Health insurance

September 30, 2015

Before I was diagnosed with cancer, Amelia and I were making some pretty big changes in our lives. Closing Felicia’s, committing to our next business, taking out loans, working non-stop on the new building. One of the ways we were looking at saving money was on health insurance. Felicia’s has been paying our health insurance most of these last 11 years. Now that Felicia’s didn’t exist, we needed to switch to Obamacare, so we decided to make every possible health care appointment before the end of the month.

Amelia knows me well. When she first started shopping around for health insurance, she knew it had to be really good because I’m the type of person that would sever my finger off and duct tape it back on if I had a hefty deductible. Amelia also knows health insurance well, and she knew she had to make it easy for me to go to the doctor or I wouldn’t go. We ended up with a “Cadillac” plan: zero deductible, awesome coverage. We have some small co-pays, but that’s it. This plan costs $1200 a month for the two of us together, something I’ve been constantly complaining about for 11 years. Until now.

I’ve always been acutely aware that most of us are only a few steps away from becoming homeless. One unexpected bad situation like a health crisis can ruin any of us, can bankrupt us, take away our homes, and even put us on the street. Deductibles and copays can kill you financially. If we had a 20% copay, just one of the tests I had done cost $5000, that would have cost us $1000 out of pocket. The surgery will likely be about $40,000, that would have been an $8,000 copay. I would be looking at $9000 out of pocket expenses right there, and that’s only the first four weeks of care. Much more could follow. Chemo? Reconstruction? A brief stay in the ICU? We’re looking at over $100K out of pocket. My 11 years of paying into health insurance just paid off.

There are people who die from many lesser things than cancer because they can’t afford health insurance. Amelia and I certainly couldn’t have afforded to pay $1200 a month ourselves for the past 11 years if our business hadn’t covered it. I’m incredibly thankful, but at the same time guilt-ridden for any other person who doesn’t have the luxury of good health insurance. These days, that is exactly what it is – a luxury. No one should be dying because they can’t afford the astronomical cost of health care, but they are. They die from a cold, the flu, an infection, cancer. That just isn’t right. Health insurance should not be an elitist thing, but it is.

So to every person who ever bought a drink at or worked at Felicia’s, I thank you. And when I’m able to, I want to hug every single one of you. YOU saved my life.

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Pain

September 26, 2015

I’ve always said that women are built for pain. Look at what our bodies can do. We’re tough, there’s no doubt about it. We’re designed to grow and pop a baby out of a tiny porthole. Not to mention period cramps. I’d like to thank whoever invented ibuprofen, the miracle pill.

The pain I have right now isn’t so bad. I took 3 rounds of narcotics the night after surgery and I’m done. I’m now on only ibuprofen. I have a prescription filled for a pain med, but I probably won’t take any of it. I’ll save it for if or when I over do it or I need to sleep, but I highly doubt I’ll need it more than that.

From what I can tell, recovery will be a lot about getting motion completely back since my muscles have been pulled and my skin has been stitched. Recovery will be slow and gentle. I feel intense sensations that I never had before on the left side.

Think about it: there used to be a piece of four-inch cozy insulation on the left side of my chest. Drinking something cold or warm feels completely different without that insulation; so does the air temperature. My left arm and torso are actually cooler than the right. Yet another a-ha moment! I had NO IDEA that my very own breasts actually keep me pretty warm. I have a built in down vest. Well, I used to. Now I have a half a vest.

Amelia and I went for a short walk this morning. It felt incredibly emotional and difficult, feeling the polar opposites of the two halves of my body in relation to the outdoors. I can understand why people want to shutter their windows and not leave the house.  But, it also felt great because I love the fall, I love Amelia, and I love being outside.

The best worst case scenario

September 25, 2015

This morning when I was finally out of my drug fog I was able to get a glimpse of my modified self under the bandage and two sentences kept quietly coming out of my mouth over and over; “Oh, my god,” and “This is real.”

Amelia is going through the same thing I am right now, feeling everything that I am, plus layers and layers of her own emotions. She is the Taskmaster, the Nurse, the Therapist, The Advocate. She is my voice of reason.

Cancer is putting both of our lives on hold. The amount of space cancer takes up is almost as large as Amelia and I put together. It’s big. But not bigger than the two of us.

When I saw Amelia after surgery, she didn’t have to say it. I knew cancer was in a lymph node. I knew it all along. So instead of the road ending with “just” a mastectomy we will go down another road. The road of finding out what feeds the cancer so we can find out how to destroy the cancer. That will dictate what type of treatment I will need, if any at all. My sense is that I will need treatment. So far, every worst case scenario has turned into our best case scenario, so I’ll take microinvasive cancer in one lymph node at this point. I will take Stage 1.

In my head I think, Isn’t giving up by left breast enough? Can’t the road end there? I’m going through the why and what the fuck phase. Right now I can’t even wrap my mind around my chest, where my left breast used to be just yesterday and what it looks like now. I do not look forward to taking the bandage off in two days and seeing what’s there.

Surgery update

September 24, 2016

By Amelia Sauter

Hi. It’s Amelia. I’m writing this from Leah’s hospital room where the nurses made me up a comfy bed so I can spend the night. Leah is sleeping quietly. We arrived around 10:30am today and after starting an IV they scooted Leah to the nuclear imaging department to put radioactive dye in her to highlight the sentinel lymph nodes, that is, the guardian lymph nodes that stand between the breast and the lymph pathways into the armpit.

