The latest weapon against breast cancer?

The Hubs sent me a link to this story about the big news in the breast cancer world — the cancer-sensing bra. The First Warning Systems bra allegedly can detect a tumor in a breast years before said tumor would be found by more conventional screening methods. The “smart bra” is said to accurately screen abnormalities in breast tissue.

I saw my favorite breast surgeon today for my 6-month checkup, and had every intention of asking her what she thinks about this, but we got distracted talking about her puppy and our little piggie, and the possibility of implants for me, and the cruel injustice of the hormonal insanity that plagues a breast cancer warrior, and her upcoming Pretty in Pink event.

The First Warning Systems bra has been in development for the last 20 years, and while it sounds like a great idea, I sure wish they’d come up with a better name. As is, it sounds like a surface-to-air missile or something similarly militaristic and scary.

Of course, breast cancer is militaristic and scary, so touche.

The sports-bra-looking contraption contains sensors that supposedly can detect small changes in the temperature in breast tissue.  Cancer-causing cells emit more heat than normal, non-combative cells, and this bra is said to identify the changes in body temperature that may indicate that tumors are growing.  The maker of this “smart bra” says that in clinical trials, the bra correctly identified 92 percent of tumors, compared to the 70 percent of tumors found in baseline mammograms, and the bra can identify those tumors as much as 6 years before they’d show up on a mammogram. If all goes according to plan, the bras will be available for sale in Europe next year and the Unites States in 2014 with a retail price of approximately $1,000.00.

The company says that the bra provides women with a better form of breast self-exam when it’s worn for the duration of the testing period (although I’ve not found any references to how long or how often it needs to be worn or if the cost would be covered by insurance). Once the sensors do their sensing, the data is collected and submitted online, presumably by the woman wearing the bra, and then analyzed by “sophisticated algorithms.” I certainly wouldn’t want a naive algorithm to analyze my data.

Why am I not jumping up and down at this news, when it sounds quite promising?

Maybe because it’s Pinktober and I’m exhausted by all things breast-related.

Maybe because even if the First Warning Systems turns out to revolutionize breast cancer screening, it’s too late for me and many of my friends, whose lives have already been turned upside down by the dreaded disease, never to be fully righted again.

Maybe because after years of the “war on cancer” and “fighting for a cure,” progress has been slim to none and I don’t want to get my hopes up.

Maybe because there’s no mention in any of the literature about whether the “smart bra” is smart enough to figure out a way to fill in the divots caused by radiation, to smooth out scars left by mastectomies and reconstruction, to even out an asymmetrical rack, or to camouflage a less-than idea decolletage.

Or maybe because the “smart bra” doesn’t come in pink.

 

 


Nice try, NFL

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A woman I know from the gym told me that when she saw that the NFL has gone pink for Breast Cancer “Awareness” Month, she thought of me. I smiled politely and said thanks; she’s about the age my mom would have been had she lived, so I want to be respectful.  I’m never quite sure how to handle this. On one hand, I don’t want to be the poster girl for breast cancer. On the other hand, I don’t want to seem ungrateful for an acquaintance’s goodwill and kind thoughts. I always limp along in such encounters, then I flee the scene wondering if I reacted in an acceptable way. But, like so much associated with the cancer “journey,” there’s no road map, no guidebook, no real clue on how to handle this stuff.

At first blush, the NFL going pink to support breast cancer seems like a pretty cool thing. I wrote about it last year, and my first impression was how cute! NFL players in pink cleats, gloves, chin guards, skull caps, and sweatbands was so cute! I took it at face value, not being much of a football fan, and I wasn’t bothered by the coaches’ pink ribbons or pink caps, nor by the refs’ pink whistles or the pink tees on the field. However, another year wiser about the pinkwashing phenomenon and another year exhausted by the “awareness” campaign, I’m thinking it’s not so cute. Some of the players have personal ties to breast cancer, having lost a loved one to or had someone they love affected by the dreaded disease. I give them a pass. Guys like Ravens’ wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who has two aunts who have survived breast cancer. He says that wearing pink shoes and pink gloves “means something. For my aunts to fight through that and beat it, that’s some strong women. So I’ll wear it for them.” Another wide receiver, Kyle Williams of the 49ers, will put on the pink for game days in honor of his grandmother, who died from breast cancer in 2005.

If it were just about the National Football League’s largesse and compassion toward a disease that kills nearly 40,000 women in this country every year, I’d say, that’s cool. If it were about players showing their love and admiration for friends and family members who’ve battled breast cancer, I’d be behind them. Even if it were about the NFL designating breast cancer as the charity du jour and earmarking some of the $9.5 million dollars earned in revenue last year, I’m good with that.

