Thanksgiving

There’s a lot to be thankful for this year. I’ll skip over the obvious (that I’m kicking cancer’s @$*) and the flippant (that Dr S still takes my calls, after all the grief I’ve given him), and skip right to the heart of the matter: that this year the rolls were a success.

Y’all may have heard that my mom was a fantastic cook. Everything was homemade, even the hamburger buns & English muffins, when I was a kid. The holiday meals of course presented her with her moment to shine. And shine she did. That woman made the entire Thanksgiving meal — turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes & gravy, cranberry stuff, sweet potatoes, crescent rolls, and at least 2 kinds of pie (with from-scratch crust, of course). And she made every bit of that homemade food the day of the meal. She didn’t believe it tasted quite as good made in advance. She repeated this feast for Christmas, too.

Needless to say, she was a serious over-achiever.

The problem with over-achievers is that they cause normal people to think they may be inadequate. If you know someone like this, I’m not sure if it’s best to spend as much time as possible with them, hoping & praying their wonderfulness rubs off in some kind of cosmic osmosis; or if it’s best to surround yourself with idiots instead so that you always feel good about yourself.

We’ve suffered through 5 years of holiday meals without my mom, and I’ve attempted to make her crescent rolls since, but it hasn’t gone well. Yeast bread & I don’t get along. I wasn’t going to try it this year, of all years, but both of my kids asked, independently of each other, if we were having YaYa’s crescent rolls for Thanksgiving. Ain’t no way I’m saying no to that.

My mom’s recipes are funny. As in ha ha, the joke’s on you because she often left things out completely (the chicken crepes recipe that contains no chicken comes to mind), or she gave instructions that left a little to be desired, as in: continue mixing until it seems right. How the hell do I know when it’s right?? That’s the most vexing part, is that she did know. Me, not so much, at least when it comes to yeast breads.

Now I’m a pretty decent cook, and even I’ve been stumped by her recipes before. Thankfully, the crescent roll recipe is pretty straightforward (at least by her standards). She’s not real specific about what temperature the water needs to be when mixing with yeast. Nor is she overly fussy about exactly how much extra flour you may need to add to keep the dough from being “too sticky,” and of course that descriptor opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms. She often included little editorial comments in her recipes, too. My favorite is the butter cake recipe that calls for a pound of sifted powdered sugar. She made a note in the recipe that she was heading to Williams Sonoma to get a new sifter right now!

I made the bold move this year of not having a back-up plan if the rolls didn’t work out. Every other time I’ve attempted them, it’s been with a package of Sister Schubert’s rolls in the freezer. But one thing I’ve learned post-cancer is to dream big, so I was gonna make those rolls without a safety net.

Did I mention we were dining with friends and their family? 18 of us in all, I think. My contribution to the shared meal was rolls. Homemade rolls. And green beans. So woosheegaga, I really needed those rolls to work out.

I have to cheat a bit when I attempt to make my mom’s rolls or pie crust; I roll them out on my cheater’s mat. Over-achievers don’t need the mat. My mom had a huge marble slab (way before the ice cream store) that she used to roll out all her dough. No measurements on her slab like there are on my mat.

The idea is that once the dough is mixed up and given a chance to rise, you say a lot of prayers and make appropriate sacrifices then roll the dough into a big circle, and cut it into halves and halves again until you end up with a dozen triangles.

Then you carefully roll them up, starting at the wide end, to form a crescent roll. Gotta be gentle, though, because if you handle them too much, they bake up tough. In which case, you might as well pop open a can of Pillsbury crescents and consider yourself a major loser.

The yeast dough gods were smiling on me, though, this year, and Pillsbury wasn’t part of the peaceable domestic scene.

These rolls certainly weren’t as pretty as they were under my mom’s reign as kitchen queen. Some were fatter than others, and some had a much more definitive crescent shape. A few didn’t want to stay tucked together, and needed a little extra attention.

But they turned out ok, and I don’t think I cussed one time while making them–a new kitchen record for me. They don’t taste quite as delicious as they did when my mom made them. But they’re pretty close. And for that, I am thankful.

