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.
and Macy & I pampered ourselves with a Chinese foot massage.
I squeezed in as much time as I could with my girls
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
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.
Keith’s crab towers were chock-full of healing properties.
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.
although Pedey enjoyed every lazy minute of my recouperating.
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.
So the latest food trend is (drumroll please). . . pie.
There’s a lady in Houston named Bella-Katherine Curtis who believes that nothing says love quite like a pie. The smell of a peach pie hot from the oven, made by mom’s or grandma’s hands, is a little slice of heaven, she said.
“There’s a joy knowing that someone made it just for you; someone loved you enough to make it,” said Curtis, owner of My Dee Dee’s Pie Shoppe. “It’s special. That’s what pies do. Cake is good but there’s something very special about pies.”
She’s right. And it’s about time pies got their day in the spotlight. Any monkey can make a cake from a mix and slap some canned frosting on it, but a homemade pie is special. Yes, you certainly can buy a crust and dump a can of gelatinous filling in it and call it done, but that’s not a real pie.
I grew up on homemade pie, and anyone who’s read this blog has heard me wax poetic about how great my mom’s pies were. Her coconut cream pie is the ultimate comfort food for me. Good day? Have some CC pie. Bad day? A piece of CC pie will make it better. Promotion? You earned a piece of CC pie. Car wreck? CC pie will help.
Barb’s coconut cream pie was the real deal. Homemade crust (duh), made with flour, crisco, salt, and ice water. That woman could whip up and roll out a delicious pie crust faster than I could find the recipe in my cookbook.
The edges were always perfectly fluted, too. She said it was simple: just pinch the edge of the crust between your forefinger and thumb and presto! perfectly fluted.
I have perfectly good thumbs & forefingers, and I can certainly pinch crust between them, but mine never, ever looked like hers.
She made a lot of pies. Anytime she hosted a dinner party (which was often), the dessert would be pie. Anytime she went to a potluck, she’d bring a pie. Usually two. Any family gathering featured, you guessed it, Barb’s pie.
She gave me several pie-making lessons, and I did not excel. She would tell me to handle the dough lightly; too much or too firm and the crust wouldn’t be light & flaky. Frankly, I’d settle for light or flaky, without aspiring to both.
In her absence, I have tried to take over the pie-making. While I wouldn’t say it’s been an epic fail, it’s not been overwhelmingly successful, either. One Christmas Eve I attempted the old standard cherry pie. The crust was fussy that day, and the filling overflowed in the oven, so the finished product looked as if I’d dropped it from a tall building. If I hadn’t been so busy crying and cussing, I would have taken a picture, which I could then post here so everyone could laugh at me and that pitiful pie.
Curtis opened her pie shop in October 1992, rolling out 29 pies on her first day in business. Guess what? she sold them all. Today she’s known as “The Pie Lady.” My mom is smiling about that right now.
Anyone who knows anything about pie knows it’s all about the crust. Curtis says that crust is literally the pie’s foundation. Good pie bakers know that without a good crust, pie is a waste of calories.
“When you bake a pie you have to make a crust and take care of it,” said Curtis whose crust is her mother’s recipe. “Then, of course, you have a filling. There are many steps to pie, and it can make a big mess in the kitchen. It’s a lot more challenging than making a cake. It takes more work. But it’s worth it. A pie says more.”
She’s right. A pie does say more. It says, eat me now!!
But Curtis worries that old-fashioned pie baking might become a lost art. “In another generation it might be totally lost,” she said. “There are so few people out there who make scratch pies.”
I’m trying, Ms. Curtis, I’m trying.
Read about how much better she is than I at making pies here: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/life/food/7386674.html
As we prepare to bid adieu to 2010, I took a stroll down memory lane in the months since I joined the club of which no one wants to be a member. There were some great moments in the first few months of 2010, or BC (before cancer), and I made it my mission to ensure that the months that followed had the same. Two weeks before I was diagnosed, life was grand, as evidenced by the happy girls in this photo of Yvonne’s birthday dinner at Stella Soli. So fun! Who knew that something wicked this way comes?