However, it’s never that simple, and because breast cancer is the “sexy” cancer, the “glamour” disease, there’s something inherently rotten in the pink plethora splattered all over pro football stadiums across the country. Because breast cancer involves well, yeah, breasts, it easily grabs everyone’s attention, and like so many other things that have been pinkwashed in the name of “awareness,” it means a breast cancer patient or survivor can’t even watch a football game without being smacked in the face, yet again, with the reminder of this damned disease.

I. am.so.ready.for.October.to.be.over.

In trying to nail down exactly what it is about the pinkwashing of the NFL that bugs me, I came up with this. First and foremost is the emphasis on breast cancer “awareness.” Perhaps the Vikings cheerleader pictured below wants and/or needs everyone to be “aware” of her breasts (BTW, the Denver Broncos cheerleaders are sponsored by Dr Ben Lee, a plastic surgeon who specializes in breast augmentation, and Laura Vikmanis, a Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader, says in her memoir that at least half of the 36 cheerleaders have implants, and a third of those without are planning to get them, and that there was much dissension in the cheerleaders’ locker room between the haves vs the have nots. A Philadelphia plastic surgeon cited Vikmanis’s book on his website in relation to the Philidelphia Eagles cheerleader tryouts. He commented on the rigors of NFL cheerleading: “Twice-a-week weigh ins and the grueling conditioning routines make it hard for women to maintain adequate fat reserves to have proportionate and shapely breasts, so breast implants are often the only way for women on the squad to remain both fit and feminine.” Breast implants are the only way for an NFL cheerleader to look fit and feminine? Wow. We certainly wouldn’t want women out there running around with disproportionate and unshapely breasts, would we?)

The NFL’s “A Crucial Catch” program aims to increase breast cancer “awareness” but I can’t help but ask why we’re so fixated on awareness, when being aware of the disease does nothing to cure it. Why does the program exhort women older than 40 to get an annual mammogram, when mammograms don’t save lives? Does anyone really find the “early detection” message touted by programs such as this to be effective? Sports Illustrated writer Peter King is of like mind, and after he tweeted “Please. Not pink for a month, NFL. A week, great. But a month?” he found himself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism, with people responding outright hatefully. Writer Mary Elizabeth Williams came to King’s defense on salon.com. She pointed out that it’s possible to hate the disease as well as the commodification. And, as she astutely points out, “because if we didn’t see pink on the football field throughout October, how else would any of us know that it’s breast cancer awareness month? How would we be aware?” Breast Cancer Action executive director Karuna Jaggar adds “We don’t need more awareness; we need solutions. We’re looking for progress that makes a difference in addressing and ending this breast cancer epidemic.” Does anything about A Crucial Catch speak to the breast cancer epidemic?

Secondly, show me the money. Several groups have had a little look-see into the NFL’s A Crucial Catch program and found that while it may be eye-catching, all that pink isn’t doing all that much good for the actual disease or the people suffering from it. Proceeds from the NFL pinking it up go to The American Cancer Society, which sounds pretty good, but Business Week discovered that just 5 percentage of sales will make its way to the ACS. According to Business Week, for every $100 in sales of pink products, $3.54 goes toward research while the NFL keeps approximately $45. Considering the NFL’s healthy revenue last year, and the crazy salaries NFL employees make, this seems particularly stingy. An NFL spokesperson countered the Business Week report by saying that while the league does not dispute the numbers above, it does not profit from the sale of pink merchandise, but that whatever money isn’t donated to the ACS is spent covering the cost of the Crucial Catch program, which is designed to increase “awareness.” Ah yes, the same type of accounting that caused the Susan G Komen for the Cure to fall out of favor with the very women it’s supposed to be helping. Spending such a disproportional amount of money on “awareness” instead of research is nothing short of irresponsible.

My third issue with the NFL going pink may be unpopular, but the fact is, the NFL doesn’t seem overly concerned with women’s issues or our bodies. Exhibit A: the cheerleaders. What exactly does a bunch of tarted-up, implant-sporting women gyrating on the sidelines have to do with the game? Do the fans in the stadium need to be encouraged to cheer for their team? Do the viewers at home require a bit of eye candy to break up the monotony of seeing big, sweaty men up close and in high def? More importantly, did anyone from the NFL think about how breast cancer survivors might feel seeing the NFL cheerleaders decked out in pink boy shorts and itty bitty tshirts that can barely contain all the breastly goodness of those augmented cheerleaders? Does the NFL think that breast cancer survivors need yet another hit to their flagging body images and fledgling self-esteem after radiation mutilates our breasts and surgeries remove them altogether?

