The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Aren’t we done here? I’m one thousand one hundred ninety-eight days post lumpectomy (believe me, you’d count too), and by the looks of things I’m breezing along—religiously scheduling and attending annual mammograms and scans, daily popping my treatment pill, going to New York and whining, wining and dining with my breast friends (aka breasties), and even raising money on a cancer walk. By all accounts, I am evolving into an unremarkable cancer patient. Scratch that. Survivor. I’ve done the rose smelling, looking forward to things, looking back trying to flatten the bumpy reality of this ride, and done my damnedest to remove the cancer distraction, survive, and get back to the work of evolving. 

I’m doing all the things. Taking the daily ten-year pill (Anastrazole) to block estrogen from feeding any mf-ers who dare sidle back up to the table for a meal. The twice a year insanely expensive (thank God for insurance) Prolia injections, which for half the year halt my bone sloughing activities so I can climb out of osteoporosis, which I can thank aforementioned ten-year pill for. So far my spine has graduated into osteopenia and hopefully the hips will study hard and make the grade too. And then there are those mammograms we women all loathe, but the highly uncomfortable smush we must enlist. 

A friend who also didn’t sign up for this sistership remarked about the surprising fear you get when there is something new. You spiral all over again hyperventilating over endless frantic Google searches. Some fear is healthy and helpful because it enables you to react quickly if you need to (fight or flight) but being an expert anxious overthinker who can slide into panic mode on a moment’s notice is not. 

Take Tuesday, for example. I’d been noticing some swelling on my left side where all the hell had broken loose in late 2019, and it seemed the asymmetry was subtly increasing. I don’t need symmetry, but I do need consistency. Once cancer enters the scene, change, the only constant, is above all not welcome. Since my annual MRI was the next day, I slipped into an exceptionally nasty rabbit hole, you know the one where you start bawling those sad guttural notes and realize you won’t have the chance to finish several important projects you finally had the guts to start, but which you’ve only just begun. You’ve drifted back to that island alone, back on the torn raft, and once again you can’t bring yourself to glance back at the shore where you’ve left everyone going about their enviable ordinary lives which, from your vantage point, look sparkly, exceptional even. 

You replay all your decisions. Why didn’t I just get a double mastectomy and be rid of this troublesome attention-seeking tissue, which per my doctor wasn’t a better option since lumpectomy+radiation = mastectomy when it comes to outcomes. You lament all the things you never stepped up to do because you let self-doubt win out. You won’t get to see that beautiful blue paint you picked out for the house you’re renovating, whose renovation has been at a standstill for three months, or live to see the day the new upstairs toilet is plumbed down the hall from your bedroom so you can stop sleepwalking the 22 stairs down to the bathroom in the far corner of the house. Your empathetic cat jumps on your lap and looks into your teary eyes trying his best to calm you, stretching his 16-lb body over your chest, his sweet, adoring attempt at a hug. Bo, my lovebug. You appreciate it, but it’s still your problem and yours alone. That’s the lone journey that is cancer. 

I broke down to my breast friends in a sad teary video unlike any I’ve left. Historically I’ve been the optimistic one, you could say annoyingly cheerful even, and letting this other woman run amok and star in her own video was a risk I was willing to take. Someone needed to join me on this ride back out to sea. The response came in sweet videos from these ladies who get it.

The MRI was as they always are. Expensive, a lesson in patience and stillness, and as always, I can’t understand why those socks they give you with your gown aren’t donated to people who could use a pair of socks, any pair especially these which are warm and have treads. I’ve asked and they’re thrown away. Maybe I will live long enough to spearhead a hospital sock campaign to gather them all up and distribute them to the sockless? Each time I request classical music to accompany the MRI’s knocking/phone off the hook/discotheque soundtrack, and because so far it’s worked, why switch music and tempt fate? Afterward the technician said they usually read them quickly, so I figured maybe end of day I’d hear something. 

The nurse practitioner I’d called at my breast surgeon’s office returned my call and they could see me in a few hours at 1pm. I wanted them to feel firsthand this swollen asymmetry and maybe an ultrasound would show something an MRI couldn’t? I stopped to pick up coffee and ran into a friend, the same one who’s walked to radiation with me a few times and who’s mostly up to speed on things. Her simple, “How are you?” brought forth from me an abbreviated non-teary-eyed version of my plight, that I was sandwiching an errand between scan appointments. It all felt rather healthy, despite the great unknown I still faced, and thankfully the conversation moved on to lots of other areas like kids, work, house renovation. 

