Driving my favorite girl to school today, my head was full of thoughts of all the things I need to get done. It’s her birthday weekend, so we have a jam-packed schedule of festivities, which means much to do before we celebrate. I was running through my mental to-do list and chatting with the birthday girl about the cookies she would hand out to her classmates on the funny monkey napkins. Our spirits were high, although I felt my inner throttle revving up, readying my body and brain to rush from one task to the next in a balls-out effort to get ‘er done. Get all of ‘er done.
This is one aspect of myself I don’t relish. I’m always in a hurry, rather impatient, and tend to rush through the journey to get to the destination. I’m not a “smell the roses along the way” kind of girl. Perhaps this is common in overachieving busy-bodies. Or in the legions of other suburban at-home moms whose work is never done in ferrying children to and fro and ensuring there are adequate provisions to keep the troops clothed and fed. Or maybe it’s just me.
Anyhoo, there I was in the car with my girl en route to school, thinking about going to Walgreens to pick up yet another prescription; hitting the grocery store for kid wine (sparkling cider) for tonight’s kid party and for crayons for my girl’s science fair project; going to the gas station to fill up and get a quick car wash, as well as scratch cards for the birthday girl (yes, gambling starts early around here, and the fact that my girl requests scratch cards for Christmas and her birthday is an insight into her wacky personality); driving my other kid to school; gathering the stuff for the party-favor goodie bags; wrapping the gifts; sweeping, mopping, dusting, and freshening the powder bath since the party guests will arrive this evening and I’m the whack-job type who thinks the house must be spic & span before guests invade; and cleaning out the twigs & leaves that fall into the back seat of my car on top-down days, since the party guests will be riding with me.
Just when I thought my full-to-the-brim brain might overtake me, the universe intervened and saved me from myself.
As we traveled down the street, we drove under a wire that stretches across the road, up high. Maybe it’s a telephone wire, or perhaps a DSL cable. I don’t know; I’ve never even noticed it before, but it traverses the street I drive up and down a thousand times a week, every week. Today as I traveled that street, a fat squirrel was dashing across the wire, doing a squirrel tight-rope act. The movement caught the eye of my girl, who spied the bushy-tailed performer through the open roof of the car. We slowed down, literally and figuratively, to watch. I slowed even more when I realized that if that squirrel fell off that wire, he’d plop right into my car. While my animal-loving girl would love that, I didn’t relish the thought of it.
With no cars behind us, we slowed to a crawl to watch the rodent acrobat scurry across the wire, high above the road. His tail bobbed in the air as he ran across that wire, and I imagined his little squirrel hands (paws?) gripping tightly. My girl wondered aloud if he was nervous or confident in his attempt to cross the road, and that naturally led to her ad-libbing a few “Why did the squirrel cross the road?” jokes. Ahh, the humor of an almost-11-year-old.
Our squirrelly performer trucked across the last length of wire, safely making it to the other side. The punchline to the “Why did the squirrel cross the road?” joke that most tickled the girl making them up was “Because he needed to scratch his butt!” The squirrel was gone, and a car approached, forcing me to move forward. As we neared the school, my girl said, “Mom, I’m sure glad we saw that squirrel on the wire. That totally made my day.” And then I realized: while the jam-packed to-do list seems so important, and completing those tasks to ensure a kick-ass birthday weekend for my favorite girl is important to me, what’s really important is noticing the moments of everyday wonders, and savoring them. The squirrel on the high-wire smacked me in the face with that realization. My girl re-affirmed it.
