Monday, January 31, 2011

Midterm Report

My father asked me how things are going this cycle – each dose of chemo, and its aftermath, is known as a "cycle" – and I struggled to explain: better in some ways, worse in others. On one hand, I'm squaring up to the blows better. I think my body understands the assault in a way it didn't the first time around, and I'm bouncing back a bit easier. On the other hand, when I was down this time, I was really really down.

In the parking lot at the gym yesterday I broke down crying because the run I was planning suddenly seemed like a grind. In my low moments, chemo feels like it is sucking the life out of me. It seems so counter-intuitive to subject my body to this, and I'll admit it, I sometimes wonder if I'm making a mistake, if the wheat grass / meditation / high colonic enthusiasts have it right, that there truly is a better way. The idea that my life is on the line seems too slippery to grasp. Of course my doctors aren't lying to me, but sometimes my mind leads me toward this absurd conclusion. It's all very surreal.

I confessed all this to J~, who held my hand, and validated my feelings, marveling at how recently my biggest physical concerns were about how my back felt after a 60-mile bike ride, and how fast would I be able to run that half-marathon. Yes it is very surreal.

It's amazing the weight one sheds with just a few tears. I felt better, put some good music on my iPod, promised myself I could go slow and easy, and had a surprisingly enjoyable run in the great outdoors. My intended four miles became six, and I met J~ in the pool afterward grinning.

Okay, so I could only pull off six laps, but who's counting? The shower felt great.

I will get through this.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Tired, Bald, and Snowed In

I'm beginning to see the pattern: I slog through the first few days after chemo, thanks to steroids and other medications, and then comes the crash, a little longer and more intense this time than last. The worst is the acidity in my gut and the brine taste in my mouth, not to mention the drag-ass exhaustion. It's hard to imagine doing this again and again. But luckily, that's all: only two more "again"s and I move on to a different kind of chemo, weekly Taxol, which many women tolerate better than this biweekly cocktail of Adriamycin and Cytoxan.

I may make it to the gym in the morning, but by afternoon, I can't quite stay vertical.
I've read that the toughest time for many cancer patients comes after treatment ends. In the meantime, there are appointments to be made, tests results to process, surgery and drugs to consider, side effects to manage; little time to process the devastation of diagnosis, the grueling experience of treatment, the derailing of whatever challenges and pleasures previously occupied life's center stage.

Hard working dog.
Snow-shoeing expedition aborted - I wanted to lay down in the snow and sleep.
I can feel the impending truth of this in my own experience. I see it in how I'm reacting to losing my hair. I didn't think this would be a big deal for me. After all, I'm out in the world now with one breast and that's a permanent disfigurement. The temporary, cosmetic issue of hair loss seems trivial in comparison. But here's the thing: it makes me undeniably a chemo patient. Baldness feels akin to having "CANCER" tattooed across my forehead. I suppose if I really wanted to, I could try to hide it from the world, but in the mirror I can no longer pretend.

In the last few days, I've found hair on my clothes, hair on my pillow, hair on the keyboard. Last night, after pulling yet another hair from my food, I decided to call it quits. "Get out the clippers," I told J~, "it's time."

Between the two of us, we buzzed my remaining hair away, and then he lathered me up and shaved me with a razor for ultimate cue-ball smoothness. After a shower, I had the novel experience of applying lotion to my head. J~ kissed me and B~ hugged me and I felt energy enough to change the sheets and throw all my hairy clothes and linens in the laundry basket. And then I slept. Well.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


In honor of my impending baldness, and in the spirit of many more crops of hair to come, I thought I'd share a few of my triumphant accomplishments in the realm of hair growth thus far. We'll start a the beginning...

One Day at a Time

My stomach feels molten and everything, including my empty mouth, tastes constantly wrong. Chemotherapy patients talk about having a metallic taste but for me the taste is salt. Have you ever bitten into a juicy pear and had it taste like it's been marinated in celery salt and ocean brine? I'm finding it difficult to eat.

Though I'm sure I couldn't properly taste it, this gorgeous soup made by good friend N~ went down easy and soothed the lava pit below.

N~ wrote about our visit Monday afternoon on her blog, the Flying Yogini. She has pitched herself heart and soul into yoga and she's making a daily practice of writing about it, viewing life through that lens. Her enthusiasm is infectious, her generosity is gargantuan, plus, Millie and I each got a mention. So what's not to like?

As you can see, Millie adores her as much as I do.

I was blessed by soup made by another loved one a few days ago - black bean from my sister-in-law, K~. She intended it for the whole family, but I took one bite and claimed it for myself alone. It's the first thing I tried after Friday's chemo that I didn't have to force down. I used some of it yesterday morning as a gravy over steamed asparagus.

At the gym on Tuesday, I couldn't get past a walk on the treadmill. When I tried to run it felt like I was on someone else's legs, surreal and unstable, so I gave up.

