Monday, October 27, 2014

Cancer is No Walk in the Park

A week and a half ago I awoke with pain in my jaw. More specifically, my tooth. This particular tooth has a crown, which by no means equals royalty of the molar world. In the past it has given me a bit of issue, but nothing alarming. X-rays would indicate it was just me clenching my jaw when I slept.In the past, my dentist would readjust it to suit my goofy bite.

So, my chemotherapy treatments are scheduled on Wednesdays. Every Wednesday. The treatment I was due to receive is what I call the mega-dyna-whoppin' treatment. That one packs a wallop. Before getting that treatment blood work is done and I meet with my oncologist or nurse practitioner to have vitals checked and to discuss the blood work results. If the stars are aligned then treatment is a go. Sadly, my platelets were not high enough to safely deliver the infusion. So, it had to be postponed. The lighter of the treatments was given with hopes the following week my platelets would be higher.

Enter funky tooth. A visit to the dentist would reveal an infection had set in. Antibiotics were prescribed. He also gave me a referral to an oral surgeon to discuss extraction of the offending tooth. An appointment was scheduled for two weeks away. Argh.

The treatment that week was postponed again even though I was on antibiotics. Until the tooth is extracted I won't get the mega-dyna-whoppin' dosage. As I understand it, chemo suppresses the immune system. Something minor, even though being treated, could knock my body way off kilter and send me to the hospital with a deeper, more serious infection that is harder to treat.

UGH! This news sent my mind reeling and panic set in.Surely without that mega treatment my cancer would grow, metastasize and cripple my healing. I sat with one of the nurses and sobbed. She reminded me that in a week my platelets had more than tripled.This year has been filled with so many set backs. It is proof that you cannot count on things going as planned.

I did get the Herceptin treatment. It doesn't compromise my immune system, apparently. It helped me feel that something was still being done to inhibit the growth. Even with that treatment I still fretted. It was hard for me not to concern myself with all the things that could be going on in my body without the consistent treatments. But what could I do? Worrying was pointless, I convinced myself.

Focus on something positive. Yes. What is good about this hiccup in my treatment plan? Well, my energy level seemed higher. My appetite seemed normal. I could taste the food being consumed. The weather was warming and sunny. It seemed there was a blessing in disguise in my midst. Was I being granted a taste of what life will soon be again when all the treatments are over and I am clear of cancer? That is what I choose to believe. Rather than wallow in sadness over what could not be, I reveled in the gift being given.

I decided to utilize the return of my energy. After dropping my son at Kankakee Community College, I set off on the trail behind the school along the river. Along the 2.5 mile walk I took many photos. My head was cleared of negativity while my smartphone was being filled with the beauty of the sights. Upon returning home, my neighbor lady was raking leaves at her home on the property of the Methodist church where her husband is the pastor. She called out to me asking if I had the day off work. I shared that I've been in medical leave. She dropped her rake and walked over. In our conversation I learned that her mother is a breast cancer survivor. After about an hour of chatting she asked if she could pray with me. Such an invitation always makes me cry. We've passed one another a lot over a few months, but never have we had a lengthy talk. There was still worry in my mind over the lapse in my treatments, but the conversation with her put me at ease. I was reminded to have hold true.

That walk was so refreshing that I felt compelled to walk at another location the following day. Again, numerous photos were taken. Perry Farm path leads to the river. The trail there is tree lined which provided a much needed canopy of protection from the sunshine. It was quite a bit warmer. Vitamin D is recommended through this journey. It will be winter soon and the days to stroll along in the sunshine will be but a memory.

I have not been the world's most patient person. This journey is proving to be more life altering than I thought it would be. A year of treatments seems like an eternity. It is all about perspective. As cliche as it sounds, taking each day as it comes and learning to adjust is my salvation.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Strange changes: My Breast Cancer Story

The last time I wrote on this blog was May 12, 2014. So much has happened since that last post.

On May 29, 2014 I had an ultrasound guided biopsy on my left breast. There were a couple other lumps that were aspirated. The large lump discovered near my armpit was biopsied.

