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An Update on Frank and Nancy

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Do you remember Man of Science, Man of Faith, a story about my friends Frank and Nancy?

Frank was diagnosed with a recurrence of his cancer last month.  He was given 3 months to live.

It hasn’t been a month yet.

Three weeks ago, Frank and Nancy were still kind of hopeful.  Even I am not quite sure what I mean by this.  Maybe just that they believed Frank had some good time left and that he would surpass the three month expiration date he’d been given?

Exactly three weeks ago (a couple of days after learning about Frank’s updated diagnosis), I stood in my kitchen chopping vegetables and browning chicken for homemade chicken soup.  I was making it for Frank.   When the people I care about are sick and I feel helpless, I am compelled to make chicken soup and bring food.  I certainly felt helpless when I heard about Frank’s stomach metastasis, so out came the big soup pot.

A few hours later, when the soup was finished and packaged in big, blue glass bowls, I walked next door to Frank and Nancy’s house.  I dragged my husband along so he could deliver the large bag of organic fruits and vegetables I had picked up at the grocery store for Frank and Nancy.

I knew that Nancy would understand my response to her husband’s illness.  I knew this because she has showed up on my doorstep with food a number of times since my diagnosis.

Nancy accepted the big red bag full of produce.  But she did not want me to leave the soup.  She said that three families from her church had dropped off three different kinds of soup that weekend.

I insisted that Nancy keep the soup.  I said that they didn’t need to eat it, but that I had made it just for them, so they could freeze it or toss it, but I wanted them to have it.  I needed them to accept it.  I’m usually not this forceful, so I surprised myself with my insistence.  But they had to take it, for my sake, because I had to help in some small way.

A couple of hours later, Nancy called me to tell me that she hadn’t wanted to say anything, but Frank was only eating soft foods.  She said that he had tried the other soups but couldn’t eat them (or didn’t want to).  She told me that he tried mine and enjoyed it, including the soft vegetables and mushrooms it contained.  She said that he had even managed to finish a bowl.  She was so happy that she had to call.  And I was so touched that I felt a hard lump develop in my throat.

So two weeks ago when Nancy said that the soup was gone and she asked me to make more, I was delighted.  I was just getting over pneumonia and was so tired that it took me most of the day (with rests in between!), but I was honored that Nancy had asked.

This time I decided to roast a whole chicken.  I stood in the kitchen dressing the chicken, thinking about poor Frank and Nancy.  As I placed rosemary sprigs and a freshly cut lemon into the chicken, I recalled that day two summers ago.  Nancy had arranged a surprise 50th birthday party for Frank.  As I rubbed the herbed butter I had just made onto the chicken and under it’s breast skin, I remember how excited Nancy was.  She wanted everything to be perfect.

Nancy even went so far as to plan the party in a large and lovely space in the new town hall building — in another town a half hour away.  She didn’t want him to suspect.  She told Frank that the party he was going to was a graduation party for a girl they knew.

I was now chopping vegetables, placing them in the roasting pan beneath the chicken, and dousing them with olive oil and salt and pepper.

When Frank walked into the party room, we were all there.  His closest family and friends.  Nancy had even flown Frank’s brother and sister in from out of state.  So when he walked in and saw the fake graduation girl and noticed his own friends and family behind her, I think he was just as shocked as when everyone shouted “Surprise!”

I opened the oven and slid the roasting pan in.  It was time to start working on the soup now.

Frank was clearly surprised.  So surprised and touched that he wept.  Frank is a very tall man, so to see this tall man with a commanding presence stop in his tracks and begin crying was a moving sight.

I filled a large pot with water, chicken stock and salt and pepper, and I began washing and chopping more vegetables.

It was a great day filled with smiling and laughter.  Genuine happiness.  Nancy had done a beautiful thing for Frank.  Though she didn’t have a lot of money to spend, she made the party seem like she had a large budget to work with.  She worked hard on this day and she asked people to pitch in where they could.  She knew it was an important day.

It would come to be more important than she ever could have realized.

I gently dropped vegetables into the pot and added a touch of olive oil and seasoning to the stock.  Soon I would take the golden brown chicken from the oven and add juicy chunks of chicken and tender, roasted vegetables to the stockpot.  And then I would walk next door to Frank and Nancy’s house with my pot and with the hope that Frank would be able to eat my humble offering.

That was two weeks ago.

One week ago, Nancy said that Frank was now only able to drink the broth.

And things got progressively worse this week.  I remember hearing the distress in Nancy’s voice whenever we talked.  She was tired from worry and from caring for Frank around the clock.

And when Frank and Nancy’s son came over in need of a ride to school on a couple of the mornings (because he had missed the bus so he could help his mom take care of his dad), he was noticeably quiet.

Nancy was having trouble keeping Frank hydrated.  She was using a syringe to wet his lips and mouth.  I took Pedialyte popsicles over so she could melt them down and replenish some of his electrolytes.  But we knew they wouldn’t make that much of a difference.

