The Chemo Aftermath

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I got through my first chemo. Fortunately, I didn’t have to deal with the side effect mentioned above (side note: these cards are from the amazingly talented Emily McDowell. She created a line of Empathy cards specifically for cancer patients. Please check her out). In fact, I made out pretty well the first couple days. Tuesday and Wednesday were pretty good, thanks to Steroids in my pre-meds (pre-meds are medications given before the chemo that help to eliminate and/or reduce side effects of the chemo).

Thursday was a different story. I had the flu-like symptoms I was warned I might have. My fever topped out at somewhere 103.4, staying in the high 102s Thursday and most of Friday. By Saturday morning, my fever had broken, and while I was still experiencing chills, sweats, and body aches, I was able to attend a very special meeting via live stream.  I’m hugely relieved about that.

Hopefully this flu-type side effect will improve with each dose of chemo, but for this week, I expect Monday-Wednesday to be pretty good, and then to be down for the count from Thursday through Saturday. Knowing what to expect is more than half the battle. It helps me to schedule chores around the house early in the week with the Steroids kicked in, and then to be able to rest without feeling like I’ve accomplished nothing.

It may seem silly to read that I would be worried about chores or about accomplishing things, but trust me. Chemo makes a patient feel useless enough — she doesn’t need her self-imposed guilt to get out of control. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not steam cleaning my curtains or scrubbing my floors each week, but making sure the bathrooms get cleaned gives me some control over my out-of-control life.

I’d like to give a shout-out to one of my dearest friends — I’ve known her since I was about my son’s age. Our relationship grew out of writing and we now each have a blog. Stop on over at her blog Stand Up and Live Your Life. I am honored to be the subject of her most recent post, and I encourage you to read more.

I don’t know what this week will bring along with it, but if I can find humor in it, it will be shared. Thank you so much for the prayers, cards, flowers, texts, messages, and posts. I read each and every one, even if I don’t respond. I am making every effort to respond to each of you, so please bear with me.

xoxo

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The Girls are Coming Back

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Let me begin by talking about this girl — Irma. We are in the path. We are evacuating to Tennessee, renting a house in the mountains. We were in Matthew’s path last year and were evacuated for about a full week. Matthew was a category 2. Irma is projected to be a 3. We saw damage with Matthew, and we expect damage with Irma, too.  Last year, I wasn’t as concerned … our home wasn’t near water or trees, and it was a townhouse. This time around, it’s different. We bought a home this April — a single family home with lots of trees and marsh across the street. I’m trying not to freak out.

Irma is not one of the “girls” I am referring to in the post title. But since many of my readers know my general location, I thought I’d go ahead and let y’all know that we are planning to evacuate and where. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Tennessee! That seems awfully far,” Tennessee was as close as we could get. If you consider that pretty much the entire state of Florida must evacuate, plus coastal Georgia, and coastal South Carolina, it seems easier to comprehend

Anyway, to explain the “girls” that are coming back …

I am getting my DIEP Flap surgery on November 28th! 

That’s right! I’m getting the breast reconstruction that I have really always wanted to get! Initially, we went with the simpler implant reconstruction because the recovery is easier, but I was very unhappy with the results. Once the left implant had been removed, I decided to pursue the DIEP flap procedure.

We all know that health insurance can be a blessing and a curse, and this case was no different. I qualified for a Medicaid program which meant low copays and very little out-of-pocket. It also meant that surgeons who perform this procedure don’t work with Medicaid (surgery cost far outweighs Medicaid’s payout). In the meantime, my husband received a significant raise which bumped us out of the income qualifications for Medicaid. Long story short, I’m now on a BCBS plan that will cover the surgery (but means more out-of-pocket cost for us).

With the new insurance in place, I immediately called the surgical practice and got in on Tuesday. Fortunately, it looks like I am an excellent candidate! The earliest availability is the date of my surgery. I am over the moon.

Some of you may be wondering what the DIEP Flap procedure is. I’ll explain as much as I understand. Don’t ask me what DIEP stands for, though, because I can’t remember. Basically, they take the fat and tissue from my tummy and use it to form new breast mounds. It is at least a two-part surgery. The first one is the major one. The second (and any others) are to fine-tune and smooth out my breasts and stomach.

