Beach bound

We leave tomorrow, bright & early, for our annual trip to Salisbury Beach. I. Can’t. Wait. My bag is packed, I’m ready to go. My favorite girl made a count-down sign and has been packed for a week. The two male members of this household have yet to pack but will throw trunks & toothbrushes in a bag at some point today. Between now and our 6 a.m. departure tomorrow, a few important things need to happen, including one last swim as I attempt to hit my goal of 800 meters before I let myself go completely to pot on vacay; delivering a birthday gift to our favorite 18-year-old (happy birthday, Alexis!); and one last cooking club gathering tonight with some of my besties. We’ll toast the waning of summer while sipping bubbly in the pool.

My math may be off, but I think this is our 9th year to make the beach trip. Two summers ago, I was benched by the heinous post-mastectomy infection. Missing the trip was as tough as the ordeal that caused it, and I’m still in do-over mode. I usually invoke a 10 a.m. start time for drinking on the beach, but in true do-over fashion, I may just relax that rule and say anything goes in the beverage-consumption department. 

The beach trip is always special and much-anticipated for many reasons: spending time with our surrogate family, escaping the brutal Texas heat, lounging on the beach, eating lobster, and going to Fenway Park for a Red Sox game or two. The trip has taken on additional relevance for me in the wake of a health crisis, because it signifies the light at the end of the tunnel and the reward for making it through the really rough stuff. It symbolizes a return to normalcy after a hellish span of time.

The bittersweet part of this year’s trip will be leaving our little piggie behind. While she would be a fun addition to our beach party, the logistics of getting her from here to there and back again are too stressful — for her and for us. She’ll be in good hands, though, with Keely the piggie-loving pet sitter. We stocked up on provisions for our little piggie, so it will be business as usual for her as she fills the hours in between breakfast and dinner. 

On the way home from Costco, with a half ton of produce in the backseat, I saw this car and smiled to myself. I viewed the whimsical paint job as a harbinger of good things to come: fun, carefree, colorful days in the sun, surrounded by the people I love the most. I couldn’t help but notice the placement of the Modelo billboard just beyond the St Arnold’s Brewery tie-dye car as I prepared for our big trip–that’s some good karma right there.

This beach trip will be full of all of our favorite things, and we’ll have the added bonus of sharing our favorite beach with none other than Amy Hoover, my medical sherpa, and her 3 boys as they make the long journey home from Maine. Salisbury Beach is right on their way home, so we’ll rendezvous on the beach. How fun!

We’ll be doing a whole lot of this

and some of this

with a little bit of this

and a pinch of this

and of course, a healthy dose of this.

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Letting go

Because I really love words, I often come across a quote that speaks to me. I usually scribble it on a receipt or piece of scrap paper at the bottom of my purse, or I hastily type it into the notes app on my phone, with every intention of revisiting the quote and why it caught my attention. Sometimes the revisiting results in a blog post, but more often than not the note languishes until I clean out my purse or go to make another note on my phone. Then I wonder, where did I find this quote, and what did I intend to do with it? I blame cancer and infection and their long-reaching tentacles for compromising my previously functional brain.

The latest scribble in the bottom of my purse is a good one:

“When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be. When I let go of what I have, I receive what I need.” — Tao Te Ching

Ah, yes, the letting go. I’ve never quite understood the idea of “just let it go” when bugged by something. While I don’t endorse fretting and harumphing, I wonder what manner of insensitivities would be committed if people just turned the other cheek and acted as if nothing wrongful had occurred.

Needless to say, I’ve never been particularly adroit at just letting things go.

When someone cuts in front of me in line, I point out that I was there first. When a doctor keeps me waiting for hours in the waiting room, I mention that while I understand that things come up and emergencies do arise, my time is valuable, too. When my son’s All Star team was wrongly accused of misdeeds this season, I let the accusers know that their underhanded tactics did not go unnoticed. When a member of my inner circle acts unkindly, I don’t hesitate to bring the errant behavior to her attention.

Sometimes speaking out changes things: the line-jumper realizes he/she isn’t the only person on the planet. Sometimes it doesn’t change things: doctors overbook themselves, 12-year-old baseball players are punished because of so-called grown-ups’ selfishness, and friendships run their course.

I’ve been told that people admire my willingness to speak up in the face of blatant wrongdoing. “I wish I was ballsy like you” or “I’m too chicken to say what I really think” are among the comments I’ve heard on this topic. I’d love to take credit for being brave and outspoken, as if it were planned and orchestrated for the greater good. The truth is, however, it’s not something I plan; it comes out because I don’t have a very reliable filter. I’m not so good at letting it go.

