Goodbye, Girls

 

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I was in 4th grade the year I got my first training bra.

I scarcely had anything to fill it, but all my friends were getting them, and when you’re on the verge of becoming a teenager (I believe it’s called  a “tween” nowadays) and your friends are doing something, you just have to do it, too.

So, one Saturday my mom took me to Sears (lingerie and lawnmowers–talk about your one-stop shop!) to pick out a training bra. I perused the rack of simple white numbers, settling on one with a dainty blue flower applique on the front.

That Monday I wore my new bra to school. No one knew I was wearing it–save my girlfriends to whom I excitedly flashed the straps on my shoulders to prove I finally had it–but I knew it was there, and it made me feel so grown-up.

Tomorrow I’m bidding adieu to my “girls,” or at least, to them in their natural state. I am nervous. I am sad. I am angry.

I’ve never been the type of gal to be all wrapped up in her ladies, so to speak. They don’t define my identity as a woman, or how I feel about my appearance. But they are a part of me. They fill out my clothes (and I am way into clothes). They nourished my child. And they also tried to kill me.

So they must go.

I started crying in the car tonight on the way home after dropping my son at his grandparents’ house, where he’ll stay this week while I recover. Through my tears, I told my husband how much this all sucks. Yes, I am very lucky in so many respects. It could all be so much worse. But, still–it fucking sucks. I cannot believe sometimes that this is my life. This is really happening. I keep thinking I’m going to wake up and this will all have just been a really terrible, vivid dream. It just can’t be real.

I’m sure it will feel very real tomorrow. People who’ve been through this surgery assure me it’s not as bad as you’d expect, and that it’s easier than chemo. I can’t imagine how that could be possible. I mean, chemo sucks pretty hard, too, but there aren’t drains (ugh), and I could still hold my son even when I felt like garbage.

But for now, I’m saying goodbye. I’ll miss the girls as they once were, but I’m hoping they’ll cause me less trouble from here on out.

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Mastectomy, Simple, Complete

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Yesterday I met with my surgeon to discuss my upcoming bilateral mastectomy and lymph node removal/biopsy. I now have a surgery date, and it’s very soon.

When I got home last night, a notice from my insurance company awaited me, informing me my surgery had been approved. In the section with the coding for the procedures, it said: “Mastectomy, simple, complete.”

While it will be complete, nothing about this is simple.

When I received my diagnosis back in July, I immediately feared I’d need a mastectomy. I’d run through all the scenarios in my mind by the time my doctors told me a much less invasive lumpectomy would be just as effective. Cue the relief.

Of course, that was before I found out my BRCA2-positive status. That changed everything.

Now I’m facing a bilateral (double) mastectomy, along with the removal of some of the lymph nodes in my left armpit (the side where my cancer occurred). Those nodes will be checked for cancer cells.

I’ve opted for a nipple-sparing procedure with reconstruction. This basically means that all the tissue inside (which reaches up nearly to my collar bone and around the sides of my chest) will be removed. Then, the plastic surgeon will insert expanders, which are essentially deflated implants that will be injected with fluid over a period of weeks to allow my skin to heal and prepare for the insertion of the permanent implants.

My surgeon said the recovery process will last 3-4 weeks. And several of those weeks I’ll have drains on either side of my chest to remove fluid that builds up in the space between my healing skin and the expanders. I’ll have to empty these daily. Blech.

Obviously, my mobility will be seriously affected during recovery, and I won’t be able to drive for at least two weeks after. I guess I’ll finally have a chance to catch up on all those Netflix shows I’ve been meaning to watch.

The pain, lack of mobility and even the disgusting drains (have I mentioned how gross they are to me?) aren’t what I’m most worried about, though. Per usual, my son is my biggest concern.

I won’t be able to lift much of anything during recovery, which means picking him up is a no-no. This is problematic because my son is very attached to me. I pick him up multiple times a day. And on top of that, he’s constantly in my lap, falls asleep on my chest and ends up in bed with me most nights. All of that will have to change. Like the end of breastfeeding, I know this is going to be a fairly difficult adjustment for him. He won’t understand. He will cry. And I probably will, too.

So, yes, this mastectomy will be complete. But it is far from simple.

Winks from God

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The other day, my son and I stopped into Starbucks for a little treat. As we settled in at a table outside, a woman seated near us walked over and asked me how I was doing.

This might seem a bit odd since I didn’t know her, but I was just wearing a ball cap that day (as I do most weekends), so it was clear I’d lost my hair. I knew she could easily see that I’d been through chemo.

I told her how treatment was going, and she offered some words of encouragement. Then I asked her if she’d been through this, and she admitted that she was a breast cancer survivor, as well, and told me her story.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. Since I started treatment and lost my hair, I’ve had several complete strangers approach me in public with words of encouragement. And these strangers were all survivors themselves.

A few weeks ago a woman (also a survivor) came up to me in a restaurant and told me to keep up the fight. And on the day before my brain MRI, a woman (another survivor) in the drug store told me I was going to be OK–a message I desperately needed to hear that day.