The surgery itself was a relatively short part of a long day, only about 2 1/2 hours. My mom came to be with me while I waited, and we spent most of our time in the “healing garden” outside where I watched the bumble bees landing in the flowers as we talked.

It wasn’t until the surgeon called me after surgery that it occurred to me that we might get something other than good news, even though I knew that was a significant possibility. He immediately started talking about the lymph nodes – the same place the diagnostic doctor started three weeks ago. We took five lymph nodes out, he said. Four were fine. The other has a tiny amount of cancer cells.

I think he offered some reassurances about how a tiny amount is different from a larger amount, but these weren’t the words I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear “Everything went great and the lymph nodes are clear!” The surgery itself went great: a successful tidy mastectomy and a level 1 lymph node dissection with no complications and no damage to the muscle tissue. But all I could think was, I am going to have to tell Leah that she has cancer in her lymph nodes.

Yes, I’m the one who told her an hour and a half later after they wheeled her bed into her room. I’m sure she already knew when she saw my face. The cancer face. We’ve gotten to know that face so well these past few weeks.

Leah says she felt the whole time that the cancer was invasive, and that this is the good news she’s been waiting for, that it’s only in one node and it’s only a tiny amount. She keeps saying it. This is my good news.

Poked and prodded

September 24, 2015 – Surgery day

I have an incredible sense of calm today as I wait in my hospital room. Now is almost a waking meditation. A very light feeling, but with a healthy dose of disconnect. There are some things you need to keep at an arms length.

This is a good time to explain why I’m being so public about something so personal. One of my first feelings about cancer was that I didn’t want to keep it in the closet. I want to pull it out of the dark corner and shine a spotlight on it. I spent a long time in the Gay Closet and I can tell you this: you don’t come out just once. You come out to your family, your friends, your jobs, your doctors, strangers. It’s the same with cancer for me, so I may as well do it once, as publicly as I can. We all experience hard stuff. I believe in sharing it so we can learn from each other.

Cancer is very personal and individual. There’s no right or wrong way to handle it. This is my way.

Amelia will be posting updates after surgery.

Thanks for all the love.

Crossroads

September 23, 2015

If there is a crossroad where surreal, nightmare, and reality meet, then I’m at it. There is no reference point to where I’m at, no how-to manual. I guess I’m writing my how-to manual right now.

Today I had to walk away from the T-burg building knowing that I would not be back to physical labor for four to six weeks. It was a pretty crappy feeling. I feel guilty that I’m leaving so much undone.

When we were at the surgeon he first said I could be back to work in two weeks. Amelia stopped him immediately and told him that I am a physical worker. “Oh, no, no, no, at least four weeks…if you’re lucky. More like six weeks.” Ha. Two weeks. Because clearly women sit at a desk all day. Not this woman.

Psychologically the next few weeks are going to be tough. I already have a tendency for depression; tendency is putting it mildly. Movement keeps my depression at bay. The more I move, the better I feel. No matter what my emotions are in the coming weeks, things will move around me, life will move on around me, and I will have to find a new way to cope. This is a danger zone for me and just because I’m aware of it, that doesn’t mean I won’t disappear into some dark spot. But I always find my way out and this will be no different because everything is temporary.

Here’s to tomorrow, to the next phase of my cancer journey.

It is what it is

September 19, 2015

I have never had a stitch (although I should have). I have never gone to the doctor for a broken bone (although I should have). The thought of someone cutting a body part off of me and sewing me up is very unsettling. It’s a large breast and there are going to be a lot of stitches and staples.

There will be 2-3 drains with drain bulbs stitched into my chest. Creepy and gross. I’ll have to measure the amount of fluid that comes out of the drain bulbs every day and when it’s under a certain amount they get taken out.

It doesn’t matter what I think right now: Whatever is in my body is in my body and has been there. I’m trying not to overthink it too much.

My sentinel lymph nodes will get taken out and tested on Thursday during the mastectomy. Sentinel lymph nodes are the first nodes that the cancer would travel into if it travels. How the doctors see which ones are the sentinel nodes is by injecting a radioactive tracer a few hours before surgery. Imaging with blue dye is then used to see which nodes turn blue first; those are the sentinels. A pathologist tests the removed nodes right there in the operating room and results will be negative or positive that cancer has passed through them. If yes, then more get taken out. If no, there’s a 15% chance that it will be a false negative. Either way we wait 7-10 days for a comprehensive pathology report to tell us whether or not the cancer is invasive. The initial biopsy was noninvasive, but it was teeny tiny and is not a guarantee.

Size matters with cancer, and bigger is not better. Mine is giant. Statistically, there is a better chance some cancer cells slipped out through my lymph nodes and into my system. But there’s always a chance that they did not. I don’t feel like I can hold onto either scenario because what’s there is there, and my thoughts cannot change it. Yet I am thinking about it a lot.

I’ve never been in a position before where it doesn’t matter what I want. I have no choice right now and I don’t like it one bit.

I don’t want to have cancer and I don’t want to lose my left breast.