Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What kind of warranty does this miracle carry?

Some of you may recall that there are two things that are working in tandem to keep me from tripping lightly along on this cancer journey. My left knee and my right knee. And, yes, while I certainly agree with you that it is grossly unfair to be diagnosed with bc in the same month that left knee (hereafter known as LK) goes kablooey -- followed by right knee, aka RK, throwing in the towel a month later -- I was elated to discover that a shot of cortisone to each knee tricked them into submission.

The next morning, after the shots were administered, I awoke and stepped out of bed without my knees complaining. I walked like a human being again. No wincing in pain. It's a miracle, I told the cats. They looked skeptical, or disinterested. With cats, it's hard to tell the difference.

And it was a miracle. I was able to fly, knees bent for the duration of two back-to-back flights, to Florida on vacation, and then drive a car back the 1400 miles it takes to leave Ft. Myers, FL, and arrive in Chicago two days later. No pain, lots of gain.

The damage is still there, of course. The knees have just been numbed to it. Tricked. Bamboozled.

As it turns out, the right knee is much smarter than the left knee. While LK pumps right along thinking, foolishly, that it has been cured, the right knee wised up at the 2.5-week post-cortisone mark. Not only is RK smarter than its twin, it seems to have a short fuse. Once it realized it had been tricked, it came screaming back to consciousness with searing pain. Apparently, it can't take a joke.

Thus, Advil has become my dearest friend (sorry, Linn; you're terrific, but you're not a pain reliever). By popping a couple in the morning, mid-day and evening, I can walk, sit and sleep.

Once radiation is over, I know there will be another MRI in my future to determine the perpetrator. Fluid? Torn meniscus? Arthritis? Hamster? Identify the criminal, then determine the punishment. Besides, the MRI techs will be happy to see me again. I'm pretty confident I'm the one who is keeping them employed.

I wish RK had enjoyed the 60 to 90 days of relief other cortisone shot recipients have told me they experienced, but it held up for my trip, and I'm incredibly grateful for that.

Miracles don't come with a warranty. But, they should.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Whatever you do, don't...

I don't know what kind of kid you were, but I was the kind (and still continue to be) who always felt that the word "don't" issued an immediate challenge. And I was always up for accepting it. "Don't, under any circumstances, press this button." "Don't eat that, it's for the guests." "Don't touch." "Don't aggravate the dog."

During my single days in Chicago, when riding the bus, I noticed they preferred the word "no" to "don't".

No standing.
No smoking.
No spitting.
No stripping.

(I threw in that last one to see if you were paying attention). It was like a personal party invitation, even though I'm not a spitter (unless I'm at the zoo and the camel starts it first).

So, there I am in my radiation sessions, lying on my back on the table and staring up at the ceiling where there is a canister light that contains the red eye of a laser and a ceiling sign right next to it that says "Do not stare into the laser."

Well, first of all, it's directly overhead and my eyes just naturally look up and stare into the laser in that split second before I realize that I've just looked up and stared into the laser. And in the ensuing minutes, all I want to do is stare at that laser. I look to the left of center. I look to the right of center. All I want to do is look center at that freaking red light that is the brightest thing in the room. It taunts me. I have to close my eyes to avoid it because I now have this irrational fear (or perhaps it's not so irrational) that, having already stared into the laser by accident, I've already burned holes into my retinas.

I did have a broken blood vessel in my left eye a week ago and that just added to my paranoia that the irresistible laser had already done damage to my disobedient eye. In my opinion, the punishment definitely doesn't fit the crime.

The treatments themselves are incredibly fast. I'm out of the dressing room, onto the table and back in the dressing room in less than 5 minutes. The longest part of the process is lining me up with the lasers (yes, that damn one that lives in the ceiling, plus one on each side wall). That's where the blue freckle tattoos are called into play. The technician slides a metal plate, called a wedge, into the radiation machine that hovers to my left and then she leaves the room and flips the switch or hits a computer key -- I'm not sure which. I'm also not sure I understand how the wedge works exactly, but it's designed to direct the radiation according to the thickness of the skin -- as our skin thickness varies across the square footage that our chests occupy. All I know is those wedge plates are very heavy (they let me pick up a couple different ones) and those gals must save a fortune on health club dues by doing their weight lifting on the job. Once the first radiation from the left is done, the machine rotates its head, then the entire thing traverses above me (briefly blocking the ceiling laser temptation) and comes to a halt on my right. The tech inserts a different wedge, then leaves the room again and 30 seconds later, I'm radiated -- and done. Hopefully, not overdone.