Despite her vigilance, Frank had also developed a bedsore.  Nancy said that the nurses had’t been caring for it, so I took a special cream over that would help to soothe it and form a barrier.  But I was afraid that it would get infected and I knew that it must be causing pain.

Early Thursday morning, the phone rang when it was still dark outside.  It was Nancy.  She said that Frank was unresponsive and that he had wet himself.  I tried to conceal how upset I was to hear this, but it was no use.  I talked to Nancy for a little while and told her I would bring some adult diapers over.  They had given me these when I was hospitalized for my hysterectomy last year and had been hemorrhaging and pads were not enough.  I was sad when I realized that I had no idea back then that they would be going to Frank.

Frank came around again that morning and was able to talk to Nancy and his kids, but I knew that these things were signs that he would be gone soon.  My guess was that day.  Frank and Nancy’s son came over for a ride to school after he helped his mom clean and diaper his dad.  He was visibly shaken.  It was heartbreaking.  He is a good kid and a good son.  I was upset that he had to experience this.  His prom was the next night and instead of worrying about what kind of corsage to get his date like his friends, he was worrying about losing his father to cancer.

The day went on and night came.  At 2 a.m., the phone rang.  I knew it was Nancy.  I picked up the phone and heard a small voice on the other end.  It was Nancy telling me that Frank had just passed.  She sounded both upset and relieved.  His pain had ended and his suffering was over.

Cancer claimed another life.

Frank was just 51.  He is survived by his loving wife, son, daughter, brand new (5-month-old) granddaughter, and a large group of friends and family who loved him.

Man of Science, Man of Faith

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If you were a Lost fan and saw every episode (as I did), you might recall an episode titled “Man of Science, Man of Faith,” (S2, E1).

It was the first episode of season 2 and the episode where Jack, a surgeon, meets his future wife.  She is brought into the E.R. after a devastating car accident that leaves her paralyzed.  Jack plans to operate but tells her that the possibility of regaining function is almost nonexistent.  Jack’s father, a senior surgeon, witnesses this exchange and chastises his son for squelching his patient’s hope.  Jack barks that her spine is crushed and that any hope he’d be giving her would be false hope.  He performs the surgery to the best of his ability, but she is so damaged that he believes she is still paralyzed and that he was unable to fix her.  When he goes back to apologize and tell her she will never have feeling below her waist, she begins wiggling her toes.  Jack, who was previously only a man of science, realizes that science and faith merged to create a miracle.

My friend Nancy has known about my cancer since the beginning.  She watched me barely make it through harsh chemos.  She visited when I was giving myself daily injections of Neupogen as my white blood cell counts plummeted.  She came to say goodbye on the eves of major surgeries.  She brought dinners over to feed my children when I had I.V. bags full of fluid running into the Powerport in my chest and was vomiting so much that I could barely hold my head up.

She watched me spiral downward into a deep well of cancer.  And then she watched me slowly claw my way up to the surface again.

And somewhere in the midst of this, she came to my door with both fear and hope in her eyes.  She told me that her husband, Frank, had something show up on his CAT scan.

I knew that Frank’s hadn’t been feeling well.  I knew that he didn’t look well.  And when I last saw him, the yellow tint in his eyes did not go unnoticed.

She said that he was scheduled for surgery, but that God was good and that he would be fine.

As you may have guessed, Nancy is very religious and is outwardly so.  She has no qualms about sharing her beliefs.

Nor does she have any trouble with telling others to have hope and faith.  She has done this with me many times since my diagnosis.  She has even gone so far as to tell me in a roundabout way that when I am not doing well, it is because I am not trusting in God and not being faithful enough.

It is always a difficult thing for me to hear, especially during the times when I have felt my worst.  I’d be lying if I said the idea that I am responsible for the cancer for any reason is a tough pill to swallow.

But I listen and nod my head because I know Nancy is not saying these things to hurt my feelings.  I know she says them because her faith is so strong that she can’t see these situations from any other angle.

Frank’s surgery revealed a small tumor.  It was malignant.  They also found a small amount of cancer in one lymph node.  The good news was that the surgeon managed to get clean margins.

I was noticeably concerned, but Nancy reminded me that God is good and that the cancer was small and her husband would be fine.

Frank is a doctor and a man of the cloth.  Frank is both a man of science and a man of faith.  Usually.

When Frank started chemo, Nancy did her best to make healthy foods that Frank could tolerate.  She took care of him and they prayed together regularly.  They both had faith that everything would be fine.

Frank had a really difficult time with chemo and eventually decided that he’d had enough because it was making him so sick.  They repeated his scans and everything looked good.  So they both said “God is good” and made the decision to stop the chemo.  Frank was so sick from the chemo that he and Nancy thought it wasn’t worth continuing, especially when his scans were good and he had God protecting him.

