Deal with it

One Valentine’s Day I framed a quote that Amelia and I love: Maybe everything is already ok. It’s a good one, and true most of the time, but it’s work. It’s not putting your head in the sand or plugging your ears. It’s meeting things head on, acknowledging them, understanding them, and moving on.

Acknowledging the past is an important part of healing from any kind of trauma. I’m not one to put on a happy face on and skip through life with one breast exclaiming, “Everything is great!” No. Now that chemo is behind me I will dig deep into my feelings about losing a body part, an amputation.

When I look back at other traumatizing things that have happened in my life (and there have been a lot – I could write another dozen blogs), I am grateful. I wouldn’t be where I am in this world without these traumas because I chose to grow through them and in spite of them. I will grow through cancer and my mastectomy as well, but not without some work. Not dealing with the emotions of my mastectomy is like emotional suicide. If I ignore it, it doesn’t go away.

All these questions and feelings have started popping up about walking around with one breast:  Am I really going to march around in a tank top publicly when it gets warm? What do I wear when I swim? Who the hell cares? How do I support the left one? I need to design my own uni-boob bra! I’d say about 80% of me doesn’t give a hoot about how I look publicly; I’m just glad to be alive. But 20% of me is insecure and full of shame and way too concerned about what others see.

There are options, I’m just not interested in them. Like “foobs,” that is, fake boobs, the inserts you put into your bra. Or reconstruction, which I opted to not do. These are very personal choices and there are no right answers. Dealing with what I now have works best for me, learning to accept my body in its most natural state, even though there is less of it now. Maybe everything is already ok.

 

 

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Life after chemo

My last bad chemo was Wednesday (taxotere and carboplatin), and I find myself reflecting and wondering, What does this all mean? Where am I going next? It would be easy to disappear back down the path into “normal” life, but I choose not to.

It’s common for cancer patients to get depressed and disillusioned when their chemotherapy regimen has ended, and it makes sense when you think about it. For the last 18 weeks I’ve had continuous contact with nurses and doctors who monitored my health. In some ways getting chemo is sickly comforting – it’s supposed to be destroying cells that want to destroy my body. And now I’m not getting it anymore. The security net of chemo has been taken away. Now I get to free fall and figure out recovery on my own.

You can see the chemo on my fingernails like growth rings on a tree, except it’s not growth, it’s destruction. If you look closely you can see six ridges on my thumb nails from the six chemo treatments. Interruptions in my cell growth. My anti-growth rings. One by one the ridges will disappear over time as my healthy cells take back my body.

With chemo out of the picture I am getting a glimpse of where I’m headed, but I’m also looking in the rear view mirror. Everything has happened so quickly and I really haven’t had time to grieve the loss of my breast and five months of my life. Chaotic doesn’t even begin to describe how the last five months have been. When I take a hard look, the chaos has been around a lot longer than that; it’s been more like two years. Cancer shoved that chaos over the edge adding in a big dose of terror and mortality.

It feels like I’m going backwards, something I don’t really ever do, but I have to if I’m going to process all of this in a healthy way. I have to back up to my mastectomy and take on those feelings. I have to figure out what this all means for me and where I am going next. Backwards is the new forward.

Scar tissue

The ultrasound was clear yesterday! Woo! The doctor at the Wende Breast Clinic said it is scar tissue. One less thing to worry about.

In case you didn’t read my previous post, last week Dr. S (my oncologist) bugged her eyes out of her head when she felt what she thought were lumps above my mastectomy scar. She announced in her all-business Romanian accent, “These should not be here! I am ordering an ultrasound immediately!” Amelia and I were on edge to say the least. Let’s face it, we all write stories, usually bad ones.

After the appointment with Dr. S, Amelia and I talked about how my breast surgeon, Dr. Y, would probably have reacted differently. He would probably say in his chastising Jewish accent, Look, that area is going to change. It’s totally fine. Stop worrying. Are you stretching? Show me how high your arm can go. 

