Saturday, August 30, 2008

Survivor's Guilt

As New Orleans, my former hometown, stares down the barrel of Gustav, I can't help but think of my New Orleanian brothers and sisters who are also fighting cancer.

I lived through seven weeks of evacuation during Katrina, heartsick and frail with grief. I can't imagine what it would have been like if I were, at that time, battling cancer. What would it have been like to be displaced not just from my home, but also from my doctors and my treatments? How would my recovery have been effected if I were torn apart by the stress of evacuation and loss?

My heart goes out to everyone on the Gulf Coast. I wish them safe travels and a safe and speedy return to normalcy. And I feel so lucky, again, but so sad.

Friday, August 22, 2008

My Own Private Terrorist Attack

A number of people have asked me if I feel like having breast cancer has given me a “second chance” at life. And certainly the “second chance” theme infiltrates so much of the literature about surviving cancer. It may just be a matter of semantics, but the very phrase “second chance” makes me quail. This may be, at least in part, because I’ve done a lousy job with all the second chances I’ve had in my life.

Anyone who thinks that second chances are precious, are rare, just hasn’t mastered the fine art of ducking out on things. I feel like I’ve had ample opportunity to reinvent myself throughout my life—new schools in childhood, new cities as an adult, college, career, divorce—and every time I’ve ended up tossed around, tumbled dry, and out the same imperfect soul. I’m not saying that Incarnation Number One of me was right from the very start; I’m suggesting that change isn’t my forte.

And “second chance” sounds so nigh-fatal, as though I wrested my fate as it dangled from the Scythe—Phew! That was a close one!

Okay, I don’t like to admit it, but in some senses that’s a little true. It’s just not true in that “right in the nick of time” sense. There was wiggle room, albeit not room for a big ol’ wiggle; my doctors weren’t gasping for breath and wiping their brows after my surgery—no high fives all around for defusing the C-bomb just before the ticker ran out.

Given my track record, this is better than a second chance, really. Having breast cancer carries with it not a clean slate, but one marked with a prescribed message.

Having breast cancer is like my 9/11. In the months following 9/11, everyone suddenly loved the United States. We were flooded in sentiment and affection. It didn’t matter what we were like on September 10; no one cared about that on September 12.

(You don’t have to agree with my politics to understand the analogy, but it helps).

I haven’t been offered a second chance with my diagnosis. It’s more like redemption, of a sort. I am awash in admiration and good will. There is this persona lingering in the periphery, a costume I could slip into if I wish.

Just two days after I shaved my head, a woman stopped me on the street to tell me how brave I am. And even though I’m only halfway through chemo so far, if I had a dime for every moment like that I’d have more than enough to buy a pack of cigarettes (A little dark cancer humor there). I am unwaveringly floored by the kind sentiments of strangers, but I’m no longer shocked speechless when someone says, “You go, girl!” when I walk by. When asked who her hero was on a college questionnaire, a student wrote that I was the bravest person she knew. “You’re gorgeous bald,” said a co-worker with whom I’d never shared a conversation before, “And you have to know that you’re sending such a powerful message to the girls you teach.” In the first four days back at work, I was given every compliment in the book by every manner of coworker—those who like me, those who didn’t, and those that never gave me a passing thought before. There are people praying for me that I’ve never met and probably never will. Even the grumpy guy who hadn’t spoken to me since last September shot me a smile in the hallway.

The post-cancer me is like the United States on September 12, 2001.

But this is not a second chance, not a blank slate. It’s a tremendous opportunity. Suddenly everyone thinks the world of me; where before was indifference is now admiration, where was dislike is now forgiveness. In everyone’s eyes I am a far better person than I was before cancer, and I didn’t have to do anything to earn it except keep showing up

But what did we do in the months following 9/11? And what did we do with all that love and goodwill? We squandered it. We blew it. We took advantage of the fact that the world felt sorry for us and used it as license to do unspeakable things. We blew it, post-9/11, or rather our government blew it for us. Imagine what the world would be like right now, if we’d spent the past seven years using our good stead with the world community to combat disease and poverty and environmental degradation. Imagine if we’d combined all the trillions of dollars we’ve poured into this ill-conceived war with all the support that was initially offered to us by the world community after the terrorist attacks. Our government turned away from perhaps the greatest diplomatic opportunity ever offered to this country.

I don’t want to be that same ninny. I don’t want to look back on this period in my life five years from now and think, “if I only had that same break again.” Please, God, I don’t want this same break again.

Can I be wiser than my government? Yes, I think I can.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Chemo Session Three Update

I've stopped trying to figure out the rhyme and reason of chemo. So much seems so arbitrary to me.

Here I am on Day 7 of this cycle, and I've spent the past two days living my life at about 80% of my pre-chemo capacity. I've been up early, working a full day, coming home, and getting things done. Yesterday, I pretty much resumed my usual diet. I even had a glass of wine. This time around I had minor problems with diahrrea, but no problems with constipation even though I only took very minor preventative measures. My mouth is sore and that just started yesterday, so that may get worse. It's been fantastic, to be honest. If I could bottle this and sell it to other chemo patients, I'd be a zillionaire. I'm not discounting the fact that on days 1-4, I felt pretty crappy, but this kind of rebound is pretty remarkable, in my opinion.

