World Cancer Day & Stuart Scott

Today is World Cancer Day, and rather than rehashing my own cancer “journey” I’m thinking about Stuart Scott.

A longtime ESPN anchor, Scott was a familiar presence in my house. His wordsmithing appealed to me, as did his irreverancy. In a world populated by former jocks and professional windbags, Scott contributed a cool combination of intellectual breadth and liveliness. Scott’s colleague Dan Patrick once said about Scott that “he didn’t just push the envelope, he bulldozed the envelope.” I’m a fan of bulldozers.

Scott was diagnosed with appendix cancer in 2007. Yes, you read that right: appendix cancer. Weird and rare, there are an estimated 1,000 cases of appendix cancer in the United States annually, compared to nearly 300,000 cases of breast cancer every year in this country. Perhaps this is another reason I relate to Stuart Scott: between his appendix cancer and my post-mastectomy mycobacterium infection, we both faced the question of “who in the world contracts that??”

Stuart Scott wrote a book about his cancer “journey,” which explains his gladiator approach to confronting his disease. The cancer community is divided on the “battle” aspect of the cancer fight — some people love the idea of a cancer warrior while others are uncomfortable with the war metaphors — but one thing I know for sure: the cancer experience is a fiercely personal one, and no one has the right to tell another how to do it or which analogies to use.

espn.com

espn.com

I read an excerpt of Scott’s book and am hungry for more. He was a gym rat, like me, and he leaned heavily upon his workouts during treatment, both for physical strength and for mental health:

“I can’t tell you how important it felt to go from the chemo infusion center to the gym. There were patients at the infusion center who were gaunt and too weak to walk. I wanted to hug them. I wanted to work out for them. It took about fifteen minutes to get to the gym from the infusion center, but I felt like I was traveling a great distance: from the land of the sick to the land of the recovering. I’d work out three or four times a week, but the most important workout was the one right after chemo. It was like I was proving a point: While you kick my butt, cancer, I’m gonna kick yours.”

In thinking about the name of one of the drugs in his chemo cocktail, Scott realized “The medical name of the medicine is fluorouracil, but they call it 5-FU. That’s what it said, right there: 5-FU. All right, I thought. A sign. FU, cancer.”

FU cancer. Indeed.

Scott continues: “My return to the gym felt kind of spiritual. I wasn’t really supposed to run since I was still connected to the port that was giving me my medicine.  I looked down, and my eye caught the logo of the manufacturer of the machine I was on: LifeStyle. That word jumped out at me: Life. I thought back to the first thought I had when [diagnosed]: I’m going to die. But I was still here. And here I was, not forty-five minutes out of chemo, and I was in the gym, doing what I do. I started to run. What could be the harm? The disease wasn’t in control. I was.”

That sense of control is of epic importance in the cancer “journey.”

Scott explains it like this: “Mentally, I needed to be in that gym. I’d talk smack to cancer like Ali talked to his opponents. A third set of push-ups? Take that, cancer. Twenty full-out sprint pass patterns? Cancer, you ever run up against this? Some kicks and punches into the middle of the heavy bag after the elliptical? I got yer cancer right here! I needed to do that, not just to show my girls I was fighting for them, but also to show myself I had some control over the situation. ‘Cause cancer wants to take control from you. You’ve got to very purposefully stand your ground. That’s what going to the gym is to me. I decide, cancer.”

A few weeks ago I came across the late ESPN sportscaster’s speech about his cancer “journey” at the ESPY awards last summer. That speech is powerful. Here’s the link so you can check it out.

Scott was awarded the Jimmy V Award at last year’s ESPYs and joins an acclaimed list of courageous and inspirational people from various corners of the sports world. Perhaps his career as an on-camera personality gave him the extra flair that made him such an engaging speaker. Maybe that was just his personality. Either way, his speech is compelling.

The take-away message, for me, lie in these words from that speech:

“When you die, that does not mean that you lost to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live and in the manner in which you live.”

