Fever-free, finally?

Yesterday was the first day since my surgery–exactly one week ago–that I didn’t have a fever for most of the day. I wasn’t exactly fever-free, as my temp peaked at bedtime, but that’s the best it’s been for one very long week, so I’m claiming it. After coming this close to needing IV antibiotics — again — I’m beyond thrilled to have been (mostly) fever-free yesterday. I’m guessing that the docs in my life would laugh a little, shake their heads, and maybe massage their temples a bit at me claiming yesterday as fever-free. I’m guessing my friends in the white coats would consider my being almost fever-free akin to being a little bit pregnant–it’s an all-or-nothing condition. That’s fine. They can chuckle and shake their heads at me, I’m still claiming it as a victory.

See, fever can indicate infection, and after my surgery last week, the fear of recurrent or new infection abounded. That fear was thick in the OR and it was pervasive in the days after surgery as we waited to see what would happen. It’s still lingering, in the back of my mind and on the fringes of my daily activities. I’m not a big fan of that loss of control. We did increase my course of oral antibiotics — both in duration of course and milligrams per dose. The usual suspects in the roster of awful side effects are back, but that tells me the abx are working. If there was a niggling infection trying to re-establish itself, the mounds of abx I’ve been taking for the last 7 days have contained it. I’m almost afraid to say this out loud, but I think I’m out of the woods.maria pace-wynters

Can it be? Like the joyous girl in the gorgeous Maria Pace-Wynters art, coincidentally titled “Out of the Woods,” I want to smile big and enjoy the view of the woods from the other side. I want to feel the relief that washes over me as I realize that the 6-day fever has broken, the pain & redness & swelling in the original infection site have abated, and I may be able to breathe easily now.

My infection-induced PTSD makes me wonder if I really can believe that the tide is turning, that I may be out of the woods. It’s been a long, long haul. A super-long haul. Reflecting back on the havoc that the post-mastectomy infection has wrought makes me very uncomfortable. I’m not yet in that happy place, and the calamity is not far enough in the rear-view mirror yet. Instead of feeling enormous pride, accomplishment, gratitude and general kick-ass-itude that it’s over, I’m gun-shy and untrusting.

This time last year, I was fresh out of the hospital, having just served day 27 of intermittent, back & forth hospital stays and at-home IV antibiotics. The last hospital stay to treat the infection was at Methodist in the Med Center, so I’d served time in 3 different hospitals–Memorial Hermann Southwest, Methodist Sugar Land, and Methodist Med Center–which allowed me to sample Houston’s best. I recall the direct-admit to the Med Center for the last stay, late on a Sunday night just before school started. Sweet Dr S had handled the details for me so I had a “fast pass” to get admitted quick, which allowed me to circumvent the circus that is a Med Center ER on a weekend night. Dr S and I were texting back & forth during the speedier-yet-still-complicated process so he would know that I was in the room before he had to get up and leave his family to come see me and get all of our ducks in a row.

I remember being furious about having to go back into the hospital. At that point last year, I’d been on antibiotics all summer, oral and IV, in every imaginable combination. Biaxin. Cipro. Minocycline. Zyvox. Vancomycin. Cefapim. Doxcycline. Bactrim.Vancanese. Levaquin. We were on the cusp of finding the magic bullets that would target the slow-growing and slow-to-kill infection (Bactrim & Minocycline), but it would take time to decimate the wily bacteria, so the infection still had the upper hand. As I settled into my room after navigating the maze that is Methodist Med Center, I was completely and utterly pissed at the ugly-ass artwork in my room. The shoddy impressionist landscape was hideous, the colors were barf-inducing, and the mere site of it reminded me that I was once again a prisoner — of my failing body and of yet another hospital. I couldn’t avoid that uproariously unpleasing “artwork” because it was in my face and I had nowhere to go to avoid it. That framed print became a symbol, a poster-child if you will, for all that had gone wrong last summer, and I was stuck staring at it. If I hadn’t been so ticked and so upset, I would have taken a picture of that “artwork,” and one day it will make me laugh instead of making me want to punch someone. But not yet.

Here’s what I wrote upon settling into that room; note the frustration surrounding the words that described the room but actually meant a whole lot more:

So I got through the masses in the ER pretty quickly and got into my room and thought, yuck, this place is a dump compared to my lovely one-bedroom suite at Methodist Sugar Land. Call me a snob, but I like those hardwood floors and new, unchipped paint. I don’t really need the laminated sign on the wall here reminding me not to leave my dentures on my lunch tray. The view out my dirty window is of a wall, with patient rooms too far away to spy into [one of my pastimes at Methodist Sugar Land]. The chair I’m sitting in to type this is vinyl, and there is a lovely faux-cherry-wood desk with ornate colonial drawer pulls. I could sit there, but the desk chair is super scratched with dingy upholstery on the seat cover. And don’t even get me started on the artwork on the wall across from the 20-year-old bed covered in ultra-scratchy sheets. No wonder people get sick in hospitals. It’s from the decor as much as the bacteria.

I was one unhappy girl.

I was coming to terms with the fact that the infection superseded the cancer in every way. For a while, that was a good thing — being so focused on the infection kept me from thinking about the fact that I was a 41-year-old mother of 2 young kids battling cancer. The cancer was easy compared to the infection. While a cancer diagnosis is one of the scariest things ever, the treatment for and eradication of that cancer was, for me, much more logical and linear than the infection. The cancer left me flat-chested, but once the tumors were removed and the lymph nodes declared clear, it was done. My game plan was defined: a 5-year course of Tamoxifen for adjuvant therapy along with hormone suppression to snuff the cancer’s fuel. The cancer battle was over and the treatment had begun, but the infection war hadn’t even revved up yet. Little did I know that more than a year later, I’d still be fighting that war, and that sometimes the infection would gain ground and force me to retreat.

The infection left me with a hole in my newly flat chest — literally. The excised tissue created a wound that measured 5.6 cm long and 3 cm wide. Grab yourself a ruler and feast your eyes on those dimensions. That bad boy took 8 weeks to heal, almost double the healing time required by my bilateral mastectomy. I’d faced my diagnosis, done my research, made the hard decisions, endured the systematic removal of both breasts, and was still standing. The infection, however, was a whole ‘nother ball game. There was no logic and nothing was linear — it was a guessing game. Educated guesses by a crack team of infectious disease docs, but a guessing game nonetheless. Will this combo of antibiotics work? How long will I need to stay on them? How will we know if they’re working? What are the side-effects of long-term abx therapy? Will I ever get my normal life back? The questions were many, the answers were few. I wrote this after one particularly frustrating day in the infection war:

All this talk you hear about being a pro-active patient, being your own advocate, researching and digging up as much info as you can and thinking for yourself — forget it. Today is one of those days that makes me wish I was a sheep. I just want to follow along and do what I was told. Except I can’t. It’s not how I’m made. So I continue to ask questions and solicit advice, all the while feeling like I don’t have all the puzzle pieces. Sometimes there are a few pieces missing, or you have to wait a while for them to fall into place. You can’t force it, although I want to. I am impatient and a forcer. An impatient forcer.

And I’m still waiting for the pieces to fall into place.

Meanwhile, I will feast my eyes on another gorgeous piece from Maria Pace-Wynters’s collection. This one is titled “Unseen Beauty,” and my eyes are open.


Crazy Lady’s sister

Remember the Crazy Lady I ran into in the grocery store a while back? I think I met her sister today. She was a hot mess and put on quite the floor show. 

Because of the fire at the Walgreens around the corner from my house, the next-closest Walgreens is handling the overflow business. I was in the drive-through because I was too sweaty from tennis to go inside. Just a little public service from me to you. So the lady in the drive-through line next to me was the closest to the building, practically nose-to-nose with the pharmacist behind the window.

Apparently there was a mix-up with her prescription, and the conversation between her and the pharmacist got heated, fast. She wanted to talk to the pharmacist who usually helps her, at the store that’s now closed because of fire damage. The current pharmacist was patiently explaining that she wasn’t available; their work schedules are all akimbo because of both stores’ staff trying to work from the one store.

