Saturday, April 16, 2011

One year ago today ...

I was diagnosed with cancer. I didn't have a clue and even when they told me, I didn't quite believe it. I was certain it was a mistake. However, I was wrong and for the last year I've been poked, prodded, pricked, sliced, pumped full of poison, and zapped. I thought I would never feel good again. So it was with great trepidation that I embarked on a journey to New Orleans last week. It was primarily business, but I wanted to see the city as well, and I didn't know if I would be able to walk, stand, carry and all the other activities that go along with being away from home.

But I made it. I trudged through the French Quater and enjoyed the sights and sounds and especially the tastes of New Orleans. I ate crawfish, gumbo, red beans, beignets and three different kinds of bread pudding. Oh yeah, and I presented at a conference and did other work as well. The last night there I treated myself to a nice dinner and then walked to Bourbon street and listened to jazz and zydeco, just happy to sit and drink in the music. Eventually I went back to my hotel and there he was, waiting for me, just as he had been there for me through this whole ordeal. Yes, folks Everybody Loves Raymond was playing on the tube.

It seemed appropriate that the one year anniversary of my diagnosis was celebrated doing the things I most enjoy doing, seeing new sites, eating great food, listening to live music, and watching Raymond. I am still figuring out where my life is heading and learning to live with the fear that tinges the lives of all cancer survivors:"will it come back?" But this week I finally believed that I had come back from wherever this illness had taken me. I am still facing physical and mental challenges, but even if I'd never gotten sick I would be facing challenges.

I did finish my PhD and then I got cancer, but now the cancer is gone and I'm ready to start my next adventure. I'm ready to start living. I'm ready to get my eyebrows tattooed.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Leaving the House

For a long time, I didn't want to leave the house. I'd climb in bed with a mystery novel, flick the TV on to "Everybody Loves Raymond" and stay there until it was time to get up and go to work. But then one day, I decided it was no longer acceptable to lounge around, I was well, or at least they said I was. So when friends called and made plans I felt obligated to accept. Slowly, I began to have a social life again and frankly, I didn't like it. I wanted to sleep, I wanted to read, I wanted to hide in my room. My room had been my womb, for well, actually about 9 months. It was time to emerge.

A few weeks ago I realized something. Going out was not the chore it used to be. I looked forward to movies, concerts, monster truck rallies (OK maybe not the last one), and other activities. About a month ago, I agreed to attend two concerts this weekend. I really didn't want to go to two concerts, I barely wanted to go to one, but it was all part of my plan to get out and about. When the weekend came, not only did I not dread the events, I looked forward to going. I even had a good time. Who would guess?

I was so pumped that I thought this week, I would even stand during the appropriate places in church. First there was the entrance, and I stood. Then came the reading of the decalogue, and I stood. After a short break came the reading of the gospel, I prepared to stand, and then I looked at the leaflet, instead of the usual 10 or 12 verses, there were 41 verses from the book of John. I think God was telling me to take it easy, you're not there yet. So I sat back in the pew and rejoiced that I have come so far, and accepted that I'm not quite there yet.

Next week, I'll be in the Big Easy and though I'm a little nervous about how well I'll do, I am confident and hopeful because if I can make it there, then I can make it any ... oh wait, that's the Big Apple. Never mind.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cancer Recovery Part Deux

Slowly, I've been returning to normal, or as my friend says, I've been to returning to weird. Even a month ago I never imagined that I would feel as good as I currently do. Still struggling with neuropathy and sleep is iffy, but otherwise, not too bad. So you ask, my devoted readers (OK, reader), what's next?

Well, glad you asked. When I first was diagnosed, I read everything I could find and the more I read, the more overwhelmed and discouraged I became, so I stopped reading anything that didn't have a serial killer, clever detective, or Jane Austen on the cover. But now, I wanted to know, how do I stop this from happening again. Other forms of breast cancer have medicines that help, but triple negative comprises only 10% of all diagnoses and as yet, there are no preventative measures. My oncologist recommended Vitamin D and baby aspirin, but I wanted more. So I took up the internet again and discovered that the best results in non-recurrence came from diets low in saturated fat (which includes hamburgers, sigh), high in plant foods, and regular exercise (30 minutes per day, 6 days a week).

So I wanted to get serious about returning to health, shedding 3 or 4 pounds (or tons, whatever), building strength and changing some habits. So I joined a gym. Note, that I haven't actually gone yet, but they membership card is on my key chain. Next, I signed up for a program at Moffitt that includes 12 weeks of nutrition, exercise and weight management lessons. I've had 2 lessons so far and feel healthier already from having to write down all the food I eat. Let's face it, nobody wants to eat large quantities of junk if someone else is checking up on you.

Once you've had cancer, your risk of getting it again is 40% higher than normal people (that's what we call you folks that are cancer-free). I don't ever want to go through this again. If it happens, it happens, but not because I didn't put up a fight, kicking and screaming. I have hair now; I want to keep it.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Liminal Space

Liminal space is loosely defined as being on the threshold of a new experience, situation, or if you want to get technical, existensial plan. That pretty much describes where I am right now. Realizing the old me is gone away, but not quite figuring out who the new me is just yet.

