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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wow. What now?

I'm speechless. Almost...

Remember this anxious person?
I can't believe I'm now on the other side of all this.Today I finished the last of the three big hurdles:
Surgery. Chemo. Radiation.
To celebrate, I hoped to post a video clip of Will Ferrell in the beginning of Kicking and Screaming. He's got big hair circa 1970 and wears a thick sweatband and short shorts. He's jumping over these hurdles and he's knocking every one of them down, but he charges on, however awkward and idiotic he looks, which I thought was a good metaphor for my experience.

But since I couldn't find that clip, I'm posting this other gripping excerpt from the same movie. (It reminds me of my husband on a bad day in Starbucks ).

So what now? I'm told that people tend to have a hard time after treatment...that the feeling is like walking off the side of a cliff and free falling. A friend who'd had that experience sent me the book After Breast Cancer by Hester Hill Schnipper (fun name to say five times fast). Looks good, but haven't read it yet because I'm not totally done. I still have a mini-hurdle called Herceptin to finish. Herceptin isn't a bad deal, however. Herceptin has no side effects. Herceptin is like a heat seeking missile targeting those bad ass HER2 positive cancer cells (thanks to my 7 year old for helping me think of my treatments in weaponry and video game terms).

Herceptin is also a major breakthrough, and hopefully works well. Herceptin means I remain safe in the womb a little bit longer, going to Oncology every three weeks, which to be honest, is kind of nice. Particularly if my treatments are on Thursdays, when Lauren* the massage therapist is there to rub my feet. Last time I also met Ginger*, a 60-something-looking volunteer manning the beverage cart.  She struck up a conversation with me, asking me about my family, my cancer, my work. I told her I was a writer and she seemed genuinely interested. She asked me what I'd written, if and where I'd been published, and  I wasn't hating talking about any of this, ya know what I mean writer friends?  I told her I had nine more radiation treatments to go, but I'd be back here, to Oncology, for a good few months. She said, "Well, I'll be here. I'm 83..." (this is where I cut her off, saying, "No way Ginger! You look 20 years younger!") and I have all sorts of aches and pains, but I'm healthy. I come here to volunteer, but also to keep things in perspective."
Yeah, me too.
*Names are made up not to protect the innocent but because I'm still working on my name remembering skills...she did look like Ginger from Gilligan's Island, however

This morning, when my nurse handed me my radiation discharge papers, she offered me the same survivor poem that she gave me the day of the breakdown/breakthrough. I reminded her that I already had one
 "Maybe you want another for your car?" She asked.
"One's good," I said.
With or without a poem, I know things are different now. But I fear anything I write right now
about how I've changed and what I've learned thus far will make me sound like a cliche. Like the skin around my right breast, everything is still so raw (ick. sorry.). And as any writer worth her own salt knows, best not to poke around in there too much when the experience is still so very fresh.

But one thing I will say is this: I'm high on life today. I love everybody and everything. The squirrels in my backyard: I love you guys! The slow drivers on route 3: I love you too! My family and friends and old ladies on the street, and the color of the leaves, and the lady who sold me my muffin this morning (although she was kind of gloomy but I love her anyway). I love the radiator in my living room, the person who invented hydrocortisone cream, and my shoes.

I'm so very joyful that someone really needs to smack me.

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Layperson's Guide to Radiation (featuring partial nudie photo!)

Although I've had many people ask me in person 'what is radiation actually like?' I have to yet write about it any sort of detail beyond my radiation "breakthrough."

Thankfully, only 4 more days remain...and Wednesday was my last day of whole boob radiation.* The next few  days they will target only my surgical scar in a process called a boost, and the rest of my skin will be spared (although I'm told my skin will continue to disintegrate for about five to ten days, as the effects are cumulative). I'm very thankful that the whole boob radiation part is over because my skin is pretty fried right now, particularly the skin under my right armpit, which is the color of your worst sunburn minus any pleasant day at the beach beforehand. I'm tempted to walk around with my right arm up in the air at all times but then people might keep calling on me for answers and I'd never get any work done.
*whole boob radiation is NOT the technical term.

