Thursday, December 30, 2010

New Year's Resolution

I have already hinted at my resolution for the year 2011: I plan to take the entire month of January off from being a cancer patient and just live like a normal person. No doctors, no appointments, no tests, nothing medical. After 70 appointments in 16 grueling months involving pokes, prods, chemicals, scans, treatments, sticks, pain, mutilation, radiation, x-rays - after being questioned, examined, sliced, pulled, poisoned, sickened and finally healed - I want to start the year fresh, and out of the medical world.

So far, in 2011, I have only 8 visits to my oncologist scheduled, one surgery left, and a mammogram. With proper planning, I might only have to enter a medical office every other month, which as you can imagine, is a great relief after the past years of sitting in hard chairs several times a week listening to Joy Behar scream on some CRT TV.

Thus, my New Year's Resolution: No medical appointments in January.

Be careful what you wish for.

It would seem that I have not quite recovered from my last surgery November 18th. Oh, the boob looks good, in clothes at least. (Gentlemen, don't look down my blouse or you are going to get a shock.) But, once the surgical pain wore off, once the swelling went down, I was left with a reluctant shoulder - one that refuses to do what I tell it to, just like my greyhound when he spies a squirrel.

No squirrels were harmed in the taking of this photo

Fly like Superman? (Okay, realistically, reach for a coffee cup?) Nope, only one arm goes up - my mastectomy side won't cooperate. Reach around to snap a real bra, (which I am very excited to put on again?) Well, not without a jangle of pain and some creaking and stiffness. Lift a carton of milk? Hah! Not a chance.

Good thing I don't like milk.

Something has gone awry. Not only does my shoulder feel like it's burning, I've lost range of motion in my right arm.

How did this happen? Why now, after a year of carting around that rock-hard expander under my skin?

In my imagination, on the surgical table after my last surgery, the doctor said, "Let's sit her up and see if they look even" and some nurse hauled my unconscious body up by the right arm, damaging my shoulder ligaments. In real life though, it may just be a complication related to breast cancer and reconstruction, and a not uncommon one at that.

The truth of the matter is, I don't care how it happened.

Now, the old Ann would have ignored this shoulder problem forever. Either it will go away or it won't. But, now I know that some things not only don't go away, but they can get worse and sometimes even kill you. Like, you know, breast cancer. So, after a month, I realized this stiffness and pain is here to stay, and while it's not life threatening, it might not get better on its own, and pretty soon I'll be doing nothing but chasing squirrels.

So, I called my doctor and I was given the choice: Physical therapy or a consult with an orthopedic surgeon.

Guess which one I picked?

Give yourself a point if you said Physical Therapy.

I know you doctors. I know what you like to do. First chance you get, you'll stick me in a machine. And, as much as I enjoy those MRIs and CAT scans and the little break they provide during a hectic day, I've been baked enough. Not to mention that anybody who has the title "orthopedic surgeon" is probably going to want to fulfill his destiny and cut something.

So, physical therapy it is.

My first appointment is January 11th.

I blew my New Year's Resolution before the year began.


Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas - Contest!

Merry Christmas!

This date last year, I was 24 hours past my second chemo. My hair was falling like snow so I had just shaved it, and faced a bald Christmas and hairless winter months.

This season is a tough one to be bald, with parties and family visiting and events to attend. Starting the new year without a nice wig makes life a little harder for the cancer patient, as I well know. Going out in scarves is fine for every day, but a wig is often that nice little touch of normality during a difficult time.

Being bald last year and knowing what it's like, it is very special that I can offer a reader a gift as we enter the new year. I have the opportunity to offer a lucky reader a very nice, expensive, monofiliment wig of their own - for free! Start 2011 with a lovely, trendy, comfortable wig.

The wig is by Paula Young, and the model is a new one, called Elyse.

Here is a description: "The Elyse wig is a modern salon-quality cut, featuring longer, angled layers in the front and tapered at the sides and in back. Hand-tied, with a monofilament top, Elyse offers full coverage with a natural-looking part and styling flexibility. It even includes open ear tabs are perfect for eyeglass wearers."

I'm not bald anymore, but in putting it on, I found it very comfortable. I wish I'd had this wig when I had been bald.

Paula Young, the company, is a supporter of various breast cancer-related charities, so I can confidently say that this is an excellent product coming from a good company.

Here are some photos of me in the wig. I chose my own color and the winner will be able to choose their color too. You can find selections at the website here.