As I thanked the lady at Starbucks for coming over to talk, I told her this keeps happening to me. She just smiled and said, “Yes, it happened to me, too. I call them winks from God.”

I love that. And I also love that there’s this inherent sisterhood among women who’ve faced this nasty disease. It’s as if we have a sixth sense about one another, and can spot a sister from a mile away. And what’s even cooler is we’re not afraid to reach out and offer love and support, even to someone we don’t know.

I’ve decided that once I get to the other side of this, I will do the same for other women I encounter. Being someone else’s wink from God is the least I can do.

The Ones Who Came Before Me

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I’m a member of a Facebook group for women with breast cancer, and yesterday one of the women posted a gratitude thread. There were all the usual sentiments–gratitude for family, friends, the group itself, etc.–but one really struck me. I’m paraphrasing, but she said she was thankful for all the women who came before us; the ones who did the clinical trials that led to the drugs that fight our cancer, the ones who allowed doctors and researchers to discover new breakthroughs, the ones who survived and give us hope, and the ones who didn’t, reminding everyone how serious this disease is.

Her comment reminded me of the above photo, which I took last week while working the High Point Market (a big bi-annual furniture trade show here in NC, for the uninitiated).

I was taking a quick lunch break when I noticed the huge pink firetruck parked near a group of food trucks. After getting my food, I found a seat next to the truck to enjoy my meal. Sitting alone on that bench, I started reading all the messages written on the truck. There were so many–it was almost completely covered!

The more I read, the more emotional I got. There were so many in memory of someone lost–mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts, wives, friends. We all know that cancer can kill us. This is an undeniable fact. But, in the interest of self-preservation and not going completely mad with fear and anxiety, I try to push that fact out of my mind as much as possible.

Seeing those names reminded me the disease I’m fighting takes women just like me all the time. In the middle of Pinktober, it was both a scary and good reminder–breast cancer is not all pink ribbons and festive charity walks. It’s a real, deadly disease. It ravages bodies. It decimates finances. It breaks up families. The lucky ones–the survivors–bear the scars and carry an unseen fear (will it return?) with them forever. The others lose it all.

But those weren’t the only names I read. I also saw the survivors. The ones who wrote how many years they’d been cancer-free. The ones who left uplifting messages reminding us to keep up the fight. The survivors keep me going.

So like my fellow group member, I also would like to thank the ones who came before us. No matter the outcome, their experiences made a difference and I am thankful for those courageous women.

A Change of Plans

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I haven’t updated my treatment status in a while, and that’s mostly because it’s been sort of in flux the past month.

As I mentioned a few posts back, I got really sick right after starting Taxol. This was the drug that was supposed to be “a piece of cake” compared to my first round of chemo with the Adriamycin/Cytoxin cocktail.

Of course, I’d be the special snowflake that proves that wrong.

Three weeks after that first dose, and after finally having my two-week fever and headache subside, I went in for treatment only to find out my white blood cell count was still incredibly low. This is not normal for this drug.

So, my oncologist came in to tell me that I obviously cannot tolerate Taxol (and it was the source of my fever and other problems), and they are very hesitant to continue giving it to me because if it hits my immune system this hard (counts still low three full weeks after treatment), then it could cause damage to my bone marrow.

I already had an appointment with my surgeon scheduled for the following Monday, so my oncologist ordered a rush MRI for that day so the results would be ready for my surgery appointment. So, for the second time that week, I climbed into the ol’ MRI tube, this time to scan my chest (at least they gave me headphones and let me listen to Pandora this time around–’80s pop music helps make the MRI go by a lot faster).

That Monday, my surgeon shared the results. My tumors were pretty much undetectable, and the right side was totally clear. The only thing he noticed was a tiny mass on the left side that he said looked benign. It will get removed during surgery.

That was a week ago, and now we’re just waiting for my immune system to get back on track to schedule my surgery, which could happen as soon as this month or next month. Does that kind of throw a wrench into the holidays? Yes. But, I am happy to get it over with a bit sooner, and I’m even happier to hopefully be done with chemo. (Although, if there is cancer in the pathology report from the tissue they remove during surgery, they may order more chemo.)

I asked my oncologist’s PA what discontinuing chemo (I still had 11 doses of Taxol scheduled) means for my treatment. She told me that Taxol gives me a 3% better chance of the cancer not recurring. While it sucks to lose that, saving my bone marrow is more important at this point. She also told me that the anti-estrogen meds I’ll be on for the next 5-10 years (my cancer is estrogen receptive, which basically means that estrogen feeds it) increase my chances of it not recurring by 50%, so that made me feel a little better.

So, that’s where we are right now. I’m still sort of in limbo as far as when the next steps happen, but I know they’ll come soon. In the meantime, I’m trying to mentally prepare myself for surgery and all that comes with it. Everyone tells me it’s not as bad as chemo, but I just don’t know.