Living my life

I’ve been quite busy the last few days living my life.

I’m going to say that again — living my life. Those are 3 beautiful little words to someone dealing with cancer. Past or present, once you’ve tangled with the beast, the idea of living, i.e., surviving, is sweet. The idea of living your life, even sweeter because it means that in some way, you are getting back a semblance of  the pre-cancer life.

It’s almost October, which brings a multitude of conflicting emotions and thoughts. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is confusing for me, and for many other cancerchicks. On one hand, I’m grateful to Komen for destigmatizing what once was a shameful disease. I’m thankful for the research and the advances that have been made, which allow women like me to deal with BC much more easily than my pink ribbon sisters before me. On the other hand, I’m uncomfortable with all the pinkwashing that occurs. At what point can we declare enough with the awareness? Is there really anyone who’s not aware that BC exists and rips people’s lives apart to the tune of 1.3 million worldwide every year? More on that later.

While I’m torn about the Komen issue, I decided last-minute to do the Race for the Cure, which is tomorrow. The Houston version of the race usually attracts nearly 40,000 people so it’s a big deal, literally. I’ll be among the sea of pink tomorrow morning, wishing that the organization putting on the race would focus more on research and metastatic disease and less on putting a pink ribbon on products from fried chicken to dog treats to toilet paper. I’ll proudly wear my hot pink SURVIVOR shirt, basking in the glow of having made it through the plethora of crap cancer threw at me, but I’ll also mourn those who didn’t make it through. 

But that’s tomorrow. Today I’m going to be kicking some butt on the tennis court. It’s the annual member-guest tournament at our club, and Christy and I plan to dominate. She’s a fierce competitor who wants to bring home the hardware. Me too, but I’m also happy to be living my life.


A cast of characters, minus one

I’ve had this snazzy little grouping of prescription drugs on my kitchen counter for months now. Yes, the lids are pink, because my Walgreens had them for the pinkwashing that comes every October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Cute, huh?

These are the drugs I take every day, like a little old lady. My old standbys. The usual cast of characters.

There are the two big stars sharing top billing, Bactrim and Minocycline. My darling antibiotics that course throughout my body twice a day, every day to kick some mycobacterium butt. I would be lost without them. Or perhaps I would lose the all-day morning sickness feeling without them, but that’s just wishful thinking. Maybe I’d be dead without them, who knows? There was a time when I was almost sure I was dying from them, but I got over that.

Next we have the Florastor, the one thing that besides coffee that keeps me upright every day. I’m forever indebted to Susan Christopherson for turning me onto this probiotic that helps restore peace and order in one’s digestive system after said system has been under attack by the slash & burn tactics of an antibiotic regime. There have been a few times over the last 6 months of living under this regime in which I’ve either forgotten or willingly neglected the Florastor, and I paid dearly for that mistake. It’s not a prescription, but is kept behind the pharmacy counter for some reason. I don’t have to show my driver’s license to buy it, though, so I guess you can’t make meth out of it.

There’s the Ferrex iron supplement, since I’m a bit anemic and because I need uber-healthy blood vessels to harvest during reconstruction. Because I don’t eat any meat, I need a little help getting my iron; I get some from all the dark, leafy greens I eat, but not as much as my carnivorous friends ingest. My sweet, Peruvian oncologist can’t for the life of himself understand why someone would willingly forego meat. He shakes his head and looks at me a little funny every time it comes up, and he tends to bring it up every time he sees me. I’m done expecting him to compliment me on my plant-based, cancer-fighting diet. It didn’t help much, anyway, so I guess everyone is free to go on ahead and eat a big-ass, nasty, extra-rare steak. Might as well add some fries, or a loaded baked potato. You can see how far the healthy eating thing got me. Harumph.

Then there’s Tamoxifen, my daily cancer-battling bad-ass. It makes sure that there’s no estrogen flowing to feed any remaining cancer cells. While the side effects are troublesome (early menopause, hot flashes, leg cramps, decreased fluid in the joints, to name a few), I like the idea of starving those bastards. Tamoxifen is my first line of defense against recurrence. It makes me feel like I’m doing something every day to keep this beast from re-entering my life. It’s a daily pill that I’ll take for 5 years, then reassess to determine if I should stay on it or switch to another, similar drug.

And today I stopped taking it.

Yikes.

That scares me. More than a little bit. But since Tamoxifen can promote blood clots, it’s counterindicated with surgery. So I stop taking it for 3 weeks and hope that nothing goes haywire with my bloodflow. No clots, no bloodletting, no drama. That sure would be nice for a change.

Although I’m subtracting one prescription from my snazzy little grouping, I still feel like a little old lady whose life revolves around her meds. Ya know the old wisecrack issued when someone asks what time it is, and someone else smarts off, “Why? Ya gotta take a pill?” In my case, the answer is yes, smart ass, more than one pill. So zip it and get me a big glass of water so I can choke these guys down. While my life may seem to revolve around my meds, I refuse–I mean, dig in my heels and refuse–to get a plastic pill organizer. I’m all about accessories, but not that. 


6 years later…

Today is National Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day. Congress said so, and in making such a proclamation, let’s hope we get some action. Action beyond pink ribbons and promotional tie-ins like toilet paper and cups of yogurt. The estimate is that some 160,000 women are dealing with metastatic breast cancer, but I suspect the number is much higher. Metastatic means the cancer has spread. Stage IV. There is no Stage V. Every BC patient’s worst nightmare. Because being diagnosed at all, regardless of stage, isn’t nightmare enough.

I’ll save the mets post for another day, because there’s another commemoration taking place today, and I won’t be able to rest until I get this post out of my head.