Much has been written, on this blog and elsewhere, about how surviving cancer can make one appreciate life even more. I will never, ever, ever say that cancer is a gift or that it’s changed my life for the better or that there is a silver lining under that dark cloud that so rudely interrupted my life with disease, infection, and worry. Never. I appreciated my life and the bounty of good things in it just fine without having to lose my breasts and a chunk of my security along with them. I lived life out loud before cancer robbed me of my belief that if you do the right things and try your best to be a good person, that bad things won’t happen. I gave thanks for the friends and family and privileges that exist in my life before this wretched disease snuck into that thankful life and dislodged my sense of me. I realized that random fate of being born in the time, place, and family I was born into was as much a player as hard work in creating this charmed life, and I knew that before cancer entered and laid waste to my body. I appreciated the little things in life, and knew in my heart that it’s those things, not a new car or a big house, that lay down a basis for a fulfilling life; I certainly didn’t need cancer to bully me into realizing this fact.
Surviving cancer and an insidious infection didn’t teach me to appreciate life’s everyday wonders. But a squirrel on a high wire sure did.
Like the 7 levels of the Candy Cane forest outlined by Buddy the Elf in the movie Elf, there are levels in Cancerland. The levels in Cancerland aren’t nearly as fun as those in the Candy Cane forest; I’ve yet to come across anything approximating the swirly, twirly gum drops at any point along this cancer “journey.” I don’t know what the official levels in Cancerland are, or if they even exist outside of the esoteric nature of those saddled with the disease, but I suspect they are akin to the 5 stages of grief. So for now, let’s say that the 5 stages of Cancerland include utter shock upon being diagnosed; extreme pissed-off-edness at losing body parts and quality of life, coupled with the potential for losing my life itself; crippling helplessness and a total lack of control in regards to recurrence; unpredictable fear and panic at any given time; and soul-crushing depression at the “new normal” that follows a cancer “journey.”
Today I ran smack-dab into level 2, the extreme pissed-off-edness. Sometimes this level manifests in its pure form, which is flat-out anger at the wrongs done to my body & mind by cancer. But sometimes, like today, it’s a more specific form of pissed-off-edness: extreme irritability. We’re talking the worst PMS rage multiplied by a prime number, divided by the number of times the urge strikes to choke someone, subtracted from the complete absence of rationality, added to the utmost amount of self-control required to avoid screaming and spewing at anyone who’s unfortunate enough to cross my path.
When this specific phase of pissed-off-edness hits, woe be unto the person who absent-mindedly leaves their shopping cart parked in the middle of the aisle while they price-compare cans of soup. I pity the fool who on the road ahead of me who finds him/herself in the wrong lane and stops in the middle of the road instead of continuing along with the flow of traffic until able to execute a U-turn or otherwise get the hell out of my way. Too bad, so sad for the person who lingers at middle-school drop-off in the morning to wish their child a good day or to remind that child to do their best in all pursuits today. Move it or lose it, people.
Today the specific phase of pissed-off-edness reared its head and tried my patience and self-control in many ways. Allow me to set the scene: as I walked into yet another doctor’s office for yet another interminable wait to hear yet more depressing news about the new normal that follows life in Cancerland, I tripped over the uneven sidewalk. I fell on my newly-repaired knee and tore my favorite workout pants. My purse clattered to the pavement and my iPhone skittered out of my hand. My other hand, which broke my fall, became embedded with dirty gravel.
An elderly Asian man stopped to retrieve my phone and tried to help me up. I rudely shook him off, not caring that I appeared ungrateful. I muttered a terse thanks with eyes averted, head bowed. Collecting the shreds of my dignity, I hobbled into the building, trying to be grateful that my knee wasn’t bleeding (it was easy to ascertain this through my torn pants) but knowing my attempt at gratitude was futile. The elevator doors closed just as I reached them, solidifying my opinion that precious little was redeemable in this day, even though it was not yet 9 a.m., and hinting at the scent of extreme pissed-off-edness that was swirling around me, but not in a twirly gum drop kind of way.