Crazy Lady’s sister wasn’t having any of it, would not listen to reason. She was mad and she didn’t care who knew about it. It seems there was a shortage on her drugs and there weren’t enough to make a complete month’s worth. They had 8 pills to give her, and she could pick the rest up later. That’s happened to me plenty of times. Instead of grumbling about a minor inconvenience — having to make another trip to the pharmacy to pick up the remaining drugs — she went nuts and was screaming at the pharmacist, through the glass.

Now I’m really intrigued.

She wanted the pharmacist on duty to call the pharmacist she usually deals with, and of course pharmacist on duty said no can do. Can you imagine being the pharmacist who’s off duty, getting a call from a co-worker about the Crazy Lady who’s screaming about her drugs?

When that didn’t work, Crazy Lady recited the litany of reasons she couldn’t make a second trip to pick up the rest of the drugs: she has a meeting to get to, people are waiting on her, she has deadlines, blah blah blah. As if the pharmacist cares. She advised the pharmacist to get on the phone, speedy quick, and find someone else who could give her the balance of her drugs. When the pharmacist on duty said sorry, we’re out, you have to wait for the next shipment, CL said she was going to go to the fire-damaged Walgreens and “beat on the doors until they let me in and give me my drugs.”

Wow.

I’m giving her a wide berth. Don’t want to be anywhere near her when she implodes.

As I completed my transaction, I heard CL screaming that is she doesn’t get her drugs, there will be hell to pay. She said, and I quote, “I need my goddam Xanax.”

Truer words have not been spoken.

If I wasn’t so scared of her and her craziness, I might have offered her one of mine. I keep a nice little stockpile, just in case. But like a rabid dog, it’s best to not make eye contact with Crazy Ladies.

 


I’m trying really hard…

I’m trying really hard not to be discouraged by the latest bevy of bad news. Picture me squeezing my eyes shut as tight as they will go, turning a bit red in the face, and willing it to happen. Don’t. Get. Discouraged. Having my surgery postponed and being smacked in the face with the idea of another post-surgery infection is not my idea of fun. Being told we need to keep the port that I’ve been so looking forward to having removed was equally not fun. I’d actually begun counting the days until saying adios to the port. It’s served me well, but I’m so so so ready for it to be gone. I could almost imagine sleeping comfortably on my left side again, with no kink in the line that’s sewn into my jugular vein. I could picture myself in a sundress, sans the alien-looking bump with prongs under my skin. But alas, it’s not to be. Once again, the hits keep coming, and I have to suck it up and deal.

I’m trying really hard. So hard that I just wrote a beautiful post, if I do say so myself, about the effort. The words were flowing and I was thinking, “This is going to be good.” Then promptly lost it. All of it. Instead of “save” I hit “cancel.” And with one keystroke, it’s gone. I will attempt to recreate, but already know it won’t be as good.

I’m trying really hard to remember that while yes, being diagnosed with cancer–at a young-ish age no less–is bad, plenty of women have it worse than me. There are lots of rarer, more-aggressive forms of breast cancer than mine, and the battles are many. While my recurrence odds are low, the mere fact that I have odds reminds me in a terrifyingly real way that there’s always a chance that it will come back. As another fellow cancer chick so eloquently put it: “It’s losing your innocence all at once, rather than in bits and pieces over a lifetime.” Being diagnosed with cancer at a young-ish age is bad enough; fearing recurrence is even worse. Then you factor in all the other junk that comes with it, and before long it’s like inviting one person to a party and having them bring a village of savages with them. They drink all the good booze, hork down the delicate hors d’oeuvres, manipulate the conversation, interrupt with Buddy-the-Elf-esque burps, wipe their dirty mitts on the pretty towels in the guest bathroom, spill red wine on the beige carpet, and change the tinkling background music to heavy-metal hair bands. The cancer crew is most unwelcome. And yet they overstay their welcome in myriad ways.

I’m trying really hard to not freak out as the possibility of infection scares the tar out of me. There’s a kindly gatekeeper in my brain that shields me from the harsh memories of the battle royale that occurred last summer between my war-torn, ravaged body and mycobaterium fortuitum. While of course I remember being there and going through that, it’s as if I’m watching a movie of myself enduring that hell. It’s a gauzy, soft light, much like the lens filmmakers use to shoot a scene with an aging star. The gatekeeper that usually protects me from windexing the lens to see it unfold clearly, in all its replayed gore, is off duty. What I want to do it pack up all those horrible memories of the events last summer and put them in a box and leave them on the side of a deserted highway. Then I want to put the pedal to the metal, burn rubber, and beat feet away from them, without even once glancing in the rearview mirror. I want to find myself on a pastoral country road, with tall, leafy trees and big puffy clouds–somewhere far, far away from any hint of cancer or infection.

I’m trying really hard to be calm and not freak out about the possibility of infection. Of course I know that anytime one goes under the knife, the chance of infection is there. But rather than a distant “maybe,” infection is a real thing for me, and I have a visceral reaction to the idea of going through that again. And while the preventative antibiotics are just that — preventative — I find myself with real fear instead of comfort. The prophylactic effect should make me feel better, but instead I feel worse. There is a very fragile peace that was brokered between my body and the bacterium, and peace without the threat of war is meaningless.

I’m trying really hard to not gag on the antibiotics.  I dutifully swallow the two pills that are my front-line defense against the wily bacterium that may want to  set up shop again. Those bacterium were evicted after their long, comfy stay in my concave chest wall, and they may well want to reestablish their presence. So I swallow the pills, knowing full well that soon, very soon, I will feel like utter hell. The all-day nausea, the roiling queasiness, the lost tastebuds, and the sore throat that were my constant companions for 267 days are making a return visit. Back by not-at-all-popular demand is the diligence required in spacing the drugs 12 hours apart, and the taking them on a stomach empty enough to allow them to do their thing but not so empty as to make me puke. Instead of feeling comforted by the preventative drugs, I’m scared.

I’m trying really hard to think happy thoughts. Right now I’m remembering a highlight of our recent vacation, in which we were all in the ocean battling giant waves as the tide turned. These were seriously bitchin’ waves, a good 8-feet tall, and we were in the thick of them. I was ecstatic that the water was warm enough for me, a Gulf Coast chicken; that the waves were so accommodating for body surfing and frolicking; and most importantly that I was there to experience it. As I came up from being tumbled ass-over-tea-kettle by a giant wave, Macy overheard me say that that wave just bitch-slapped me. She misheard me, though, and thought I said that the wave had “fish-slapped” me, and she wanted to know if it was a flounder, because they tend to be especially evil. I’m gonna smile at the idea of being fish-slapped, even though I feel like crying instead.

I’m trying really hard to focus on how far I’ve come instead of how many setbacks I’ve had. The race is long, yet I’ve continued to put one foot in front of the other. Keep on keepin’ on. Several people have tried to help along the way by telling me that God only gives us what we can handle, and that he must think I can handle a lot. Thanks, but zip it. I don’t believe it, and I’m not comforted by that. While there are a host of helpers along the way, there’s only one person involved in this battle, and that’s me. No one is doling out the hard knocks in an insane game of “let’s see if this will make her crack.” It’s random, it’s uncontrollable, and it’s life. It’s life, and my job is to keep on truckin.

I’m trying hard to remember that this is temporary. As my wise survivor sister Jenny reminded me countless times during diagnosis, surgery, and treatment, this is temporary. This mess won’t be at the center of my life forever, as difficult as that is to imagine now. The ennui I feel today won’t always prevail. It’s easy to get caught up in the quagmire of unpleasant things that have come my way. I can see just how easy it would be to slip into the loving arms of pills, booze, rage, and self-pity. Name a vice, any vice; I’ll take it. It would be so, so easy to say I’m done, I’m out. Let the vultures pick my carcass clean because I give up.

I’m trying hard to walk on the sunny side of the street, as my sweet mama always advised. There are some dark and ominous alleyways around me, but I will seek out the sun and pound the pavement until all this madness is over. Those who have been on this “journey” before me assure me that one day it will all be a distant memory. I know this is true, yet it seems impossibly far away today. One day I will look back at all this and think, “Man, what a shit-storm that was.”


Tennis time

Today’s the day, people.

I’m paying a call on my true love. Nope, this isn’t a tell-all expose a la Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s tennis.

Finally.

