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