I was reeling over this decision.  I insisted that Frank should continue to pray, but that he should also consider finishing the chemo.  I repeated that he would be horribly sick during chemo, but that he would feel better when it ended.  I said that it would be worth it in the end because it would give him the best shot at life.  I pleaded with them then — and many times since.

But they insisted that they were going to let God take care of it.  He didn’t need the harsh chemo.  He just needed to be faithful.

So time passed.  His scans were still good.  I insisted that he go back and finish, though.  But my friends told me that it wasn’t worth the side effects and that God was healing him.

And then he didn’t feel well.  He was having trouble eating.  He didn’t look good.  He was losing weight.

A few weeks later, Nancy said Frank had collapsed and they were going to the hospital for dehydration.  It was the second time in a month.

I suggested that she look into home I.V. hydration so he could avoid these hospital stays.  And I also pleaded with her to reconsider the chemo decision.  She said that it wasn’t open for discussion.  Frank did not want to get sicker with chemo and she wasn’t going to push it.  She still insisted that he would be fine.

He had to go back into the hospital last week.  Again for dehydration.  But this time the scan revealed something.  But she didn’t tell me about it.

She called tonight during dinner.  She asked about the times when I had home hydration because the hospital was giving her a hard time.  They told her that he would need to enroll in hospice and sign a DNR before they would start home I.V. hydration and was this what I had to do?

I told her that it wasn’t at all.  I signed a few forms at the Cancer Center and then a few more when the delivery truck and my nurse showed up at the door.  But it wasn’t hospice related.  And there was no DNR to sign.

The conversation haunted me.  Then I learned that Frank was no longer going upstairs.  Nancy was giving him sponge baths in the living room.  And a hospital bed had just been delivered.

I was sick to my stomach because I had been through this with loved ones before and I knew what it meant.

Nancy said that the latest scan revealed that the cancer had metastasized to his stomach.  That he has 3 months to live.  3 months.

They are scared.  And rightfully so.

And my heart aches for them because I love them both and I don’t want this disease to take Nancy’s husband.

I do believe in God and I do believe in the power of prayer.  But I also believe that modern medicine exists for a reason.

I  wish they could have found a way to balance medicine and faith.  I wish he had finished the chemo.  And I’m sure they do, too.

 

Palliative Care at 30-Something. What Does it Mean?

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Palliative Care Integration Model
Image Credit: University of Alabama School of Medicine

If you’re like me (until fairly recently, anyway), when you hear the words “Palliative Care,” you think HOSPICE.

Hospice is a scary word in the cancer world.  At least that’s been my experience.  In Cancerland, nothing comes after hospice.  That’s it.  Game over.

So when you are a 30-something-year-old and you hear your oncologist tell you that she wants you to see a Palliative Care specialist, your heart might skip a beat.  I know mine did.

For me, I think it is because I was there as my grandparents went through cancer and treatments and eventually ended up on their deathbeds.  I was there when hospice began for them.  And the fact that the start of hospice coincided with the start of their palliative care was not lost on me.  So it’s only natural for me to associate one with the other, right?

Things were different years ago.  My grandmother suffered with her shiny bald head marked with surgery scars and radiation tattoos and burns from the treatment for her brain cancer.  She suffered with no relief until her poor shiny, wounded head lost its luster.  She suffered until hospice started.

The hospice folks came into her home, set up a hospital bed in the dining room, and they began her palliative care, finally, with some heavy duty drugs.  But she suffered until that point.  And even afterward because the pain control wasn’t great.  It was almost a relief when she slipped into a coma and finally died because it was so painful to watch her suffer and to hear her moan in her sleep when we knew that all hope was lost.

My grandfather’s scenario was different.  I’ve blocked out the length of time he actually suffered with lung cancer.  I was there, so I should know.  But it is too difficult to remember how long the cancer actually took to kill him.

What was different about his experience?  When he was ready for hospice, they didn’t come to us.  We moved him to a hospice.  This was where his palliative care began.

But it only lasted for a day.  We moved him to the lovely hospice home, they started him on morphine and gave me special swabs to keep his cracked lips moist.  The volunteers were warm and comforting and did their best to keep my grandfather pain free.  He died that night.

So it’s likely that my ideas about palliative care and hospice are rooted in my experiences.  I learned that palliative care was end-of-life care. But this is not true.  At least not anymore. So what is it, exactly?

From the Cancer Center’s brochure:  

Palliative Care is medical care focused on relief of the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness.  The goal is to help people live comfortably and to provide the best possible quality of life for patients.

Patients struggling with the uncertainty of serious illness need comprehensive care and support.  They need to know they aren’t alone.

What Can You Expect from Palliative Care?

