breast cancer, Covid-19, Health, hope, uncertainty

Eighteen days to Brenda

I went in August 24 for a diagnostic mammogram. My radiologist suggested I go ahead and get one instead of waiting until October as my gynecologist planned. The mammogram at this hospital presented stark differences. The robes you change into aren’t a screaming, Pepto-Bismol pink, but a white soft cottony waffle weave accented with subtle thin pink piping. They’re stacked neatly waiting on you in a warming box. Divine. Here I found few deep Southern accents, but more Brooklyn, and simple pastel beach scenes or botanical wall art; you’re not coddled as much either, which surprisingly I liked. Besides, the last place brought bad news, and I am so over bad news, so I  needed a new place.

When you’ve had what I’ve had (yes, I now get to check the “history of breast cancer” box), for future mammograms, instead of going home to wait on your letter in the mail, your results are on-the-spot. It was a long wait, and after looking each other up and down for a few minutes, a woman across from me and I eventually broke our masked silence with a “What are you in for?” dialogue. Me: “I’m Stage II, 100% ER positive, post lumpectomy, chemo and radiation.” You? “I’m triple negative.” Even though no one in our predicament can determine exactly how we ended up here, we each tried our best to reveal what might have contributed, with a Forgive me for I have sinned confessional to each other. She: “I used to eat ice cream every single night.” Me: “I’ve stopped red meat and now only occasionally enjoy a glass of wine.” 

A nurse calls her, and she gets up to go hear her results. Next a man, I presume the radiologist, got me for mine. Immediately I assumed since I got the doctor, the news seemed more complicated, and complicated could spell trouble. We went to a room that was far too nice for doling out good results. He made small talk before he dove in, admitting if he didn’t know better, that I’d had a lumpectomy, my scans might have raised a red flag. Lots of them as it’s a mess in there. Not his words exactly, but with all the pins, scar tissue and density obscuring things, he seemed exhausted from wading through the scans, as if he’d just returned from war. 

I knew my left breast was a mess when back in 2000 I began breast feeding my first baby. I knew there was milk in there but, damn, quite the struggle to get it out! Always a poor producer and the plumbing seemed faulty every time I pumped or breast fed my babies. But you have to get it out of there or you’ve got a painful situation on your hands! After his initial comments about such chaotic density, the radiologist said everything looks fine. Gosh, did we really need to sit in that private room for all this? I got up and left, happy to dodge this scare. The woman who’d led me to the dressing room asked a man at the checkout desk to schedule an MRI. I asked why an MRI, since my mammogram was fine, and she mumbled something about high risk. Wait, me? I ignored my confusion and instead requested the first available appointment and to get on the cancellation list. I snagged the only one they had, four days later at 6:45am. 

I had an MRI before back when all this breast drama started up in November of 2019, but experiencing how particularly thorough this new place was gave me a reassuring level of comfort, that this hospital is sparing no detail, turning over every stone so I’ll continue to turn up “normal.” Friday came and I was up at 5 to leave by 6. It was quiet in the lobby except for a few patients waiting for their own scans. Wonder what they’re in for? Since MRIs are loud, you get headphones and your choice of music. I went for my old standby, classical. No sooner did they slide the headphones on than Pachelbel’s Canon in D began. Always floods me back to my twilight wedding, walking down that beautiful outdoor aisle passing smiling friends and luminaries along my way. The technicians worked efficiently, and I was heading home in 45 minutes. 

Busy in my kitchen later that afternoon, I got a call from my radiation oncologist. She asked, had the radiologist already called me? Uh oh, I’ve heard this kind of call before. Cut to the chase please, I thought impatiently. “Ms. Greco, the radiologist saw some areas of concern on your MRI and wants to schedule a biopsy.” First off, my brain is screaming, area(s) PLURAL? You have got to be &#$@-ing kidding me?! And then it moves on to the OF CONCERN part, concerning it its own right. I had noticed a little pea sized nodule during my daily breast massage but assumed it was just knots left behind from surgery and radiation. After radiation ended in April, the radiologist had suggested I daily massage the tissue to keep it from forming too much scar tissue, which I’ve done.

Alas, this was no dream and I was told they’d be calling soon to schedule my return for another MRI + biopsy + mammogram. Great way to start the long weekend. Ugh. I got scheduled for that following Friday, a 7am appointment, with arrival at 6:30. Another early morning, but nothing like getting it out of the way. 

Thankfully between our house renovation and chats and visits with my boys and my own endless internet research on breast nodules four months post radiation, fat necrosis, and any other topic which resembled my situation, the week ticked along fairly quickly. 

Up early again for the MRI and arrived to find another handful of people socially distanced in the waiting room. I got registered, my hospital bracelet, etc. and was escorted to the dressing room. As with the previous MRI, I had an IV inserted in my arm so they could inject a contrast dye, which improves image quality. I got my choice of music again and this time I thought, let’s change it up. I asked for something calming but not classical, and the nurse suggested nature sounds, so nature sounds it was.

My nature music started with water sounds and soon my brain went to our recent plumbing situation with camellia roots wrapped around our pipes and toilet and adjacent tub filling with water. After the plumbing fiasco (which we resolved) I moved on to stiller waters and imagined my sister and me canoeing on Lake Lanier, like we did as teenagers. Our oars cut the glassy water as we maneuvered into coves, the mature adventurers we were, now out of view from our parents we’d left behind on our sailboat docked in its slip. As I lay masked on my stomach, the doctors slid me in and out of this machine, instructing me over and over to stay completely still. I’m guessing they felt they must repeat the instruction given how much I talked at the outset, thinking surely this motor mouth wouldn’t put a lid on it and stop moving in order for them to get their work done. But as the kind nurse told me afterwards, I was a real trooper. It must have been nearly an hour that I was on that table and somehow, I didn’t move at all.

