Summertime, and the living is easy. Sam Cooke said it, well, sang it actually, a long time ago. The fish were jumpin’ and the cotton was high. The girl he was singing to had a daddy who was rich and a mama who was good-looking. All was right in Sam’s world.
Well, the living is easy all right. No alarms waking me up before I’m ready, no lunches to pack. Payton’s lunch is easy: sandwich, bag of baked chips, string cheese, Rice Krispie treat, and a drink. No lunch box, no ice pack — he’s too cool for that. Macy, on the other hand, is quite particular about her lunch, requiring 5 different things, some of which must be washed & chopped and placed into small tupperware. She does at least take the same thing every single day, much like her mama did as a schoolgirl. I had a homemade egg salad sandwich on wheat bread every day of my schoolgirl life, and didn’t care one lick that the other kids thought the egg salad looked gross and the brown bread looked weird. They could have their stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth Wonder bread PB&J any day. I was perfectly happy with my gross-looking egg salad on weird-looking bread.
So no lunches to pack, yea. No mountain of school paperwork to wade through, only to find that other than glancing at the grades at the top of the completed work, there’s not a single thing in that mountain that really matters. No racing the clock to get out of bed, gobble down breakfast, get dressed, and get out the door. No meanie mom enforcing a highly unpopular bedtime so the little darlings don’t act like feral hogs in the a.m. Last but not least, no school projects. Oh, how I despise the projects. After 18 years of living with the original slacker student, who did minimal work and gasp! even skipped school projects altogether yet made good grades and somehow managed to become a contributing & successful member of society, my opinion on school projects has definitely changed. Changed to hatred, that is. They’re messy, time-consuming, inane, and require ME to go to Hobby Lobby AND help with said project when I could be playing tennis.
Ok, rant is over.
I certainly hope I didn’t offend any teachers out there. If I did, please direct your hate mail to my husband, the original slacker student. It may take him a few days to reply, because he’s busy running a software company. I’m not sure he could have risen to such heights and attained 2 graduate degrees without that pivotal diorama he made in 3rd grade at Jenks Elementary.
Ok, now my rant is over.
So we are blessedly free of the strict schedule imposed by the Fort Bend Independent School District, and most thankfully free of the blasted school projects. We can go where we want to go when we want to go there, stay up late, and eat lunch when we please. All that sounds great, right?
Except for one tiny detail: I don’t do well with unstructured time. Remember me, the busy-body? I don’t blossom with a lot of downtime. It’s day 3 of summer, and I’m already feeling a little itchy, a little twitchy. As much as I dislike the hustle & bustle of the imposed school schedule, it does keep us on track. And I like that. I need that. I would have been great in the army.
Lots of people enjoy their downtime and get into being lazy. For me, laziness makes me feel icky. I really like having a to-do list every day and relish the feeling of being productive. Some people were laughing at me that on the first day of summer, I cleaned out the garage, did 4 loads of laundry, vacuumed the entire downstairs, and bagged up discarded clothes for donation. Before lunchtime.
Now that my kids are a little older and a bit more independent, summer isn’t as stressful because I can still get my stuff done without having to watch them every second. The ever-present possibility of a toddler finger in a light switch cramps my style and interferes with me crossing things off my to-do list. With the luxury of semi-independent children, I’m trying to relax more this summer. That, and the burning desire to suck every drop of summer this year, since last summer was such a bust.
Last summer, I was not only recovering from a bilateral mastectomy but also playing hostess with the mostess to a nasty, long-staying bacteria that exploded into a messy, hard-t0-diagnose-and-even-harder-to-eradicate infection. I spent some extra time in the hospital, multiple times and multiple hospitals, and had a few extra surgeries. I weathered the ups & downs of being an impatient patient, and learned the hard, hard lesson that no matter how nicely I treat my body, it can and will betray me. As my sweet mama would have said, “That is rude, crude, and socially unacceptable.”
Last summer I missed out on a lot, thanks to Mr. Mycobacterium. This summer is going to be different. I’m going to spend some idle time, and hopefully learn to like it. I’m going to float in the pool with my kids and my crazy dog, and not worry about the laundry piling up or the dishwasher needing to be emptied. I’m going to teach my kids to cook, and not stress over the messy kitchen. I’m going to drag them away from the TV and computer games and into the museum district, and not get discouraged when they complain about how boring it is.
However unstructured this summer is, it’s gonna be great. Summertime and the living is easy.