I’ve been cleared by my favorite doc to start playing again. To ease back into it and with specific instructions to stop in my tracks if I feel even a tiny pull in my 17-inch-long belly incision. That super-long, super-bad incision is healing up quite nicely, and it’s my job to guard it and baby it.

When I got the green light from my favorite surgeon, I asked his nurse  to please put a note in my file and have him sign it to that effect. A permission slip of sorts, so that when I see him again in a couple of weeks and mention tennis, he doesn’t forget he’d given me the go-ahead. The last thing that man and I need is another argument. Although, it has been a while since we had one….

With the tennis ban being lifted, I realized that I haven’t so much as picked up a racquet since The Big Dig, nearly 3 months ago. In fact, I had to dig around in the garage for my tennis bag. Sadly, it had been consigned to the garage instead of riding shotgun like normal, and it hung on a hook, quite forlornly, I might add, all this time. Over the course of almost 3 months, things like stadium seats and insulated cooler bags were hung in front of my beloved bag, and it took on the role of wallflower instead of constant companion. I had to take my racquet out, just for a sec, and hold it in my hand. Just like old times. 

Today’s return isn’t full of the fanfare the met my return to the court last fall, after finally triumphing over the God-awful post-mastectomy infection and all its myriad complications. You loyal readers know the story so I won’t bore you with the details yet again, but suffice to say that the bilateral mastectomy would have been enough, but the nosocomial infection that required 3 more surgeries, nearly a month in the hospital, and endless antibiotics was really enough.

No fanfare, because while returning to tennis after the mastectomy and infection mess was a lot, but it’s easy compared to recovering from the DIEP surgery. Good thing today is just a 1-hour drill, which is the perfect venue for me to see if I remember how to swing that racquet. I’m not giddy with excitement like I was last fall, because the cautious side of me is bracing for disappointment. For this return to not quite work out for me. Although I’ve been cleared, there’s no guarantee that my body is on the same schedule as my heart & mind, and I may well be met with resistance from the battle-weary bod.

See, this is one of the unseen side effects of a cancer diagnosis. Even after getting through all the hard stuff–comprehending the devastating news of diagnosis, all the gut-wrenching decisions, the surgeries & hospitalizations, the never-ending antibiotics & their grueling side effects, the cornucopia of doctors’ appointments, the worry & fear & fatigue–I’m still shell-shocked enough to automatically look for disaster. Although the 267 days of oral antibiotics worked and my infection is cured, there’s still a little part of me that assumes the worst. I can’t even remember the last time my skin opened up to let infected fluid escape, yet I still think I feel it a couple of times a week. It’s PTSD for patients.

So my job today is to say screw the PTSD. Can the shell-shocked tendencies. Bust right through the doubt. Ignore the niggling little voice that asks if I’m sure I want to do this.

Hell yes, I want to do this. More than anything else, tennis to mean means I’ve healed. More than being able to go about my busy little life, more than getting back into the gym, more than being able to lift my arms enough and twist my core enough to dress myself. Tennis means I did it. It’s over.

My friend who also battled the breast cancer beast has dusted off her racquet and returned to the game we both love. While I’m unhappy with the unfinished parts of my reconstruction and she’s unhappy with her not-yet-grown-back-in hair, we’re getting back in the game.

I’m going to take the advice of tennis legend Billie Jean King in my post-cancer tennis strategy:

“Ladies, here’s a hint.  If you’re up against a girl with big boobs, bring her to the net and make her hit backhand volleys.  That’s the hardest shot for the well-endowed.”

My friend and I are both differently-endowed than we were before breast cancer came to call, but we survived that unwelcome visit and are ready to tear it up on the court. Even if we both get our asses handed to us in match play, I suspect we’ll both be smiling. Happy to be there, happy to have a racquet in hand, happy to be alive.


One year ago today

Y’all know I’m a milestone-observing kind of girl. I’ve written about my cancer-versary, about a revelation, about week-old recollections after The Big Dig, aka my reconstruction, and returning to the tennis court after a long absence full of longing.

I’ve written about the anniversary of my sweet mama leaving this earth. That was early on in my blogging, and I hadn’t mastered the art of inserting photos. The photos of her are woefully displayed, and in my free time (!) I need to go back and fix them. She deserves better.

I’ve also observed the end of the worst year of my life. “Don’t let the door hit ya” was my message to 2010 as it went out like a lion. A mean, underfed, on-the-hunt-for-victims lion. Almost halfway through 2011 and I’m happy to say it’s turning out to be a much better year. Course, we didn’t have far to go to make it better than its predecessor.

Back to the current milestone. One year ago today, I said bye-bye to my breasts and was the lucky recipient of a flat–but cancer-free–chest. This was me, this time last year. On this very day (although it wasn’t a Friday, it was May 13th. Having a bilateral mastectomy on Friday the 13th would be cruel).

Trevor snapped this photo of me waiting for my surgery, in the holding pen before moving to a pre-op room. My brain was swirling with lots of thoughts, too many thoughts, and I was likely firing off a quick email to our BFF Ed with some last-minute kid-wrangling instructions. Notice the pink notebook in my bag: my cancer book, full of pathology reports, doctors’  notes, research, and bills. Bills, bills, and more bills. I think the current estimate of the cost of my last year medically is in the range of $260,000. And we’re not done spending yet.

One year ago today, I wish we’d thought to take a close-up shot of my chest instead of the deep wrinkle snaking across my forehead. My chest would never be the same, and would become a major battleground–and that was after the mastectomy. If I’d seen that pic before going under, I would have asked Dr Dempsey, breast surgeon extraordinnaire, to give me some Botox while she was in there. Yikes.

I didn’t know what to expect from the surgery, other than the basics. With subsequent surgeries, I’ve learned that actual procedures are available for viewing on youtube and I’ve watched a few. Gross. But amazing.

All I knew, really, was that I had breast cancer and I wanted it gone. I could have had a lumpectomy, but chose the slash-and-burn option instead. I’m not a half-measure kind of girl, and the idea of just taking a part of the infected breast instead of the whole thing wasn’t anything I ever seriously entertained. Slash-and-burn meant taking both breasts, even though the cancer was only detected in the right one. Only. Ha! Good thing I lost the pair, because the post-mastectomy pathology showed the left one had some problems, too. If you can call an area 5 cm in diameter full of cancerous junk a problem. I can, and I did. Little did I know then, one year ago today, that pretty much anything that could go wrong with my post-surgery self would go wrong. As my nurse practitioner friend Laura says, “Your case certainly has not been textbook.” Truer words were never spoken, but we didn’t know that one year ago today.

Because there were only 3 weeks between my diagnosis and the mastectomy, and because most of that time was consumed with tests, tests, and more tests, there wasn’t a lot of time for freaking out or being scared or crying about my fate. Not that I would have done any of those things anyway. There was a problem, and we were going to fix it. ‘Nuff said. I had a great team–breast surgeon, plastic surgeon, and oncologist– and was in a nationally ranked and highly acclaimed hospital. Course, I’d end up adding a kick-ass infectious disease team, home-health care nurse, a beloved lymphedema specialist, and wound specialists to my team before it was all said & done.

Dr Grimes, my hero

Tammy Sweed, I adore you!

The week before surgery, Payton turned 11

and Macy & I pampered ourselves with a Chinese foot massage.

I squeezed in as much time as I could with my girls

I didn’t know it would be a while before I did anything like this with my favorite girl.

Going into surgery one year ago today, I had no idea that I’d end up spending nearly a month more in the hospital and undergo 3 more surgeries; minor surgeries compared with the mastectomy, and of course reconstruction was way off in the distance, with even more days in the hospital. I had no idea how much I’d miss my kids while hospitalized

and my dogs (and their friends).

I had no idea how many times I’d need the special parking place.

I had no idea how much infinite kindness my friends would bestow upon me. We were on the receiving end of many, many meals delivered to our house, a kindness for which I’m so grateful. The rides to & from my  kids’ activities helped more than I could ever guess. The sleepovers and outings that my mommy friends provided kept my kids’ life normal when everything else around them was off-the-charts abnormal.

My cousin Teri’s hubby Tom made me more than one coconut cream pie. I ate a lot of this

but not nearly enough of this

Keith’s crab towers were chock-full of healing properties.