After my water music segued into crickets and other summer night insects, I noticed a little half moon shaped light below near the floor or maybe on the table I was on. It looked like the Morton salt girl’s umbrella, complete with curved J shape below for its handle. As I was wheeled in and out of this machine never knowing when they’d move it out or back in, I was reminded of one of my favorite Six Flags rides, Mo Mo the monster, when the guy working the ride spun me around extra times since I was the birthday girl. I decided getting zoomed in and out of this machine was instead a fun ride, plus I had the benefit of summer bugs and the Morton salt girl for company.

Once the biopsy began, the nice nurse – the one who gave me the warm robe and told me I was a trooper — began holding my hand. I remember when a nurse at an earlier biopsy last year began lovingly stroking my calves. This nurse held on to my hands and I realized how good that felt, especially these days when we don’t get to hug anyone except those we live with. I needed that touch so badly and while my left hand was holding on to the emergency ball they give you to squeeze in case you need them to stop, I found a few fingers on my left hand joining her hand with my right to communicate an extra, this is so nice and I feel loved, message. Because I had been numbed, I didn’t feel them jostling and twisting to get this suspicious mass during this core needle biopsy, yet I could tell it wasn’t simply a pulling on a syringe but a turning motion as if wrangling a cork out with a corkscrew. Weeee! I got wheeled back in again and more loud MRI knocking noises harmonized with the summer bug sounds, and I was back out. A final jostling to insert a pin, another marker to light the way for the next person doing my scan, and in and out several more times, and it was done.

Next on the menu was a mammogram. Freshly bandaged, I was promised this mammogram was of the gentle variety. Having not had one since my initial diagnosis in November (and since subsequent surgery and radiation), I didn’t realize how much it was going to hurt since the former surgical site was terribly tender. Picture your ear lobe after you pierce it, forever left with a knot. My knot hurt getting flattened onto the machine, especially fresh from the biopsy. As I was pressed into a pancake again, the blood started coming, smearing the glass. My wandering mind went to a hilarious sketch years ago with Dan Aykroyd channeling Julia Child  boning a chicken, blood spurting up and down onto the bird. Instead of high-pitched Julia gasps, this technician was calm and simply wiped it away. But my poor breast, how much more was it going to endure? A few more images from a few more angles and I was left to wait while she met with the doctor down the hall. She returned with news he was pleased with the images, and off I went to check out.

The nice nurse who’d held my hand handed me off to a gentleman at the exit desk, telling him I’d had a biopsy. He couldn’t hear her, so he whispered, as if trying to simply mouthe it, “She had a b i o p s y ?” lest the folks in the waiting area learn my situation. I felt this strange cloud of shame and sadness waft over me. He told me in a quiet sympathetic voice to enjoy the holiday weekend. I uttered a “You, too,” and got the hell out of there. Once home I had to take it easy which for most people means lie in bed and rest. I had to realize that paperwork, dishes, laundry and dog walks could wait and that I could actually lie in bed and rest, which is exactly what I did, icing the area 15 minutes every hour on the hour until bedtime. The biopsy site stung so that kept me still and thankfully my 13-year-old dog was content to stay put on the kitchen floor, slinking in and out of sleep.

The doctors told me I’d hear results by Tuesday or Wednesday, and it was an interminable five days. Wednesday came and went and nothing. I had decided it’s ludicrous that I would be the one with that unfortunate case of a recurrence a mere four months post radiation. No matter the new diet, ridiculously slight alcohol intake, stepped up exercise, mine was an aggressive little bugger that could withstand chemo and radiation and emerge with a renewed, Please ma’am may I have another? annoying verve. My sister tried to convince me I’m not special that way. I felt a bit like a criminal, like I was being punished yet couldn’t understand my crime. I figured I had a 50/50 chance and felt like over the weekend they’d rustle up a public defender – a la My Cousin Vinny – and the next week hopefully I’d have some semblance of a case ready.

Now it’s today, Thursday, and I couldn’t stand the silent house any longer, so I left for the hardware store, where I tinker from time to time, just like my dad used to. I love it there because it’s small, there’s plenty of interesting merchandise, and people are ready to help you find what you need, answer any questions you might have (except the What do you think will come of my biopsy? variety). Found some flowers on clearance to replace my tired zinnias and was loading them in the car when the phone rang. An unknown exchange, certainly not my doctor’s office, but I answered it anyway. On the other end of the phone was a smiling Brenda’s voice, which exclaimed: “Hi Mrs. Greco, I have good news for you, as I know you’ve been waiting. We got your results in and it’s only scar tissue. So we won’t need to see you for six months.” I literally said, “God Bless You” and thanked her profusely. If you can hug through the phone, then that is what I did. It was heartfelt and I’m certain Brenda felt it. I love that Brenda. 

These were the perfect segue into fall AND they’re yellow. (win win)
breast cancer, Encouragement, Health, hope

Cancer Close Out

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Joe with me and the cat resting after my surgery. No one focuses much on the partner of the patient, but it’s no picnic for them either. He’s been a rock.

I’ve completed treatment. The honeymoon is over. That warm swirl of homemade delivered soups, little notes and calls, and attentive doctors and nurses propping up pillows, encouraging me that I’m doing great is now behind me. Lumpectomy done. Check. Chemo over. Check. Radiation complete. Check. Now what?