Stuart Scott taught me a huge and valuable lesson. He did die, but he did not lose. How he lived proves that. Today, on World Cancer Day, I honor Stuart Scott. While at the gym, I will think of his no-mercy approach. I will remember all the days in which I was that patient too weak to walk, and I will silently thank him for all the times he worked out in my stead. For all the times he went straight from chemo to the gym and said FU, cancer.

espn.com

espn.com


World Cancer Day

Today is World Cancer Day. This year’s theme is debunking myths and erasing stigmas attached to cancer. While I’m all for the debunking and erasing, I’m not at all sure how to feel about cancer having its own day. At first blush, I thought: Woohoo! A day to celebrate! I’m always up for that. But then I thought, Wait: what exactly am I celebrating? The fact that I survived? No; too much emphasis on survival makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m tempting fate. The fact that there’s so much awareness and dialogue about cancer nowadays? No; I’m sick of talking about it and even more sick of thinking about it. The fact that I persevered despite a devastating illness and an even more dangerous nosocomial infection? No; I would have rather skipped the whole experience. Especially the infection part.

Not knowing exactly what to make of this day, I’ll focus on this:ConquerMountain

There’s a poster at my gym with this quote from Sir Edmund Hillary. I’m assuming it’s in reference to Mt Everest. I look at the poster when I’m on the VersaClimber — a cardio machine that at first seemed like an instrument of torture but now is part of my routine. Most times I have to close my eyes to get through my VersaClimber intervals (it’s pretty bad!). But when I’m not closing my eyes, I look at the poster and read Hillary’s words, and realize that indeed, we do conquer ourselves. Including the cancer.


Medical musings

If not for the priceless blog fodder, I’d be pretty steamed after my visit to my dermatologist yesterday. I’m ever so grateful for my sense of humor, especially after last week’s doctor’s appointment on a day that went from bad to worse to are you freakin’ kidding me??

My dermatologist is lucky I have this little blog as my outlet for all the things I’m compelled to rant about, to rail against, to bitch & moan about in general.

A little background: she’s a fantastic doctor. She embodies many of the traits I’ve come to appreciate and insist upon while spending time in an exam room. She’s punctual, no-nonsense, very thorough, and more than ready with the prescription pad. Her office is staffed by all women, with nary a male doc in sight, which thrills me to my feminist bones.

She is, however, not going to win a prize for compassionate bedside manner. She is not the most compassionate doctor I’ve ever met, and this was on full display yesterday.

Perhaps it’s my bad for scheduling a first-thing-Monday-morning appointment. Maybe she had not had her RDA of caffeine. It’s possible that her personality pills had yet to kick in at that early hour. Whatever the reason, she didn’t waste any time with pleasantries. I’m cool with that, and as much as I enjoy having a comfy relationship with my health-care practitioners (especially those who see me naked), I’m good with the all-business appointment that gets me out of there and on with my life.

I sat on the paper-covered exam table in my thin paper gown precariously close to shivering — yes, people, a temperature of 52 degrees in South Texas does count as c-o-l-d, and I’m aware of the fact that 52 degrees could be considered a heat wave in some parts of the country at this time of year. I was awaiting my doctor to come in and do my annual mole check. Because I had melanoma several years ago, I take my mole checks very seriously, and as much as I hate stripping down to have every inch of my flesh examined, it’s a necessary evil and one I never skip out on.

My melanoma showed up on the inside of my right foot, on perhaps the one and only body part without any excess flesh. A number of specialists were consulted on how best to excise the infested tissue in such a delicate area. Opening the area and excising the melanoma weren’t the problem, but closing the incision was. Little did I know that that experience would be the first of many “think of the most complicated scenario” scenarios in which I would find myself. Post-mastectomy mycobacterium, anyone? In case you’re wondering, the solution to the flesh-less foot melanoma was Mohs surgery in which the surgeon used a zig-zag shaped incision to allow him to close that incision with limited flesh upon which to draw together. I have a now-faded zig-zag scar that predates Harry Potter’s lightning bolt on his forehead. I had a lightning bolt scar before lightning bolt scars were cool.

Anyhoo, back to my terse and not-so-warm-and-fuzzy dermatologist. The first thing she said when she walked into the exam room was, “What are you doing about your rosacea?”

Um, I didn’t know I had rosacea. My face gets red when I exercise and when it’s cold outside — and again, 52 degrees does count as cold — but I certainly have never had the bright red spots that I associate with rosacea. Great, now I’m feeling self-conscious.