As was this:

Yes, lots of champagne eased the way from being an average, suburban at-home mom to becoming a statistic. From regular woman to cancer vixen. From got-it-together overachiever to at the beast’s mercy. And my bubbly companion continues to ease the way, from cancer victim to cancer survivor. Cheers to that.

A week after surgery, I began to feel a bit more human and was blown away by my little girl wearing a pink ribbon on her shirt–all her idea, BTW–to school every day.  

I was not enjoying the amount of time spent doing this:

although Pedey enjoyed every lazy minute of my recouperating.

Seeing me in jammies all the time gave Macy an idea: she could raid my jammie drawer and wear them herself. 

I’m not sure I ever got that pair back from her.

I certainly have learned a lot over the last year. Things I never knew I would have to learn, like the difference between invasive ductal carcinoma and in situ carcinomas. Like how a tumor is graded to determine the stage of the cancer. Like cure rate statistics and recurrence stats. Like how fine a line there is between the science of medicine and the art of medicine. Like how fighting a wily infection could be even worse than fighting cancer.

The crash course in all things infection-related was a big education. A very big, most unwanted education. My biggest lesson in this arena is how many unknowns exist. I wanted to know when, where, how, and why I got this infection. No one knows for sure. I wanted to know why it took so long to diagnose it, and why so many drugs have to be involved. I learned that my oncologist could have me all my drugs delivered to my doorstep via UPS. I learned to love vanocmycin and to depend on probiotics. I learned to eat breakfast as soon as I got up, hungry or not, because I needed to time the antibiotics right so they hit an empty stomach. I learned that morning sickness-style nausea doesn’t go away as the morning changes to afternoon and then to evening. I learned that there was nothing, not one single thing, I could put in my stomach to ease that awful nausea. I learned that washing those drugs down with alcohol doesn’t make me feel worse; that in fact it made me feel a whole lot better. I learned to develop a schedule and a rhythm to taking my antibiotics every 12 hours for 267 days. 

I learned that “We’re discontinuing the antibiotics” are the sweetest words I’ve heard in a long time. I’ve learned about the complete and utter relief of dumping my remaining oral abx out, because I don’t need them anymore.

That’s the tip of the iceburg, or what my friend Michele would call “a booger’s worth” of the practical things I’ve learned. The topical aspects of changing one’s status from normal person to cancer patient. Then there’s the other side of it.

There’s the stuff  I’ve learned in the last year about the unquantifiable side of a serious illness. The depth of inner strength required to get through something like this. The well of emotion that accompanies the clinical stuff. The patience and fortitude I didn’t know I had (although I’m still working on the patience part). The measure of gratitude toward the people who’ve helped along the way. The unbridled joy of making new friends in the midst of a shitty situation. The passion for writing, long dormant in the day-to-day of child-rearing, and the love of blogging. The understanding that my doctors are just regular people under those scrubs & white coats, and while they’re full of knowledge, there’s a whole ‘nother side of unknown things for which they make an educated guess and hope for the best. And, I have to admit, how much fun I’ve had getting to know these people in the white coats.

 

While being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 40 certainly does suck, I’m lucky that I made the decision one year ago to not let that diagnosis define me or impede me living my life. There certainly were times in which I was miserable from surgery and infection, and down in the dumps about my limited capabilities during recovery. There were also times over the last year in which I thought for a second I can’t take any more–not one drop more of bad luck, rotten news, and beastly complications. But those times didn’t last long and they did not prevail. Cancer did not prevail. Not over me. No way. Nuh uh. That’s perhaps the most important thing I learned over the last year.


The best news in a long time

After 267 days, I finally heard the words I’ve been dreaming about: “We are discontinuing the antibiotics.”

Cue the hallelujah chorus.

I saw Dr Samo instead of Dr Grimes today, and he delivered the most-excellent news. He is my new best friend. All of the cultures run during The Big Dig came back negative, which means we can safely assume the post-mastectomy infection is gone. Yes, at long last, the mycobacterium has been vanquished.

Let me say that again: the infection is gone. I’m cured.

No more twice-daily dose of minocycline and bactrim. No more nausea. No more planning my consumption of food & drink around my doses. No more remembering to take my drugs. No more antibiotics.

Oh, happy day!

I’m still in a mild state of shock, or maybe just slightly buzzed. Could be the celebratory champagne straight away after returning from the medical center (duh), and the margarita at my tennis team’s end-of-season lunch. 

We broke out the good stuff and gathered our close circle of friends who would never say “it’s too early” and question the wisdom of popping a cork at 11 a.m. To Amy, my chief medical correspondent and chauffeur to & from appointments: thank you. For everything. To Jill & Keith: thank you for rushing right over, then leaving as soon as the bubbly was gone. But for planning to come back with dinner.

My tennis team’s luncheon was already planned, but how fun to celebrate my big news with some of my favorite girls? And how cool that they gave me a huge, signed tennis ball? Thanks, girls!

The infection is gone. Ding dong, the witch is dead.

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I half expected the citizens of Munchkin Land to come out and dance their little legs off and sing in their froggy voices to celebrate.

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I admit, I’ve been wondering all week if my visit to the infectious disease doc today would result in the end of the abx. I was trying to not get my hopes up, and while I knew not to expect it, I would have been disappointed if they’d said keep on swallowing those pills. No matter. It’s all good now.

I will also admit that when the nurse was taking my BP and temp and asking me the reason for my visit, I felt funny saying “yes” to her question of  “are you here to see if it’s time to get off of the antibiotics?” It was almost too much to hope for. Almost.

Then when Dr Samo uttered those glorious words of “We are discontinuing the antibiotics,” I was stunned. It was a bit surreal. Once I grasped what he’d said, my first thought was that “discontinuing” meant taking a break, not stopping them altogether. 

It was almost too much to take in.

As my best buddy Ed said, “I feel I should shove you and yell ‘Get Out!’ like Elaine on Seinfeld.

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“Get Out!” indeed.

The end of the antibiotics is like an end of an era. My life has revolved around them for so long now–one week shy of a year, in which I’ve been on some form of abx, whether oral or IV. Nearly a year on some pretty powerful drugs, and none of them the fun kind. Nope, these are the ones that tear up your stomach and make your insides cry like a baby.

But no more.

Big sigh.

The fat lady can sign her heart out right now.

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An original piece

Y’all are in for a treat today. Sit down, grab a beverage, put your phone on vibrate for this, because you’ll want to read this uninterrupted. My friend David has created a marvelous original piece just for Underbelly readers. He’s enormously talented with the prose and the pen, and as if the story itself isn’t enough, the illustrations are fabulous. I think it’s terrific, and it’s a perfect recap of my cancer-versary, which I feel compelled to continue celebrating. I favor the total birthday week, so likewise I may have a cancer-versary festival for as many days as my liver can stand. IMHO, now is always the right time to pop open some bubbly (I like later, too).

Those of you who have followed my story over the last year, with all its ups & downs, will know of my special relationship with my plastic surgeon. He and I have really gotten to know each other well during my “cancer journey,” and while I tease him sometimes (and drive him crazy all of the time), I have enormous respect for him and his amazing craft. We have a closer-than-normal bond because of the post-op care I’ve needed, and he’s been there for me every step of the way: entertaining me, enlightening me, engaging me, but in the end, taking phenomenal care of me. I trust him with my body and with my life. His work is simply stunning, and I’ve seen firsthand how he can transform a cancer-ravaged, wrecked body into not just a vessel for our souls but also a work of art.

So, in honour of my favorite doctor, I give you…

The Wubbulous Dr. S

 “My name’s Dr., madam, or just Dr. S

And of all plastic surgeons, I’m strictly the best.

I see your mastectomy’s left you flat-chested,

Well, my reconstructions have never been bested!

If it’s hooters you want, then it’s hooters I’ve got.

I’ll shape up your shape till you’re hotter than hot.

You want to be buxom, then buxom you’ll be—

and you’ll be the envy of all that you see!

How can I do this?  I’ll try to explain,

But it may be too much for your non-Doctor’s brain.

For, once I unveil this special contraption,

You’ll be quite amazed—it’s a natural reaction.

Behold!  I give you the Balloon-Boob-U-Latron,

Which will stack up your rack to the stars and beyond!