Some things you might be thinking:

  • Hey, I’ve got some fat I could donate! Thank you, but that’s not the way it works. Plus, I have plenty of my own.
  • Does this mean you get a tummy tuck? Yeah, pretty much!
  • How long will you be in the hospital? Four nights
  • Why is this surgery better? Um, see points one and two. Plus they will look more natural and be closer to my original size. I may even regain some feeling that I lost with the initial reconstruction.
  • What is recovery like? I’ll be up walking the day after surgery. I will probably be a little stooped over at first. The most difficult thing will probably be “T-Rex” arms. I will not be allowed to reach for anything or lift my arms higher than 45 degrees for a while. I will have drains, but only about a week up top and three weeks in my tummy. I can drive after all the drains are out.

Feel free to ask me any other questions about it! Also if you have had similar surgeries, please give me any tips and suggestions you might have.

In the coming months, I will be trying to strengthen my core, lose some weight, and get into an exercise routine. These things will help with my recovery and my post-surgical appearance. With the “forced vacation” evacuation, I hope to work on a healthier routine.

I am happy to report that 40 is treating me well so far. I was able to add some medications to my antidepressant regimen, and the difference is fairly dramatic. I have more energy and less anxiety. Everyday activities and chores no longer feel like mountainous treks; rather I find myself regularly checking off my to-dos with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. It is a huge relief to me to be feeling more like myself.

Work is fun and exciting. My self-esteem is still suffering, but with the knowledge of my surgery coming up, I am feeling a little less self-conscious. And also more motivated to get some exercise in and to eat better.

Thanks so much for sticking with me and continuing to read. I’m sure I’ll have more to write about soon!

xoxo

Life Beyond Cancer?

This post has been months in the making. It has been rolling around in my brain — in my conscious and subconscious — but I’ve had difficulty converting it to coherent thoughts and words. This is my sixth attempt.

Here are facts I can state. I developed Lymphedema in my left arm. It presented at first with purple skin, and then the arm became slightly swollen. We ruled out a blood clot before determining that it was indeed lymphedema. Treatment involved wrapping the arm in about five layers of cotton, foam, and bandages for three weeks. Now I wear a compression sleeve and gauntlet (covering the wrist, thumb, and palm; but no fingers). I am still supposed to wrap it overnight. We will see how that goes.

I am waiting to find out when and where I will have my next surgery. Being on Medicaid limits my options as far as surgeons go. I may need to travel anywhere from one to six hours to find a doctor who will work with me. I am hoping to qualify for the DIEP FLAP procedure. It is a long and complicated surgery; hence the reluctance of many surgeons to work with Medicaid. Medicaid just doesn’t pay well.

I turn 40 tomorrow.

Those are the facts I can relate. After that, things get swirly and blurred. This cancer-free life is not at all what I expected, and my emotions ebb and flow like a stormy sea. It doesn’t help that tomorrow is an age-related milestone.

The lyrics to this song have been on repeat in my head lately. Some days I feel others’ pain intensely, to the point of tears. But when it comes to me, I flatline. Nothing. No joy or  melancholy. No frustration or contentment. Just a big empty space. It’s like I am hollow; that if you really look into my eyes you’ll see resignation, exhaustion, or maybe nothing at all.

Trust me, I know that I am still recovering from the physical trauma of cancer treatment. My energy is building, but it isn’t great — and it may never get better. Side effects, like lymphedema and infertility are realities that will not go away. Other effects, like early menopause are physically and mentally exhausting. But these are realities that I can learn to live with.

What people in the cancer community don’t really talk about, though, is post-cancer depression. Some studies say that as many as 25% of cancer survivors suffer from low mood and/or depression. In fact, some experts compare these weeks, months, even years with grief. Not in the sense that the survivor is mourning the end of cancer treatment; but feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness sometimes flood the brain after hearing the “all-clear.”

For instance, turning 40. On the one hand, I look at what I have accomplished in my 30s. I became a mother (technically I was 29, but it took until I was 30 to really get into a routine). I became a business owner (we’re about to celebrate our 10th anniversary). I grew spiritually, celebrated anniversaries (17 years and counting!), and watched my son navigate his way through the early school years.

On the other hand, I look at the hardships and difficulties from the last 10 years. I had a miscarriage. My Psoriatic Arthritis came back (it went into remission during pregnancy and the first few years of his life) with a vengeance. I had allergic reactions due to medications, and a stay in the Psych ward from a medically-induced manic state. I had three surgeries. A death in the family. I lost my best friend, and I nearly ruined my relationship with my parents.