In the shower, a lot more hair fell out. It was depressing.

And then I held the camera over my own head. Even more depressing.

On the bright side, I discovered that honeydew melon tastes fine. And so do french fries.

There is more to share, including the bald-spot photos. Coming soon...

PS. You may have noticed I'm remodeling the blog. So far the changes are purely cosmetic. Hope it's not too confusing.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

As Promised

This one was in the archives, a post I did not intend to share as if it were new-today writing, but it happened by accident so - so be it. I don't know exactly when it was written, but suffice it to say winter 2006. 

In my role as abortion counselor, I sit across from women on a regular basis who shake their heads and say, regarding the prospect of continued pregnancy, "I just can't do it." Recently, I heard this from a twenty-two-year-old* with dark circles under sunken eyes, wiry red hair, and the most abysmal partial set of teeth I've seen in a long time. She has three children as it is, the youngest closing in on two years old. When she recalled dropping out of high school, I saw a flash of pain, but the overriding sentiment was not sadness. It was determination, a will to live, to stake a place in the world beyond conduit and support for other lives. It just welled up in her, straightening her spine, firming her ravaged face. She was sure of her choice. And she was beautiful.

I never knew opting not to have a child could be such a life-affirming experience.

Then I went home and looked in the mirror.

Compared to this woman, it is clear that I've been lucky in life. I'm healthy. I have the privilege of a good education, the luxury of relative financial security. I have no children, and now that my husband's bailed out of our marriage, I don't know if I ever will. But in spite of recent events, including a miserable and desperate year of trying to be and stay pregnant, I have more hope than ever that there is potential for baby making in my life. (Yes, J~ and I have talked about it. But please, people, before you get out the red flags: we've been together two weeks. We know what that means. We're not making any plans.) (Heck, we haven't even "gone all the way" yet!)

It seems strange to draw any parallel at all between myself and that beautiful client, but here it is: These days, Babies or Not has become a choice again. It isn't about setting our jaws in conviction, willing ourselves to be happy and alive, with or without babies (or in her case, in spite of six of them). It's about making the choice that affirms our own aliveness. And for both of us, in this moment anyway, the choice is clear. We're choosing ourselves.

*Details have been changed to protect the privacy of my clients.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Sunday Into Monday

Two days post-chemo: tired, but got through the day okay mostly on the couch with my camera, laptop, and beading supplies nearby. My big exertions were Millie's walk Sunday afternoon and a swim this morning. Not much sleep last night, a little unsteady in the gut this morning, but doing okay.

Some highlights...

1. Sunday breakfast: while J~ and B~ ate pancakes with bananas, yogurt, and maple syrup, my stomach demanded this: steamed kale and shitake mushrooms with chickpeas, avocado, diced bell pepper, olive oil, garlic, and ground flax. I can't say it hit the spot, but at least it went down easy.

2. During the day Sunday, Millie gets a grooming, love, and a high-five from the men of the house.

3. The walk: cold and windy, but the light was crisp and the sky was blue, and Millie got a surprise reunion with her old pal, Maggie.

3. Last but far from least, a conversation this morning with my stepson:

I came down the stairs from bed, groggy as he was preparing to go out for the school bus. "Good morning!" he chirped, to which I struggled to respond in kind.

"Let's have a hug," I said finally. "We haven't been doing enough of that lately." Mid-hug, I held tighter. "A good one," I added.

After, I told him, "I read that humans need at least four really good hugs a day."

His response?

"Well, I'd be happy to give you three more."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Impending Baldness

On the couch, day after chemo #2, receiving my daily infusion of vitamin L(ove) from Millie.
With the exception of a trip to the gym midday and several trips to the bathroom, I spent the entire day Saturday on the couch. The pool felt great, as it did the Saturday after my last chemo infusion. This time there was no rush so I swam a full 3200 yards (thank you steroids), but after, I was quite tired and eager for the couch again.

I stood in the shower for a long time, partly because every time I ran my hands through my hair, they came away coated in hair, individual strands and little clumps. Better out now, I figured, than in my hat or on my pillow later, so I ran my hands through over and over again. Eventually I gave up, as no slow-down seemed forthcoming. I did the same with pubic hair, and sure enough, plenty of that was shedding too.

It's not until you join the cancer club, I think, that you find out that this is part of it; that not only do you lose the hair on your head but also all over your body. I've read many cancer folks talking about how little they appreciate their nose hairs until they lose them. Apparently you get a constantly runny nose without them. I've also read that on the drugs I'm taking, I will lose eyelashes and eyebrows, but not until the very end of treatment.

In the mirror on the way out of the locker room, I checked my head for signs of impending baldness - it's not too obvious yet. Is this what it feels like to be a man with thinning, receding hair, do you look in the mirror and try to imagine what you will look like bald? Whether or not you can reconcile yourself to the imminent new you? I suppose we all do this with aspects of aging...