An hour later–a full hour–I was still stuck waiting in the waiting room (has ever a more apt term existed??), captive in an uncomfortable chair and unable to escape the annoying prattle of the TV, tuned to an awful loop of medical advice, exercise tips, and pharmaceutical ads. I can now easily recite the side effects for AndroGel from memory. I’m most definitely not going to try the recipe for homemade spelt crackers the perky woman shared on the cooking segment. I exercised great restraint in not throwing something at the TV during the segment on BMI and weight-control. As the announcer droned on & on about the importance of physical exercise for overall health & well-being, I wanted to hurl expletives and yell that I’d love to be pursuing some physical exercise if I weren’t trapped in this blasted waiting room, WAITING for the doctor.
Just when I think it can’t get any worse, a woman shuffled in and sits right next to me, despite an entire row of empty seats. She alternated between conducting a loud conversation on her cell phone about her hurt feelings regarding being left out of a relative’s birthday party, and coughing violently and wetly in my direction. When I got up to move away from her and her disgusting germs, she muttered, “How rude.” Oh, that’s rich, and rife with pissed-off-edness.
An hour and a half later, I was still waiting. She was still yapping about the birthday party, and she was still coughing indiscriminately. While she yapped and coughed and the TV droned on & on, I thought about all the things I was not getting done while I sat and waited. Cue even more pissed-off-edness. This is par for the course, a normal day, another thrilling ride through Cancerland. I know this, I’ve been there before, and yet it still results in this particular brand of blood-boiling pissed-off-edness.
When the nurse finally summoned me, she apologized for keeping me waiting, and I struggled with the proper response: to say “no problem” implies that’s it’s ok, when it’s not, but to let her know that it’s not ok seems rude,especially since it’s not her fault.
As she took my blood pressure she asked for my copies of my test results/lab work. Like a whiny pupil caught without last night’s homework, I muttered that I didn’t know I was supposed to bring that. No one told me to bring that, and anyway, I wouldn’t know where to start, how to untangle that knot. Then I realized she meant my last round of blood work, which I had done a few days ago at my oncologist’s office. She offered to call his office to get the results while I wondered if I’ll have to sign a release for that. She assured me that they all “try to work together,” even though I’m guessing he’s never heard of this doc, and vice versa. What about the pages of privacy paperwork I’ve had to sign? Are those just lip service that crumbles in the interest of “working together?” These are the things I think about as I wait, and wait, and wait for the doctor.
The nurse left me to go make that phone call, and I waited some more.
I was sorely tempted to steal the In Style magazine with Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover, even though I don’t even want to read it. Just looking at her glowing good health on the cover made me mad, a feeling that only intensified as I thought about her macrobiotic vegan lifestyle. I’m jealous, I admit. Although I don’t aspire to a macrobiotic vegan lifestyle it angered me nonetheless that she practices it. I bet she never waits like this in a doctor’s office. My belief in the karma wheel stopped me from stealing the magazine out of spite–toward the long wait, toward Gwyneth’s good health, and toward her macrobiotic vegan lifestyle.
My long to-do list mocked me as I waste more time waiting, always waiting. I grew restless and bored, not to mention irritable, and found no solace in my kindle. I chided myself for not paying more attention in the 3 yoga classes I’ve attended in my lifetime, because some calming breaths and restorative chi would be great right about now. Perhaps such mindful, peaceful practices could help me ward off the pissed-off-edness monster huffing at my gate.
By the time the doctor walked through the door, 2 hours had passed and I’m exhausted from the waiting and the pissed-off-edness. I scolded myself for letting this get the better of me and reprimanded myself to be polite to the doctor, even though I want to show her my bitchy side and peel back the curtain to expose the extreme pissed-off-edness in all its raging glory.
Instead, I recited my sordid medical history since April 2010 when a lump in my right breast set off the chain of events that landed me here, in yet another doctor’s office, exhausted, bored, disgruntled, and contemplating kleptomania. I’m experienced enough and jaded enough (and pissed-off enough) to believe she will offer no solutions beyond perhaps adding another prescription drug to my burgeoning stable or perhaps patting my hand, frowning sympathetically and encouraging me to buck up while reminding me that I’ve been through an awful lot recently. I’d already decided that if she were to tell me to get used to it, that this is all part of post-cancer life, my response will be swift and premeditated: I will overturn the biohazard waste bin, kick the exam table, and maybe even hurl her stool through the window. These are my fantasies as I navigate my way through the levels of Cancerland.