I asked her what she thinks I should do about my rosacea (and I want extra credit for not asking it in a smart-assy way; I mean, she is the doctor, after all). She shrugged and said there aren’t any creams on the market that really help, although there are a couple in FDA testing that should be available in a few years. Meanwhile, she thinks I should go for several laser treatments, which start at $600. Out of pocket, I’m sure. She suggested that I figure out what my triggers are and avoid them. Since she didn’t go into any detail on the common triggers, I looked them up myself and found that they include stress (not gonna get away from that one anytime soon), spicy food (I do like my jalapenos and Frank’s Hot Sauce; I put that beep on everything!), hot beverages (I’m a two-cup-a-day coffee girl), sun exposure (did I mention I live in South Texas?), exertion in hot weather (again, South Texas), oral antibiotics (so I’m guessing that 267 days of two different oral abx would factor in here), and drumroll please…the last trigger for rosacea is…alcoholic beverages.

Ok, I’m out. I’ll just have to figure out a way to live with my extra-rosy cheeks because every item on the list is a factor, but the last one is a deal-breaker.

Moving along, she examined me and made notes of the normal-looking moles scattered here & there on my body. Because of being inducted into the pink ribbon club, I’ve spent plenty of time mostly naked in doctors’ offices. I’ve had my flesh poked & prodded and examined quite intently enough times that I don’t even think twice about it; in fact, I got so used to the weekly follow-up exams after the mastectomy, the multiple surgeries to rid my chest wall of the mycobacterium, and then the Big Dig reconstruction that it seemed weird to not take off my clothes at the doctor’s office.

However, none of my previous time spent in my birthday suit with a doctor prepared me for her question: Why did you have a mastectomy?

Ummmmm, because I had breast cancer?

Why else do women undergo such a physically and emotionally taxing surgery? What kind of question is that???

I wondered for a sec if I’d heard her right, then answered “Ummmmm, because I had breast cancer.”

She then wanted to know why I had a bilateral mastectomy; was the cancer in both breasts? I replied no, at least not that was detected by the multiple mammograms, bone scan, or PET scan, but that was the right decision for me. Once I heard I had breast cancer, I took a slash-and-burn approach. Good thing, too, because my post-mastectomy pathology showed a large and scary smattering of micro-mets that were likely just waiting to organize into a full-blown tumor, with a bonus of Paget Disease to boot.

She complimented my reconstruction and said it looks good, that they see a lot of it, and mine is better than most. I replied that I was very fortunate to have such skilled surgeons, yadda yadda. It never seems like the right time to mention that while my surgeons did an incredible job with my reconstruction (especially considering how wrecked my right chest wall was after the infection), it’s still reconstruction, and I was perfectly happy with my breast before I had to have them chopped off and rebuilt using another body part. It never seems appropriate to talk about how the reconstruction restored some mass to my previously scooped-out chest, but it’s not the same and will never be the same as it was before. I never feel as if the conversation will meander toward the topic of how no matter how skillful the reconstruction, there’s no way to escape the constant and visual reminder that I had cancer. I’ve yet to find a way to say that the myth of getting new boobs after breast cancer is just that, a myth. Yes, they’re new, but they’re not really boobs. I can’t ever figure out how to say that while I’m very grateful to have had access to the best docs in one of the best medical facilities in the world, and yet my reconstruction still leaves me feeling less viable. It’s certainly not considered polite chit-chat to recount how grueling the DIEP surgery is, how precarious the transplanted blood vessels are, how unbearably uncomfortable it was to be in the ICU with heaters blowing to warm those blood vessels, or how the stress of flap-failure can bring on some serious PTSD.

All that from a sincere compliment about my reconstruction. Sheesh, what a head case I’ve become.

Just as I was talking myself down from the myriad ledges my brain landed on and working hard to get back to the present moment, which was a simple mole check, my dermatologist asked another question: Where did they get the flap from for my DIEP? From my belly, I replied, and braced myself for the inevitable comment about how nice it must be to get a “free” tummy tuck. Before she could utter that platitude, I launched into a distrationary tale about how I had to gain weight to create enough belly fat to make a good flap; ha ha ha, I said, it was so funny that I had plenty of fat in my hips & thighs but not in my belly. As I lay on my belly and she examined my back, she asked why they didn’t take it from my back (because apparently there was plenty available, and she was staring right at it). Well, because I didn’t want to lose my tennis serve, I said, resisting the urge to ask for a mirror so I could see just how fat my back is.