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Portrait of a survivor

When you think of a breast cancer survivor, what comes to mind? A granny all decked out in pink? A joyful gal in a ball cap crossing the finish line at the Race for the Cure? How about a sad sack sitting in yet another hospital waiting for yet another test? You might think that surviving the diagnosis, the surgery, the treatment(s) and any subsequent complications means you’re done, right? Wrong. You’re wrong. It doesn’t end there, and there’s no prize for getting through it.

Welcome to the next phase of survivorship: the constant vigilance required to ensure the cancer isn’t making a repeat appearance. Although I’m just getting started, I’ll quit my bitching just long enough to say I am grateful that my doctors are vigilant, that I have good insurance, and that I can get the majority of my tests done 10 minutes from home. That said, it’s still a giant suck-fest.

Today’s test is a CT scan to check 2 little spots–1 on my liver & another on one of my lungs. These little gems were uncovered during a CT scan the last time I was hospitalized, in mid-August. No one seems too worried about them because they are so small, but once you’ve had cancer, you learn the hard way that there is no sure thing. There is no guarantee. A spot is a spot, no matter how small, and a spot is never a good thing once you’ve had The Big “C.”

Hence today’s CT scan. I’ve never had an abdominal scan before, so I didn’t know that in addition to the fasting and IV contrast (where they inject dye into my veins), I also get to drink the dye. So instead of my daily cup of coffee (which, by the way is the #1 reason I get out of bed each morning), I had to gulp down two big cups of Sprite mixed with contrast dye. No ice. No vodka. That’s just mean. I don’t like Sprite on a good day, and by good day I mean one in which the Sprite is mixed with vodka. Lots and lots of vodka. The only good thing about drinking these 2 vile cups is that I could have burped loud enough to seriously impress a room full of middle-school boys. Too bad the waiting room was full of old people, who either wouldn’t hear it or would think it was rude to launch into a Buddy-the-Elf style burp.

After the Sprite-fest was the IV contrast. Ugh. I really don’t like needles, but have had enough of them in the last 6 months, whether IVs or blood draws or shots or port flushes, to kinda get used to them, but I still don’t like them. My veins on the left side have been used so much that they rebel. They act nice at first, so right after the big stick, to pierce the skin and enter the vein, it seems as if it’s going to work, but just as the nurse is threading the needle higher into the vein, that vein says, nope, no farther. The nurse typically digs around a while before giving up and moving to the other arm.

Cue the complication: because my infection was on the right side, and because I’m working hard to avoid lymphedema (swelling from surgery or trauma that can be permanent and that is seriously contraindicated with tennis), I’m supposed to avoid getting my blood pressure taken or blood drawn from my right side. But that’s my good side! That vein hasn’t been used & abused so much that it pouts and throws a tantrum like a toddler who’s way past nap time.

Sigh.

Luckily, the nurse was very nice. She listened to my long, drawn-out story about my bad luck on the right side and bad veins on the left, and rolled up her sleeves to try and make it work. Work, it did, with just a little big of digging on her part. After the IV it was time to lay down on the CT machine. No big whoop. No trick there, just suck it up because it’s hard plastic instead of Tempurpedic. And then the fun part: injecting the contrast. If you’ve never experienced this, let me be the first to tell you that if you have to go through this, remember: as the dye enters your vein and travels throughout your body, you will feel a warm, wet sensation. Don’t panic and think you’ve wet your pants. Don’t worry too much about it because before you know it, the “did I wet my pants?” sensation is replaced by a crushing headache and the feeling of wanting to simultaneously vomit and pass out. It’s also ok to want to cry for yo mama. The good thing (!) about all this is, it doesn’t last very long. So before you know it, the “wet pants, gonna puke, but wait I might pass out” feeling is over, the scan is done, the nurse yanks the needle out from your vein, and you are free to go. Come back in three months, though, to do it all over again.

So the survivor vigilance is a lot of work. It’s hard enough to live with a monkey on one’s back, wondering if/when the cancer is going to recur. It’s hard enough to wonder, am I doing enough? Asking the right questions? Worrying about the right issues? Researching the right stuff? It’s hard enough to put complete trust, and thereby one’s life, in the doctors’ hands. They are human, ya know. As schooled and trained and rich in experience and purpose as they are, they’re still human. So as much as I do trust them, there’s always that little voice in the back of my head wondering, what if they’re wrong? What if they made a mistake?

