Texas is a baseball powerhouse in general, and our neck of the woods is no different. We’re right down the highway from Pearland, whose Boys of Summer blazed a trail from Texas to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, last summer to go nearly all the way in the prestigious Little League World Series.
This truckload of Pearland boys could be from any Little League in Texas; hopefully in a couple of years it will be my kid’s First Colony team. We watched every game last summer, cheering for those boys in blue and hoping they would prevail. We laughed at the way the media zeroed in on the Pearland moms and their blinged-out team shirts. I guess not everyone “does” baseball that way, but around here, it’s de rigueur for baseball moms to have glitzy shirts, often with their kid’s number emblazoned in rhinestones. Writer Ken Hoffman said the Pearland team “tore through Texas tournaments and blew into Williamsport with tape-measure home runs, speeding- ticket-worthy fastballs and bedazzling mothers that the Little League World Series won’t forget.”
All Stars is an exciting time. Grueling, too, with practice 7 days a week until the games start. We plan our vacations around the All Stars schedule, and schedule our daily activities around practice. The first tournament begins Tuesday, and I sure hope the Big Red Machine blows through District and Sectionals the way they did last summer, blazing a trail straight for the State Championship in Tyler, TX.
Since I missed pretty much all of it last summer, I didn’t realize that our district, Texas East Little League, “stretches from the Sabine River in the East to I-20 in the North to I-35 on the West to San Antonio and from there to the Gulf of Mexico and back to the Sabine River,” according to the Texas East website.
We’re that little strip of green in the middle, District 16. Texas is a big state, the second-biggest in the country in both population and area, and baseball is serious business around here. I don’t know how many Little Leagues there are in Texas, but considering that this great state is 773 miles wide and 790 miles long and populated by some 25 million people (thank you, Wikipedia), I’d say there are a bunch.
I’ve written a lot about having missed so many of Payton’s games last summer. Don’t worry, I’m not going to re-hash it today. Suffice to say that if it had just been the bilateral mastectomy in mid-May, I would have been in fine shape for the All Star summer schedule. But no, the post-mastectomy infection had to surface, and the resulting hospital stays and surgeries meant there would be no trip to Tyler for me. From the moment that infection reared its ugly head, my life became one complication after another, and I began to live the famous Winston Churchill quote of “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Just do it without being able to watch your kid play the best baseball of his life. From mastectomy to infection, to nearly 30 days in the hospital, to multiple tissue excisions, to saying good-bye to the tissue expanders, to a shaky recovery involving all manner of antibiotics and home health, to slowly very slowly getting a semblance of a normal life back to finally getting around to reconstruction, to the long recovery process after The Big Dig. Quite a circuitous route I took, with very little baseball.
So this summer, I’m going to soak it all up. Every scorching minute of it. Since Texas is in a major, seemingly unending drought, we probably won’t have to worry about getting rained out, like we did a few times last summer. I’ll be in my blinged-out shirt, cheering hard for the boys in red, and reflecting back on how much I missed last summer at the ballpark.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The front page of the Houston Chronicle today has an article entitled “Infections Top Safety Issues for Hospitals.”
For hospitals?? What about for patients??
I admit, before I became a statistic and contracted a nosocomial infection, I didn’t think much about it, and I would have to say that infections were not the top safety issue for me. Now, of course, I am a statistic, and I’m not very happy about it. Well, I learned a new word (nosocomial,) which usually makes me happy, but this time, not so much. In fact, not at all. I could have happily lived the rest of my life never hearing that word, much less learning about it so intimately.
The article in today’s paper got my attention, for sure, and I half expected to read a story similar to my own, but instead it’s about systemic vascular infections among Medicare patients. The article itself didn’t enlighten me much, and it never said specifically what kind of infections we’re talking about. Not a single mention of staph or mycobacterium to be found.
Sadly, I’m quite well-versed in those two topics.
