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Archive for April, 2009

Today I took the bus to the medical center to have a small metal clip, about the size of the point of a ballpoint pen, installed in my … well, in my tumor. Sorry, I know that’s gross. It was not a very comfortable procedure, but it didn’t take long and was not a big deal. I even got to listen to my iPod while they were doing it, which was nice – OK Go makes fabulous minor surgery music. As it was explained to me, the purpose of the clip is to show the surgeon where the cancer is, on the off chance that chemo shrinks it so much he can’t otherwise find it. I consider it rather unlikely that a 3cm tumor will shrink that much, but apparently it sometimes happens. Along with my port and (as of next week) shiny bald head, the clip will serve as further evidence that I am, in fact, from the future.

After a lunch of jerk-flavored barbecue wings (I felt like a treat after the clip, and Buffalo Wild Wings is basically the only non-doctor thing in that part of town), I went to get an echocardiogram. The clip represents the hope that chemo will totally shrink my tumor; the echo represents the fear that it will damage my heart. They wanted to get a few pictures of my heart in its pristine state so that they can tell, later on, what they’ve done to it. The good news is that my Bloomington and Buffalo oncologists agreed not to give me the chemo drug that can cause irreversible heart damage (and leukemia, which would REALLY piss me off), but the one that causes problems that can be fixed.

The nurse who did my echo was the second medical professional to remark that my having cancer is “unfair.” I pointed out that it’s not really about fairness; besides, do I really deserve cancer less than an older woman? I should probably try not to be difficult, but seriously, what do I gain by whining about unfairness? It’s unattractive in children and it’s no better now.

Anyway, that’s all I have until Tuesday, when I get my first (four hour!!) chemo treatment. Josh has volunteered to read me The Two Towers while that’s going on; hopefully we’ll get through all the deadly boring Legolas/Gimli/Aragorn nonsense and see what’s happening to my plucky hobbit friends at some point. In the meantime, tomorrow I’m invited to a dinner party/reading of The Tempest, my very favorite Shakespearean play. I have called dibs on Caliban, which means that soon I can cross an item off my List of Life Goals. Technically I believe I wrote “play Caliban,” but this is close enough. You taught me language, and my profit on’t is I know how to curse!

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I just got a nice email from my undergraduate adviser, who closed: “Take care, be strong, and defeat this.” This actually made me get misty-eyed for a minute.

Along similar lines, when I told our local epistemologist of my situation, he said, “Courage,” only in French, which is courage. You know – the exact same thing, only French-inflected. Sometimes I think about that when I am frightened and it actually does hearten me, even though it is so silly.

One colleague remarked my penchant for gallows humor is a rare talent, and he’s glad to see it’s not going to waste. I am glad that someone appreciates this, because oncology nurses never seem to.

I also love it when people get specific when they ask if there’s anything they can do. (I like to do this, too, because it sounds more sincere and is itself more helpful than a mere “If you need anything.”) I’ve had an offer to borrow someone’s cat, to be given bubble bath, tabloid magazines (that was Uncle Tommy), mary jane, or gin at three in the morning. I’ve had people offer to drive me around, cook for me, go to the grocery store for me. All in all everyone has been very nice to me lately and I’m sincerely grateful and pleased.

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I really dig Twisty Faster’s irreverent style, and as breast cancer survivors go I could do worse in terms of role models. For example, I am dismayed by this post, but she knows the drill and she’s saying it straight.

Also in the Sass category (my favorite!) we have 10 Things Not to Say When Someone Tells You She Has Breast Cancer.

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The other day, a woman at Roswell’s education and outreach center loaned me a book called Show Me: A Photo Collection of Breast Cancer Survivors’ Lumpectomies, Mastectomies, Breast Reconstructions and Thoughts on Body Image. It took me a little while to work up the courage to peek inside, but when I did, I found it wasn’t that scary. The women in the book stood there, most with huge smiles, and revealed their scars. All were different. None looked anything like me. But they had all gone through some version of what I am going through, and come out the other side.

If I decide to get the mastectomy, I know exactly which woman I would use as my model. She had a double mastectomy, and she was the first one I turned to when I first opened the book. She looks like a teenage boy with two big scars. That’s not scary at all. I could easily live with that.

One woman in the book was only 21 when she was diagnosed, and she sticks in my mind for obvious reasons. Her cancer came back, then it was in her brain, and then she died. I think about this woman a lot.

My mom says that I have to take the book back. Put it out of your mind, she says. Let it go. I guess my parents and J don’t see the book the way I do. My mom seems to think it has bad vibes. But I see these women as sisters in arms, and having the book comforts me. I don’t personally know anybody who survived breast cancer. But somehow the Show Me book makes it okay.

