breast cancer, connection, Encouragement, Health, hope, Uncategorized

Two down, looking up.

It’s here! November 21. Finally, and forever in my head as a threshold I get to cross: the day I had that lumpectomy surgery. I had already put this day behind me when I was wheeled into that operating room two years ago, and now, I am grateful and looking forward.

Here I am. I’ve hit two years and then there’ll be three, five and that mother of all finish lines, ten, where they’ll hand me a “cured” ribbon. You don’t really get a ribbon, I don’t think, but, actually better, you get to drop off of your oncologist’s schedule. If there is a ribbon, I picture it a bright sunny yellow one vs pink and screaming all kinds of hope and happy. The pink doesn’t do that for me. Blood can be pink, Pepto Bismol is pink, calamine lotion is pink, and at the center of the storm, nipples, are pink, unless you radiate them 21 times, and then they turn closer to the color of your skin. Yellow, however, is hope, the sun, happy lemonade on a summer day, my hair keeping my head warm, the color of urine when it’s telling you to hydrate more, the circle of French knots in the center of a daisy. I vote yellow.

For this award, there are people to thank:

General gratitude goes out to people who show kindness. The nurses have it going on. The one standing close to my feet while I was getting biopsied initially, who took it upon herself to lovingly stroke my ankles and drape a warm towel over them. The others, who during office visits continue to hear me and my endless concerns, and help me get to the answers I need. The others during chemo who, like labor and delivery nurses, treat you like a queen when you didn’t think you needed or deserved it, and then like a regular person when you most do. They listen to your wired incessant jokes, as the steroids you’ve had to take for days surge through your veins, and they really laugh, the belly kind when you know you’ve struck a chord with someone. The ones who, after chemo and radiation is through, nudge you to ring that bell, and gather others around to cheer you on, noisemakers in hand, beaming ’til their sweet faces must hurt, and then sending you on your way. 

Hair stylists have it, too. When you go in with a crazy combination of long strung out strands and new little sprouts appearing on your scalp, and you leave with a legitimate cut, you know there are angels out there. You return every few months to lessen the gulf between long hair and short and, two years in, it’s just a head of hair now, like everyone else.

The friends you either don’t know well or else don’t see often, but who know what happened. They see me now and they always seem happy that they can. I worry, sometimes, if my brand is too bright, if this little health emergency I had to tend to might forever define me. Sometimes when I see these people, I wonder if there’s a little curiosity going on, like I’ve had myself with the few people I knew who had “it.” Maybe it’s a little hesitation to stand too close to that lady who saw things. Did she see a white light, you know getting so near to the other side? What were they like, those bags of poison, four of which ran through her veins?  Did she lose hair everywhere, I mean, even down there? And what has become of that poor boob, now that the show is over and the scaffolding has been removed? Is this girl now cloaked in a hopeful gratitude blanket skipping along pink meadows through her journey, or does that why did this happen to me bitterness ever come calling? To which I can answer: I was of course joking about a white light. The IV hurt like any IV does going in, but as for the poison itself, you wouldn’t know that’s what you’re getting. Days later, though, it definitely brought skin and taste and stomach annoyances as it worked its magic. Hair left all the different parts of my body in waves and returned in a similar staggered fashion, but now it’s all back and glorious. The boob is just dandy, thank you very much, and all things considered, seems quite normal and happy for its future still here with me. Gratitude is brighter and I literally must stop and smell every rose I see.  And I do. The small stuff, however, can definitely still grate on my nerves, but any bitter taste in my mouth, literally from chemo and figuratively from all this existential stuff I’ve been wading through, has given way to staying on the hunt for improvements in every area of my life. 

To those individuals, friends of mine, not naming names, but you know who you are, you did things, good things, that I won’t forget. 

-You were with me when I got the call, and only had love – not worry – on your face when I later told you.

-You sent emails telling me I was on your mind.

-You bought cards and mailed them to me, sweet words lifting me up, cards I’ll always keep. 

-You hugged me tight, that yummy long embrace that came out of nowhere, but I so needed, and which still lingers.

-You thoughtfully read my blog and commented, cheered me on, sometimes even remembering important milestones I was about to meet. 

-You helped me get curious about meditation even though, like my only occasional church visits, I’m a sometimes meditator. Still, you let me break down and cry and sent me home with some wonderful books, each with its own accessible, healing approach.

-You cooked for me, all of it handmade with love: chicken with broccoli, kale stew, broiled shrimp and roasted vegetables, vegetable and kale soup.

– You were going through your own similar slice of hell at the same time, yet you were open to meeting me and sharing your story with me over coffee, emails and visits, and we got to root each other on.

