That’s me. I admit it.
Yesterday was the first day of school, yet did I take one photo of my kids before they descended into the joys of another school year? Nope. Not even with my iPhone camera. How lazy & shiftless is that?
It occurred to me at some point last night that this will be the first year on record without a back-to-school photo, and I suppose I could have hauled Macy out of bed and pried Payton away from ESPN long enough to recreate a photo. But it would have been dark on the front step, where we always take the photo, and Macy would have had to change out of her jammies and back into her school clothes, which were no doubt in a heap on her bedroom floor. I had to admit defeat and accept that it wasn’t going to happen this year. A second-day-of-school photo seems too lame to contemplate, so this will be the year with no back-to-school photo. Macy’s entre into 4th grade and Payton’s into 7th will go unchronicled for time immemorial.
And yet, I think we will survive.
Chalk it up to cancer fatigue, or to pre-surgery jitters, or to me being a slacker mom. Either one. The reason isn’t all that important, really. The kids don’t really care if we have a photo, and I’m pretty much over it as well. I will state for the record, however, that Payton did indeed wear a Red Sox shirt for the first day of school, as has been his tradition since kindergarten. Some things never change.
If you thought I was done with my slacker mom antics and were ready to forgive me, hang on. True, it’s been a rough ride. It’s been a long year, full of medical drama and pain & suffering. I feel perfectly comfortable saying I deserve a free pass from juggling all the balls, getting everything right, and catering to everyone’s individual needs (ok, maybe that last one is going a bit far; I’m not much of a caterer).
However, life goes on and I’ve yet to find the slot into which I insert my free pass. I’m looking for something like the coupon slot at the grocery store self-checkout, but I haven’t found it. Also curiously absent is the “make it so” button — push the button and make it so, whatever “it” happens to be. In this case, it would be the back-to-school photo. I would push the “make it so button” and a photo would fall out of the sky, into my cupped hands. If only.
I certainly needed the “make it so” button last night, when Macy’s loose tooth came out just as she was getting into bed. She has been wiggling it for days, and it was hanging by a thread, or a root, or whatever loose teeth use to hang on. She emerged from her bedroom clutching a slightly bloody molar, grinning hugely and aquiver with anticipation about the upcoming visit from the Tooth Fairy.
Slacker mom was not prepared for this. See, Macy and the Tooth Fairy have a “special bond” as she described through her tears this morning. The Tooth Fairy doesn’t just leave a few bucks or some loose change, like she does for most kids. Her Royal Dental Highness knows that Macy isn’t at all concerned with or motivated by money. She likes stuff. She’s funny and quirky and a bit outside of the box. And the Tooth Fairy is usually well-stocked. Lip gloss, a stuffed animal, a stationery set…things like that rock Macy’s world. The Tooth Fairy usually picks up such items throughout the year, as she’s running her errands and comes across something that she knows Macy would like. But the Tooth Fairy was ill-prepared this time. Even though she knew that tooth was loose, the light didn’t come on and make her think, hmmmm, I better make sure I have a nice prize for Macy when that tooth comes out.
So the Tooth Fairy was forced to resort to the lowest common denominator, and she left a $5 bill. Macy was not amused. See, she had written a note to the Tooth Fairy, which she always does, and asked for a unicorn Domo. I imagine the Tooth Fairy said WTF?? I know I did. I’m fairly certain that a unicorn Domo does not exist. Or it does, but only in Macy’s imagination. I guess it would be a cross-breed between a unicorn and Domo. Interesting. But not readily available, and certainly not at 9:30 at night.
See my dilemma? I had no problem finding images of these guys on googleimages. I even found a t-shirt of Domo riding a unicorn, which I was all set to order pronto but it’s sold out online. Of course it is. Who wouldn’t want a t-shirt like this?
If I find one for Macy, I may have to get one for me too.
I can see why the Tooth Fairy flubbed this one, big time. Some requests are too tricky and unique, even for the TF.
Remember the book Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff? I have a copy, somewhere. Or did at some point. I read it, too, thinking it would be good for someone like me: impatient, intolerant of idiots, and in turmoil over all that I couldn’t control.
The book was on the best-seller list for more than 2 years. Richard Carlson went on to write some 20 books in this series, from Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff in Love and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff for Women. I think I had the original copy, and knowing me, might not have made it through the entire book. Too impatient for that.
I do recall a few ideas Carlson presented in the book, such as “live in the present” and “become more patient.” Not sure I managed either, since I’m always in a hurry, usually thinking about what needs to be done next, and am most definitely not patient. It’s hard to become “more” of something when you’re not really “any” of that thing.
“Life isn’t an emergency” is another one of Carlson’s anti-sweat-isms. I’m not even sure what that means, but I can tell you for certain that it does not apply to cancer patients. Life most certainly is an emergency when you’re dealing with diagnosis, research, treatment options, doctor’s visits, prescription drugs, mounting medical bills, surgery, hospitalizations, and the like.