  • Relief from distressing symptoms such as pain, shortness of breath, fatigue, loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping
  • Improved ability to carry on with your life
  • Improved ability to tolerate medical treatment
  • Better understanding of your medical condition and medical choices

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Doesn’t sound so bad.  Sounds good, actually.  So I’m far less apprehensive (and maybe a little excited?) about my appointment at 8:30 this morning.  And I feel pretty lucky to be going to the Cancer Center at the best hospital in our area to meet with a specialist on their team.  Of course I’d feel luckier to not be 30-something and in need of their services, but I’ll take what I can get at this point.

I will let you know how it goes…  Though Percocet (Oxycodone) has been a faithful friend for a long while now, I’m hoping there might be something that works a little/lot better — and that’s less liver toxic — in my future.

We shall see…  Good night…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Resolved — In Memory of Julie

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Julie (left) & Me

I missed last week’s photo challenge, but when I saw this week’s topic, I had to pull out my old photo albums.

The photos you see here embody my New Year’s resolution for 2013.  What is it?

***To appreciate that life is sometimes too short — and to fulfill some of my bucket list wishes.***

The photos I’ve chosen are from a defining point in my life.  Why was this little window of time, this blip in my life, so special that I feel the need to highlight it here?

Because the girl in the photos with me is my friend Julie.  She was one of my very best friends growing up.  I loved her like a sister.  We laughed together, cried together and reached many a milestone together.

These photos of Julie and me are from a once-in-a-lifetime trip we took together.  I know, I know, people say “once-in-a-lifetime” but they don’t always know that for sure.  Sometimes they just say this to be dramatic.

But I am saying it because I know it is true.  I know that Julie and I will never take another trip together.  In fact, we will never laugh or cry or meet another milestone together again.  Ever.

Because Julie is dead.  She was killed in a car accident 5 years ago when we were just 31.

It still takes my breath away when I remember that she is really gone, but I often find myself smiling as I think of the time we spent together.

Though Julie’s death was tragic and horribly sad, her life was the opposite.  Julie exuded warmth and beauty.  She was positive and sweet and lived her life to the fullest.  She was courageous and didn’t let anything stand in her way…

…including me.  You see, I didn’t want to go on that trip.  I had never done anything like that before.  I wasn’t adventurous.  I didn’t think I deserved the opportunity to get on a plane.

It was about a month before our high school graduation when Julie proposed the idea.  Her exchange student for our senior year, now like our new sister, would be returning home to Mexico just after graduation.  What if we went to Mexico to stay with her over the summer?

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I was not the adventurous type and I opted to stay home and work until we started college in August.  Plus, I needed to be home to help care for my little sisters.  And I had never done anything just for me before.  How could I start with something so drastic?  No, I would not go.

But it wasn’t really up to me.  Julie would not listen to my protests.  She jokingly threatened to unfriend me (we had been very good friends since we were kids) if I didn’t commit to going.  She said she knew what was best for me (and I admit that she often did).  So, on one of the many evenings I spent at her house, she made a final plea.  Again I refused.  We were munching on her delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies when she picked up the phone and called the airline (this was before you could use the internet to book your tickets).  She pretended to be me and booked my tickets while I stood in her kitchen.  Though I halfheartedly protested and though I feigned anger, I was secretly delighted.  I knew I would enjoy this special time with Julie.  And I knew I was going to miss Judy (her exchange student), who was now a dear friend and that this was my chance to see where she lived and to say a real goodbye.

This was going to be my first real adventure, my first and last hurrah before heading off to university (20 minutes away – another story!) in the fall.

So we graduated from high school, Judy left for her home in Mexico, and we embarked on our adventure 8 days later.  Before stepping off the plane in Tucson (and driving the 4 hours across the border to our friend’s house), I had been a shy straight-A student who hung out in the teachers’ lounge after school because I could always relate better to people older than me.  Between sophomore & senior year, I took every single Advanced Placement class (and there were a lot!) our high school had to offer — and aced them all.  I was voted “Class Introvert” and could get A’s on Calculus tests without studying.  I thought A.P. Physics and Chemistry were fun.  I had been babysitting since I was eight and got my first “real” job the moment I was old enough to get a work permit.  I balanced school and mountains of homework with two afterschool/weekend jobs.  I volunteered a ton — you name a volunteer activity and Julie, jme and I signed up for it.  I had a resume filled with achievements.  I had a full scholarship to Cornell University and scholarships to a number of other prominent schools for Engineering or Biochemistry/Pre-Med waiting for me and I had every intention of continuing to be that people-pleasing, old-before-my-time nerdy girl…

I thought that maybe before college I would do something crazy like cut my long hair or start wearing lipstick.  I had no idea how this trip was going to change me.

