A recipe for living with cancer.

Posts tagged ‘life’

But I Look Fantastic!

Cancer is the gift that keeps on giving, daily.  I was hoping to place Cancer into my memory files and only think/worry about it during annual exams or checkups for minor issues; this has been far from the truth.  I never liked the term survivor, never believed in the term cured and certainly don’t feel like a role model or hero, and Cancer haunts me everyday.  Every morning I obediently take my aromatase inhibitor pill to prevent any estrogen left in this body from growing and reeking havoc.  It is a teeny tiny pill, but one that is uncoated.  Therefore it has a terrible bitter taste when it hits your tongue and I try every which way to get it down without getting that small burst of yuck.  A simple reminder, but still a reminder, but I was otherwise getting into a better place with my Cancer.  And no matter who I run into, they all say I look fantastic!

Then 8 weeks ago my right hand and arm swelled.  I called the Dr.s office in full panic mode wanting to get an LDex immediately.  This is a revolutionary little machine that measures the fluid in both arms and can diagnose Lymphedema at a subclinical level, which is where you want to catch it if you are to get it. They wouldn’t see me until I went to my PCP and she could rule out a blood clot and/or an infection and if I had neither of those then I could come in for a measurement.  This test (totally non invasive and takes 2 minutes) costs $200 each time and most insurance companies do not cover the cost, luckily UPMC insurance does.  I have had 6 of these measurements with a baseline from before any surgery or therapy to after surgeries and today.  Most women, the 35-45% who get lymphedema, may not even know about this test, can’t afford it if insurance doesn’t cover it and will end up with clinical lymphedema, which is painful and requires more treatments than subclinical.

I digress, my PCP found no clot evidence or infection in my right arm and sent me for a “just to be sure” Doppler to show no clot.  Long story short, my right arm was fine but when they did the Doppler on the left for comparison, lo and behold I had a clot in my jugular- probably provoked by my 11 hour reconstruction surgery.  No pain, no symptoms, it is what is called an incidental finding.  What followed — appointments, phone calls with my PCP, Hematologists (yes plural) and arguments with Tom on what course of action to take — he wanted me to take a baby aspirin a day and forget about it.   Final answer:  anticoagulation therapy for three months to be safe… Lovenox shots twice a day (shots of heparin which I had to give myself in the stomach) for three and a half weeks, plus Coumadin daily dosing until I got to the INR number they wanted and, this is the really fun part, blood tests every other day during four weeks until they get my dosage right. I am down to 2 blood tests a week. When I am done, then I get to go on baby aspirin for the rest of my life.  I’ve gotten to know the ladies really well at the blood bank…nice women, Mom would be happy, I’ve brought them homemade cookies!

So while enmeshed in this incidental finding I put off the Lymphedema issue…until today when I went to see the Lymphedema specialist.  The previous 5 LDex tests I have been 100% normal, no fluid, the numbers and I looked fantastic.  My arm has been bothering me, aches, a bit sore and stiff, but I am getting old and these things happen.  Going in this morning that little voice in my head whispered…you don’t have Lymphedema you are just nuts and besides you look fantastic! That same little voice told me I had breast cancer when I found the lump and it also told me I was making a huge mistake doing the reconstruction surgery.  Confusing huh, I am through with that little voice.

So you guessed it I now have been diagnosed with subclinical Lymphedema.  This is where you want to be if you get it…but now the chance of filing Cancer away and not thinking about it every single day is pretty much impossible.  Look, I am still blessed, I am still alive, I still look FANTASTIC, and I probably still have Cancer in some cell hiding out somewhere in my body.  Will this change what I can and cannot do…unfortunately in some areas dramatically.  I now have to do PT, learn to massage my arm, (so does Tom to help) go through some very easy – painless- laser treatments on a scar to try and release the pressure it is putting on my lymph nodes (3 weeks every other day- 8 weeks off- then three more weeks) and wear a compression sleeve  (and possibly gauntlet/glove) every day for the rest of my life.  I cannot: pick up anything over 10lbs. (groceries I don’t care about but my grandkids…), shovel snow, suggested I wear gloves when I do everything, be really mindful when I cook and bake, if I get a cut and it gets red I must immediately call the doc and go on antibiotics and try to raise my arm every hour or so to help drainage, and try not to make myself crazy worrying about it.  This is all to keep it at the subclinical level.