Carlson also encouraged us to “get comfortable with the not knowing.” I feel pretty confident saying that this will never happen. Never. Ever. I most definitely will not get comfortable with not knowing what happens next, where this “journey” is going, or what the future holds. Hopefully Carlson took his own advice, as he died from “an illness” in 2006 at age 45. That’s 3 years older that I am now (well, I will be on Wednesday), and 45 is too young to die, IMHO.
I wonder if Carlson would have had the same attitude if he too had been facing cancer. Maybe he would have sweat for a little bit, then invoked his ant-sweat-isms to conquer all of the “small stuff” that invades ones life along with a diagnosis of cancer.
My blog friend Lauren wrote yet another stellar post about this very subject. Every time I read one of her blog posts, I’m hard-pressed to say which part I like most, which idea resonates the loudest, which anecdote finds me nodding my head in agreement, or which passage has the power to make me misty-eyed. This week, it’s this passage that stands out:
“There are no small things in cancer. There are no ridiculous things. People like to tell us not to sweat the small stuff, but there is no small stuff in cancer. There is no such thing as a small assault on our feelings/psyche. Sometimes, the tiniest pebble in our shoe is the one that will make us most weary; indeed, the smallest of stones can derail a train.”
I now feel as if I have permission to sweat the small stuff.
As if I needed anyone else’s permission.
A whole lot of the cancer thing is indeed big stuff. Not to imply that my “journey” is harder than anyone else’s, but I would respectfully submit that being young-ish with dependent kids at home makes for more sweat-worthy stuff along the way. Laura, another blog friend painted a vivid picture of battling cancer while raising young kids when she wondered how to hold back tears when her 6-year-old said, “I forget what you looked like before the cancer when you had long hair.” Tell me how to not sweat that. Please. It reminds me of my own struggle to remember what my mom looked like before cancer. I was 36 at the time. I still have to work to hear her real voice and not her “sick” voice, and I was a grown woman at the time of her battle. Laura also remarked upon the depression and guilt she felt as her 8-year-old son helped his little brother pack his lunch for school while she lay on the couch motionless. That makes me sweaty just reading about it.
You know, the stuff in your kitchen that you use to cover food.
While Press ‘n Seal has many domestic uses, it has a medical use too: covering one’s port while said port is slathered in numbing cream, before facing the 20-gauge needle used to puncture the skin and the port membrane to deliver drugs.
Last week I went for my regular port maintenance, in which I have to have the oncology nurses access the port (poke the big-ass needle through it) to flush it. This needs to be done every 4 to 6 weeks to avoid a blog clot. The port is tied into the jugular vein, remember, and I do not want to mess with that big dog.
Before my port maintenance, I use the numbing cream (when I remember) so the needle stick isn’t quite so traumatic. Needles have always been rather sweat-inducing for me. I don’t care what Richard Carlson would have told me, I have never liked needles and they’ve always given me that sweaty-palmed, slightly nauseated feeling.
The day of my most recent port maintenance, I was going from the gym to the oncologist’s office. I told my Runnin’ Buddy to remind me about halfway through to use the numbing cream. I was pretty proud of myself for remembering the cream and the Press ‘n Seal, along with a hypodermic needle from my stash at home and my teeny little vial of B12 that my sweet oncologist prescribed for me. I get a B12 shot once a month, and it was time. I figured since I’d be there, why not ask the oncology nurse to give me the jabful of B12?
Any shot at resuming normal life is gone, baby gone as soon as you realize you have prescription Lidocaine, B12, a needle, and Press ‘n Seal in your purse. Any attempt to seem like a normal person is duly shattered by that paraphernalia in one’s pocketbook.
So at the appointed time, I stood up against the wall of mirrors in the gym, pulled my shirt to the side and slapped a thick layer of cream on my port. Then I cut a small piece of Press ‘n Seal and covered the cream so it wouldn’t sploosh all over my shirt. While I finished my workout, the cream slid around a bit, and the Press ‘n Seal crinkled with each movement, and the curious onlookers were probably wondering what in the world they just witnessed.
Here’s what Lauren had to say about our ol’ friend Press ‘n Seal:
“In all my years of reading on PTSD and grief and trauma with breast cancer, not once have I seen a section on dealing with the emotional trauma of how dehumanizing it is to put Press N’ Seal on your body. Not once have I seen a section on how deeply humiliated you feel when you are made to walk half-naked through hallways on the way to an MRI, where then, in front of the room full of techs, you must disrobe and awkwardly lay on your stomach and hang your breasts through two holes in a plank. There is nothing in any book about how violating it feels having a breast written on in sharpie, and that the last time you see it in your life, it has a doctors intials on it. There is nothing in chapter 3 of any book that discusses the indignity of having our bodies being measured with trigonometry like a drafting project as we lay there naked, and get tattooed by nurses for radiation, especially when you are one who doesn’t like the thought of ink in your skin. There is nothing, nothing about the angst of a port sticking out of your body, or how impersonal it feels having your body lifted and shifted by nurses until you are lined up just right for radiation.”
I can’t speak to the parts about radiation, but on all the other stuff I say yep, that’s right. How strange it is when things like Press ‘n Seal on your body become part of your life. How sad when experiences like the ones Lauren describes become lasting memories, and not in the warm & fuzzy way. How terrible its is when you realize that there’s “nothing in any book about how to come to terms with the death of control over your body and life,” as Lauren so aptly puts it.