I’ve had people ask me that same question. They look at me now as if I have some answers because, well, you know, I must be an expert on cancer. Wow I said it twice, did you notice? Once in the title and once in the text.  Maybe I’ve reached that stage of grief they call acceptance? I hate saying the word because I don’t feel like a member of that club and the word wreaks of death looming, so it must be  w h i s p e r e d  or typed in italics. My thinking has been since it was enough stress to have had it, must I now say the word too? I’ve found there are plenty of ways to circumvent saying it.

Have you been seeing all those commercials for cancer treatment on TV? Maybe you don’t notice them, but there’s a preponderance. A soft female voice delivers the message for things like Ibrance, that promises you can now live in the moment even if you have metastatic breast cancer. Thankfully I didn’t have that type; mine was isolated to one tumor in one breast. But still, these ads call out to you, stop you in your tracks, flood you back and you always remember. Then come the warnings, also whispered: Ibrance has been found to shrink tumors in over half of patients. Ibrance can cause low white counts and serious infections that can lead to death. Be in your moment. Ask your doctor about Ibrance.

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This combo – red peppers, white and sweet potatoes and red onions – which my sister got me started on is so easy and makes me happy. My body too.

I’m afraid I don’t have any insights into why this happened to me, though in many respects I’m not completely surprised it did. My stress had been escalating – the same crap, the familiar loop that runs round and round in our head that we can hyper focus on but know we shouldn’t  – and I’d been rather slack about healthy eating and drinking, and still without any meaningful sustained exercise regimen. The perfect storm where something had to give, and part of me is glad it did. You can’t sustain that kind of adrenaline indefinitely.

In all my fifty-six years, I’ve known just two people who’ve had this. One was a neighbor in an apartment complex I lived in in my early 20s and the other, a colleague of my husband’s. In the case of my neighbor, I don’t recall her specific situation, and only now do I realize that each person’s unique experience varies considerably. You can have cells that leave your breast and travel other places via your lymph nodes, bringing more unpredictability as to whether they can be wiped out, or you can have more destructive kinds, such as triple negative, a highly aggressive variety which can be hard to treat because its food source is so unclear. I don’t know the kind my neighbor had. I do know she was a smoker. Did that weigh in? There is no telling. I remember taking great pleasure when ordering her flowers after she got the all clear. I also remember her dying less than two years later.

I was heartbroken, of course, but dumbfounded too – didn’t they say she was cancer free? Evidently, it’s not that simple and clean cut. Perhaps hers seeped into her lymphatic system destroying other organs or was more aggressive from the get-go than doctors initially thought. I will never know, but I felt so let down, so gypped, having been so overjoyed, as she was, that it was finally over. It doesn’t feel good, this unusual, premature and unfortunate ending. Like being a bridesmaid in a wedding where the couple later divorces, but of course worse. The other woman who had “it” best I can tell has resumed a fully normal and healthy life, thankfully. I don’t know her well and so am not inclined to ask about her story. I’m not sure she even knows mine. The important take away is after all this, if you are thriving, then you are thriving.

You can’t sustain that kind of adrenaline indefinitely.

I don’t have a crystal ball for my own future, but at least I know more than I once did. That whispered term that I must type in italics, “metastatic breast cancer”, refers to cancer which started in your breast and later (typically within five years) pops up somewhere else – a game of Whac-A-Mole gone terribly wrong. After some women complete their treatment and go about ringing bells and running victory laps around infusion chairs, sometimes when they least expect it, it returns. When it does, I’m told it’s not as likely to show up in that same breast or even in the other one. The more typical scenario is it shows up elsewhere, such as in your liver or bones, which is called a “distant” recurrence, far from the initial source (breast). Unfortunately, even if yours was a low stage to begin with (mine was Stage 2), all distant recurrences appear as Stage 4 and are called metastatic because the cancer has metastasized, left the breast and spread to other organs. Many women die from this, yet some can live with it, but they must be all-the-more vigilant with extra therapies and medications and go forth with the real fear that they are never quite done. But are any of us who’ve had breast cancer? Can we ever lose the brand that’s stamped on us in our own minds and in others’?

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With a diagnosis like this come supplements. Lots of them. These beautiful and colorful Etsy zippered cases keep them organized.

When I first sat down with my Piedmont Hospital oncologist (hereafter, “Piedmont”) who had reviewed all my scans – mammograms, ultrasounds, bilateral MRI (both breasts), labs (bloodwork), pathology reports (analyzing the types of cancer cells I had) – he was very calm, like he’d done this a thousand times. Of course he had. He told my husband and me he was going to suggest a course of treatment and he used the analogy that the surgery I’d completed (the lumpectomy) was the cure and the follow on was the insurance. I wondered if everyone who sat before him got this same spiel, but it seemed as if this insurance parallel was one at which he’d just arrived, customized exclusively for me. He said it’s like he’s our insurance salesman, and he’s going to recommend the fullest coverage possible, which for me translated to four rounds of chemotherapy plus radiation. In addition to his cleanly scrawled regimen on the pad of paper between us, he scribbled percentages. If you’ve strayed by now, folks, come on back, as we’re talking survival here. I learned my odds are 80/20, an 80% chance this will not recur and a 20% chance it could. My eyes welled up hearing this because it sounded worse than I expected. I assumed since cancer hadn’t leaked into my lymph nodes we had a simple guaranteed solution on our hands: scoop it out with a lumpectomy, get your chemo and radiation and off you go, all done. An 80/20 scenario didn’t come with such guarantee. However since then, I’ve thought about it in a different way; I had to. When your weather report forecasts a 20% chance of rain, do you grab an umbrella? I know I don’t. I feel better now. Hope that helps you?