 “Your tissue is folding around your scars and pulling up causing the puffiness. See where this is?” the nurse practitioner asked. I don’t see anything unusual here.” The tears, thousands of which were still collected behind my eyes from the day before, broke free and this poor woman had unwittingly found herself in a scene. I started hugging her and it was clear she was not a big hugger, but with no choice, did it anyway. I must have hugged her two more times groveling with my, “You don’t understand how crazy this makes me” excuse for carrying on. She added that radiation is the gift that keeps on giving, resulting in dramatic tissue changes that don’t necessarily settle over time. A few more hopeful nods from her and she got the hell out of dodge, and I got dressed, but not before leaving my breasties a video. 

With mask pulled off my face to reveal the full red puffiness of my tear-stained checks, I left an update to the tune of “The nurse practitioner thinks it’s okay and the ultrasound looks normal; it’s just my tissue is pulled and puffed up.” Released from prison, I moved quickly through the elevators and parking deck, reaching my husband with my get out of jail card news and then left my sister a voicemail, which was barely audible through the endless supply of tears I’m now able to produce on command. The breast friends fired back multiple videos of relief which gave me a place to land. It’s much more fun to skip out of jail if you’ve got folks cheering on your escape since they too have been incarcerated. 

In her video, one of my friends mentioned how fear of recurrence for her is almost worse than the actual initial diagnosis, which I wholeheartedly agree with. We now know too much and with this new knowledge, our mind is an even far more dangerous place to be. She shared the analogy she’d read about ( of having had cancer being compared to having a mountain lion in your fridge. It’s there. You can hide it. You can live with it because it’s in the fringe, but sometimes you open it and are reminded that it’s always going to be there. 

Home to find an email with MyChart MRI breast w/ and w/o contrast results somewhat inconclusive:

Finding 1: Area in the left breast appears benign.
Finding 2: Area in the left breast requires additional evaluation. Additional mammographic images are recommended. A possible ultrasound may be warranted following the mammographic views. Recommend diagnostic evaluation with mammogram and possible ultrasound for left breast swelling. 

More calls to doctor to see what they make of MRI and ultrasound findings when seen together, and the surgeon suggested a diagnostic mammogram. When pressed, the PA admitted additional evaluation can result when the patient is voicing a new complaint, aka me, and they take it seriously. I’m glad I can’t seem to keep my mouth shut because I want that comfy place with more eyes on me. I want my file to be stamped “free to go” until the next crisis, ahem scan, happens. 

On March 8, I’ll be back at the cancer center for a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound, and I’ll get same-day results, which my PA expects will be fine. After that, I will begin weekly breast lymphatic massage therapy, a healthy drive up to Roswell where whomever is assigned my high maintenance breast will manually redistribute the tissue and I’ll be more comfortable. Whatever it takes, sign me up. 


Check Yourself

View from the 8th floor

Cancer sucks. Went to my oncologist the other day. Routine visit. Waiting room as packed as a gym in January. I’m hoping it’s cancer screenings bringing people in for a healthy start to the new year and not the room full of cancer patients it appeared to be. The cheerful lady checking me in was wearing a Cancer Sucks button which I prefer to Fuck Cancer, if there is such a button, because while cancer does suck, that is simply a fact you can acknowledge as you set about getting rid of the thing. With a Fuck Cancer button, I see anger with a scrunched face, the very negative energy cancer probably would delight in provoking, and I’m not stooping to that f-ing level. I will occasionally use the #fuckcancer hashtag because it invites a warm camaraderie.

