A triumphant return

If you missed the local news last night, you didn’t hear that Staci and I rocked the annual Witches’ Open, our club’s annual Halloween tennis tournament, yesterday.

I didn’t really think about the significance of it all because I was wrapped up in just getting there on time, but thanks to my bossy-pants partner and several others who’ve remarked upon this particular topic, I’ve now officially clued in.

It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have time to think about the significance of all of this, because I might not have enjoyed it as much. I would have over-thought it and put a bunch of undue pressure on  myself and forgotten to savor the fact that I was there, upright & healthy and swinging my racquet. It seems like a long time ago that I went through everything I’ve been through, with the cancer and the surgery and the infection and blah blah blah. It seems like a long time ago but it really wasn’t.

It’s a good thing I was thinking more about the logistics: getting both kids off to school, having my costume ready, packing my tennis bag. If I had stopped at any point yesterday to think about the fact that just 2 months ago I was in the hospital, my mind might have been on something other than slamming that perfect volley at the net player’s feet. If I had remembered that 2 months ago, I was sporting a 5.5-cm-wide wound in my chest wall, I might have double-faulted every time I came up to serve. If I had pondered the fact that I had a raging infection, my passing shots may have lacked authority. If I had spent a moment recalling the 22 days I spent in the hospital this summer, that cross-court winner placed just inside the alley would have fizzled. If I wasn’t so captivated by the fun and spectacle of the event, I might have focused on the fact that everything that could have gone wrong after my surgery pretty much did, and that would have sent that lob sailing right over my opponents’ heads but just outside of  the baseline.

So it’s a good thing I didn’t think about it, any of it, until after the fact.

Now that I have thought about it, (and thanks, partner, for reminding me of the very short timeline), I’m pretty well overcome with emotions, from thankfulness for my current good health to gratitude to my tennis friends for their incredibly warm welcome back and patience with me as I reacquainted myself with the game. It sounds so cheesy when people say to appreciate each day, each moment. But it’s really true, especially after you have some crazy medical drama in your life. Life is short, and it is precious. And we never know from one day to the next what’s ahead. So make the most of it. 


Oh no, not again!

So I have this little spot on the area formerly known as my right breast, which is now known as the right chest wall and was, over the summer, the site of a whole lot of activity. Things have been really calm lately, so I guess it was time for something to happen. This little spot popped up a week or so ago, about the time I started playing tennis again. Because I so enjoyed being back out on the court, and because I really needed to believe that I was finally out of the woods, I tried to ignore it. It wasn’t very big, it wasn’t all that red, and it only stuck out a little.

Well, if I’ve learned one thing from this whole mess, it’s that ignoring a spot in the hot zone doesn’t work. Never. No matter how hard you try. So once this little spot got a little bigger, a little redder, and stuck out a little more, I knew it was time to make the call.

I’ve gotten to know Dr S’s office manager, Marcie, and his nurse, Brenda, really well. Maybe too well. So when Marcie answered and I told her what was going on and I asked her if she wanted to ask him if he needed to see me, she said she wasn’t going to ask because we both know the answer. And yes, she does just lay it out there like that. Personally, I find it refreshing.

My  next check-up with the good doctor isn’t for another 3 weeks, and Marcie said there’s no way he’s going to wait that long to see you, so get yourself on in here. I tend to do what Marcie says. Dr S, not so much, but Marcie for sure.

When Brenda saw the little spot, she made that face. That “I skipped the poker face” lesson in nursing school. That face that makes me want to run screaming out of that building and never come back. So not only did she make the face, but she said he’s probably going to want to biopsy that. Commence running and screaming.

He wasn’t in that exam room five seconds before he hollered at Brenda to get him a syringe and a needle. I said, Wait — a syringe and a needle? Why both? What are you going to do? He looked me right in the eye and said, I don’t know, but I need a needle! A this point, it was too late to run screaming from the building, but I wanted to.

