Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Graduation Day

The thermometer popped up and this turkey is done. I even have a Certificate of Achievement to prove it. There was no cap and gown. Just the usual smock with one snap at the top. Not a very festive garb for such a momentous (to me anyway) occasion.

Here's how it reads:

Certificate of Achievement awarded to Sandi Stevenson for successful completion of Radiation Therapy. Recognition deserved for Punctuality, Cooperation, and Positive Attitude.

And it's signed by all the gals who took such good care of me every day for 38 days. I was pretty impressed by the awesomeness that apparently is me until I realized they probably give the same certificate to those who are late, combative and ornery.

Oh well. The important thing to celebrate here is that the saga that began with a not-so-fun discovery seven months ago is now complete. Just like LOST and 24, it has had its finale. And while I thought both of those final episodes were terrific, this one ends even better.

No more expressway dashes. No more ducking out of meetings because I have an appointment to keep. No more apologetic utterances of "Gotta go. Can't stay..." as I flee work.

Wait a minute. What am I celebrating? I no longer have any excuses why I can't be the last one out of the building.

I believe I have just tanked my positive attitude. But, I still have the certificate.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Thirty-six down, two to go

Time flies, apparently even when you're not having fun. It's been seven months since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Six-and-a-half months since I had the lumpectomy. Two months since I completed chemotherapy. And almost two months since I started radiation.

When I first heard there would be seven weeks, Monday through Friday, of radiation, I thought it sounded like an eternity. Thirty-eight days of fleeing work daily, driving like I was on fire down the expressways to get from the western suburbs to the north shore suburb of Lake Forest. Thirty-eight days of pulling into one of the radiology-designated parking places and slapping the bright yellow parking permit onto the dashboard; 38 days of limping down the hospital hallways, into the descending elevator to the bowels of the hospital; 38 days of a quick change into the smock in the dressing room; 38 days of lying on the table and trying, unsuccessfully, not to stare into the overhead laser beam; 38 days of getting out of the smock in the dressing room and back into street clothes; 38 days of removing the yellow "look out, crazy cancer patient parks here" permit from my dashboard; 38 days of taking a post-radiation nap once I got home.

Well, 36 of those 38 days are now under my belt (above the belt would be more accurate, I suppose) and it seemed to go surprisingly fast. There are just two days to go under the "heat lamp". I will complete all my therapy this Tuesday. Done. Slightly overcooked, but...fini!


Sunday, May 16, 2010

How much beauty sleep is too much?

Before starting radiation, I was told, by those who had experienced it as well as the doctor who administers it, that radiation has only two side effects: fatigue and sunburn.

I suspect there are more that they don't discuss -- like cumulative effects that could deliver an unpleasant surprise in a decade or two, but the reality is you have to deal with the monster at the door and not concentrate on the one who may come knocking somewhere down the road. Besides, by then I'll be staring down at the yellow tennis balls on my walker and wondering where my tennis racket went.

The radiology techs had given me several tubes of Aquapore gel to apply in the morning and the evening to help prevent the burn that can accompany radiation. They also gave me a special deodorant to use -- one that doesn't contain aluminum.

I've completed 5 weeks of radiation now and I'm just starting to get a little raw under the arm. But that will improve shortly and certainly won't worsen, because for the remaining seven days of treatment, I'm receiving a newly focused dose that doesn't irradiate the whole breast, but instead is aimed solely at the scar and lump cavity beneath the skin. That should prevent the raw area from getting more exposure. The Aquapore has done a good job as a scorch preventer.

But there is no gel that eases the fatigue factor. When I get home from my treatment, I read the daily newspaper and work the Suduko puzzle. I get about halfway through it and my eyes close and my head nods, and I limp down the hallway and toss myself onto the bed for a quick nap -- if quick can be defined as about three hours. The nap helps, but by 10 p.m., I am once again toast.

I have so many things to do at home, including the annual planting of flowers. Usually, I'll dig in and keep at it until I'm done, hoping to beat the always impending storm so that the plantings get a good soaking. This year, storms come and go and all I've created a dirt home for is the basil plant. I'll get it done, but not by the usual date, and more than likely, not all at once.

I feel like a maple tree that's been sapped. And I know the fatigue will linger awhile even after the Sandi nuking has ceased, but "normal" or the "new normal" is on the horizon after seven more days, and from here, the view looks lovely.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A special Mother's Day salute

Mother's Day. That one day a year when we tell female strangers to have a nice mother's day and take our mothers and grandmothers out for a meal of appreciation -- a brunch, more often than not. Mom, you're the greatest. Here, have an omelet.

In her later years, when my mother was trying to overcome the challenges of Parkinson's disease, she had a taste for a Waffle House waffle, during one of my visits to St. Louis. I managed to park close to the restaurant door and Mom maneuvered her walker without too much difficulty. Parkinson's isn't always cooperative, but on that day, she was motoring pretty well. We settled into a booth for small talk and hot waffles. It wasn't Mother's Day. It was just a Waffle House Day and she was thrilled.

I said in one of my earliest blogs that while I miss her every day, I'm glad my mother wasn't around to get the "guess what, Mom, I have cancer" phone call. She was a worrier. Always afraid something would happen to me. And not exactly subtle in expressing it to me when I was a kid. "Mom, can I ride my bike to the park with the girls?" "Oh, no, you'll get killed."

I was the only kid I knew who turned down an offer with the response, "Sorry. Can't go. Mom says I'll die."

She never knew that I was a worrier too. And that when my mom and dad were out for the evening, I couldn't get to sleep until they were safely home. I'd sit up in bed and look out the window every time I heard a car, hoping it was theirs. Once they pulled in the driveway, I flopped down on my pillow and pretended to be asleep when they looked in on me.

