Friday, December 10, 2010

Day 218: It's All Over but the Shoutin'

This day has finally come, and it feels so anti-climatic in a way. For months when someone asked Gabe how he was doing, he would say, ask me in mid-December, or ask me in January. And now here we are, December 10. Shouldn’t there be fireworks? When you see me walking down the street, shouldn’t I have that glow like pregnant women do? Shouldn’t I get something, some kind of a prize? I guess not, since there’s no guarantee I won’t be doing all of this again at some point. And all of this was a hell of a lot, and I realize now I was so anxious to get it done that I didn’t give myself any breaks. I found something strange in my breast and went to the doctor the next morning. He told me he was 99% sure it was nothing but gave me an ultrasound order just in case, and told me I could wait to have it done. Six days later I went in for the ultrasound that ultimately turned into a core biopsy and a cancer diagnosis the next day. A month after diagnosis—the earliest date possible—I had surgery; 19 days later I had surgery again; 2 weeks after that I started chemo and 8 days after chemo ended I started radiation. No rest for the weary, right? I wouldn't change a thing though, as I ended just in time--it's been cold and snowy here already, and we are set for single digit high temperatures next week after a big storm this weekend. I'm so glad I won't have to go out every morning to burn myself in that weather.

I actually did get something today—the ladies who did my radiation cheered for me and blew bubbles, as they always do when someone “graduates.” I really liked the people who did my radiation, and it’s a little strange that I won’t be seeing them every day anymore. It’s like some kind of Stockholm syndrome, but the captors were actually nice people. I had the same main tech for the first 28 treatments, and the assistant was one of three different women. This last week for the boost I was in a different, colder, more sterile room (the “dungeon,” they call it) with different techs. While they were still very nice, it wasn’t the same as the women who complimented me almost every single day on my clothes or my shoes and told me stories about their kids every day for six weeks. As if I was a normal person, a woman, not a cancer patient. My main tech gave me a big hug as I left. It must be a strange job.

It’s just so hard to believe that I’m done with cancer treatment. No drugs, nothing left for me to do but wait and get mammograms all the time and wonder if every strange pain is stage IV cancer. Bubbles or no, no matter what anyone says, life doesn’t change all that much. I will still make dinner and do laundry tonight, and there will be no huge life or career changes, no trip around the world, no new love affair, not even a drumroll. But wait, what did I write a minute ago…I’m done with cancer treatment! You hear that? Done! Take that!

Maybe instead of fireworks I could be my nerdy self and do some math, take stock of the situation. I can do that in conjunction with using my least-favorite cancer metaphor of the “war” or “fight” on cancer. Back on May 4th, three small, aggressive, rare-type tumors hiding insidiously inside my lactating breast were taken on by the following:

1 core needle biopsy
3 regular breast ultrasounds
1 3D breast ultrasound
14 blood tests (at least)
1 chest X-ray
6 mammograms
1 sentinel node mapping
2 wire placements in the breast
2 surgeries (three if you count the sentinel node biopsy) under general anesthesia
8 rounds of chemotherapy via IV
6 Neulasta shots
2 Neupogen shots
2 visits to the sleep clinic
3 CT scans
5 EKGs
2 trips to the emergency room
1 48-hour hospital stay
1 echocardiogram
3 tattoos
33 rounds of radiation
19 acupuncture treatments
58 blog entries

And too many side effects, manual breast exams and over the counter and prescription drugs to mention.

I wish they had let me keep the tumors so that I could laugh at the disparity of all that needed to be done to combat some lumps that when put together were the size of maybe two pieces of popped corn.

Who won? Well, it’s hard to say. Over the last seven months I have lost the following, to varying degrees of severity, duration and permanence.

hair, mucous, sweat glands, ovarian function, fertility, menstrual cycles, sex drive, chunk of the left breast, 5 lymph nodes, a bunch of nerve endings, ability to eat, ability to sleep, nice peach color on the left side of my chest, unmarked body (damn tattoos), use of one of the veins in my hand, ability to nurse my infant son, ability to have sex without lube, youth, potentially my identity-forming hair color (is it red? Is it brown? It had BETTER be red), a few of my friends and some of my self esteem.

