Hitting Close to Home

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The Modern Love column is one of my favorite features in The New York Times. For the unfamiliar, it’s a weekly essay series that explores the topic of love in all its various forms. It’s often heartbreaking, revelatory and even sometimes funny.

Last week’s essay, though, struck me deeper than any has in the past. The writer is fighting metastatic breast cancer that recurred in her spine, the tumor actually breaking one of her vertebrae.

Not only is she fighting cancer, but she’s also my age. And she lives in my city. She’s the mom of two little boys, and she worked as a writer and editor. The parallels between our lives were striking. Except, for one–I am lucky enough to have a good prognosis (at this time, at least), while hers is far more grim.

I have cried so much for this woman I don’t even know. I’ve cried for her husband. I’ve cried for her babies. I’ve wondered if our paths have crossed at the cancer center. I’ve wondered if we have any mutual friends. I’ve wondered if there’s any way I could connect to her, to tell her I’m so sorry, to give her a hug, to ask if she needs anything.

There’s one paragraph of this beautifully-written story that I keep coming back to. In talking about her sons, the author says this:

Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.

The tears are welling in my eyes right now reading this. She absolutely captured the feelings that a mother has when facing the specter of death. I know exactly how she feels. I can handle anything else about my diagnosis and all the scary possibilities that come with it, but the possibility of not being there for my child is the one thing I cannot bear.

So, I cry again for her, and for her boys. And I hope that somehow she can feel my love and empathy floating across our city to her.

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The Great Equalizer

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The world is a sad, scary place right now. There’s violence and unrest, there’s divisiveness, there’s fear and ignorance, and there’s great sorrow. My heart aches to watch the news some days. The world seems to be so focused on what makes us different, and thus opposed, than what unites us as a common humanity.

At the cancer center yesterday, though, I couldn’t help looking around and seeing what makes us all the same.

I notice this almost every time I go there for an appointment. I like to think of cancer (or illness, in general) as the great equalizer. It can, and does, happen to anyone.

One glance around the lobby of the center proves this. You see everyone there: male, female, old, young, white, black, Asian, Latino, (or pretty much any other race), thin, heavy, etc. People pull up in sleek luxury SUVs and ratted-out clunkers (and everything in between). That waiting area is truly a cross-section of humanity.

And we’re all sick. Some more so than others, for sure, but at our core, all sick. We’ve all had the breath knocked out of us with getting the diagnosis. We’ve all suddenly faced the grim reality of our own mortality. We’ve all worried about how we’re going to get through this, how the drugs/surgery/radiation will ravage our bodies, how our family/friends/coworkers will handle this upheaval that affects them, too. We’ve all been so very afraid. We’ve all wondered if it’s possible to survive this.

I look at all of us and see we’re all the same. And I’ve started looking at people outside the cancer center that way, too. Sure, every person isn’t going to get cancer. But every human being on this earth is going to face their own death at some point. While, yes, that is incredibly morbid, it’s also a reminder that we’re all such fragile beings, and no matter who we are or what we look like or what we believe, we’re essentially all the same in our fragility. Our lives are so brief, so fleeting, that it is truly baffling that we spend so much of them being angry and hateful. That we waste our precious moments hurting others. That we don’t see the value of a life and realize that it’s a wonderful gift that should be treated with respect.

So, while the lobby of the cancer center is probably one of the most depressing places on the planet, it’s also one that gives me an odd sense of comfort. I feel an unspoken camaraderie with every single person in there. Because we all know. We know this ride is a short one, and it can end at any moment, so we’re going to make the best of every second.

It’s Everywhere

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A strange thing has started to happen. I feel like breast cancer is everywhere.

It’s not just the premature “Pinktober” hoopla that’s already taking hold (Have I told you how I’m sort of dreading next month’s pinkpalooza?); it’s actual people, people who have or are battling this same beast that I’m currently at war with.

I hate to always bring everything back to pregnancy and childbirth, but the parallels line up again for me.

Three years ago when my husband and I first started trying to have a baby, I learned the sad truth about how common both infertility and miscarriage/loss are for women. One in 8 couples have trouble getting/sustaining a healthy pregnancy. I never thought I’d be one of those people who would have trouble, and yet there I was, month after month of disappointment at my door, wondering what was wrong with my body.