The day before my surgery, Macy and I had the great good fortune to meet Jeffrey, a baby mockingbird rescued and rehabilitated by our friends the Hoovers. I’m sure I had a million things to do to get ready for the big day, but meeting Jeffrey was high on the list, and I wasn’t going to miss out on the chance to have this sweet little guy hang out with my favorite girl.
An awful lot of people did a whole lot of nice things for my family and me, following my surgery, including but certainly not limited to custom-made cupcakes,
One of my first post-surgery outings was around the corner to dinner at the Cremers’ for Keith’s famous crab towers: lump crabmeat topped with a most delectable avocado-mango salsa atop a bed of greens with a citrus-y vinaigrette.
Y’all know how much I love my bubbly.
Some may say I love it more than my kids, but that’s not fair.
We all know it would be a tie.
Two weeks after the surgery, but before the dreaded infection showed up, it was my birthday. Those who say it’s all downhill after 40 may not realize that to a cancer patient, each and every birthday is a gift, and I met birthday number 41 head-on with a welcome embrace: Mexican food, margaritas and the cutest cake ever with my girls. None better. Who cares that I still couldn’t wash my own hair at this point? Not me! I was happy to be upright and out of the house.
A week after my birthday, the bottom fell out of the extraordinary recovery I was experiencing post-surgery. We were at a joint birthday party for 3 June girls (but there were no joints at the party; that’s how rumors get started!), and I didn’t feel good. After two weeks of slowly but surely making progress and feeling better, this was weird. What was really weird was waking up the next day to a huge red rash and blisters at the surgery site on my right side. You don’t have to be a doctor to know that is not good.
and embarked on one of the most memorable summers ever, for baseball. Memorable because the team did so well (District champs, Sectional champs and on to the State championship in Tyler) and because the boys chose to show their support for me very publicly by wearing pink sweatbands all summer. These warriors in pink tore it up on the baseball field and made this mama so proud.
I only made it to a couple of games but got to follow along with all the action thanks to an iPhone app that allowed Trevor to “broadcast” the games to a website that I followed on my iPad from the hospital. I will never forget the look on the nurse’s face when she came into give me a shot of morphine and I told her I needed to wait (I never turn down the good drugs) because I wanted to keep my wits about me and follow the game. Also memorable was the wound-care specialist who had two sons go to State as All Stars who called me from home at 10:30 pm to see if Payton’s team won. They did.
In between hospitalizations, I spent a couple of hours one day in my backyard in the sunshine, watching Harry frolic in the pool. After being cooped up in a dreary hospital room and feeling lousy, the fresh air, sunshine and unbridled canine joy were just what I needed.
One of the best days of all was in early July, in between hospital visits. I had been to see Dr Darcourt, my third oncologist, and learned that he agreed with all the research Trevor had done: no chemo! Celebration was in order, and when Amy & I ordered champagne at lunch, our sweet waiter at PF Chang’s asked if there was something special to celebrate. He had no idea but we filled him in!
Another highlight was getting to spend the weekend in Galveston with Christy & Alexis, who were kind enough to teach Macy how to fish. And fish she did: that girl caught the biggest fish of the trip! Later that night, I caught a baby sting ray (not my intent, for sure). I still feel bad about that poor little guy happening by the tempting lure on my fishing pole. All’s well that ends well, though, and with some help from some more seasoned fishermen, the little guy was freed. More importantly, I had a fun weekend with great friends that approximated a return to what most people consider a normal life.
Despite the idyllic setting, that weekend was just an approximation, though, of normal life, and the infection would puzzle and vex not one but two set of infectious disease doctors. After two more hospitalizations and a new team of ID docs, we got a handle on it, and although the last thing I wanted was to go back to the hospital, and to the Medical Center at 10:30 on a Sunday night no less, I wasn’t alone in the joint.