It's easy, it's fast, it's painless, but if you're ever in that same circumstance, whatever you do, don't...oh, never mind.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The world's smallest tattoo

My first session in the radiology department involved me participating in the "line-up". I laid down on the mobile table so that the techs could line me up with the laser beams from the left, the right and up above. My head and shoulders were positioned on a VacLok pillow-like cushion that is filled with tiny polystyrene beads and my hands gripped a T-bar that was suspended just behind my head. Once the techs were confident that I was positioned correctly, a vacuum was drawn through the cushion's valve that created a permanently indented cradle customized to fit me. It would be used for every radiation session.

To mark where the laser beams should line up, they "tattooed" me on three sides with a little drop of ink and a needle. So, it now looks like I have tiny blue freckles. An alcohol wipe of each spot afterwards delivered a slight sting, but that was it. No real discomfort. My doctor of radiology was present too, making his markings and approving the process. Preliminary x-rays were taken and they were done with me in about 15 minutes. They told me my actual radiation session, to begin in two days, would barely last five minutes.

I was to be their last patient of the day. Like me, they start early in the morning. By leaving work at 2:30, I could comfortably get there by 3:10 and be ready for my 3:15 appointment. Once they were through with me, they were through with work.

This was the beginning of a M-F seven-week routine. Almost like having a second job.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

They're baaaaack!

Today marks 35 days since my last chemo, and the first harbinger of my own personal spring made its presence known -- on my chin. Yes, that's right. Like Phoenix rising from the ashes, the chin hairs have returned. It's time to whisk my tweezers off the unemployment line and dust them off.

This brand new crop of chin hairs is different than its ancestors. Not bristly at all. They're soft and pure white. This will require a much closer watch. The good news (or, perhaps not) is that they perfectly match the hair that is sprouting on my head. Soft and white. Whenever I'm sans wig, I can hardly keep from rubbing my hands across my head. I've heard that this is not unique among chemo baldies. I figure the reasons are two-fold: 1) my head feels like velvet and 2) it's a daily check to see if the hair sprouts have grown longer. I could be wrong, but it seems like there is more to grab near the nape.

What this all means, of course, is that all traces of chemo drugs have left the building and regrowth and recovery have begun. Now, there's a celebration.

My radiation began on April 8 and should end just before the Memorial Day weekend. Two days before my radiation began, I had an appointment with my radiologist where I was "fitted" for a Vac-Lok support cushion and "tattooed" for laser positioning, an interesting process in itself. Not as exciting as chin hairs returning, but...interesting.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Meet me at the oasis -- a mere 1400 miles down the road

On Friday, April 2, I completed the last, and most boring leg of my trip from Florida -- I-65 through Indiana and into Chicago, while Jeff was completing the most boring leg of his trip from Arizona -- I-55 through the cornfields of Illinois.

I did discover something new in Indiana that had sprung up since the last time I had traversed the state -- a still-in-progress wind turbine farm north of Lafayette, IN. Hundreds of them in action and several yet-to-be assembled that were lying on the ground. What a sight!

I arrived at the Hinsdale oasis 20 minutes before Jeff and then followed him to Northbrook where we dropped off his customer's car. He rode home with me, where he picked up my car and we delivered the Florida customer's car to his home in Palatine. Job well done. My vacation was over, but the weekend was still ours.

On Tuesday morning, I would visit the radiology department in preparation for my first radiation treatment. But for now, I was treatment free. Chemo was behind me, radiation was yet ahead of me.

Can't think of a better way to end a vacation than that -- other than just plain not ending the vacation!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Hey, Dad, only 10 miles to the next Stuckeys!

If you asked most people if they'd enjoy driving 1400 miles in two days, they'd probably respond they'd rather have their teeth drilled without novocaine. But there are a few of us, Jeff and me included, who were born with a combination of wanderlust and a love of driving. The enchantment began when I was a child. Our family vacations were always via car.

In his lifetime, my father never flew. My mother's first flight was from St. Louis to Chicago to view her week-old grandson. Our family treks took us from St. Louis to Florida, or St. Louis to Colorado, or to Arizona or New Orleans, etc., but not on expressways with fast-food chains at every exit -- those expressways didn't exist. Nor did the fast-food chains.