It was an incredible 3 weeks.  Because Julie and I were staying with Judy and her family, we “lived” in the heart of a non-touristy part of Mexico where I was the only person with blondish hair for many, many miles.  We got a taste of what it was like to grow up there.  What an amazing way to see another culture.  Our many adventures included a 28 hour (total) roundtrip escapade on an old, steamy, smelly, jam-packed bus.  We were headed to see another friend (Juan–also a former exchange student) in Mazatlan.  The bus trip came complete with dirt roads, middle of the night stops by gun-toting “bandits” in the midst of nowhere, and people who were so scary that we slept in shifts because there had been a number of recent American kidnappings on buses just like ours.  As the only Americans who had probably set foot on our bus in a very long time, we figured we were targets, which made it that much more exciting for my friends (and nerve-wracking for straight-laced me).  When we stumbled off the bus, though, I realized that it was all worth it.  The area was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.  The days were amazing — swimming in the ocean, drinking pina coladas in the pool, parasailing and so much more — things I never dreamed I’d be doing.

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Julie parasailing in Mazatlan

And the nights were even more incredible.  More things I never dreamed I’d do.  All of a sudden quiet, shy me who hadn’t really dated much was dancing on tables at these gorgeous open air bars, forgetting about all of the responsibilities waiting for me back home, and getting kissed by older guys in their 20s (Mexicans & Americans alike) who could have stepped off movie sets or off the pages of GQ.

On the bus ride back to Judy’s city, I felt like a new person…  All of a sudden I had gone from being a cornerstone on the math team to someone who had 25 year-olds competing to spend a few minutes on the dance floor with her.  It was fascinating and exciting.

Our next stop was a lovely little town on the Gulf with mountains in the background.  Here we had more adventures with sangria, late-night swims, and mechanical bull-riding.  Then Julie’s older brother (who was in a band & lived in San Francisco) asked us to take a couple of days out of our Mexican adventure to come to see him.  Julie hadn’t seen her brother in a while and she had a huge crush on his roommate, so it was a quick yes from her.  All we had to do was drive to San Diego & he’d have tickets waiting for us at the airport.  Along the way we stopped to visit Judy’s cousins in Tecate (right next to the Tecate beer factory) for another wonderful night filled with yummy food & drinks and happy people.  No matter where we went (with the exception of on that bus to/from Mazatlan), I never heard a word of complaint or saw a frown.  Regardless of what everyone did or didn’t have, the people we met/lived with were warm, welcoming, generous, and positive.

Even the drive up to the U.S. was an adventure.  And then we were off to San Francisco, a place I had always wanted to visit.  We didn’t do anything too exciting, but even a trip to the grocery store was fun with Julie.  And, as it happened, the roommate guy she had a crush on actually “liked” me.  Julie was very gracious about it and happily let me have my moment with him.  He was 25 and an engineer on a big naval ship — the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.  Though he was quite handsome, he was nerdy like me & we were instantly drawn to each other.  It was odd for me to realize that I had spent my teenage years feeling awkward and burying my nose in books — and all I had to do was take my hair out of my ponytail and throw a pair of jeans on (and talk to people 7 or 8 years older than me!) and voila…  Eric and I stayed up all night every night talking.  And then we all spent the days together seeing the sights.  It was a total departure from the “me” I knew, someone who had only had a few high school boys show any interest in her.  [Eric continued to send letters & call me (and my mother!) for years after this trip.]

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Julie in Spain — wasn’t she lovely?
(I didn’t take this photo — I never made it there)

Before I knew it, Julie, Judy & I were flying back down to San Diego and driving back into Mexico…  And shortly afterward, we made the long trek back to Arizona to catch our plane.  Judy’s family had a condo near the airport, so we spent one last night there — the 3 of us girls — laughing, talking & drinking more sangria in the hot tub (I hadn’t even been in a hot tub (or a condo for that matter!) before).  It was a wonderful way to end our trip.

That summer was — and remains — the best of my life.  After that I started college as a new person.  Still the old nerdy straight-A student who loved math on the inside, but with a new look and a newfound confidence on the outside.  I was always so grateful to Julie for that and so many things.

That trip was the last time I saw Judy… Until 5 years ago — for Julie’s funeral.  Julie was killed by a drunk driver in Spain, a country she loved so much.  The special young man she loved survived, but he was seriously injured — and he had lost the love of his life right before his eyes.  I was no stranger to loss or tragedy, but this was beyond anything I could wrap my mind around.  When jme, who had grown up with Julie from the age of 3, phoned to tell me what had happened, it was an absolutely heartbreaking call.  Jme got on a plane to come back home from Seattle.  And Judy flew from Mexico to stay at my house so we could be together to bury our dear friend…

Though her life was short, Julie’s impact was great.  She made everyone feel special and she touched lives here and across the Atlantic in deep and lasting ways.  The world was a far better place because she was in it.