He poked the spot with the needle– more than once — and then used the syringe to try and collect something but nothing came out. The spot appears to be nice and harmless. Perfectly innocent. It’s probably scar tissue, so we’re just going to watch it. Keep an eye on it. See what happens.

Works for me. I’m thinking I’ll be out of there in time to get the cheap rate on the parking. Just wanted to ask him one question though, real quick as he’s out the door.

All I wanted to know was the name of the doctor in Miami who pioneered the technique that he’s thinking of using for my reconstruction. I’ve done a little research, but not much, and wanted to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

I have a lot of questions about this procedure, and it’s a big decision to make now that it’s not as simple as tissue expanders to implants. But I wasn’t going to ask the questions right then, because that’s a conversation for another time. I just wanted to know if I was on the right track in my fact-finding.

If you missed my post on Caring Bridge a while back about the “examine the fat” game I played with Dr S not once but twice, for two times the humiliation, you’re in luck because I’ll be dadgummed if he didn’t want to play it again. And as we all know, whatever Dr S wants, Dr S gets.

(If you want to read the original post, go to http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/nancyhicks/journal/2. I haven’t figured out how to add a link to this blog so if that doesn’t work, go to the old Caring Bridge blog and look at the journal entry for October 6th).

Why that man insists of tormenting me, I will never know. But I think he really enjoys it. Just as I’m wrapping my head around yet another change in the game plan, from TRAM-flap reconstruction to this new Brava technique of building new boobs out of fat that’s been relocated, he throws me another curve ball. Now he’s thinking that maybe the Brava technique isn’t the right option for me after all. Maybe we need to re-visit the TRAM-flap, which means he needs to pinch an inch and see how much building material I have.

I said uh-uh, no way, not again. We have done this twice and I’m still recovering from the humiliation. I’m not doing it again. He didn’t go so far as to say he doesn’t remember, but that’s my suspicion. I guess I should be flattered that my fat is so unremarkable as to render him striken with amnesia not once but twice, but I’m too wrapped up in being humiliated, again.

That man doesn’t take “no” for an answer. I said it repeatedly, and y’all know I’m no weenie when it comes to making myself heard. I told him politely then with some choice words that I wasn’t going to show him again. His response: Come on, it’s not like I’m a stranger.

THAT’S THE PROBLEM! Once you lose the “stranger” status with your doctor,  you move from clinical to personal, in a hurry. I know this man too well and have quite frankly been through enough already and really shouldn’t have to suffer yet another indignity.

However, knowing him as well as I do and having been through as much as I have with him, I know the fastest way to get through the unpleasantness is to just, well, get through the unpleasantness. And that’s how I found myself once again playing the “examine the fat” with Dr S.

And guess what? The result was exactly the same: He scrutinized my belly and said there’s probably enough to make a B-cup. But only on one side. I said, I know you think I’m really demanding, but I insist on having a matched set. We had previously discussed the idea of doing the TRAM-flap for one side, and using an implant on the other side, but I said then and said again that I don’t want to do that. Just seems like asking to be lopsided at some point down the road. He actually agreed with me, which scared me just a little.

So he seems to be leaning toward the TRAM-flap again, and away from the Brava technique. He gave me the website to research, I said, ok fine, we’ll talk about it later. And I thought I was out of there.

As I was checking out with Marcie, though, he called me into his office. It’s not quite like it was being called to the principal’s office as a kid, but a little disconcerting still. He’d pulled up the website and wanted to go over it right then & there. I didn’t even want to think about how many patients were waiting for him.

So we looked at a bunch of photos and I was quite underwhelmed with the results. Maybe it’s because I was perfectly satisfied with the set-up I had, pre-mastectomy. I’ve explained that to Dr S before: that while he does amazing work, and the majority of reconstruction patients whose photos I’ve seen look way better after than they did before, I was just fine where I was. So the “new boobs” as a prize for going through breast cancer, mastectomy and reconstruction isn’t a big draw for me. Excuse me for being underwhelmed.

