Trixieland

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Archive for the tag “chemo”

The Existential Job Search

I’ve been meaning for months now to write a post about how similar cancer and pregnancy are. Basically, your body isn’t your own, people are amazingly supportive, there is a ton of literature and personal stories of friends and acquaintances to take place of statistics and the unknowable. I was going to be much more in-depth and humorous, but that’s the gist of it. (Maybe I’ll get it right in the book. Should I do a book?)

My final point in the cancer-is-a-baby-you-never-asked-for theory–and the one that’s especially relevant for me now–is overestimating the “after.” When I was vastly pregnant with my youngest spawn I remember looking at thin people in magazines and on TV and thinking “as soon as I drop this load of baby I’m gonna squeeze my ass into that there miniskirt and drink five margaritas and DANCE!” etc. During chemo and surgery and radiation I had a lot of similar thoughts about how I was going to bound up out of this “sickness” and just be ON FIRE FOR LIFE! So full of energy and appetite and enthusiasm! Unstoppable!

Well, those notions were just as unrealistic as the post-baby ones. Six years later I have yet to squeeze into that there miniskirt (and at this point I think my miniskirt days are done even if I were svelte).

hit by a busI have been stuck in an existential quagmire. Thinking about what’s next and if anything is next. What I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to plan for an uncertain future. Yes, yes, I know “any of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow!” but honestly, when you say that to me it’s as if you’re dismissing my actual legitimate concerns. Here’s a cold, hard, fact: There’s a 30% chance that I’ll be dead in five years. That’s not me being a pessimist; that’s reality.

Now, I’m doing everything I need to do to be in the 70% on this. I’m still getting Herceptin infusions every three weeks through April, and I’ll be on hormone therapy (aromatase inhibitors) until 2021, and of course I’ll have annual mammograms.

But cancer is a sneaky, persistent little fucker, and if it feels like coming back, it’s going to.

So, I can live with that. But it’s hard to LIVE with that. It’s difficult to make long-term plans under that kind of cloud. For instance, I would like to go back to school. I’m 15 credits short of completing my bachelor’s degree and it’s something that I regret not finishing. BUT, what I’d really like to do is get a degree in something healthcare-related and that would require many many more credits than 15. But here’s the thing: How much money and effort and time I’d be studying and ignoring my family am I willing to spend if I only get five years? Or four? Or three?

But if I’m in the 70%, what if five years goes by and I’m cancer-free but I’m still at square one on that degree because I was too scared and worried to start something I might not be able to finish?

I’m having trouble bouncing back from this cancer business. Physically, my complaints are few: My armpit is still numb from surgery. My right boob is noticeably smaller than my left (both surgery and radiation contributed to this). I have scars and a medi-port. My eyebrows and eyelashes are sparse. Chemo brain hasn’t abated much. Luckily, I’m a writer, so when I can’t for the life of me come up with “calves” I improvise “shin butts.” My hair is coming in pretty well and I think it says “unfortunate haircut” more than “cancer” now.

Emotionally/psychologically? I’m having a rough time. Crippled with indecision, angst, and weltschmerz based on an unknowable future I turn to Samuel Beckett.

Samuel Beckett

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

So, I’m taking baby steps back into the World, and I hope the World will welcome me.

 

 

Breast cancer intermission: A Smoking Ruin

Well, here I am almost three whole weeks after my sixth and final round of chemo. That day was extraordinary. I felt accomplished, and loved, and, well, triumphant.

Since then? Not so much on the triumph. I don’t feel as though I’ve kicked cancer’s ass, or won the battle much less the war. The fact is, I don’t know if the chemo worked! I won’t know until Dr Superman does the surgery next week and the pathologist gets my cells under a microscope.

Yeah, I suppose you could say I “won” for getting through all those weeks of chemo. And don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely the toughest thing I’ve ever done (and I gave birth to three children). But seriously, what do we mean when we say “got through chemo”? We mean I didn’t die from it or stop doing it. Okay, I did do that? But all I actually did was show up to my appointments and not bite or scratch the nurses who hooked up my infusions.

The truth is, in this little intermission between treatment, I feel like cancer kicked my ass. Or chemo did. I don’t feel triumphant, I feel ravaged. Whipped. Decimated. Like this:

smoking_ruin

I think I felt this most keenly on my recent vacation. Each year for the past five we’ve gone to the family beach cottage in Aptos, California. It’s on the coast about halfway between Santa Cruz and Monterey. It’s my happy place. And even though I tried to set mine and everyone else’s expectations that I wasn’t going to be 100% this year and that I may not participate in everything, I was still very disappointed in myself. At first the mega-doses of magnesium that Dr. Captain America prescribed seemed to really help. I was able to keep eating for a day or two longer after chemo than I had for the last couple of rounds. I was very tired though, and rather than playing board games the first night at the beach house I was asleep by 8 p.m. The next day Gunny took all three kids out shopping and stuff and I slept all day. All day. What a waste, right?