The article did say that out of 46 hospitals in a 50-mile radius of Houston, half of them reported that Medicare patients under their care contracted infections. Some 472 “hospital-acquired conditions” were reported among 234,000 Medicare patients from October 2008 to June 2010.
I love how the infections are downgraded to “conditions” in print. I can tell you with 100 percent clarity that my hospital-acquired infection was not a condition. It was hell, and it became all-out war.
Even though I eventually emerged the victor, like most warriors, I will live in the shadow of that victory forever. I don’t know that I will ever feel completely at ease about the infection. I suspect the fear of infection will always be in the back of my mind. Like Harry Potter looking over his shoulder for “He Who Shall Not Be Named,” I will carry this monkey on my back for all of time.
It’s been a while since I have had the recurring dream in which my chest splits open and fluid is pouring out. Maybe that means I’m healing, mentally. In January I wrote about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and how it’s not just for people in the military.
At that time, I was 5 months out from my last hospitalization for the post-mastectomy infection, and it was still alarmingly fresh in my mind. Today, I’m even farther out from that last hospital stay, and hope to continue putting distance between myself and that date. 8 months and counting….
I don’t freak out on a daily basis anymore, and having a reconstructed chest instead of a battle-scarred sunken stretch of mangled skin helps. A lot. To the untrained eye, I look like a normal suburbanite going about her daily business. I’m pretty much recovered from The Big Dig, other than some lingering soreness in my belly incision and the annoying fatigue that I can’t seem to shake. The reconstruction, like the cancer, was a piece of cake compared to fighting the hospital-acquired “condition.”
That “condition” and I go round and round, and even though I was the winner in our balls-out battle this past summer, it will always have a hold on me. The 256 days of oral antibiotics are case in point.
Twice a day.
256 days. With no end in sight.
The other day, I did something I haven’t done in all that time: I missed a dose.
This is huge for me. I’m a bit OCD when it comes to taking my meds, and I’ve been ridiculoulsy proud of the fact that after all this time, I’ve stayed on course and haven’t had to take a break, to nurse an upset stomach or to quell a GI disturbance. I’ve only barfed a couple of times, and it was because I didn’t eat enough to lay down a good base for those antibiotics.
But lately it hasn’t mattered what I eat, I always feel barfy. Once the simple carbs like crackers & pretzels failed to rid me of the ever-present nausea, I gave in and took the Zofran. The nausea was gone, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Clearly this would not be a daytime solution. Once I’d exhausted the simple carbs and Zofran plan, I resorted to alcohol. And lots of it. I figured, if I was gonna feel that bad, I might as well have a good buzz.
Not such a good plan.
I’m really glad I never read the 2001 study on vascular infections authored by Dr CA Mestress of Barcelona. In it he says that vascular infections are “dreadful surgical entities that are usually accompanied by a high morbidity and mortality.” Yikes. I’m really glad I didn’t know that until now. Dr Mestress goes on to say that these infections “require immediate diagnosis and aggressive treatment.”
The recent study on Medicare patients found in the Chronicle today quotes Donald McLeod, spokesperson for the US Department of Health & Human Services as saying, “We wanted to bring transparency to the fact that patients are exposed to potentially unsafe occurrences at America’s hospitals.” He goes on to say he hopes that the recent study will “spur hospitals to work with care providers to reduce or eliminate these hospital-acquired conditions from happening again to even a single patient.”
There’s that word again: condition. That’s gonna bug me.
It seems the recent study focused on vascular infections contracted via catheters, so who knows how many other hospital-acquired “conditions” are unclassified. Instead of giving me the details I want, the article devoted itself to discussing other hospital-acquired “conditions” such as bed sores, falls, mismatched blood types, and surgical objects accidentally left in the body after surgery.
Ok, so none of those things happened to me, and for that, I am grateful. Wonder if Harry Potter can whip me up a cure for the all-day nausea?
According to the latest hospital bill, that’s how much my reconstruction cost. Well, at least phase 1 of reconstruction. More phases to come, but let’s not even think about that now; I would hate to stroke out this close to happy hour on the last Friday of spring break.