Did You Know? Lumpectomy + Radiation = Same Effectiveness as Masectomy 

So I rolled on and finished up chemo and after a month-long break when it was time for radiation to begin, I sat before a different doctor. Piedmont suggested we schedule radiation at Emory so it’s convenient (Emory is just a few miles from my home) since I’d be going 21 days, consecutive weekdays with weekends off. During our 45-minute wait to see the radiation oncologist to whom we’d been referred, my husband and I read all the literature given to us, including this doctor’s CV. She graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University with a bachelor’s degree in biology, received her MD from Stanford University and completed her residency in radiation oncology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Whoa! Harvard AND magna cum laude (AND Stanford AND MD Anderson)? She will henceforward simply be referred to as “Harvard.” It turns out Harvard and two of her esteemed colleagues had already reviewed my case in detail, poring over labs, scans, pathology reports etc., before she landed on what she decided would be my best course of treatment: 21 rounds of radiation – 16 over the whole breast followed by five targeting the cavity where the tumor, henceforth “Coward” had been lurking.

Like a child playing mom against dad, I of course had to ask Harvard the question: “Piedmont tells me I have an 80/20 chance. Do you agree with this?” She thought for what was a briefer moment than I expected and said, hesitantly, “While I don’t want to overstep your Piedmont doctor… (can you see my enormous smile forming?), I think you have much better chances.” Me, eyes wide open leaning in closer, “How much better?” “Over 90%” (or less than 10% however your brain processes it), she replied. Incredulous, thrilled, giddy all at once, I thought to myself, seriously? I would ask again at a few other appointments, just in case Covid-19 distractions and her full patient load undermined her ability to clearly think and call it correctly, and each time I got the same fabulous grade.

Unrelated but perhaps related, I am a twin. My brother, Benjamin Redfield Woody, died just a few days after birth from hyaline membrane disease (a breathing disorder which today would have been treatable). I can’t report feeling any magic force within me connecting us. Of course, when I have bad days and feel like something’s missing, I laugh to myself because something is missing, my other half, my twin. Those twins who feel the same things yet live far apart in different states or read the other’s mind aren’t me, though with my twin not being here, it’s not exactly a controlled experiment. But how about in the case of an amputated limb? I hear some amputees still have the urge to scratch that leg they no longer have. I wouldn’t expect if any of my limbs were cut off, I’d have any ghost limb experiences; mine would simply be gone. Even when I was pregnant, I could never answer those commonly recurring questions: When is the baby coming and do you think it’s a boy or a girl?

I don’t think being pregnant or having a twin or getting cancer magically renders you capable of predicting outcomes, bestowing on you a mysterious celestial insight others didn’t get. For me, getting cancer was initially of course a big shock, but then it became just a lot more doctors appointments and uncertainty and days you don’t feel great. A lot more. I never felt as if I’m knocking on death’s door, but have wondered how big my tumor would be now had I not shut down its shenanigans. I don’t feel like a warrior with pink boxing gloves who has kicked cancer’s ass. I do feel I was a good patient, ever listening and thinking and acting without delay in my best interest. I don’t want to tell cancer fuck you, or join in a big pink march. I believe it’s now gone so there’s no tumor to cuss out anyway. Instead it feels quieter and gentler, just between my body and me. A malicious foreign thing grew inside me and I kept playing its game of hide and seek until I found it. I didn’t intend to start this game, but that’s where my mom gets some credit too.

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She’s watching over me still, helping me take good care. My mom, sweet Susan, also gave me her name.

As I’m inclined to do, I analyzed and over-analyzed this situation a lot (I won’t say analyzed it “to death” because this is of course what we’re trying to avoid, being cancer and all). I think it was a guardian angel or God or my mom (or maybe they’re all the same or decided to merge for this one mission?) who was nudging me that October afternoon to feel both sides. Because who does that three months after a “normal” mammogram? Assuming it was my mom, isn’t it interesting that my treatment was exactly 4 rounds of chemotherapy and 21 rounds of radiation, since her birthday is April 21 (4/21). Who other but a mom to push you out of the way when a train is about to hit you head on? Totally my mom’s doing.

All this said, I am inclined to go with Harvard. While Piedmont has been great and still is, how can you not opt for the better prognosis? I mean it’s Harvard talking, and you can be sure I’m listening.

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This is summer (or maybe year-round sunshine) in a can. And a tall one at that. Delicious and just 2% alcohol. Try it. You’ll like it.

These days when people see me and ask how I’m feeling, I know what they are probably thinking: Has the cancer come back? Do you think it will? Sorry to report folks, but hell if I know, your guess is as good as mine. Going forward, all I know is I’ll be eating better, exercising more, stressing less – things we all should be doing, but now me more than ever.

My tumor was labeled as 100% ER positive, which means estrogen was the only thing it consumed to stay in the game. If you sweep up every estrogen crumb and wipe down the cupboard evermore, presumably Coward’s got nothing to eat and therefore can’t find any reason to return. Piedmont has me on a daily estrogen blocker pill (Arimidex), to ensure there’s nothing to snack on should the malignant munchies strike. I’m told such fabulous things as dairy and red meat and alcohol, which my cancer loved, can elevate my estrogen levels, and getting lots of exercise will oxygenate my blood, which cancer hates. So I’ve dropped red meat and most dairy (except parmesan, you can stay) and alcohol is minimal and very occasional. Recently I’ve taken to Stiegl’s grapefruit Radlers, just 2% alcohol and super refreshing, and I am moving more, or at least on days I’m not, I’m thinking about it, which I didn’t before. I’m trying to do the granola-with-flax-and-chia-seeds-splashed-with-almond-milk thing for breakfast, but when you’ve got a Publix puffy-sugar-studded-cherry-filled-triangle pastry staring back at you that your kids threw in the grocery cart, you don’t always make good choices. I’ve cheated and splurged on sugar, eaten potato chips, had several exceedingly delicious bites of bacon, but realize each day is a reset and more often than not, I’m leaning into pretty good choices.

