Encouragement, Health, hope, Love

Kill ’em with kindness.

Last month I found my hands cupping my breasts, first the right and then the left. Hold on, now, just so we’re clear, this is not going to be one of those stories. This one’s different, but stay with me. They were unusually smooth, nothing like a few years ago, pre-menopause, when I used to do these self-exams, parsing through the mealy tissue with clockwise two finger circles. I have what’s termed “dense breasts” which I can only describe as the consistency of pea gravel you’d run through a Cuisinart, so turning over any potential bad stones often seemed next to impossible, and so I stopped but continued with annual mammograms..

Over the years I’ve been religious with all my health checkups, sometimes even calling the doctor early and reminding them it’s time for me to come in, and this year was no different, with a gyn annual visit in February that included a breast exam, and a mammogram in July. For that mammogram, I took my usual lucky seat next to the aquarium at the breast health center and once called, got it done. They called me back days later needing a “second look.” All you can think with a call back is holy shit. The days drag when you’re waiting for the “all clear” from MyChart and that coveted letter you get in the mail a week or so later, which you file to keep forever. I was cleared and declared “normal” and looked forward to another year’s stay of execution.

Fast forward to October when I was lying on my bed and for some reason I decided to feel both sides fully, almost marveling at their teardrop symmetry and softness, delicately balanced above my rib cage. All that pea gravel gone after menopause, this texture was silky smooth. Except, wait? Is that something on my left side? Hmmm. More rotations, more checking the other side. Yep, this is a little something, and I’ll be getting that checked, yet felt fine about it since the July all clear.

I called my doctor the next day and got in several days later. As I sat in the examining room in my paper flying nun gown, not nearly as adorable and carefree as Sally Field, I couldn’t help but wonder, wtf? My doctor felt it too, and looked a little puzzled, but reassured me it’s probably nothing, recalling July’s normal results.

Next on the agenda was another mammogram, this time 3-D, followed by an ultrasound scheduled that same day. As I checked in, the woman in reception, thrilled with her bouquet of pink pens for the taking, reminded me that I can keep the pen. I was reluctant, but she extended the pen toward me and smiled, waiting it out. My mind went to Seinfeld, in that fabulous episode when Jack insists to Jerry, “Take the pen!!!” I reluctantly took it and threw it in my purse hoping all that pinkness wouldn’t leak and coat my purse with its hot pink malignant ink.

I set off to change in their dressing room, passing the normal waiting area and was directed deeper in the facility, to a room with nicer snacks and cushier chairs, certainly not intending to, but most definitely amping up my anxiety. I refused to enjoy an apple juice or the Milano cookies because I was a regular in the first room and despite my assignment to this room, I wasn’t going to be joining this club.

The radiologist viewing my ultrasound asked me if I’d experienced trauma to my left breast, or else did I have diabetes? Both conditions can resemble a malignancy, and befuddled, I nodded no. Though I did fall at Bryant Park a few years back ice skating and cowered off the ice to heal only to go back on in a half hour and do it again. Skaters don’t just keep going when a fifty something woman falls; instead there’s this unspoken “old lady down” alert and they rush over and help you up and off the rink so the skating can continue without the distraction. And then there was last year when I was walking my dog on a perfectly fine fall afternoon and a ginormous acorn moved into my path. Down I went and off went the skin on my knees replaced with sticky bloody ovals on each knee cap, like a kid’s, but wrinkly.

The radiologist said her share of hmmm-s, and I’m concerned-s, and then I was scheduled for a biopsy in a few days. The biopsy radiologist was comforting and silky smooth, imagine Faith Hill in a lab coat, with a velvety voice to match. She walked me through all the steps, numbing your breast, placing a hollow needle inside and pulling out a sample of the tissue for testing. She said I’d be hearing a clicking which reminded me of an ear piercing gun. After it was done, they put a Steri-Strip on the incision and off I went.

It looks like I’m allergic to Steri-Strips or maybe it was the Lydocaine, but nevertheless, the next day I developed a rash covering the entire breast and even down a little below my ribs. Nothing itchy or painful, but just weird and slightly worrisome. After an interminable day or three (it’s all a blur), I got the call. You can never tell in your gyn’s voice because I’ll bet they all start out with “we got the results back on your biopsy and….”. I already know that front end of the sentence information because isn’t that the reason she is calling? Yet while extraneous, it affords the opportunity to gauge the tone of the news and predict what’s next. With each word, the tone became increasingly I’m sorry to have to tell you this.