Here’s the breakdown, in case you’re curious; please note the absence of any fees for the surgeons. I can’t even begin to imagine how massive those costs are, so let’s say for now that the Drs S did an amazing job and I couldn’t put a price on their services if I tried.
ICU Surgical: $9,312.00
Radiology (don’t recall any of that; must have been asleep): $359.00
Medical Surgical Supplies (nice & vague, huh?): $18,117.00
OR Services: $22,550.50
Intermediate Care: $2,586.00
Respiratory Services: $147.50
Pathology Lab: $3,607.00
And finally, the most puzzling charge of all:
Patient Convenience: $5.50
WTH?? If anyone knows what “patient convenience” is, and why it costs $5.50, please do tell. I can assure you there were precious few things about that procedure that were actually convenient.
I would have expected my pharmacy fee to be much higher. Maybe as a repeat customer, I get a discount on morphine.
“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt
Well, I did indeed live through the horror (or horrors, if we’re counting the previous surgeries, procedures, and nastiness), so I guess I can indeed take the next thing that comes along.
That next thing better be something good.
It’s been a long road, and while a lot of people have even longer and more pot-hole-filled roads, I’m thinking only about mine right now. I’m still recovering and can be selfish like that. I won’t ride that wave too long, or play that card too often, but for today, I’m thinking about my road and no one else’s.
I really like the quote above from Eleanor Roosevelt, and thank Susan Christopherson for passing it along to me in the early days of my “cancer journey.” In those early days, I had no idea that the diagnosis and mastectomy were going to be the easy parts, that a nasty infection would make those previous experiences seem like a walk in through a rainbow-infused meadow with my pet unicorn. Ha!
Another quote of Ms Roosevelt’s that’s always been a favorite of mine is “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she gets into hot water.” True dat.
I’ve had a lot of comments about my fearless attitude, and some people have kindly suggested that my sunny outlook has helped propel me through this “cancer journey” without much trouble. If you want to know how I do it, the answer is: I don’t know, it’s just what you do.
I grew up with the “it’s just what you do” principle, and maybe it’s like freckles or pigeon toes–you either got it or ya don’t. My parents did instill that principle, and they did a good job, so it took. I certainly don’t wake up every morning with cartoon birds singing out my window and little woodland creatures bringing me my robe & slippers (although that would be pretty cool). If they could bring me a skinny latte, that would be even better.
I suppose there are two ways to face a horrifying situation: head-on, like Ms. Roosevelt suggests, or with your head buried in the sand. I’m a head-on kind of girl, and the head-in-the-sand approach has never worked for me. I kinda admire the people who can do that, though, because it seems a lot easier. But here’s the thing: no matter how you face a scary situation, it’s still scary.
Cancer didn’t make me brave. I don’t think it’s a gift (as I’ve written about before, and will continue to rant about at any given time, so get used to it!). Good things can come from a bad situation, but the bad situation does not magically become a good thing.
The truth of the matter is that cancer sucks. Whether it’s an early diagnosis and best-case outcome or late-stage and aggressive, it just sucks. There are untold ways in which it sucks. And there are innumerable ways in which it affects your life and body. For me the scariest and suckiest thing about cancer is that once you have it, you can do everything right and face everything head-on with no guarantee that it will all work out ok. That’s just not right. Our society is based on the idea that if you work hard, you will propser. The American Dream, right? Well, cancer doesn’t subscribe to that idea. It’s random, and vicious, and unfair.
But guess what? We don’t have to fear it. Yes, it is one of the worst things that can happen. Being diagnosed (with no family history) at a (relatively) young age was a serious sucker-punch. My world has been topsy-turvy for the last 10 months. But as my sweet friend and survivor sister Jenny reminds me, it’s temporary. In fact, she was kind enough to make me a poster right before my reconstruction last week to reiterate that idea. I wanted to take it to the hospital with me, but the extreme heat of the ICU room would have melted the glue dots and cute sparkly stickers.