What I found during that time was I was not alone. SO many people I knew had struggled to get pregnant or, even worse in my mind, gotten pregnant and lost a child. I cannot imagine such a loss, and my heart just aches for anyone who knows that pain. As people I knew experienced this, or told me about past experiences, I realized this was a far more common occurrence than I’d previously believed. I guess we try to tell ourselves that these things don’t happen often, and when they do, they happen to other people, as a means of coping with the real fear that this terrible thing could, in fact, happen to us, too.

Which brings me back to breast cancer (and cancer in general). Just this week, another person shared her story with me. I had no idea she was a survivor, and though it shouldn’t at this point, it took me a bit by surprise. She seems just so, well, normal.

It’s strange for me to see these people who’ve fought and come out on the other side. These coworkers, friends, friends of friends, classmates, childhood chums–all these people, many of them around my age, who’ve gone through this same thing. They’ve waged their battles, and from appearances, won. Their lives have gone on as usual. On the surface, you really can’t tell there’s anything different about them.

But I know there is. I know they have scars, both physical and emotional. I know these scars are what compel them to reach out to me. I know my own scars are what push me to reach out to others, too. I’ve connected with so many people I don’t even know through blogs, friends of friends, etc., since this whole ordeal began. I feel like we’re all just floating along on this journey, reaching out for someone who can help us make sense of it all.

And in talking to all these people, I realize just how common this all is. We all feel like a special snowflake when something happens to us, but the truth is, we’re not alone at all in our experiences. While each individual case may be different, the general commonality remains. Some days this makes me feel better, others it makes me mad/sad. Today, I’m taking comfort in it as best I can–while I hate that anyone else ever has to experience this, it’s nice to not be alone.

The Last of the Worst

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There’s a light down there, and I’m just a little closer to it.

Today is a big day. I just received the last of the first (and most intense) round of chemo. My oncologist told me today that life will get much better after this. He’s a pretty solid guy, so I’m inclined to believe him.

The first round of my treatment involved two drugs, Adriamycin (doxorubicin) and Cytoxan (cyclophosphamide). If you check out those links, you’ll get a better idea of how I’ve been feeling the past month-and-a-half. Fun stuff. Here’s another fun fact: When my nurse gives me the Adriamycin injection, she has to suit up in what amounts to hazmat gear because it’s dangerous if the drug gets on her clothes or skin. And that’s being injected directly into my jugular via my chemo port. Scary shit, right?

But that’s not the only reason today kind of rocks. During my visit with my doctor, he performed an exam to see if my tumors were still palpable. And guess what? They’re not! I’d actually tried just a couple days ago to feel the one that initially sent me to the doctor and couldn’t find it. There may still be cancer cells in there, but what was a hard, easily noticeable lump is now pretty much nothing! How amazing is that? Eat that, cancer!

Now, I’ll still have to get the bilateral mastectomy because of my BRCA2 status, but knowing these awful drugs have kicked the shit out of my cancer still makes me feel good. It makes me hopeful they’ve zapped anything else that may have spread elsewhere in my body, too.

While I was getting treatment today, the lady sitting in the chair next to me finished her last round of chemo and got to ring the bell. When you finish treatment at my cancer center, there’s a bell everyone gets to ring. This was the first time I ever heard anyone ring it, and man, what a sweet, sweet sound. It brought tears to my eyes, I was so happy for her, and so excited to one day ring that bell myself. That will happen around 13 weeks from now, but when it does, I might break the damn thing, I’m going to ring it so hard.

 

The Thirst is Real

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So, I’ve been pretty lucky thus far in my cancer journey. I’ve felt mostly good. I’ve had some really good days, in fact.

But this past week, things did not go quite so well.

As I was coming off my last treatment, I seemed to have a harder time rebounding. I knew this would happen eventually, as they say the effects are cumulative with chemo.

Around mid-week last week, I had a bout with some digestive issues (I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say I spent some quality time in the bathroom). This sort of set the ball rolling for the rest of the week’s problems.

On Thursday, I had an appointment with a plastic surgeon to talk about my reconstruction options. As she went through the choices and told me about the recovery time for each, my heart sank. Intellectually I knew surgery wouldn’t be a walk in the park, but I really had no idea how hard and long that recovery was going to be. No option is a good option, in my mind. And I cannot decide what to do, regarding reconstruction. Part of me wants to say screw it and do nothing, but I don’t know that I’d be satisfied with that, either. I’m just thankful I have several months to figure this out.