Interstate roads, like Route 66, went through small towns and big cities, and offered much more to see, like houses and gardens and downtown squares. There were no hotel/motel chains in the 50s, just mom and pop motels along the route. We'd look for one that had the diving girl on the motel sign, indicating there was a pool included. As we passed through towns around lunch or dinner time, we'd keep a sharp eye out for a cafe with the frosty blue "air conditioned" sign in the window. When you traveled across country in open-windowed cars without air conditioning, dinner in a cool cafe was a real treat. Adding to the fun of road trips were the clever Burma Shave signs and, of course, the Stuckeys candy stores -- famous for pralines and divinity -- that were scattered every 25 miles or so throughout the south. If Dad drove past the first few, we could start pestering him again to please stop at the next one, a short distance down the road.

My cross-country drives in other people's cars began in my 20s, while I was gainfully employed at the Chicago Tribune. Two office mates and I, by happenstance, ended up driving a dealer's customized van (a unique offering in those days) to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and from there on to Los Angeles where he needed to have it by a certain date for a photo shoot. How fortunate were we that our boss let three of his 10-member staff go off on that adventure for two weeks.

News of that trip spurred a fellow employee, who was being transferred to the New York office, to ask me if I'd be interested in driving his family's second car, a Volkswagon Beetle, to New York. But of course -- via Canada! And so Judy, one of my office mates and fellow travelers in the New Orleans/Los Angeles caper, and I traveled with stops in Toronto and Montreal (where a couple of the Detroit Lions football players, arriving in town for an exhibition game, invited us to party in their hotel room; yeah, right, we were young and naive, but not stupid). We traveled through Vermont and spent a day in Concord, NH, where we met the governor's assistant who followed us to Boston, MA, and bought us each a lobster dinner.

Let me tell you, two single girls traveling across the country meet a lot of interesting people. Those two trips set in motion my fascination with long-distance driving -- of zipping past palm trees in the morning and through mountains in the afternoon. That beats the view from my office.

And on March 31-April 1, my drive from southern Florida to Chicago offered multiple opportunities to stop and savor the scenery. As stated in my previous blog entry, it's the weekend of an annual mass exodus from Florida, and the stop-and-crawl pattern repeated heading in and out of Atlanta (nothing new about that; I remain convinced the only convenient time to drive through Atlanta is 4 a.m.); in and out of Chattanooga and, worst of all, for what seemed an eternity through Nashville.

But each trip delivers some new bit of wisdom and here's mine from that recent trek: if you want to live in a city with no rush-hour traffic jams, relocate to Louisville, KY. One caveat: I didn't see a single Stuckeys.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Hey, where are all you people going?

If you're from the northern sector of the midwest where winter strips the color out of the landscape, then dumps a heap of snow just to up the aggravation factor, Florida in March is just what the weatherman ordered. Show me a palm tree and I'm happy -- mentally flashing back to 5-year-old me, in the back seat of my parents' car with my nose pressed against the window, seeing Florida for the first time. It was love at first sight with those graceful palm trees. Mix in the sound of pounding surf and the smell of salt air and I'm hooked.

But, and this is important, so pay attention (actually, you may want to get paper and pen and write this down): Whatever you do, do not depart Florida on March 31.

If you choose to ignore this sage advice, be prepared to come flying up the entrance ramp to whatever northbound expressway you're about to merge onto, hit the brakes, squeeze in among the other parked cars, and commence to read a good book while enjoying a picnic lunch you were hopefully wise enough to pack for this trudge home.

The ensuing weekend being Easter was certainly a complicating factor, but the real culprits were the expiring rental leases on March 31. Yes, sure, many choose to stay through May and a few heat-seeking missiles will refuse to pull up stakes until mid-June, but if you'd been on the I-75 crawl with me from Ft. Myers to Sarasota, you'd swear someone had opened a window and yelled, "It's March 31! All you snowbirds -- get out!"

No accidents. No construction. Just an endless parade of campers and Cadillacs and big 4-door sedans.

I'd had a great, albeit too short stay in Naples and then my cousin drove me to the Ft. Myers airport where I met Jeff's customers who boarded an airplane as I started driving their car back to Chicago. My intended route was I-75 to I-4, where I'd veer off the beaten path and spend the day and night with our good friends in Eustis, FL, then depart before dawn the next morning for the business part of the trip.