Jenny has reminded me from day one of my “cancer journey” that it is temporary, which means I can endure it. I can get through it. Some days I’ve questioned that, and Jenny has texted me a simple message: it’s temporary. Knowing that removes some of the fear and shifts that balance of power from cancer back to me, where it belongs.
I was out cold in the OR, having unspeakably nasty things done to my body to restore the damage wreaked by the post-mastectomy infection. Whew!
The first couple of days of week 1 are pretty hazy, thanks to my BFF morphine. Love that stuff. But my BFF knows its proper place, and we have short but infrequent get-togethers. This time around, my BFF gave me a terrible headache, which was quite rude, so I bid adieu to the pain pump as fast as I could.
Let’s start from the beginning. Or as much of it as I can remember. Readers, feel free to chime in when you notice I’ve left something out. We got to the Medical Center on time (6 a.m.) and I got right into my pre-surgery room. My beautiful gown and compression stockings were waiting for me, but I waited until the very last minute to don them. After some precursory steps, like accessing my port for the administration of the really gooood drugs, a gaggle of white coats entered the room.
Dr Spiegel led the way, with her PA Jenn next, followed by their resident, Dr McNight, then my favorite plastic surgeon. He was the only guy in the room. Yahoo, girl power! He had a cool wooden box in his hand and when I asked if it was a present for me he gave me one of his looks. Someday he’ll appreciate my humor. Inside the box was not a present, but his loupes, which sadly he didn’t offer to model. I’d love to see him in a pair of goofy glasses.
Dr Spiegel and Jenn started marking my belly and I’m so mad I didn’t think to take a photo because it was cool. They used a blue sharpie for arteries, a red sharpie for blood vessels, and a black sharpie for incision lines. Lots of arrows and lines later, there was a roadmap of sorts. Very cool. At one point, Dr Spiegel wasn’t happy with an incision mark so she had Dr McNight scrub it off my belly with alcohol and re-do it with the black marker.
After that it was time to head to the OR, and they must have given me a cocktail in the pre-surgery room, because I don’t recall anything after the sharpie party. When I woke up, some 8 hours later, I felt pretty good…but it was because I was wrapped in the loving embrace of some big-time anesthesia. Dr Ashmore, my hand-picked anesthesiologist, did a fantastic job of putting me to sleep, and more importantly, waking me back up. It was good and restful.
I’m not too sure about whether I was in a recovery room or went straight to the ICU, but once I got to ICU I recall that it was HOT. And I’m a Texas girl, so I know about some heat. The docs had warned me that the room would be warm, to help my newly transplanted blood vessels learn to regulate themselves in their new northern home. But wow, was it hot. Between the high temp, the two heaters, and the squeezing of the compression hose, I was roasting. I tried to be nice about it, and I think I only lost it once, when I begged one of the ICU nurses, probably Carol, to please please please just crack the door and let some AC in. Just for a second. She declined my request.
I spent the night in ICU, but thankfully the flaps, aka former belly skin & fat that were magically transformed into breasts, behaved and there was no drama (other than me begging Carol to crack the door, turn down one heater, turn up the thermostat or bring me a gallon-sized frozen margarita). The flaps had to be checked every hour, yes every hour, with a hand-held doppler. There were (until yesterday) some wires stitched on top of my chest that somehow transmitted audible sound of the blood rushing through my newly transplanted blood vessels through the doppler. It sounded a lot like a fetal heart monitor. And we heard it a lot. My flaps were cooperative, and the nurses were able to hear the blood rushing almost instantly after putting the doppler onto my chest. One nurse told me that sometimes it took 20 minutes to find the sound. I started to panic after a few seconds of not hearing it, so can’t imagine the size margarita I would need if it took 20 minutes to register.
The ICU room had a wall of windows with mini blinds, and the nurse was right outside the door at a desk looking into my room if not attending to her one other patient. Some people might think that would make you feel very safe and catered to, but it made it hard to sneak anything by her because she was always watching. If she wasn’t watching, somebody else was walking by. It was a constant parade of doctors, residents, nurses, PCAs and other people peeping into my room.