And with this little dial on the side, I can choose

Whether you will get Double-D’s or…W’s.

So step right on up and I’ll rev up the engine.

By week after next, you’ll get LOTS of attention.”

“It sounds,” I replied, “Just too good to be true,

And besides, I don’t want DD or W.

I’m happy with simply a B or a C.”

“Nonsense.”  He retorted, “Just listen to me.

As I said, I’m a DOCTOR.  I’m SMARTER than you.

I’ve got major degrees coming out the wazoo.

You just sit back and whistle, while I do my stuff.

I’m starting the engine.  You’ve said quite enough.”

Then he started it up.  It whined and it cried

And he chose Double-J on that knob on the side.

And I sat there and whistled.  That’s all I could do.

But then two hours later he said, “We are through.

Behold!  They’re magnificent!”  Then I looked down.

“I don’t see a difference.”  I said with a frown.

“Of course not.”  He said, “For your eyes are untrained,

But I am a DOCTOR.  I’m quite largely-brained.

They’re just getting started.  You’ll see.  They will GROW.

Trust me.  I’m the best—Dr. S—and I KNOW.”

I went home, kissed my kids, then I laid down to rest,

And when I woke up, I saw shape in my chest.

Not much, I admit, but the doctor was right.

They were growing.  And kept growing all through the night.

I woke up next morning, completely in shock.

I couldn’t believe it and, quick, called the doc.

“Dr. S,” I said, “Now for the shocker of shockers.

Something,” I shouted, “is wrong with my knockers.

The one on the left’s growing stronger than strong,

But the one on the RIGHT is decidedly WRONG.”

“Hmmm.  You’d better come in,” Dr. S said.  “I’m fairly

Sure something has happened that happens quite rarely.”

When he saw me, he flinched.  I was very lopsided.

“You have an infection,” the doctor confided.

A mycobacterium.  That is my hunch,

And my LARGE doctor’s brain knows these things by the BUNCH.

I know just what to do.  There’s no need to debate it.

The one on the left…we’ll just have to deflate it.

And we have other options to give you new breasts,

But I am a DOCTOR, and doctors run TESTS.

I’ll get back to you shortly.  Just wait and you’ll see.

Meanwhile, I’ll send you to deflating room B.”

So my boob was deflated, and so was my mood,

And the next time I saw Dr. S, I was rude.

“Look here, Dr. S,” I said.  “I mean no trouble,

But I live inside of the SUGAR LAND Bubble.

I know you’re a DOCTOR, but I say, what of it?

You can take your Balloon-Boob-U-Latron and just shove it!”

“Tut, tut,” Dr. S said.  “I expected as much.

A Sugar Land patient needs a delicate touch.

I’ve run many tests on your bodice, you see,

And the answer’s so clear for a Doctor like me.

What you need is a TRAM FLAP procedure!  I know,

Because I am a DOCTOR, so on with the show!

Since you’re a non-Doctor, I’ll lend you a hand:

TRAM FLAP stands for ‘Tit Repositioning And

Moving Fat Like A Puzzle’, which quite simply means

That you’ll have to gain weight.  So, goodbye, skinny jeans!

You must grow a big belly to give me the fat

That I’ll move to your boobies, to make them un-flat.

So go forth and EAT!  Eat ice cream!  Drink shakes!

Gobble bon bons and beignets and beezlenut cakes!

Grow the fat for new hooters.  Get busy.  Get LARGE.

(The fat on your ass you can keep, at no charge.)

And because I’m a DOCTOR, I must prescribe PILLS!

Pills for THIS and for THAT and for medical bills.

The mycobacterium must go away,

So you must take these pills twenty-four hours a day.

AND because this procedure is tricky as treacle,

I’ll need an assistant.  Please, meet Dr. Spiegel.”

Then in walked a woman so lithe and so smart

That I almost felt jealousy deep in my heart.

So, now I had Drs. S1 and S2,

One doc for each boob.  What the sam hell to do?

And as soon as I met with S1 and S2,

It became quite apparent (as things often do)

That a struggle for power was starting to brew

About which doc was MY doc,

And who was the MAIN doc,

And who would I see when this process was through?

So for weeks I ate pastries, popped pills, and drank shakes

(And martinis and beers because that’s what it takes)

Till I had so much weight in my belly and butt

That I bore a resemblance to Jabba the Hutt.

At my next appointment, they pinched, poked, and prodded,

And at last both my doctors stepped back and they nodded.

“You’re simply ENORMOUS,” said Dr. S1.

“As big as a WHALE!  What good work you have done.”

Then Dr. S2 added, “Yes, I agree.

There’s plenty of fat here.  Just leave it to me!”

“Excuse ME?” shot S1, “But I won’t stand for that.

YOU can assist ME, while I move her fat,

For I am a DOCTOR…”

“Oh yeah?  So am I.”

And in the stunned silence, they stood.  Eye to eye.

Yes, they stood and they stared, never budging a whistle,

But I finally spoke up and I said, “Ugh!  For shizzle!

Yes, I KNOW you’re both doctors.  I KNOW you’re both wise

But it’s MY reconstruction, so shut up, you guys.

Dr. S1, you have cosmetic vision,

So, you’ll do the OUTSIDE stuff.  That’s MY decision.

Dr. S2, you’re as detailed as hell,

So you’ll move my fat, and blood vessels as well.”

Then they stared at me—stunned—like the strangest of fish,

And then Dr. S1 said, “If that’s what you wish,

I will finish the outside.  But YOU, Dr. Spiegel

Must make room for ME and my extra-large ego.”

“All right,” said the slightly dejected S2,

“When I am all through, I’ll give over to you.”

“And she’ll be MY patient,” shot Dr. S1,

“She’ll be mine, mine, mine, MINE, from the moment we’re done.”

“WhatEVER,” I said, and I just rolled my eyes.

“Time’s a-wastin’.  Let’s do it.  Get going, you guys.”

So they wheeled me to surgery, both did their jobs,

And when we came out, I had spanking new yobs!

“Well, what do you think?” asked S1 and S2.

I replied, “I’m just glad that this whole thing is through.

I have boobs, and that’s fine, but I was fine before,

I just want my LIFE back.  There’s so much, MUCH more.

I want to be free, be a mom, be a wife,

Write an end to this chapter of my so-called life.”

And what happened next?  Well in Who-ville they say

That the doctors’ small hearts grew THREE sizes that day.

My story had touched them.  It lifted the fog

Of their arrogance—and gave me stuff for my blog.

So, thanks to the doctors—their wisdom and skills,

Their sense of perfection, and even their pills.

I’m alive.  I am whole.  Though my journey’s not finished,

My faith in my future remains undiminished.


It’s my cancer-versary

One year ago today the bottom fell out of my carefully-ordered life when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

To say that a lot has happened in the last year is an utter waste of words. I’m not sure there are words to convey how much has happened in the last year; if there are, they are reserved for better writers than I.

Being diagnosed with cancer at age 40 is a shock. Duh. It’s scary and unexpected and unnerving. Double duh. 40 is when we hit our stride. For me, it meant my kids were old enough to not need constant supervision but to still need my guidance. I’d recently discovered tennis, the new love of my life, and had time and freedom to play often. I had a tight circle of friends who knew who they are and where they want to go. I was very comfortable with the direction of my life and the steps I was taking to make it the very best it could be.

Then came cancer.

That vicious beast had already stolen my sweet mama from me, when she was only 67. I was 36 and finding my own way as a mother, and needed her input and presence. But more importantly, I needed her friendship. She and I never had the contentious relationship that a lot of mothers & daughters have. We always liked each other. Maybe because we were a bit opposite: she was yielding and I was (am) opinionated. But maybe we just got lucky, and had that special relationship that some fates bestow upon some people but not others. The reason for our good relationship is immaterial; the fact was, we treasured each other, and losing her was the worst thing to ever happen to me.

Until April 27, 2010.

My guardian angels were asleep at the wheel. 

I’d been getting baseline mammograms since my mom died, since hers was a reproductive cancer and that put me at a slightly greater risk. More so, though, was my OB-GYN’s diligence. Her husband is an oncologist at MD Anderson, so she’s super-tuned to cancer and its sneaky ways of getting its foot inside the door. She saved my life. Pure and simple. And monumental.