Lucky for her, she did not pat my hand or rush to her prescription pad. She took copious notes on my symptoms, perhaps highlighting and flagging the extreme pissed-off-edness that lingered just under the surface of this normal conversation. She ordered yet more blood work and told me to schedule yet another appointment in a week to see what the blood work reveals. My guess is that my iron level will be low, my thyroid will be underperforming, and my level of extreme pissed-off-edness will be off the charts.
It’s day 12 of our vacation, and I’ve plowed through several really good books. I love to read. Getting lost in someone else’s story has always intrigued me, but never so much as becoming a member of the illustrious Pink Ribbon Club. Stealing away from the drudgery of this disease with a good book has saved me innumerable times. Rather than falling into a well of despair from a lengthy hospital stay in the hell that is a post-mastectomy infection, I would flip open my Kindle and fall into a great read.
Perhaps my Love of reading is genetic: my sweet mama taught 8th grade English and was an avid reader. She and my dad always had at least one book going, and the bookcase in their bedroom that spanned one entire wall next to their bed would fill me with visions of its collapse one night, burying my slumbering parents in musty hardbacks, best sellers, and classics. Thankfully that never happened.
At home, I don’t read as much as I would like. It’s a cruel dichotomy: I want to find out what happens next in the story, yet my innate nature has me bustling around getting things done instead. Not so on the beach: the things that need to get done are sitting on the beach, soaking up the sun, listening to the surf, and reading. That’s a very good to-do list.
My summer reading began with Gold by Chris Cleave. Awesome read. It was especially nice leading up to the Olympics, as it’s the story of two British cyclists training for the London games. They’re friends and rivals in their sport and their lives. Cleave is a masterful writer who crafts characters who seem quite real.
After becoming hooked on Cleave’s, I moved on to his two other books, Incendiary and Little Bee. Both are as good as Gold was. The former tells the story of a woman whose husband and son are killed in a terrorist bombing of a London soccer stadium. The latter gained cult status yet I shied away from it because the subject matter seemed depressing: a young Nigerian refugee flees her home amidst violence stemming from turf wars over oil fields. A chance encounter with a British couple on holiday in her village provided a landing place as she fled. Chaos ensues, lives are changed, and a mesmerizing story gains its rightful place in literary history. My only complaint is that Cleave has no more books as yet for me to devour. Get cracking, Chris!
After the gravity of Little Bee’s saga, I sought something a bit lighter and went with the buzz surrounding The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Harold is walking some 500 miles, quite unexpectedly, to visit his former coworker, Queenie Hennessey, who is dying of cancer. Harold is convinced that his journey on foot will save her. Crazy? Perhaps. Intriguing? Definitely.
I absolutely devoured another buzz-filled book, The Light Between Oceans. This story of a remote lighthouse keeper off the wild coast of Australia and his infertile wife is absolutely captivating. The answer to their problems and prayers apparently appears one day when a rowboat washes ashore, containing a dead man and a howling infant. No ID, no witnesses, no problem. I won’t give away any more because you just need to read it yourself.
I have 7 more days of vacation and plan to keep on reading.
Because I really love words, I often come across a quote that speaks to me. I usually scribble it on a receipt or piece of scrap paper at the bottom of my purse, or I hastily type it into the notes app on my phone, with every intention of revisiting the quote and why it caught my attention. Sometimes the revisiting results in a blog post, but more often than not the note languishes until I clean out my purse or go to make another note on my phone. Then I wonder, where did I find this quote, and what did I intend to do with it? I blame cancer and infection and their long-reaching tentacles for compromising my previously functional brain.