I got released from ICU after some really delicious jello and a contraband peanut butter & jelly sandwich (liquid diet…pffft) into a regular room on the 8th floor of Dunn Tower. Lovely view out the window of the heart of the Texas Medical Center, and more importantly, no heaters. It wasn’t exactly chilly in the new room, but so much better than the ICU room. Nevertheless, I did beg to have the tight, scratchy, hot compression stockings removed. Those nurses were not swayed by my shameless begging.
Apparently the docs were pretty pleased with their handiwork, and if you missed Trevor’s and Amy’s guest blogs while I was too loopy to post, go back and take a peek. Long story short, the flaps were cooperating, the morphine headache abated, some regular food arrived, and life rolled on. At some point they moved the flap checks to every two hours instead of hourly, which was mighty nice. It’s amazing how your perspective changes in a situation like that. After umpteen hours with no food, a simple PB&J was a delicacy. After being awake most of the night, a short cat-nap seemed a decadent luxury.
I’m sure I said some goofy stuff and probably offended someone at some point with my off-color humor. Apparently I channeled my mom, too, telling my friend Laura who works at Methodist and who visited me several times a day, “Thanks for dropping by.” Every time she came by. I was just being mannerly and didn’t realize I’d seen her a few hours previous.
There are conflicting reports on how the turf war between the Drs S played out. All parties are being quite cagey on the details of who did what part of the surgery, and like a good murder mystery, we may never know who real killer was. I have my suspicion, but even asking point-blank hasn’t garnered an answer, so we may have to label that information “permanently classified.”
I did get to skate out of the hospital a few days ahead of schedule, and even though I received impeccable care, I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Coming home is always sweet, but never as sweet as when I’m leaving a hospital room.
I have more mobility than I did after the mastectomy, but not as much as I’d like. The first few times I had to get up without using my arms but relying on my legs and abs, the hip-to-hip incision on my tummy protested mightily. But it got better every time, and now I do it almost without thinking about it. Almost. I still can’t walk completely upright because the incision is still very tight, but I’m not quite the Quasimodo I was in the hospital. I get a bit straighter every day.
I came home with 6 JP drains this time, and had to upgrade my VB sling bag to a bigger VB bag that could accommodate the drain party. I knew from last time around that 4 drains fit nicely, with a little extra room for my Blistex, some folding money, and a teeny ziplock bag of pills, should they be necessary. Six drains would have burst my handy little bag right open. Wonder how many drains this lady is toting in her VB bags?
I had my first real shower today, not counting the seated variety the hospital offers. Again, it’s the little things we take for granted. I’m down to just 2 drains and back to my sling bag, thanks to Jenn removing the 4 drains up top yesterday. She gave me a good report; everything looks good and is healing nicely.
While I feel a whole lot better and am ready to get back to normal, my handlers think one week post-op is a bit premature to jump right back into the day-in, day-out routine. I am trying to take it easy. I’m resigned to the fact that I’m back to one outing a day for a while, and sadly, a doctor’s appointment counts as an outing. Yesterday I had a small entourage escort me to see Jenn, and we had a bite of lunch (sans margaritas) beforehand. The handlers insisted on snapping a photo of this maiden voyage, and there was some talk of me earning a margarita for every device I had removed at the subsequent appointment. Between the two doppler wires and the 4 JP drains, somebody owes me 6 margaritas. No salt.
Although I complain about going to the med center, there’s always something interesting to see along the way. Getting out of the suburbs is a good thing, and there’s a whole ‘nother way of life in this big city of ours. Last time I was at the med center for some testing, I saw this car and had to take a picture, to show Macy. I knew this car would appeal to her:
and had to snap a picture. Yes, it is a zebra car, complete with a long tail. Gotta love the big city.
