breast cancer, connection, Health

Ta-ta Ganache

A few months ago, I joined an online group of women also dealing with breast cancer. There are five of us in this private group and using an app, similar to walkie-talkies, we post videos to each other to check in, share advice, build each other up, or simply vent. I’d been wanting to connect with others dealing with cancer’s fallout, but I now realize I needed distance from it to reach out, feel as if I’m going to be okay before I opened the gates to talk about all that wasn’t. I’d need a life preserver if I were to willingly jump in. There would be seemingly little risk, like a game of strip poker, but only down to your underwear. I saw my strain of bravery, this vulnerability “lite,” peeking out to see who might be there, and ripe for a connection, I found it.

I’m two years out with this thing they call “survivorship,” and with another recent uneventful bilateral MRI in the books, but these women are in the thick of it as we speak, getting double mastectomies (one bidding adieu, “Ta-ta, ta-tas” with a sugar coated “ta-ta” sculptured cake with chocolate ganache inside), chemo, and with radiation ahead, and their experiences, like my own, are each unique. Ten years older than the oldest of these women, I bring a combination of mother hen, cheerleader and wise sage, and having something to offer is deeply rewarding and an encouraging reminder that I now have perspective behind me, but I didn’t expect the PTSD. You move through all the things, doing what your doctors say, popping the pills you need, showing up where and when things are scheduled, but you never exactly process the scary busyness that takes hold, that it’s YOU going through that thing we all associate with dread, that invasive spreader whose reputation is to run amok with nothing but destruction in mind.

Enter modern medicine and its loving hands which set to work fashioning an impenetrable fence around me–not scary barbed wire, but a charming, strong wooden fence with heart shaped vines climbing its pickets. My body was open to it all, ready for the help, since we’re designed to heal. Today, the shoulder that wouldn’t rotate quite right–a reminder of surgery, biopsies and radiation–with time and a little work, is now cooperating and acting mostly like it used to, a now seamless part of me no longer vying for my attention. The scar tissue that felt like a pierced ear does, little knots from where needles and a knife twirled inside, is smoothing out, no longer a jumbled mess, but becoming part of a whole again, connected like it once was, but with greater intention. The hair on my head, once gone in places and growing in as little sprigs, has returned and no longer ignores the hair brush, but celebrates it, and it’s nearly ready to be collected into a pony tail, which will be the nape of my neck’s hero as heat and humidity get here.

Initially with the news of a diagnosis, there was the, “How could you betray me so? I thought we were on the same team, wanted the same things?” mindset I took on with my body, which, without my permission, had an invader following some appalling set of instructions. I could neither speak the language in which all my cells were surely now fluent, nor could I override the faulty instruction. The waiting for doctors to weigh in, drugs to suffocate these wayward intruders, and some semblance of normal cortisol to return and restore my hijacked endocrine system seemed endless. 

Then I got started, did the appointments, took the IV, the radiation beams, accepted the suppers lovingly assembled, and invited friends to go with me to chemo and on walks. It was there during treatments and on those walks that I think I saw things the clearest. There, at your most vulnerable–I mean, you’ve got cancer for God’s sake–people want to be near you, want a part of you and this godawful experience, not to gawk or get closer to the accident on the side of the road, but for the sole purpose of you not having to carry this alone. They are there to pick up the slack, commissioning their time, their listening and their love to quiet the chaos and snuff out the cancer. 

It’s there when you’re at your lowest, in the scariest time of your life, in the middle of the cruelest interruption you could imagine, that love, as pure and unconditional as a mother’s, keeps right on flowing as it always has, unopposed and easy. When you’re getting low, there are filling stations everywhere–at the end of a text, an email, a phone call, and just when you need to hide under the covers, your cat sidles up beside you. It’s there in the videos I’ve left for these women and the ones I’ve gotten back, and with each exchange, each giving and taking, there is a recharging of all of us and of love itself. Some are finding since they can vent in this space, they are now able to enjoy conversations with their partners that aren’t about cancer, for a change. It’s freeing to get it out, but also a reminder that when you do, people don’t go away. Everything changes, but the good ones, the people you need by your side, the ones you have attracted, these people, they stick around. 

You can fill up anytime, and have seconds, thirds, fourths even. Whenever you want a clean plate to start over, there are plenty of those too. The more you give, the more you make. Like breast milk. Forgive me, but I do love a good circle back. 

I wrote this poem for this dear group, but I think it applies to anyone who is struggling with something and feeling scared, separate, or isolated. We are designed to heal and to connect, and we can’t do one without the other. 

SISTERS

Across the pond, up east, down south and in between, we’ve formed a bond, an open circle, one none of us could have foreseen. Women, strong, brave and kind, each with hearts of gold, sending each other videos that nourish the fold.

We are daughters, lovers, some of us mothers, too. We’ll mother a stranger and we’ll mother you. Here, though, we are sisters, together locked arm-in-arm. We’ve made a place that fills us up and tears us up, but which can do us no harm. 

