March 19, 2007 § 28 Comments
On the occasion of my last chemo treatment, all set to break out the champagne, my oncologist casually announced that surgery might not be necessary. In most instances this is terrific news. It could mean the tumor vanished, or that I was magically cured. But it was neither. He suspected the cancer had migrated to my bones and offered that there’d be no benefit to surgery. In essence it was too late.
I’m no expert, but I do know that breast cancer is lethal once it abandons the palpable breast for un-chartered territories like the brain, liver, or bones. In these instances, there’s a 3% cure rate and for the other 97%, a life expectancy of 2-3 years.
My Oncologist went to Switzerland. My primary care physician called in a script for Ativan. My surgeon called me at home. It was after 9pm, her son was on her computer, so she asked if I could call up my reports and read them to her.
Vague sclerosis was the fiendish phrase that had my entire medical team convinced my cancer was aggressive and had spread.
How could vague be so definitive?
Dr MJ was compassionate. I was speechless. She wanted to make sure someone was with me. Deanne was, and has been from the beginning. Time to update the definition of friend on Wikipedia.
What was I doing in this Telenova? Single mom, young child, in-operable breast cancer, too many tears and sick to my stomach.
I was scheduled for a bone scan the following day. I would demand every test possible, another MRI, another biopsy. I wanted to look under the microscope and see the cancer cells for myself.
Something about bone scans. First, you get injected with a radioactive substance. Then, you drink as much fluid as possible to flush it out of your system. No matter what you drink, your bones absorb the glow in the dark juice and three hours later you’re back in for pictures by a camera that resembles a sci-fi docking station. The final images look like Halloween decorations.
11:00 – check in with Nuclear medicine 3rd floor West campus BIDMC.
11:15 – injection of green stuff. It doesn’t hurt, but it’s stored in a lead container and that’s alarming.
11:30 – I start drinking; carrot juice, water, more water, I water down the carrot juice.
12:00 – I meet with my attorney. I try to remain dry eyed. I fail. We make sure my will is in order, signed notarized, guardians and executors assigned.
All I can think about is Frannie. Orphaned, not once but twice. How can I do this to her? Can my guilt keep me alive?
I think back to my trip to China 7 years ago when I vowed to take care of my daughter forever. I promised the Chinese officials I would never abandon her. I promised Frannie I would always be there for her. I’m on target for a train wreck and my daughter certain debris.
I tried to make myself feel better. I had an OK life insurance policy. Her guardian was wonderful, my executor, sharp. Suffering could make her stronger. I was desperate. My attorney came in with more paper work and two associates masquerading as witnesses. I signed a health care proxy and moved on.
2:00 – back to nuclear medicine and my boney photo shoot. I lie on the table and think positive thoughts. No hot spots, no hot spots. Healthy healthy healthy. I listen to my ipod, I relax, I breathe, I pray for perfect pictures, flawless films and I fall asleep. I take solace in the fact that I have always been photogenic.
Marty was scheduled to deliver the keynote at a conference in Puerto Rico two days later. Months ago accompanying him to the Caribbean seemed like a splendid idea. We’d celebrate my last chemo and enjoy the sun.
Now, nothing was a splendid idea.
Did I want to leave Frannie for a weekend? For even an hour? Would it be good for her to get use to my not being around? I could take the weekend and make a plan. I’d make a list of all things I wanted to do and all things I would not bother with. I’d make the most of whatever I had left.
As a Nor’easter was zeroing in on the city I flew off to San Juan.
Marty picked me up at the airport and brought me back to the resort. It was lovely, but I was numb.
We were in the room for 5 minutes when my cell phone rang. One bit of good news that week; my Cingular service was perfect in San Juan. Even better than it was in Coolidge Corner. It was Dr MJ on the phone. She had a few minutes between surgeries and wanted to share the results of the bone scan. I didn’t anticipate hearing back from her so soon. I wasn’t prepared for the call.