-You sent flowers and sweet notes.

-You called.

-You sent love in a blanket with hopeful words embellished in its fabric.

-You sent socks with treads on them that I still wear, ginger lozenges for chemo, special shampoos and other helpful goodies you lovingly researched to carry me.

-You joined me on some of those 21 days, walking to radiation, the six miles there and back. What fun that was noticing things, catching up, laughing too.

-You went to a long day of chemo with me where we hunkered down and where you helped ice my fingers and toes, so chemo’s poison wouldn’t bring on neuropathy. We caught up, killed the time, and we lunched, and I learned that this is what friends do. 

-You checked in.

-You showed up. 

-You loved me as if nothing had changed.

To my family: you continue to dilute my worries and reset me in the direction of everything’s going to be okay. Two of you flew down to be with me for my last chemo. How special that was! Another one of you sat with me and watched TV as I lolled in bed wrung out from that one beast of a nausea episode. You walked with me to radiation that gorgeous early spring day. You all continue supporting and encouraging me as I’ve changed things up and largely lessened my alcohol intake, dropped beef off my menu, and continue to try and make healthier choices. For those of you who pray, you prayed. All of you loved me and listened and cared, and you still do. I know this has been a long haul, exhausting for you, too, but you went through this with me, and we came out the other side together, now with two years under our belts. Now, it’s that much farther behind all of us, thank god, and thank 💛you💛 from the bottom of my heart. 

breast cancer, Family, Food, hope, Travel

It’s fall, y’all.

Fall assembled outside our hotel

Sometimes you have to leave to come back home. We had a little weekend getaway, something new. That you must fly six states away to enjoy daily walks, yummy dinners, and family time together is nuts, but turns out I needed it and I’ll take it. The cats notice the suitcases when they come out and each time deliver a fuck you side eye as they collapse on the floor watching the inevitable unfold. I turn on the radio to NPR so if nothing else, they’ll have good radio to listen to. Often as our vacations wind down, I’m tempted–and have actually done this before–to call the house and reassure the cats through the answering machine’s speaker, “We’re coming home soon! Hang on!”

Dahlias in the northeast think it’s still summer

I’m not so good at letting go and delegating, and it’s hard to leave these nests we’ve loved on for so many years. As it turns out, our new pet sitter has it together and even checked in with a newsy and thankfully uneventful update while we were away. Peace of mind goes a long way. The tenants at our other house are happy to water the newly seeded lawn for a few days. With the recent collapsed sewer line replacement there, things are now smooth and humming along, and they now get to use both toilets as often as they’d like. (It really is the small things.) At our own house, the tarps over the new spaces are neither secure nor numerous enough, and a heavy rain brings little trickles inside. Seems there are fair skies ahead, but until the contractor returns, we’ve got pots and towels and the hum of humidifiers in place to absorb it all. 

Just before leaving, there’s always that final rushed sweep of the house, giving surfaces a quick once over, cleaning out the fridge, even watering the ferns again–the same ones you lovingly tended all summer, but days earlier callously left for dead, justifying Kimberly Queens don’t do winter inside. The anticipation often is even better than the trip. Like a new year rolling in, for me it’s always a reset. Instead of habitually pulling leggings or jeans off the chair to slide on for a new day, travelling with a single suitcase, you arrive with actual outfits to wear and a few unpredictable consecutive days to unfold as you wish.

Taking off with Evan by my side

On the plane there’s still that slight apprehension at takeoff and landing, so you text family that you love them because should, heaven forbid, flight #DL0431 not reach its destination, you’ve at least said your peace.  And, of course, for take-off and landing, you grab the hand of family next to you. I’m thankful they are willing to humor me in this superstitious ritual. 

After settling in with a beverage, you invariably make your way to the toilette. That cortisol-spiking jolt you get in those few seconds after flushing is the stuff heart attacks are made of. You must wait a bit and then it comes on quick and loud, surprising you each time. The lavatory has a gentler song, and the door lock performs as you’d expect, that reliable solid securing sound as you slide the lever, but, oh, that toilet!

A little magic out our hotel window

This last trip, along with the usual negotiations about how we will fill our time, where we will eat and whether a taxi or Uber or walking is most cost and time effective, brought some simple unexpected high notes. Seeing your older son in his own apartment nesting with his girlfriend in a space they found and made into a home sure makes a mom proud. Full of bright light, modern mostly found furniture, and an older sweet rescued cat, it’s happy here, and with a deli, laundry and the subway a block away and a straight shot to school, it’s perfect. Plus there’s a hatch in the hall outside his door and a twinkling rooftop to enjoy. Having your younger son visit too and stay there gives your boys that unscripted time together we’re all short on. Using hotel points, Joe managed to score free nights at three different hotels for this three-night stay, so we moved around a bit this trip, but got the variety of experiences in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. 