It’s a love fest, some say, one that appears to lead the way. It’s a fest about breasts, no matter if they go or if they stay. Whatever stage, whatever grade, whatever scans about yourself, you bring your truth, you bring your heart, and for that you, my dear, are top shelf. 

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, 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)
cooking, Covid-19, Family, Health, renovation, uncertainty

Is it OCD, ADD, or DT?

MONDAY: I was texting with a friend who asked, “How’s your Monday been?” and I thought to myself, I could respond with an upbeat “Pretty good” or “Ok” or “Good, you?” or just cut to the chase. I chose the latter: “The damn cat woke me up last night with his throwing up.”

Louie had a long walk earlier in the yard with the boys, walks more about munching grass than walking on it. He over-indulged again, his system expelling the remarkably intact blades at a most inconvenient 2:45 am hour. The horrible sound of a cat bellowing as his body expands and contracts instantly wakes me and no doubt my husband too, yet we both lay there just like we used to with nighttime baby cries, waiting it out to see who’s going to get up. I rose quickly hoping to avoid it underfoot, whispering the mantra in my mind, “Please don’t go on the rug, please don’t go on the rug.” Thankfully the cat found a spot in the hall on the heart pine floor in plain sight which I could clean up before someone walked on it or the dog took care of it, the more vulgar of the two possibilities. I climbed back into bed trying to convince my mind that I hadn’t just disrupted our peaceful sleep when Louie continued droning for some two hours until he either gave up or I slipped back into sleep and lost track. Can’t determine how many hours I got, but the sum total was crappy sleep, which sends one’s brain, what’s left of it, into hopeless places.

Now up, I tried doubling up on coffee thinking I could snap out of it and feel awake, but that either works well and you’re wired much of the day accomplishing loads or it has the opposite effect, like melatonin got stirred in. I got the latter. Scrolling social media didn’t help support any semblance of a new-day can-do cheerful mood. More articles shared about college openings and mask wearing. It’s worrisome. Like many others, my son’s college is not requiring masks worn in classrooms despite professors rallying together revolting, some 700 signing a letter. Will our governor budge and put in this mandate that will trickle down to the University System and the individual schools? How long is it going to take? Some states have moved their mask wearing needle from “optional” to “suggested.” I guess we should be happy for small victories, but how about we hop over the “suggested” stepping stone and just land on “required?” Seems with this pandemic we’re going to have to get there anyway, so why the snail’s pace which allows so much sickness to take hold and pushes hospitals beyond their limits?

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Sad stick.

All this together time and some days stupid stuff grates on my nerves. I went to butter my toast and there was this. Who does this? My mother never let us maul our butter. We had to cut individual pats, put them on our plates and then it was our choice how to apply it to things more complicated than toast, like corn for instance: horizontally rotate the cob with buttered knife overhead or spear the butter and apply it to a diagonally rotating cob, hoping each kernel gets some before it melts onto the plate. I wanted us to be that family that rolled our corn onto a brand spankin’ new stick of butter, the contented cob twirling like a pig reveling in mud, and then watch the stick soften and mold into a sway back. But we never did it that way which is why it’s now unsettling to find diagonal hurried jabs disfiguring what was a perfectly fine stick of butter.

And the eggs too. No one’s fault here, but on a day when I’ve gotten little sleep, the carton needs to be symmetrically organized or else I’m finding my brain resorts to arrive at a workable configuration, and when no possibility presents, a plan for that surplus egg.

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Ahhh, we’ve got balance.

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Which egg will be the extra?

 

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Sexy planks await.

It may seem like we’re standing still but things are moving. The long-awaited lumber delivery happened so our porch renovation is closer still. After weeks, make that months of delay, Carolina Lumber came through and it made me so happy I could sing! Not sure if it all actually came from Carolina, but I went there in my mind. Enormous structural beams wait for when the larger-than-what-was-earlier-expected crew arrives to hoist them into place. Maybe even as soon as tomorrow!

The porch is going to be another place to go, delivering all the benefits of outside – sights, sounds and smells – with all the comforts of inside – no mosquitos, roof overhead, adjacent to the kitchen and bath. Not to mention the talented architect on-site who’s beautifully drawn it all and will ensure it gets built to its glorious specifications. The pets also will be in heaven.

 

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Evan’s bench has a reclaimed wood top, leftovers from our renovated garden shed.

More lumber, new and reclaimed, put to good use. May I present the bench that Evan made (with Joe’s design help). Sturdy for plants or people, and as it now stands, perfectly positioned for social distancing on our porch too.

TUESDAY: Some good news! As I’d wished for yesterday, mask wearing will now be required on our state’s college campuses. Seems jumping to “required” didn’t take as long as I thought. A seemingly simple step which will afford far better outcomes for students and faculty returning to campus. While I’m at it, I wish for good news in November’s election. Just putting it out there.

IMG_9902These days at home together may be different than what we’re used to, but they offer the same cast of characters and rather predictable if not comical commentary. Take tonight for instance. Joe walks in the kitchen as NBC Nightly News is interviewing an adjacent state to the south’s governor, and all he can do is lean into the TV, get the gist of the story, utter “douche bag” and walk away. This is where we are.