Exhibit B: the league is historically soft on players who’ve been charged with crimes against women. Columnist Maura Kelly wrote about this for the New York Daily News, citing cases such as the one against Hall of Famer Lawrence Taylor, in which he admitted to raping a 16-year-old girl in 2010. And that of famed quarterback Brett Favre being accused by more than one woman of sexual harassment. And that of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger being accused of sexual assault by two different women. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth got handsy with a waitress last year and pleaded no contest to her charges of sexual assault. None of these players received more than a slap on the wrist from the National Football League. Yet, during the month of October, the league wants me to believe that it cares about me and million of women across the country? Throw a bunch of pink on the field and call it good?

Nice try, NFL, but I’m not buying it. It’s going to take more than pink accessories and lip service about the importance of screening to convince me that the league really cares about women.

How many more days until October ends?

 

 


Pinktober is making me crazy…for realz

It’s not just an excuse to go postal or blow off some steam, it really is making me crazy. The prolific presence of Pinktober is making me nuts. I’m seeing red (of which pink is a derivative, I suppose). The other day, a woman in the grocery store was sporting one of the worst pink offenders, IMHO, the “Save the Tatas” shirt. I saw her and her offending shirt in the produce aisle and felt a sick feeling in my stomach. I was barely in the store and was already being thrust into the belly of the beast. Just walking in the store, I was accosted by a huge display of “awareness” crap — flower arrangements, helium-filled balloons, potholders, even pink-ribbon bedecked cakes, for cryin’ out loud. Sheesh.

Do those of us who have tangled with this damn disease really need to run the gauntlet of reminders of said disease just to get into the grocery store? Sheesh.

Maybe the display of pink junk that greeted me at the store set me up so that when I saw the “Save the Tatas” shirt, I was primed and ready for a tussle. I tried to be respectful. I did. I entered into the conversation with every intention of getting her point of view. I’m curious, genuinely curious, as to why a grown woman would sport such a message across her chest. So I pointed to her shirt as our paths crossed by the giant pile of pumpkins (which thankfully had not been painted pink). I asked her if she’d had breast cancer. Just curious. She said no, she has not had breast cancer. Oh, so you know someone who has? I asked. No, but she bought the shirt to support breast cancer awareness.

Ah, yes, “awareness.” More “awareness.” The “awareness” we all so desperately need.

The interrogation continued as I asked her if she was aware of how buying the shirt helps, and what, in her opinion, does “awareness” even mean? She didn’t really have an answer for that. Huh.

I pressed on, like a dog with a bone, and asked if she was aware of which charity received proceeds from the purchase of that shirt. Again, no answer. At this point, she was probably wondering how to contact security in the grocery store. I concluded our little chat by telling her that I have had breast cancer, and I do know many other women who have as well, and that those of us in the pink ribbon club don’t care for those shirts because some of us were put in the unpopular position, through no fault of our own, of not being able to “Save our Tatas,” and that seeing such messages serve as a stark and unwelcome reminder of that most unpleasant fact.

She said she’d never thought about that. She was not aware of that.

Huh.

I bet she’s also not aware of the fact that once you lose your tatas, each and every glance downward or glimpse in a mirror is a smack in the face. That even after reconstruction — or multiple reconstructions — those tatas will never be the same. Some women end up with a version they like better. Some end up with a version that makes them sad each and every time they see that new, not-so-improved version.

She and I parted ways, me feeling marginally better for having unburdened myself, her probably feeling like she needed to go home and lie down. Hopefully she went home and threw that damned shirt in the garbage, where it belongs.

Then I hear that our local professional soccer team, the Houston Dynamo, is hosting an “awareness” event of their own tomorrow. The first 5,000 fans at the Breast Cancer Awareness Match will score a mini pink soccer ball. Sweet.

But this is how they choose to market the event.

Not so sweet.

Tell me, please, anyone, what the scantily-clad cheerleader in the pink attire has to do with breast cancer? Or is that what it takes to get people to attend the event? Questions, people–I have questions!