Dana’s mom and step-dad “MeMaw and PePaw” drove their RV from Texas and joined us for a couple days. First up we went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium which we try to visit every other year. Allison is typically a pain in the ass for this, but this year I was the pain in the ass. I’d exhausted myself walking to the aquarium so Gunny got me a wheelchair. Yes, a WHEELCHAIR. This was pretty much the low point in this whole cancer carnival. I took my hat off because it was hot and also so that people would see that I have a reason for being in a wheelchair. Cancer logic. I needn’t have bothered: being in a wheelchair affords you the power of invisibility. Seriously, no one saw me. People would stand directly between me and the exhibits.

IMG_2826

The next day we went to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (Mecca for 1980’s vampires), and I was able to get around okay as long as I rested every once in a while. The kids went on rides and I looked forward to a boardwalk corndog. Unfortunately, by that time my appetite was gone. The next morning I was reading the final Harry Potter book and Ron wished he had a bacon sandwich. Gunny made me one and I ate the whole thing. Unfortunately, that was the last time I’d eat for a week. Wait, that’s not quite accurate: I was able to eat dill pickles. The combination of strong flavor and smooth texture was just un-barfy enough to allow me to eat one each day. Great, but half a dill pickle has four calories. Not really sustainable.

dill pickles

Anyway, I was a big fucking drag on the vacation and I know it’ll be better next year and this was just a temporary blip, but I felt sorry for myself and ashamed that I’d ruined it for everyone.

I think part of my problem is that it’s sunk in that although chemo was a long shitty road, this fucked-up journey is no where near over. I’ve got my first maintenance dose of Herceptin tomorrow, and a pre-op appointment with my surgeon. Then Monday an echocardiogram and Tuesday the lumpectomy. I know I should be focused on the fact that progress is being made and that it WILL be over one day. But part of me has realized it will never be over. I will never be “cured” I can only be in remission. I will never not worry that it’s going to come back and finish me. I will never get back these months. My hair is gone. I’ve gone into chemo-induced menopause and I don’t know if I’m coming back out. I’ve lost 20 pounds (okay, well that’s not so terrible). My face is fucked up. How so? My skin is just ravaged by chemo. I had pretty nice skin before. It runs in my family–the good Swiss skin–that stays moist and plump and makes strangers ask us for our ID long into our thirties and sometimes forties. I was actually carded once while buying a CD with a parental advisory sticker. I.e. they weren’t sure if I was 18 when I was 35. Anyway. Those days are over. I now have freckles and marks where I had none before. They aren’t kidding when they say chemo makes your skin react to sun differently. And I used lots of sunscreen. The texture is fucked up too. Whatever collagen or remnants of youthful springiness that my skin had is gone. When I smile there are thousands of wrinkles. My skin is pleated.  This will probably be the photo that will haunt me the rest of my life, but here goes. This is what chemo did to my face:

IMG_2946Here’s the good news. It looks like I get to hang on to my eyebrows and eyelashes. I think if I was going to lose them they’d be gone. And I’ve discovered a couple of unexpected benefits. I used to have patches of eczema on my shins and that is completely gone. I used to pick at and gnaw on my cuticles and I have stopped for some mysterious reason. All that’s cool, but not exactly a fair trade for my face, hair, and peace of mind.

So that’s the story. I’m just starting to be able to eat again but am still feeling pretty weak. I’m trying to jump back into some normal routines but it’s slower going than I’d like and I can only hope that people will continue to be patient with me. I think my overwhelming feeling right now is anger. That I had to go through this. That my family had to go through it. That my summer was stolen from me. That I’m sort of afraid to plan for a future. That sometimes I’m so tired and worn out I don’t even care if I have a future.

A Heart, a Mole, and a Limerick

It’s been a sort of eventful (and yet not) couple of weeks. There have been a couple scares, some new side effects, a milestone, some experimentation, and a minor epiphany.

Tasting and Smelling

First, I haven’t quite figured out how to deal with the nausea. It’s much worse this round, but as before, I’m not actually vomiting…I’m just nauseous all the time. Maybe weed would help, but I’m not willing to trade barfy for high at this point. If I were face-down in the toilet I’m sure that option would be more attractive.

Still, it’s very odd. It feels sort of like a mixture of pregnant and hungover. The constant low-level nausea is just there…ever-present like a tiny fetus in my gut. It’s accompanied by an excruciatingly sensitive nose. I can smell everything in exquisite detail and most of it makes me want to yak. And when I say I can smell everything I mean it. I can smell morning breath from across the room. I can smell YOU right now, reading this. I can detect whiffs of the soap you used this morning and the mint you ate after lunch.

Crime LabParadoxically, my sense of taste is completely whackadoo. One evening last week I got a sudden and very strong craving for pizza. Specifically, Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza. Thinking I was turning the corner on my nausea/chemical taste issues, I ordered one for delivery (sans sauce because tomatoes give me heartburn now). I opened wide and took what was meant to be a nearly orgasmic bite. And tasted…nothing. Nada. I haven’t been that disappointed since Santa failed to deliver Crime Lab back in 1970-whatever.