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Not picking up.

At least twice a week timed late in the afternoon, I reach for the phone and nearly pick up until – whoa! – don’t touch that handset! Please DT, don’t call me.

WEDNESDAY: Ben is busy making garments and new patterns arrive, and I can hear the hum of the sewing machine churning out a jacket, a turtleneck for his girlfriend or in the case of today, pants. Evan has been helping Joe make railings for the new screened porch and both boys are learning more about woodworking, captivated by possibilities. They’ve each dealt with these strange times with grace and patience and resilience and despite not being able to stray too far from this home we’re quarantined inside, they’ve managed to fill their days rotating through simple pastimes – biking, frisbee, wiffle ball – or taking a drive to the mountains, just the two of them.

Joe returned yesterday from the store, as if just in from a hunt, hauling the kill stuffed in white Publix bags over his shoulder – pork ribs and ground beef (and ground turkey thrown in for my sake). Somehow, we managed to rearrange the fridge and freezer again to fit it all – a favorable problem in these times.

A simple burger normally eaten alone for dinner or with some chips or carrots now needs to be elevated – maybe baked beans on the side, green salad with veggies and homemade dressing, and what about for dessert? We are all relying on something to look forward to, each equally vested in turning these monochromatic evenings into something colorful, and food is the logical start. The days ramp up to dinnertime and you hope it’s all you hoped for and then you digest and clean up and begin sketching out the next sit down.

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Patterns and toes.

At least once a week there’s an Amazon Prime truck parked in front of our house. I run to the door wondering, have my vitamins arrived? Or maybe its that cord I lost and reordered for my external hard drive? Ben rushes to the door too, considering his own package, has my zipper come? He’s been sewing and ordering fabrics and now is waiting on an Etsy zipper to complete a jacket he’s begun. It’s as if Santa’s sleigh is out front and those few minutes he spends sorting out packages nearly kills us as we wait and wonder. Surely, we were good this year, good enough for one of these to be ours?

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Divine especially with salted butter and honey.

I’ve stayed busy baking, perfecting various favorites of mine, even taste testing on a few friends. Maybe this little hobby will grow, and I can start another little business. Obviously we must eat if we’re going to live, but if we can infuse the experience with memorable taste and texture and depth and light, I think we’ve accomplished something important. The days can be hard, but the meals don’t have to be. They offer chances to unwind and savor something satisfying. Might as well make them extraordinary. I’m working on it.

Today at least has gotten more interesting. As I sat on my bed to write, I noticed my vision increasingly strange, my lens now a watery veil, with bubbly visual noise in the corners. This being a pandemic coupled with my recent health “thing,” I was on the phone with my oncologist and eye doctor immediately. Seems I had an ocular migraine. They tell me they’re not cause for worry, yet their origins aren’t completely understood. I had one ten years ago during a particularly stressful event, details I won’t bore you with. So is it stress? Very likely the culprit. I know discord, tumult, or too much uncertainty make me uncomfortable. I was that girl when overhearing her parents argue who would make them kiss and make up. They used to make my siblings and me do that, so I figured why not them too? Besides, I hated hearing them argue. Ultimately, they’d oblige and offer up a disgruntled peck on the cheek at best, and I always stood my ground until they did. They would go on to divorce. Damn.

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Normally a nearby busy park in summer, this scene typifies life now.

Today we’ve got the perfect storm on our hands with all that’s going on in the world and in our own homes. Even though it changes by the hour, consistently the news hasn’t been good. I feel scared leaving my bubble, and so like others, I rarely do. I’ve heard friends announce before that they can’t watch the news, but I’ve been fine with it on all these many years. However these days I think it is finally getting to me and manifesting on a physical level, as with today’s migraine. I realize good nutrition, exercise and rest have absolutely got to remain in place but a little more fun needs to find its way in, too. On the peace-of-mind upside, as with colleges and universities, Atlanta will soon have a required mask mandate in place. That’s a start.

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Nice to sit next to someone for a change. Robert Frost with me in Agnes Scott’s fountain courtyard.

Despite its continued efforts, my brain can’t wrap itself around the layer upon layer of difficulties in our world that you can never fully unwrap. It almost seems shallow tackling insignificant household minutiae when there’s this enormous elephant in the room trying with all its might to get out, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do. Or a better analogy would be there’s a massive tornado, with a tail the likes of which you’ve never seen, and it’s coming to a neighborhood near you. Except when? Where? Have you battened down the hatches sufficiently? There is no perfect solution. Except there is that life-saving trifecta, our own part we each can and should do: Wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands.

Finally, I asked my family to sum up in three words what living together during this pandemic has been like, and our different perspectives are interesting:

Susan: Togetherness, nourishing, unpredictable

Evan: Uncertainty, boredom, projects

Ben: Free time, productivity, relaxation

Joe: Surreal, enjoyable, virtual

 

(Stealing from Garrison Keillor)… Be well and keep in touch.

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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 answer.

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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