One of the many blogs I read is a fine one published by a lovely woman named Marie in Ireland. It’s called Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer, and Marie’s goal via her blog is to provide some guidance on how to navigate the “post-treatment limbo” that cancer survivors find themselves in once “it” is all “over.” There’s plenty of information out there for those who’ve recently been diagnosed and for those who are actively in treatment, but not much out there for the “what next?” portion of the “cancer journey.” I was honored to be a guest blogger on Marie’s site in February, and I always come away from Marie’s blog feeling enlightened and empowered. (And really, I’m not just sucking up because she’s giving away a copy of Sheryl Crow’s new cookbook, which I really, really, really want. I mean it. Marie’s blog is fantastic.)
Marie posed a challenge to her blog community to write a post about our “other” lives, about who we are when we’re not fighting cancer. We cancer-chicks who blog tend to know a lot of intimate details about each other, as is the nature of the beast we all have in common, but we don’t always know a lot about each other besides the beast.
Never one to back away from a challenge, I ruminated on my B.C. (before cancer) life. It took me awhile to remember, so wrapped up have I been in the cancer-vixen lifestyle. I racked my brain to recall what it was that I used to do with myself absent multiple doctor’s visits, endless testing, countless trips to the pharmacy, and hours of feeling yucky.
It was a perfectly ordinary life. I’m not one for a lot of drama; I’ve been to high school, and don’t have any desire to replay it. I have no patience for grown-up “mean girls” and so have a tight circle of true friends. We live an ordinary suburban life, most of us at home during the day, having forgone careers to raise kids, although several of my besties do work outside the home and do amazing things like crude trading and nursing. Ok, I’d better clarify: one friend trades crude oil, and another is a nurse. Since this blog is usually about all things boob-related, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m talking about crude nursing, as in off-color breastfeeding.
So my life was pretty ordinary, pre-cancer. Ordinary, but good.
I left my editing job 12 years ago, when Payton was born, to become a full-time mommy, and after Macy joined the herd my workload doubled but so did my heart. As my kids got older and started school, my life took on the pattern of theirs and I volunteered at their school a lot while also spending some time doing my own thing. I walked that fine line between being a full-time mom but still being my own person. Like millions of other moms at home raising young kids, I packed my kids’ lunches while doing laundry and tried in vain to keep up with the household chores. I stole some time from the domestic hustle & bustle every day to go to the gym or play tennis, and made my to-do list while waiting in the carpool line.
My pre-cancer schedule was pretty full of ordinary things: kids’ dentist appointments, play-dates, sports, lessons, and parties. I served on the PTA board, was a tenured room mom, and worked the school book fair every year. Shortly after my mom died I was at the book fair, surrounded by books and overcome with loss. I missed my mom so much; she was an avid reader and we always talked about the latest stack of books on our nightstands. I met another mom who was volunteering that day. Jenny was new to our school, having recently relocated to Sugar Land. We chatted about books, and she shared with me that her dad had recently died, and she was swamped by grief, too. I decided then and there to start a book club, and to invite her to join me. Instead of allowing my sadness to rule, I wanted to find a way to diffuse it.
I had no idea at that time that Jenny was a breast cancer survivor and would become my mentor and tour guide through the “cancer journey.”
Meeting Jenny was an extraordinary event in my ordinary, pre-cancer life. Along with my Runnin’ Buddy and our nurse practitioner friend Laura, Jenny and I comprise a quartet of book-lovers who meet once a month and discuss the book we’ve read. Five years later, we’re still going strong. We’ve read some amazing books as well as a few clunkers, and are constantly on the look-out for the next great read.
When I first started running the book club, I would research book group discussion questions and print out a list for each of us. Over time, I’ve gotten lazy and now just highlight an interesting passage, a particularly pivotal plot point, or a bit of prose that speaks to me for whatever reason. This is the basis for our book club’s discussions nowadays.
I’ve always loved books, for their ability to transport us to other worlds. The written word is precious to me, and I suppose it’s in my genes; my mom was an English teacher, after all. I chose my college major (journalism) based on the right ratio of the least amount of math & science and the maximum amount of literature. My career in publishing and editing surprised no one, and I continued to read copiously after leaving the industries for motherhood. True, most of what I read was written for the preschool crowd with a heavy emphasis on pictures, but I started building my kids’ libraries long before they could read. I suppose it was perfectly natural for me to start a book club.
Just in case you’re wondering if I sit around and read all day when I’m not fighting cancer, the answer is no. I spend as much time as humanly possible playing tennis, then I sit around and read for what’s left of the day.
My friend Amy Hoover, who you “know” from the blog, is a great cook (she’s from Louisiana, after all), and she fed my dad when he was here for The Big Dig. When he told her that I ususally put some leftovers in the freezer for him along the way so I can send him home w a care package, guess what she did? Brought leftovers, which are in the freezer for him as we speak. Homemade spaghetti sauce, crawfish etouffe, Cajun chowder and who knows what else await Dad in the freezer, and he’ll live off her goodwill for quite some time. Good friend.