I called Jeff, who had taken an early morning flight to Phoenix and was in a PHX airport restaurant, having breakfast and waiting until his customer arrived. I told him the mile marker I was crawling past and begged him to consult his road atlas and find an alternate route that would take me east and then northeast to connect with I-4. "Get me out of here. I'm not a celebrity, but I've had enough fun on I-75."

Jeff did a good job. He routed me through a rural area with no traffic and no stops. It wasn't exactly a short cut, but it was beautiful -- forested in some areas -- and, best of all, I was cruising, not crawling. Did you know there are a lot of beekeepers in the middle of Florida? Neither did I until I got off the expressway and did the two-lane road scenic tour.

So, while the snowbirds were doing the leaving-Florida crawl on I-75, and probably vowing, after the miserable winter weather they had experienced in Florida this year, never to return, I, on the other hand, was freebird, zipping through the back roads and backwoods of Florida.

I highly recommend it. But not on March 31. You've been warned.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

"a" is for yes; "b" equals no.

I have yet to jump on the texting bandwagon. Most likely because my cell phone is an older model and I haven't figured out its quirks when it comes to texting. And so, I was waiting at my second flight's gate in the Washington Reagan airport when my phone signaled me that I had a text message. It was from my son Scott, asking if I was flying out that morning. I tried to text back "yes", but I couldn't get to the letter "e". I cleared the "y" and tried to text "am" and my phone skipped past the letter "m" and went right to "n". Tried it again. Same thing. I gave up and texted back "a".

Scott texted me back "what the heck is a?" I thought I'd made myself perfectly clear. "A" for yes. "B" for no.

He immediately called me. "Sonce (his nickname for me), when are you going to learn how to text?" Actually, I know how to text. It's my phone that remains uneducated. It also only holds a charge for one brief call these days. Then it shuts off. I wanted to get a new phone before the trip, but ran out of time. It's on my list, along with too many other things that probably will not get accomplished in my lifetime.

Washington Reagan airport has an "interesting" terminal set up. My first flight parked at the end of one wing of the terminal. I could see, by the airport diagram, that my next flight took off from a gate in the opposite wing of the same terminal. I figured, with my newly functioning knees, that I could walk to that wing. I could look out the window and see it, but I couldn't get to it without walking past the security entrance. A sign informed me that there was a shuttle from one of the gates that takes passengers to the other wing. What is does is send you out a door and down two flights of metal steps, in the rain, to the awaiting shuttle. The shuttle bus literally takes less than 30 seconds to deposit you at the other wing, where you and your luggage, again in the rain, climb metal stairs (which must become pretty slippery when ice and snow are present) to gain entrance into that wing.

Without the cortisone shots, I'd have never been able to ascend or descend those stairs, particularly while carrying my suitcase. I'm sure there's another option for those who require assistance, but fortunately, I wasn't one of them.

My knees were fine during both flights and I arrived in sunny Florida approximately at the same time, though I take no credit for it, as long-awaited warm temperatures. Florida had had a miserable winter. My cousin Dick, who spends half the year in Naples, and his wife Wilma were waiting for me at the Ft. Myers airport and my brief, much-anticipated vacation began.

Dick and I took a 2-mile walk along a path that skirts the mangrove woods that separate the gulf, at one point, from a strip of condos. The path has water on either side and, on a good day, you might spot otters, all kinds of water fowl, and an occasional alligator. It's a beautiful walk and while the otters did not make their presence known, we did see most of the other residents, including a couple of alligators. Again, I was grateful for the cortisone shots, as this was not a walk that I could have accomplished without them.

I guess I could have texted Scott about it, but in this case "a" would have stood for alligator. Smart as he is, I don't think he would have made that connection.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

It's a miracle!

Twenty-four hours after the cortisone shot to both knees, I awoke in the early hours of the morning, climbed out of bed and took a couple of cautious steps. What?! No pain? No collapsible knees? Was this a dream or was I really awake? Had I truly gone to bed with aching knees and while I was sleeping, the pain fairy stole the pain and left me functioning knees?

If there had been a televangelist in my living room, he'd have shouted, "Praise the Lord! She's cured!" And then taken credit for it, no doubt. This was great. This was perfect. My cold was in the waning stages and I was walking, not like an Egyptian, but like a human. Now I really was ready for my Florida trip.

