The American Cancer Society’s Couture for the Cause is fast approaching. As in tomorrow. I’m experiencing equal parts excitement and terror about modeling in the fashion show. Since this is my second time to model in the Couture, the excitement should be outweighing the terror, but alas it is not. Ask me tomorrow which feeling prevails. Hopefully it will be excitement. Sadly, all the fun and triumph surrounding this event are overshadowed by the unexpected death of our sweet dog Harry. It has been a long, hard day at our house, following a sleepless, sad night. I can only hope tomorrow is better. I’ll have a couple of my besties modeling with me this year, so it will be a great comfort to have them backstage and on the catwalk with me.
Getting ready for the show is pretty easy, assuming there are no big bumps in the road like the one we’re experiencing as we grieve for our dog. There’s the model survey to fill out (height, weight, hair & eye color, favorite designers, personal style, etc) and a full-length photo to submit. Then show up for a fitting of the outfits I’ll be wearing; show up for rehearsal with finger- and toenails painted red; and show up a few hours early for the event to have my face painted and my hair teased and tousled by a team of professionals. Oh, and procure the items on my “bring list,” which this year include a pair of brown platform sandals, a pair of black peep-toe platform heels as high as I can manage, and a strapless bra. Last year, I modeled between mastectomy and reconstruction, so there was no need whatsoever to bring a bra, strapless or otherwise.
In fact, last year I modeled having been sprung from the hospital just a few weeks before the big event. That nasty post-mastectomy infection damn near kept me from being able to participate in the most terrifying and most amazing experience I’ve ever had. This year, I’ll skip the hospital part and head straight for the show.
Last year, I had no idea what I was getting myself into but was coaxed and cajoled by some people I really love (that means you, Yvonne) and some people I’d never met but who assured me I’d be perfect, just perfect. All of the other models were cancer survivors, save a dozen or so real-life models to really showcase the outfits and lend an air of professional gravitas to the event. There were several other breast cancer survivors among the non-professional models, and they happened to be a lot farther along in the cancer “journey” than this fledgling model was. Every single one of them was done with reconstruction and didn’t bat an eye before showing me their results. Only at an ACS event would it seem perfectly normal to be closely examining a complete stranger’s breasts, but that’s how cancerchicks roll.
Needless to say, last year I was a teensy bit unsure about taking the stage and strutting my stuff on the catwalk among hordes of people who’d paid a lot of money to get into this gig. My body was a train wreck, my mind was somewhere between blown and trying to follow along, and my emotions were all over the place. I’d managed pretty well at that point to wrap my head around the cancer diagnosis, but dealing with the infection that threatened to be an unsolved medical mystery — not so much.
Hooray for being in a muuuuuuuuch better place this time around.
And hooray for actually liking the outfits I’m going to model on Saturday, and for hopefully not having a mink headwrap this time around.
While there is a lot of prep work that goes into pulling off a successful Couture show, thankfully most of it is done by others. I’m pretty sure there’s not another cause I’d be willing to model for, even though it gives me an excuse to buy new shoes. All this fashion show prep reminded me of a story Trevor shared with me a while back, about what the Victoria’s Secret models go through before their big fashion shows. Seems the Telegraph followed VS model Adriana Lima leading up to her fashion show. Lima is a bit more serious about prepping for her show than I am for mine:
She sees a nutritionist, who has measured her body’s muscle mass, fat ratio and levels of water retention. He prescribes protein shakes, vitamins and supplements to keep Lima’s energy levels up during this training period. Lima drinks a gallon of water a day. For nine days before the show, she will drink only protein shakes – ‘no solids.’ The concoctions include powdered egg. Two days before the show, she will abstain from the daily gallon of water, and ‘just drink normally.’ Then, 12 hours before the show, she will stop drinking entirely. “No liquids at all so you dry out, sometimes you can lose up to eight pounds just from that,” Lima says.
I can assure you that I will most certainly not stop drinking entirely before my show. If anything, I’ll probably be drinking even more than usual. I will most definitely raise a glass and send up a toast to my sweet dog who is no longer waiting to greet me after my big event.