Change does come from having cancer and facing all of its myriad unpleasantries and challenges. I have learned during the course of my cancer “journey” to let some things go. While I won’t insult you with the platitudinal idea that cancer has made me a better person (I was just fine before, thank you very much), it does have a way of forcing things into perspective. I will never go quietly into the night with the idea that any of this is fair, but I won’t fight it, either. Sometimes bad things do indeed happen to good people. Sometimes life intervenes to rearrange the order of things, to shake things up a little, or a lot. I’ve learned a lot on this cancer “journey,” from the technical to the philosophical, from the underside of fear to the crushing tyranny of bad breaks and complications straight through to the unmitigated joy of coming out the other side, battle-weary and scared shitless yet proud in the knowledge that no matter what this beast flings at me, I can take it.

I will likely continue speaking out against what I perceive as the injustices in my life; a tiger doesn’t change its stripes, after all. I will nag the line-jumpers of the world until they see the error of their ways. I will savor Tao’s words and reflect on the idea that in letting go of things or friendships that may not be working, I open myself up to receiving something even better.


Another day, another MRI

Long time, no blog, I know. Thanks to you faithful readers who have inquired about the reason for my silence. Sometimes no news is good news, but once you bare your cancer-laden soul in a blog, silence can be interpreted as a sign of trouble. Not so here; rest assured that if there were new and nasty developments, I’d spew the gory details. That’s how I roll. I’ve been busy with summer stuff: ferrying my favorite girl back & forth to day camp, hounding my video-game-addicted boy to work on his “page a day” algebra packet, devising a piggie-proof lock for the pantry, and keeping my potted plants alive as we alternate between drenching rains and scorching sun. Oh, and wading through the mounds of red tape that ensued after my girl and I were in a pretty bad car crash last weekend. Wet roads, bald tires, and independent rear suspension became a perfect storm that landed us in a ditch with the airbags deployed and the car inoperable 200 miles outside of Houston. Never a dull moment.

In light of all this, the MRI that I had Wednesday was a high point. Thankfully it was not cancer-related, but it brought back a whole lot of cancer-related thoughts. I guess it’s the case of once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient. In fact, it got me thinking — a lot — about May 7, 2010, just days after I’d been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at the tender age of 40. On that day in history, I was enduring “test-a-palooza” in which I spent the entire day at the hospital for an L-DEX, chest x-ray, MRI, and bone scan.

Here’s what I had to say back then about the MRI:

Three vials of blood and a dose of radioactive dye later, I was ready for the MRI. I’ve had an MRI before, and this was not what I expected. Instead of lying on my back and going through the tube, I was face-down on what Mona the tech called a massage table (I noticed real quick there is no massage). Imagine my claustrophobic heart singing when I saw the piped-in oxygen for the tiny little space in which my face was smushed.

Mona asked what kind of music I’d like, to drown out the noise. She said most people choose classical to help relax. I told her I prefer alcohol to help relax, but I’d try the music. She promised me a double martini, extra dirty, when we got done.

The sweet chirping of birds and melodic harps were quickly drowned out entirely by a ruckus that can only be described as a marriage in hell between a jackhammer, nuclear-reactor alarm, and emergency broadcast signal, in a successive repeating pattern. Mona wasn’t kidding when she said a lot of people come out of there with a pounding headache. I decided right then & there that I needed a double on that double martini order.

While it seemed like I was in there forever, it was really only about 40 minutes, and instead of lying there thinking about what an unholy racket and uncomfortable experience it was, I heard my mom whisper in my ear: “Every pounding noise you hear is you gearing up to kick the crap out of the cancer.” Course, she never would have said “crap” because she didn’t like cuss words, and would have said “peewaddle” instead, but I added “crap” for a little color. I had lots of time to think about her and her courage while I was in there, and it worked. Before I knew it, Mona came to get me off that crazy thing.

Wednesday’s MRI was on my knee, which has been barking at me for months and doesn’t always go along with my big ideas. Tennis, working out at the gym, swimming, and climbing stairs seem to be more than this old knee wants to do, and after stretching, foam-rolling, icing, and self-medicating with cold beer, it was time to face the fact that it wasn’t getting any better. My orthopedist says that some knees need to be scoped every 8 to 10 years, and my scope was 7 years ago, so there ya go. I guess 7 years of lunging, squatting, jumping, running, and springing have taken a toll. As per my usual, I refuse to go quietly into the night, and plan to do whatever it takes to get some more use out of these joints.