It would only be three days until the call came from the doctor's office. At work, I still insisted the nurse tell me what was discovered. "Invasive ductal carcinoma." I wrote it down on a Post-It along with the appointment to see the surgeon the following day. It was business as usual until I hung up the phone and it hit me. My co-worker said I said catatonic for what seemed 10 minutes. She insisted I just go home which broke my numb state. Sliding the Post-It toward her I broke into tears.

In a panicked state, I dialed the doctor's office pleading that he see me immediately. He was in surgery, but the nurse would try to contact him. We hung up and I called my Breast Health Navigator. She talked me through the terminology as she looked at the test results. During that time the doctor's office called. I hung up with her to speak to the nurse. The doctor agreed to meet with me that afternoon.

My niece, a nurse, joined me at the office to be a second set of ears. My surgeon was very compassionate while being thorough in his explanation of the kind of cancer I had. Still, my mind was grappling with the reality of it all. Each thought was a path directly to the grave. I explained how my mother died of cancer at the age of 51. It was at that point the surgeon scooted close to me and looked me square in the eyes and informed me I wasn't going to die and that I needed to stop planning my funeral. I sobbed.

Options of lumpectomy or mastectomy were discussed. He told me to go home and talk to whomever needed to be part of the decision.

After a week of talking it out and praying about it, I called his office and told him I wanted a lumpectomy as soon as possible. We scheduled my surgery for June 23, 2014.

At 7am on June 23 I reported to the hospital out-patient desk with my son and sister. My niece met with us shortly after. It wasn't long before they called me back to talk to me and take some vitals. The anesthesiology nurse told me how things would go down on their end. After a bit, I went back out to the waiting area with my family. It wasn't long after that they called me back to radiology where I'd get painful injections of dye in my areola for the sentinel node biopsy. Quite honestly, that is the single most painful thing I have experienced in my life. I wailed in pain and cried and crushed my breast health navigator's hand. The surgeon apologized repeatedly. He was kind.

The radiology techs did their job ensuring the injections were successful. They assured me the doctor had done a beautiful job and the lymph nodes were showing up beautifully on the scan.

Once again, I was brought back to the waiting area. I had enough time to tell my family about the pain I just endured before they came back to get me for prep. Surgery wasn't until 1:00, but I needed to be hooked up to the saline etc... since I wasn't allowed to eat or drink beyond midnight. Surgery and dehydration don't get along, I guess. Family took turns coming back to visit with me. I was unusually calm for it being my first surgery. It seemed weird considering I am a spaz. I would later learn that a friend had arranged there to be on the hour prayer vigils on my behalf. Hundreds of people were praying for me. Aha!

The surgeon came in to see me before surgery. His presence was very reassuring. Shortly after he stepped out the anesthesiologist came in to brief me and ask if I had any concerns. Nope.

In a blink, I was being whisked down to surgery. I awoke gagging and barfed. My pain and nausea was managed as I came out of anesthesia. They told me I threw up as they removed the tube from my throat. They fed me apple juice and crackers. Before I knew it I was more alert, no longer wanting to spew out my guts. They let me go to the bathroom and took me to another room where my family would meet me and get all the post surgical instructions. My niece helped dress me. By 5:30 my sister was driving me home.

I would spend a month recovering. Returning to work was hard, but it would be short term as my chemotherapy would begin August 13, two days after my 49th birthday. The 13 lymph nodes removed were non-cancerous so I had hoped only radiation would be required, but the cells are aggressive buggers and require aggressive chemotherapy. Stage 2 aggressive invasive ductal carcinoma. There's a lot of other jargon, but the bottom line is I have breast cancer. Six courses that equal 12 weekly treatments. Then, monthly treatments for the remaining year along with radiation.

Before chemotherapy began a power port had to be put in. Another out-patient surgery. It is quite odd to feel it nestled in an inch below my collar bone. It does make life easier with treatments and blood draws.

This is the port. Isn't it nifty?

I lost my hair. By the time the first course was complete my hair was coming out by the handfuls and the roots were painful. It seemed best to just get my head shaved. My son joined me in solidarity and shaved his head, too. The upside is that my skull isn't misshapen or dented up. The hair loss was the most physically obvious sign that I have cancer. My eyebrows and lashes are still with me.

