I’ve been a pretty good girl this year. I’ve smiled at fussy babies in checkout lines at HEB. I did my time at the grade-school class parties (not my scene, to say the least). I called the collection agency back — yes, I really did — when they left me a message saying I owed money on a past-due hospital bill that my insurance company says has been paid. I donated nearly-new clothes & home goods to charities multiple times. I helped out with the school fundraiser, even though I really, really, didn’t want to. I’ve said please and thank you and bring my own bags. I was a big girl and good sport about all the trips and baseball games I missed this past summer.
And while we’re on the topic of this past summer, dear Santa, do ya remember all the hell I went through? It all started on April 27, 2010, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Talk about an “aha” moment. The timeline quickly unfolded like this: the rest of April and first part of May were consumed with tests, tests, and more tests: BRAC analysis, CT scans, x-rays, PET scan, bone scans and MRI. In case that’s not enough acronyms for ya, there was also the L-Dex and then the genomic typing of ER/PR positive and HER2 negative. More injections and blood draws than my poor left arm’s veins could keep up with (literally; there’s a permanent knot in the big vein). Countless appointments with the breast surgeon (Dr Dempsey, who is on the “nice” list) and plastic surgeon (Dr S, who may be on the naughty list), and 3 different oncologists.
Meanwhile, there was research to be done and crushing decisions to be made as I prepared for surgery. The phrase “life and death” took on a whole new meaning, sweet Santa. There’s a strange juxtaposition between packing school lunches and signing field trip permission slips while also filling out my medical directive and living will. I learned pretty fast how to act normal when everything around me had been turned upside down. I think, dear Santa, I also did a pretty good job of adjusting and adapting to the new normal. I think, fat man, I’m still doing a damn fine job of that. One quick look at my profile tells you that there most definitely is a new normal around here.
Santa baby, I was a good girl after the double mastectomy and the lymph node removal that left me battle-scarred and weary. I was an especially good girl in the face of the plethora of prescription drugs I could have used & abused. I was a diligent girl when it came to choosing green drink over Diet Coke, all-natural hormone-free yogurt over Blue Bell.
Santa, I was a brave and good girl when the nasty infection set up shop in my still-raw chest wall. I endured the 103-degree fevers, 22 days in the hospital, multiple tissue excisions and untold poking & prodding without much complaint. I missed the comforts of home, my dogs & my kids more than words can say, but I only cried twice. And even then, it was when no one else was around to see.
We don’t even need to recount the 18 days during which I was attached to the wound vac 24-7. I would really like, dear Santa, to permanently erase that memory from my grey matter, por favor. But I would like to remind you that I was a trouper during the home health days, and all those hours that were consumed with wound care and the administration of IV antibiotics. And while I’m at it, can I get a little shout-out for not killing Dr S, even though he probably deserved it?
Oh Santa, I do crave some credit for all the antibiotics I’ve endured — and continue to endure. From the Vancomycin to Cefapim, from the Cipro to the Zyvox, from the Biaxin to the Bactrim and Minocycline. Those last two will be part of my daily routine for a few months yet, but I’m already looking forward to the day in which I don’t have them on my kitchen counter anymore.
So Santa, how about we make a deal? I’ll set out all the milk & cookies you want in exchange for one little thing. All I want for Christmas is to have it easy for awhile.
When you think of a breast cancer survivor, what comes to mind? A granny all decked out in pink? A joyful gal in a ball cap crossing the finish line at the Race for the Cure? How about a sad sack sitting in yet another hospital waiting for yet another test? You might think that surviving the diagnosis, the surgery, the treatment(s) and any subsequent complications means you’re done, right? Wrong. You’re wrong. It doesn’t end there, and there’s no prize for getting through it.
Welcome to the next phase of survivorship: the constant vigilance required to ensure the cancer isn’t making a repeat appearance. Although I’m just getting started, I’ll quit my bitching just long enough to say I am grateful that my doctors are vigilant, that I have good insurance, and that I can get the majority of my tests done 10 minutes from home. That said, it’s still a giant suck-fest.