As if I’m not confused enough at this point, he introduces yet another option: taking the muscle from my back, under the shoulder blades, and using that to build the new pair of goods. We looked at some photos of that, too, but I had one question: how would that affect my serve? Seems to me that slicing the muscle away from an area that is used to torque the body and generate force while serving the ball means bad things for one’s game.  I’m not going through life with a permanently wimpy serve. I’ve suffered enough.


10 tips

So I’m getting groceries, minding my own business and trying to get on with my so-called normal life (as normal as life can be after breast cancer but before reconstruction), and I see a pamphlet titled “10 Tips for Getting a Mammogram.” This ought to be good.

Tip #1: “Yearly mammograms are recommended starting at age 40 and should be done every year for as long as a woman in in good health.” And if you’re not in good health? More often? Less often? That kind of construction bugs me.

Tip #5: “Try not to schedule a mammogram when your breasts are likely to be tender, as they may be just before or during your period. This will help lessen the discomfort.” Really? They think that’s going to help? I say try to schedule a mammogram after slamming 3 grande margaritas to help lessen the discomfort. But then I remember that I have neither breasts nor periods anymore, so I guess I can go straight to the margaritas.

Tip #8: “Only you and the technologist who positions your breasts will be present for the mammogram. Most technologists are women.” Most technologists are women? Now I’m really curious about the ones who are men. What percentage? Do women complain about having a male do their mammo? Is there a support group for male mammo techs? Are they cute?

Tip #9: “The entire procedure should take about 20 minutes. Your breasts will be compressed between 2 plastic plates. The compression may be painful, but should only last a few seconds.” I could make a smarty-pants comment about how long the pain of a mastectomy lasts but I’m not even going to go there. I will tell you it’s more than a few seconds.


6 years later…

Today is National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Congress said so, and in making such a proclamation, let’s hope we get some action. Action beyond pink ribbons and promotional tie-ins like toilet paper and cups of yogurt. The estimate is that some 160,000 women are dealing with metastatic breast cancer, but I suspect the number is much higher. Metastatic means the cancer has spread. Stage IV. There is no Stage V. Every BC patient’s worst nightmare. Because being diagnosed at all, regardless of stage, isn’t nightmare enough.

I’ll save the mets post for another day, because there’s another commemoration taking place today, and I won’t be able to rest until I get this post out of my head.

Or so I thought.

I sat down at my computer to mark this important day, but I got nothing. I am stuck. The enormity of the topic overwhelms me. I want to write just the right thing, but in my quest for perfection I’m struck down, unable to convey the importance that screams to get out.

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, particularly on this little blog. I rarely have trouble thinking of what to write, and most days the topic guides me. Sometimes a topic pops into my head and I have an overwhelming urge to write. My fingers on the keyboard can hardly keep up with my thoughts as they tumble out of my head.

But today, I’ve got nothing.

And rather than make myself crazy on this day, this important yet heartbreaking day, I’m going to re-run the post from last year. I added a few more pictures, because this time last year I was brand-new to blogging and hadn’t quite figured out how to manage the images in my posts. But more importantly, I added a few more pictures because I need to remember what she looked like.

My heart is heavy as grief once again rears its ugly head and reminds me that she is gone, forever. 
It’s been exactly 5 years since my mom died. Lots of people have written about loss & grief, and most of them have done it more eloquently than I. If you knew her, you loved her. Plain & simple. She was one of those people. She never met a stranger and could talk to anyone. The stories are endless, and if I think really hard I can conjure up the sound of her laugh. I have to work hard to remember her voice, though, because her “sick” voice is the freshest one. I also have to think back to how she looked, pre-cancer, before the dreaded disease ravaged her body yet was unable to extinguish her effervescent personality.