I'm half way through the mega-dyna-whoppin' treatments. I've been off work because this stuff is so unpredictable. Some days I just feel awful and don't want to do anything. I do have my good days and make the most of them. Cleaning house wears me out. Oh, and this crap is forcing me into menopause. So, I got that going for me!

I'll be 50 by the time all of this treatment stuff is concluded and hopefully cancer free. My oncologist is certain I will be cured. I have far too many things left to do on this planet. By this time next year I will be writing as a cancer survivor.

A collage of the shaving ceremony

Monday, May 12, 2014

Rocky Road for Thelma & Louise

If you've been following this blog since forever ago then you'll know that on a whim I nicknamed my breasts Thelma and Louise. It was a joke during a conversation I had with a guy online back in the late 90s. It started by laughing at the weird things men name their junk. Thelma and Louise seemed far more appropriate than Laverne and Shirley.

With that out of the way, please understand that I have never been shy discussing my boobalas. It is like ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room.  Usually, the discussion revolves around the impossibility of finding a bra that truly suits me (hence the secondary title of this blog) and the difficulty in wearing pretty much any shirt, sweater, jacket, etc...

Today, the Girls need to have a serious talk with all of you.

When I was 19 a lump was found in my left breast. Immediately, my gynecologist was notified, he examined me and sent me to a general surgeon the same day. Within a week the lump was subjected to a needle biopsy which came back benign. Over the course of many years the lump went away.

In March 2014 I was lying in bed on my right side. With the need to scratch my armpit (shut up), I raised my left arm and commenced scratching. My heart nearly stopped when I grazed a lump. It isn't in my pit, but located where the enticing side boob begins. It's the spot where my underwire presses on the tissue. After soothing myself with positive prayer, I fell asleep but didn't forget about it.

The next morning in the shower I further examined my breasts. I questioned how a lump could have gone unnoticed because it is so obviously there when I cleanse the area. How did it just show up overnight? Were my monthly self-exams not thorough enough?

Instead of reacting as I had nearly 30 years ago, I pushed it to the back of my mind. For three weeks denial took control. Then, one day while talking with my friend Justin, I blurted it out. How it came up in conversation I cannot recall. It just did and he inquired when it was getting checked out. It was then the excuses started to run the gamut. Denial, again, took the front seat. It wasn't for another couple of weeks while on the phone with my sister that I mentioned it. Short of calling me stupid -- she phrased it much more lovingly -- she insisted I call my doctor when we got off the phone. I did. They were closed. Another week passed. I called again. They were closed for a holiday!

In a slightly humorous status update on Facebook the remark was made that it sucked having a boob lump and the doctor's office always seemed closed and since I was displeased with my gynecologist, inquiry was posed if anyone have a recommendation. My niece, a nurse, messaged me. She had recently changed Ob/Gyn. She gave me the number. I called. Within a week I was at the office being examined.

Fast forward to today. Two weeks after the examination.

Mammogram. Easy peasy. A tad uncomfortable, but nothing to cry about. My breasts felt like paninis. The technician was kind and listened to me nervously ramble. She escorted me back to the little room. She told me not to get dressed in case the radiologist wanted to move me to ultrasound. Ten or fifteen minutes later she returned to tell me that the ultrasound tech would be coming to get me shortly. Within a minute, a petite technician took me to another room. With instruction to lie on my back I joked about my breasts sliding into my armpits. Humor is the best medicine. Well, for me it is a nervous tick. Either laugh or watch me cry.

The ultrasound. Ouch. A great deal of time was spent rooting around my right breast. It was certainly a 7 on the discomfort rating -- 10 being the worst. Imagine burying your knuckles into bread dough. That is what she was doing with the ultrasound wand. I thought, "If there is a lump she just disintegrated it." About 10 or 40 minutes later she completed that side. It was grueling. The time dragged. On to the left.

Holy shitake!!! That ghastly wand was being mashed directly into the lump. It hurt. Lamaze breathing enacted. My eyes welled up. She asked if I was ok then added that she doesn't realize how hard she's pushing to get the image. Yeah. She was fairly new, I would later learn. Ow! It seemed to be eons by the time she stopped.  That was an 11.