(That being said, I have met people who said that they felt virtually no negative effects from chemo at all. I suspect that those people, like this most recent incarnation of Big Foot, are actually 96% possum.)

I do have a new symptom: minor numbness or tingling in my hands and feet. Right now it's not a big issue. When I sit or lie still for a while, I get a little coldness or pins and needles action. My RPN says that this symptom may be cumulative and (shudder) may lead to problems with my fingernails and toenails. So far, it's just annoying. Especially in the middle of "beginning of the school year" meetings.

A second symptom that I've yet to address has been acne. I've always had problems with my complexion. I used to joke (not funny) that it sucked to be divorced, childless, with grey hairs AND acne. But this is not the garden variety acne. And it's particularly upsetting because I'm, well, BALD. My face is HUGE. It goes away around halfway through the cycle, but it's a wicked indignity during the first week and change.

The day of chemo three, I had my first pre-chemo expansion (expansion #2 overall) of 60ccs per breast. Because of the horrible pain I'd been having, I hadn't been expanded for-- I'm guessing here-- around six or so weeks. At the end of the chemo 2 cycle, I started to actually feel ok, painwise, for the first time since my surgery. Again, no rhyme or reason-- but I wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Despite my fears, the expansion went well, and I now have wee tiny little boobettes. I'd say that, misshapen though they are, the boobettes are as big as my mom's teeny, weeny A-cups. It doesn't do much for me, figurewise; I guess I do look a little less concave from my shoulders to my belly, and that helps.

One of the biggest complaints I had this round, though, was pain (again) during days 1-4. I have found this to be true every cycle-- that there's something in the chemo or in the 'roids that they make you take that causes the surgical site to hurt like a sonovabitch all over again. This time the pain was particularly pronounced; I imagine that was because of the expansion.

Also on the plastic surgery front, because I'm a teacher and would like to do as little harm as possible to my schedule (more on my teaching trials later), the PA at the plastic surgeon's office went ahead and scheduled my "swap out" surgery for December 17. December is a busy time for them and Dr. T is taking an extended vacation... and, I think the PA wanted to give me a light at the end of the tunnel. This is all tentative, of course, but it IS a light at the end of the tunnel.

I have yet to decide how far I want to go with the girls' expansion. For any number of reasons, I want to keep them small. But moreso than hair, when I see a woman with nice breasts, I get a little jealous. I definitely miss my girls way more than I miss my hair.

That's pretty much all the news on the physical side of things. Either later today or soon I'll update with more personal/work/emotional related stuff. I've not been as diligent with this blog as I would like to be. Ideally, I would have liked to have blogged every day even if it was just to say "Feel like shit." On the positive side, I've been keeping myself busy-- hence not making time to blog. On the negative side, I've been hiding out a bit from this process. If I don't write about it, I'm not thinking about it. Well, of course I'm thinking about it, but writing about it is PROOF that I'm thinking about it. Sigh.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Chemo Session Two Update

Well, I'm on Day 13 of the 21-day chemo cycle and have been on the road for more than a week now. The first five days of this cycle were fairly challenging, although it was an improvement over the first cycle because this time I didn't have to deal with constipation. The opposite still proved to be a challenge, unfortunately. But my last day of being really lousy was a little over a week a go.

This time around mouth soreness was more of an issue than it had been the first cycle. Some effects of chemo are supposed to be cumulative and I sure hope that's not one of them. If it is, I won't be able to eat by October.

That being said, I've been "less good" to myself in some ways during this cycle. It may be a ridiculous thing to say, but taking care of yourself takes a lot of thought and effort. My lifestyle choices pre-cancer were haphazard at best-- lazy choices, really. I gave little thought to what I put into and what I did with my body on a daily basis. During my first cycle, I had more supervision and more help-- foodwise especially. Left to my own devices, I lean toward making the lazy choices again.

In other ways, I've been "more good" to myself, especially when it comes to resuming a more active and engaged life sooner after chemo. I was on a plane on my way to my last-ditch summer vacation/family visit on Day 6 (I didn't get there til Day 7 due to flight delays caused by Our Fair President landing his crazy ass in Cleveland right when I was supposed to switch planes. And I spent Night 6 in a hotel paying a little for perhaps being too "up and at-'em" a little too soon). By Day 8, I was walking extensively. And by Day 9, I was eating relatively regularly. On Day 10, I even had a glass of white wine.

Today I am almost myself. A little more worn down, but feeling pretty good.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Pop Culture: Christina Applegate diagnosed with Breast Cancer

Christina Applegate, 36, diagnosed with what's being called an early stage breast cancer. Developing story...


Update 8/6/08: Thank you Christina Applegate for bringing young breast cancer into the mainstream media's view. Here's a quote from :
Only 4% of women diagnosed with breast cancer every year in the United
States are under 40, but that still represents 8,000 women, she says. “If a
woman finds a lump, she still needs to go to a doctor and not be told, ‘You’re
too young to have breast cancer.’”