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Homemade granola: the better breakfast option

I’m to continue taking my estrogen blocker pill every morning for the next ten years. It’s a bonafide treatment and after chemo and radiation, this third treatment will be the charm. It’s tiny, yet powerful, the same size of the birth control pill I used to take and the Synthroid I do now. Aside from its intended job, Arimidex also might make my joints ache. However, all I can report two months in is my right hand ring finger feels a little swollen and stiff. No big deal. To its discredit, this pill does plunge you into a menopausal sweaty never-can-get-the-temperature-right mode. Throw summer heat on top of it all and let’s just say showers are my friend.

Every three months I’ll go back and see Piedmont and he will do labs to check for any abnormalities. He said at these quarterly appointments he will just talk with me and look me over. He doesn’t believe in scans – calls them old school – but I believe in him. He’s my insurance guy and I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss a premium payment.

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The recently planted fescue and I are competing for who’ll get the most coverage the soonest.

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You can’t even part it because there’s not much of a crown on top, but it’s coming in for sure.

The good news is my hair is returning. I feel like Navan Johnson in the movie, The Jerk, and in lieu of Steve Martin’s character screaming, “The new phone book’s here, the new phone book’s here!”, I’m screaming, “The new hair’s here, the new hair’s here!” thrilled at the new crop coming in, daily checking for more.

Like the fescue that’s managed to push its way through the packed and cracked Georgia red clay in our back yard, bulldozed from the renovation underway, my hair is definitely coming back. I don’t see any signs of a grey curly brillo pad emerging as some warned, but instead see just the same dirty blonde I’m-in-my-mid-50s hair from before. I’ve got somewhat of a mullet going right now with the formerly bald sides filling in where the chemo cold cap didn’t fit well. My longer hair, which hasn’t been cut since October, still hangs down straggly, the last four inches or so blonde from last summer’s foils. However, in a baseball cap, no one’s the wiser. Why should everyone know? It’s a heavy enough burden for me to carry, so why sling it on others’ backs? As for the hair, I’ll even it up at some point, but it’s so nice and feels warmer and is a delight to see and feel my former partly bald scalp filling in. I’m heartened by this physical sign that I am healing and my cells are happily busy at work churning out new good things instead of just fighting off tumors and weathering chemo.

I’d like to say this is my last post about all this, but assuming it doesn’t return, and I am wholeheartedly making this assumption, I suspect I’ll still talk about it some more. My surgery date was November 21, so after each November 21 that goes by I will breathe an increasingly bigger sigh of relief. After five years, the chances are far slimmer for a recurrence, and after ten, I will be “cured,” and Piedmont says I won’t need to see him anymore. This experience is now forever with me and a part of me. I hate that it showed up but love that it is gone. I love myself for pushing for answers, pushing through treatments and pushing for something better now that I’m on the other side. And if you’re still here after all these words, I love you for sticking with me. A big love fest all around. And just so we’re clear, Coward, you’re not invited.

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breast cancer, connection, Food, Friends, hope

Hearts Wide Open

Maybe it’s this pandemic or the end of my cancer treatment, but I’ve been thinking a lot about how to improve things — my outlook, my sense of hope, tapping into more curiosity and creativity and connection, and not wasting any more of this precious time we get. When I started this blog a few years ago, I titled it Hindsight because I realized it captured so much of what I’ve been doing, thinking about the past and noticing patterns so I can learn more about myself. I hope to collect the best parts of the past and reuse and refashion them for these times, because those bits are the ones I want and need more of.

I’ve been thinking about not wasting any more of this precious time we get.

There are plenty of traditions I’d like to resurrect. For instance, I’ve been wanting to go on picnics again, remember those? Growing up, we had a red checkered tablecloth and four of us would grab the corners and lay it down flat, smoothing out the wrinkles. Then the real fun began, unpacking the basket full of delicious things our mom had packed. Usually we were by a creek or a lake, so along with great food, there was a beautiful backdrop.

Other than packing a meal to enjoy on a car trip, or dining alfresco somewhere, the last real picnic I had, the kind where you make and pack up all the food and sit outside on a blanket, was a surprise one my husband pulled off over two decades ago. It wasn’t fancy or somewhere out-of-town. Instead it was in Ansley’s Winn Park here in Atlanta, and he’d cleaned out our fridge and created a lovely spread, with salami and baguette and artichoke hearts and some sweets and nice beers too. I think he even brought a blanket to sit on. He’d stolen a few hours in the middle of his workday at Colony Square, and the two of us lying under midtown’s twinkling towers in my favorite park was perfect. I don’t know if it was the surprise, the delicious meal resulting in a cleaned-out fridge, the loving company or the magical backdrop that blew me away, but am thinking what touched me most, is how thoughtful he was to plan and prepare this.

Remember visiting with people, before the Internet and answering machines and DVRs, and when we spent an enormous amount of time outside? Times when you would walk to a neighbor’s and knock on their door unannounced and while away an afternoon just being together? My recent visit with my friend, Karen, while planned in advance, felt much like one of these. She greeted me at her door with one of those hugs you never forget: big open arms that pull you in tight and hold you there. I haven’t had one of those hugs in maybe ever, nor had I seen her since my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her hug communicated so much – such happiness and relief to see me smiling and healthy. We drove to Stone Mountain and walked the five-mile loop, and then returned to her house where she gave me a wonderful tour . She pointed out memorabilia and told stories about special items she and her family had collected. Afterward, we had tea on her deck and with lovely Lake Kenilworth in the distance, visited some more.