Remember that book from back in the day? It was also made into an animated movie by Chuck Jones, the genius of cartooning. It was written before I was born, by Norton Juster and was illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Not sure what either of them has gone on to do, but perhaps the Tollbooth was enough.
It’s the story of a boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth, which he explores in a toy car. Along the way he becomes lost in the Doldrums, where thinking and laughing are strictly prohibited, and is rescued by Tock, a lovely giant watchdog with an alarm clock attached to his belly. The parallels between this story and the cancer “journey” are many.
I was thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth yesterday as I noticed a phantom pain deep in the area formerly known as my right breast, where the evil post-mastectomy infection set up camp and decided to stay awhile. The pain itself wasn’t strong enough to take my breath away, but the implications were, and my mind immediately began racing: what if the infection is back? what if it never fully went away? There were signs of that damned infection, after all, during The Big Dig, which was 9 months after the infection first made itself known.
It’s been a year since The Big Dig, which was my best option for defense against the infection after 267 days of oral antibiotics didn’t fully slay that beast. Nearly a year later, a random pain in the area of my body that was my Ground Zero still has the power to bring me to my knees. Not because it hurts so badly, but because of what it represents.
The idea of the infection once again rearing its ugly head scares me. A lot. I don’t think about it often because I’m busy living my life, but once in a while, as in the case with the phantom pain, the thought does cross my mind. If it did come back, or if it reasserted itself after lying dormant, I would freak out. And yes, that is the correct medical term for becoming reacquainted with the mycobacterium that made a cancer diagnosis at age 40 seem like a walk in the park. The cancer part was easy (relatively speaking) but the myco damn near destroyed me.
Looking back on that dark period of my life is like watching a movie. I see this girl who’s going about her charmed life. Sure there are things that could be better but for the most part it was indeed a charmed life. She lives this charmed life rather out loud, and does “all the right things” to ensure that the charmed life has plenty of staying power. Baseline mammograms at age 36 because of her sweet mama’s premature death; a meat-free, plant-based diet free from preservatives and other nasty; daily exercise; a premium placed on a good night’s sleep; plentiful fresh air and clean water; an all-out avoidance of hormone-filled dairy products for her and meat products for her kids; a plan to deal with the stresses that sometimes darkened her door.
This girl was the last person you might expect to be felled by cancer. And yet, she was.
It’s hard for me to recall those dark days. Of course I know it happened and I was there, but my brain seems to protect me from all the gritty details. After taking in the diagnosis, deciding on the bilateral mastectomy, enduring the surgery and thinking I was on the road to recovery, the infection hit and knocked the wind right out of me.
There’s a vivid PTSD associated with the whole infection thing. I’d bet there’s a whole separate PTSD associated with the cancer thing, too, and it comes out in strange ways, such as a phantom pain sending me straight from normalcy to crazy town without stopping to collect my $200. Could be that the phantom pain in my chest was from 4 sets of tennis on Sunday after a tough upper-body workout on Friday. Or it could be from the wear & tear of multiple tissue excisions and general gutting of the infected skin during the infection’s salad days. When I was a kid, I had pneumonia, and some part of the illness settled in my left lung. For years after that illness, I’d often feel a pain/fatigue in that same spot. Perhaps the phantom pain in my chest is similar.
Very likely it’s nothing to worry about, but once you’ve danced with the devil that is cancer, any twinge or spot or pain sets you on high alert. Some of us head straight for the catastrophic death spiral my sweet friend Lauren writes about. As she so knowingly puts it “The catastrophic death spiral makes us think a lump in our thigh is thigh cancer, a headache is brain cancer, and shortness of breath after running is surely announcing lung cancer. The catastrophic death spiral is the vortex that is cancer.” My recent phantom pain sent me spiraling before I had a chance to reel myself back in to the land of rational thought. It’s worrisome enough to have already dealt with the havoc that cancer brings, but to also feel the aftershocks of that disaster just stinks.