Once the ultrasound goo was wiped off I was once again advised to not get dressed. The radiologist would review the images and come in to discuss his findings. After 45 minutes and a couple apologies for making me wait, he came in. Within moments I was told he saw a couple curious lumps on the right breast and, of course, the left. While my head was spinning I struggled to stay focused on what the next step would be. "Blah blah lump yada yada biopsy. yakety smakety breast nurse will be in to talk to you." and he was gone. Before I go on, I know now that a second set of ears is required for these visits.

I fought tears as I put my clothes back on in the lavatory. Upon exiting, the nurse had come in the outer room. I sat down. She was instantly compassionate. She described what the biopsy would entail. It's like the one I had at 19. She said she'd be with me. Not just at the biopsy but through each step. She gave me her number and invited me to call her whenever I wanted to.

Again, I broke down and cried. I talked about my fears and frustration for not acting more swiftly. I shared that I am a single mom and my son needs me. She embraced me. Tears flowed again. She understood how it is hard to stop the mind from jumping to the worst case scenarios. "Don't worry about what you didn't do. You're here now. We'll get through this no matter what."

Because my wait to speak to the radiologist was long they gave me a coupon for a free treat at the cafe'. It seems a little unusual, but who am I to turn down a free latte or iced coffee?

Upon leaving the outpatient office, I made a bee-line to the cafe'. The young man working behind the counter, Aaron, greeted me pleasantly. Immediately, I felt engaged. Not being one who typically speaks with strangers, this barista and I chattered away. He fixed me an iced caramel macchiato. During the preparation we talked about coffee and the best brews. We both agreed Starbucks is wildly overrated and kind of yucky on its own. His creation was delightfully refreshing. I congratulated him on making me an iced coffee that tasted like espresso with a touch of cream, sugar and caramel. So many iced coffees taste like sugared milk with barely a hint of java. Before parting company I complimented him on his people skills and our conversation had hit the spot, as well as, the delicious coffee. He shared that he understands never knowing the circumstances people are at the hospital and he hopes to make a difference in their experience. I assured him he'd positively impacted mine. We shook hands and I left.

The wind had been knocked out of me. I sat in my car texting my sister, friends, my niece the nurse. Within that time my son texted me to let me know he'd finished his algebra final at the college. On the drive there I thought about how to present him with the findings. I do not keep things from him. He took in the information. Mancub doesn't usually react immediately to such things. He allows the information to mull in his mind. Later on we'll talk more in depth as necessary.

So, if you dare to come along on this breastacular adventure, I will be documenting it here. Feel free to share my posts with someone who might need a nudge to get a mammogram. It is my goal to be a positive influence no matter what direction this path takes me.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Mama Mary

Oh dear me! This week has been a smack in the head emotionally. Mother's Day is often such a struggle for me. On one hand, I am ecstatic to have a son who loves and respects me. He fills me with so much pride. On the other hand, losing my own mother in 1981causes me such emotional turmoil from time to time. Not often, but when it strikes it strikes hard.

The other day on Facebook I shared that my final memory of my mother was that in the hospital where she spent her last days. She was ravaged with cancer and in dire pain even with pain medication. Toward the very end I wasn't permitted to visit her. However, the time I was allowed in her room she had pushed me away after I hugged her because I was hurting her. It isn't the memory I want to hold on to, but it is there. As her last child, the youngest of eight, there's no doubt she had her reasons. My siblings have assured me, while it wasn't what I wanted, it is what our mother felt was best for me ... or her. It can't be changed now, but I can control those memories I choose to focus on. Typically, I do. It is just this year the scar seemed to be torn open. Recent circumstances refreshed that ancient wound.

So, how do I turn this around?

Mary C. Rapier loved to sing. She sang beautifully and filled our home with song. The song that has stuck in my head was this little diddy:

And this one:

Neither of these are probably what you were expecting. Mom sang in a barbershop choir, too. I'll be damned if I can remember one of those songs at the moment, though.

My mother taught me many things. Self preservation, for one. Survival on a nearly non-existent budget is another. I learned how to sew out of necessity. While I don't want to live without a lot of things, because of her survival skills I know that we can.

She bestowed upon me the knowledge that a house doesn't have to be spotless to be clean or healthy. Hand-me-downs are totally acceptable and should be appreciated (My entire home is furnished with such items but you wouldn't know that except that I told you.)