I laughed after the appointment, because that is exactly how it went…10 minutes of what I need to do, what I can’t do and then she said, “but don’t make yourself crazy.”  Really???

Then I got a tad depressed and wanted to eat a bacon cheeseburger, which I am going to do for dinner.  As I have aged and gone through this, I have begun to better understand life and death. I can now understand why my Mom wanted to die after my Dad did.  Why my saying, “but don’t you want to live for your kids and grandkids and great grandkids?” made little difference to her.  She’d been married and dependent on my Dad for 60 years and when he died a large part of her died as well.  I can better understand why my friend Linda gave up living because the illnesses and treatments just got to be too much, to hard, to painful and to limiting.

I am positive and ready to conquer whatever is put in front of me 95% of the time, but today I waivered, I came out of the office charged with being proactive, obedient, and diligent, body aware, new rules of what I can and cannot do  and all those other things for the rest of my life.  You know what I mean, some nights I just want to go to bed and not: exercise (90% of the time I don’t) wash my face, floss, brush, put on hand cream, take my pills and let the dog out.  Now I’ll need to add massage my nodes.

I guess I am complaining, feeling a bit sorry for myself knowing it could be way worse, not wanting to have lymphedema as bad as my Mom and as luck would have it Tom flew out of town so I am having my own private pity party.  It seems every time he goes out of town something else medical comes up for me.  I’ll be fine, it’s just another bump in the road and there are two companies that make outrageous compression sleeves, wild colors and patterns.  I will continue to look fantastic!

Gamblers, Heros and Survivors

How can you understand what chemo therapy is like unless you’ve gone through it? After lots of time to think about this and still more to come I’ve come up with an equivalent that might ring true to people lucky enough not to experience it.

Think about the worst illness you’ve ever had, lets say a really bad flu that lasted a week and when you thought you were better you had a relapse.  The aches, the fever, the chills, the vomiting, etc, not being able to eat, light bothers you, you can’t read or watch TV, you just want to curl up in a ball and have it over with.  Then even when you are done you feel weak, washed out and want to sleep for another week.  OK have I set the stage?  Now think of that illness and realize that once every three weeks for a total of 8 times, you have to go through it again.  You have no choice, you know exactly the day it will start, you know exactly how bad you will feel and you know there is nothing you can do to stop it.  Add to that the knowledge that each time it will take a day or two longer to recover and you may get another symptom, like an infection and you need to add a stomach wrenching antibiotic, or your nail beds will turn black, or your hair will fall out, or your mouth will be full of sores and even though you may want to eat you cannot.

This is what chemo patients are given, a schedule of pain, discomfort and hardships and as many tools as possible to deal.  I have never before understood the bravery of all chemo patients, the intestinal fortitude it takes to go through this, the sheer will to know exactly what horror to expect, and to continue to sit down in that chair with a smile without screaming “what am I doing here” and running out the door.  I am just starting to feel better today and one of my first thoughts this morning, a week from Thursday I have to do it again.

Each man and woman who consciously makes the decision to sit down in that chair every two or three weeks and expose themselves to the hardships involved is a hero. Those who have gone before and those who come after, all heros.   The word survivor is aptly applied to those who have fought this battle successfully and hero should be used for all those who have fought.  Now I don’t feel like a hero, but I now look around that infusion room at the women in all those chairs who are on infusion 7 or 3 or 5, they are all my heros, if they can do it, so can I.

When we get a diagnosis of cancer we all become gamblers.  We all take a gamble, we play the odds when we get chemotherapy, some of us get better odds than others, certain cancers have better outcomes than others.   I am a gambler every three weeks when I sit down in that chair and allow a stranger to put things into my body that I know full well will hurt me as well as help me.  I am gambling that the help part outweighs the hurt.  I hope to win this bet and become a survivor and then become a hero to those who follow after me in that chair.  The hardest part of this bet…I have wagered  my life.

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