New York requires proof of vaccination and an ID if you want to eat at a restaurant here.  As far as I’m concerned that’s the way it should be–no drama, no whine, no politics. Just smart, fueled by the science, and might I add, effective. No soup for you if you leave that vaccine card back at the hotel, so bring it because the soup and everything else is consistently good. The Thai restaurant on our last night was fantastic and as I often do, I documented the entrees and their eaters in this video, below. 

Biking in Brooklyn

We rode Citi Bikes this trip, the regular vs pedal-assist kind, which are more plentiful and less expensive, and the four of us meandered around Brooklyn following Benjamin, who toured us around his old and new neighborhoods. There are numerous bike lanes and despite the many cars, scooters and people, I felt safer riding here than I do in Atlanta because motorists and pedestrians expect to see you and make room. The boys eventually rode back to the apartment, and Joe and I to our Brooklyn hotel to check out before heading to our Manhattan hotel.

The yellow basket

On the way there, whizzing past a park on the right, I noticed a basket vendor set up on the sidewalk. A gorgeous yellow basket caught my eye and I couldn’t stop looking at it, still cycling and now craning my neck to study it. We turned around and I went and bought the thing for a price the seller reduced, and after he bagged it, I flung it over my handlebar for the bike ride home. It’s here now home with me, and I love its story and the happenstance of finding it. It has notes of yellow, my favorite color, and against the blue wall in my bedroom, it feels like a happy summer day. 

Sure was fun while it lasted!

The season is changing and so is my hair. For six months, I’ve had the hair I’ve always dreamed of. You can feel it in the shower, that thick plumped up cuticle, that cocky energized hair follicle oozing oomph in spades. The only downside is it takes forever to dry, yet when it does there are loose ringlets forming exactly where you want them (in the very places chemo left bald). You can go to bed with it wet and wake up with natural tousled tresses requiring zero brushing, and if you bother to pull out a hair dryer, there are countless more versions of goodness you can create. 

That gorgeous soufflé that’s been rising on my head for months, however, is now falling. Not sure who opened the oven door, but suddenly gravity has pulled that light spirited dollop of a do down. There are plenty of strands still but seems we’re back to my former head of hair, to the scalp and ears peep show behind the whisper soft strands hanging close to my head. I’m told those chemo curls eventually go away, and by my December haircut or the one after that, they will be nearly gone. 

What to make of it all? When I found myself fresh off of chemo and radiation and with a bald head in places (which surprised me how cold that would feel in winter), I think the Universe decided to give me a little boost with thicker hair. The same thing happened after birthing babies, when lost in the haze of fatigue, a colicky baby and breast pumping, there was that gift of cleavage, a “Here’s the cup size you thought you’d always be, happy dressing with your new look” little bonus. When you’ve had enough time with this new do and physique and gotten caught up on your sleep and distanced yourself from treatment, the Universe reminds you, “I’m gonna take it back now because you don’t need it anymore. Someone else could use this little perk.” I chalk it up to it is to better to have had curls and cleavage and lost them than to have never had them at all. Besides, in the midst of so much change, returning to who you were physically is surprisingly reassuring. 

Show me a better lunch.
Waiting on a show, and the show is the street below

We made the most of our last day away walking miles around Chelsea and up on the Highline, followed by lunch at Chelsea Market. It was in the 50s and windy on our long walk and we earned that lunch, one of those decadent meals you shouldn’t splurge on, but you do, because why not? The Lobster Place Fish Market had it all and we had the lobster roll, a folded crispy buttery bun chock full of lobster meat tossed in a light lemony mayo, clam chowder and lobster bisque, and Zapp’s chips. I swallowed mine down with a glass of champagne. A delicious finish to this little getaway as we headed toward home. 

View below from the High Line. Hopeful.

Atlanta, breast cancer, connection, Empty nester, Encouragement, hope, loss, Uncategorized

Scar Tissue

I started physical therapy to restore range of motion in my shoulder and arm, left tight and knotty from a recent lumpectomy and radiation. Being able to reach behind and scratch my back easily and pain-free is a new goal, as is securing a bra clasp. Over a year since surgery and nearly that long since treatment, you’d think by now the healing would be all done, but seems the tightness has only increased. The tissue under my arm feels like fabric sewn with too tight stitches and all we need is a seam ripper to break through and pull the threads loose. 

You’d think by now the healing would be all done.