She had good news. As a surgical Oncologist, she never passes up an opportunity to call someone with good news. I love that. The scans were virtually identical to the set taken last November. There was nothing new to report. No new hot spots. No new cancer. While we’re not sure what was going on with the cat scan, for the time being, we can rule out metastatic disease. I love everyone.
I had regular stay in the breast cancer and it was the best news of my life.
This news anywhere, and it would have been paradise. But we were in paradise, complete with palm trees, and freshly pummeled mohitos, tepid seas, and swimming pools with bartenders. Everything was perfect including the flood in the bathroom, the room swap at midnight and the juicy pineapple.
We’re just giddy around here. OK, we could have lived without the scare, but on the flip side I have a great plan for the next couple of years.
A death sentence lifted offers an incredible relief. But it’s not for everyone. A cold martini at the end of the day is a decent option as well.
March 14, 2007 § 25 Comments
My last chemo treatment should have been a celebration. Instead it was a punch in the gut with a second bowl of punch thrown over my head, ice cubes, beverage, ladle and all.
I had been in for imaging the week before; MRI and Cat scans. Routine tests, I predicted the results; a shrunken tumor and everything else in order. I was ready for phase two. Take my breast, radiate me, reconstruct me in six months time and set me free to share the gospel of breast cancer.
I had a plan.
Results from my MRI were pretty straight ahead. My right breast remained unremarkable at least to the folks who read the MRI. They’re wrong of course. My right breast is spectacular but that’s another website.
As for my left breast, the primary tumor had shrunk considerably. My mother said, if you look for trouble you’ll find it, and that’s what an MRI does. At 12 o’clock on the left breast there was a questionable mass but it doesn’t matter to me. I’m having a mastectomy. All those lumps and questionable bumpy masses can congeal in the bowels of pathology. Let them reveal their secrets to science and soon to be scientists. I’ll get use to an AA cup all over again, and contemplate my new girls down the road.
I met with my oncologist. He managed to squeeze in a series of morning appointments before boarding a plane to Switzerland. Marty and I had glanced at my lab results the night before. They were posted online; we couldn’t resist the sneak peek.
The MRI was as expected, but the Cat scan report was all wrong.
suspicious sclerotic foci within the lower thoracic spine as well as within the pelvis and right proximal femur, suggestive of progressive metastatic disease.
Was that my report? My primary tumor had shrunk down to nothing. How the hell could cancer show up in my bones four months later swimming upstream in a sea of toxic waste?
We looked to Dr Come for his usual dry but level headed mix of wisdom and insight.
“Talk to Dr Houlihan in my absence. If the cancer has spread, there may be no need for the mastectomy”
He was boarding a plane, but I was just run over by the cargo hold.
I do not have metastatic disease.
The reader could have been aggressive. Maybe it’s osteoporosis. What the hell is vague sclerosis. I do not have metastatic disease.
Marty doesn’t believe it. My Angel Oncologist in Virginia doesn’t believe it. I don’t believe it, but my doctors at the BIDMC act like it’s entirely possible. That’s just preposterous.
I’m requesting more test. I want definitive results. “Vague sclerosis” sounds like guess work. I need facts. Black and white. Bone biopsies. Something I can see under a microscope.
I have a very different plan and a party I am planning.
March 13, 2007 § 8 Comments
Frannie and I were listening to a CD called “Kids Klassics”. A retro compilation where silly and feel good were the only criteria for inclusion in the 2-CD set. It featured the camp classic “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose It’s Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight?” and the lesser known but an equally wacky song called “Typewriter”. A lead typewriter takes center stage with all its bings and flying cartridge chachings.
That was a few years back, and Frannie complained, what’s a typewriter? Born and raised on Apples; emacs, imacs and a G4 in between, she had never heard of an IBM selectric. Insert big sad face here.
In ten words or less, I explained the evolution of typewriter to computer, never once dealing with the actual mechanics of the thing. I just hit on the obvious; we used sheets of paper and cursed our mistakes. There was no delete button, save as function, or MyLittlePony.com.