My mom was an incredible cook. She grew up on a farm and lost her own mom at age 13, so she assumed more responsibility than a middle-schooler should. She taught me a lot in the kitchen, although I’ll never match her skill with pie crust. I try every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and end up exhausted, frustrated and having used a month’s worth of curse words. One year at Christmas she gave coupons for a homemade pie, and those were highly prized gifts for sure.

She was a “white” woman who married into a Greek family. “White” means anyone who’s not Greek. Sometimes the Greeks aren’t happy about “whites” joining a family, because they want their kids to marry other Greeks. My mom didn’t let that stop her. She ingratiated herself into the lives of the Greek women and learned their culinary secrets. It wasn’t long before she was the best cook in the bunch. Not bad for a “white” girl.

My sweet mama was the quintessential suburban at-home mom: PTA president, Girl Scout leader, queen of homemade Halloween costumes. She put a homemade meal on the table every night for dinner, and I was halfway through elementary school before I realized that the homemade cinnamon roll that was my lunchbox treat was a rarity.

She had a love of learning that I see echoed in my own kids. I’m sure she flourished at college, probably thrilled to be responsible only for herself for the first time in years. She was president of her sorority and got this fancy necklace to wear during her reign. The look of pure happiness on her face makes me smile all these years later. In her typical over-achieving way, she graduated college in 3 years, then became an English teacher before she became a mom. My whole childhood, she had us look up words in the dictionary to learn how to spell. I won the spelling bee in 4th grade, and to this day am proud of being a good speller. She instilled a love of words and reading that I’ll carry with me my entire life.

When Trevor graduated from business school in 2004, she was as proud of him as if he were her own child. In fact, once he married into her family, she considered him a son. Not a son-in-law, but a son. She was sick at the time this photo was taken, but hid it well. She didn’t want anything to interfere with his big day.

She had a lot of success in life, but her greatest achievement was being YaYa. She loved her grandbabies to the max, and when she knew she was losing her battle against cancer, she spoke of her sadness in not being able to watch them grow up. She’s missed out on a lot. But loss is a 2-way street, and the 4 kids who were lucky enough to have her as their YaYa, albeit way too briefly, have missed out as well. As each year passes, and her grandbabies grow up, they change and take on new interests and habits. She would have loved every minute of it. Something tells me she would have been quite adept at navigating whatever stage those little darlins are in.

Here they are on the day of her funeral.

Andrew was 8, Payton and his cousin Megan were 6, Macy was 3 when YaYa died. She was 67. Way too young, all the way around.

Life isn’t the same without her. While the pain of loss has lessened over the years, it’s still there, and I suspect it never goes away. No one in your life loves you the way a mother does. And no matter how old I become, I will always miss my mother’s love. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “mothers carry the key of our souls in their bosoms.” That certainly was the case with my mom.

Milestones are hard when you’ve lost someone so dear. Every year, the week or so leading up to the anniversary of her death has been miserable. I find myself transported back to the time of  illness and all of the unpleasantness that entailed. Taking care of her was both the hardest thing ever and the greatest honor. I went into it knowing it would be hard, but having no idea how brutal. Balancing that with taking care of my young family was grueling, no doubt. But I wanted to come out of it with no regrets, and I’m happy to say that I did.

This year, however, was different. I wasn’t dreading the date. Maybe because I’ve got a lot on my mind and a lot on my plate. Maybe because as I get ever closer to regaining my “normal” life after my own cancer battle, I have a new perspective. Maybe I’m just getting absent-minded in my old age.

For a while after she died, I looked for her in crowds: at the grocery store, at a baseball game, at any random gathering. I knew, of course, that she wasn’t there. At least my rational brain knew that, but I looked anyway. I don’t know when it was that I stopped looking, but at some point, I started to see her. Not really her, but glimpses of people or expressions on faces that recalled her: the woman at the gym who looks a lot like her from the back. The resemblance in my niece to my mom’s photos as a child. My aunt’s hands, which look just like my mom’s.