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Julie (rt.) and me
Early morning somewhere in Sonora, Mexico

So, this year I resolve to be more like Julie.  I resolve to check some things off my bucket list (and to make a bucket list).  I resolve to just “go for it” more.  I resolve to work on living my life to the fullest (I’m sure it will take me a while to get there, but I vow to work on it).  And I plan to honor her memory by trying to find and nurture the little light that she saw inside of me when we were just girls on the edge of new beginnings.

In Memory of Beautiful Julie – 1976 – 2007

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Resolved

If you would like to participate in The Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge:

The Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge

Weekly Photo Challenge: Resolved

$50 Straws AND How Cancer Changes Everything

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A different day. A different place. In a less hospitally-looking reclining chair at the Cancer Center.

This will probably seem like an odd post, but I’m going to present a snippet of my afternoon from two different perspectives for no other reason than “just because.”  Thanks for indulging me.

Scenario 1:

Across the room, a girl sits in a recliner with a small table beside her.  She is sipping a large cup of tea.  The tea bag tag dangles gently over the edge of her cup. The girl stares off into the distance and a smile crosses her lips.  What is she thinking about?  Perhaps she is remembering a lover from her college days?  Maybe she is picturing a basket of puppies?

Wait… judging from a frame most would describe as thin and a belly that is unmistakably large and rounded, it’s clear that she must be pregnant — she must be thinking of the baby growing in her womb.  Yes.

Her eyes light up as she thinks of the “baby duckling yellow” paint color she and her husband chose for the baby’s room this morning.  “It’s not too masculine, not too feminine, and it will be easy to paint over if we decide to change it when the baby gets a bit older.”  She bites her lip as she wonders how she is going to wait for the next three months to meet her new baby.  She has slipped her calendar out of her purse and is making a list of baby names now.  It’s the same list she and her husband have been coming up with every night before bed.  But she thinks she might have a revelation and “the one” might pop into her head today.

She continues her list.

She is mostly alone as she relaxes in the large open room filled with beds and curtains and chairs just like hers.  Mostly.  She has a number of visitors over the course of the next hour.  Each one stops by to chat briefly with her.  She laughs and talks with them individually.  And then her visitors move on, one by one.

She continues to sip on her unusually large cup of hot tea. Her final visitor is dressed in white and bears the name of her grandmother.  Her hands are full, but with what?  It’s hard to say.  The visitor dressed in white sits across from the girl and then leans toward her for an unusually long time.  She holds what looks like a long, shiny pin or needle in her hand.  Odd.  But when she stands up to walk away, her hands are empty and she and the girl are both smiling.  She now has something pinned to her chest — a flower perhaps?

Just as her name is called she looks at her list.  She is clearly pleased with her accomplishment and is excited to share this new name with her husband.  It was her grandmother’s name.

She slides gracefully out of the chair (well, as gracefully as a pregnant woman can) to meet the woman who beckoned her.  They walk happily down the hall together and slip into a room nearby.  The door closes behind them.

When they emerge, they are smiling and walking again.  The girl is stroking her belly, as if to comfort the baby inside.  She returns to her chair as the lady in white brings her a cocktail with one of those cute little paper umbrellas poking out from the rim of the glass. She relaxes for a bit longer before rising from her comfy chair, bidding adieu to her friends and walking out to greet her waiting husband.

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cancer in my thirties cancerinmythirties.wordpress.com breast cancer 30s cartoon

Cartoon Credit: chibird.tumblr.com

Scenario 2:

I am sitting in a large, sterile room.  Across the way, I see a girl…or a woman, really.  She looks biologically young, but I can tell she has been weathered by experience.  Something tells me that she probably still thinks of herself as a girl in the quiet morning hours when everyone else is asleep.  So I will indulge her and call her “a girl.”  It’s the least I can do.

The woman, uh, girl, is sitting in a reclining hospital chair.  Beside her is a small table where alcohol swabs and some medical paraphernalia sit. She holds a large, lidded Styrofoam cup, the largest one I have ever seen, in her hands.  Dangling on the side of the cup I see a tea bag tag.  She looks at the bit of wisdom the tag has to dispense, rolls her eyes, and takes a sip from her straw.  Odd that she is drinking hot tea through a straw.  Maybe she’s one of those women who don’t want to stain their teeth so they drink their tea and coffee through straws?

Just then a nurse walks over to her and asks her to sign a form stating that she understands the risk of drinking this tea.  WTF?

Well, it’s not your average tea.  It’s tea that has been infused with a radiocontrast agent.  Is it radioactive tea?

The girl stares off into the distance and a smile crosses her lips.  She is thinking of a sandy beach in a warm place far away.  “If this is more cancer,” she thinks, “I am moving to that beach.”

She puts her hand on her protruding belly and secretly hopes one of the nurses will ask her if she is pregnant when she signs the next consent form.  It’s an odd thing to hope for, almost masochistic, really.  She pictures what she would say in response to the question.  “Of course I’m not pregnant.  I’ve been gutted.  Every part that makes me a woman (except the “V” one) has been stolen from me.  I am empty inside.  Dead inside.  And, oh, this?  It’s edema.  My belly is swollen with fluid.  No baby.  I’m here to see if it’s cancer in here, not a baby.  My fate was sealed at 33 when those lumps in my breast were written off as nothing.”