When the news came on this day last year, I listened to everything Dr Dempsey told me about my cancer, as Boss Lady Staci dutifully took notes in Trevor’s stead as he hustled home from a business trip. I held it together until the end, when she asked if I had any more questions and I had one: how do I tell my kids? 

They’d watched their YaYa die from cancer, and while only 6 and 3 years old, those memories are powerful. They wanted a lot of assurance that my cancer was different in every way from YaYa’s and that it was not going to kill me, too.

One week after my diagnosis, Payton turned 11. I was gearing up for a double mastectomy, but wasn’t going to neglect his celebration, because if we can’t celebrate life and its happy moments, then cancer might as well come and get us all. We had the usual birthday breakfast on the personalized birthday plates, just as we had every year. As I placed his feast in front of him, I muttered my birthday wish, which was to make sure I was around to place that personalized plate in front of him on May 3rd for many years to come. My firstborn isn’t going to celebrate his birthday without his mama if I have anything to say about it.

The day before my mastectomy, Macy and I met Jeffrey, the orphaned mockingbird rescued by Amy Hoover’s family. We’d been hearing about this little guy, and my animal-loving girl needed to see him for herself. I had a million things to do to prepare for not only surgery but also weeks of dependency, but we made time to meet Jeffrey, and I’m so glad we did. 

Mastectomy day, I was up bright & early and ready to get the show on the road. Here I am at the hospital waiting to get de-cancer-fied.

Two weeks later, I turned 41. I celebrated in typical fashion, with a girlfriends’ lunch and champagne that night. White cake and bubbly are two of my favorite things, and they just say “party” to me. I didn’t feel great, but I was determined to greet the next year in my life with a glass in my hand and a smile on my face. Being surrounded by my best girls during the day and my family in the evening reminded me that life goes on and that while my recovery was hard, it was do-able, so take that, cancer.

A few days before my birthday, I strapped on as much determination as I could muster and took Macy to see Taylor Swift at the Toyota Center with her best bud, Ella, and my partner in crime, Jill. I was so afraid of being jostled by the crowd, as I was still pretty sore and healing was far from complete. But I wanted to be there and be a part of that big event, and to prove to myself that life doesn’t stop for cancer. I’d lost my breasts but not my drive. The glowsticks burned brightly as the music thumped, and I sat next to my favorite girl and soaked it all up. Every last drop.

Good thing I did, because my healing and happiness were short-lived.

Macy had just posted this on her chalkboard, and for all we knew, the worst was behind us and it could only improve from there. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha.

Just as I felt like I was really recovering from the mastectomy, the nosocomial infection entered my life. A curveball? And how.

Hospitalized for 9 days, pumped full of antibiotics, right tissue expander removed and left expander drained, my life took a decidedly unpleasant turn. It took 6 weeks to diagnose the mycobacterium, and nearly a month total of days spent in the hospital. That first 9-day stay was the longest of my hospitalizations, but also the scariest because the infection was hiding under the tissue expander, hard to diagnose but making me really, really sick. A month after the 9-day stay, I was back in the joint. Out for 3 days and back for 5 more days. Then, out for 2 weeks and back in for 3 days. A seemingly never-ending cycle. Each time I had to go back in, Macy would hand me Froggy, her most beloved of all her “crew” of stuffed animals. He’s been with her since she was a tiny baby and has enjoyed favored status among the masses of other stuffed animals. He’s been in her bed every night and has gone on every trip she’s taken, and she gave him to me to take on each trip to the hospital. He had a bath in hot, bleachy water with an extra rinse every time he came home to her.

She also gave me Baby Snoopy, another coveted member of the “crew,” and my  heart swells at the idea of my baby girl’s thoughtfulness. Though she hated to see me go back to the hospital, she knew her “crew” would comfort me in her absence.

Gross picture, yes, but I did make it smaller so you don’t have to see it in all its glory. Apologies to Christy, who hates this kind of stuff, and Julie: you’d better start skimming because this is the icky part. The aftermath of the mycobacterium is unpleasant, for sure. And this is not the worst shot there is; this shot was taken after much healing had occurred, believe it or not. The wound left behind by the infection was 5.6 cm long, 3 cm wide and 2 cm deep.  That dang bug wreaked a lot of havoc on my already-ravaged right chest wall, and it killed what little bit of healthy tissue was left after Dr Dempsey scooped most of it out to rid the cancer. It’s an insidious bug that is hard to treat. It’s not drug-resistant, like MRSA, but it is very slow-growing and so it responds slowly to antibiotics. Hence the long, long, looooooooong course of oral abx and the multiple rounds of  IV antibiotics, at home and in the hospital. I still have this collection on my kitchen counter, to take twice a day, but luckily haven’t needed the IV version since the last go-round in March. No idea when I’ll get off the oral abx, but sweet Dr Grimes, my infectious disease doc, has told me that he has patients who are on abx therapy for years. Years. Plural. Egads.

Trevor and I became fluent in home health care and learned how to administer the vancomycin and cefapim all by ourselves. The learning curve wasn’t steep, and the whole process was very systematic. My home health nurse, Chona, was as kind and competent as could be, but the gravitas of my situation was clear.While I dreaded it and resented the 3 hours it took twice a day to infuse, I counted my blessings and reminded myself that it could be worse: I could be getting those drugs via IV in the hospital. Again. Which is why I smiled for the camera, tethered yet again but happy to be at home, with Snoopy to keep me and my IV pole company. And yes, that is a glass of wine on the table next to me. It was a dark period in my life, people; don’t judge.

Remember Sucky, the wound vac? This photo is harder for me to look at than the one of the wound. Oh, how I hated Sucky. Necessary, yes, but hateful. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

This is what Sucky’s appendage looked like strapped to my body, so it could suck out the gunk and speed the healing from this curveball. The size of the plastic sheeting and the tape required to keep the Sucky train rolling was big enough to give me the vapors, and my poor skin is shuddering at the memories right now. And isn’t everyone thankful that I didn’t have a better camera than the one on my iPhone? Imagine how gruesome the photos would be! Oh, the horror. 

The amount of supplies needed to deal with that wound was staggering. The home health stuff was delivered in big boxes, which cluttered up my office and dining room for a day or two before I said enough! and organized everything to minimize its presence. Out of sight, out of mind (sort of). I pared it down as much as I could.

I became proficient at prettying up the ugly truth of cancer treatment, and its equally- ugly friend,infection aftermath, fared the same. I may not have had control over the mutating cells in my body or the nasty bug that invited itself in post-mastectomy, but I sure could dictate how my surroundings would look during the after-party. 

The amount of supplies needed for this fragile existence was great, and so was my need for comfort. That I found comfort in bubbly and coconut cream pie should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I may have been down and out, with cancer and infection taking their pounds of flesh (literally), but I was powered by Piper and pie.

The summer wore on and I barely saw the sun. And only then, through the window; I didn’t get out much. Between the hospital stays, feeling puny, IV drugs, and being on guard against germs, I missed out on a lot.

I did make it to Macy’s 2nd grade last-day-of-school festivities. She had something funny to say when it was her turn to take the podium, and although I don’t recall what it was, I’m glad I was able to be there to see her in action. I also dragged my sorry carcass to Payton’s 5th grade farewell. My friends in high places in the school volunteering world pulled some strings and had a reserved seat for me, along with a parking cone to save a parking place for Mary, who carted me there and back. My baby was moving on to middle school, and I was moving slowly–very slowly–toward recovery, from cancer and infection. 

Right before school ended, Payton was honored with a spot on the All Star team. This boy lives & breathes baseball, and has from his earliest days, so this is a big deal.

The team went from District to Sectionals to State (or maybe Sectionals to District to State), and I made it to 1 game. Being in the hospital while my favorite player did that thing he does best was hard on this mama. His team had a lot of heart, in addition to some mad skills, and they were kind enough to play in my honor for the duration of their run toward State champs. I’ve never been more honored and humbled as when he came home from practice the night before the first tournament (District? Sectionals?) with a pair of pink sweatbands on his wrist. Learning that the entire team was wearing the pink, for me, moved me, and like the Grinch, my heart swelled to maybe a normal size. 