This year, today, on the anniversary of her death, I wasn’t looking for her, but she was there. Today in my much-anticipated first tennis match since my mastectomy, my opponents’ names were Barbara and Ann. Guess what my mom’s name was? Yep, you got it — Barbara Ann.


A word about menopause

If you’re a guy, you might not want to read this because it’s, well, about menopause. If you’re a gal who’s not yet experienced the joys of menopause, you might not want to read this because it will scare you. A lot. If you’re brave enough to venture forth, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Because my cancer was fed by estrogen, after we got rid of the cancer we also had to remove its fuel source, to discourage it from coming back. Hence the stoppage of estrogen. The most direct way to stop the estrogen is to remove one’s ovaries in a lovely procedure called oovectomy (which would also be a seriously high-scoring Scrabble word). If you’re still fighting a wily infection, like me, being cut open in a hospital of all places is a pretty risky move. Especially since the hospital seems the most likely culprit in the age-old question of “How the Hell Do You Even Get an Infection Like That?” While it’s unlikely that my infection would travel from the chest wall to the nether-regions,  that’s a chance I don’t want to take, and frankly the idea of another hospital stay gives me the vapors.

Since I’m not ready for the oovectomy, I get the next-best option of hormone suppression, which is a shot of Lupron every 3 months, and a daily dose of Tamoxifen, which is a SERM (selective estrogen receptor modulator) drug. The latter half of that acronym makes me think of  something coming out of the Johnson Space Center instead of a prescription bottle from Walgreens, and talk about some great Scrabble words. Build one of those on a triple word spot and you’re damn close to world domination.

So I’m going along in my cancer journey, minding my own business, doing all the things I’m supposed to do, no matter how unpleasant, and yes it’s really good news that the cancer is gone and the infection is on its last legs, too, but do I really have to deal with menopause, too? That just seems mean. You’re seriously going to tell me that battling both cancer and a nasty infection doesn’t exempt one from the hell of menopause? Mean.

I foolishly thought I’d have another decade before having to face the evil triumvirate of menopause: hot flashes, age spots, and weight gain.  Even more foolish was the idea that, compared to cancer, menopause would be easy. Silly me.

Living in Houston, land of eternal summer, during hot-flash season, is a challenge. Come to think of it, neither Houston nor hot flashes have a season, so it’s game on, all the time. Local ladies, if you have any remedies for this please pass them on. I have yet to come across a mobile AC unit. I’d be waiting on the doorstep of Radio Shack to purchase said item and would wear it proudly, if only it existed.

So as I’m mopping my sweaty brow after one particularly potent hot flash, I notice some brown spots on my face. Little specs, bigger than freckles but not as big as liver spots. I tried to pick one off, wipe it away, flick it somewhere, anywhere, to no avail. These babies are staying. There’s a constellation near my left eye, and a nice fat one on the inside corner of my right eye. There’s a trio on my forehead, a few singles lingering on my jawline, and God knows where else that I’ve been too busy fighing cancer to really notice up close. Thank you to all my friends for not pointing them out to me. I know you’ve noticed, but were too charitable to tell me I was growing a connect-the-dot game on my face. And there’s a travel version of this game growing on my hands. I’m aging quite visibly as we speak. Thanks, cancer. You bastard.

While the hot flashes are unpleasant and age spots are depressing, the weight gain is really making me mad. I hope there is a special corner of Hell for whoever came up with the hair-brained idea that women will not only lose their breasts but also face scary treatments, complications and all manner of pain & suffering and then gain weight too? That is one messed up system.


Howdy!

Welcome to the Pink Underbelly. It’s a step up from my Caring Bridge blog, which many of you have faithfully followed since I was diagnosed in April (thank you!).

A lot has happened in the past 5 months — some good, some bad, some downright scary. I’ve blogged about this wild ride for therapy, and if I’ve entertained and educated along the way, it’s a bonus.