Or so I thought.

I sat down at my computer to mark this important day, but I got nothing. I am stuck. The enormity of the topic overwhelms me. I want to write just the right thing, but in my quest for perfection I’m struck down, unable to convey the importance that screams to get out.

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, particularly on this little blog. I rarely have trouble thinking of what to write, and most days the topic guides me. Sometimes a topic pops into my head and I have an overwhelming urge to write. My fingers on the keyboard can hardly keep up with my thoughts as they tumble out of my head.

But today, I’ve got nothing.

And rather than make myself crazy on this day, this important yet heartbreaking day, I’m going to re-run the post from last year. I added a few more pictures, because this time last year I was brand-new to blogging and hadn’t quite figured out how to manage the images in my posts. But more importantly, I added a few more pictures because I need to remember what she looked like.

My heart is heavy as grief once again rears its ugly head and reminds me that she is gone, forever. 
It’s been exactly 5 years since my mom died. Lots of people have written about loss & grief, and most of them have done it more eloquently than I. If you knew her, you loved her. Plain & simple. She was one of those people. She never met a stranger and could talk to anyone. The stories are endless, and if I think really hard I can conjure up the sound of her laugh. I have to work hard to remember her voice, though, because her “sick” voice is the freshest one. I also have to think back to how she looked, pre-cancer, before the dreaded disease ravaged her body yet was unable to extinguish her effervescent personality.

My mom was an incredible cook. She grew up on a farm and lost her own mom at age 13, so she assumed more responsibility than a middle-schooler should. She taught me a lot in the kitchen, although I’ll never match her skill with pie crust. I try every year at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and end up exhausted, frustrated and having used a month’s worth of curse words. One year at Christmas she gave coupons for a homemade pie, and those were highly prized gifts for sure.

She was a “white” woman who married into a Greek family. “White” means anyone who’s not Greek. Sometimes the Greeks aren’t happy about “whites” joining a family, because they want their kids to marry other Greeks. My mom didn’t let that stop her. She ingratiated herself into the lives of the Greek women and learned their culinary secrets. It wasn’t long before she was the best cook in the bunch. Not bad for a “white” girl.

My sweet mama was the quintessential suburban at-home mom: PTA president, Girl Scout leader, queen of homemade Halloween costumes. She put a homemade meal on the table every night for dinner, and I was halfway through elementary school before I realized that the homemade cinnamon roll that was my lunchbox treat was a rarity.

She had a love of learning that I see echoed in my own kids. I’m sure she flourished at college, probably thrilled to be responsible only for herself for the first time in years. She was president of her sorority and got this fancy necklace to wear during her reign. The look of pure happiness on her face makes me smile all these years later. In her typical over-achieving way, she graduated college in 3 years, then became an English teacher before she became a mom. My whole childhood, she had us look up words in the dictionary to learn how to spell. I won the spelling bee in 4th grade, and to this day am proud of being a good speller. She instilled a love of words and reading that I’ll carry with me my entire life.

When Trevor graduated from business school in 2004, she was as proud of him as if he were her own child. In fact, once he married into her family, she considered him a son. Not a son-in-law, but a son. She was sick at the time this photo was taken, but hid it well. She didn’t want anything to interfere with his big day.

She had a lot of success in life, but her greatest achievement was being YaYa. She loved her grandbabies to the max, and when she knew she was losing her battle against cancer, she spoke of her sadness in not being able to watch them grow up. She’s missed out on a lot. But loss is a 2-way street, and the 4 kids who were lucky enough to have her as their YaYa, albeit way too briefly, have missed out as well. As each year passes, and her grandbabies grow up, they change and take on new interests and habits. She would have loved every minute of it. Something tells me she would have been quite adept at navigating whatever stage those little darlins are in.

Here they are on the day of her funeral.

Andrew was 8, Payton and his cousin Megan were 6, Macy was 3 when YaYa died. She was 67. Way too young, all the way around.

Life isn’t the same without her. While the pain of loss has lessened over the years, it’s still there, and I suspect it never goes away. No one in your life loves you the way a mother does. And no matter how old I become, I will always miss my mother’s love. Oliver Wendell Holmes said that “mothers carry the key of our souls in their bosoms.” That certainly was the case with my mom.

Milestones are hard when you’ve lost someone so dear. Every year, the week or so leading up to the anniversary of her death has been miserable. I find myself transported back to the time of  illness and all of the unpleasantness that entailed. Taking care of her was both the hardest thing ever and the greatest honor. I went into it knowing it would be hard, but having no idea how brutal. Balancing that with taking care of my young family was grueling, no doubt. But I wanted to come out of it with no regrets, and I’m happy to say that I did.

This year, however, was different. I wasn’t dreading the date. Maybe because I’ve got a lot on my mind and a lot on my plate. Maybe because as I get ever closer to regaining my “normal” life after my own cancer battle, I have a new perspective. Maybe I’m just getting absent-minded in my old age.

For a while after she died, I looked for her in crowds: at the grocery store, at a baseball game, at any random gathering. I knew, of course, that she wasn’t there. At least my rational brain knew that, but I looked anyway. I don’t know when it was that I stopped looking, but at some point, I started to see her. Not really her, but glimpses of people or expressions on faces that recalled her: the woman at the gym who looks a lot like her from the back. The resemblance in my niece to my mom’s photos as a child. My aunt’s hands, which look just like my mom’s.

This year, today, on the anniversary of her death, I wasn’t looking for her, but she was there. Today in my much-anticipated first tennis match since my mastectomy, my opponents’ names were Barbara and Ann. Guess what my mom’s name was? Yep, you got it — Barbara Ann.