So, how do you win? Just make a comment: click on the button that says "Talk to me" and say something nice! You may comment anonymously, but in your comment, you must put identifying information so I know who you are. At midnight, January 1st, the contest is closed, and I will draw names out of a hat on the 2nd. The lucky winner will send me their address, I will pass it along to the Paula Young representative, and you'll have your new wig in a few days, just in time to start the new year.

Good luck and Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sam Spratt, Illustrator

"Someday, if I ever get cancer and die, my kids are going to be upset that there are no photos of me."

As the family photographer, that was the argument I used to try and convince my husband to pick up a camera and include me in photos. He, possibly thinking I was being a tad over-dramatic about that cancer thing, rarely complied. Year after year, photo after photo, on family vacations, birthdays and Christmases, there are snapshots of him and the kids: opening presents, standing by a monument, or blowing out a candle. I am always implied (somebody had to have made that cake), but never in the shot.

Once, I even bought him a camera - an old vivitar one, supposed to be the easiest to use on the market, without all those fancy buttons and lightening bolts and things. Point and shoot, baby. I'm in.

It gathered dust in a closet before I eventually threw it away.

It probably didn't help my case any that on the one or two occasions where he did decide to take a photo of me, I squealed, "What are you thinking? My hair is a mess! I need lipstick on. Don't you DARE take a photo of me now!"

People are complicated. I want to be included but I always wanted to look my best.

I admire all the young kids who put these crazy, and sometimes unflattering, shots of themselves on facebook. No, not the ones where they are drunk, passed out and writing foul words on each other in Sharpie. But, the silly, zany ones which show their imperfect teeth and great senses of humor. They don't mind showing the world how they really appear, and I always have. The desire to appear perfect in a photo is a hard one to break, having been drummed into us repeatedly beginning with kindergarten school picture day and continuing on through your wedding - but today's kids break the rule routinely.

Well, my cancer threat came true, except for the dying part, of course. I've taken lots of photos of myself during this period, and if I had a less sensitive job, I might have posted more of them. I documented all the stages of my mastectomy and recon, and my baldness and hair regrowth, standing alone in front of a mirror with my iPhone. (If my phone ever gets stolen and they go through my album, that person is going to get a huge shock.) I am glad to say that cancer helped me get over the need to look perfect in pictures. When you are missing a body part, you have to give up the illusion of perfection. Still, I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with my image. I'm much prettier (and younger) inside my head then when I see myself in photos, I suppose. It's hard to reconcile the two images.

I was relaxing with my iPad one day, using Flipboard or Pulse, I forget which. both fabulous apps, by the way. I was browsing Gizmodo, one of my favorite tech sites, when I saw a contest by their new and extremely talented illustrator, Sam Spratt. You could win a portrait of you done by him for your facebook profile, and all you had to do is comment.

I don't enter a lot of contests - I already won the big prize, cancer, and figure you only get to beat the odds once. But, this contest intrigued me. I wanted to jump in the game, and leave my kids with an artistic memory of me, whether I die in five years or in fifty. How often do you get to be painted by somebody that talented?

Plus, I can comment like nobody's business. So, I did.

And, I won.

I couldn't have been more excited. Sam needed a high rez photo of me, in natural light, and fast. It has been raining for weeks here in sunny California and the natural light was the first hard part - my house is dark so it actually had to be done outside. I go to work in the dark and come home in the dark, so it had to be on a weekend. During a break in the rain, a week ago Saturday, I grabbed my youngest son off the computer and away from his homework, and told him to take some photos of me. I had it in my head I'd so something fun - having seen Sam's work I know it can be fanciful. But, frankly, I couldn't come up with anything and my impatient 13 year old wanted to get back to work. So, I just did a headshot and sent it to him.

A few days later (he works fast) my portrait was posted.

I love it more than I can say - this may be the first time my image was captured and I liked it. I love what he did with my hair and as it grows out, I know which direction to go. And, I think I'll be keeping it gray too. I think he made me a little more me, if you know what I mean? I have a very suburban middle-aged mom look, especially now, post-cancer. Yet inside I am anything but, and I think that snuck out in the illustration he did.

Plus, there is cleavage. You gotta love the cleavage.

So, Sam, if you ever read this, thank you again. It was an amazing thing to have, and I appreciate it. And, I still want to buy a high rez version so I can print it. I might actually put this one on a wall and be all vain and braggy about it.

Oh, and never doubt the power of Gizmodo. I work in a high school and I had kids coming up to me, asking if I was the person who was painted in the contest. Now I'm cool, too.

For more Sam, go here: Sam Spratt Illustrations

Friend him on facebook.

Follow him on Twitter.

His Gizmodo bio.

And, his tumblr blog.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

RIP Elizabeth Edwards

She was one classy woman, surrounded by ugliness, but always showing grace.