It is coming to my attention that this blog needs some updating. My links are all out of date and geared toward fertility stuff. I won't get rid of these, but I need to add a section about cancer. I have books and resources to recommend to people fighting cancer and to those that want to support them, and I will get on it as soon as I feel like it, which will hopefully be very soon.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Chemo #2

No school for B~ today but I still had to go to chemo. No fair!

From my point of view...

First things first.

Saline next, then Adriamycin, aka the Red Devil.
Next: Cytoxan, after that the mystery drug: Avastin or placebo? Probably Avastin (80% chance).

The fabulous nurse B~ keeping an eye on things.

Rather than drive two hours for tomorrow's Neulasta shot, B~ teaches J~ how to do the honors. Brother A~, with a pillow strapped to his arm, makes a mighty fine practice dummy.
Hair loss has begun.

I feel basically fine until an hour or so after leaving the hospital. That's when the nausea begins to kick in. This time, I sip strong ginger tea we brought along in a pint jar, which knocks back the nausea instantly but eventually leads to painful heartburn. My next door neighbor gives me Pepcid, and J~ runs down to the market for Pepto Bismol, which help a little.
ps. I spent the night on the couch. The idea of lying flat in bed seemed too hard on my stomach. But I managed to get through the night without additional meds (last time I took Compazine and Ativan). Though queasy and still a little heartburny, I feel significantly less drugged this morning. It's a trade-off I can live with.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chemo Again in the Morning

This will be a quickie. All I want to say is: I feel fine right now. Almost entirely back to normal. Energetic even.

I swam tonight with my Masters group for the first time since before my surgery and I was right back in the saddle. After an hour and a half and 3500 yards, I was disappointed to have to get out of the pool.

It feels strange that tomorrow I have chemo and this will all change. For the next week and a half it'll be like I'm crawling out of a ditch, hungover and exhausted and wondering if it's really worth all the misery. Maybe a long life is overrated.

As my health and spirits have improved, the impending reality of chemo #2 has been like an increasingly blinding light on the horizon. I have been shielding my eyes by watching YouTube videos and obsessively checking my blog traffic statistics. I suppose I don't want to let myself think about it, so I try not to let myself think at all. In the places where messes are exclusively mine — my desk, my car, my bedside table — my distraction is evident.

But tonight I feel ready. Thrilled, in fact, that I can bounce back so thoroughly in such a short time.

I can do this. I will do this. I will get through this. One treatment at a time.

Last night I recruited J~ to help me plan for the next round. Sometimes it takes two brains to think a single thought.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

It Has Begun

Pictures are from this morning's dog-walk
When the shock that I have breast cancer was still fresh, I had conversations on the phone with women who had been in my shoes before me, some with diagnoses much worse than my own. "This is the worst part," many of them told me, referring to the beginning of the process, when you aren't yet sure how bad the cancer is or what treatment plan will be prescribed, or even who will be doing the prescribing. Every one of these women I spoke to (and a few men) seemed so grounded and pragmatic, free of the vulnerable panic I was feeling.

"You will get your life back," one of them told me, which brought me up short. I so want to believe that.

It struck me that whether or not life ever feels "normal" again, there will likely come a point when I am on the receiving end of similar phone calls. I imagined it would happen next year, or at least months from now, after treatment is behind me and my hair and strength are back. The first calls would come from a friend of a friend, asking would you mind if I gave so and so your number, and I would say of course not, glad to be of help.

I did not imagine that the first call would come so soon —last night— and that it would come directly from someone close to me, or that I would hear a quaver in a voice I had not heard quaver before telling me about her own diagnosis that very day.

On one hand, yes, of course I was pleased that I could be a comfort to and information source for my friend. I was glad to notice that I am not in that raw and vulnerable place anymore myself. On the other hand I felt angry. Angry on my friend's behalf in a way I was unable to feel on my own. She should have nothing less than a long healthy life full of love and personal triumphs and special moments with her family. She does not deserve cancer.

We all know this disease has its roots in environmental toxins. We know this in our guts and in our brains whether we have the science to back it up or not. We know it's getting worse, has been getting worse down through the generations. Our grandmothers had a one in twenty chance of getting it. Nowadays, it's one in eight. I don't think the trend is over.

There's a lot of talk about finding the cure, a lot of well-meant energy spent raising money toward that end, not to mention a great deal of wealth on the line for whatever pharmaceutical company gets hold of that holy grail. And there is progress, I won't deny that.

Of course a cure would be nice. 

Frankly, I'd rather get to the root of the cause, and put what little energy I have into eliminating this stupid disease entirely.

In the meantime, I will strive to comfort and support my friend and all the others sure to come on her heels, and also to get through my own treatment and back to some new semblance of normal.

That's Millie and her best friend, Addie.