I GOT CANCER.

Forty is just an age. It’s still closer to one than to a hundred. It’s also even more time for the cancer to return. That’s what think of on bad days. Some days, these lyrics could be about me (not romantically, of course).

The frustrating thing about chemotherapy is the longer-term side effects. The memory impairment. The lack of concentration. These last months, years, or never go away. So it takes an immense amount of energy to focus, to be motivated, to care about things.

I used to love adult coloring to relieve my stress and to make me feel better. Now the thought of starting a page is so overwhelming that I haven’t tried in more than a year. Trying to pick which color pencil to start with is a monumental task.

While I was going through chemo, I took great pride in doing my makeup, choosing my outfit, and making myself as “pretty” as possible. These days, I don’t even want to shower. And I won’t go into the impact cancer — breast cancer — has on one’s self image.

Fortunately, I am quite sick of my wallowing. So I am trying to fake it till I make it. Many days, this has worked. I’ve taken on a new project at work. I try to engage more with my husband and my son. I check in with family and friends.

It’s a work in progress. I am going to talk to the doctor about adjusting my antidepressant. I will try to exercise more. But it is a fight, and sometimes I lose the battle. I’ve learned that I can succumb for a little bit — maybe even a day — because it’s OK to acknowledge the anxiety, worry, and anger, that comes with cancer, or even with our daily lives.

I also realize that allowing myself to feel and explore these negatives emotions needs a time limit, or the hills grow rapidly into mountains I cannot imagine climbing. Recognizing this seems like an accomplishment in itself.

Not much will change tomorrow. I’ll still be a mom and a wife and a business owner. A daughter, a sister, and hopefully a friend. Maybe I will be a little more grateful. A little more compassionate. I’ll listen to my son’s imaginary super heroes with a little more patience. Look at my husband and pay attention to what he is saying; pulling myself away from whatever I was doing. Maybe I will look up from my phone and look at creation with a little more awe and appreciation.

Cancer is life-changing. The key, I think, is to listen to what the experience teaches. To be present. To be loving, compassionate, and kind. To help others when it’s inconvenient for us. To be thankful to God for life and the strong body that helped me fight and beat cancer. To be happy and content with what and who I have in my life.

xoxo

 

An Argument Over Popcorn

I have a nine-year-old son. He’s brilliant. Like, let’s-practice-algebra-for-fun brilliant. Like he already corrects people’s grammar and pronunciation (and not always so diplomatically; he gets it from me). He seriously is gifted.

But he’s also very much a nine-year-old boy. One minute, we are discussing Algebra or the definition of some complicated word that I’m surprised he can pronounce, and the next minute he’s asking me which Angry Bird I want to be. Our conversations can go from stimulating to mind-numbing at the turn of a dime.

This afternoon, he asked me if he could have popcorn for his afternoon snack (He just learned how to use the microwave*, so he’s very excited to use it). I said, “Sure. Can you make me some, too?”

Kid: Ugggghhhhhhh It will take too long…

Me: Nevermind. Just get your own. I’ll get mine later.

Kid: (goes into kitchen and comes back). Here! I have special popcorn for you! (hands me a bag of cheddar popcorn).

Me: I don’t want this popcorn.

Kid: But you said you wanted popcorn!

Me: I do. But I don’t want the cheddar popcorn. I want the other one.

Kid: (dramatic audible sigh). I don’t get it. You said you wanted popcorn, so why don’t you want that popcorn?

… At what age does my husband explain to him the fine details of the woman’s arbitrary choices? When do we teach him that a large part of his adult life in a relationship with a woman will consist of guessing what she wants when she wants it?

I texted my husband that the kid was arguing with me. Being the problem-solving man that he is, he gave me suggestions on how to reason with him. I texted back, “He just doesn’t understand the feminine mystique.” Enough said.**

xo

*No, I do not wish to hear about the dangerous chemicals found in microwave popcorn, nor do I wish to receive criticism for feeding my son the dreaded microwave popcorn. It isn’t the point of the post, and if you don’t get that, please stop reading my blog.

**No, I do not care to discuss feminism and the meaning behind the term “feminine mystique.” I am a strong woman who is proud of who I am. I also know that women can be a little crazy sometimes.