Sunday, August 26, 2007
August 26, 2007 Just breathe . . . .
It's been a memorable few weeks since I last wrote. I have been really afraid of meeting with my doctors and hearing what happens next. I have had good days and bad days, masked by Percocet and worry. My mood fluctuates and the dark moments are frightening.
I finally weaned myself off the Percocet, but not before embarking on a new course of reconstruction. Fortunately for me, Advil (ibuprofen) works better than Percocet at managing the pain. You can't even imagine the extreme uncomfortableness of these procedures. Dr. Tsao Wu takes a giant syringe (60 cc of sterile saline) and slowly injects it into my expander implant, asking me "How does that feel?" about every 23 seconds. It took me a while to realize I wasn't breathing, which made it difficult to answer the question. Oh, and it gets better! When she's done on the right, she fills up the syringe and does it to the other side. AAAACK!
I look like an absolute freak, with these hard things under my skin. I wouldn't call them breasts. I will never have breasts again. I have rock-hard bumps where my breasts used to be. Eventually, after I complete radiation, the expanders will be removed and I'll get more natural-looking implants. (I hope I don't become one of those women who shows off her boob job to her friends like a fashion accessory.) These do not feel like a part of me and I am not attached to them. They're just there so I look more normal in clothes.
During every procedure, my friend Colleen has been there, literally holding my hand and watching the doctor. Visualize this: I am holding my breath, eyes tightly closed, and trying to focus -- or maybe not focus -- on what's happening to me. This isn't like any of the cancer treatments I've been through. It's just extreme discomfort for the sake of vanity, so I don't wake up some day and realize my breasts are gone, and then fall into a deep, dark depression from which I never emerge.
I just don't think that's gonna happen, implants or no implants. I know lots of women who lack breasts, and they're not unhappy. To put a positive spin on it: we are all happy that our cancer is under control. We are satisfied with life!
Admittedly, we have scars, both emotional and physical. Lots of people have scars, have experienced life's ups and downs, have weathered a few storms, and have great stories to tell. I have heard so many of these stories, and I'm here to tell you there are people out there who are a lot tougher than I am. What I'm going through is trivial.
Studies have shown that the patients who fare the best during these kinds of trials and struggles are those with a strong support structure. Knowing that people care makes all the difference to me. My friends have been so helpful and supportive. My INMM colleagues send their best wishes in the form of a weekly cleaning service (isn't that nice?). The soccer team parents bring over yummy food and provide rides for Rachel. Friends have persuaded their prayer groups to pray for me, and I've received dozens of cards in the mail, verses, inspirational books, and a prayer cloth from my sister-in-law Karla. The folks from work call and send emails to brighten my day. My bunco girlfriends (pictured above) provide food, laughter, and rides to the doctor. My Kappa sisters call, write, and arrange fun get-togethers (those are the Kappas below). And my family has been so good to me.
The most incredible thing happened this weekend. I had a knock on my door on Saturday morning, and my boss, Al, was waiting there. Earlier in the week, he and I made arrangements for a landscaping contractor to do a few jobs around my house. "What are you doing here?" I asked. He said the crew would be showing up momentarily, and soon after a dump truck came with a load of landscaping rock. Then, the crew started to arrive. Surprise! Fifteen people from work showed up with wheelbarrows, trucks, chain saws and shovels to landscape my yard. Fifteen people! On their day off! They worked for six hours to give me the most amazing gift. I couldn't believe my eyes. I am so humbled, so overwhelmed. MY FRIENDS ARE SO KIND AND GENEROUS!
I have been worried about my radiation treatments and what the pathology report meant in terms of my overall prognosis. I met with my radiation oncologist, Dr. Goss. You may remember I had an unsettling meeting with him before surgery, and I was freaking out about the upcoming radiation and some of the comments that he made. My medical oncologist said she would find another doc for me if I wanted someone else. I refused, saying I thought I wasn't in the right frame of mind to really hear what he had to say last time. Now that the pathology report was out, I was ready to listen to him.
I was happy with our visit this time. Colleen went with me and took copious notes. (Colleen preps me before each doctor visit; we go over every question that I need to ask). He said he had talked to the pathologist, my medical oncologist (Marshall), my surgeon (Smith), and my plastic surgeon (Tsao Wu). Yes, all of them. He talked about my treatment (radiation only on the left side to blast all the remaining lymph nodes and muscle tissue) and was confident that I was going down the right path. He explained the benefits of radiation and the downside too. He said I'm doing the right thing for my reconstruction; he was concerned earlier, but he spoke with my plastic surgeon and she straightened him out. He explained the results of the path report in a way that helped me understand what the pathologist saw. He described the additional surgery that Dr. Smith wants to do, and said it was a "no brainer" to do this after radiation when Dr. Tsao Wu replaces my expanders with real implants rather than to have a separate surgery. He talked about the likelihood of finding any additional cancer cells (low) even though it's prudent to go back in to get a clean margin. And finally, he explained (with a little bit of hedging) about my prognosis. He said the most important indicator was that I had responded to the chemotherapy. The chemo trumps everything (assuming you remove the tumors surgically). He said my response to chemo was "excellent", which gave me a much better prognosis. Using modern radiation methods will improve my chances of survival by 7 percent, which is significant, but not as important as chemo.
Did I mention that Colleen holds my hand during treatments? The power of human touch is amazing. But I suspect she's really restraining me, and not trying to make me feel better. Otherwise I would run out of the room. FYI, a picture of Colleen appears on this post somewhere. See if you can find her. Ha!
My next step is to get a compression sleeve for my left arm. This will help prevent lymphedema from developing when I fly on an airplane. I'm going to Tucson next month for a soccer tournament, and I sure hope this sleeve works. My fellow cancer survivor friends tell me I'll never fly without one again. Oh, the joy.
Starting in mid-September, I'll have radiation for six and a half weeks, then another operation to remove the expanders, remove the additional layer of pectoral muscle to get a clean deep margin, and put in the permanent implants. The reconstruction should be finished by the end of the year, and the new, improved version of Grace will be back at work in 2008.
And then I can breathe again. Whew.