The latest scribble in the bottom of my purse is a good one:
Ah, yes, the letting go. I’ve never quite understood the idea of “just let it go” when bugged by something. While I don’t endorse fretting and harumphing, I wonder what manner of insensitivities would be committed if people just turned the other cheek and acted as if nothing wrongful had occurred.
Needless to say, I’ve never been particularly adroit at just letting things go.
When someone cuts in front of me in line, I point out that I was there first. When a doctor keeps me waiting for hours in the waiting room, I mention that while I understand that things come up and emergencies do arise, my time is valuable, too. When my son’s All Star team was wrongly accused of misdeeds this season, I let the accusers know that their underhanded tactics did not go unnoticed. When a member of my inner circle acts unkindly, I don’t hesitate to bring the errant behavior to her attention.
Sometimes speaking out changes things: the line-jumper realizes he/she isn’t the only person on the planet. Sometimes it doesn’t change things: doctors overbook themselves, 12-year-old baseball players are punished because of so-called grown-ups’ selfishness, and friendships run their course.
I’ve been told that people admire my willingness to speak up in the face of blatant wrongdoing. “I wish I was ballsy like you” or “I’m too chicken to say what I really think” are among the comments I’ve heard on this topic. I’d love to take credit for being brave and outspoken, as if it were planned and orchestrated for the greater good. The truth is, however, it’s not something I plan; it comes out because I don’t have a very reliable filter. I’m not so good at letting it go.
Change does come from having cancer and facing all of its myriad unpleasantries and challenges. I have learned during the course of my cancer “journey” to let some things go. While I won’t insult you with the platitudinal idea that cancer has made me a better person (I was just fine before, thank you very much), it does have a way of forcing things into perspective. I will never go quietly into the night with the idea that any of this is fair, but I won’t fight it, either. Sometimes bad things do indeed happen to good people. Sometimes life intervenes to rearrange the order of things, to shake things up a little, or a lot. I’ve learned a lot on this cancer “journey,” from the technical to the philosophical, from the underside of fear to the crushing tyranny of bad breaks and complications straight through to the unmitigated joy of coming out the other side, battle-weary and scared shitless yet proud in the knowledge that no matter what this beast flings at me, I can take it.
I will likely continue speaking out against what I perceive as the injustices in my life; a tiger doesn’t change its stripes, after all. I will nag the line-jumpers of the world until they see the error of their ways. I will savor Tao’s words and reflect on the idea that in letting go of things or friendships that may not be working, I open myself up to receiving something even better.
Long time, no blog, I know. Thanks to you faithful readers who have inquired about the reason for my silence. Sometimes no news is good news, but once you bare your cancer-laden soul in a blog, silence can be interpreted as a sign of trouble. Not so here; rest assured that if there were new and nasty developments, I’d spew the gory details. That’s how I roll. I’ve been busy with summer stuff: ferrying my favorite girl back & forth to day camp, hounding my video-game-addicted boy to work on his “page a day” algebra packet, devising a piggie-proof lock for the pantry, and keeping my potted plants alive as we alternate between drenching rains and scorching sun. Oh, and wading through the mounds of red tape that ensued after my girl and I were in a pretty bad car crash last weekend. Wet roads, bald tires, and independent rear suspension became a perfect storm that landed us in a ditch with the airbags deployed and the car inoperable 200 miles outside of Houston. Never a dull moment.
In light of all this, the MRI that I had Wednesday was a high point. Thankfully it was not cancer-related, but it brought back a whole lot of cancer-related thoughts. I guess it’s the case of once a cancer patient, always a cancer patient. In fact, it got me thinking — a lot — about May 7, 2010, just days after I’d been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer at the tender age of 40. On that day in history, I was enduring “test-a-palooza” in which I spent the entire day at the hospital for an L-DEX, chest x-ray, MRI, and bone scan.