I had to dig pretty hard to find any info on the actual event. While these images are splashed all over the web, details on what the event really is all about remain elusive. The Dynamo website shows a much less exciting image:

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But when I clicked on the link to bobby boots breast cancer/Dynamo Charities, I got nowhere. The computer told me that the page I sought could not be found. Bummer. My next question: is the bobby boots breast cancer image above, with the philanthropic player (who I assume is Bobby) and the soccer-cleat-wearing pink ribbon, that much less effective than the perky cheerleader in her push-up bra? Do people really care less about this dreaded disease if it’s marketed without actual images of breasts?

I was still full of questions when I saw this on a car:

Great, here we go again.

This time, I didn’t accost the person sporting the offending message because the light turned green. But I wanted to. I wanted to say, Can you imagine in your wildest dreams putting sticker on your car that says “balls! support testicular cancer research!” Or “ovaries! egg-makers or silent killers?” No, me neither. As the shirt says, It’s all about the boobies. 

It certainly isn’t “all about the boobies” — it’s about a woman’s life, and how BC threatens and too often takes her life. I’m still waiting for an explanation of how any of this boobie culture makes any difference in the “fight” against breast cancer. If you see a guy wearing a shirt like this, does it enact any change whatsoever in the BC arena? 

I wonder how he would feel if I wore a shirt saying “PROSTATES make me happy”? I can’t even find an image of such a shirt because guess what — it doesn’t exist! No, instead the prostate cancer “awareness” shirts look like this:

and this:

“I Wear Blue for My Dad” conveys a slightly different message than “Save Second Base.” It says the focus is on the person, not the body part. The take-away message here is that sexualizing a devastating disease does nothing for those who suffer from it.

Well, wait a sec — I take that back. Sexualizing a devastating disease does do something for those who suffer from it. It makes them feel bad. Really bad. It makes them mad. Really mad. It makes them want to accost random people in the grocery store or at the bank and set them straight. It makes them have to confront the fact that at this very moment, they may be crossing that bridge from “survivor” with NED to stage IV without a cure. I will never, ever forget the feeling of utter fear when the first oncologist I consulted said once a cancer comes back, no matter what stage it was upon original diagnosis, the recurrence sends you straight to stage IV and you’re considered incurable. Not that you’re going to die from it, as many stage IV cancers can be managed, but treatment is ongoing, as in, for the rest of your life (however long that will be).

That, my friends, is the reality of breast cancer. Not a cutesy slogan. Not a titillating (pun intended) t-shirt. Not an overtly sexual bumper sticker. It’s not about the boobies. It’s about my life.

 


Topless Kate

My first thought when I heard about the latest British Royal scandal was, poor Kate. The Duchess of Cambridge was busted by prying paparazzi while sunbathing topless in Provence. At a private residence. While not on official duty or fulfilling her role as a member of the royal family. What a shame. She seems like a smart girl who’s got her stuff together. She’s young, in love, and on holiday — who can blame her for enjoying the sun with her hubby in [supposed] private?

Closer magazine has been ordered to hand over the original photos to the royal family. Can you imagine the stodgy, never-smiling Queen having an envelope of these photos cross her desk? Yikes. Poor Kate.

Aurelien Hamelle, attorney for the royal couple, declared that the photos were a violation of Will & Kate’s privacy.  She was quoted as saying, “It is a scene of married life, intimate, personal, that has nothing to do on a magazine.” I have to agree. Yes, she is a public figure, and yes she lives very  much in the public eye and therefore must endure the barrage of photographers everywhere she goes. But why can’t there be a moratorium on following and photographing while she’s on vacation?

Yesterday, Closer‘s sister publication Chi published 26 pages of photos of William and Kate on vacation, including the topless pics. Chi’s editor-in-chief Alfonso Signorini defended the decision to publish, saying, “It is a story worth publishing in an extraordinary edition because it shows in a natural light the everyday life of a very famous contemporary young couple in love.”

Who’s he think he’s kidding? It’s not about a famous couple in love, it’s about Kate’s breasts.

What a shame. And the fact that the pics used were ill-gained and taken in secret with a very long lens is especially shameful.

Even worse are those who are speaking out against Kate, saying it’s her fault. If she didn’t want nudie pics published, she shouldn’t have taken off her top. A CNN blogger says “…it also creates a situation that requires common sense. Kate, unless you know for sure that no one else’s prying eyes — or camera — will see you, don’t sunbathe naked.”

Donald Trump opened his big mouth and Tweeted, “Kate Middleton is great—but she shouldn’t be sunbathing in the nude—only herself to blame. Who wouldn’t take Kate’s picture and make lots of money if she does the nude sunbathing thing. Come on Kate!”

Way to blame the victim, Donald. As if anyone gives a rip what he thinks.