Macy loaned me her beloved Froggy to keep me company, and he took his job seriously. He didn’t left my side until I was allowed to go home, and then he went straight from the suitcase into the washing machine lest he brought home any nasty germs from the hospital. We’d had quite enough of those in our life.
Early August was bittersweet: I was on the mend, literally, but still on IV antibiotics at home and not well enough to travel to Boston for our annual vacation. After already having missed my Duke girls’ trip to Lake Tahoe in early June and all of the State championship in Tyler, I was beyond sad to miss this trip, which is always the highlight of our summers. Leave it to Macy, though, to bring me a fantastic souvenir: Continental Airlines had unveiled a new drinks menu on her flight home from Boston, and she got me a pomegranate martini mix and, once home, brought two glassed full of ice, two lime wedges, and one shot of vodka. My favorite girl and I had a welcome-home drink together. Of all the bevvies I’ve consumed, that one may be my all-time favorite.
A few days after school started, and a week or so out of the hospital, Macy & I had tickets to see Jack Johnson play at the Woodlands pavillion. After a string of disappointments all summer, I was determined to make it to the show. It poured rain on us and traffic was horrendous, but we made it and had a great time. What would be an already-sweet occasion was all the better because I was there, upright and out of the house!
I got through the rest of August and September without incident, and was starting to think maybe, just maybe I would be able to actually make and keep some plans that didn’t involve a hospital.
October marked my first foray into Breast Cancer Awareness Month as a survivor. While always aware of the fact that every October is earmarked and punctuated with lots of pink ribbons, it’s a different experience on this side of a cancer diagnosis. I was tickled pink (sorry, couldn’t resist), when Payton’s baseball team played in this tournament.
Next up was an event that was huge for me: the Witches’ Open tennis tournament at our club. I went into my double mastectomy in the middle of our tennis season, not knowing how the surgery would affect my game. Of course it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t get my game back, the question was how much and how soon. So playing in the Witches’ Open was a stellar event. Not only did I play with my longtime running buddy, Staci, but we won! I’m pretty proud of our little trophy.
That same night, still basking in the sweet glow of victory from the Witches’ Open, I made a return trip to the Woodlands pavillion for the Maroon 5 concert. Talk about a perfect day: tennis then a road trip & dinner with super fun girls, then the show. That great day slid into a great night, and again I was beyond happy to be upright and out of the house.
As if this month hadn’t been great enough, the last Friday night in October was the icing on the cake. I gathered by BFFs for the first annual Pink Party. Prepare to be seeing photos of this event every year for the rest of my life. It was that good. Many a nights laying in the hospital bed, I thought about what I was going to do once I finally got well enough to do something for my friends to show my appreciation for all the love and support they’d so freely given during the worst time of my life. The Pink Party was all I had envisioned it would be, and the fact that I was able to put on the dog for my girls was monumental for me.
Next on the calendar was Thanksgiving, and at the risk of sounding totally hokey, I had an awful lot to be thankful for this year. At first, as we approached the holiday, I tried not to think too much about it, for fear that reflecting back on all that had happened would overwhelm me. Then I realized that’s whacked, and instead of avoiding it, I should be relishing it–every bit of it. Another major triumph for me was making my mom’s famous crescent rolls. I’ve made them before with limited success, but this year, they rocked.
After Thanksgiving of course was Christmas, and the first ornament to go on our tree was this one: the cocktail shaker that says “Shake It Up.” I intend to do just that in the New Year.
And for the record, it was Macy who picked that ornament to go on first, in my honor. That girls knows me so well. Like most families, we have lots of cute and meaningful ornaments in our collection, but it makes me smile that she chose this one to kick off our Christmas season.
So as 2010 draws to a close, I can’t say that I’ll miss it. Unequivocally, it has been the hardest year ever. But amid the chaos and confusion and abject misery, there were a whole lot of bright spots. Those moments and memories outshine the yucky stuff.