I’ve learned, just as Lauren and Laura and millions of other cancer patients have learned, that the small stuff becomes big stuff, and the death of control over our bodies and lives is just one of the many casualties in the “cancer journey.” The PTSD in one’s daily life also chips away at the idea of normalcy, signaling the death of innocence, the end of easy. It may or may not be well-documented, but it’s there. And as Lauren says, “Just because it is not said or written about, doesn’t make it less real. It does not make our feelings about many of these more ambiguous losses less valid, less deserving of mention. It does not make the trauma less valid, it does not make us whiners about small stuff.”
She notes that “we will suffer many more deaths on the cancer journey. Some by things taken from us, and some by things given/done to us. There will be a thousand deaths in cancer, and then a thousand more.”
And so I will indeed sweat the small stuff. Anytime I want.
“With the past I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I live now.
I’m digging that quote. Today, as most days, I woke up and stole a few minutes before hitting the ground running. I like to check my email first thing in the morning, and see what’s what before I start my day. I have several cancerbabes in blogland whose musings I follow. I don’t know any of these women personally, but we share a commonality that is cancer, and that tends to make friends from strangers faster than anything, including hard liquor.
One of my cancerbabe friends posted some really, really good news on her blog today, and it was the first thing I read this fine morning. Long story short she’s a 28-year-old dealing with Hodgkin Lymphoma who left her home on the East Coast to spend some time in my lovely H-town at MD Anderson to endure a grueling clinical trial.
Sounds pretty awful, right? As most cancers are, whether big or small, early- or late-stage. Cancer is just plain awful. But my cancerbabe blogger friend had good news to share about her just plain awful cancer: the clinical trial worked and she’s in partial remission.
Hooray & hallelujah!
Another strike against the many-faceted and much-dreaded disease that is cancer.
I read the rest of my emails with a smile on my face, and as I hauled myself out of bed, that smile stayed with me. I believe in celebrating every little bit of good news that comes our way, especially when dealing with the dreaded C. Nope, I’m not opening champagne at this early hour, before even getting my little darlings out of bed, preparing their breakfasts, making their lunches and seeing them off to school. Thought about it, but resisted. I’ve learned the hard way that bad things happen to good people, and to counteract that hard truth by celebrating all the good things that come along. Sometimes with champagne, but sometimes not.
It’s easy to get caught up in all the bad things about cancer. And believe you me, there are many, many bad things. Watching my sweet, vivacious, and much-beloved mama be eaten alive, literally, by uterine cancer was horrific. Knowing that I would have to live the rest of my life without hearing her big belly laugh, without her all-knowing guidance in raising my own kids was b-a-d bad. Seeing her ravaged body become ever more frail day by day left me wondering how much worse could it possibly get. Because as bad as it is, there’s always more. My BFF Ed tried to tell me that. He knew, from watching his dad die of pancreatic cancer. I didn’t want to believe him, and childishly clung to the idea that it was as bad as it could possibly be. But it wasn’t, and no matter how hard one “fights,” once cancer gains a stronghold, it’s devastating. No matter how much one wants to win the “battle,” there’s no guarantee.
If anyone on this Earth deserved to win her “battle” it was my sweet mama. Her own mama died when she was 13, leaving her to raise her younger sister, who my mama had to work hard to forgive for usurping her “I’m the baby” spot in the family line-up. They lived on a farm and life was hard. She was the only one of her 4 siblings to graduate from college, and she did it in 3 years. She was president of her sorority, which is how she scored this fetching necklace, and I’m sure she bossed her sorority sisters into next week. Determined to make her mark in the world, she became a teacher, and did it well. She married into a tight-knit Greek family who didn’t necessarily welcome “foreigners,” but she won them over. Every last one of them. Even the stubborn, crotchety old ones. She raised two kids in a most-loving and uber-secure environment. Everything she did, she did it well and with such love & warmth that people were drawn to her. She made this world a better place.
Yet, after a multi-year, multi-stage “battle,” cancer claimed her as its own. Not fair. Not by a long shot. But fairness has nothing to do with winning the “battle” against cancer. So much of it is luck and circumstance. So much of it is out of our control. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a Type A bossypants like me.
And that’s exactly why I live now.
Cancer steals so much from us. Big things: health (duh), time, innocence, body parts, hair, self-esteem, a good night’s sleep, healthy body image, money, freedom, time, faith, security. Small things: major wardrobe issues, range of motion in yoga class, being able to look in a mirror without wincing, missing important events, becoming fearful instead of being carefree.
The past is gone, and no matter how hard you may try, you ain’t gettin it back. You can’t change it. The future? Good luck with that one. My theory is you gotta work hard, bear down, be the person you most want to be, and hope for the best. Hope that you’ll avoid the evil lottery that decides who will be stricken with cancer. Keep on living a good life and doing all the right things (antioxidants, splurges in moderation, wholesome foods, regular check-ups and exercise, blah blah blah) but don’t for one second expect those things to earn you a free pass. Because cancer strikes no matter what.
So I live now.
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.