During said appointment, I was standing there with the surgeon as she measured my chest. Suddenly, things started getting black and my ears had this weird ringing sensation, almost like I was under water. I knew I was about to faint, so I sat down and then had to take a few minutes to lie down, drink some water and gather myself. It was embarrassing and a little scary.

That afternoon, I had my bi-weekly appointment with the NP to check my immune levels and let her know how I was doing. I told her about the digestive issues and near-fainting, and she said I was probably dehydrated and offered to give me IV fluids. I declined. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Fast-forward to 1 a.m. Saturday morning. I awoke with terrible pain in my kidneys coupled with sciatic nerve pain in my leg (a fun little condition I experience periodically). The kidney pain felt similar to having a UTI or bladder infection that goes untreated too long. It was really bad, and the Tylenol I was taking wouldn’t touch it. Knowing my immune levels were really low at the time from chemo, I feared an infection.

So, I called the triage nurse line that they tell us to use if we have any pain that we can’t manage (among other red flag issues). The nurse couldn’t really diagnose what was going on and told me to come into the ER within 24 hours since the cancer center is closed on weekends.

Unable to handle the pain any longer, my husband took me to the ER around 4 a.m. We were there until around 2 p.m. After blood and urine tests came back clear, along with an MRI (apparently sciatic nerve pain also can be caused by tumors on the spine, so they wanted to rule that out) that showed nothing, there wasn’t a real diagnosis of what was going on. But after IV fluids helped (along with some decent pain meds), I’m pretty sure dehydration was a big factor for the kidney pain. I likely never fully recovered from the digestive episode earlier in the week and my body just had enough.

Of course, I was wiped out from all of that, and had to miss a friend’s party I was really looking forward to that night. I also had a girls’ day planned for the next day with friends and had to beg out of that, too.

I’m feeling better now, but still not 100%. I do have a better sense of the importance of taking care of myself, though, and staying hydrated.

I’m really just hoping this will be a better week. I’m at the point where I’m starting to fatigue of this process. There are some days that I want to just run away and quit. I’m tired of feeling bad. I’m tired of being poked by needles. I’m tired of sleeping horribly. I’m tired of being afraid. I’m just tired of it all.

Toddlers Don’t Care

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Last night was a rough one at my house. And for once, it really didn’t have much to do with cancer.

My son is almost two years old. And, yes, he is in the throes of the “terrible twos.”

Toddler parents–you know what I’m talking about. The screaming. The refusal to sleep. The teething. The utter nonsense.

Last night was a perfect storm. He’s cutting about three teeth right now (two of them molars), he’d napped about 20 minutes total and it was waaaay past bedtime. Yet, instead of going to sleep like everyone else in the house longed to, he had a full-on meltdown the likes of which I haven’t seen in ages. So. Much. Screaming.

In the olden days, I’d soothe him with hugs, a calm voice and most likely, the boob. Of course, those days are long gone. The hugs and calming voice did nothing. It finally took strapping him to my body in a baby carrier (thanks, LILLEbaby!) and walking him around outside in the dark, a technique I hadn’t been forced to use in many months.

These nights are hard. And like everything else, they’re especially hard when I’m tired and a little loopy from chemo. I pray tonight is better. I pray he goes down without a fight (and sometime before 10 p.m.). Because even though I’m tired and a little out of it, toddlers don’t care.

 

Missed Opportunities

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Isn’t Cologne beautiful?

Today my husband and I were supposed to leave for Germany. He was accompanying me on a work trip to Cologne to cover the annual Spoga + Gafa outdoor furniture show. This would have been both our first times in Europe. Obviously, we were beyond excited about this trip.

Then cancer happened.

Instead of last-minute packing and heading to the airport, I’m on the couch, recovering from my third chemo treatment. My boss is sending me texts from Germany since she went in my place.

We also missed a concert last month, and I’ll miss another work trip to Chicago (I love that city) later this month. I know I can do all of these things next year, but still, it makes me so damn mad. Cancer is such a disruption. It robs you of the ability to do the things you want to do. And I know I’ve really got it lucky–there are so many people so much sicker than me, people who know they are going to be robbed of their life soon.

So, I feel kind of silly complaining about my first-world problems. But still, they’re my problems, and today they make me mad.