I’ll be forever indebted to all the other All Star moms who cheered for my boy and provided yard signs, pool parties, custom shirts, and child-wrangling assistance in my absence, at our home field and on the road. Missing the games was hard, but knowing that my circle of baseball moms had my back made it bearable. And having my signed photo of the boys in red (with a dash of pink) brightened my hospital room and my spirits. That frame now sits on my dresser, and every day when I see it I remember not only the special summer of baseball success but also the pure hearts of the families on that team who helped my own family in our time of need.

Good things can come from a bad situation. There is hope inside a diagnosis. You get a measure of the depth of people’s kindness, which comes out in lots of ways. Like custom cupcakes. I liked that one a lot, and so did my kids. 

Like a card signed by the staff at PF Chang’s during a celebratory lunch. Our waiter knew we were celebrating some good news in the cancer battle and took it upon himself to have his co-workers celebrate along with us. I said it then, and I’ll say it again: Eat at Chang’s!

My friend Paula from Duke ran in the Salt Lake City Race for the Cure in my honor and sent me her bib from the race. At that point, I was a long way from even considering doing a 5K, so it did my heart good to know she was out there, pounding the pavement among an army of pink and thinking of me.

One weekend in between hospital stays, Macy and I snuck away to Galveston with Christy and her daughter Alexis, for a much-needed break from illness, wound care, and calamities. Macy caught a huge fish off the dock, and seeing her proud smile made the trip even better. There’s something magical about the sunset off the water, and I savored the splendor.

Before the summer was over, we had the chance to puppy-sit this little beauty a couple of times. If puppy kisses can’t cure me, I don’t know what can! 

Once word got out that the puppy-sitting business was up & running, we got to keep Pepper for several days. My kids loved having her to snuggle with on the couch, and I relished the idea that the hard times were morphing into better times.

School started, much to my children’s chagrin, and Payton went off to middle school while Macy began 3rd grade. A few days after school started, I was fresh out of the hospital, she and I rocked out at the Jack Johnson concert in the Woodlands. Because I had been hospitalized, again, so recently, my attending the show wasn’t a sure thing. I still had the dressing on my port-a-cath and wasn’t feeling great.  What is a sure thing, however, is that I’m as stubborn as cancer is shitty, so I made it to the show. 

August and September were spent recuperating, and at the end of September I hobbled myself on down to Tootsies, a chichi clothing store in the high-rent district that was outfitting survivor models for the Couture for the Cause fashion show. I’d only been out of the hospital for a month, but I had committed to doing the show and I made good on my word. Scared breathless and unsure of myself are not states in which I commonly find myself, but the fashion show landed me smack dab in the middle of “What in the world am I doing?” territory. I wasn’t wild about the dresses I wore, but my shoes were a-maz-ing and the experience is one I truly will never forget. Oh, and we raised almost $100K for the cause. 

October signaled the return of some normalcy. I was able to put together something I’d daydreamed about a lot in the hospital: the First Annual Pink Party. I wanted to gather my circle of girls who had seen me and my family through the roughest part of the “cancer journey” to show my thanks and spend some non-sick time together. With the pink theme, yummy food (if I do say so myself), and plentiful drink, it was a smash success.

We seemed to have the infection under control and the antibiotics were doing their job, and after a much longer-than-anticipated hiatus, I was back on the tennis court. My sweet tennis friends gave me a little trophy that says “Winner,” and it’s the best trophy I’ve ever won. 

This little trophy soon had a friend, though, after Boss Lady and I won the Witches’ Open at the end of October. Being back on the court with my tennis friends was so great. Tennis is very good therapy.

As if that day wasn’t fun enough, that night was the Maroon 5 concert in the Woodlands. Tennis, then dinner and the show was a balm for my battered soul. We ate & drank then sang along with Adam for an unforgettable night.

Before too long, fall was upon us (or what passes for fall in Houston), and we readied ourselves for the holidays. Thanksgiving was spent with Team Cremer, with everyone contributing something to the feast. The kids worked off their meal with the traditional post-turkey swim. We had a lot for which to give thanks.

Christmas and the New Year came and went, and before I knew it was time to start making preparations for reconstruction. The Big Dig was a big step, and I had hoped it would signal the end to my “cancer journey” and allow me to put all that hardship behind me. Adding another doctor, and another Dr S, to my cast of characters could only mean one thing: I was going in for a very big surgery.

The DIEP procedure is amazing and hard, in a lot of ways: time consuming, intricate, detailed, and not infallible. Babying the newly transplanted skin, tissues, and blood vessels was hard work, and the crack team at Methodist in the med center did an outstanding job.

This is what I looked like before The Big Dig:

and this is what I looked like 3 days later, leaving the hospital:

It was a hard 3 days, no lie, but at least I was going home. One thing I would miss from the hospital was the morphine. Oh, how I love that stuff. I guess a lot of people do, too, because they guard it closely and I got a laugh from the ping-pong-paddle-key used to replenish my supply. Kinda reminded me of a gas station restroom key. 

One thing I would not miss from the hospital was this chair.

This was the chair in ICU that I had to hoist myself into, after hoisting myself and my 17-inch-long abdominal incision out of bed. Again, it’s a good thing I’m so stubborn, because it would have been easy to roll over, say this is too hard, too painful, too much. But by golly I was going to get out of that bed and into that chair no matter what, and with my morphine pump in hand, I did just that. I don’t think I cussed too much, either.

Recovery from The Big Dig is ongoing, and they say it will take a while longer. I’m not the most patient person, and I’m ready to have everything back to normal. Of course I know there’s a new normal, and it progresses at its own pace, not mine. It’s been a long, tough “journey,”and it seemed that everything that could go wrong did go wrong, for a while.

But a lot of good things have happened, too. I started blogging, for one, with Pedey at my side or in my chair, or both; who knew so many people were interested in my little “cancer journey?” It’s humbling and rewarding to see my “readership” grow, and I am immensely grateful for all the love and support that’s come my way. Someday I may have no cancer-related news to share. How weird will that be? I imagine I’ll find something to talk about in this space, nonetheless.

I will have more stories to share about my adventures with Dr S. There are a couple of revisions that he needs to make to his palette that is my newly constructed chest, and while we argue about the timeframe for that, it will likely provide blog fodder and laughs along the way.

One year ago, life took a decidedly unpleasant turn. Cancer entered my life like an afternoon storm along the Gulf Coast. 

And like the butterfly bush in my backyard that was uprooted and tossed around by high winds recently, I weathered the storm. I’m setting my roots and hoping that the winds that blow my way in future are calmer.

Like the pillow on my bed says, I am a survivor.


Journey

If you’re like me, once you read the title of this post, you’d end up with “Don’t Stop Believing” running through your head.

“Hold on to that feeeeeeeeling….”

Yes, we are simple creatures at times, and prone to even simpler suggestion.

As I wrap up the Napa series of blog posts, I reflect back on a fantastic trip, an outstanding weekend, and the kind of memories that would keep me warm on a cold winter’s night if I didn’t live along the Gulf Coast of the great state of Texas. Not that the memories aren’t that good, but that there’s little need for warming around here. Especially with my hot flashes. Thanks, early-induced menopause, because pre-summer in Houston isn’t steamy enough.

Thinking about the trip and preparing to say good-bye to our visitors from Boston today makes me a teensy bit sad. I don’t like transitions. I’m in for the long haul and can work long and hard at a steady pace, but I don’t care for the ups & downs, the twists & turns, the stops & starts. This sentiment applies, for me, whether we’re talking about vacation or illness. Going from my “normal” life to vacation mode takes me a little bit of time. Getting into the vacation frame of mind is a conscious shift for me, even when it’s a vacation I’m looking forward to. Having our friends from Boston here is most definitely something I look forward to, but it still requires me to make that shift in my head.

Now that our vacation with them is ending, I find myself again shifting, from the luxuryof sleeping in on a school day and spending the day by the pool, drinking early and often and into the evening; to hauling my carcass out of bed to pack the kids’ lunches, sign their folders, forge notes about their absences, and getting back to my normal life. I like my normal life, so this isn’t inherently a bad thing; it just required me to shift gears and change my  mind frame.