I was one of the lucky ones who still had my parents well into my adulthood. It was all that worrying that kept them safe. For I was sure that the minute I let my guard down and relaxed too much, that some evil would befall them and I would be left an orphan. Never underestimate the power of worrying.

I met a worrying mother last week while we were sitting together in the radiology waiting room. Her daughter had the same surgeon, the same report -- clean margins and no lymph node involvement -- as me. Her tumor was smaller, so she didn't have to have chemo. And this was her first dose of radiation. I assured her mother she would be fine. And her mother proceeded to tell me that she was at her Florida home, having lunch with her golfing buddies, when her daughter called and told her she had breast cancer. Naturally, she was distraught. Then her luncheon mates told her something she hadn't known: "I'm a 15-year breast cancer survivor;" "I'm a 10-year breast cancer survivor." From their conversation, she tallied that 40% of the group had had breast cancer. Shocking number, but comforting to her as she concentrated on the word "survivor".

And now here I am with four weeks of radiation marked off on my calendar. By May 24, I'll be done with my treatment. You know who'd I like to call and tell her how well it has all gone and that I'm doing just fine? My mom.

To all the mothers out there who have had to tell their children that they have breast cancer, you are my heroes. To all the daughters who have had to make that call to tell their mothers they have breast cancer, you are my heroes. To all the breast cancer survivors, I'm proud to stand among you.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. Still here in my heart.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Take three cats and call me in the morning

We have three cats, which is probably one too many, but when we went to the shelter to bring home a second cat, he had a sister to whom he was very attached and upon whom he depended, and they shared a cage together and...well, you know how it is. Who could sleep at night picturing the lonely sibling left behind? Not us. So, that's how we came to have three cats.

The older cat, Riley, is like a bright-eyed, big-eared, long-legged, funny, furry son. He's very smart, very athletic, very friendly to everyone, and extremely affectionate. Of the twins (whom we couldn't separate), Maggie is braver and friendlier than her brother Dusty. She'll climb in your lap, follow you around, but if you try to pet her, she'll shrink away from your touch. Dusty, poor Dusty, has loose wiring. He's afraid of everything, but loves Jeff. Me, not so much. I can brush him and he'll purr and rub his head against my bare foot as a thank you; then I'll walk out of the room and return moments later and he'll hiss at me. Every family has a weird member. Dusty is ours.

But Riley, that sweet boy, is something special. He'll sit in my lap and bury his face in my arm, nuzzling and adjusting until he's perfectly comfortable, and totally at ease. He'll climb up on the pillow at night and curl up next to me. He leaps in the air after a tossed bottle ring and bats it like he's playing volleyball. He'll lie on the floor and when I put a sparkly ball on his paw and tell him to flip it, he does. Like I said, he's special.

When you're sick, family and friends are wonderfully supportive, but daily life goes on for them and they have responsibilities and errands to run, places to go and things to do. Cats, however, are unemployable. They prefer not to answer to anyone. They don't want responsibilities. They refuse tasks. Eat, sleep and a little playtime are their goals in life. But, explainable or not, they know when you're sick and they also, innately, know that snuggling with you is their greatest gift.

When my hair took a powder after chemo, Riley looked at me with head cocked as if to say, "Hmn. Something odd has happened here." But, he didn't shriek and run away or make wisecracks (at least, not to my face). He accepted this new look and snuggled anyway. I can't accurately describe what comfort a pet owner derives from their cat or dog. It's such a gift. And, no matter how undeserving we may be, the gift keeps coming. Absolute loyalty and pure affection. Rewarding and comforting on any given day. Even more so when illness complicates life.

And so, when Riley became ill, I wanted to return the favor. But, animals are nobler than humans. He just wanted to go off and suffer in silence, not be held and petted. He dropped from 15 pounds to 9 pounds. A bag of bones with huge intelligent eyes. From near infancy, he's been on a 3x/weekly pill for an allergy to his own teeth. He's had his teeth cleaned several times and a few pulled, but had never lost weight like this. He was on a couple of antibiotics, then ultimately diagnosed with pancreatitus. That earned him a $100 bottle of powdered enzymes to be mixed in with his food. But that didn't seem to bring about a change. Poor guy was constantly hungry and scavenging for food. Back to the Vet for the third time in a month. He determined that cleaning and pulling teeth was necessary again to rid Riley of the infection that was being released into his system.

Jeff and I were relieved, in a way, because we were worried that maybe Riley too was battling cancer -- but fearful that having to put Riley under anesthesia in his weakened state might be life threatening.

He had a Monday morning appointment for his dental surgery, which meant no food after 10 p.m. Sunday. Let me tell you, there is little that is more heartbreaking than trying to explain to a starving cat why you've taken his food away. When I left for work Monday morning, he followed me, pleading his case, and then just stared at me as I opened the door to leave. I felt like a neglectful mom.

Jeff promised to call me at work as soon as the Vet called him with a report on how Riley was doing. I kept calling Jeff to see if he'd heard anything yet.

I try not to bother God with personal requests, as he has bigger things to do, and from my diagnosis through today, I haven't asked Him for courage or personal favors, but I confess I did ask him to return Riley to us safe and sound. He created these perfect little creatures, so He understands.

I'm happy to report that our furry little best pal came home in the car with Jeff and me Monday afternoon. He growled for a few minutes to let us know of his displeasure with our betrayal but, forgiving little fellow that he is, soon curled up in my lap and took a nap.

I'm pretty sure, for me, that ranks right up there with modern medicine in speeding up my recovery.