I expect that the constant looking over my shoulder is common in cancerland. But I don’t like it. I’m rather known for my heightened sense of justice and the idea that if you do the hard work/right thing, you’ll get the payout. But bad things happen to good people every day, and life isn’t fair. People who take good care of themselves get cancer, and people who treat their bodies to a buffet of Animal House-style debauchery outlive them. I know this, yet I’m still brought up short by the phantom pain’s effect on me and how quickly and effortlessly I returned to the catastrophic death spiral.
I was probably foolish to think that there would be an end to the cancer “journey” and that the incidences that trigger PTSD would gradually disappear. I should have known that even after logging many miles and paying the requisite tolls in this “journey,” I would forever be circling, just shy of my destination, and always consulting the map. Once Milo returns home from his trip on the tollbooth, he sees a note, which reads, “FOR MILO, WHO NOW KNOWS THE WAY.” I’m looking for my note and wishing I knew the way.
A girl walks into a bar with a pig….
My latest adventure had all the makings of a great joke. Except it was reality.
Our little piggy needed to be spayed. Not because we worry about roving male pigs bursting in on her unannounced and leaving a litter of bastard piglets, but because female piggies can come into heat at 12 weeks of age (yes, you read that right — 12 weeks old; talk about babies having babies) and because they can come into heat every 3 weeks. While there was no need for piggie hygiene products, being in heat was bothersome nonetheless; there was the uncharacteristic bitchiness and the restlessness and the excessive friendliness on her part.
Our quest for a piggie vet was long and complicated. You’d think that living in the 4th largest city would make it easier to find a pig vet, but you would be wrong. After a tiresome, stressful, mostly unfruitful search, we hit pay-dirt, and scheduled our piggie’s hysterectomy. Silly me, I thought the worst part of this process would be surviving the period during which Piper was NPO–that girl likes her chow. I was rather nervous about making the 44-mile drive alone with a ravenous pig on her way to a painful and permanent sterility.
So focused was I on getting Piper to the vet on an empty stomach that I didn’t even think about getting her home. That was a whole ‘nother ordeal. Getting her to the vet was surprisingly easy. She’s like a tiny baby — wait, she is a baby — who falls asleep as soon as she gets in the car. So even though her tummy was rumbling, she snoozed all the way across town to the vet.
The vet techs swarmed around her and nearly came to blows over who got to hold her first, so I left her in good hands and with minimal trepidation. Even though I knew she was going to have to endure an unpleasant procedure, she was going to get plenty of love, so it was ok.
The pig-crazed receptionist called after a few hours to say the surgery was over, the piggie was awake, and all was well. She would be ready to go home by 5:00. I’m not sure how it is where you live, but 5:00 in Houston can be scary and treacherous.
It’s a big ol’ city, y’all. Stretching some 60 miles across, my fine city has some serious freeways, loops, toll roads, and beltways, but every one of them is jam-packed at rush hour. My 44-mile one-way trip from my humble abode to the piggie vet was a breeze this morning, but making that same trip at rush hour was a bear. A big, hungry bear with a slobbery mouth and razor-sharp teeth.
Much of the trip to pick her up was spent putzing along at speeds of less than 30 mph alternating with coming to a complete standstill. Any time an interchange loomed, the creeping and crawling slowed even more. I started to wonder why so slow? Don’t most of these drivers know where they’re going? Don’t they drive this route most every weekday? Don’t they know which lane to be in before they face the concrete jungle of freeway fly-overs?
All right, fine, it’s rush hour, and I’m resolved to it. I’ve got some good tunes and a full tank of gas, and plenty of cool AC to combat the 86-degree spring day. I’m not in rush-hour traffic often, so a little bit of patience was easy to muster. After an hour and 20 minutes, I arrived at the vet’s office ready to collect my pig and get on my merry way.
After the money changed hands, I took my pig and bid the vet techs good day. I bundled Piggie into a blanket and placed her quite gingerly into the passenger seat. I thought I was a mere hour’s drive away from a cold beer and the beginning of the weekend, but instead it was a slow descent into hell.