When I realized I would need dress clothes for Payton for Sophia’s funeral (he wears NOTHING but t-shirts & Nike shorts), Amy, who has 3 boys, brought over a pile of clothes — several dress shirts, 2 suits, dress pants, a bag of ties & 3 pairs of dress shoes.
Having a kid who is so averse to dress clothes seems like something out of a movie — a bad movie, probably one starring Chevy Chase or Bill Murray in their heydays, or maybe Ashton Kucher nowadays. Somebody sweet but bumbling, clueless as to why societal conventions like dress clothes should matter in the real world.
I’m long since over the wish that my little man would dress better. He is who he is, and one of the best things we can do as parents is recognize our kids’ innate beings and help that version flourish, rather than imposing our ideal on them.
J Crew would work, too. I can picture him in Crew threads for sure.
He could totally pull off the Gap or J Crew look. But pulling off the look would of course require him to actually wear the clothes. And therein lies the rub.
There was a brief period of time in which I could dictate what Payton wore.
The last time he wore khakis and a polo might have been at his Uncle Aaron’s wedding. I was pregnant with Macy, and P was young enough to not care what he was wearing, as long as he could run and jump and stir up trouble.
By the time Trevor graduated from business school, Payton was wising up about his wardrobe and started asserting independence. This non-baseball-themed t-shirt was a big compromise for him on this special occasion. Everyone else was all decked out in Sunday best. Including Payton. Because this little boy was discovering that a t-shirt and shorts were plenty fancy for him.
I am 100 percent sure that Aunt Sophia would not care one bit what Payton wears to her funeral services. In fact, I can almost hear her now telling me to leave the boy alone and let him be. Let him wear what he wants to wear; dress clothes don’t matter; and get him a snack–that boy looks famished. Yes, I can hear it 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.
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.
We interrupt the “All Napa, All the Time” marathon with breaking news. Imagine the tornado sirens going off right now (or maybe that’s just in my head). If you’re looking for news of Day 2 of our recent Napa adventure, you’re gonna have to wait.
Yesterday I did something I haven’t been able to do since The Big Dig. I’m very excited about it. It’s been 5 weeks since the excavation that gutted me like a fish in an effort to restore my post-mastectomy sunken chest. 5 long weeks. There are lots of things I’ve been unable to do, and y’all know I’m a very impatient patient. I tend to rush things and push the envelope, and sometimes that results in a set-back, or at the very least, a lot of frustration for my handlers. I’ve been trying, really trying, to be patient, to not rush things, and to avoid any potential set-backs. I’m not much of a people-pleaser by nature, but I do try to keep my handlers happy. They make a lot of noise when they’re unhappy with me.
I rode my bike.
Yes, that’s the breaking news.
Hope you were sitting down, because it’s really big news.
See, I’m one of those weirdos who loves to exercise. I’m restless and have a strong “productivity” drive. Like how some dogs have a high food drive, or our crazy dog Harry has a high “must have something to carry in my mouth” drive, I have a high “productivity” drive. I also like to eat. And drink. But don’t like when my clothes don’t fit, a wonky equation to say the least. Some people don’t care much about food, and I don’t understand them. I’m usually planning my next meal as I’m eating the current one. Different strokes, people.
I’ve mentioned before in this space that I’m not good at lying around, being lazy, and doing that thing called relaxing. What is this practice of which people speak? Apparently I missed the memo, because I’m no good at it.
All this to say that being grounded for the last 5 weeks has been hard for me. I’ve really missed my daily exercise. Whether it’s tennis, the gym, or riding my bike, I miss it. And yesterday, I rode my bike.
Macy and I have a routine of riding to the pet store every day after school to buy crickets for Cincko, her leopard gecko. He’s got a big appetite, and I’m always afraid he’ll start banging on the sides of his tank if he doesn’t get fed. He eyeballs Pedey, our little dog, and puffs himself up as if he’s going to attack that dog the way he pummels the crickets who are dropped into his tank. Thus, the need to procure crickets is a big one, and I haven’t been able to ride with her since my surgery.
Yesterday after dinner, she wanted to go for a ride. Not to the pet store, but just around the neighborhood. After proving to myself and my handlers that I could keep up in Napa last weekend, I felt good about giving it a try. I told Macy I’d do a lap down the driveway and see how it felt. A test run, of sorts. If it didn’t feel good, I’d concede. She reminded me not to push it, that we could wait until I was more healed. That child knows her mama well.
