Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Some Kind of Normal

I received a call today from one of my nurses. There are two of them who call to check up on me every couple of weeks. I can't keep track of which is which or who they work for, but they're both nice and so I try to make time to chat with them when they call. Today's nurse pointed out that today was my one-year anniversary.

Apparently I had my biopsy a year ago today.

WooHoo. Break out the party hats.

I wanted to verify the date so I just went back and read the entry I wrote a year ago. Don't think I should have. Living it once was good enough. But I'm glad it's behind me.

My last few posts have been kind of downers. And I've been intending to post something a little more upbeat about how I'm doing. Then I had the friends with cancer trauma that foiled that plan. But now that I know it's my anniversary, I guess it seems appropriate to post a one-year-mark entry. of Sept. 15, 2010, my life has gotten back to some kind of normal. I have a new job doing freelance editing for Papercraft magazine, which it turns out is a really sweet gig.

I also have a new head of hair. It's surprisingly dark, and looks like this:

On the day I took that picture, Maura Tierney was on the cover of Parade Magazine styling a similar do:

If you don't recognize her (I didn't), she used to play a nurse on the television show ER. At the time she had long hair, kind of light brown. Kind of like me. Then she played a patient in real life, also like me. Personally I think she looks way better with her short locks. Kind of inspires me to maybe keep mine this way. Except the only way I'd look that good is if I had a fortune to spend on a stylist. And then got hit hard with a pretty stick. Plus I have this huge desire to run my fingers through my long hair. But I don't know. I guess I'll decide when and if the hair gets to a point that I decide I liked it better short. That's a luxury most of us never dare try. So score one good thing from this cancer.

Another part of my life that's totally different a year out is my arm. It's hard to be upbeat about that. But there's some good with it. In case you don't know, shortly after my mastectomy it swelled up like a balloon. It's called lymphedema, and sometimes happens after lymph nodes are removed. In my case, the arm just kept getting bigger.

They gave me a compression sleeve to wear during the day, and taught me a massage to do at night. At first I tried to just wear the sleeve during exercise, like a lot of people do. But it was obvious that wasn't enough, so I started wearing it for a couple hours, then a few, and eventually I realized I just had to break down and wear it all day. It's a pain, but less of a pain than having a swollen arm. And for a while that was good enough, but eventually it wasn't. So then I got to start wrapping my arm at night. Every other night actually, just to keep it under control. It's pretty ridonkulus. I don't even know how many layers. Three rolls of gauze, two rolls of styrofoam, three different wraps. Takes like half an hour, and another half hour in the morning rolling everything back up. Here's the pic:

I know. Seriously, who thinks up these things?

But the good news is I've been able to take the sleeve off for a couple of hours every day. Which means I don't usually have to wear it to places like church. And I'm doing some weight lifting. So maybe some day I'll get back to just wearing it for exercise. I know that doesn't sound very impressive as a dream, but for me it sounds huge.

Let's see...what else? Oh, there's hormones. Or lack of hormones. They've all been shut off. Every last one. It's called chemopause. My cancer happens to be a kind that feeds off of estrogen, so that's part of the treatment. Amazingly it hasn't been too bad. In fact the doc was worried for a little bit because I don't even have hot flashes. But I guess I just lucked out that way. Don't get me wrong, I do have issues. Mostly aches and pains and kind of wild, random mood swings. And dry skin and acne. But that just keeps life from getting boring I guess. Besides, I now have a boat-load of excuses for being forgetful and irrational.

And finally...there's the whole reconstruction thing. If you've been following this blog, you know what a huge disappointment that was. And how anxious I am to move forward. So here's where those hugely miraculous blessings start to kick in. I've kind of been afraid to talk about it, like I might jinx it or something.

My plastic surgeon told me about a procedure he's been following with interest. The results of a study were just released, and in my humble opinion it is beyond impressive. It's amazing. Incredible. Exciting.

Long story short, he's actually offered to fly to Florida next month to do a training, and then use me as a guinea pig. Which I know sounds really crazy. Except that he knows how to do the basic procedure, it's just a particular way of doing it that he has to learn. This has the potential to be the next big thing in mastectomy reconstruction. And I'm really, really excited to be bringing it to Utah. If you're interested, here's a video that talks about it.

Exciting, isn't it? I'm sure I'll be talking about it more in the future.