But then there are good surprises as well. Cantaloupe, for instance, which is one of my favorite things to put in my mouth. Cantaloupe has to be just right. The flavor is so subtle that if you have a slight cold you won’t be able to taste it. Or if it’s not quite ripe. I got some cantaloupe the other day with the thought that it probably wouldn’t taste good, but what the hell. I took the first bite and was overwhelmed with sweet flavor. It was the highlight of my day. It was THAT good.

can-dogs-eat-cantaloupe

Mole Hunt

Here’s something that wasn’t good. My youngest, Allison, is blonde. We’re not sure why or how, because everyone else in the family is dark. Some family members were blonde as very small children, but grew out of it. It remains to be seen if Allie will keep her yellow hair or not. My point is that I don’t know what to do with a blonde head and have always been super wary of the sun. Those corn silk locks don’t seem to offer any protection and so I’m hardcore about making her wear a hat in the summer. A couple of years ago I found a large-ish (relative to her four-year-old noggin) mole near her ear and have kept a close watch on it. Last Wednesday while washing her hair I saw what I’ve been dreading: the mole has changed. Where it was once uniform in color and perfectly round, it has suddenly shown all the signs of a potential melanoma.

IMG_1960Basically, my baby’s mole flunked the ABCDE test. Herewith:

  • A – Asymmetry (lopsided is bad)
  • B – Borders (blurry, uneven is bad)
  • C – Color (different shades are bad)
  • D – Diameter (larger than a pencil eraser is bad)
  • E – Evolving (change is bad)

So, Gunny and I resolved to take her to the pediatrician ASAP and put her to bed. Then I opened the freezer to get a popsicle and burst into tears. Those heaving, silent “Don’t mind me, I’m breaking down” sobs. Because cancer can take me, but it better not lay one turdy tendril on my child. Because I will burn this world down.

The pediatrician agreed the mole is “suspicious,” and has referred us to a dermatologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Once Tricare approves it, I’m hoping to make the appointment for a Tuesday. Just in case we run into Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson on his weekly trip to visit sick kids. You gotta find the upside wherever you can.

Side Effects

In honor of some fun new side effects I have composed this limerick:

There once was a lady named Trix
Who found herself in quite a fix
Her gums were receding
Her ass, it was bleeding
And she still has four rounds left of six!

Also, my nose is running in what is lovingly called the “Herceptin drip.” Yaaaaaaaay.

My Heart

In my last post I mentioned that I’d been having some shortness of breath. The next day it concerned me enough to call Dr. Cap’s office. He had me come in and Gunny and I spent two hours there. First, I had two panic attacks before I even saw the doctor. I haven’t had one since, well, I guess since I met Gunny seven years ago, but I used to have them fairly often and once severe enough to land in the ER where the nurses nodded knowingly when I told them I worked at Microsoft. “Oh, we see Microsoft people all the time for this.” Anyway my heart rate was too high for Dr. Cap and he sent me to the lab for a blood draw to check my iron. My iron was fine but my postassium was low. He decided that we’d check on my heart a little sooner than planned so this Monday I had another echocardiogram which was absolutely fine. So my heart is in good shape and I don’t know what the shortness of breath was about and haven’t experienced it since.

My Hair

What about your bald head, Christa? Oh, I’m glad you asked. So here’s something I didn’t expect: my head gets a little bit stubbly every few days. But only in patches. So if I hadn’t shaved my head I would still have hair, but I would also have bald patches, which I think we can all agree would not look very cool.

IMG_1993

I’ve decided I like the idea of wigs more than I enjoy wearing them. So I’ve been going naked-headed most of the time inside the house and rocking some hats out and about. These are the two I like best:

IMG_1985 IMG_1995

And now for the good news. At long last, after more than three months, I’ve started working on my novel again! The second Mike Malick mystery You Go To My Head is back on track. I’m not promising a release date yet, but at least the wheels are back in motion. It feels really good to be creating something again.

An Epiphany

That’s sort of my takeaway from the whole cancer experience thus far: being grateful for the small things. The kindness of a friend. A sunny day. The flavor of ripe melon. I’ve discovered that Death doesn’t have to come very close at all to make Life taste very sweet.

Small update

It’s been a couple of days since my first round of chemo, so I thought I’d check in. First of all, it’s not so bad. The nausea is on par with morning sickness, which I know I can get through. The heartburn was a surprise, but Zantac is keeping it under control. 

Mostly, it’s fatigue. Not like oh I stayed up too late and could use a nap, but like full body weariness. My knees are weak and the thought of doing anything physical fills me with overwhelming blerg. As I told my husband this morning: “I feel like I’m made out of butter.”

Which is all much better than the shivering pale head-in-the-toilet creature that I was afraid of. I think I can do this!

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