Her last public words bear repeating:

You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces -- my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren't able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It's called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn't possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel towards everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.

RIP Elizaabeth

Oh, and by the way. Cancer sucks.


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Post-Cancer Life

On December 2nd, 2009, I had my first chemo infusion.  Last Wednesday, December 1st, 2010, I finished my last infusion of herceptin.  I had a full year of IV sticks, infusion rooms and chemical treatment.  I saw the cycle of the seasons through the window in that room.

My chemo nurses and their assistants had taken such good care of me during this year - their calm and professional demeanor were exactly what I needed - yet on days when I felt ill or out of it, they had the meds and advice at the ready to help me through. 

Because of their outstanding care,  I left work a little earlier than normal and stopped at Whole Foods and bought a shopping bag full of assorted treats as a thank you for them and the office staff.  I was grinning from ear to ear as I went in, and Joe - the only nurse who thinks I have fat veins (which is a compliment, trust me)  - told me I looked like I was about to sing "The Wind Beneath My Wings."

Surely he doesn't think I'm that sappy?  Joe, I thought you knew me better than that - you've seen  my blood, which is deep purple, not pink and frothy.

The song I really wanted to sing was Five Steps by the Davenports.

veins swell
you know me well enough to tell
five steps you're over

What a long, strange year it has been.  I'd outlasted all the people I started with and was a stranger in the room again.   Sadly, as my time ends, somebody else's begins.  As I watched my bag drip to the end, I listened to the conversations of  the chemo newbies beside me.  Two women were on their second infusion and still had their hair.  They were talking about constipation and the various side effects they'd experienced from the first one.  I almost opened my mouth to give them some tips, but then I thought - let them figure it out on their own, and get through it together.  We all find our own way through this experience.  I had my time, this is theirs.

It was 5:00 when I said, "I'm dry" for the final time, was unhooked from the airline tubing and the rolling pole, and left the room full of barcaloungers rocking silently behind me. 

I now begin my post-cancer life.   I have been told, in darling little pamphlets and by other cancer survivors, that I will feel adrift.  Uncertain.  Uneasy without the protection of drugs dripping into my system, without a doctor examining me monthly.  I will begin to fear recurrence and worry that my safety net has been pulled out from under me.

To that I say, "Um no."

"HELL no."

I don't even understand that kind of feeling. I didn't keep track of every appointment, but according to what I did put in my iPhone, I had over 70 medical appointments in the time between when I was diagnosed 16 months ago and now.

Do people really feel upset that they don't have to go see a doctor four times a week?  They feel lost when they aren't being poked or prodded or stuck or infused or poisoned or burned or cut upon?  They miss it and feel unprotected? 


I don't believe it.  I think it's made up by those pamphlet writers.  Once they write their "Getting Through Breast Cancer Treatment" pamphlet, they get their taste of fame and don't want it to end.  The writer has to scramble to come up with something else, so after a committee meeting, they come up with a "Post-Cancer Life" booklet and tell everybody they are going to freak out over not seeing doctors and having treatments every day. 

And, I guess some people buy into it, just like if you see an ice cream commercial thirty times you might start thinking maybe you want some ice cream, even if you aren't hungry.  Word spreads and now people are actually believing something is missing in their life because they are not burning gas to some medical office on a daily basis.

You know what my thought is? 

"I don't have one single appointment during the entire month of January." 

No, wait, that's not right.

"I DON'T HAVE ONE SINGLE APPOINTMENT DURING THE ENTIRE MONTH OF JANUARY!!!!!!!!!"  And, add a bunch of smiley faces and thumbs up icons and you will see how adrift I feel.

Adrift?  Nope.  I feel free.

Oh I still have appointments.  I'll see my oncologist every three months, and also have tumor marker tests every three months.  That's already 12 appointments in the next year.   I still need an abdominal scan, although I think I've had enough radiation so I might skip it and see if I can do an MRI instead.   I might need one more MUGA, and at some point another Zometa infusion and a mammogram.  But, I'm not reassured by these things - unless reassured is a synonym for annoyed.

I am now cancer-free and am ready to be done.  I have done everything I'm supposed to do to prevent it from returning.  I can and will do more, with diet and exercise, to stay in remission the rest of my life.  Apparently, the cells in my body like to mutate and so I have to make sure I don't give them any reasons to want to do that again.  I will update you all on my progress.  But, I believe I will remain cancer free. 

I'm now the breast cancer ass-kicker that I told you all I would be back in September of '09 when I started this blog. 

Miss it? Adrift?   I don't think so.