The test run down the driveway felt fine. Felt better than fine: it felt awesome. Other than a little tightness across my abdominal incision, it felt like old times. It’s true that you never forget how to ride a bike, and my muscles remembered how to fire their pistons to propel me forward. I wanted to get down on my knees right there in the driveway to thank the great gods of healing for bestowing their kindness upon my beleagured and battered body. But that would have caused Macy to roll her eyes at me and say that I’m embarrassing her, again, so I refrained.
Instead, we made a 2-mile circle around our neighborhood, dodging pedestrians, watching for bumps in the road, and intentionally riding through sprinklers. We enjoyed the drier-than-normal Houston air and rejoiced in the birdsong. We admired the neighbors’ yard work and noticed how lush and green everything is in our part of the world.
It was a very good ride.
Ok, this is the part that my handlers should skip over. Y’all don’t want to read this; I worry about your blood pressure.
As I reflected this morning on yesterday’s ride and conducted my mental inventory of how much my various hotspots hurt, I realized that they didn’t really hurt. Not any more than usual. Maybe I really am healing after all. Finally!
Satisfied, I ran through my workout options for today: I could ride my bike again, I could take Harry for a long walk, I could go to the gym for cardio or for strength training. Then I realized that it’s Tuesday. It’s tennis drill day. I haven’t drilled with my team in 5 weeks. I could go to drill! Yes, I could go to drill. I may have to dust off my racquet, but I could go to drill.
Ok, handlers, you can start reading again.
Then I realized that I’d better settle down. I’d better take it easy. I’d better ease into it and not go head-long, full-speed into resuming my normal life.
Maybe next Tuesday.
Yesterday was a bad day, but just for about half of the day. I was in a wicked bad mood, the cause of which remains unknown but the remedy of which is no surprise: a stiff drink in the company of good friends. I got some talking therapy from several sources, and with the assistance of some Stoli and tonic, all was right in my world once again.
It’s a good thing, because guest blogger and night nurse Amy H was going to charge me cash money for my bad mood. You may recall her referring to her $10 surcharge while sitting with me in the ICU last week. It was the day after my big surgery and she was subjected to my ranting about the extreme heat and pounding headache. I ran up a tab that day, and added to it yesterday. She kindly reminded me that it’s ok to crash around in a foul mood for a little while, but then get over it and get on with it, and she sent me a picture of her policy, in writing, that hangs in her kitchen.
Today is going to be a good day. It will, it will, it will.
It’s gloomy outside with thunder threatening, but the birds are still singing and congregating around Macy’s feeder in one of the trees in our front yard. It’s spring break in these parts, so my offspring are fanning out in search of entertainment and a respite from the rigors of 3rd and 6th grades. Macy, the little zookeeper, is going to day camp at the Lone Star Pet Lodge, which Trevor refers to as the Last Resort Pet Resort in a funny malapropism.
Macy will be tending to the animals whose owners checked them into the resort while they’re off on spring break adventures. We’re not sure exactly what her duties will be, but it sounds like an ingenious plan on the kennel owners’ part to both extort child labor and turn a profit. We pay them for our kid to do their work. How crazy is that? Crazier still is that I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Macy came home a part-owner of that place. She was definitely in her element when we walked in; we were greeted by a miniature Yorkie at the reception desk, and for the first time ever, Macy didn’t hesitate when walking into a camp. She didn’t hesitate, and she didn’t look back to tell me good-bye. Yep, she’s in her element.
Payton’s spring break adventure is of the roadtrip variety. My firstborn has a taste for the great outdoors and a longing to see some of our fine national parks. Sadly, he missed the great cosmic birth-order assignment that might have landed him in a camping and hunting type family, and ended up with a less-rustic and more beach-oriented family. Lucky for him, there’s Ed, our nature-loving BFF. He’s a fan of the roadtrip and is well-versed in all things national park, so he and Payton hatched a plan to drive to Carlsbad Caverns in the neighboring state of New Mexico. Payton and Ed will be on the road all day today en route to their base camp in Van Horn, TX, which is about 10 hours from here but close enough to Carlsbad to visit the caves. Payton is looking forward to the “guy’s trip,” seeing the sites and splendor of West Texas, exploring Carlsbad’s 117 caves, and consuming more junk food than his mama allows. With him gone, I don’t know what I’ll do without my daily infusion of Sports Center, but I’ll try to muddle through. My prediction: since Macy has exclusive rights to the TV, there will be a Wizards of Waverly Place marathon going on when she’s not at camp.
It’s definitely going to be a good day.