I have kept a lot of things as well. I have always been able to think and remember, as I never had chemo brain. Therefore, I could write this blog. Radiation hasn’t affected me in any severe way and I believe the burns will be quite temporary. I maintained my complexion, skin color (except the parts that were radiated), original body weight and overall figure. I didn’t develop neuropathy. I never looked particularly un-healthy and my energy level has remained amazingly high, if I do say so myself. I had those times in the brutal months of chemo when I felt like I was sub-human, and yet I walked almost every day for an hour. I kept most of my friends and even found that people I didn’t know that well wanted to do something to help me.

I had a ton of support, but a lot of loneliness too. A lot of living inside this still-working brain.

I kept my sense of self, and my roles in life, for the most part, though everything seemed different. I worked full-time for 5 of the 7 months of my continuous treatment, though I did telecommute at times. Seriously, when I look at the list above, I wonder how I had time to do anything but cancer. How does anyone? And yet everyone does their normal things, for the most part. I was still mom, the no-nonsense one, the one who doesn’t take shit, but I was sick mom, bald mom, somewhat scary mom, at the same time. I was still married to someone who was crazy about me, but there was distance there at times, especially during chemo when he was terrified he would get me sick if he was too close to me, and I would die. When I wasn’t in the midst of the worst parts of chemo, I cooked and cleaned, and all along I hung out with people and made jokes and tried to walk around bald like it was no big thing. I kept my sense of laziness and lack of interest in what people thought right until the bitter end. I remained the pissed off somewhat cranky person who doesn’t like to be told what to do that I have always been. I was still a daughter, sister, friend, neighbor, still a stranger. I was still me, so it seems.

And yet …and yet. Things just changed. Some things will never be the same. I’ll have this fear of recurrence, and this responsibility, to check out everything that happens to me, for the rest of my life. I’ll have the knowledge that the “rest” might not be that long. But ultimately, I think if I could choose one thing that I wish I had never lost, it would either be my old sexuality or the ability to sleep. Isn’t that funny? Not the breast, or the hair, the eyebrows (those are coming back! Along with the lashes. I’m on my way to looking halfway normal someday). Those things seem less important. You can say it’s frivolous, but I wish sex was as easy and awesome for me as it always was, because now I know what it is like for many women, and now I know how special it was, that thing that I had, and it was mine damnit, not Gabe’s or anyone else’s, and while I haven’t entirely lost it and I still function normally under the general definition, I still wish I had it back. I also have not had a decent night’s sleep since April, for various reasons. I still have hot flashes all the time (I had one during radiation this morning), and the other night I had five an hour again, and was so desperate for them to stop that I lay in bed crying. It’s possible that menopause will reverse for me and these things will come back, especially the sexuality part, but the sleep probably never will. Just as no mother ever sleeps so lightly again after her children are born, just as I have never slept soundly since breaking my hips meant lying on my side for more than a few hours would be painful, cancer makes your mind race in ways that makes sleeping soundly a challenge.

There have been things that happened that were too painful to write about in the blog at the time that they happened, though now I see them more as chronicles of what chemo does to a person than something personal that happened to me. Two things come to mind:

The first time we had sex after chemo, at my insistence since I wanted us to be normal, I vomited afterwards. It was just too much for my body to handle. I still had a high sex drive then, and the experience itself was normal too. I just felt so sick afterwards, I could barely stand. Now, I know how it touched people to read about Gabe shaving my head. At that point, we had already had some memorable times of warped emotional intimacy, as evidenced by him standing naked in the bathroom talking to me while I puked after we made love. Talk about fucked up.

Another time, I took off what I thought was a piece of food from one of my teeth while I was brushing. It was actually a big piece of my gum. I had to go to an emergency dentist visit for that one. It turned out to be fine, and the gum eventually regenerated, but I was so disgusted, I almost quit chemo right then. At those two moments, I really did feel at war with myself, that my body was rejecting itself, and that is a feeling that is almost impossible to explain to someone who hasn’t been there. I had been there before—why can’t I walk? Why did they have to call in counselors to explain to other kids about me writhing around in convulsions on the floor?—but when I was younger and I didn’t yet know that it was possible for your mind to just not accept what was happening to you.