So before these days are completely behind me (yay!) I've put together this Layperson's Guide for anyone needing breast radiation. As for them other body parts, ask your doctor:

  • When you arrive stamp your parking ticket first, and do it correctly. This is important because otherwise you will get stuck at the parking gate trying to get out and looking like an idiot.
  • Then change into your rose-pink, thankfully easy-to tie-gown (some of those hospital gowns are a bitch!). Say sorry every time the changing room door slams shut behind you  because it's very loud and everyone in the waiting area will turn around and look at you.
  • Join those in the waiting room watching The Queen Latifah show. Say a quick "Good Morning" to anyone you make eye contact with. Talk to the woman sitting next to you about her horrible hot flashes and feel thankful you do not yet have hot flashes. Overhear the conversation a few chairs over between the young man escorting his elderly father (who reminds you of your own father) and a middle-aged woman. Hear the young man say, "Yes, I bring him here every day. It's hard, but he was a really good father to me..." and feel thankful, again, for good human beings.
  • When your name is called, walk with the technician down to the radiation room. Enter the darkened room and witness a machine that resembles a cross between some sort of CT scan machine, and the table aliens place you on when you are abducted. Have the technician ask you to lie down on the "couch" and stare at the metal "couch" in front of you thinking "that ain't no f'ing couch."  

Not a couch (and not me)

  • Do what you're told. Lie down on the "couch". Slip your right arm out of your  robe to let it all hang out. Lie back and put your arms up above your head. Keep your head turned toward the left.
  • Surrender as the technicians move the couch around with a remote control and write on your chest and boob with a permanent marker. Listen as they speak in numbers: 92, 75, 23, (Hike!) Wonder why they became radiation technicians. Was it because they loved science? Or math? Or  writing on bodies with permanent marker? Or football? Debate asking them, but don't so you can get out of here faster.
  • When the machine is ready and they leave the room, try to imagine you are lying on the beach. Then notice the image in the ceiling panel above you is of an icy looking mountain. This is the scene you will see every day for six and a half weeks. Ask them to turn off the overhead fan and wish you had gotten the  room with the beach view instead.
  • Listen for the beeping noise that tells you radiation is about to begin. Notice the red laser light across the wall and ceiling and across your boob. Think of Dr. Evil and how you'd like to watch Austin Powers again some time. Listen for the buzzing noise to start, and then maybe 30 or seconds or so later, go off. 

  • After two "treatments" like this, prepare mentally for the bolus. The first time they mention that they will put a "bolus" on your boob to protect the skin, recall your 10th grade science teacher Mrs. Lobdell and imagine they are going to put a mass of chewed up food on your body.
    Feel thankful when they pull out a sheet of fake skin with the consistency of one of those Boo Boo Buddy ice packs. Gasp when they put it on your body as it's soooo cold. Accept their apologies and check with them every appointment thereafter to make sure they wrap it in a warm blanket before placing on your skin. They do. (actually, not all breast cancer patients get the bolus. I  grew to like it. Found it soothing on the skin....)
  • After two zaps with the bolus on (did I mention that you really don't feel anything during radiation - except arm fatigue some days), wait for the last buzz to announce the end of your session and then put your arms down. Wait for the technicians to come back in and lower "the couch" and then discreetly pull your gown back up over your right arm and around your body. Thank the technicians and say "see you tomorrow." Wish you could better remember their names. Try to look at the blonde woman's name tag but it's turned the other way. It's been six weeks. You should know the names of these good people. Note to yourself to try again tomorrow. Note to get better at remembering names, period.
  • Go home and smear Gene's Cream or Aquaphor or hydrocortisone cream over your damaged skin. The next morning, remember to wash the permanent marker off or they will think you don't shower (some days, you don't). Try not to accidentally shave your right armpit. I did it once while in a trance, didn't die, but bad idea as it increases your risk of infection. Put deodorant on your left armpit, corn starch on the right, but be very careful with the corn starch! It can explode all over your bathroom and cleaning it up is a bitch. Put on your comfy clothes, including the fashionable Genie Bra you bought at Bed, Bath and Beyond (Sorry, no more underwire ladies...and toward the end you will likely be wearing no bra), a cotton t-shirt and a baseball cap and go do it all over again the next day, and the next, and the next, until it's over.
And yes, my friends, it will be over. Sooner than you think.

I wrote this post before I went to my first boosting appointment yesterday. The technicians went crazy drawing football plays on my skin. I finally asked them, So what brings one to this line of work? Were you math or science people in high school? Or into football? (They thought my football joke was funny - then showed me a whole notebook of drawings that looked like football plays, now to include my own ) Anyway, the overall response was physics, which I got a D in senior year in high school (my only D ever might I add), which means I'll never be a radiation tech. But I'm extremely thankful they exist.

Football Play
My Skin. (I think I'm onto something here...)