The coup de grace, though, came when she said how lots of people probably envied me having to gain weight for the surgery, and then delivered the final crushing blow to my already-battered ego by saying, I guess you’re still working on losing that weight, huh?

Yep. Still working on it.

And I’ll keep working on it. Right after I find a new dermatologist.

I wonder if this guy is still in practice.


You can’t run from trouble…

It’s a quiet Sunday morning, and I’m alone with my thoughts. I’m up earlier than I might have chosen, thanks to one hungry little piggy. After a Friday night of interrupted sleep and a Saturday full of tennis, errands, swimming laps and a late dinner with a favorite cousin, I may well have stayed in bed a while. However, savoring a slumbering house amidst hte sunlight pouring in through the trees and hearing the sweet sound of birdsong while sipping a cup of strong coffee is better than sleeping in.

Plus it gives me time to read my book, Shantaram, which I’ve been dying to dive into but haven’t found the time. It’s been likened to Cutting for Stone, one of my all-time most favorite books ever. If it’s half as good as CFS, I’ll be one happy reader.

Quick synopsis of Shantaram: Mr Lindsay, our protagonist, has escaped from an Australian prison and fled to Bombay. There he meets Prabaker, a native of the slums who renames Lindsay “Lin” and becomes his always-smiling, eternally joyful guide to the big city. Lin falls for Karla, a mysterious woman with sea-green eyes, and pursues her amidst the backdrop of a lively bar called Leopold’s. Lin is “a magnet for trouble, a soldier of fortune, and a picaresque hero” who delves into the black-market world of false documents. I’m not very far into the 944 pages of adventure, but am intrigued.

As I settled in to read this fine morning, I came across an especially well-written passage, which brought me up short. Lin is talking to his new friend Didier in the bar about some of the more unsavory patrons among them. In an effort to avoid being overheard by the bad guys, Didier was “speaking out of the corner of his mouth, like a prisoner under the eyes of the wardens.”

A nice metaphor, for sure, but it gets better:

“In Australian prisons, that whispering technique is known as side-valving. The expression spoke itself clearly in my mind and, together with Didier’s mannerism, the words put me back in a prison cell. I could smell the cheap disinfectant, hear the metal hiss of the keys, and feel the sweating stone under my fingertips. Flashbacks are common to ex-prisoners, cops, soldiers, ambulance drivers, fire fighters, and others who see and experience trauma. Sometimes the flashback is so sudden, and so inappropriate to the surrounding circumstance, that the only sane reaction is foolish, uncontrollable laughter.”

I had a flashback myself last week, and while it didn’t lead me to foolish, uncontrollable laughter, it almost set off a full-blown PTSD attack. I was rushing out the door to get one kid to school and head to the gym, my usual weekday routine. I’m a stickler for taking my own cup to the gym instead of using the styrofoam ones provided. As if our bulging landfills need another cup tossed on the heap. In my haste to get out the door, I grabbed a straw for my cup and scooted out into the garage and into the car. It wasn’t until I was into my workout and gulping water like a crazy person that I realized the new batch of straws I’d bought were bendy straws.

Big deal, right? Bendy straws can be useful, especially if one is reclining while drinking. Or if, say, one is hospitalized for countless days after a post-mastectomy infection. Yessiree, folks, a simple, innocent bendy straw sent me straight from my normal routine of a morning workout directly to the days of being captive in a hospital bed, held hostage by a nasty mycobacterium. Just as Lin was instantly transported from a bar in Bombay to the hated Australian prison cell, I was back in the hospital bed, raging with fever and sick, sick, sick while a nasty bug set up shop under my newly implanted tissue expander. A one-way ticket to Crazy Town in hand, I took the express train down (bad) memory lane.

I wasn’t even thinking about infections, hospitals, antibiotics, or breast cancer when the flashback struck, but I suppose that’s the nature of flashbacks. Triggered by sights, smells, or sounds or, in my case, straws, flashbacks take over and not only interrupt our present business but also disrupt the rest of the day with their nasty after-effects. Interesting how bad memories are just as powerful as good ones. Unlike the good memories, which fill us with warmth and comfort, bad memories suffuse our souls with fear, anxiety, and panic.

