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.
If it’s not over until the fat lady sings, I would like to know what time she’s scheduled to take the stage. What’s that — there is no schedule? The fat lady sings when she’s good & ready and not one minute before? She is a diva.
The idea of all of “this” being over is a recurring one. By “this” of course I mean cancer and all its dangling, hangey-on-y ways of lingering and permeating myriads aspects of life. I was reminded of this (because cancer and its many tentacles are never far from my mind), while reading one of my new blog friend’s blogs. His wife just had a mastectomy in northern California, and he posted on his blog to tell all of her friends & followers that the surgery was over. He actually used the phrase “it’s all over” and then chuckled at and corrected himself, knowing full good and well that they have miles to go before they sleep, as Robert Frost so eloquently wrote in “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”
Oh, how I love that poem. Robert Frost was a total stud. The imagery he creates, seemingly effortlessly, resonates to this day. I’m totally in love with the image in my head of his horse, which he carefully crafts with such an economy of words. I can see his horse’s big, gentle eyes, beseeching his master and wondering what in tarnation the pair of them are doing hanging out in the woods on a cold, dark night. I can almost hear his harness bells’ jingle, and I’m swooning over the phrase “easy wind and downy flake.” Love it.
While some first-rate poetry is a nice distraction, the subject remains. The idea of “being done,” or “it being over,” doesn’t really apply to cancer. As I pondered Paul’s blog post I realized this truism, and even though I’m a rookie in the “cancer journey” I’ve learned a lot and I know this to be true: it’s never over.
Here’s the thing: the “cancer journey” is long. It used to be the road less traveled, to quote Mr Frost again, yet nowadays is more and more common. Too common, as every day the numbers of people diagnosed continue to grow. For breast cancer alone, the chances of getting it have risen from 1 in 20 in 1964 to 1 in 8 today. In less than 50 years, our chances of contracting this damned disease have leapfrogged considerably. Which means more and more people will find themselves on a “cancer journey,” and I wouldn’t be surprised if those numbers continue rising.
Another things I’ve learned on my “cancer journey” is that someone keeps moving the finish line. I’ve only been at this for 10 months, yet have seen my finish line recede, sidewind, and fade into the distance. It starts even before diagnosis, with the testing that’s done to determine if we do indeed have a problem. Get through those tests, which in my case were a mammogram, an ultrasound or two, and a couple of biopsies. Then there’s the actual diagnosis, and getting through that becomes an emotional obstacle course. Following the diagnosis are lots of research, soul-searching, and decisions. But even when those are through, the real work is only just beginning. After the big decisions come still more testing (MRI, CT scan, PET scan, blood work, another biopsy), and that’s just to get to the point of having surgery. Get through surgery, then through recovery, and just when I think I may be getting “there” I realize that even after recovery, I gotta learn about re-living, which is kinda different when “normal” has flown the coop and there’s a new status quo involved. You might think that finding the new normal would be the end, but guess what? now there’s the maintenance and screening. If you’re the kind of person who makes a list and takes the necessary steps to reach the conclusion, you’re screwed, because there is no end. I can’t even see the goalposts anymore.
I’ve learned this much on my “cancer journey.” I’m trying to stop looking for the finish line, to avoid squinting for the goalposts, somewhere off in the distance. Since it’s never truly over, I’m gonna just keep on truckin.’
I’ve been a pretty good girl this year. I’ve smiled at fussy babies in checkout lines at HEB. I did my time at the grade-school class parties (not my scene, to say the least). I called the collection agency back — yes, I really did — when they left me a message saying I owed money on a past-due hospital bill that my insurance company says has been paid. I donated nearly-new clothes & home goods to charities multiple times. I helped out with the school fundraiser, even though I really, really, didn’t want to. I’ve said please and thank you and bring my own bags. I was a big girl and good sport about all the trips and baseball games I missed this past summer.
And while we’re on the topic of this past summer, dear Santa, do ya remember all the hell I went through? It all started on April 27, 2010, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Talk about an “aha” moment. The timeline quickly unfolded like this: the rest of April and first part of May were consumed with tests, tests, and more tests: BRAC analysis, CT scans, x-rays, PET scan, bone scans and MRI. In case that’s not enough acronyms for ya, there was also the L-Dex and then the genomic typing of ER/PR positive and HER2 negative. More injections and blood draws than my poor left arm’s veins could keep up with (literally; there’s a permanent knot in the big vein). Countless appointments with the breast surgeon (Dr Dempsey, who is on the “nice” list) and plastic surgeon (Dr S, who may be on the naughty list), and 3 different oncologists.
Meanwhile, there was research to be done and crushing decisions to be made as I prepared for surgery. The phrase “life and death” took on a whole new meaning, sweet Santa. There’s a strange juxtaposition between packing school lunches and signing field trip permission slips while also filling out my medical directive and living will. I learned pretty fast how to act normal when everything around me had been turned upside down. I think, dear Santa, I also did a pretty good job of adjusting and adapting to the new normal. I think, fat man, I’m still doing a damn fine job of that. One quick look at my profile tells you that there most definitely is a new normal around here.
Santa baby, I was a good girl after the double mastectomy and the lymph node removal that left me battle-scarred and weary. I was an especially good girl in the face of the plethora of prescription drugs I could have used & abused. I was a diligent girl when it came to choosing green drink over Diet Coke, all-natural hormone-free yogurt over Blue Bell.
Santa, I was a brave and good girl when the nasty infection set up shop in my still-raw chest wall. I endured the 103-degree fevers, 22 days in the hospital, multiple tissue excisions and untold poking & prodding without much complaint. I missed the comforts of home, my dogs & my kids more than words can say, but I only cried twice. And even then, it was when no one else was around to see.
We don’t even need to recount the 18 days during which I was attached to the wound vac 24-7. I would really like, dear Santa, to permanently erase that memory from my grey matter, por favor. But I would like to remind you that I was a trouper during the home health days, and all those hours that were consumed with wound care and the administration of IV antibiotics. And while I’m at it, can I get a little shout-out for not killing Dr S, even though he probably deserved it?
Oh Santa, I do crave some credit for all the antibiotics I’ve endured — and continue to endure. From the Vancomycin to Cefapim, from the Cipro to the Zyvox, from the Biaxin to the Bactrim and Minocycline. Those last two will be part of my daily routine for a few months yet, but I’m already looking forward to the day in which I don’t have them on my kitchen counter anymore.
So Santa, how about we make a deal? I’ll set out all the milk & cookies you want in exchange for one little thing. All I want for Christmas is to have it easy for awhile.