But for now, that's me, one long icky year after diagnosis. I'm not sure how to type out the sound of a party horn, but just imagine it with me: Pllllbbbbblllll!

Fighting Mad

I've been angry for almost a week now. In the traditional stages of grief, anger is the one I tend to hang out in. Which I realize isn't a great testament of my faith. But there it is. I can't usually place my finger on where my anger's directed. But I know this time. I know exactly. It all started with horrid news about this lady:

Beautiful, isn't she? Her name's Karleen. Her role in my life started way back in the seventies in The Year of the Move. My parents took two big-time California girls (who kept our vinyls on a constant loop with songs like 'California Dreamin', 'Wish they all could be Californian', and 'Surfer Girl') from the Awesome and Cool place known as Hacienda Heights, California; and transplanted them entirely against their will to the dinky little cold place known as Logan, Utah. No one ever wrote a song about Logan, Utah.

To make matter's worse, I was going into the ninth grade, which was high school in California, but only middle school in Logan. But that wasn't as bad as my big sister's situation. It was her senior year. It is hard to imagine a more cruel thing to do to a senior in high school.

Karleen lived just up the street from us in Logan. She was a year older than my sister, which I just learned, but makes it even more remarkable that she rescued Sis by bringing her into her circle of a friends--a circle that included my future husband, who also lived in the neighborhood. I'm quite certain Karleen was the one bright spot that made that year tolerable for my sister. Karleen had a glow that attracted people to her like bugs to a porch light. Everyone she came in contact with felt like a good friend. She even made me - a puny little middle schooler - feel loved and accepted.

Karleen went on to teach kindergarten. And from what I hear she was a natural. Made every one of her students feel like her favorite. She had a daughter too, who was the light of her life.

On Friday I got a call from my sister (who by-the-way promptly moved back to California after graduation and stayed. I, on the other hand, developed a fondness for that Logan place.) Carolyn gave me the bad news that Karleen had passed on. She knew little beyond that, a possibility of cancer. But we learned from the obituary that Karleen had started the school year, taken on a class of bright-eyed kindergarteners, so obviously she hadn't planned on leaving this world quite this soon.

My husband and I scrambled to make plans to get to Logan for the burial the next day. He happened to be fishing with his brother in Yellowstone, which is north of Logan, and I was home in Draper, south of the place, so I gathered up respectable funeral suits for the both of them and drove up to meet them.

At the cemetery, I asked a mutual acquaintance if she knew more about Karleen's story. She confirmed that it was breast cancer. She'd gone through treatment, and everything was fine. The woman placed her hand over her chest, near her shoulder. "And then she found another lump," she whispered. "It was mean and fast and aggressive."

At that moment, the funeral director stood and announced the dedication on the grave. Karleen's father--eyes red-rimmed, looking weak and beaten--stood to offer the prayer. Karleen's women - her mother, her daughter, and a sister - sat under a green canopy, clinging to one another for strength.

For just a split second my mind's eye saw my husband standing in that man's place. My beautiful women sitting under the canopy. And I gained a new appreciation for the term 'weak-kneed'. The prayer was beautiful. But I had a wedding to go to afterwards, and I hadn't thought to bring makeup, or even tissues, so it also became an internally-frantic attempt to keep my composure. Keep the tears from flooding my face. Keep those knees holding up my body.

That's when the anger started to build. A put-up-your-dukes kind. It hadn't diminished in the least when more news came that very same day. This time one of My Girls. I didn't give birth to her or raise her. One of my good friends gets to take full credit for that. But I was her church leader for nearly six years. From the time she was nine until two years ago, when she started high school. And in those years her bright smile managed to weave it's way around and through my heart. She's a senior now, same as my sister in her challenging year. That year of vulnerability and possibilities. She's beautiful, brilliant, and cheerful. Take everything you know about stuck-up, snotty, flighty teenagers and throw it out the window with this one. She's nothing like that. Everything a young person should be.

While on my way to that wedding, I learned through Facebook that Tiffany was in the hospital. Through a friend I learned they were thinking maybe leukemia. After a couple days of tense waiting, it turns out leukemia would have been good news. It is cancer. But they don't know the source. And since cancer's behave in unique ways depending on their source, they really have to know that in order to fight it properly.

So now we wait some more while they run test after test on her young body. A body that should be worried about math tests and boys and what to wear to school, not blood counts and pic lines.