Nobody said it would be easy, but I really didn’t think it would be this hard. That’s why I have this cute little pillow on my bed, to remind me that yes it’s hard, but dadgummit, I am indeed a survivor. Period. 


In the trenches, together

You’d think that having a friend going through the worst thing you’ve ever faced would be a comfort. And it is, kind of. It’s also really hard and really sucky, because as great as it is to know that she truly gets what I’m feeling, it means that she’s probably feeling it too, because she’s in the trenches herself.

Does that even make sense?

It does to me, but if you’re having trouble following along, bear with me. My friend in the trenches is staring this vicious beast in the eye, going toe-to-toe with the roughest part of the “cancer journey.” (I really hate how that phrase conjures up a nature walk or space travel or anything other than what it is, which is hell. For lack of a better phrase, I’ll continue to use “cancer journey,” but I insist on taking away some of its power by using quotation marks.)

She and I had a great day together yesterday. I took her to her appointment with Dr S., which is always fun for me because I’m not the one sitting on his exam table. She was getting her tissue expanders filled, and I’m going to risk embarrassing her a little here by saying that girl is starting to become stacked (yes, I’m envious, but so so so happy for her at the same time). I also had gotten my tissue expanders filled a few times this past summer, before the *&$% hit the fan and “mycobacterium” became part of my lexicon, so I knew what to expect from the procedure.

What I didn’t expect was to get to be Dr S’s assistant.  Nurse Nancy in the house! Dr S’s lovely nurse Brenda was on vacation, so Dr S told me to glove up and earn my keep. I couldn’t resist asking him if the gloves were latex-free, even though I don’t have a latex allergy. It’s not much, but it’s all part of how I drive him batty.

I’ve witnessed him bossing Brenda around plenty, and it was funny to be on the receiving end of that. We were in the midst of a heated discussion about something or other, and he started ordering me around right away.  I reminded him that it’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. He loved that one. Really. My poor sweet friend asked us to stop fighting and please talk about something sweet, like puppies or Easter bunnies, since Dr S was waving a giant needle around as she lay helpless in his wake.

He told me to hold the bag of saline a certain way, so he could jam the giant needle into it and fill up the king-size syringe to then insert into her tissue expanders and fill them up, and I couldn’t resist doing it the wrong way, just to tweak him. Then I realized he was pointing the giant needle at me, coming toward the saline bag, so I decided to shape up. It’s all good fun.

Before we made it into the exam room, she and I waited quite a while in the waiting area (I sure hope this isn’t becoming a trend with Dr S, because I hate to be kept waiting). We were chatting and laughing, and an older lady was watching us. She finally interrupted our conversation to tell me she liked my boots, and to ask if she’d seen me in Dr Darcourt’s office earlier that week. She and I apparently have the same oncologist and plastic surgeon. Small world! She asked my friend and I where we both are in the reconstruction phase, and we compared notes as girls in our situation tend to do.

This sweet lady shared that Dr S had done the TRAM-flap procedure on her 5 weeks ago. I said, hmmm, that’s the procedure he thinks he wants to do on me and I’d love to talk to you about that. Good grief, did that open the gates to a gush-fest on how wonderful Dr S is. This lady and her husband both couldn’t say enough nice things about him. If they said it once, they said it 100 times: “He’s not a surgeon, he’s an artist.”

That’s sure nice to hear. I’ve heard it before, actually, from lots of different people. But it’s still nice to hear. Especially just before my friend and I got called back into the exam room for her turn. It made me give him a little bit of extra grief, just because I know he’s so full of himself. And because I know it makes him nervous to know that I’m talking to his other patients. He’s asked me not to mention the whole infection thing, just in case that unfortunate event is associated with him. Easy enough, as I’d like to forget it ever happened. And easy enough because never in a million lifetimes would I ever believe that it was his fault. I’ve said before and will say again, repeatedly, that man drives me crazy but he took good care of me. The problem is that when someone asks why I haven’t started moving forward on reconstruction, as this sweet lady did, it’s kinda hard to answer honestly. I can always lie and say I’m a big chicken who can’t face another surgery, or I’m indecisive and can’t figure out which option to choose. But neither of those are nearly as compelling a story.