Of course no one asks her if she is pregnant.  They all know the answer.  They all know why she is here.

And she wouldn’t have the guts to say what’s on her mind, anyway.  She wouldn’t want to hurt or bewilder anyone.  She wouldn’t want to ruin anyone’s day.  So she thinks about what she would really say.  “Nope, just fluid.”

She snaps out of her daydream when a second nurse asks to see the port in her chest.  They’ll need it later.

She slips her calendar out of her purse and tries to recall the appointments she has scheduled for next week.  Her fuzzy chemobrain has made it impossible for her to remember much these days.  She soon finds herself drawing seagulls and starfish in the margins.  “Oh, to have my toes in the sand right now and to be anywhere other than here,” she dreams.

She shifts gears and makes a list of everything she needs to do when she leaves.  Her 3rd graders — twin boys — will be waiting for her.  It will be dinnertime.

She is mostly alone as she sits in the large open hospital room filled with curtains on tracks and not rods, hospital beds and hospital reclining chairs just like hers.  Mostly alone.  A number of nurses stop over to check on her progress with “the drink” or to ask her to sign a form.  She smiles and makes small talk with each of them.  And then her visitors move on, one by one.  She continues to sip on her unusually large cup of hot tea.  Through a straw.   That’s probably so she doesn’t spill the giant cup of lukewarm possibly radioactive tea on herself.

Her final visitor is dressed in white and bears the name of her long deceased grandmother.  Nancy.  Her Nanna was one of her most favorite people in the world.  She watched her die a painful death from cancer when she was 8 through 9 years old. “My kids are 8, too,” she thinks.

The nurse sets up a tray with everything she needs to access the girl’s port.

She holds a long shiny needle and asks if the girl likes to hold her breath or if she applied the EMLA cream in advance to make it hurt less.

The girl laughs, “No, no need.  Just go ahead.”  She has been poked and cut so many times it’s not even funny.

The needle punctures her upper right chest skin and enters her port.  Now they will be able to push the intravenous radiocontrast agent through her chest.

The nurse dresses her port with a tegaderm and gauze.  With the little yellow butterfly clip sticking against the transparent tegaderm, it almost looks as though the girl has a flower pinned to her chest.  An ugly flower, but a flower nonetheless.

Just as her name is called, she looks at her list.  She is already tired, but smiles at the thought of being able to sit down with her kids when she is done.

She drags her body from the chair to meet the woman who beckoned her.  They walk quietly down the hall together and slip into a room nearby.  The door closes behind them.

When they emerge, they are smiling faint smiles and walking again.  The girl is doing that thing she does — looking dizzy and as though she is going to hit the deck.  She strokes her sore belly.  The nurse asks her to lie down until she feels better and says that people who receive the contrast through their ports need to wait 10 minutes for observation before they can leave anyway.  The nurse brings the girl a drink.  This time it’s plain cola.  Nothing added.  The nurse puts a bendy straw in the Coke.  The straw wrapper bears the name of a famous medical supplier.  “Yikes, a straw from a medical company!  It probably cost $50,” she thinks.

When her 10 minutes is up, she is so ready to leave that she walks out in her disposable drawstring hospital pants and stuffs her slacks in her bag.  It’s time to go home.

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So I was sitting in one of those recliner-type hospital chairs drinking oral contrast in preparation for my CT scan when I started thinking about perspective.  Of course the “girl” above is me…

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Oh No, I’ve Been Robbed! Did Cancer Steal My Compassion?

cancer in my thirties young 30s hospital

Cartoon by Robert and Donna Trussel http://donnatrussell.com/cancer-cartoons/

So I spent Thursday night through Friday morning in the E.R. with one of my sons.  I was reluctant to go in, but his 106.2 degree fever and listlessness made it necessary.  Though no one likes the emergency room, I have a developed a particular and overwhelming distaste for the whole hospital scene.  And, sadly, this hospital overnight prompted me to realize how “jaded” I’ve become when it comes to the severity of symptoms and illnesses in general.  Call it another side effect of being a cancer patient.

What I am afraid to admit out loud — and even really hesitant to share in this, my somewhat anonymous blog, is that I am beginning to wonder if cancer is interfering with my ability to be the kind of parent and person I want to be (and the kind of parent/person I used to be).