The bendy straw that triggered this particular flashback went straight into the trash, and I tried my best to go about my day like a normal person. Finish the workout, chit-chat with my fellow gym rats, reserve a tennis court on the way out, get in the car, drive to the grocery store, fill my cart, unload the loot, take a shower, pick up kids, supervise homework, prepare dinner, clean the kitchen. From the outside, I looked like a normal person doing everyday tasks, but inside I was anything but normal and was once again a cancer patient, fighting my way through uncertainty, confusion, and balls-out fear. In that moment, cancer made me its bitch, and there wasn’t a single thing I could do about it. The only thing keeping me from a total meltdown was knowing that this flashback would pass, that the terror brought on by a simple bendy straw was fleeting.

But as I talked myself off the ledge with soothing reminders that this too shall pass, I know just as certainly that while the terror will pass, it will also return. Again and again, this flashback will haunt me. Perhaps each time it becomes less rapacious, less capable of felling me in one swift motion, but it will return.

“You can’t run away from trouble.  There ain’t no place that far.” ~Uncle Remus


The circus may be gone, but the big top remains

Saw Surgeon #2 last week about the next step in revising The Big Dig. Didn’t want to talk about it or blog about it at the time. I’m not sure why, but I suspect it has to do with Surgeon #2’s comment about me having “been to hell and back.”

Part of me thinks it should be very gratifying to hear Surgeon #2 say that. After all, I respect her immensely, and it’s quite validating to hear someone I think highly of say that I made it through a seriously trying time, and that I made it with flying colors. If there were a report card for cancer/infection/surgery progress, I think I’d have straight A’s.

No such report card exists, however, and a 4.0 in this particular course-load is meaningless. There is no honor roll in the ranks of survivors. Instead of a gold star, I have some big-time scars across my chest and belly. I’ve gained a few hard-won wrinkles etched in my furrowed brow, too, from the worry that accompanies a cancer diagnosis, a post-mastectomy infection, 267 days of oral antibiotics, and major surgery followed by not one, not two, but multiple revisions. There’s no end in sight to this circus. The fairgrounds are quiet, but the circus tent remains. The bearded lady has gone home, and the trapeze artists have ambled along, too. The wild animals are safely ensconced in their cages, and the carnival rides are dormant. The circus, however, lives on. It seems there is no end to the drama and three-ring craziness that is life after breast cancer. I hold out hope that at some point the circus will vanish in the night, and I will awake to find sawdust, peanut shells, and the faint smell of adrenaline and cotton candy. But alas, the big top remains.

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I saw Surgeon #2 last week to get her opinion on the next step on this cancer “journey.” Like a traveling circus steaming toward the next town, the cancer “journey” chugs along. I sought Surgeon #2’s expert opinion on the next phase of this “journey.” After The Big Dig and subsequent revisions to perfect what is essentially an imperfect canvas, I needed to hear her say “do this” or “don’t do that.” I needed to know whether there’s any point to pursuing yet another tweak to my restored chest.

Surgeon #2 was her usual cheery, to-the-point self. She says I’m “almost there” in the relentless pursuit of normalcy — at least on the physical side — after breast cancer and reconstruction. That’s the tactful way of saying “We can do a little more, but it’s never going to be perfect so we’re getting close to the time in which you start to accept it.”

I don’t want to accept it.

I’m still hanging onto the myth — albeit cruel and deceptive — that one can have nice boobs again after cancer. Public Service Announcement #852 from this little blog: If you hear someone say, “Bummer about the breast cancer, but at least you get new boobs,” be aware: the new boobs may not be something you actually want.

I’m still not ready to accept that ugly truth.