I’ve never been good at handling change, and that may be why I’m not a great traveler. I don’t like the idea of having to decide in advance what I’ll be wearing, and then pack it, taking care to not forget anything. It seems that once I get used to the new location, it’s about time to go home, and then there’s another adjustment to handle. I do it, and without the need for intervention, but it’s an effort.

That’s why this phrase spoke to me:

It was on the wall of the Cost Plus World Market in San Francisco near our hotel, where we popped into for supplies (and by supplies, yes, I do indeed mean champagne) our first night in California. We were at the checkout, clanking bottles and deciding whether to add chocolates to the purchase, when I saw this saying on the store wall. The other shoppers might have thought me a bit mad to be snapping a photo in the middle of a store, but I stopped caring about things like that a long time ago.

The saying spoke to me because I know that Lao Tzu is right.  He was a mythical figure in ancient China and is said to be the father of Taoism, so you know he’s smart. His ancient quote about the good traveler retains relevance today because people like me continue to buck the journey in favor of the destination. I know that it’s not about the destination, yet I can’t wait to get there. I will jump through all the requisite hoops along the journey in order to get to the destination, but for me, the destination is the goal. Wrong, I know, but still I persist.

Some say that dealing with cancer gives you greater clarity on “the things that really matter.” Or that having survived cancer, you become more aware of and grateful for the things around you. Then there are the idiot-balls who say that cancer is a gift. To them, I say choke off. This is no gift. Yes, it does afford the opportunity to re-evaluate priorities and habits, but it’s no gift.

I spend a lot of time in my personal “cancer journey” marking off time and accumulating milestones. Maybe that’s a coping mechanism, I don’t know. I do know that I can tell you to the day how long I’ve been on oral antibiotics (251 days), and how long it’s been since The Big Dig (49 days). More likely, it’s because I’m focused on the destination and not the journey. I can’t wait to “be done” with this cancer business: the disease itself, the surgeries, the recoveries, the uncertainty, and the drug therapies. I don’t aspire to ever be free of the worry that the cancer business drops on my doorstep like an unexpected and oversized parcel. It will always be there, in the back of my mind. I liken it to the childhood sensation of rolling your tongue through the newly-created hole of a lost tooth. Your brain knows the tooth is gone, but your tongue can’t resist checking for sure, by sliding through that narrow, slippery, and slightly nauseating space. My brain knows my cancer is gone, yet it can’t resist double-checking.

I refuse to live in fear, however. I don’t want to have any regrets: about life in general, and certainly not in this “cancer journey.” Each decision I’ve made along this “journey” has been nitpicked and examined half to death, with risk and reward calculated to within an inch of their lives. Some decisions have been difficult, and some have been easy, but none have come without a lot of thought.

I heard from a fellow breast cancer blogger who is dealing with an infection, possibly of her tissue expander, just as I did. She’s on IV Vancomycin, like I have been many times. I commented on her blog to tell her that the Vanc works and it will cure her, hoping to offer some support. She replied that she can’t imagine how I endured that process multiple times because it’s so stressful. Yes, it is. No doubt there. And if someone were to ask me how I endured it, I don’t know that I would have an answer. I don’t know how I got through it, other than I just did it. Just gritted my teeth, tucked my head and did it. Because I didn’t see any other choice. Saying “I can’t” wasn’t going to make it go away.

I do like to make myself focus on good things, or to “walk on the sunny side of the street” (thanks, Mom!). Yesterday I wasn’t feeling well, for the 3rd day in a row, and was a little put-out that my “cancer journey” was once again interfering in my fun. I wanted to visit and eat & drink with my friends who were in town, but instead I had to lay down and take a nap. Take a nap. In the middle of the day, and in the middle of my friends’ visit. That made me grumpy, and I was just starting to think about getting out the pity-party supplies.

Then I told myself to shut the hell up, get in the shower and get on with the day. There was dinner to prepare for our last night together and 3 bottles of bubbly in the fridge, so there was no time for a pity party.

While in the shower, I was wondering why the hell my belly incision is still so tight and sore after 48 days, and when in the sam hell it’s ever going to heal all the way so I can take a shower like a normal person, without wincing as I lather, rinse & repeat, and just be done with it.

Then I realized: I AM taking a shower like a normal person. There were no JP drains to deal with. There were no holes in the side of my body to keep dry. There was no dressing over the accessed port-a-cath that had to be kept dry. 

When my port is accessed, i.e., has a butterfly needle piercing my skin and the port to deliver medicine, it has to be covered to keep it sterile. The port itself is smaller than a quarter, and the butterfly needle (while really thick) doesn’t extend the area. Yet the whole thing has to be covered with this giant dressing. That’s it above, stuck to my clavicle, shoulder, and neck area. My skin hates these dressing with a passion. The sticky tape irritates my skin as much as Sarah Palin irritates me. After I peel the dressing off, there remains a red, raised outline in the exact size & shape of the dressing.

And yet, I’m sans dressing. That’s a bright side, a good thing to be tallied and counted. I’m also sans sling bag. Not having the JP drains means I don’t have to wear the sling bag, cute as it may be, 24/7. That’s another bright side, and a very good thing.

Yep, it’s cute, and it served a wonderful purpose, and I love my runnin’ buddy for getting it for me. Being able to camouflage the drains by stuffing them in the sling bag, then hide the protruding rubber tubing by the cross-body bag, gave me freedom and kept me from being house-bound.

There’s nothing in there — look, Ma, no drains!! — and that is a reason to celebrate. I’m no longer tethered to plastic bomb-shaped udders collecting all manner of gross stuff, fluid and solid, that my battered body is shedding after yet another major trauma. I don’t have to plan my very limited wardrobe around the bright orange pattern anymore, but now I can do that just because I want to.

I will always be grateful to the sling bag for carrying my drains, and my drugs, in such style. The clear plastic compartment in the inside front is not likely designed for slipping in the essential few pills, but it sure worked well for me. I’ve heard that some people keep their driver’s license there instead. How weird is that?! Instead of my TX ID, featured here are my constant companions Bactrim & Minocycline, the antibiotics for the post-mastectomy infection; a muscle relaxer for the super-tight 17-inch belly incision; and a Xanax for any and all calamities, just in case.

So while this “cancer journey” is far from a gift and certainly does suck, I can still “walk on the sunny side of the street,” look on the bright side, and find moments of goodness contained within as I move forward, always searching for the finish line.

This signpost, sent to me by Jill in the Oakland airport en route from Napa back home, is a good mile marker in my journey. I love that my friends see bubbly-related things and think of me, and I love that no matter where this journey takes me, I’ll have great friends, a sassy sling bag, and plenty of bubbly for the ride.


Playin’ the cancer card

I don’t do it very often.

Not because I’m so virtuous, because the truth is, I’d sell my soul to get back to my normal life. Too bad nobody’s buying.

Today I played the cancer card. And I’m not sorry.

My allergists’ office called. The one doctor’s office I don’t hear from on a weekly basis, at the least. The nurse said they can’t call in a refill for my Flonase because I’m “way overdue for a follow-up visit.”

I haven’t had any respiratory problems–that may be the only thing I haven’t had problems with, and my sinuses seem to be the only body part not felled by infections, yes, plural infections. I didn’t think it necessary to go for a follow-up visit.

I’ve also been a little busy.

I told the nurse that I’ve been a little busy. I was nice about it, despite a childish but pressing desire to blister her ears with the entire, complicated, curse-word-filled story.

But I did not. That, people, is what is known as self-control. I don’t exert it all that often, so pardon my need to point it out when the planets are aligned and it does happen.

I simply told the nurse that I’ve been preoccupied with breast cancer, multiple surgeries, infection, and full-time, long-term healing. Long, drawn-out pause. Cue the crickets chirping.

She didn’t say anything, so I wrapped up the already-dead conversation by telling her to please pass along the message that if the doctor still needed to see me, in order to refill a benign prescription for a preventative steroid nasal spray, I would indeed drag my pathetic, battered, scarred, fused, and infused carcass to the office and wait ever-so-patiently for the all-mighty doctor to fill out a perfunctory slip of paper.

The nurse said she would call me back.

I said, thank you ever so much, and please, have a nice day.

Guess what? The prescription is approved, filled, and awaiting pick-up.

As Kenny Rogers so eloquently put it, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” You also gotta know when to play that cancer card.