It’s good Dr. S wanted it checked out even if it was a false alarm. This is a time when if anything feels not quite right, you get it checked. This is not a time to ignore the little things; it’s a time for hyper vigilance.

 

No limits for Leah, please

Before cancer I never really thought about my body’s physical limits because there weren’t any, or I just ignored them if there were. When I was in my late twenties, I got a pretty serious neck injury from playing rugby. (If you know rugby: I was the hooker. During a scrum the other team came in extraordinarily low. My props were too high and I was flipped over by neck, twice.) I should have gone to the hospital. I look back at this and think what was wrong with me and every other person who saw this? Oh, yeah, we were in our twenties.

For days afterward I could hardly hold my head up and I couldn’t move my neck at all. Whether I was standing or sitting, the pressure of my head on top of my neck was excruciating. I played rugby a few more months. Not too bright. I finally went to a neurologist who found two precariously bulged discs in my neck, C4 and C5. He told me that I couldn’t lift more than one grocery bag in each arm, forever. He had a list of things that I could never do again: rugby (duh), running, mountain biking, rock climbing, anything where I’d be looking upward or jarring my spine.

It was a pretty grim prognosis, and one I couldn’t accept. So I started icing my neck regularly, stretching, weight lifting, and strengthening other parts of my body. I had to re-learn how to lift without agitating my neck; that was my goal. It took five to ten years, but today my neck has no physical limits and I am pain-free.

Since my breast surgery, I’ve been counting down the days until I can resume normal activity; the doctor told me four to six weeks. So last week I announced to Amelia, “Twenty-one days!” Meaning I’d be able to dive back into work then. She gave me the oh-boy-you-really-have-NO-idea look and said, “You know you won’t immediately be 100%, right? That’s just how long before you can start working again, and building up your strength and flexibility is going to take time. You’re not going to be at 100% for while.” This is how naïve I am about my own recovery from major surgery. I seriously had no clue. I really did think at six weeks I’d be back to my normal crazy level of working and ready to pick up a 160 pound keg.

When I was at the surgeon’s office the other day, he said around 70% of the healing from surgery takes place in the first eight weeks, and the other 30% takes place over the next year. What. The. Hell. A year? 365 days? This type of news spins me into quite a tizzy, and claustrophobia sets in like the walls are closing in on me. I need to get back to 100% as soon as I can. Sooner than a year.

Now I start counting down again: 338 days.

The new normal

September 29, 2015

By Amelia Sauter

Everything has changed. Our daily lives are filled with different conversations, ones I didn’t imagine having until we turned 85 years old. They include bizarre lines that have never come out of my mouth before like Good job peeing! and The fluid in your drainage balls is looking pretty good today and Don’t worry, Leah, I don’t mind doing the dishes. I wake up in the morning and think immediately about cancer. The phone rings and instead of cursing it, I jump to grab it in case it’s someone from the surgeon’s office with new information. I can’t sleep well at night because I’m listening in case Leah needs something, and I’m worried about rolling into her, too. We tried sleeping on opposite sides of the bed so I wasn’t near the wound and the drains, but after 20 years together, it was like trying to sign your name with the opposite hand. Illegible, disorienting, and just plain silly.

Cancer makes everything else seem stupid, like filling out the planning paperwork for the Health Department for our restaurant’s new kitchen and getting the truck inspected before the end of the month. Our jokes have become morbid, like when we were both dragging ass in the grocery store and I said, “I’ve got a migraine. What’s your lame excuse?” And when I made us dirty martinis with the juice from our empanada olives, and announced one was Caregiver size and one Patient size and told her to guess which one was hers.

Leah doesn’t need much now, and I don’t know what to do with myself. She won’t be working for the next four weeks. What’s my new normal? Nothing is what it was a month ago. Cancer literally stopped us in our tracks. Now I don’t know where to start, and I’m not sure where I’m going. What do I want to do today? What should I be doing today? Those are two different questions, and I don’t have answers to either one.