Surgeon #2 concluded my consultation with a little look-see at an 8 1/2 x 11 inch photo of myself pre-reconstruction. I don’t remember posing for that picture, as there have been several photo shoots associated with this cancer “journey,” but there it was, on the inside cover of my file. Surgeon #2 flashed that full-sized photo of me, with one tidy mastectomy scar on the left and one not-so-tidy scar on the right. The right side, a mess of multiple scars and tissue excisions necessitated by the nosocomial infection. I hadn’t seen or thought about that scene in many moons. I recognized the train wreck on what was formerly known as my right breast. I recognized the God-awful blue paper panties required for plastic surgery photos. I recognized my former belly button, so normal and non-Frankenstein-looking. I recognized the flabby belly that I was required to acquire so that the DIEP surgery — my only reconstruction option — could occur. That belly was flabby, but it was unblemished and absent was the 17-inch incision from hip to hip that has mellowed but will forever be a stark reminder of what the king’s horses and the king’s men did in an effort to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

While I hadn’t seen that photo in nearly two years, I recognized every aspect of it. However, when Surgeon #2 said, “You’ve been to hell and back,” I couldn’t conjure up the specifics I expected to feel about that dark period in my cancer history. In fact, hearing her say “You’ve been to hell and back” was startling. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t know how to react to it. And days later, I still don’t know how to react to it.

I suppose I should have felt some pride and/or satisfaction at having endured that trip down the “If anything can go wrong, it will” scenario. Perhaps I should have felt a sense of accomplishment at having survived that arduous trip down the rabbit hole. I guess I should have felt happiness at having come out on the other side of such a hellish situation. But I didn’t.

Instead, I felt as if I were watching myself in a movie. I remember being there, of course, and I remember that all that happened to me. But I can’t conjure up the specific feel of the experience. I can’t visualize the ins and outs of that particular “journey.” I see myself, my physical body, in that full-size, color photo (which is not at all flattering, by the way), but it doesn’t seem like me. I see that former body through a myopic lens. The rational side of my brain knows it did indeed happen to me, but the protective side of my brain has shielded me from calling it up, in all its ugliness. Like the flash of lightning in the night sky of a summer storm, or the sharp but fleeting heat of a jalapeno pepper on the tongue, I know it’s there but once it’s gone it’s gone. For that I should be grateful.

But I’m not grateful.

I’m sad.

Really sad.

And really mad.

Maybe it’s too soon to feel triumph over the wily infection that wreaked untold havoc on my weary body. Perhaps the time is not right to celebrate how far I’ve come. Maybe I’m simply not one to say, “That was rough, but I got through it.” Apparently it’s a long way from beginning to end, if there ever is an end, and I’m not there yet. While it’s been almost exactly two years since I bid adieu to my cancer-riddled breasts, that’s not enough time to process the enormity of all that’s transpired over the last 728 days. If it were a linear path from diagnosis to mastectomy to psychological recovery, I might be in a position to expect some change, some healing, some progress to have occurred. But I was busy processing that nasty infection instead of dealing with the weight of cancer at age 40, so the change, the healing, the progress remains at a standstill.

The big top remains.

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The Phantom Tollbooth

Remember that book from back in the day? It was also made into an animated movie by Chuck Jones, the genius of cartooning. It was written before I was born, by Norton Juster and was illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Not sure what either of them has gone on to do, but perhaps the Tollbooth was enough.

thenewyorker.com

It’s the story of a boy named Milo who unexpectedly receives a magic tollbooth, which he explores in a toy car. Along the way he becomes lost in the Doldrums, where thinking and laughing are strictly prohibited, and is rescued by Tock, a lovely giant watchdog with an alarm clock attached to his belly. The parallels between this story and the cancer “journey” are many.

I was thinking of The Phantom Tollbooth yesterday as I noticed a phantom pain deep in the area formerly known as my right breast, where the evil post-mastectomy infection set up camp and decided to stay awhile. The pain itself wasn’t strong enough to take my breath away, but the implications were, and my mind immediately began racing: what if the infection is back? what if it never fully went away? There were signs of that damned infection, after all, during The Big Dig, which was 9 months after the infection first made itself known.

It’s been a year since The Big Dig, which was my best option for defense against the infection after 267 days of oral antibiotics didn’t fully slay that beast. Nearly a year later, a random pain in the area of my body that was my Ground Zero still has the power to bring me to my knees. Not because it hurts so badly, but because of what it represents.

The idea of the infection once again rearing its ugly head scares me. A lot. I don’t think about it often because I’m busy living my life, but once in a while, as in the case with the phantom pain, the thought does cross my mind. If it did come back, or if it reasserted itself after lying dormant, I would freak out. And yes, that is the correct medical term for becoming reacquainted with the mycobacterium that made a cancer diagnosis at age 40 seem like a walk in the park. The cancer part was easy (relatively speaking) but the myco damn near destroyed me.