Foot in mouth syndrome. I showed restraint this time and shut my mouth in the lab as the last visit was mortifying. As an aside, much as I have tried to conduct myself, I similarly have taught my kids to not stare or ask people inappropriate questions, such as, “Mommy, look, that lady has a baby in her tummy” when that lady might simply have a thing for Lays chips and Breyer’s mint chip. I mean, who doesn’t? So back to last visit’s labs. I noticed that the nurse drawing my blood had lovely skin and a kind face, and I was happy to see that she was expecting too. I never ask people when they’re due because of that same advice I give my kids because what if they’re just plump? This was not the case with this woman as her weight distribution and tummy swell were clearly the hallmarks of a baby to be. I smiled and asked the question but instead of the ubiquitous, “When are you due?” or “What are you having?” I decided to give my query a unique spin and out of my mouth came this winner: “What ya got brewin’ in there?” fully assuming she’d tell me the baby’s gender. Seriously? Seriously. Smiling through a strained grin, she matter-of-factly offered up, “Honey, I’m just fat.” We found ourselves in the most pregnant of pauses and grasping at nothing, I looked away from her tummy at her bright eyes and said she looked like she was up to something, you know, with those up-to-something eyes and all she must be brewing up something?—she’s mischievous?—and then blathered on about her expert blood draw, piling on an enormous compliments and situation spin avalanche to quickly flatten my beyond ignorant and disrespectful question. We both knew it was a C- attempt at a save, but thankfully she needed to remove the needle from my vein and bandage me, so we moved on. I repeat: seriously? 🤦‍♀️

Lab etiquette. As if she were a teacher handing out gold stars, this lab tech showered me, her star student, with compliments. The instructions were kindergarten complicated: How nice that I got up when my name was called, listened to the instruction of which chair to sit in and rolled up my sleeve. Thankfully there was no time for me to search the room for the not pregnant lady and try and issue an apology expression for four months ago, which of course would have only buried me deeper.  This nurse gushed over her surprise that a patient could actually follow directions, peppering our dialogue with stories about everyone else needing to be called two or three times, missing the lab door entirely, much less locating the proper chair, and then wearing too many layers which took forever to peel off. Somehow in this same exact seat as before, this time I managed to get it right. If only A’s were this easy everywhere. 

Stop helping everyone. Anne Lamott said it best here in in this practical advice from her Ted Talk, which I rewatch every year for a good kick in the butt. Stop helping everyone. This visit found me urging my western educated highly trained oncologist to get in to see a chiropractor. Not just any chiropractor, my chiropractor. The poor guy looked strained when he walked in and said he will be standing because he has an injury from ten years ago when he fell off a ladder. From time to time his pain flares up, and today’s one of those times. He looked miserable and instead of talking about me, I focused on him. He’s been to PT and is doing the exercises, but I asked if he’d consider seeing a chiropractor because I also fell years ago going down Stone Mountain. Not to outdo his ladder story but my tailbone hit granite. What did yours encounter? Clearly, he was not interested in my chiropractic recommendation, but nonetheless I went on. After two visits I was pain free and would he like the name? He wasn’t having it.  

Lucky 7. Yes, we realize alcohol is a toxin, but still, we cancer patients like to bargain in hopes some new study has churned out an even higher drink allotment. It turns out it’s still seven drinks a week I get, but best to have one on Monday and one on Tuesday etc., instead of two on Tuesday or three on Wednesday, which can only promise more fun. I smiled a what’s the point smile and we moved on.

Carbs aren’t your friend. With labs thankfully uneventful this go round, next up was my weight, literally. Despite my practically stripping before stepping on the scale I’d still managed to gain two pounds. In my defense, I have perfected my scalloped potatoes recipe, tweaking it twice in two weeks (and loving every minute of it thank you very much). Not sure how it came to be that I live with people who don’t share this same obsession, but I happily incorporated these potatoes into breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try it!

Uneventful visits are the goal so I’m counting myself lucky this go round. As I’ve reminded you before, ladies please do monthly breast self-exams and stay current on your mammograms. xoxox


All in a Day

I was up and out to the Apple store yesterday. My iPhone 8+’s dropped calls, increasingly meek volume, and oversized heaviness when I take it for a run has had me looking at others. We’ve had a long relationship all these years and I’ve kept it safe inside a sweet yellow flowered cover. Even though its oversized screen once turned me on, it’s now time to slim down. Word is that the SE i-Phone is pint sized yet mighty and a bargain too, and after I held one, I knew that was it. Bullnosed corners as smooth as a stainless kitchen island’s and tiny, so all your fingers wrap around it, this phone is petite and curvy and lightweight, and it slides down in your pocket instead of always sticking up

Lenox Square’s new Apple store space fronts Peachtree Street and the window wall is bright and welcoming, and on this Tuesday morning void of the usual crowds. My sales person, Stef, was quick and smart and kind, and generous, too. After noticing the small chip on the corner of my phone she remarked, “We didn’t see that, did we?” and went on to credit me the full $160 trade in. She kept tabs on me as she hopped between customers, and I refreshed the SE’s tiny screen as it assumed my T-Mobile number and went about absorbing my apps and data too. We were done in no time, Stef, the SE and me, and I was released into the mall lighter, the now naked faceless 8+ staying behind.  So long, old girl, you were great.