One of those hugs you never forget: big open arms that pull you in tight and hold you there

Recently my sister and niece came down from Chicago, their visit timed with my last chemo treatment. After the excitement of picking them up from the airport and settling them in, I remember us hanging around my kitchen table nibbling on snacks and catching up. In my usual self-conscious, self-deprecating style, I was poking fun at my various bald spots on my scalp, out of my control of course from the chemo, the ones where the cold cap didn’t fit well, a visible sign I was now different from them: I was the cancer patient. They assured me I looked fine, and after I joked some more, my sister looked up with her kind loving eyes and said, “Susie, we love who you are no matter what is going on with your hair. You’re still you and we love you like we always have.” In that moment, I saw the truth. All my jokes aside, these two wonderful women before me in my kitchen knew me and loved me all the more. My eyes well up just retelling this.

You’re still you and we love you like we always have.

I’ve always said food is love and I still believe it is. It’s my way of showing I care, that I want to nourish you and delight you with something delicious, and it’s others’ way too. This simple act of preparing food for someone is so intimate and layered and loving, and whether complicated or simple, it’s a recipe that keeps on giving. Over these last few months, I’ve had a half dozen or so friends bring me delicious things — soups, stews, seafood and chicken, all healthy and homemade with love. I’ve frozen extra servings and reheated them weeks later tasting and receiving the love all over again.

I’m finding these times are further connecting us as we isolate. With much of the background noise of our busy lives gone, it seems our conversations, Zoom cocktail hours and texts are stripped down to their essence: how are we each doing and how can we connect, how can we help one other? I’ve got a few friends who thoughtfully tell me when they’re headed to the store and can pick up an item or two I need. And these days, I surprise myself by letting them. In turn, I’m already thinking of what I can do for them, maybe something special to eat or helping to solve a problem they’re struggling with. Or maybe it’s just staying in good touch.

How can we connect, how can we help one other?

The other night our power went out, unfortunately timed precisely during our return from a particularly large grocery run. As I knelt on my front porch, flashlight strategically propped and Clorox spray in hand, wiping down the contents from endless plastic bags, a rush of gratitude spilled over me at this sweet assembly line: I wiped down the items, one son took them from me at the front door and brought them to the kitchen where, by candlelight, the other son and my husband organized them and planned how they’d refrigerate and freeze it all with 1-2 limited refrigerator door opens. These hundreds of dollar’s worth of groceries were our livelihood, our next week to ten days of preparations and conversations over nourishing meals and yes, our share of Haagen-Dazs and chips, fried chicken tenders and other empty calories, too. The candles and oil lanterns I’d rounded up lit our hall, dining room and kitchen, so for the next hour until the power came back on we mostly hung around those areas, all of us hovering near all the food we’d scored and safely stowed.

Today the lights are on, the sun is shining and it’s a new month. It’s also the start of my new and final cancer treatment, the daily ten-year pill I started today to keep this long-gone tumor forever in my rearview mirror. This medicine is known equally for its effectiveness and side-effects. When and if the joint pain or night sweats or doldrums hit, I hope I’ll remind myself that these are signs that it’s working. I hope these annoyances will actually lessen or else become something I absorb and get used to, and that they begin to seem like the helpers you’re supposed to look for in times of need.

So, here’s to more picnics and visits and helpers, and to loving each other with hearts wide open. xoxox

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

breast cancer, Family

No Depression

IMG_7913Heading out of town. Leaving the four walls we’ve shared this last month. Crossing into another state entirely. Feels like we’re getting the hell out of dodge and maybe even leaving Covid behind too when all we’re doing is driving to Highlands, NC for the day so my husband can check out a jobsite for a potential project. The pets remain to nap the day away. Gave the dog two Benadryl to help with her skin itches, so she’s definitely in for a good nap. Wonder if they have weird Covid dreams too?

I had another strange dream last night. It was my birthday and I went to the mailbox and it was packed with little gifts wrapped in brown kraft paper, a delightful surprise I’ve never seen. I filled my arms with as many as I could carry and went to the front door. The street was somehow smaller and the driveway shorter to this house, the one in the dream, yet it was still the house I live in now. The front stoop by the door was filled with more birthday packages, these boxes beautifully wrapped. I’ve never seen anything like it, and it was exciting. As I approached the door, several people I didn’t recognize left, and none of them were wearing masks. I went in and the house had either just had a real estate tour or a closing had already happened in the eight hours I’d been at work. A woman with ‘50s sprayed brown hair with a “That Girl” flip greeted me. She moved about as if she was the lady of this house and carried a refined contentment amid its new décor. All I could utter is, “Where are the pets?”, imagining the coming and going must have led to their escape. In an I’m holding them hostage tone, she told me they were secure upstairs. I scanned the place full of berber carpets and monochromatic décor, straight out of a Ballard catalog. There was nothing personal, not a family photo of mine or hers, a stack of bills, or umbrella stand. Knowing my pets were safe I quickly tried to figure out how I was going to handle this situation. Forget my birthday, which normally was a day I’d savor, my entire life had been hijacked. And still it seems by some miracle Covid hadn’t seeped into this antiseptic environment. I wanted to go see my pets and rescue them, but where was I going to go? My family wasn’t around – maybe they were at work and school? – but this lady was clearly planted here. Then I woke up.

IMG_7813Our third cat, a gorgeous black outside older kitten, is no longer with us. Early in the morning a few weeks ago as I was upstairs in the bathroom looking out the window, a large coyote confidently and ceremoniously ambled across our back yard, our sweet black cat dangling from its jaws, its mate following behind. I’ve never seen anything like this, as if somewhere in the depths of the woods surrounding our house, the earth just opened up and swallowed up this sweet creature I’ll never see or hold again.