And that's why I'm mad. I want to put my fists in the air and shout at that cancer: HOW DARE YOU!?! HOW DARE YOU THINK YOU CAN INVADE THE BODIES OF THESE BEAUTIFUL WOMAN?!? GET OUT RIGHT NOW AND LEAVE THEM ALONE!! LEAVE US ALL ALONE!!

Of course I'd just be circling around waving my fists at nothing. Tipping at windmills. Fortunately we have prayer, and a belief that there is a purpose in everything. That God is in control. And I do feel so blessed to have that faith. The prayers that have been offered up in my behalf have been unbelievably tangible. God's mindfulness of me is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

Yet I still dream that some day cancer will listen to demands like that. That it will get out and stay out. That the angels in heaven will have to find new ways and reasons to minister to us.

In the meantime, please join me in praying for Karleen's family, and for my girl Tiffany.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

An Accidental Summer

So apparently there are people besides my mother who worry when I don't blog. And while I'm touched and grateful, I'm also sorry for any undue concern my recent silence has caused. And I guess I partly didn't write because I wasn't feeling up to it, but mostly it was because I had to prioritize.

I'd planned my summer very carefully: from the day of my surgery on there was a big black line drawn through every day for a full six weeks. That's what I was told to expect. But when that didn't work out, no one was really sure what to tell me in terms of recovery, especially since it was my spirit that hurt worse than my body.

And I suppose I might still be in bed today if it weren't for that family reunion. I hadn't planned on going, since it was near the beginning of my black-line phase. I was really bummed about that too, especially since family members who NEVER come to Utah were going to be there. So when the surgery failed, and I was feeling kind of human a week later, I sort-of happily dragged myself there, happy meaning happy to go, but not exactly happy or ready to get dressed and leave the house. But I went, and was glad I did. This is the crew, at least the stragglers that were still there when someone thought to take a group picture. I'm the one sitting down (looking like an invalid) in black. My daughter has the picture of just me and my siblings, but if you see faces that look an awful lot like mine, they're either my kids or my sibs. And the sweet older lady who looks like she's doting over me? Well I guess she is. She's the reason for all the fuss - my mom - who's turning (yikes!) 90 in a few months.

After that day we had family visitors, racquetball tournaments, swim lessons, band concerts, acting gigs, birthdays, outings with the grandbaby, school starting, kids moving out, and before I knew it I was back in the world of the living, ready or not. There wasn't ever a point where I decided I was ready to spend more time in bed than out of it. Certainly never a time I decided I was healed. I'm still not sure how to answer when people ask how I'm doing. I think I tell them I'm plugging along. As if that doesn't make me sound like an old geezer.

But stuff just kept happening that I didn't want to miss, even if I didn't feel up to it. Cancer will do that to you, you know. Make you want to live. Big time. The other things--cooking, cleaning...and blogging...kind of got second billing to the fun stuff. (Gotta reserve that strength you know.)

So here in a nutshell are some of the highlights of the summer that I didn't think I'd get to have:

Me and the girls celebrating Whit's birthday at 'Erin's Slumber Party'. They'd just gotten their nails done. Mine are still too weak from the Herceptin to be painted. Frowny face. (Which I know will make the birthday girl laugh.) I did get a massage, which I swear was twice as long as it should have been. One perk of being a cancer patient.

Here's my adorable little Ethan touching a donkey for the first time at the petting zoo.
And here he is AFTER touching a donkey for the first time. He really didn't mind the donkey so much, it was those goats that kept trying to eat him that really got to him. Not that I can blame him.

Private swim lessons sound really impressive until I admit that I've been too distracted to give Brandon a chance to keep his skills up and there weren't any classes at his level for boys his age. But his teacher did wonders with those numchuck...I mean swimming skills.

And here's the little Stud Muffin doing his modeling gig. (I didn't get pictures of the commercial or movie he was in, but he's been a busy little actor.)

This is Natalie on her first day in the dorms at BYU. I also missed pics of Whitney who moved out the day before. Losing two girls in two days is a little too much of a shock to the system. And below is Brandon, excited for his first day of middle school. More system shock! And finally, below that is a horrible video of an adorable performance Brandon did a few days ago with his band, Prodigy. Yep, I'm the totally lame and unprepared parent who only has her phone to record her son's solo performance. He also had a couple duets with a cutie girl that didn't even get recorded. And I don't even know if this one will work because I've just been getting errors for the last hour. But it was really cute. I'll do better next time - but at least I have all these bonus memories!