Conventional wisdom suggests two scenarios to fix my problem: do a PRP injection and see how far that gets me, or do another scope along with the PRP. The PRP alone is the much simpler course, and I’m all for quick recovery and little downtime, but in my heart of hearts I know I need the scope, too, and I learned long ago in my cancer “journey” to always go with my gut.

The PRP represents some pretty cool cutting-edge medical thinking in an emerging field called Orthobiologics, and all the cool pro athletes are doing it so why not me, too? Troy Palamalu and Hines Ward both did it, as did Tiger Woods — repeatedly, and perhaps to correct some of the damage his jilted wife did to him with a golf club. Kobe Bryant got some, and Alex Rodriguez traveled to Germany to get his PRP. He thinks he’s so special.

Here’s how it works: under the beautiful twilight haze of propofol, 30 ml of blood is collected and spun in a centrifuge to separate the plasma from the whole blood. The plasma, which is very concentrated and full of healing goodness, is then injected into the injury site and the magic begins. Because PRP is autologous, it’s a good choice for me: my body is quite the xenophobe and reacts quite strongly to anything foreign like tissue expanders or a port.

I was all geared up for the idea of the scope and the PRP when my awesome orthopedic surgeon called to say there was something unexpected on the MRI. Surprise! A complication! My kneecap is misaligned and has slid to the outside instead of staying in the center groove at the end of the thigh bone as the knee bends. Fantastic. There goes my tennis season. Me and my stupid patellar maltracking. The fix? A lateral release, which is done during the scope and involves cutting the lateral retinaculum, which is the tissue attached to the outside of the kneecap.

If it were just the scope and the PRP, no big deal. A bit of a slow recovery for a go-getter like me, but very manageable. The lateral release doubles the recovery time, and involves a lot of pain and swelling. Sigh. Big sigh. Never a dull moment, indeed.

 

 


Odd girl out at the oncology office

I’ve been on hiatus from blogging but rest assured, all is well. No real reason for the hiatus other than the fullness of life. Although I’ve not been wrapped up in the hurried pace of the school year, so far summertime finds me still going & blowing as usual. Less than three weeks until our annual vacation to Salisbury Beach, though, and I will slow down then. As the sage Zac Brown says, I’ll have my toes in the water, ass in the sand, not a worry in the world, a cold beer in my hand. Can’t wait.

Yesterday was my quarterly check-up with my cutie pie oncologist. My intrepid appointment companion Amy is currently living the good life seaside on the East Coast, so I had to go it alone. She strongly suggested I reschedule, lest she miss a visit with Dr Cutie, but alas, I carried on without her. She’ll have to wait until November to lay eyes on him, as I’ve graduated to three visits a year with him. That’s my reward for being two years out from the dreaded disease: fewer oncology appointments.

Despite one fewer chance a year to gaze upon Dr Cutie as he imparts his wisdom, this is a good thing because I found myself feeling guilty sitting in the waiting room. Of the four other patients waiting for the good doctor, I was the only one with hair. The others were not only bald but quite sickly looking (and a good 20 years older than me, as well). As I perched on a chair in my workout clothes, planning to hit it hard at the gym as soon as I got the requisite visit out of the way, I was filled with a sense of guilt over my good health.

I could feel the eyes of the other patients on me, and I imagined them wondering, as I would in their shoes, what a strapping gal with a full head of hair, color in her cheeks, and a spring in her step was doing at an oncologist’s office. Had the shoe been on the other foot, I would have assumed this picture of health was meeting someone there, or perhaps had found herself in the wrong office and had not yet realized the mistake.

My guilt was somewhat assuaged by the stark recollection that there was a time, not so long ago, when I was the sickly looking one, dragging myself from one appointment to the next, consumed with healing after a double mastectomy and overwhelmed by a post-surgical infection. I remember well the days of envying the “normal” people who walked with ease and were unburdened by the pressing concerns of cancer, treatment, and their ugly fallouts. Ditto for all the days (close to 30 days all told that one summer) I spent in the hospital. Pushing my IV pole on endless loops around the hospital halls, I would gaze longingly at the healthy people out and about and wish I were among them.