A dad in my town named Matt died recently of Covid. He leaves behind four kids and an ex-wife and friends and family all who were pulling for him. He used to teach yoga at the Y, and I loved his classes. He was so calm, and I always felt that way during and after his classes. I hate that he had to fight so – which went against his chill Zen nature, but Covid is horribly unpredictable and relenting. Emory University Hospital said he was their sickest patient, and while I didn’t hold out much hope after hearing that, now that he’s gone, I feel sad for all he left behind. And for him too. So much more life to live.

IMG_7920Driving up I-985 with Uncle Tupelo coming through the speakers and half eaten deli sandwiches rewrapped for later, we were quiet anticipating whatever was coming next. I hope we’ll find ourselves on curvy roads so Evan can strike the riding the fast car on the curvy mountain roads off his bucket list. I hope I see cows or colorful mountain ranges, or both. Joe brought along a Bass Ale for me and a Hopsecutioner for himself, just in case I decided to take off the brakes and have a beer. With my hyperfocus on my health of late, I still feel guilty drinking anything and average only a glass of wine every week/ten days. Surely, that’s allowed?

It felt mischievous slinking out of town

We all seem glad to be going somewhere after standing still for weeks. It felt mischievous slinking out of town, as if we had needed a permission slip to leave the city and had decided to hell with it and just up and left. We certainly weren’t slinking and made our usual production — kids scurrying about looking for stuff, headphones and jackets and snacks, and grownups grabbing coolers and ice and drinks. The dog understands this commotion all too well and got that pitiful look on her face, as if saying, really? again? You said you wouldn’t leave me anymore! The Benadryl had kicked in and she started to nap, realizing even her most convincing looks were futile and we would keep right on packing.

Maybe nobody will be wearing a mask in NC. Maybe Covid would magically go away while we were on the road and we’ll return to something that feels normal. I need this escape. We all do. It offers another day behind us. Something different.

I’m going where there’s no depression to a land that’s free from care   – Uncle Tupelo

I tried adjusting my warped sunglasses to hide my exposed right “eyebrow” both of which have disappeared without notice in the last few weeks. Eight weeks post chemo, I’ve got more hair loss still, a little more from my scalp and now this void where brows should be. Maybe I’ll draw them in and give myself an astonished expression with high arches above my eyes, like our dog’s vet’s assistant used to do. The line was so sharp and looked wide awake, and I’m assuming she drew it on fresh each morning. On my face there is a faint dirty blond space where my brows were and a few scattered hairs remaining. Summer is going to be strange as it is, so the brows’ return will be something to look forward to.

We’re in Rabun County now passing signs for Lakemont, the turn off for Lake Rabun, which takes me back to fun weekends with my childhood friend, Margaret, at their lake house there. For these weekends, my mom would crank out one of her famous pound cakes to bring with me, and we’d have it for dessert after the beef fondue with consommé rice dinner her mom made. Afterward, on Saturday night, Margaret, her brother and I would boat over to Hall’s Boat House to hear the Blue Grass music and watch the cloggers. There were kids our age from area and Atlanta schools, and it was fun to check out who was there.

IMG_6732Heading back toward home, we stopped along the road in South Carolina and walked along a path leading to expansive views from Bald Rock. Walking as people approached, Joe reminded me, “Don’t forget to hold your breath.” I thought there must be some dog poop ahead or something, but he was referring to the coronavirus. (We’ve discovered we both hold our breath sometimes when passing people if we don’t have on a mask.) I had forgotten about the virus for much of this day trip since we saw so few people. There was that one man we saw in downtown Highlands wearing a mask, but otherwise no signs of any pandemic. How nice to forget and just focus on the path in front of us.

A little taste of our music, and the song Uncle Tupelo’s No Depression, along the way:

https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=TAwwtgKTSHE&list=OLAK5uy_lFrQViIio3lZzMqezdN4OSNmnPateFBs0

https://music.youtube.com/watch?v=TAwwtgKTSHE&list=OLAK5uy_lFrQViIio3lZzMqezdN4OSNmnPateFBs0

breast cancer

Gone viral

The spotted bananas were on the verge of turning black, another accelerating situation spiraling out of control. To halt their decline, I made muffins and luckily found an opened bag of chocolate chips, a must if my younger son is going to eat them too. Once cooled, I arranged them on a cake pedestal, instinctively worrying they were too close to one another, before reason kicked in: The muffins do not have Covid-19, are not Coronavirus carriers and can touch if they want.

IMG_7337The days are bleeding into each other, and the pets are confused. Glad we’re home 24/7, but still, they give us that, “Why are you all here, like ALL the time?” look.  I’m not their cruise director, but even with full bellies and exercise, potty breaks and unlimited adoration and attention, their eyes say, “What now?” I think we’re all asking that same question, despite thinking we should be cleaning out closets, learning a new language, taking up piano, and scores of other things we swore we’d do if only we were home and had the time.

The days are bleeding into each other

IMG_7415I’ve become a TV watcher. Savannah Guthrie and Lester Holt are my AM and PM bookends, with CNN occasionally running in between. It’s been interesting to see the reporters in their own homes, no longer TV personalities, but real people with imperfect homes and clutter and regular morning faces. Dr. John Torres typically broadcasts from his entry way with his coat rack behind him, a bicycle helmet dangling on top. Is he the cyclist or his kids, if he even has any? Al Roker greets us from his kitchen, sometimes juggling the weather with kids’ breakfast duties. Savannah Guthrie speaks to us from her basement, and even without the benefit of hair and makeup staff, she looks great and you realize those things no longer matter. Miguel Almaguer comes to us from his living room. Where did he find that gorgeous tufted blue sofa behind him? As if that matters during a pandemic, but it’s clear he chose that room to speak to us from for its stunning sofa.