This was really driven home to me last week when I went on my annual Lenten retreat at the convent in St Leo. I've done this for about 10 years and it is always something that I look forward to, and come away refreshed and renewed from having spent several days in quiet reflection, meditation, prayer, and eating Thin Mints. This year, I was especially looking forward to seeing friends whom I hadn't seen since becoming sick.

Something, however, didn't seem to click. I left feeling tired and alienated and the rest of the week was a struggle to get rested up. My first thought was, time to move on. My second thought was, wait a minute, let's not get hasty.

I have had an urge since being given the "all clear" to change everything in my life. Quit my job. Move to Dubuque. Get an eyebrow tattoo (just one). The world seems a strange and scary place, especially when you're locked up in a convent without any thin mints. So I stepped back and said to my self, "Self, don't make any irrevocable decisions just yet." Instead, I plan to continue getting back my strength, reflecting on the possibilities, and inflicting this blog on my loved ones. Once I figure out the new me, then I'll figure out where I belong or don't, and I'm pretty sure it won't be Dubuque.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Cancer Girl

For the last 10 months, every moment of every day was consumed with having cancer and everyone who looked at me saw someone who was unwell and struggling, Cancer Girl. I resented that that was all they saw. Then I made a discovery this week, that's all I can think about, talk about, dream about. It is still my focus. I am still Cancer Girl.

When will I feel better? When will I look normal? Will it come back and if it does, what happens to my eyebrows this time?

Everything and everybody looks and feels different. I get up in the morning and calculate how many hours before I can go back to bed. It is exhausting to be the new me.

I went to a "retreat" last week with my work colleagues. Besides the fact that I was unable to participate in many of the events that required walking on ropes and jumping off a telephone pole (I'm serious people), I felt somewhat out of it. Didn't these people know I had cancer? How could we talk about anything else? And truthfully, I didn't mention it even once, but I realized that it left me with little conversation.

I mean how long can you discuss the lesser known works of Jane Austen. I knew, however, I was really out of it when a friend told me a story and I noted how much it reminded me of an incident on Golden Girls.

So last evening, when a friend called and wanted to go shopping, I went. Even though it cut into my Everybody Loves Raymond viewing. We talked about my cancer, but we talked about lots of other things as well. We talked. We commiserated. We bought shoes. Because that's what normal people do, whether they've had cancer or not.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Two steps forward - Eight backward

This was a banner week for me. I went hatless and wore make-up for the first time in more months than I could remember. My neuropathy symptoms seemed to diminish. I felt good. I walked to lunch. Sleeping seemed better. Then I finished my steroids.

Last Saturday I was restless and anxious to jump start my life. This Saturday I was annoyed that I'd made an appointment at the hair dressers at the crack of 10 a.m. But I made it. Not to get my hair done, but to have my face waxed. Unfortunately, the growth of hair on my head signaled the return of my beard and mustache. So I sat patiently having the facial hair ripped from my face trying to figure a way it could be transplanted to my scalp. (Incidentally, my hairdresser is from Saudi so this is what I think of when they talk about Middle Eastern terrorism.)

My friend and I had a discussion recently. She mentioned that she wouldn't go out without doing her hair and makeup. What if Mr. Right was at the grocery store and overlooked her because she'd forgotten her mascara? I, on the other hand, walked into the grocery store after my appointment with red blotchy skin, a black eye, and my chemo-chic hairdo. And here's the funny thing. I got hit on. OK, it was the meat counter guy who has no front teeth, wears a hair net, and is named Bubba, but he hinted about going out for Buffalo wings. I didn't catch the hint.

I think I got off the point. I think I started off whining about not feeling so well, but why talk about pain and suffering when you can have a laugh at my expense.
After all, that's what friends are for.

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Last week, I had my eyelids lifted. According to the doctor it was necessary to correct my vision, so I didn't argue. (Even though the thought of a knife coming that close to my eyebrows was a little nerve wracking.) I didn't argue because the end result was that I might look a little better and even though I'm not particularly vain, there is that desire to look the best that I can, considering what I have to work with.

The bad part is I actually scoff at my friends who fantasize about plastic surgery. I have several friends who are strikingly attractive but who sit and obsess over imperfections that are (a) not noticeable to a normal person, or (b) actually give their faces more beauty and character. I am reminded that this phenomenon is nothing new as I have been re-reading Jane Austen's Persuasion this week (the annotated version of course). Several of the characters are obsessed with their appearance to the point of absurdity, and the main character wins back the love of her life after her looks radically change for the better. Oh and she's also of high moral character and well read but ....

And here's a confession. When the surgeon told me they might remove my breasts, my first thought was great, now I can get implants, and they won't drag the floor when I walk anymore. It was but a fleeting thought and was soon replaced by the realities of what that kind of surgery and recovery would mean, but there was that moment.

I made a commitment that on the coming Monday I would return to wearing makeup and going hatless. But now as I look at the nasty bruises around my eyes and the Frankenstein stitches across my lids, I hesitate. Would people think I was a trucker who got into a barfight? I'm tired of being thought of as "cancer girl" and I want to return to normalcy, however, not sure this is the look I'm going for. Maybe another week or 4 or 5.