Mary C. instilled in us not only respect for ourselves, but respect for others. She was a human rights activist and feminist without advertising it. Having the label wasn't required. She lived by the very rules she preached -- without being preachy.

Once, I overheard her telling a friend a pearl of wisdom and it has been engrained in my DNA since. "A woman should be able to dress how ever she chooses and not be attacked or raped." That statement was made by my mother in the 70s. Another thing I remember hearing was her talking to one of my brothers about being mindful of how they treat girls. "Think of how you want your sisters to be treated. That is how you treat other women."

I didn't have a lot of years with my mom, but she has left her legacy with me. For that, I am eternally grateful.

Mom didn't love being photographed.
This was taken at my 8th Grade Graduation 1979
I have few photos of us together. I cherish this even if my glasses are huge.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

My Son

As Mother's Day 2014 quickly approaches, it occurred to me that I haven't blogged in a very long time.

My son aka Mancub, is nearly 20 years old. Just the fact that I still refer to him on the blog as Mancub tells you that I'm still quite protective. When I stop quickly in the car I still fling my right arm in front of his chest. You know, the original safety restraint.

Every year he gives me the same thing on Mother's Day. Nothing. If I remind him what day it is, he'll wish me a happy Mother's Day and go on about his business of playing video games or sorting through his YuGiOH! cards.

Wait. Before your eyes get lodged in your skull from rolling them, let me clarify that I'm not complaining.

Every single day of the year my kid celebrates me. As I said earlier, he's nearly 20 years old. One of the first things he does when he sees me after waking is gives me a hug. He wants to. Whenever I leave for work, or he gets out of the car to go to classes at the college he declares that he loves me. He says it in public!  Within minutes of me coming in the door after work he always asks, "How was your day?" He genuinely wants to know.

Mancub works diligently to do well in college. He spends hours working on essays, projects, etc...

He asks for very little. He can sense when I'm stressed out. He does the dishes without asking. Dinner is often made for me. He'll refill my glass with ice water or wine if the occasion calls for it. Without a grumble or groan he simply does it.

There've been many times when I wasn't sure how we'd make it from paycheck to paycheck. Now that he is older I share with him some of strains we face financially. To that he will embrace me and say, "we always find a way." And he is right.

When tomorrow comes and I don't post pictures of the gifts that have been given to me, just know it is because gratitude, compassion, thoughtfulness and respect just can't be photographed. They are being lived.

Happy Mother's day!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Glitter on the highway...

...glitter on the mattress...

Not so fast, cowboy!!

The other night the snow was falling as I drove home from work. The temperature was below 15°F. The flakes were small, but not pellet like. Going the speed limit on I-57 wasn't optional. There was no rush to get home because the headlights shining on the freshly fallen snow was magical. Wet, big flakes don't have the same sparkle quality of the colder snow. If you live in a region where it snows you will understand.

Don't laugh.

For once in my life it seemed as if the roads were paved with glitter just for me.

Shut up. I said don't laugh.

When you're a woman like me, you have to find moments that make you feel exquisitely special. Those moments often have to be created in the mind. If only it could have been captured in a photo.

The snow causes the world to hush. I loathe the cold, but snow brings with it something so ... comforting.

At last my path was lined with glitter. I took it as a sign from the universe that this new year will be spark-tacular!

OK, you're right. That was corny. I'm corny.

The road is paved in glitter and leads right to my door.

Feelin' a new attitude

Hello, 2014! Welcome to my life. You bring with you the promise of clean pages on which to write. I won't leave the old chapters behind, but it is time for a new book to be written. A new saga in a series.

In general, grand resolutions aren't made in the house of Riss. However, seeing it as a marker for a new start suits me. Making promises and not keeping them seems foolish. Why not adopt something that will bring enlightenment and joy? As I said in yesterday's post, I am ready to take a chance again. Throw some caution to the wind and let my heart soar instead of being sore.

Who's with me? Anybody wanna jump on the new attitude train? I was going to say the Riss-train, but that would some how be turned into a perverse notion and the next thing you know invitations to partake in a human centipede would arrive. Yeesh.

As part of my new attitude campaign, the look of this blog has changed. It is a tad spiffier and spruced up. We've parted ways with the definitive lines. Curly Qs have taken up residence. Do you like it? I do.