 After learning the news of what I’m dubbing my not benign situation while standing in a friend’s driveway, I returned home and a few hours later Faith Hill (remember, the pretty radiologist?) called me not realizing I already knew. We talked at length and her velvety calmness was the perfect salve. I asked her advice on loads of things and she said I should get a bilateral MRI (scanning both sides) and that I could mention her name when scheduling. The next morning first thing, I was on the phone using my Faith Hill get the MRI card. They said usually you meet with the surgeon and she suggests it and then you schedule the MRI, but they thought they could do it this way instead. I was meeting with the surgeon the next week and certainly wasn’t going to wait all those days to see her only to wait more for the MRI, so I hounded them a bit, ok a lot, to go ahead and schedule it in advance so the doctor would have everything in hand when we met.  Besides, the not benigns were surely procreating inside me and they needed to stop their nonsense immediately.

A day or so later on a Friday afternoon I got a phone call and it was the hospital’s “patient navigator” on the line and she asked if she could help. First off, I was in denial that I was on this pink papered road and I certainly didn’t need a navigator, only further acknowledging this path was in fact before me. But she got me talking about my confusion with several MyChart biopsy results, about things like estrogen and progesterone receptors, and HER2, and labeling my not benign situation as invasive ductal. She explained there are some silver linings here. I am ER 100% positive which means that the pill you have to take for five or ten years is uniquely suited to my situation. This little bugger feeds on estrogen and only estrogen, so we can starve its sorry ass. The HER2 thing, which I don’t exactly understand yet, but which I learned is negative, she said is good news. As we kept talking, I liked her voice more and more. I hadn’t told many people and certainly hadn’t broken down. But I did here. For probably another half hour I sobbed and talked and sobbed some more and she listened and sent love over the phone. And that was everything. Afterward I had plans already in place to go see a play with friends, but after all the tears couldn’t imagine myself ready to leave in 20 minutes, but I did. I loved the play and the evening, but keeping this dark secret inside was hard, not to mention unsettling.

The MRI was bizarre. You lie face down on a table that has two big cutouts which line up with your breasts which hang down as if someone below on a stool would be milking you. Instead you are given a rubber oval thing to squeeze if you need anything (thank you, I’ll take a Shake Shake double cheeseburger, stat) as you are rolled into this machine, with earphones on because it’s loud. They said it would sound like a construction site, but for me it resembled a loud annoying sound of a phone off the hook which nobody had bothered to put back on. You do remember when phones came with curly cords? The attendant seemed proud that Piedmont could now offer me Sirius for my listening pleasure, and said I could choose my channel. I choose classical piano which paired nicely with phone off the hook.

Fast forward to I don’t know how many days later and my husband and I were at a breast center (btw Georgia Tech’s McCamish Pavillion could be a fine place to house a breast center – do a drive by, looked at its shape complete with nipple on top and see if you don’t know what I mean) in front of my surgeon. A top surgeon with a stellar reputation, she looked like a well-educated Janet Jackson in a lab coat, the pre-plastic surgery Janet. Her calmness worked well against my whatever you want to call it. She told me I was Stage 1 (or could be 2), and 1 cm in size, though the MRI shows it could be double that. Lots of potentially positive news followed by little doubts about whether it was as simple as it sounded. I pictured phone cords from all those off the hook phones tangled up in my breast, making seeing this evil bugger in this sea of density next to impossible. Still, teary eyed, I asked, “Is this eradicateable?” Surely that’s not a word, but after using it, I certainly didn’t admit I had a degree in English, and instead just whimpered softly repeating the question. She gave me a bit of a “well, duh” look, followed by a “yes”, which calmed me down. She said my lymph nodes in both the ultrasound and the MRI look small and unremarkable, which is what you want, and said after surgery we’d determine a course for treatment. She added if my pathology report indicates these not benigns have a low risk for returning, I will have radiation. High risk and they pull out the big guns, the cannons, the chemo. After all that, they put you on a pill for five or ten years, depending on pathology results. Piedmont is a badass.