After we concluded our business with Dr S, we ran a couple of errands before meeting some other friends for lunch. And by “ran a couple of errands” of course I mean shopping. We were on a mission to find her a new pair of black boots and I’m proud to say that we found not only the boots but also two other pairs of shoes. I’ve written before about the healing power of new shoes. It’s a force unto itself. She and I both really believe in the power of great shoes. The rest of our worlds may be a crumbly mess, but we’re gonna face it in great shoes.

We spent a lot of time laughing so hard we hurt, and more than one person stopped to look at us and probably wonder what in the world could be so funny. She’s not the sort of person who snorts when she laughs real hard, but I am, and I did it a few times. That’s how you know you’re really laughing. I’ll bet that to the outside world, we look like two normal women: hanging out, enjoying each other’s company and relentlessly pursuing the perfect pair of black riding boots. Probably no one notices that we both have a port bulging out from under our skin, or that we have a much different profile than we used to. I know that no one can see the scars under our shirts, and the newly-etched worry lines on our faces could be from any number of stresses. No one knows that the landscape of our daily lives has a completely different topography now. Instead of just being filled with carpool and tennis and such, it now revolves around doctor appointments, procedures, and research. When we’re out in public, running our errands and getting stuff done, we look like normal people. We get through our days, cross things off our “to do” lists, and take care of our families, just like everyone else. But we do it with a heavy burden. That’s why it was so great to spend the day together, and to ease each other’s burden, if only for an afternoon.


It certainly does…

Saw this coming out of the Gap last night and was compelled to stop in my tracks and take a picture — even though the owner of the car was standing right there looking at me like I was a wack-o. I’m pretty sure she didn’t want to get started on a conversation with me, of all people, on the myriad ways in which cancer does indeed suck. We might still be there, standing in the parking lot of First Colony Mall, me a bit winded but still mighty revved up, her wondering what on earth she possibly could have done to deserve this and desperately trying to think of an excuse to get the hay outta dodge.

But I digress. The topic today is how many ways cancer sucks. There’s the obvious: it kills people. There’s the more subtle: it may not kill ya, but it’s serious. There’s the financial: it’s expensive. There’s the practical: it’s time-consuming and draining. There’s the physical: it’s far-reaching in its ways to mess your body up (and it causes me to end a sentence with a preposition, something I am loathe to do). There’s the existential: what is the meaning of this? There’s the guilt: Why me? (or why me, and not someone else who’s really pretty bitchy?) There’s the sad: it’s just sad. There’s the depressing: it’s hard to stay cheery in the face of all this. There’s the hopelessness: you can do everything right and still get burned.

And that’s just what I came up with real quick off the top of my head, but I think I’m on to something.


One-upmanship

So I was minding my own business at the pack & mail when a guy in the store started talking to the store owner about the stitches in his finger. He had been bitten by a cat and had 5 stitches. He wanted to show Monica, the owner, his stitches, and she was grossed out and didn’t want to look. She asked me if I was squeamish. I had one of those moments of wondering, does she want me to answer truthfully, or make nice and say something normal?

Y’all can probably guess where this is going. I said, I used to be squeamish but I’ve had to do some stuff lately that I never thought I’d be able to do.

The man asked if I wanted to see his stitches, or if I’d be grossed out. I didn’t hesitate to one-up him. I said, 5 stitches? Dude, I had a double mastectomy; 5 stitches is nothing.

I think I might have ruined his day. But, a little perspective is a beautiful thing.


Good ol’ Dr S

It’s been too long since I’ve posted a good story about Dr S, my most-favorite and much-abused plastic surgeon who saw me through the worst of the infection(s) this past summer and with whom I have an ongoing love-hate relationship. I love to needle him, and he hates to see my name on his clinic schedule!