Looking back on that dark period of my life is like watching a movie. I see this girl who’s going about her charmed life. Sure there are things that could be better but for the most part it was indeed a charmed life. She lives this charmed life rather out loud, and does “all the right things” to ensure that the charmed life has plenty of staying power. Baseline mammograms at age 36 because of her sweet mama’s premature death; a meat-free, plant-based diet free from preservatives and other nasty; daily exercise; a premium placed on a good night’s sleep; plentiful fresh air and clean water; an all-out avoidance of hormone-filled dairy products for her and meat products for her kids; a plan to deal with the stresses that sometimes darkened her door.

This girl was the last person you might expect to be felled by cancer. And yet, she was.

It’s hard for me to recall those dark days. Of course I know it happened and I was there, but my brain seems to protect me from all the gritty details. After taking in the diagnosis, deciding on the bilateral mastectomy, enduring the surgery and thinking I was on the road to recovery, the infection hit and knocked the wind right out of me.

There’s a vivid PTSD associated with the whole infection thing. I’d bet there’s a whole separate PTSD associated with the cancer thing, too, and it comes out in strange ways, such as a phantom pain sending me straight from normalcy to crazy town without stopping to collect my $200. Could be that the phantom pain in my chest was from 4 sets of tennis on Sunday after a tough upper-body workout on Friday. Or it could be from the wear & tear of multiple tissue excisions and general gutting of the infected skin during the infection’s salad days. When I was a kid, I had pneumonia, and some part of the illness settled in my left lung. For years after that illness, I’d often feel a pain/fatigue in that same spot. Perhaps the phantom pain in my chest is similar.

Very likely it’s nothing to worry about, but once you’ve  danced with the devil that is cancer, any twinge or spot or pain sets you on high alert. Some of us head straight for the catastrophic death spiral my sweet friend Lauren writes about. As she so knowingly puts it “The catastrophic death spiral makes us think a lump in our thigh is thigh cancer, a headache is brain cancer, and shortness of breath after running is surely announcing lung cancer. The catastrophic death spiral is the vortex that is cancer.” My recent phantom pain sent me spiraling before I had a chance to reel myself back in to the land of rational thought. It’s worrisome enough to have already dealt with the havoc that cancer brings, but to also feel the aftershocks of that disaster just stinks.

I expect that the constant looking over my shoulder is common in cancerland. But I don’t like it. I’m rather known for my heightened sense of justice and the idea that if you do the hard work/right thing, you’ll get the payout. But bad things happen to good people every day, and life isn’t fair. People who take good care of themselves get cancer, and people who treat their bodies to a buffet of Animal House-style debauchery outlive them. I know this, yet I’m still brought up short by the phantom pain’s effect on me and how quickly and effortlessly I returned to the catastrophic death spiral.

I was probably foolish to think that there would be an end to the cancer “journey” and that the incidences that trigger PTSD would gradually disappear. I should have known that even after logging many miles and paying the requisite tolls in this “journey,” I would forever be circling, just shy of my destination, and always consulting the map. Once Milo returns home from his trip on the tollbooth, he sees a note, which reads, “FOR MILO, WHO NOW KNOWS THE WAY.” I’m looking for my note and wishing I knew the way.

Phantom Tollbooth's Map of Lands Beyond


BC claims a two-fer

The icy grip of death got a two-fer yesterday. The world lost not one but two beautiful souls and because of this vicoious disease known as breast cancer, two important voices in the blog-o-sphere are forever silenced. Rachel Moro Cheetham, better known as Rach from the Cancer Culture Chronicles, and Susan Niebur of toddlerplanet both died yesterday. Rachel was the one who enlightened me to the appalling statistics that exist in the financials of the Susan G. Komen “For the Cure” organization [emphasis mine]. Rach is gone, but her tell-all pie chart will live on. Susan was an astrophysicist with NASA and mom to a 4- and 6-year-old boy who fought inflammatory breast cancer in her spare time. She compiled a list of science-related links, for kids and adults, on her blog full of science, parenting, and “the joy of life after cancer” that will no doubt become part of her legacy.

Rachel and Susan are beautiful examples of the pioneers in BC blogging. They blazed a trail and lit the way for newbies like me. They challenged and questioned and refused to wrap themselves in pink ribbons. They inspired me. By setting such a stalwart example, they encouraged me to do the same.