I had met with the radiologist earlier in the week in preparation for my radiation therapy, which would begin sometime during the week following my vacation. I had expressed to him my concerns about the compounding effects of radiation exposure with all the CT scans, X-rays and mammograms I'd had in the past five months. He countered that I'd probably be exposed to more radiation while flying above the clouds than from any medical test. I didn't know that, although the following week I did read about that very same subject in the newspaper. Well, swell, 5 months of compounded testing plus two radiating airline flights to get to Florida. Someone literally could tell me I had a glow about me.

In the meantime, I had functioning knees, followed by succeeding nights of sound sleep, thanks to the thieving pain fairy. That alone had lifted my spirits enough that I could have flown myself to Florida -- below the clouds, naturally.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A shot and a beer

I grabbed a 7:15 a.m. appointment on Thursday with the orthopedist. The last (and first) time I had gone to the orthopedist, I had a 1:30 appointment and sat in the crowded waiting room for more than 2 hours before being led to an examining room where I waited another 20 minutes. Their office is so busy that it's like being at an airport gate and waiting for your group to be called for boarding. Even at 7:15 in the morning, it was busy and I waited a half an hour. When I had seen the orthopedist the first time, it was the day before my first chemo session. He confided in me then that "if you want to make a lot of money in orthopedics, give a lot of cortisone shots." An honest man. But he went on to tell me that since I was already on steroids for the chemo, the drugs were already accomplishing the same thing that the cortisone would do. Unfortunately, it was for a short period of time.

I'd never had a cortisone shot in my life, but I knew that my upcoming trip to Florida meant two things: 1) From 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. I'd either be sitting at an airport gate or sitting in one of two airplanes and 2) returning from Florida, I'd be sitting behind the wheel of a car for 1400 miles (I was driving one of Jeff's customer's car back from Ft. Myers to Chicago, while Jeff, at the same time, was driving another customer's car back from Phoenix). With my aching knees bent for that long of a time, I'd be one miserable old lady.

I'd also heard that the shots hurt. I didn't care. No pain, no gain. How bad could it be? I asked the doc if he had a bullet I could bite down on. I should have insisted. Holy cow, did it smart! And, once the first knee was shot up, I tensed up because I knew what was coming for the second knee. If it wasn't early in the morning, and if I was a drinking gal, I'd have asked for a shot of something else -- like whiskey (which I hate). Whew! But, if these shots worked like everyone said they did, I'd be a new woman by the weekend.

I was kind of hoping that new woman would look like Sandy Bullock (without the cheating husband), but truthfully I'd settle for the old pre-chemo, pre-painful knees me. That would be good enough.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Okay, whose leftover cold is this?!

The days immediately after my final chemo session pretty much followed the pattern of the first three sessions. No side effects. No nausea. No problems. I didn't take any time off of work and made it a point to try and hold it to 8-hour days, not 9- or 10-hour days, with the help of the chemo police (my boss and fellow workers), who would point my way to the door if I strayed too far beyond my schedule.

Saturday I tried to sleep in a bit as we had a surprise birthday party to attend in the afternoon for my friend Linn. It was being held at her mother's house, about an hour-and-a-half away, and I was eager to go, as her family has become my second family -- and her mother welcomes me like a fourth daughter. Jeff and I had a good time, but by the early evening, I was ready for PJs and a warm blanket. My knees were killing me the whole ride home and if they hadn't been, I'd have slept during the ride.

I woke up Sunday and realized why I'd been extra tired. The cold everyone kept passing around had finally decided to stop and visit me. I was congested and coughing -- but had no fever, thank God! I stayed in my pajamas the entire day and slept a good portion of it. I planned to stay home from work on Monday to try and get as much rest as possible and shake the cold, but I remembered I had paperwork to do.

On Monday, I went in early and got done what I had to do and left after 5 hours. Came home and went right to bed and stayed there through Tuesday. By Wednesday, I was back at work, feeling better than I sounded. I was going to Florida on vacation the next week and had lots of projects to finish. The cold came at a bad time, considering all I had to do, but it would have been worse if it came the following week when I was on vacation. No one likes to be sick away from home. And having just gotten over pneumonia the week before, I wanted to make sure this cold didn't turn into something more threatening.

Just a few more days and I'd be out of the post-chemo danger zone. In the month of March, I'd had 13 days of fever, a mild infection, pneumonia and now a cold. That's about as much fun as I could pack into one cold, miserable month.