IMG_7370Last night an Oral B commercial caught my eye and made me gasp. Their electric toothbrush’s brightly colored bristles were spinning fast in concentric circles. They looked evil, like the Coronavirus. Everything does now. When life resumes, I’ve wondered if artists will play with the virus’ form and its signature spikes, or just let it go, burying this bad dream, without trying to make chicken salad from chicken shit.

We are social creatures and being asked to isolate goes against the grain. We have an exam to take, one that matters more than any before. We are way behind, and haven’t even bought the book, yet now find ourselves scrambling to get the Cliff Notes. Staying home could mitigate umpteen lives lost and with lives vs the economy in the balance, wouldn’t saving the former save the latter? The doctor’s daughter in me is inclined to heed the advice of our surgeon general and chief immunologist. Especially faced with something for which we have zero immunity, zero safety net, and when our hospitals are about to bottom out on PPE as they wrestle with a berserk mutating virus which has for months zigzagged across the globe.

The Coronavirus Task Force is updating us daily. Recently Dr. Fauci has been noticeably absent. When he’s not there, I can tell it’s going to be more of the same rhetoric, the VP telling us all his “wartime president” boss has done (and I say that in quotes because while he’s slightly stepped up his game in recent days, it in no way compensates for the years of self-absorption, lack of curiosity with anything not directly benefiting him, and the culture of division he’s fostered), each time reminding us of the unprecedented halting of flights from China and Europe. The impressive resume continues with this and that and when POTUS himself moves to the mic, you never know what you’re gonna get, like this eye rolling gem: “I’ve lost biyuns and biyuns of dollars being President. I’ve got lots of rich friends. We inherited an obsolete broken system.” Yes, and your inauguration, with doctored crowd photos as proof, was the largest attended ever. It was perfect. Like that conversation. Like all of it.

You know when you’re in a relationship that you know is failing and you need to leave, yet you’re still in it and now everything, including voice intonations, is bugging you? This guy’s stress on the second syllable of industry is just wrong. It’s a multiple times a day occurrence, and each time I cringe, correcting him in my mind. “Our inDUStries. We want inDUStry to do well.” And just so we’re clear, Peter Alexander is not only a wonderful reporter, I’ll wager he can correctly pronounce INdustry.

In an effort to offset my news consumption, I’ve finished a few crosswords and watched an old movie, idle 2+ hour distractions for the pets too who are more than willing to curl up next to me. It feels cavalier, the juxtaposition of me home idling my time while doctors and nurses are scrambling to stay afloat, risking their own breath to sustain others’. While it’s a paltry donation, as we’ve heard over and over, staying home IS contributing.

I’ve learned hospitals have resorted to cancelling some cancer treatments and surgeries. This virus is hitting everyone hard, but for someone about to start radiation for breast cancer, this news is particularly alarming. Despite a week’s delay, as of now, my radiation treatments will start next week, though things could change. Following yesterday’s simulation, I’ll go 21 straight business days, smack dab in the middle of Emory’s and many hospitals’ crises. Maybe like flying after 9/11, being in a hospital is one of the safest places I can be? I am relieved and fortunate that I can still get these treatments.

Staying home IS contributing

IMG_7414Yesterday I walked to Emory, criss-crossing the streets weaving around a few scattered people. We waved so there was a friendly vibe, but the distance was palpable. I found a stick on the ground with which to press the elevator buttons. You feel the virus everywhere. At the entrance to Winship Cancer Center there was a friendly crew asking you why you’re there, if you have a fever or cough, etc. There was tape on the floor demarcating the 6 ft. distance from reception where you need to stand. I stood even farther back. During my appointment, my masked and gloved radiation oncologist offered me gloves to use for signing paperwork, lest Emory’s pen be a conduit for the virus. Everyone I dealt with wore an N95 mask except the nurse educating me on RT side effects. I began rolling my stool away from her to get more distance and she asked if we were good, and I told her I’d like more like 10 feet between us. I felt I was being rude, yet if I catch this thing, my treatment could stop, and I can’t afford that. None of us can afford to catch it.

I worry about people waiting for surgeries or on medicines in short supply or facing eviction or hunger, and countless other things this virus has brought, or worsened. Those with mental health issues, low on companions or medications or hope, and businesses, some in families for decades, wondering if they’ll ever reopen. Marriages already struggling before this mandated togetherness took hold. First time parents who can’t together witness their baby’s birth, moments you dream about but won’t get back. This spring’s college and high school graduates, my own son included, likely robbed of that hard-earned moment, parading in cap and gown with family cheering on the sidelines. People who can’t be with their loved ones who are dying or lonely or both. Doctors and nurses and truckers and grocers and teachers, who like us, have never seen such times, yet who deliver their best every day.

None of us can afford to catch this thing.

I hope people will listen and stay home and our connection with each other will strengthen, despite our distance and these hardships. A friend recently admitted her frustration at a Facebook post along the lines of things happen for a reason, there is good that will come out of this and maybe the universe did this on purpose so we can all reset. She personally knows people whose businesses are deeply struggling and for her and them, there is no silver lining. I keep looking for the good because my brain keeps resorting to try and fathom the layers and layers of depth of this distress, and it just can’t. We all are managing in our own way and we are all in this together.

Be well. Wash your hands for 30 seconds. Keep hand sanitizer in your car, and use it after you go to a store. Don’t touch your face. Stand 10 feet away from people. Outside don’t touch anything, not stair rails, light poles, building doors, nothing. And then go wash your hands again. Did I say don’t touch your face? xoxoxo

IMG_7269
Someone shared this on social media and I don’t know and therefore can’t credit the artist.