Here’s what I had to say back then about the MRI:
Three vials of blood and a dose of radioactive dye later, I was ready for the MRI. I’ve had an MRI before, and this was not what I expected. Instead of lying on my back and going through the tube, I was face-down on what Mona the tech called a massage table (I noticed real quick there is no massage). Imagine my claustrophobic heart singing when I saw the piped-in oxygen for the tiny little space in which my face was smushed.
Mona asked what kind of music I’d like, to drown out the noise. She said most people choose classical to help relax. I told her I prefer alcohol to help relax, but I’d try the music. She promised me a double martini, extra dirty, when we got done.
The sweet chirping of birds and melodic harps were quickly drowned out entirely by a ruckus that can only be described as a marriage in hell between a jackhammer, nuclear-reactor alarm, and emergency broadcast signal, in a successive repeating pattern. Mona wasn’t kidding when she said a lot of people come out of there with a pounding headache. I decided right then & there that I needed a double on that double martini order.
While it seemed like I was in there forever, it was really only about 40 minutes, and instead of lying there thinking about what an unholy racket and uncomfortable experience it was, I heard my mom whisper in my ear: “Every pounding noise you hear is you gearing up to kick the crap out of the cancer.” Course, she never would have said “crap” because she didn’t like cuss words, and would have said “peewaddle” instead, but I added “crap” for a little color. I had lots of time to think about her and her courage while I was in there, and it worked. Before I knew it, Mona came to get me off that crazy thing.
Wednesday’s MRI was on my knee, which has been barking at me for months and doesn’t always go along with my big ideas. Tennis, working out at the gym, swimming, and climbing stairs seem to be more than this old knee wants to do, and after stretching, foam-rolling, icing, and self-medicating with cold beer, it was time to face the fact that it wasn’t getting any better. My orthopedist says that some knees need to be scoped every 8 to 10 years, and my scope was 7 years ago, so there ya go. I guess 7 years of lunging, squatting, jumping, running, and springing have taken a toll. As per my usual, I refuse to go quietly into the night, and plan to do whatever it takes to get some more use out of these joints.
Conventional wisdom suggests two scenarios to fix my problem: do a PRP injection and see how far that gets me, or do another scope along with the PRP. The PRP alone is the much simpler course, and I’m all for quick recovery and little downtime, but in my heart of hearts I know I need the scope, too, and I learned long ago in my cancer “journey” to always go with my gut.
The PRP represents some pretty cool cutting-edge medical thinking in an emerging field called Orthobiologics, and all the cool pro athletes are doing it so why not me, too? Troy Palamalu and Hines Ward both did it, as did Tiger Woods — repeatedly, and perhaps to correct some of the damage his jilted wife did to him with a golf club. Kobe Bryant got some, and Alex Rodriguez traveled to Germany to get his PRP. He thinks he’s so special.
Here’s how it works: under the beautiful twilight haze of propofol, 30 ml of blood is collected and spun in a centrifuge to separate the plasma from the whole blood. The plasma, which is very concentrated and full of healing goodness, is then injected into the injury site and the magic begins. Because PRP is autologous, it’s a good choice for me: my body is quite the xenophobe and reacts quite strongly to anything foreign like tissue expanders or a port.
I was all geared up for the idea of the scope and the PRP when my awesome orthopedic surgeon called to say there was something unexpected on the MRI. Surprise! A complication! My kneecap is misaligned and has slid to the outside instead of staying in the center groove at the end of the thigh bone as the knee bends. Fantastic. There goes my tennis season. Me and my stupid patellar maltracking. The fix? A lateral release, which is done during the scope and involves cutting the lateral retinaculum, which is the tissue attached to the outside of the kneecap.
If it were just the scope and the PRP, no big deal. A bit of a slow recovery for a go-getter like me, but very manageable. The lateral release doubles the recovery time, and involves a lot of pain and swelling. Sigh. Big sigh. Never a dull moment, indeed.