle for 10 days, I was wigged up.

Then, around mid-July, I had an early-morning follow-up appointment with my radiologist. That meant the following would occur: go into dressing room; remove wig, take off top, put on snap-button smock, put on wig again; see the doctor for about 5 minutes; return to dressing room; take off smock, take off wig, pull on top, put on wig again. I decided that morning that I would go wigless to the doctor's office, and that meant that I would also go wigless to work, as I was heading there directly from the appointment. I was braced for whatever comments would zing my way.

My fears were groundless. Whether they meant it or not, everyone who had a comment made it a pleasant one. They liked it. From the receptionist and the technicians at the radiologist's office to my fellow workers, they liked it. "Don't wear the wig any more," they told me. Of course, these are some of the same people who said they really liked my wig, so there you are!

The curliness could go the way of the wagon wheel within a year, or my hair could remain this way. It's happened both ways with other cancer patients. I'm just happy to once again have a crop of hair on the top forty. And it's so fast and easy to shampoo, dry and get out the door now that I just may keep the old poodle around for quite awhile.


Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A bitter pill

I had a follow-up appointment with my oncologist a few days before we left on our Myrtle Beach vacation in June. She gave me a prescription and also a two-week supply of the estrogen-blocking hormone pill (Arimidex) that I'm to take for the next five years. She agreed that I could wait to start taking it until after I returned from vacation.

So, I waited. And then, when we returned on June 26, I waited some more. And then another week went by and I was still waiting. It's odd, because with the chemo, I was kind of anxious to get started. My mantra became, "The sooner we start, the sooner it's over." The 7 weeks of radiation? "The sooner we start, the sooner it's over."

Well, you could make the same case for the hormone therapy. The "sooner, sooner" theory. But it's hard to tag five years with the word "sooner". We're talking long-haul here. And while chemo and radiation both had their possible side effects, they were temporary. But with these little white pills come all sorts of possible undesirable companions: insomnia; joint disorder; hot flashes. It gets worse. Check out the laundry list of possible adverse reactions:
1. Asthenia (no clue what that is, but pretty sure I don't want it)
2. Reduced bone density (osteoporosis)
3. Fractures (see #2)
4. Joint pain (for my cortisone-injected knees?)
5. Abdominal pain
6. Chest pain
7. Hypertension
8. Nausea
9. Dyspepsia (irritability?)
10. Arthralgia (again: huh? and no thanks)
11. Myalgia (don't they hawk something on TV for that?)
12. Arthrosis (????)
13. Depression
14. Bone pain
15. Hypercholesterolemia (translation: elevated cholesterol)
16. Cyst
17. Anxiety

Well, who wouldn't be depressed and anxious after looking at that list -- and it's only partial. There are about 66 possible adverse reactions listed, and that's before I decided not to turn the page for more. Among them -- are you ready? -- breast pain and endometrial cancer. And I've saved the most unacceptable for last: weight gain! C'mon! That's just cruel.

How can one little pill pack so much potential evil doing?

So, I waited some more. And finally, I took the first pill Sunday night. Tonight will be my third pill. Who knows what's brewing inside this old carcass, but, so far, to my knowledge, no asthenia, arthralgia or arthrosis -- whatever they might be. No neoplasm either, that I'm aware of. But if I see one crawl by, I'll be on it with a flyswatter.

With a little luck, in five years this little poison pill and I will have warded off a recurrence of breast cancer, but potentially every other body part will have collapsed into a powder and I'll have a skin rash to boot.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

God bless Riley. Our sweet, sweet boy.

The tears just won't stop. And I suspect the thought of him will make my eyes well up for a long, long time. Riley was 12 years old. We had hoped he'd live to be at least 20. Twelve years ago, on the 4th of July weekend, we rescued that little six-week old orange tabby. Today, July 3rd, we reluctantly had to have him put to sleep.

We got him out of grief after losing a 20-year-old cat preceding the 4th of July in 1998. We looked at a rescued litter and I had my eye on a gray, black and white tabby who seemed very shy, but Jeff asked to see the long-legged orange tabby. He handed him to me and the little guy climbed up and played with my necklace and nuzzled against my chin. Jeff said, "That's the one."