Of course I’m up early on my big surgery day…you didn’t think I would actually sleep until the alarm went off, throw on some clothes and jump in the car when I could post one last time, did you?
It’s 4:15 a.m. and we’re set to leave the house for the med center at 5:30 for my 6 a.m. arrival. I sure hope that when we pull up, Dr S and Dr Spiegel aren’t fighting it out about who gets to do which part of the surgery and who’s in charge of follow-up care. Of course they wouldn’t be, and I’m 100 percent sure that every aspect of this procedure has been planned, checked, and double-checked to ensure excellence will result.
The last few days have been a whirlwind, with last-minute preparations and socializing. Yesterday afternoon and evening, my phones both rang off the hook, with calls and texts full of good wishes and genuine love. Several people have asked if I can feel the love, and the answer is YES! And THANK YOU! A huge part of why I am going into this big ol’ surgery with such peace is knowing that my posse has got my back. I appreciate each and every one of you. If you happen to come to the hospital for a visit and see me wretching uncontrollably, don’t worry: I didn’t have too much champagne or margartitas. Coming out of the anesthesia tends to make me barfy. Don’t panic. It’ll pass. Last time around I puked in front of lots of visitors; the kids in the room thought it was neat.
Yesterday was another perfect day: my last tennis drill with my team was spectacular. Mid-seventies and sunny with just enough warmth to get a sweat going, and birds singing like crazy because it feels like springtime. I made some good shots and thoroughly enjoyed my teammates’ company. Love those girls.
Surprise champagne in the back of Julie’s SUV after drill. We tailgated in high style. It was such a fun treat, and I adore you girls for having such a brilliant idea and for sending me off in the most perfect way. I will be counting down the days until I can get back on the court with you. Meanwhile, Go Alley Cats! Beat Westheimer Indoors today. Hit it where they ain’t!
The rest of the day yesterday was fantastic. Busy, but fantastic. My dad arrived, and he took Macy to the pet store to buy the daily allotment of crickets for Cincko. That little gecko is on a major growing tear and has been eating at least 12 crickets every day. My dad will be interrim assistant zookeeper while I’m out of commission, so Macy broke him in with on-the-job training right away.
We had our belated birthday dinner for Dad, after a bottle of Vueve Cliquot (yes, I know I had champagne twice yesterday; at the tennis courts and at dinner. Why do you think it was such a great day??). Our Tuesday night tradition of watching “The Biggest Loser” was fun, as always, and there’s something especially satisfying about watching that show after a most delicious dinner.
It was all going swimmingly until Macy‘s bedtime, when I went to tuck her in and she started crying. The big, rolling tears that linger and pool in the eye before breaking free and trailing down her face. Her ginormous eyelashes were soaked and matted, and the look of utter desolation on her face made my heart crack right in two. She was trying to be brave, but that well of genuine emotion that makes her the astoundingly compassionate little girl she is came gushing out when it was time for her to tell me good-bye. She was trying to be brave, but struggling. We talked for a long time about how mommies always come back, and even when they’re away for a while, they carry their kiddos in their hearts. I told her about my favorite e.e. cummings poem, i carry your heart with me, and how the words can certainly apply to anyone you love, whether a pet or a friend or the most amazing little girl ever. We talked about how she wouldn’t get to talk to me today, but tomorrow I expected a phone call as soon as she got home from school, so she can tell me all about her day. She cheered up a little bit when I told her that I need her to be in charge around here, and help my dad find the jelly in the door of the refrigerator, stay on schedule when driving the carpool, etc. She is on the job. She sent me off with Baby Snoopy, one of her most prized stuffed animals, to take along with me for company. She’s thoughtful like that.
Payton was busy, busy ignoring a math project that’s due Thursday, so he didn’t have much to say in the way of good-bye. Not surprisingly, as he is a man of few words. He too has instructions to call me Thursday with a full report on his first Little League game of the season. I need to see how long it takes him to “lose” his Yankees hat and replace it with a Red Sox version. It’s hard enough on him to have his mom in the hospital, but to have to don the dreaded Yankees uniform too? Poor guy.
This is one of my favorite tennis tops. I have it in at least 3 colors, maybe more. Wear it all the time, hence the funky tan lines. Every time I wear it, I notice how seriously flat my chest is. Maybe because of the “V” neck of the shirt, I don’t know. I’ve had this uber-flat chest since May 13 and am quite used to it. In fact, if not for the mess left by the post-mastectomy infection, I could have envisioned not doing reconstruction at all, or waiting a lot longer. But, the mess must be cleaned up, so away we go. And yes, my chest really is that flat in person…until tomorrow!