With this diagnosis you get things. As if Elizabeth Warren herself designed this curriculum, there is a plan for everything. There is a nutritionist you can see, thanks to a grant, and I got in to see her immediately. For now, and maybe indefinitely, I’m gonna be a clean eater. And for now, a non-drinker. All the beige colors have left my plate and it’s bold peppers, carrots, kale and fish for me.  A little chicken and some nuts too, but no dairy. Almond and oat milk are vying for space in my fridge and that 2% cow’s milk is shoved in back. I’m determined to feed this evil bugger everything it hates, everything that is anti-inflammatory.  I’m certain I’ll have a slice of pizza or bowls of real (non chickpea) pasta now and then, because food is, after all, one of life’s greatest pleasures. I am eating well and it all tastes good. Before I went for a run the other day, while pulling on my jog bra, I said to these fellas, the not benigns, buckle up, we’re going for a ride! As I pounded the pavement, I pictured them shaking their heads asking wtf?, pissed off and running out of steam, as I filled my healthy lungs with air and pressed on. I’m loading up with all kinds of good ammo. I’m Will Ferrell, the elf throwing snowballs at this unwelcome mass. Here! Take this! Splat goes a red pepper. Can’t swim in all the almond milk, too bad, so sad!  Thanks to another grant, there is a counselor to see, allowing ten free sessions, which I’m scheduling weekly. I’ve already been to two and cried through the first and after the second, she said I seem much better. It’s helping. There is genetic testing too, thanks to another grant, and they’ve drawn two vials and are testing 74 genes. So now I wait for that news. Knowledge will be power.

It’s been a mixed bag (no pun intended) of good and bad, these last three and a half weeks.

THE BAD: I worried every day to get to this day, the lumpectomy. I had to make umpteen appointments and be poked and prodded for biopsies, inserting clips in my breast to guide the surgeon, and then more fun with the IV at surgery and of course, the scalpel. And then I had to worry some more. I had to start telling people, because you can’t not, which made me scared to see their faces often scrunched with concern, as if they saw my future and now felt sorry for me. I had to imagine a potentially sunburnt breast from radiation and wonder would it be permanent?, or a bald head from chemo, and what kind of hair would grow back. And what will this medicine do to me other than block estrogen from getting to this breast, the chosen snack of the not benigns. I worried it’s a game of whack a mole, stamp out the trouble makers in the breast, only to discover them somewhere else. Rinse and repeat. I worried about worrying my family, my children in particular.

THE GOOD: I caught this myself, it’s early and it’s small, it’s eradicatable, and it’s clear someone is watching over me. For that, I am beyond grateful. My diet is squeaky clean, I am going to move more, and my body will be stronger for having gone through this. This is a wakeup call. A call for more calm and less worry, and I already feel the calm seeping into my cells. I may have been opened up today in surgery, but I am forever opened to breathing in all the good I’m finding and exhaling it over my friends and family, and over strangers too. After I finished rattling off my many questions in the recovery room to my nurse who had remained with me well past what is normal, I got dressed and was about to draw the curtain to get ready to leave. I heard a voice through the adjacent curtain say, “I’m glad you asked those questions. They helped me too. I’m over here next to you.” I said “hi” and opened my curtain to see who was next door. It was the lady who had been on the elevator with me this morning, our husbands both silent and ruminating on what was ahead for their wives, and she was lovely and about to be admitted to a room. She’d had a double massectomy as both breasts had been riddled with not benigns. I took her hand and squeezed it, and told her she would do great. She smiled and sent me the same good wishes. My exit wheelchair was waiting, but it was hard to leave her as we had this brand new connection, instantly filled with love and understanding. I cupped my hand around her cheek and reminded her again that all will be ok. She will do well as will I, and that moment will surely stay with us both.

I will hear from pathology in a week or so and know more about additional treatment, but for now, the not benigns have left the building, I’ve got my family by my side and friends who are in touch. I couldn’t ask for more. But actually there is one thing I need: Ladies, feel yourselves up like clockwork every month. Learn how they feel, even if they’re pea gravel, so if they change you will know. Also if you’re considered dense or even if you’re not, insist on a 3-D mammogram, even if your doctor whines that insurance might not cover it. Learn the cost and just do it, charge it if you have to. No one told me to do this kind and I’m certain if they had, this would have been caught even earlier when it was even smaller. I’m lucky in so many ways to have good insurance, a strong body and the boundless perseverance that I do.

And lastly, be kind to yourself. Really kind. Because the not benigns hate that. And more importantly, because you, my dear, are worth it.                       `

 

connection, Encouragement, Family, Grace, Health, Midlife

These Are Days

Each morning, I go down the hall and descend the 22 stairs. Another hall, then the dining room and kitchen. I turn the overhead light on, light over the sink on, and then the stove light. Check. Check. Check. Fill tea kettle and begin boiling water for coffee. A pilot flipping switches, warming up the engines.

IMG_3249The morning’s hamster wheel turns again – making breakfast, lunch (ok, you shamers, I’m up early and have the time, so I make the lunch), feed the pets and the whirl of the morning is over. Everyone is gone and it’s me again, dishes emptied and ready for reloading. Dog walk ahead, rental house tenant details, car emissions – will the old car pass? I’m busy and bored, gas and brake pressed together. My brakes are on and I can’t convince my foot to let go so I can roll. Don’t want to hit something, but I’m afraid I’ve already hit a wall. They say fear is excitement with the brakes on.