It’s Amy Hoover here. Nancy has been doing really well. She’s super tired. Come to find out her new breasticles have to have their arterial blood flow checked once an hour and it’s been that way since the surgery ended yesterday and will be through tomorrow…..so cat naps abound. They made her get up and have a “sitting trial” time for an hour and she did really well. To hear her tell the doctors about it, it was “hard” but as an observer she handled the “trial” with grit and humor–typical Nancy. I think she handled it better than her first trip off the bed post mastectomy!
The people working at Methodist are doing a great job responding to her needs and that morphine pump responds at the touch of the button. We just went over her “Daily goals/Patient needs” which are posted on her wall in her new room:
1. pain control
2. regular diet
3. cough and deep breath 10x/hour
5. SCD on legs
Yes, I know there’s no 4, but I call it like I see it! (and we are not sure what SCD stands for, but she does have compression stockings on her legs and some pump thing to keep blood clots at bay). So….number one goal is pain control and Mr. Morphine pump is at the ready. I reminded her that she’s not here to prove anything so not to try to wait it out but go ahead and push that button if she feels the pain. Pain control is the NUMBER ONE goal!
Dr. S. called in today to check on her and Nancy got tickled because he had to wait on hold for quite a while for Nurse Carol who was busy taking care of Nancy.
Dr. Spiegel came by and checked out the results and is really, really pleased. From my layman’s point of view, I agree.
She’s resting now and it is definitely quieter in this room, so hopefully it will be a good nap. She has requested an Ambien to help her sleep tonight. After her nap she will have to sit in the chair again.
Tomorrow’s plan is to do a little bit of walking and take a shower. We expect to see the doctor in the early morning.
Nancy is out of ICU and in her private room now. It took forever to get out of there, there just seemed to be always one more thing. They had to take blood and couldn’t get enough from the line in her hand despite much digging and infliction of pain. They finally just opened up her chemo port and had it done in a snap. Of course they had already packed her up for transport so the morphine pump was temporarily disconnected. But Nancy is a bad ass and toughed it out.
Thanks also to Laura Lessard for spending time with us today and taking me for lunch.
Life goes on for everyone else, I’m at Macy’s tennis lesson now. Payton has his season opening baseball game tonight. She is probably ready to post something herself but I accidentally left with her iPad. Like I said – trying to keep things normal.
I arrived back at the ICU this morning with Amy Hoover who will be staying the night with Nancy tonight. Let me pause to thank Amy and Christy Burrmann for lunch yesterday and to Staci Martinez for sitting with me all day. That’s a lot to put up with.
Nancy is very alert today and in a very good mood. Her pain is under control and she is eating well. The nurses here have been terrific, Cindy and Carol have both been very attentive and helpful – they don’t mind applying chapstick. And David the PCA even fetched coffee for me and Amy. Overall this is the best care she has had during her hospital stays and it’s generally been pretty good.
They checked on her every hour last night so she didn’t get too much sleep though. They have ordered a room for her but they won’t let her out of ICU until she sits up in a chair for an hour. They just wheeled it in, this is gonna hurt.
I just visited briefly with both Dr. S’s about Nancy’s surgery. They are done and she is having the surgery wounds dressed. I will get to see her in about an hour or two once she clears recovery and is moved to ICU. I will post another update once that happens.
Both doctors were all smiles and they expressed a lot of satisfaction with the outcome. I’m not going to post the details – do you really need to know how many grams each breast facsimile weighs? – but they seemed pretty proud of themselves about sculpting a nice new figure for Nancy. We shall see, Nancy has expressed that mostly she just doesn’t want to look like “ground under repair” anymore if I can borrow a golf term.
So it sounds like good news. Look for at least one more update tonight.
Update: I forgot to mention the surgeons did find some spots of active infection still after 200 days of antibiotics. Incredible. One benefit of this procedure should be to help by physically removing most or all of it. And it confirms the value of Nancy’s amazing persistence in never missing a dose. Unfortunately it also means the drug-taking will continue – and these aren’t the fun kind.