I saw him Friday for a check-up (I love the way “check-up” sounds so simple & innocent, and misleadingly free of scary stuff like tumors and fat necrosis and scar tissue and reconstruction). He’s usually pretty prompt, and out of the many, many office visits I’ve had with him, I really haven’t had to wait too long for him. The few times it has happened, though, it has made me mad and I let him know it. I understand that delays happen, and the doctor isn’t always in control of the schedule, but I’m just an impatient person and it annoys me. My bad.

Friday was no exception. After waiting nearly an hour in the waiting area (so aptly named, that place), I waited some more in the exam room. I’ve explained before that although I am “just” an at-home mom, my time is still valuable, and I prefer him to keep some other patient waiting and get to me first. Not that I want some other patient to have to wait longer than me, but really once you’ve been diagnosed and gone through a nasty surgery and then the whole infection scene and multiple hospitalizations, well, ok maybe I do want someone else to have to wait longer. Surely all of that mess garners some sort of street cred or extra credit or something that allows me to go to the front of the line. But no. Like so many things related to cancer and subsequent recovery, there’s no easy way, no priority boarding, no free ride.

So after an hour of waiting on Friday, Amy and I were joking, as we’ve done before, about the many ways we could get his attention. We can usually hear his voice through the exam room walls and can gauge if he’s wrapping things up with the previous patient (although sadly, we can’t make out all the words and so can’t really get a sense of what they’re discussing, and y’all know how nosey I am; being able to properly eavesdrop would pass the time quite nicely). We’ve considered texting him from the waiting area and the exam room (yes, I do have his cell number), or knocking on the walls and hollering, Hurry it up in there, we’ve got to get back to Sugar Land for carpool!

Well on Friday we hatched a new plan and decided to write him a note and slip it under the door. We ripped the paper covering from the exam table and scribbled, You’ve got 5 minutes. Then we stuck it under the door.

Ballsy? Perhaps. Rude? A little. Effective? Most definitely. He burst through the exam room door post haste, note in hand and grinning wildly. He needed a little shake-up to his day. He muttered something about how he’s never in all his years had a patient give him so much grief. I replied that I’ve never in all my years liked waiting, something I’ve been imminently clear about from day one with him. Y’all may recall from my previous blog on Caring Bridge that I told Dr S at our first consultation, shortly after my diagnosis, that I know full well and good that he has other patients; I’m not his only patient, but I expect to be his number-one priority. I was kidding then, but oh how eerily prescient that little wisecrack turned out to be. Six months later–and today is exactly six months since my mastectomy–that man is still not rid of me.

Here’s the really funny part, though — he actually tried to blame his lack of punctuality on Daylight Savings. He said his schedule has been messed up since the time change, and I guess what we’re supposed to infer from that is that it’s not his fault. Time change, huh? It must have been pretty clear by the look on my face that I wasn’t buying that, because he asked me why I was looking at him as if he were FOC. I wasn’t familiar with that acronym so he said what about FOS? That one I know, and told him that I did indeed think he was FOS. Totally FOS. Since we “fall back” with the time change, he should have been an hour early!


cancer fatigue

I got a new jacket for tennis, since it’s getting chilly around here in between hot flashes. I noticed this tag on the jacket and am a bit freaked out that my first thought was that this jacket had some kind of special feature for my port. So sad. Even after I read the “access for embroidery” words on the tag, my brain was still trying to figure out what this had to do with my port: is there a special pocket for my port, like how some workout clothes have a teeny pocket for an iPod? How cool is that? But weird, too, since I can’t exactly take my port off and zip it into a pocket — it’s sewn into a vein!

Uh, not cool. It’s sad. Way sad that my brain is so conditioned to think about all things cancer-related that this is where it goes. Boo! Upon further contemplation, I realized this pocket is a shortcut for an embroiderer, to make it easier for them to stitch a logo or something on the jacket. It has nothing to do with my port. Sheesh.

On a happier note, I experienced something pretty great today: I took my friend to her doctors’ appointments. It was not only nice to spend the day together but also fan-freakin-tastic to be just the driver and moral support and not the patient. I’ve spent a lot of time in doctors’ offices lately, and while I still have my share of appointments on the horizon, I’m ecstatic that I’ve reached the point of being able to give back to my friends, who have given so freely & generously their love, presents, support, presents, meals, presents, rides, presents, child care, and presents.