GRACE

PO: The post office in the town next to mine gets it. Three stations, three big hearts, all lifting you up. It’s an old timey brick building. No Saturday hours. Old ideals inside. A place that makes us each better. They know me, ask about my kids, take my trash even – used up stamp sheets, sticky backs of priority mail labels. They’d probably take your wad of chewed gum if you asked. Shipping can get complicated, and these folks always suggest the best timing and pricing. And when the lady postmaster sneezes, we collectively reply in hushed, loving church tones, “Bless you.”

IMG_3786Dry cleanerThis place and their clay tile roof building has been around forever. The guys inside, several of them brothers, know your name and use it. If they’re busy or you are, you can pay later when you return next. They have a sign by the register to discourage cell phone use that is handwritten and refreshingly kind and polite. We’re all better inside there on any day, busy holidays, heat of summer, etc. Inside, there’s a kind word. A smile.

Mechanic: You’re understandably frustrated the car is stalling, failing you. You’ve got better things to do and need a car to do them with. This place is tiny but full of understanding faces. The chairs are ripped, but you sit down and stay a while, laughing over automotive frustrations, talking of friends you share and the places you’re from and have travelled. The stress melts because people listen. You listen. If only for a moment, the car costs, the Uber you need to get home and the things you left undone can simply wait.

Pizza: Your local pizzeria is authentic pizza hand crafted by good people. Everything on the menu is a homerun. The staff is familiar and there’s a positive vibe buzzing inside. It employed your son years ago when he was in high school, and its owner supports the local schools, even coming in early once to make dozens of pizzas for your other son’s soccer team. Who does that? Pizza’s goodness on multiple levels.

zinniasThese simple errands bring life lessons. They rip open an ordinary day and inject it with a spirit that shines through you. Something about crossing that threshold, and you’re inside a safe space, a place where you go back to being your best self, stripped of competition, callousness, impatience. Here you have time to engage, spread a little warmth. Simple exchanges find you paying it forward as you head back out into the world, imbued with your best you that you want to share. You drive home in traffic with terrible drivers, the fuel light comes on and your phone has one bar. It’s okay for a while, but these bits, these little nuisances inevitably return, chipping away at your joy and take you back where you were before. You can always return to these places to refuel, but hopefully you’ll learn one day how to fill yourself up.

FAMILY

A rare recent Father’s Day had us eating brunch in Inman Park in Atlanta, three generations together, grandpa, father and grandson, sitting across from one another, countless memories between them, their own childhoods and those of their children, and then flying to New York to see our other son. Two boys, two cities, one dad who adores them both. My sons, my two hearts walking around, surprise me, invite me to wrestle with my own discomfort, and teach me about boundaries, trust and faith. To fly six states away for just a couple of days is to trust that love will seep in, do its thing and wash a familiar comfort over you, over all of us. The promise of that conversation over dinner, familiar smile and renewed connection is priceless.

HEALTH

frogYoga: “Visualize your jaw unclenching,” she instructed. So much for relaxing, that visual instead sent me to nightguards, root canals and crowns, decades of dental costs. I can’t help it, I’m English, I got the bad teeth. That morning, I drove the half hour to the Y where I unrolled my mat to practice before my favorite yoga teacher who it turns out wasn’t there that day. Instead, this broad-shouldered brown-haired girl led the class. I shouldn’t have been all judge-y, arms crossed and missing my teacher, as this instructor was kind and helpful, moving around the room correcting folks who got it wrong, me initially and later, me again. She wore a white t-shirt with graphics on it, maybe from Lake Burton or a sorority or a charity run, and Pullman brown yoga pants she could have lifted off a UPS truck. I’ll bet she can maneuver a ski boat with panache, settle into a slip at Hall’s Boathouse on Lake Rabun, and clean her own catch right there on the dock. She’s probably equally comfortable at the symphony, speaks several languages and knows the best BBQ joints, I’ll bet preferring North Carolina vinegary ones. She surprised me with her great music, too, starting with a lively song I recognized but couldn’t place, then moved into Adele 21, and REM, and even Sade’s By Your Side, that sexy song Richard and Samantha danced to in the Sex in the City pool scene. She must be hooked on that show, too.

