Good and Bad.

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Every morning I get an affirmation from Abraham Hicks, and this morning’s was this: The only thing that makes the difference in the way you feel right now is the thought that you are thinking right now. 

That was pretty interesting because moments before I was thinking about having to go back to the Cancer Center on Tuesday for my 11th Herceptin infusion. Obviously, I’m really not happy about that, especially because I have been feeling so good for the last week.  I started to think about trying to think about my treatment in a different way. Even though it might make me feel bad, the purpose is to help make sure I never have a recurrence – and that’s very good. On the other hand, it would be false to just try and walk around with a PollyAnna positive attitude about it – because the truth is, it makes me unhappy.  So, from now on, I’m choosing to put the remainder of my treatment in a more neutral thought zone, as in: it’s not horrible and it’s not great. It’s not good or bad.  It just IS.

I’m sure you’ve all heard this fable but it’s a good one (oops – it just IS a story) and it’s a good reminder.

It’s a story of a Chinese farmer whose horse ran off and his neighbor came over to his farm to console him. The farmer thanked him, and said, “Who knowsfarmer what is good or bad?”  When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses, the neighbor returned to congratulate him. “Who knows what’s good or bad?” the farmer replied. The next day, the farmer’s son fell from one of the new horses and broke his leg, and again, the neighbor returned to console him. And again, the farmer said, “Who know’s what’s good or bad?”  That afternoon, when the army came to the farm to collect all the able-bodied young men to go to war, they left the farmer’s son behind – and again, the (really annoying and noisy) neighbor came by to congratulate the farmer, who again replied, “Who know’s what’s good or bad?”

You get the point.  I get the point.  I have a choice in every moment as to what I choose to think about and how I choose to think about it.

On that note, I hope you won’t mind if I write about something besides cancer now and again.  I was even thinking of changing the name of this blog, but it’s linked to too many other things now, and maybe it will help someone else down the line. I might have to end this one when my treatment ends. Perhaps I’ll start another blog. If I do, I hope you’ll join me.

For now, my treatment continues, some side effects remain, decisions may change.  It isn’t good or bad. It just IS.

Asana No Grata

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yoga1Although I am trying to pace myself on the road to recovery, today was my first day of, what I hope will be, a long term yoga practice.  Yoga is definitely a practice, because it was clearly evident that I am “out of it.”  My yoga instructor, Lea Grimaldi, has a wonderful studio; is in incredible shape, and has an energy that is both calm and energetic at the same time.  Without sounding like Old MacDonald, I did pretty well as a cat, a cow, a dog (up and down) and a pigeon.  I struggled quite a bit to be a plank, a tree, a chair and a boat.  But I am, pretty much, a yogini master when it comes to being a mountain and a child, and I have no doubt that tomorrow morning I will wake up in corpse pose saying, “Watafuka wasa thinkini??!”  Of course, it won’t be long before I am rockin’ the cobra and scorpion.  I guess the good news is that I did it, numb feet, swollen boob and all. Namaste!crazypose

Like Dillon High, Only Better

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I’m sure there’s some rule about not blogging after midnight, but I’m just home from my 40th high school reunion and frankly, I’m feeling a bit emotional. It was absolutely amazing to see and hang out with people I have known for practically my whole life. The women are more beautiful than ever, and the guys have all grown up to be incredibly sweet men. Tonight, I think we all felt 17 again. I feel so blessed to still have these folks in my life.  I think we were all a little sad to say goodbye to each other.  Certainly, I know that none of us will ever take these relationships for granted. It’s wildly coincidental and perfectly fitting that my last radiation blast was only yesterday.  Tonight, for the first time in seven months, I know, for a fact, that I am cancer-free.  You, my friends, have healed me more than any medical treatment ever could.  If I may steal a quote from my favorite TV show: Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.cleareyes

And the seasons, they go round and round…

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It was a bad hair year.

It was a bad hair year.

After enduring five months of chemo through this past winter and spring, I began daily radiation treatments at the beginning of June.  Well, here it is midway through summer and tomorrow, finally, marks my last day of radiation. I made it. A little worse for wear, but I made it.

I remember the day that I met with my oncologist to outline my treatment plan. This day seemed a very, very long way off.  And here it is. Over. Done. Finished.

I have to save the ultimate celebration for next New Year’s Eve because I still have an infusion every three weeks until the end of the year and I am still patiently waiting for the feeling to return to my hands and feet, for my taste buds to return and for my hair and nails to grow back.  It will be a few weeks until I have all my energy back but I’m making big plans for the return of my pre-diagnosed self.  It will be a wonderful reunion.

And speaking of…

This weekend is my high school reunion.  It’s hard to believe that it has been 40 years since graduating from NHS. Many of my chums have been faithful followers of these postings, and it has been their love and support that has gotten me through some pretty tough days. Of course, I would have preferred to be thin, and tan, and have great hair to see them in person, but actually, I’d have to say that, even in my current state, I look better than I did in 1975.  Frankly, I wouldn’t wear a wig that looked like the haircut I had back then.