He had comically big ears but there was also an elegance about him. He looked like a lion cub. In addition to his long legs, he had the lengthiest tail I'd ever seen on a cat -- at least 18 inches long, maybe longer. His striped legs looked like they'd been drizzled with butterscotch. His intelligent green eyes were huge and they held your gaze. He also had a wired personality; he had so much energy, he'd bounce off the walls and many times we had to put him in a closed-door bedroom for some quiet time. I'd open the door and peek in and he'd be staring right back at me. Feeling sorry for the little guy, I'd go in and lie on the floor and just watch him. He'd rock back and forth while eating from the food dish; couldn't even sit still to grab some dinner. Then he'd run over to where I was lying on the floor and he'd rub his nose against my face and neck, then go back to rocking around the food dish. It was instant love on my part. I'd never seen such a personality in a cat.

I can't imagine coming through the door and him not being there to greet us. Or going to sleep without him jumping up on the bed and curling up next to me. Or opening a bottle of Gatorade and not having him run in, waiting for me to toss the ring for him to catch. Or watching him swagger down the hallway, and calling his name and seeing him stop and turn and look at me. Or curled up in Jeff's arms while they watched TV together. Or seeing him sit on the floor and stare up at us, patiently waiting for permission to jump up on the sofa or chair and join us.

He really was extraordinarily long legged. So much so, that he could stand up on his back legs and try, with his front paws, to grab a sandwich I was making on the kitchen counter. He would follow us everywhere and if we stopped suddenly and turned around, he'd leap up, do a 180 in mid-air and take off in the opposite direction. He would also leap high and bat a tossed ball or Gatorade ring like he was playing volleyball. A super athlete.

He was smart too. He'd have been a good engineer. He could find solutions to problems. If his younger brother Dusty (sibling cat) lost a toy under the bifold door of the linen closet, Riley would hook his paw under the right side of the door, get the door to unfold a bit, then poke his head into the slight opening and shove the door all the way open. With a "there you go, kid" look, he'd leave the bathroom and let Dusty grab the toy.

He was stubborn and determined and incorrigible. But you couldn't stay mad at him, because he was the cutest guy ever in a fur suit.

He'd been losing weight since late last year. Once weighing in at 15 pounds, and still looking lean, he'd dropped down to 9 pounds. For months, we'd been regular visitors at the Vet's office. Riley had two different antibiotics, but he was still ailing. All his blood work looked good. His heart was strong. It was a mystery. Then he was diagnosed with pancreatitis and we were given an enzyme powder to sprinkle on his food. With the powder on it, he wouldn't touch it. We boarded him with the Vet when we went away a few weekends ago to attend a wedding in St. Louis and they said he was then down to 7 pounds. We were leaving again the following weekend for an 8-day vacation and we boarded him then too so he would be given special care, medicine and plenty of nourishment. He gained a half pound, but the doctor had felt a mass. It could be cancer. Or it could be an impacted colon. We were to keep an eye on him. As long as his appetite was good and he was getting around and not in pain...

Then yesterday he started having trouble getting up the stairs. Whereas he used to always race to beat me to the top, now he took them one by one and stopped to rest twice. But he ate. He was hungry. We could tell his back legs were weak, but once he gained more weight, we thought he'd get his strength back.

Then this afternoon, he wobbled and collapsed. I picked him up and laid with him on the sofa. He looked up at me as I petted him, then craned his neck to look over at Jeff. It was like he was saying goodbye. Shortly after that, his eyes weren't focusing on anything. And then he began having seizures where he'd flail his front legs and howl; afterwards, he seemed totally unresponsive.

We took him to an emergency pet hospital and they determined his blood sugar had plummeted, causing the seizures. His heart rate was low, his coloring was pale (meaning he was probably anemic) and his temperature had dropped. He was shutting down. The Vet felt a mass in his abdomen and thought it was likely the culprit for the low blood sugar levels. They could try to get the blood sugar to rise, but with everything else failing, it was likely to be a temporary solution. And in his weakened condition, any one of the things they would try to do for him might actually kill him. Plain and simple, he was dying. He didn't seem to be in pain while they handled him. The howling was part of the seizure reaction, related to the low blood sugar, and not a pain response.

Jeff wanted to at least give it a chance by trying to raise the blood sugar and see if he improved. Part of me wanted to as well, but I knew in my heart it was futile and that he would never have quality of life again. They hooked him up and started a glucose treatment. The "coordinator" then came in and showed us an estimate of what the costs would be for 36 hours of treatment and monitoring. $3600.

Wow. We really loved that little guy. We asked to go in and see him. He was under a blanket, with his little face in a cone. His eyes were open, but he was not reactive. The Vet told us they'd tried two times to get his blood sugar elevated, but it had stayed the same as when we brought in Riley. I looked at her and she shook her head.