Next on the list was breezing through the Gap. I had a gift card and they have great tees and underwear. Win win. I walked past the space turning around again because it’d been a while and I must have just passed it. Nope, it’s vanished. Poof, no Gap. The Simon Mall desk guy proclaimed it official: the Gap has left the building. Damn. 

Refusing to give up, I opted to give Bloomingdales a try. It’s calmer than cluttered Macy’s, though not exactly the price point I was after. The upper floor lingerie department was eerily quiet, and the clearance rack tucked in a carpeted corner was picked over, but I motored through it because I wasn’t leaving empty handed. Ten minutes in, the carpet underfoot felt uncomfortably thick, and the whole place seemed shop-vacced of its air. I realize I’m middle aged and on a cancer treatment pill that hurls you back into menopause, but my god, it’s hot in here! 

A guy came by asking if I needed help, but I couldn’t imagine this was his department nor was I up for seeing if he knew what a racerback bra was and where in this heat one might be hanging. “Is it warm in here to you, too?” I asked, and more than willing to vent his frustration, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “Yeah, the air’s been out since Sunday,” shaking his head from the heat and dismal sales before retreating behind a door from where I’m assuming a fan was blowing. The woman at the register told me she heard it could be three weeks before the A/C gets working. Three weeks of unairconditioned mall, and in July, no less. Get me outta here!

Pushing through the Bloomie’s sauna, I made my way back into the mall passing Pottery Barn and its striking window display of sumptuous sofas and fluffy beds. One such bed was a mess, however, and I studied it more as I walked into the store. It was more than disheveled, in fact, it was alive! Something moved and then moved again. It was then that a woman emerged from under the comforter, stood up, fixed her mussed-up hair briefly before glancing at me knowing she’d been caught as she made her way out of the store. Bag-less and purse-less, she appeared to be just a regular shopper, and otherwise didn’t present as homeless. With my mouth still gaping open I found a nearby employee. “Did you know?” I began, and he interrupted smirking futilely, “Welcome to Lenox!” He’d apparently woken her up and instructed her to leave, but she’d taken her sweet time. 

Having had more than my fill of the mall, I next inched along in Atlanta’s rush hour toward home, a few errands left to finish along the way. Finally, on the edge of Decatur something caught my eye. A chillingly familiar dark eggplant colored creature began crawling across the dashboard, its enormous antennae preceding its oval body, a filthy Porsche with a split down the center where its wings came together. I gasped, incredulous, yet unable to exit the vehicle with traffic moving and no curb cuts to turn into. It plunged down into the dash and up again closer to the steering wheel now climbing the visor mere inches from my scalp. I can handle frogs, lizards, and the occasional small snake–ok, maybe not in my car– grasshoppers, too, but am rendered frozen, completely terrified by these enormous Palmetto bugs/roaches/whatever you want to call them. 

Meanwhile, he/she crawled from my side of the dash to the passenger side and I managed to pull into a nearby McDonald’s lot swerving my car diagonally across two parking places and screeching to a halt like police do when they quickly show up to a store that’s got trouble. Now reduced to a complete mess and with my heartbeat stuck on hold, I exited the car and opened the doors exhaling repeated guttural shrieks, disgusted, and needing to climb out of my own skin. A guy leaving the McDonald’s noticed my little hissy fit and mouthed an, “Is everything okay?” and I spread my thumb and forefinger apart to approximate the size of my problem and mouthed back, ROACH, my eyes rolling. Meanwhile said roach vanished and I was now sunk sitting on the curb trying to figure out what to do as I was most assuredly not getting back in that car. Walking toward the rear car door, I noticed him on the window. I flung some mail his way and in victorious slow motion watched him sail to the pavement and casually crawl away from my car, completely unrattled by the situation in stark contrast to me.  As if escaping from jail, I hightailed it out of that lot and minutes later was home pouring myself a glass of wine, retelling the story to my husband, who seemed to welcome the humor.