Also Tweeting was teen actress Emma Roberts: “I LOVE Kate Middleton…but when you’re A PRINCESS you shouldn’t be topless anywhere except the shower or the bedroom.” Thanks for that very valuable advice, Emma.

Kelly Osborne stood up for the Duchess, though, saying “The one thing that is hers is her body you know what I’m saying. Everything else belongs to the country.”

In the midst of the firestorm that surrounds this topic, I can’t help but think of myself and legions of other members of the Pink Ribbon Club. Radiated, surgically excised, and reconstructed breasts don’t exactly lend themselves to topless sunbathing. Negative body images abound after a bout with breast cancer, and the idea of hanging the surviving girls out there, even in private, is not likely on many BC girls’ list of favorite things to do. What a shame.

P.S. If you’re planning on leaving a comment saying “who cares if the breasts have been radiated, sliced & diced, and reconstructed, we want to see them anyway” — don’t. Just don’t.

 


In the last six months…

Never one to resist a challenge, I happily undertook Jelebelle’s blog prompt this week, which was inspired by Renn’s blog prompt last week. Jelebelle took Renn’s idea and ran with it, challenging us to “post a photo or self portrait or other form of visual art … of yourself that describes who you have been within the last six months.”

Hmmmm. Interesting.

I’m especially intrigued by the “who you have been within the last six months” part. Some days I feel a little Sybil-ish, with many different versions of me. There’s the warrior girl who pummeled breast cancer, the tough-lovin’-but soft-on-the-inside mama, the relentless chaser of the next level of strength in the gym, the hard-core-run-down-every-single-ball tennis chick, the at-home mom who respects the commitment to domesticity while being bored silly by it, the bookworm who can’t dive into the latest good read until the kitchen is spotless, the voracious detail-seeker who wants to know it all yet remembers precious little.

And that’s just what comes to mind at first blush.

I spent several days pondering this idea of who I have been in the last half-year. I’d think about it while at the gym, while watering my newly planted flowers, while making yet another sack lunch for my little darlings, while driving across our sleepy suburb mid-day with the top down and the wind whipping my hair into a frenzied mess. My inner warrior wanted the answer to Jelebelle’s question to be “I’m a badass slayer of cancer and bad grammar.” The softer side of me, which I usually try to tamp down at all costs, wanted the answer to be “I’m kind and patient and willing to see the good in everyone, no matter how moronic or mean-spirited they really are.” The chaser girl wanted the answer to be “I’m a beast in the gym who can’t get enough reps and I pity the fool who gets in my way.” The tennis chick wanted the answer to be “I’m a steady player who will wear you down in a war of attrition.” The at-home mom wanted the answer to be “I’ll have to answer that question after I fold 10 loads of laundry, put a delicious & nutritious meal on the table while a homemade cake fills the kitchen with the heavenly aroma of fresh-baked love, tend to the animals, dust the ceiling fan blades, and oversee the winning science fair project.” The bookworm wanted the answer to be, “Can’t talk, reading.” And the detail-seeker wanted the answer to be widely researched, fact-checked, and methodically presented.

Rather a tall order, right?

So in the end, after much soul-searching and reviewing of the events of the last six months, my answer to Jelebelle’s question of who I have been is this:

I’ve been a happy girl who is learning to love this post-cancer life. Becoming a happy girl post-cancer has been a long time coming. Like every diagnosis, mine was hard to hear and even harder to absorb. Being handed a deadly disease at age 40 is cruel, but being mangled and diminished by the disease is even worse. Once through the hard part (whichever part that is), the kernel of fear remains firmly implanted in one’s brain, and the realization that cancer may be gone but can never be forgotten is a heavy reality. It can be hard to be happy after all the damage that cancer inflicts. 

While mine may seem a simple answer to a complex question, the simplicity of being a happy girl is actually rather complicated. There’s the strange dichotomy between being pissed off at the universe for randomly choosing me to be the one in eight women diagnosed with breast cancer, and being immensely grateful that my cancer wasn’t as awful as it could have been. There’s a continental divide between having breast cancer ruin my life and having it push me to become stronger… better…more grateful. I’m alternately wrecked by what cancer has done to my body and my psyche and determined to ensure it will not defeat me. 