She didn’t have that syrupy sweet voice you get sometimes, those instructors who are trying to relax you, so much so they almost put you in a trance, as if they’ve warmed your bottle and turned down your crib sheet. She did close the blinds in our room, darkening the space for her newborns down for their nap, but used a matter of fact adult tone which worked. It let us realize we are nurturing ourselves, not the YMCA doing all the heavy lifting. She’s creating the space, the framework, the movements, but it is up to us to find our own kind and gentle voice for ourselves.

c&t
The Captain and Tennille

Physical Therapy: Lie on your left side,” she instructed. Uh oh, here we go again, time to dry needle the hip. Like putting your finger in a socket or having your teeth drilled, dry needling literally gets on your nerves, sending jarring reverberations up and down your body, sorting out the spots that most need it. Waiting for her to begin, I focused on the bright exercise balls in the distance, zoning out to Toni Tennille’s voice, “I will, I will, I will, ahh-ahhh-I’ll be there to share for-e-ver,” one of many 70s gems piped into the place. I pictured her bowl cut, bangs and hair curled under in uniform Plasti-Coil precision, a curvy cascade matching her large round eyes and mouth. Was it a curling iron or hot rollers that gave her that look? In spite of their sweet glances and lyrics, love couldn’t keep The Captain and Tennille together, and after nearly 40 years, they divorced. Sadly, just this past year, the Captain, Daryl Dragon, died, Tennille by his side. Thank God my physical therapist can’t see into my monkey mind, because surely she’d fail to understand this detailed tangent, but one song, one note, can send you places.

I have far to go so that my weak hip and collapsed foot arch don’t bench me, wrecking my ability to run pain free. I’ll have to do the homework, draping myself over an exercise ball, sucking in my gut and pressing my feet behind me, working my glutes and resolve to get strong again. That ball which I ordered last week still sits in our playroom waiting for me as I scrub the colander, slick with spaghetti residue.

crete dress
Leaving the Lyle Lovett concert on my birthday, headed home for that second dessert

My recent birthday carb loading – dinner and dessert, then dessert again (Alon’s midnight cake afterwards at home) – lasted several days. That pasta I made yesterday, filled with my favorite things – shrimp, red pepper, onion, garlic, spinach, tomatoes, corn, all doused in a lemony garlic wine goodness — has left me sluggish. Despite loving the hefty portion I inhaled, I’m reminded what my gyn advised, “Carbs are not your friend.”

HUMILITY

Not sure why I’m so restless or what’s happened exactly, but likely it’s a classic case of smack dab in the middle aged-ness. I used to believe I’d beat the odds of getting that mid-life middle, that I wouldn’t hobble when I got out of bed in the morning, and that my skin tone would stay even, and not spotty like my grandmother’s. Mostly, I assumed I’d wise up, find work that would fill me up, harnessing my energy, creativity and enthusiasm. I’m realizing I’m still at that same fork in the road obsessed with getting my direction right. Or is it left?

And then I turn on the sobering news of late and I feel completely self-absorbed, shallow and in need of a mindset makeover. I’m still alive, aren’t I? It’s just that I hardly recognize myself some days, here at home with my ordinary puttering rhythm, going on almost two years now. There’s that feeling I haven’t done much yet – I’ve barely scratched the surface — and I’m sending myself regular reminders that I’m supposed to be farther along, yet other reminders that I ought to sit with this a bit, right here in this moment. I guess the instruction is take off the brakes and give yourself a break.

A sunflower I planted about to bloom

ENCOURAGEMENT

Finally, there are these three: brilliant writers and thinkers and strugglers, each chipping away like all of us are, who’ve shared their personal, yet universal insights, a few favorites I’m sharing, too:

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it… I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. –Anne Lamott

We can choose courage or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both. Not at the same time.”Brene Brown

“The women I love and admire for their strength and grace did not get that way because shit worked out. They got that way because shit went wrong and they handled it. They handled it a thousand different ways on a thousand different days, but they handled it. Those women are my superheroes.”Elizabeth Gilbert

These are days

These are days you’ll remember
Never before and never since
I promise
Will the whole world be warm as this
And as you feel it
You’ll know it’s true
That you are blessed and lucky
It’s true that you
Are touched by something
That will grow in you, in you

These are days you’ll remember
When May is rushing over you with desire
To be part of the miracles you see in every hour
You’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky
It’s true that you
Are touched by something
That will grow and bloom in you

These are days

These are the days you might fill with laughter until you break
These days you might feel a shaft of light
Make its way across your face
And when you do you’ll know how it was meant to be
See the signs and know their meaning
It’s true
You’ll know how it was meant to be
Hear the signs and know they’re speaking to you, to you

Source: LyricFind