I’m not alone in my admiration for and my grief over these two women. A few blurbs from the BC world about them:

“Pretending that the pain isn’t here would be a disservice to the raw honesty of their voices.”

“I am stepping up to be a fearless & rebel friend. We need to keep their voices strong & heard by many.”

“If I could dim the lights on my blog, I would. We all took a big hit today.”

“I feel more resolve to stir the hornet’s nest.”

“CRAP CRAP CRAP.”

“Talk about hopes, dreams, plans, fears–then get out and live the life in front of you.”

“We will mourn and we will be sad and then we will become a FORCE that will not be turned back.”

Powerful words that befit powerful women.

When I created this little blog, it was initially to keep those closest to me informed of the steps and stages in my cancer “journey.” The plot thickened, however, and that “journey” became more perilous. A mysterious post-mastectomy infection, a month’s worth of hospitalizations that spanned the summer and three different hospitals in my great city, multiple surgeries to contain the scope of the infection’s destruction, two infectious disease teams, countless bags of antibiotics–both in the hospital and at home, and 267 days of oral abx gave me a lot on which to report.

Then came the harrowing process known as reconstruction. Thanks to the infection, nothing was simple, and what should be the final stage of the BC “journey” was anything but. Two revisions later, there’s still work to be done, and I’ve got many miles to go before I sleep. This little blog went from “Hey y’all, here’s what’s happening” to “y’all aren’t gonna believe this,” and in the process, this little blog morphed from a news bulletin to some serious therapy for its author and creator. Without the outlet that is publishing my most pressing thoughts, I could possibly be staring through the peephole of a padded cell instead of pounding out my latest missive on my iPad in the comforts of home.

I knew when I started this little blog that I would learn from my fellow BC bloggers, but I didn’t know I’d learn so much about this vicious disease that, for a time, took over my life and that has forever changed my life. As I put myself out there in the blogosphere and in the twitterverse, I found more and more blogs written by women like me–everyday gals from all walks of life in all corners of the globe confronting a nasty beast while also maintaining a career, running a household, and/or raising children. I’ve gotten to “know” some incredible women whose writings have educated, humbled, enlightened, and entertained me. Somewhere along the way, in between the updates and follow-ups that become the fabric of a cancer patient’s life, we became friends. United in our commonality of being members of a club we never wanted to join, we bond over blogs. We hold our breath as our blog friends report the news of the ever-ominous follow-up scans, willing it to be NED (no evidence of disease) news. We wake to the words on the screen written by fellow foot soldiers in this wrenching war. We cheer aloud in front of glowing computer screens late at night when there’s news of a final radiation session, and get teary-eyed  as we envision our blog friend ringing the bell in the infusion suite to signify the completion of chemo. We nod our heads in tacit understanding of the trials & tribulations that are a cancerchick’s life. We lean on each other and support each other, hopefully in equal measure.

In the throes of my cancer “battle,” I had a hard time reading the blogs of the cancerchicks who were battling MBC, the acronym for metastatic breast cancer. I shied away from those blogs because they were living the life that scared me the most. See, in my naivete, I wanted to believe that a cancer diagnosis at age 40 was the worst thing I’d ever endure (even thought I knew that facing the death of sweet mama was a million times harder). I wanted to believe that my cancer was the good kind, the easy kind, the kind that would never come back, even though in my heart of hearts I fear that it’s only a matter of time. In the beginning, I read the BC blogs from the outside, looking in, but before long, I became one of them. Like Rachel preaching the deception of SGK and dreaming of escaping from it all in a red karmann ghia, and like Susan arguing with her oncologist and imploring him to discharge her from the hospital after too many days away from her precious kiddos, I became one of them. They led by example and encouraged me to widen my sphere of influence. They were like rock stars in the blogging world — I looked up to them. Like getting an autograph from an admired celeb, a comment from them on one of my posts on my little blog was a thrilling keepsake. That their comments are no more fills me with great sadness. Thinking about those they leave behind — Rachel’s scruffy little dog, Susan’s sweet little boys — sears my heart.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Do not go where path may lead, go instead where there is no path & leave a trail”  Rachel and Susan, you have my heartfelt thanks for leaving a trail.