Today’s test is a CT scan to check 2 little spots–1 on my liver & another on one of my lungs. These little gems were uncovered during a CT scan the last time I was hospitalized, in mid-August. No one seems too worried about them because they are so small, but once you’ve had cancer, you learn the hard way that there is no sure thing. There is no guarantee. A spot is a spot, no matter how small, and a spot is never a good thing once you’ve had The Big “C.”
Hence today’s CT scan. I’ve never had an abdominal scan before, so I didn’t know that in addition to the fasting and IV contrast (where they inject dye into my veins), I also get to drink the dye. So instead of my daily cup of coffee (which, by the way is the #1 reason I get out of bed each morning), I had to gulp down two big cups of Sprite mixed with contrast dye. No ice. No vodka. That’s just mean. I don’t like Sprite on a good day, and by good day I mean one in which the Sprite is mixed with vodka. Lots and lots of vodka. The only good thing about drinking these 2 vile cups is that I could have burped loud enough to seriously impress a room full of middle-school boys. Too bad the waiting room was full of old people, who either wouldn’t hear it or would think it was rude to launch into a Buddy-the-Elf style burp.
After the Sprite-fest was the IV contrast. Ugh. I really don’t like needles, but have had enough of them in the last 6 months, whether IVs or blood draws or shots or port flushes, to kinda get used to them, but I still don’t like them. My veins on the left side have been used so much that they rebel. They act nice at first, so right after the big stick, to pierce the skin and enter the vein, it seems as if it’s going to work, but just as the nurse is threading the needle higher into the vein, that vein says, nope, no farther. The nurse typically digs around a while before giving up and moving to the other arm.
Cue the complication: because my infection was on the right side, and because I’m working hard to avoid lymphedema (swelling from surgery or trauma that can be permanent and that is seriously contraindicated with tennis), I’m supposed to avoid getting my blood pressure taken or blood drawn from my right side. But that’s my good side! That vein hasn’t been used & abused so much that it pouts and throws a tantrum like a toddler who’s way past nap time.
Luckily, the nurse was very nice. She listened to my long, drawn-out story about my bad luck on the right side and bad veins on the left, and rolled up her sleeves to try and make it work. Work, it did, with just a little big of digging on her part. After the IV it was time to lay down on the CT machine. No big whoop. No trick there, just suck it up because it’s hard plastic instead of Tempurpedic. And then the fun part: injecting the contrast. If you’ve never experienced this, let me be the first to tell you that if you have to go through this, remember: as the dye enters your vein and travels throughout your body, you will feel a warm, wet sensation. Don’t panic and think you’ve wet your pants. Don’t worry too much about it because before you know it, the “did I wet my pants?” sensation is replaced by a crushing headache and the feeling of wanting to simultaneously vomit and pass out. It’s also ok to want to cry for yo mama. The good thing (!) about all this is, it doesn’t last very long. So before you know it, the “wet pants, gonna puke, but wait I might pass out” feeling is over, the scan is done, the nurse yanks the needle out from your vein, and you are free to go. Come back in three months, though, to do it all over again.
So the survivor vigilance is a lot of work. It’s hard enough to live with a monkey on one’s back, wondering if/when the cancer is going to recur. It’s hard enough to wonder, am I doing enough? Asking the right questions? Worrying about the right issues? Researching the right stuff? It’s hard enough to put complete trust, and thereby one’s life, in the doctors’ hands. They are human, ya know. As schooled and trained and rich in experience and purpose as they are, they’re still human. So as much as I do trust them, there’s always that little voice in the back of my head wondering, what if they’re wrong? What if they made a mistake?
Nobody said it would be easy, but I really didn’t think it would be this hard. That’s why I have this cute little pillow on my bed, to remind me that yes it’s hard, but dadgummit, I am indeed a survivor. Period.