They gave us a room with a sofa and we held and petted Riley for quite awhile. His eyes were more alert and we wondered if perhaps we should just take him home. We set him on the sofa, but he couldn't stand. He couldn't move at all. So we did what we thought was the most humane thing for our little buddy and I blubbered like a baby.

I held him all the way home and it looked like he was sleeping. His big ears still stood up. His eyes remained open. I curled him up on his blanket on the sofa and sat next to him and petted him.

I'm struck by the coincidence of his entering and leaving our lives on the same holiday weekend.

Tomorrow we'll bury him with a short eulogy of what a special boy he was. And there will forever be a void left by this funny little guy who brought such joy and affection into our lives.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Loving the gift

Cancer changes your life. It brings a sort of new reality to the foreground. An awareness of your own mortality. I had a sudden glimpse of what might have been while I was walking the beach last week in South Carolina with our son Scott and our granddaughters, Chloe and Livy. Just a fleeting thought that if my diagnosis had been grim and unforgiving eight months ago, I would not be leaving footprints in the sand at that moment.

Seven-year-old Livy had asked me what the word memories means. I explained that memories were like photographs, stored in our brain, of places we had been and things we had seen and how sometimes, out of nowhere for no discernible reason, they would pop up, recalling something sweet and wonderful, and make us smile. Fortunately, we tend to recall good memories more often than bad ones. Or so it seems to me anyway.

And, for a fleeting moment, I thought that it could have been different. Someday, one of those darling girls might have called up this memory: "Remember when Grandpa went to Myrtle Beach with us so he wouldn't be so lonely at home." But it didn't happen that way. I'm still here. So lucky. Present and accounted for, enjoying the gift of life. Enjoying being included in the memories our granddaughters will carry forward of our vacation together in Myrtle Beach.

And thus my memories, so fresh and clear (well, yeah, true -- they're barely a week old), include: Livy giving a dead baby crab a decent burial in the wet sand; Chloe's excitement at finding a shark's tooth; Scott getting slammed by a wave that knocked off his sunglasses; Chloe finding the sunglasses ("I saved Daddy a hundred bucks!"); watching my son, at sunrise, carve out "Chloe and Livy" in giant letters in the sand so that his girls would wake up and see their names from our 12th story balcony; hearing the girls giggle at the incredibly funny and gifted Cirque du Soleil MC; watching them both pet a baby stingray at the aquarium and seeing that same curious stingray swim back to them time after time for another pet; teaching the girls a new card game; being there as Livy learned how to swim; tossing quarters in the pool for the girls to dive after.

Floating along in the lazy river, I was totally relaxed. I had found my "happy place". I can close my eyes and recall that tranquil feeling. If, after cancer, every day is a gift -- and it is -- then I have just unwrapped the mother load. Sweet.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Life is a beach

Sometimes in life you just need to get away and recharge. Our son Scott revved up the amps with a simple invitation. He wanted to take his girls Chloe and Livy on a vacation to Myrtle Beach and would we like to come along? I was on it like a bee on watermelon.

Beginning when Scott was seven years old, we began an annual trek to Myrtle Beach in combination with attending the Southern 500 at the Darlington Speedway. Sticking with a "tourist town" theme, we'd spend the first night in Gatlinburg, TN, and ride the Ober Gatlinburg up into the mountains, and then drive to Myrtle Beach the next day. It was always a very kid-centric trip: go-karts, bumper boats, riding the ocean waves on a rubber raft, swimming pool activities, miniature golf, and of course, lots of seafood and the usual sunburn. I believe we went about five times and usually stayed at The Breakers Resort. Now that resort has become a complex of about five towers, all oceanfront.

Scott wanted to recreate those same memories for his girls, so here we are at The Breakers after spending the night before in Gatlinburg (and yes, we rode the Ober Gatlinburg). We've already been slapped around by the ocean waves and we've tested the new circuit of swimming pools, including a lazy river and a pirate's ship pool, that The Breakers offers. We took a drive down Ocean Blvd. and remembered some of the existing resorts and marveled at some of the new ones. There have been changes -- like even more super-sized beachwear stores -- but enough remains the same that prove the memories are accurate.

Just like Scott and us, the girls love sitting on the balcony and listening to the surf and watching people walk the beach. They love playing in the ocean and shelling. Scott loves watching them have the same great adventure he remembers so clearly. And we love watching him watch them with such delight.

We've only just begun here, and my battery is already fully charged.