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5 Misconceptions

1. In order to have a bone scan, you must be injected directly into your bones. Haha! Not true at all! In fact, they just inject you in a vein, like EVERYONE ELSE IN THAT BUILDING. Jeez, I had mixed feelings about the Mediport, but after my bloodwork and my CT scan and my bone scan and two MRIs, I can hardly wait. Anyway, bone scans are pretty neat – they inject you with radioactive dye and then use a machine that is not scary and claustrophobic to look at your bones. It’s quiet, too – actually bone scans are very restful, as these things go.

2. If the cancer is in your lymph nodes, you will automatically die. Nope! Although I am still praying that my lymph nodes are clear,  it’s not Game Over either way. In fact, nothing much about my treatment will change if it is in my lymph nodes, except that they will remove them when I have my other surgery after chemo. And speaking of that other surgery,

3. The chances of survival are much greater with a mastectomy than a lumpectomy. This is not true apparently, and I still have trouble wrapping my mind around it.  As long as you follow surgery with a course of radiation, you may as well get a lumpectomy as far as survival goes. Now, there are other considerations, like cosmetic result, size and location of tumor, and recurrence rates, but as far as survival goes the two are pretty much on a par.

4. If my cancer had been found earlier, it would not have gotten to stage 2. This is not how stages work. The stage refers to the aggressiveness of the tumor, not its size or extent of spread. My cancer grew during the time I was not being treated, but its stage was always stage 2. This, and no. 5, are a huge weight off my mind, actually.

5. Relatedly, Every aspect of my cancer treatment is urgent urgent urgent!!! According to Dr. Edge, if my cancer were going to spread it would have done so already. This is not necessarily great news, but it does releive me of some responsibility, and it means we can take our time and think through the decisions that need to be made. And for that, I am very grateful.

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No More Whining!

I must confess that I’ve been whining kind of a lot since I got my diagnosis. Actually, I think the whining may have started in earnest when my parents got to town. I was scared and I wanted to be taken care of, and I was using whining as a means to that end. I’m hungry. My arm hurts. I’m tired. I have cancer. I whine because I want to be fed cream of wheat, patted gently on the head, reassured, and brought cool beverages. I know it’s dumb but this was just my reaction.

Now we’re in Buffalo and my parents and sisters have returned to their normal routines. I am stuck in the house, which always makes me regress a little bit, and my whining has begun to try everyone’s patience. So as of last night, I am giving it a rest. I’m not an invalid; I can get my own juice. My arm feels much better today. It’s time to pull my socks up a bit and stop acting like a baby.

Because I’ve found that how I act has an enormous influence on how I feel.

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Good news probably!

To Roswell this morning for a sentinal lymph node biopsy. The place was almost empty when we got there, but by the time the nurse had taken me back to get my vitals I could see that the waiting room had filled up.

After I’d changed into my gown and J and my mom had come back to wish me luck, I was wheeled on a gurney through several hallways, and finally stuck in a dark corner. This was when I discovered that my gown plugged into an electric heater. I basked in the warmth while a series of people – nurses, anesthesiologists, nurse anesthesiologists – came and asked me questions and had me describe the procedure.

“They’ll knock me out,” I said, “and then they’ll inject me with a radioactive tracer. The doctor will use a Geiger counter or something to see whether the radiation has spread to my lymph nodes. Then he’ll take out three or four lymph nodes and biopsy them to see whether the cancer has spread.”

After that, things get a little fuzzy. I remember a nurse giving me some kind of sedative through the IV in my hand. I saw little bubbles in the IV tube and thought perhaps they would go into my blood and kill me, but I didn’t feel too concerned; I mentioned it to someone and she said it was fine. Then I tried to make myself feel afraid and couldn’t. This should have been scary, but obviously it wasn’t. I’ve always been apprehensive about anxiety medication, which is why I haven’t yet used any of the Xanax my oncologist in Bloomington gave me. I worried that if I were on it, I would be so anxious about its effect on my brain that my head would implode. It’s nice to know that this worry, like so many of my worries, was insane.

Eventually they wheeled me into a brightly lit room and put an oxygen mask over my face, and that is all she wrote. The next thing I knew I was back in the room I’d started in and the nurse was telling me that there was no cancer in my lymph nodes.

Before you bust out the champagne, I should mention that this is just a preliminary result: I think they have to do a more involved lab test or something. I don’t see how they could have had biopsy results so quickly. But it is certainly reason for cautious optimism.

I spent the rest of the day zonked out on codeine and watching How I Met Your Mother. My armpit is really sore – one of the cats decided, having taken no interest in me to date, that I would like my torso massaged and walked on. But the biopsy is over and tomorrow I have a day off from doctors, so that’s all good news as well.

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