My cancer “journey” has not exactly been a sensible trip from point A to point B; I rather took the scenic route. Dear Dr Dempsey, breast surgeon extraordinaire, inducted me into her “One-Percent Club,” which describes my “journey” so well: of all the women diagnosed with breast cancer in her practice, there is one percent for whom anything that can go wrong will go wrong. The select few in this club will encounter worst-case scenarios that will blow the roof off of the established medical protocol. We are the women she and her colleagues discuss in tones of “WTH???” and the women whose stories she tells to her other patients in order to reassure them that their situation really isn’t so bad. It’s a privilege and an honor to be part of the One-Percenter (yuk, yuk!). We’re committed to serving as a cautionary tale to others whose only fault in life was to be born a woman with a pair of breasts. We are a group that is small but mighty, and we are endlessly stubborn in the face of this wretched disease and its many-tentacled complications. We’ve learned the hard way that our bout with cancer may be done but it’s never over. And this One-Percenter has spent the last six months becoming happy. 

 

 


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.

google.com

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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Take your “policy” and shove it; Fish will walk!

The story of Austin Fisher is making the rounds, and I’m determined to do my part to keep it going. It’s especially appropriate today of all days, as it’s my sweet mama’s birthday. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing than wrapping a gift and making a coconut cream pie for her. Happy Birthday, Mom. I sure do miss you.

This boy, Austin Fisher, deserves a medal, a college scholarship, a witty & beautiful prom date, and a hot fudge sundae. Maybe more.

He certainly deserves to walk across the stage in Carrollton, Ohio, next month with the rest of his senior class and receive his hard-earned diploma.

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Austin’s mama, Teri, has metastatic breast cancer, which she’s been fighting for 7 years. That’s almost half of Austin’s life. Her one goal in her cancer battle was to survive long enough to see her son graduate high school. That goal was nearly compromised by a stupid policy and a dogmatic bureaucracy. Carrollton High School principals told the varsity baseball player that he could neither walk at commencement nor attend the senior class trip nor go to the prom.

What’s up? Bad grades? Unruly behavior? Smoking in the boys’ room?

Nope. Austin wasn’t going to walk or go on the trip or go to prom because he had 16 unexcused absences from school. Before this school year, Austin had perfect attendance.

Why was he absent? Not because he was cutting class or ditching school. He was caring for his mom while she was being pummeled by breast cancer. Teri Fisher says that her son is “her hero, her rock” and that with no adult male in the household, the role of caregiver was valiantly taken on by Austin. He willingly sacrificed to care for her, saying that school took a backseat to doing the day-in-day-out, hard work of primary caregiver.  “You never know how much time you have left and that was one of her big [goals]–to see me walk and get my diploma and go off to college,” Austin says.  “I wouldn’t change it, everything I did. Family first.”

Family first.

I’m blown away by the depth of character of this young man. What a stellar example of priorities, commitment, and loyalty. We could all take note.

Austin’s aunt wrote a letter to the local newspaper once the story broke, to shed a little more personal light on the Fishers’s situation:

“A single mom juggling medical bills with the usual expenses of living, fighting a foreclosure, working her job, traveling to Canton for chemotherapy — no easy task. Throughout all of this, Austin continued to attend school as he could while caring for her, working two jobs, and participating in varsity sports.”

When Austin learned in January that he would not be able to participate in the much-anticipated rites of seniors such as commencement and prom, he and his mom went straight to see Principal Dave Davis but was told that “rules are rules” and “it’s policy” to deny these things based on the number of unexcused absences.

Thanks to the power of the people and the sweeping reform accomplished by social media, Superintendent Palmer Fogler reversed the decision yesterday, and Austin will get to walk, and Teri will achieve her goal of seeing her boy graduate.

Hallelujah! Rock on, people!

The Facebook group “Let Fish Walk” played a part in the reversal, I would think. The group grew quickly, from a respectable 10,000 yesterday to some 32,000 members and counting today. A petition through change.org also helped, with some 100,000 signatures. FYI, the population of Carrollton is 3,211.

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I’m thrilled for Teri and Austin. Kudos to the Carrollton school board for making the right decision, and to the world at large for being decent and giving a hoot about one family’s plight. Cancer sucks. It devastates families and wreaks untold havoc. But once in a while, something good and heartwarming comes from the vicious disease that steals so much from so many. Today that something is Austin Fisher and his mama Teri. As I remember my own sweet mama today, I’m crushed by her absence in my life and the fact that yet another birthday of hers comes and goes without her. She would have been 74 years old today. I wonder how much she would have changed had she been here the last 7 years: would she have finally stopped dying her hair blonde and let it go white, as she spoke of wanting to do? Would she be a little hunched-over and frail, or still the busybody, energetic dynamo we all knew and loved? One thing is for sure: she would be spoiling my children and fussing at me to leave them be, let them play, give them more treats. Another thing is for sure: the hole in my heart that will forever remain because of cancer.  I do hope that Austin Fisher never has such a hole in his heart.