I have accepted all this, as everyone does. Look, it’s not about strength or moxie or bravery or resilience or anything else. You aren’t given a choice so you do what you have to do—just about everyone in this situation does. But as an adult, you have this nagging sense in your mind that doesn’t accept things. When I was a kid, I just took everything in stride. I didn’t know enough of the world to know different. I looked at today, and that was it. It’s hard to do that when you’re grown, especially when so much of your sense of your own future is wrapped up in your children’s future. What do I need to do to remain as highly functional as possible? To be a good role model of a responsible parent for both my kids, to show my daughter, and hell my son too, what it REALLY means to be a woman, in spite of what society says? To take away from Gabe the difficulty of thinking about how a motherless family would look, and go through what I need to go through to make sure the kids would have what they needed if I wasn’t around? How can I be realistic without being morbid? How can I give others permission to not behave the way everyone thinks you should behave when some bullshit happens?

I look through all this and I realize why the battle metaphor is so stupid, besides the misplaced machismo wrapped up in it. Battles end. I am done with treatment—for now—and I wonder what the hell I will do with myself, but cancer is just a part of me now, and always will be, even when 2010 has come and gone. I plan to make myself write this blog at least once a week, even if no one reads it now that I’m done with the technical treatment. I still have a lot of things to say about cancer, about illness, about gender, and some of these things are things I have always wanted to say but never did because I was too busy to sit down and write about them, or because I thought no one would give a shit.

I am not going to be one of those people who says that cancer gave me a gift, and I am not going to smile about the hope and inspiration it brought into my life. Maybe I should, but that’s not me, and those words seem pretty hollow, so if people wanted to hear that I assume they stopped reading this months ago. I will say that the one thing cancer did for me was give me a reason to write about something other than economic development, payments, or predatory financial scams. It’s not that this trip was worth it. It was total crap, actually, and the trip hasn’t ended, won’t for years, assuming I have years. But remember the scene in Field of Dreams when James Earl Jones goes into the cornfield? Why does he get to go? Well, maybe it wasn’t a privilege, but he went so he could write about it, and tell other people what it was like. I don’t think for one second that I’m as cool as James Earl Jones, or that I have some great wisdom to impart, or that I have some kind of absurd cancer calling, but someone or something pushed me into the cornfield, and in order to get through the maze, I have needed to write my way out.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Okay, you'll probably think I'm stupid and sappy and all, but I'm crying for you almost as hard as I did when I first found out. Partially out of relief that you don't have to have any more treatments (let's hope that's forever) and your body can start healing, and partially out of empathy for everthing you've been through.

    Oh, and I *love* the Terence Mann reference. Nail on the head, Hon. So keep writing your way out. People will come, Tay. People will come.

  2. On a completely non-deep note, I was wondering if anyone would notice Augie lurking in the background in the last photo, trying to destroy our Christmas tree. Right after that photo was taken, we had to run over there and stop his evil plan.

  3. Congratulations, Katy-- on completing your treatment, and this phase of the journey. (okay, you may not like journey metaphors either, but that's okay!). You sure have been through a hell of a lot this year. In a twisted moment of humor, going along with your 'math' part of the blog, I could almost hear you singing that part to the song, "on the _ day of christmas..." (what is that song called?). I thank you again for your honesty. And I will keep reading because I like hearing what you have to say. You may not think you have "great wisdom to impart" or an "absurd cancer calling" but yes, you have something to write about, something you NEED to say, and that in itself is a gift, I think-- speaking as a writer, mind you, and not a cancer survivor. Anyway, I send you my love from afar-- Have a wonderful holiday and rest from this all! Oh, how good/strange/intense/anti-climactic/and so many emotions I can only imagine it must feel. Take care and keep channeling them all through with your fire and words.