Although I’m two years out from the dreaded disease (or, two years and 2 months, as Dr Cutie so astutely recited from memory), the recovery process from the infection was quite lengthy, and it’s really not been all that long since I was freed from the clutches of that wretched bug. Many times as I moved from the infectious disease team’s office in the Texas Medical Center to Dr Cutie’s office around the corner from home and to the plastic surgeon’s office halfway in between the two, I stared hard at the healthier specimens I saw along the way. I remember feelings that ranged from outright envy to smoldering anger at these people who went about their daily business the way I used to. I envisioned these people getting their kids off to school, hitting the gym, running errands, lunching with friends, and doing household chores with ease, the way I used to. I imagined the fabric of their lives being uninterrupted by cancer, the rudest of guests, and assumed that they sailed through their days focused on minor inconveniences rather than big-time medical crises. First-world problems like a cancelled hair appointment or a rained-out tennis match were screechingly replaced by real-world problems like a hole in one’s chest wall that just won’t heal and an insidious bacteria that evades treatment quite stealthily.

Was it survivor’s guilt that hit me yesterday in the doctor’s office? Perhaps. I’ve never been one to wonder “why me?” — neither in terms of the roulette wheel of whose genes will come up hinky and necessitate a diagnosis, nor in terms of why am I now healthy while so many others are sick. Seems like a colossal waste of time and energy to me. I don’t spend much time thinking back about the sheer hell I endured with that nasty infection; partly because I don’t want to go there, and partly because my brain works hard to protect me from going there. There are plenty of gory details I have to work hard to conjure up, and while my intellectual brain knows that of course I did go through all that, my sympathetic brain says let’s not rehash that ugly past and prevents me from really remembering how awful it was. Better to smile encouragingly at the other patients in the waiting room and spend a few minutes of quiet reflection on the road I’ve traveled and how far I’ve come.


These baseball years

On my bulletin board I have a faded article from Southern Living magazine titled These Baseball Years. It’s from the June 2003 issue, when my son was four years old and just dipping his toe in the water of what would become a full-fledged baseball obsession. Now, 9 years later and in his last hurrah of Little League, I re-read the article and nodded my head in agreement.

9-year-old All Star

10-year-old All Star

11-year-old All Star

then…

 

…and now

Baseball has been a constant in our house, and it’s provided me a way to connect with my kid, who tends to be rather quiet and lives in his own head. He’s never been one to come home from school with news of the day’s events, nor does he disclose much under direct questioning. If there were a hall of fame for one-word answers, he’d be in it.

All of that changed, however, when I realized that if I knew something about baseball, especially about his beloved Red Sox, I’d have a direct line into him. Any parenting expert will tell you that if you want to connect with your kids, you have to do it at their level and with their interests in mind.

In the article, author Joe Rada says that “baseball is a grand metaphor for the game of life. Through baseball we explore the weighty issues of winning and losing gracefully; getting along with others; setting goals; playing hard and by the rules; rolling with the punches; the value of physical health and the treacheries of drug abuse.”

He also describes how his son sleeps on baseball-themed sheets under a ceiling fan with baseball-bat blades. Sounds familiar. At the time when I ripped the article out of the magazine, my kid slept on sheets decorated with cars & trucks, but it wasn’t long before we re-did his room with a baseball theme. We chose the neutral brown paint color for his room based on which shade was closest to infield dirt, and the one accent wall we painted red was carefully matched to the Red Sox jerseys. His ceiling fan is regulation, but his lamp and his curtain tie-backs are baseball-themed. As he moved through Little League seasons, we added shelves to hold trophies, and now I’m worried those shelves will collapse under the weight. 

This last season of All Stars is the end of an era. We’ve spent as much time in the stands as we have around our dinner table, and we’ve bonded with the other players’ families in a friends-for-life kind of way. We’ve seen each other through job loss, injuries & illness, new babies, and high school graduations. We’ve supported each other through health crises, including my own. The summer I spent in the hospital instead of at the All Star games in 2010 was brutal, but it was made bearable by the love and support that came from the team. The Season of the Pink Sweatbands was the team’s best, and my framed photo of the entire team, including coaches, wearing pink sweatbands and saying “This one’s for you!” sat in each hospital room I occupied that summer. It remains one of my most treasured possessions.

Like Joe Rada, we plan our family vacations around the baseball schedule, delaying as long as possible in hopes that we’ll be making a trip to the State Championship in late July before we take off for two weeks at the beach.

I don’t know why I kept that faded article all these years, but now that my kid is heading toward the end of his Little League career, I’m glad I did. As Rada writes, “Long after my son settles into being whatever kind of man he’ll be, I’ll still see his upturned chin and hear his sweet voice shouting across the backyard, ‘I got it!'” I will, too.