 

 

 

 

 


Becoming Benjamin Button

I haven’t seen that movie, but I feel Benjamin’s pain with premature aging. I don’t recall anyone telling me in the early days of this cancer “journey” that being thrown into menopause a decade earlier than normal would be such a bear. In fact, I don’t recall hearing anything at all about being thrown into early menopause. Yet another lovely bit of fallout from a cancer diagnosis, for sure (insert a boatload of sarcasm here).

Menopause is a bitch on any level. It’s certainly not a contest, and some women have it way worse than others. I’m thinking of one darling friend in particular who’s been dealing with the ‘pause for 10 years. Yuk. It just sucks, and I’m because I’m officially old and crotchety, I’m not in the mood to look on the bright side or try to find something positive about this shitty situation. Correction: I just found something positive — it gives me an excuse to use the word shitty, one of my faves in the cursing arsenal.

I first came face-to-face with chemically-induced menopause two summers ago when my favorite oncologist recommended hormone suppression since my breast cancer was fueled by estrogen. Get rid of the food supply, starve the cancer; makes perfect sense. Suppressing the estrogen for me was achieved by the dynamic duo of Tamoxifen and Lupron. For the lucky uninitiated, Tamoxifen is a pill-form of chemo that we members of the pink ribbon club take every single day for 5 years, minimum. The Lupron is delivered once every three months via a gigantic needle that left me bruised for weeks.

Enduring the injection was a piece of cake, though, compared to the side effects of Lupron: constipation, joint pain, bone pain, general body pain, dizziness, hot flashes, fatigue, stuffy nose, nausea, sweating, insomnia, weakness.

Great.

Add that to the side effects of Tamoxifen–bone pain, hot flashes, loss of balance or coordination, persistent fatigue or weakness, among the highlights–and you’ve got a hot mess.

No wonder I feel bad.

Then I look in the mirror and I feel even worse.

Side effects of menopause are just as fun as the drugs’ side effects: hot flashes, osteoporosis, hot flashes, mood swings, hot flashes, changes in your female gear, hot flashes, mood changes, hot flashes, change in vision, fatigue, hot flashes, night sweats, hot flashes, joint pain, hot flashes.

Did I mention the hot flashes?

The combination of the drugs’ side effects and general menopause side effects are mind-boggling.

The unsung side effects from all this mess are mostly vanity-related but no less troubling. A thinning of the hair on one’s head accompanied by a growth spurt in the hair on one’s face. Decreased collagen in the skin. Dry skin. Dark circles under the eyes. Brittle nails. Wrinkles. More wrinkles. Changes in hair color and texture.

Any part of this would be unpleasant enough when dealing with it at the “normal” time, whatever the hell normal is anymore. Going through the ‘pause with girlfriends could be fun: let’s stay up all night, sweating and hot-flashing, while watching our moustaches grow. Sure, we’ll be extra tired and grumpy the next day, but hey — we’d be tired and grumpy anyway, right? If I’m going to become an old bitty before my very eyes, I want to do it with my BFFs.

But wait, I’m on an accelerated schedule. I’ve got the Fast Pass to menopausal hell, while the women in my peer group are still relishing their early 40s. Botox is for fun, not necessity, and plucking billy goat chin hairs is reserved for grannies. 40 is the new 20, right? Except for me; 40 is the new 60. I am the granny in this scenario. I’m feeling more kinship with Betty White than with J-Lo.

To quote Sheryl Crow, “No one said it would be easy. But no one said it’d be this hard.”

 


The most beautiful struggle

I came across this quote from Sigmund Freud and have been thinking about it for days:

“One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.”

Hmmmmm.

Gonna need to ponder that one a while longer

Of course this made me think of the cancer “journey.” At first blush, my instinct was to think, “If Freud said it, it must be true.” I’ve always equated Freud with absolutes, and if the granddaddy of psychotherapy believes it, so do I. Nothing like putting blind faith in a long-dead, much-maligned, and perhaps slightly insane Austrian guy, right?

I’m still on the fence about whether the “years of struggle” will become the most beautiful. I’m inclined to think not, but am reserving judgment.

My blind faith in all things Freud did get me to thinking, though, so I consulted the all-mighty Google to learn a little more about him. On a side note, I laughed out loud at one of the hits that turned up in my search of Freud: “Why Men Pull Away — 10 Ugly Mistakes Women Make That Ruin Their Chance at Relationships” by http://www.catchHimAndKeepHim.com. What in the world would Freud think of that??