While procedures and blood draws and surgeries and medications and side effects and…(well, you get the picture) have become the norm for me, they are not the norm for everyone.  And, fortunately, they are not the norm for my children.  But I sometimes lose sight of the fact that everyone hasn’t spent what amounts to months (when you add up all of my time as an inpatient and outpatient since my cancer diagnosis in April 2010) in hospitals and cancer centers for surgeries, life-threatening infections, chemo, radiation, appointments, monoclonal antibody infusions, port blood draws, tests and procedures.  Or that not everyone is waiting to find out if that lesion in their brain is malignant or if their liver function and lab values are so poor because the cancer may have metastasized to a vital organ.

cancerinmythirties.wordpress.com breast cancer thirties 30s funny medical cartoons I see my new perspective reflected in my everyday life.  Someone will tell me about a symptom they’re experiencing or about their cold or papercut and I try to be supportive and kind.  In my mind, though, I sometimes find myself wandering off to thoughts of how upsetting it might be for them if they had to have their breasts cut off and their lymph nodes dug out, if they faced each day with a constant headache, if they had to manage life with lymphedema, or if they lived their lives with unrelenting neuropathy (a leftover gem from the chemo) that gets so bad that it interferes with their ability to concentrate/type/hold a glass.

Or when I hear a pregnant woman my age talking about heartburn or swollen ankles and I am consoling on the outside, but inside I am thinking about how the large masses in my pelvis and ovaries prompted two painful surgeries and the loss of what remained of all but one of my female parts (in case you are wondering, it rhymes with bagina).  And then I drift off to a mental picture of the baby girl I will never get to hold in my arms because:

a.) You need a uterus to have a baby — and ovaries and Fallopian tubes and a cervix lend something to the process, too.  But all of these things filled my gynecologic oncologist’s specimen jars and were sent off to a lab and probably a garbage bin somewhere.

b.) Who would allow someone with my medical history to adopt a baby?  As much as I would love to be here to raise a new little baby, let’s face it, I am clearly a flight risk.

I thought of a “c”.

c.)  I know surrogacy has gained popularity.  But that’s not even an option for me because my eggs were stolen.  Okay, they weren’t stolen.  But it feels like they were.

And I have that heartburn and those swollen ankles (and legs), too.  Two years of chemo and Herceptin messed up my kidneys and made edema a big problem for me.  And I have my dusty bottle of Nexium for my acid reflux disease, but I stopped taking it because I take so many pills that I’d rather look at those pretty purple capsules than ingest them.

cancerinmythirties.wordpress.com breast cancer thirties 30s funny medical cartoons

Cartoon Credit: Robert & Donna Trussel
http://donnatrussell.com/cancer-cartoons/

The bottom line is, even though I want to feel sorry for you because you have a cold, inside I am dreaming of what it would be like if a runny nose and congestion were my biggest medical problems.  Not so deep down I am wishing I could just take some NyQuil, hop into bed, and wake up the next day and be all better.

This is NOT me.  This is NOT who I am.  I am was a kind and thoughtful person before cancer left my spirit beaten and bruised.  Even if I felt like I like was dying, I would put your illness ahead of mine.  I would comfort and take care of you.  I would ask what I could do to be there for YOU.  Even if I had just had surgery myself, I would gladly and altruistically chop vegetables and brown chicken for your homemade chicken soup.  And I would do it without a second thought.

Though my ovaries weren’t technically stolen, I feel like the deeply compassionate person I used to be was.

While this isn’t great news for most of the people in my life, it is worse news for my twin 3rd graders.  I fear that there will come a time when I devalue their medical experiences, their illnesses, their scrapes and bruises, their throat cultures and their trips to the doctor for a flu shot or a blood draw, or the sessions with the nebulizer to that help with their asthma.  And that’s just not good.

cancerinmythirties@yahoo.com breast cancer thirties 30s mom hugging roo baby hysterectomy death dyingSo I am trying my best to undo some of what the cancer has done.  I am making a conscious effort to put the severity of some of my experiences aside to look at things as they are for other people and to avoid comparisons.  I am trying to give my boys the special hugs they need for their scraped knees and to talk them through their fears of having blood drawn or shots given.  And, as was the case this week, I am putting my own exhaustion and pain and sickness aside (as much as I can, anyway) to care for these boys who need me.  Case in point — even though my brain shouted, “Don’t do it!” because I am leukopenic and neutropenic, I climbed into my son’s hospital bed to cuddle with him because he was worried about what was going to happen to him… While I can’t guarantee that it always will, my heart won this time.

I am really trying to do what counts for my kids.  But I may still look at you with envy when you tell me you have a cold.

*Special thanks to Donna & Robert Trussell for allowing me to use their fantastic cartoons*

what my 8~year old son has to say…

One of my sons asked if he could post something on my blog.  He wrote the title and what follows here all by himself!

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breast cancer mom kids boys mattie dog lymphedema mastectomy

From my 8-year-old son:

Cancer is a jerk of course every one nows.

my mom has CANCER  its bad because my mom can not do that much stuff.

I WANT TO DOODOO on cancer  🙂

I HATE IT I HATE IT I HATE IT.

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