Like you do when telling an infant’s age, I used to talk in months – I’m three months post chemo, six months since radiation, etc. – but thankfully now I can talk in years since all this started up in late 2019. My surgery and treatments have graduated out of their infant stage and into a toddler stage, with tantrums arising as this little blocked lymphatic circulation mess I must now clean up.

The physical therapy office is close by, convenient and calm — nothing like my last PT experience several years ago where the incongruously L O U D radio was routinely tuned to the unholiest of trinities – The BeeGees / Gerry Rafferty / Air Supply – and my physical therapist’s brash order-me-around style certainly didn’t fit my idea of a first-string player you’d pick for your healing team. Last week at my initial session, I was assigned an Emory student, a no-nonsense tucked-in clean-shaven guy who, after moving me through several stations working my arm and shoulder, moved into a deep tissue shoulder massage miraculously landing on all the tight unyielding spots which, albeit stubbornly, gave way. I left with a sheet of homework exercises, most of which I completed except the one involving a Theraband. Surely I own a Theraband, but, alas, where is it? Still haven’t brought myself to enter a Target or Walmart since the pandemic began, so opted against purchasing. I know, Amazon.

At today’s session I worked with a petite young lovely woman who moved me through various stretching and strengthening stations. The therapists toggle between several patients, like busy chefs minding multiple burners, careful to tenderly sauté and not let a rolling boil erupt or a pan sit unattended and burn. They move between patients rolling their laptops around on wheeled lectern style desks.

Melissa McCarthy as Sean Spicer

I might have blurted out to my therapist that the roving desk setup she maneuvers reminded me of the SNL skit with Melissa McCarthy playing Sean Spicer rolling her podium on the streets of New York. She humored me with an amused/mortified smile, probably not so happy she got assigned the clown who wants to inject humor into all of it, breaking up the calm focused room she and her colleagues have cultivated. I joked now she won’t be able to shake this visual and she smiled again realizing the truth of that unfortunate circumstance.

Canele

This weekend we went for a Sunday drive, winding through various parts of Atlanta — Edgewood, Inman Park, Poncey-Highlands. Other than looking at house paint colors for inspiration, my primary goal was to score a canelé, a small striated cylindrical French pastry flavored with rum and vanilla with a soft and tender custard center and dark caramelized crust, which I found at Ponce City Market’s Saint-Germain bakery. I’m working on not consuming much sugar, but occasionally the urge is real, and I’m increasing trying to locate something exceptionally good vs the first filler sugar I can get my hands on. By the looks of things in the Food Hall, but for the masks covering most people’s faces, you’d never know we’re in a pandemic. Throngs of loud-talking particle-spreading people filled the hall, the din of noise so visual and loud I nearly abandoned the much-anticipated sugar errand. I got myself a canelé and Joe a palmier, his favorite, plus a coffee éclair and raspberry and passion fruit mousse little round cake for later. We nibbled on the canelé and palmier and meandered through neighborhoods studying houses’ paint colors from our car for our some-day repaint.

Driving through Edgewood, I noticed a ramshackle of a church with a sign out front and the message, “Your Grief is Valid.” We live in a world full of dichotomy – help is on the way with stimulus checks about to drop into accounts and Covid vaccines increasingly common, yet still there are long lines for those waiting for a bag of food to feed their family and scores of people pre- and post-Covid cloaked in a stuck-on heaviness they can’t shake. Last week, the TV networks broadcast highlights looking back on the full year since Covid was proclaimed a global pandemic. How do you bundle so much loss into a news segment? It was admittedly well done, but so sad, too. Smiling faces now gone leaving behind families who don’t know where to begin to climb out of their despair. Exhausted doctors and nurses, their virtues extolled, in search of a reset or second wind or both.

Your grief is valid.

Blue skies always return

We each heal in our own time. And time, for the most part, heals all things. But for those of us stuck in the middle between our hurt and our healing, and with a pandemic thrown in the mix, every morning can feel like Groundhog Day, a familiar rotation without much hopeful change in sight. Circling back to the church sign, your grief IS valid, despite however fresh or old, and the way you move through it is your choice. But until you feel well on your way, please don’t stoically go it alone or hide until your best self magically shows up. Because we all know things don’t quite work out that way. Instead, walk with someone, grab a coffee or a canelé and take some time together, comparing notes, taking notes, or soaking in the simple and reliable beauty outside. One day when you aren’t looking, you will feel it, a little less heavy and moving forward with a slight change that happened, when things starting looking brighter, sharper and you saw a shiny glint of hope in the distance. Try and break up the days, infuse them with connection. Sure, physical therapy can mechanically do it, but being together also melts scar tissue, and is what opens up space for all kinds of goodness.

Make A Wish
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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