Back to Freud.

Born in 1856 to poor Jewish parents in Pribor, Czechoslovakia, Freud was an outstanding student and graduated with honors. He originally planned to study philosophy but was drawn to med school after reading Goethe’s poem, “Hymn to Nature.” I shudder to think how different our world would be if Freud had not read that poem and gone on to study neurology and, more importantly, anesthesia. Freud was instrumental in using cocaine as an anesthesia, and while many patients died and providers became addicted, the way was paved for modern medicine to employ drugs during surgery. As one who has endured multiple procedures, with perhaps more to come, I’m grateful to Freud for his pioneering spirit. A world without Versed is one in which I do not wish to live.

Freud has many famous quotes, besides the one about the struggle being fondly remembered. This one caught my eye: “Dreams are often most profound when they seem the most crazy.” Anytime a psychiatrist talks about crazy dreams, I’ll listen. You know there’s a great story waiting to happen.

And this: “I have found little that is ‘good’ about human beings on the whole. In my experience most of them are trash, no matter whether they publicly subscribe to this or that ethical doctrine or to none at all. That is something that you cannot say aloud, or perhaps even think.”

Whoa. So the master of psychoanalysis, the guru of getting inside your head, thought that most people are trash. That is heavy stuff. Makes me rethink my instinct to believe all things Freud to be true. And makes me think that perhaps he was wrong about the years of struggle seeming the most beautiful. While there are many things to be gained from a struggle, and I myself have indeed learned a lot from my cancer “journey,” I think I would have been just fine without it, Dr Freud, thankyouverymuch.


In stitches

I had to have a few stitches in my leg 10 days ago. Didn’t write about it because it involved a bite from a dog owned by our BFF, and he (the BFF, not the dog; she’s female) felt bad enough about the fact that his dog bit me, and I didn’t want to rub it in. I’m all for charity, but it takes a backseat to my shamelessness at mining any and all events for a blog post.

So here we are. Full disclosure.

In hindsight, I know that the circumstances surrounding the dog bite should never have converged as they did. I should have known better. If only hindsight and “should haves” meant something in the real world, where dogs tussle and humans intervene. So it happened, I handled it, and life goes on. I still love the dog whose canines ripped my flesh thoroughly enough to expose the tissue underneath, and I know that she didn’t intend to hurt me. I’m just glad our sweet little piggie didn’t get tangled up in that whirling dervish of a dog fight.

Of course the brawl happened late at night, and not during regular business hours. Of course it happened when Trevor was out of town, so that if I did feel the need to go to the ER, arrangements would have to be made for my favorite girl, who’s pretty awesome and very independent, but not at 10:30 at night. Of course I put on a brave face and reassured said favorite girl that everything was fine, despite the unceasing burbling of blood from my gashed thigh. Of course the stitches on the left and the paw-shaped scratches and bruises on the right required me to sit out of tennis and the gym for a few days.

And of course, I had to take antibiotics.

Oh, the dreaded antibiotics.

The idea of getting back into the abx routine was worse than the wounds themselves, worse than the 4 lidocaine shots into the gash, and worse than the stitches. I just finished the last of the Augmentin last night–hallelujah! After 267 straight days of oral antibiotics for my post-mastectomy infection, you’d think a simple 10-day course of Augmentin would be easy peasey, but for me, not so much. Maybe it’s PTSD. Maybe it’s that my body has a heightened awareness of abx after the near-constant dosing last year. Maybe I’m just a big baby. Whatever the reason, facing those drugs twice a day was tough, if only for 10 days. I hope it’s a long, long time before I need antibiotics again.

So the stitches were scheduled to come out today, but after a quick peek my doc said nope, that wound looks way better but it’s not ready to be sans stitches. Gotta leave them in until Friday, just for good measure. Because of how deep the gash was and because it’s on my leg, which moves all the time because I’m not one for sitting still, there’s still a chance it could open up again. Better safe than sorry, right?

I’m ok with the stitches staying in another 5 days. I’m tough, and in general I’m a fan of conservative measures when it comes to my body’s healing. But I struggled to maintain my composure when my doc warned me that the gash is going to leave a scar.

No, I didn’t cry at the idea of a stitched-up gash marring my leg. I laughed — out loud — at the idea that a inch-long scar would freak me out or upset me. That little bitty scar is nothing compared to the miles of track already laid.