Piggie decided that she needed to ride in my lap, as she is wont to do. Fine, but let me get the blanket too, so she’s comfy for the long ride home. Doh! I didn’t realize that the blanket gave her a cushy 12 inches or so to project from my lap. My arms struggled to get around her and grip the steering wheel. I looked like a T-Rex trying to steer my little car with Piggie and her cushy bed in my lap.
If my steering radius was bad, my visibility was worse. With the porcine dumpling in my lap, I struggled to turn my head and shoulders enough to see the other 900,000 cars on the road, all of which seemed to be whizzing by me and changing lanes abruptly. Between little piggie groans and snores, I navigated the traffic on my stumpy arms, cursing the slowdowns and flying through the open stretches in a balls-out effort to get home ASAP.
At one point, about halfway home, Piper started acting like she needed to use the facilities. With no facilities in sight, I began to sweat. If she relieved herself in the car, it would be a really long ride home. No sooner did I start worrying about her needing to go, then I began to worry about needing to go myself. The last thing I wanted to do was try to swivel my head around my porky parcel to exit the beltway and find a restroom. And then what? Take her with me? I couldn’t very well leave her in the car, but nor could I imagine hauling her into the gas station to request the ladies’ room key. Better to just hold it and hustle home.
While the trip home seemed endless, it did finally end, and both Piper and I made it without incident. In her groggy, anesthesia-riddled state, she was actually in better shape than I. A bit rattled and rather cramped from driving with the use of just 6 inches of arms, I was very happy to be home in one piece. Just a day in the life, people.
I’m always on the lookout for inspiring stories about cancer: patients, survivors, battles won, valiant fights fought. This story found me, via the local newspaper last week, and it’s been on my mind ever since. I am bowled away by this woman. Her attitude is nothing short of fantastic, and her drive to make a difference in the “war on cancer” is inspiring, for sure. Because I’m juggling 4th grade homework on units of measure and a 7th grade study guide on Texas history with the usual chores, animal herding, and the ever-elusive hunt for something healthy/yummy/pleasing to 4 different palates before another weeknight at the baseball fields, I’m going to just relay this story simply and without a lot of editorializing. You’re welcome.
Chisa Echendu had her eye on a doctorate in medical research from Baylor College of Medicine, right here in good ol’ Houston. The 32-year-old Nigerian native had every intention of spending her career in a lab, peering into a microscope and solving medical mysteries.
But then the doctor became the patient as she found a lump in her breast in 2006. At age 26 and halfway through her molecular virology doctorate, Chisa was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I didn’t think it was serious,” she said. “I was 26, I didn’t have a family history. I was busy in the lab, busy with publications.”
Cancer, however, has no regard for one’s schedule, plans, hopes, or dreams. Chisa learned this first-hand. After her diagnosis, Chisa’s professors suggested she put her studies on the back burner while she faced chemo, surgery, and radiation. But Chisa said no. She was determined to make sure cancer didn’t steal everything from her. She remained resolute in her goal of finishing school, and her attitude is inspiring. She said, “I didn’t want a pity party, I just wanted to be like everyone else and take care of my business. People go through more challenging things in life. I had hope to get well, good resources, good physician tools. Some people are worse — without anything — and they just keep going.”
Instead of feeling sorry for herself or asking “why me?” Chisa not only pushed through the endless parade of problems one confronts with a cancer diagnosis, she refocused her goal. After enduring endless doctor’s appointment, multiple body scans and medical tests, chemo brain, recovery from surgery, and fatigue from radiation, Chisa decided to get out of the lab and fight cancer from the front lines as a radiation oncologist. So after 4 years of med school, she will take on another 5 years of training to help others on this wretched cancer “journey.”
Being a young breast cancer survivor filled Chisa with “more of a sense of urgency” in pursuing her goals. “I feel like I’ve been given a second chance. There is no time to complain or make excuses. Like everyone who goes through difficult times, you gain more strength, a sense that you can accomplish anything you want to do.”
With 2-year-old twin daughters at home and a lot of schoolwork ahead of her, Chisa is proving that she can indeed do anything she wants to do. What an inspiration.