I felt like some wild west cowboy talkin’ bout the olden days to my little sweetie. Frannie concluded that her world was superior to mine. And I might have agreed, were it not for my current medical condition.
“Mom, did they have Noggin when you were little?”
“No, honey we only had a few channels and Noggin wasn’t one of them”
Her questions came fast and furious, beginning the same way.
“Mom did they have blah blah blah when you were little?”
“No” to Webkinz
“No” to ipods
“No” to Whole Food Supermarkets
“No” to tofutti cuties
“Yes” to homework and Hebrew School and brushing your teeth.
“Mom did they have breast cancer when you were little?”
OK, she didn’t asked this question, but I’ve been wondering how I might answer it if she did.
Of course they had breast cancer 40 years ago, I looked it up. One in twenty women were diagnosed with it. Is it my imagination, or were they older ladies in housecoats and moo-moos.
Today it’s one in eight, there are no age restrictions or fashion requirements.
If this trend continues, when Frannie is my age, the odds of her getting breast cancer could increase to 1 in 5. Eenie meenie miny moe. The best companies to work for will offer onsite childcare and chemotherapy clinics. At that point, I strongly recommend you call in sick and take the week off.
It’s everywhere and I am not sure why.
There are armies searching for nano cures but why do all these abnormal cells appear? What’s in the fibre of our lives that stimulates these abhorant growths? Are the Tampax guilty or is it the toilet paper? The hormone pumped meat? The over processed dairy? The plastic coated green peppers and cucumbers or the handy dandy counter cleaners?
Everyday slogging through my personal drama, I realize I am nothing more than a bit player, part of the chorus way off in row 10,326. There are thousands, hundreds of thousand in front of me. Harder cases, sader cases, younger cases, cases that are further along, cases that are fatal and then, thank goodness the rows and rows of blessed survivor cases.
We are singing statistics with dr’s far too busy to offer follow up appointments.
My last chemo treatment was yesterday. A mixed bag, but more about that another day. Anticipating a celebration, I was out buying a Thank-you card for my nurse when I came upon an “Encouragement” card.
A b+w headshot of a radiant bald women with the following message: As you battle for strength and courage and healing; remember there are people all around you, cheering you on and waiting to lend a hand.
Just what we need, another category to navigate in The Hallmark Store. Move over Birthday Cards and Bar Mitzvah Cards, Anniversary Cards, Easter, Passover and Get Well Cards. You have some company. Breast Cancer Cards.
“Mom, did you have these when you were little?
March 5, 2007 § 10 Comments
I saw my acupuncturist last week. More than most, he understands the toll toxins take.
“Just one more to go” I said.
“This must be a very interesting experience for you”.
He was so earnest, I lost count of the needles. One in my forehead, two in each ear, a few in my belly, feet, ankles and shins, forearms, wrists and the back of my hand, I’d guess thirty in all.
The heat lamps directed at my feet and abdomen were soothing. The pincushion part less pleasurable but I’m use to much worse. As I dozed off, I thought about what he said. An “interesting experience”, that’s a new angle.
So, what does a big honkin’ illness offer up?
I thought about my dad. He died of Multiple Myeloma when I was ten. It was a death sentence 40 years ago. I suspect the prognosis is better today. But I wasn’t thinking about his illness. I was thinking about his death, and how it was a blessing.
It’s not that he was a bad guy, it’s just that his death taught me something. Most tragedies are a refresher course. With cancer I’ll bring home a PhD.
I use to wake up and go to work, and work-out, and entertain, and plan, and make, and do, and share, and create, and manage, and negotiate, and manipulate, and package, and process, and that was before lunch. I was on a roll and it was very good.
Now, I wake-up and I don’t know if I am going to stand-up, or stay in bed. Eventually I migrate to the computer and around noontime I’ll go down stairs to check the other mail. I’ll look at the clock again, it might be 4p. Baking a potato can take an entire afternoon in this parallel universe.
Memorize that one.
There’s a test when you least expect it.