This weekend, I will celebrate and be grateful for the folks who have been with me on this roller coaster. We will reminisce about the past – and make big plans for the future.

Underneath my yearbook picture are lyrics from a Joni Mitchell song. It reads:

We’re captive on a carousel of time.
We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came,
And go round and round and round in the circle game.

It’s a hell of a ride.

PTSD – Pretty tired of scary decisions

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Over the last 8 months of writing this blog, I have tried to stay away from topics that were too upsetting and avoided writing when the silver living was just to buried behind the clouds to see.  I’ve found that if I wait, those clouds tend to part and things look a little clearer.  Unfortunately, the sky feels pretty stormy right now, as I am facing the decision as to whether or not I will get onboard with the hormone therapy regimen that’s supposed to be the next part of my treatmennopillst.

Clearly, I have developed a sort of post-traumatic stress around cancer treatments and potential side effects.  I’ve had many medical professionals tell me my experience with chemotherapy ranks right up there with the worst, so it’s not surprising that I am more than a little hesitant to start taking a medication that is documented to cause a litany of side effects.

The class of medications are called aromatase inhibitors (AI), and they work by blocking the production of estrogen.  I thought I stopped producing estrogen after the fun-fun joy of going through menopause but it turns out women produce estrogen from other places, like the adrenal glands. Of course, by taking this AI to deplete my body of estrogen, this medication will absolutely cause bone loss, and most likely will cause some degree of bone pain, joint and muscle aches, joint swelling, hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia, dryness (you know where), loss of libido, depression and drumroll, please…significant weight gain.  And that’s only the most common side effects.  There are about 18 other things from memory loss to bone fractures listed as the less common ones.

Of course, the doctors will tell you that many women have no problem at all – which in this case is totally not true. It just means that there are some side effects that women tolerate in order to decrease their chances of getting cancer again. I have two good friends who take this type of medicine, and they are doing ok. But studies report that close to 50% of women say “f-ck it” and stop taking the meds all together because the side effects are unbearable. 30% of women lie to their doctors and pretend to take the pills, and 60% of women have to take other medication, like bone-building biophosphates (Boniva, Reclast) pain meds and sleeping pills to combat the first pill.   So, the question becomes:  what reduction in the risk of recurrence is worth the potential of having a diminished quality of life by taking the medication?

And so, just when I thought I would be celebrating completing my radiation therapy at the end of the week, I have a pretty big decision to make, and right now, I’m leaning heavily towards quality of life, no hormone therapy — and never getting cancer again.

This, coming from a person who has a hard time deciding what to have for dinner.

I’m gathering all the facts, listening to doctors and trying to sort it all out. I guess nobody said any of this was going to be easy.

Krakatoa East of Cranky

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Just when I thought I had found the perfect metaphor to describe the “area in question” as the Red Planet, it has become an entirely different force in the solar system – the volcano. If you have ever had shingles (which I have, and I hope you haven’t) you can imagine the heat, redness and itchiness that has resulted from 22 blasts of radiation. You arenvolcano2‘t allowed to ice it which I think would make it feel better, but you can use this ointment called calendula and mix it with hydrocortisone to help the itching  – which it doesn’t. The side effect that no one talks about is how cranky you can get from the redness, heat and itchiness. And like everything else, it gets a lot worse at night. So, I’m cranky and tired, and sore and itchy, and I could blow at any moment.  However, one week from tomorrow, I plan to erupt with joy after my last radiation treatment. Until then, be happy you live outside of the blast zone.

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The Red Planet

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It was a beautiful holiday weekend here in the Northeast, and I hope many of you got out to the park, the beach, or a pool.  If so, I hope you wore your sunscreen.  If not, then you just might have an idea of how the Red Planet Boob is feeling right about now – after four weeks of radiation. planetmars I did get to a park, the beach and a
pool but I safely hid in the shade or under an umbrella. Regardless, the “Planet” is still hot, red and itchy, and tomorrow I have to go back to the Master Blaster once again. So far the fatigue hasn’t been too terrible. I get tired around 4:00 each day – but who doesn’t??

Of course, every once in awhile, without warning, you get this sharp, hot poker of a pain in the planetary area – like you’ve been shot with a pellet gun, just to remind me of how much fun this all is!

I have one more normal week of treatment, and then a week of something called “The Boost” – which is radiation that is targeted directly at the site of where the tumor was. As you can imagine, this whole thing has been a real blast and I’m thrilled that in two more weeks I’ll be able to put another part of this treatment into the history books. Unfortunately, I still have to continue the Herceptin – and this coming Tuesday is my tenth infusion (with 7 or 8 more to go.)

Frankly, I think I’ve develoredbreast2ped a little PTSD about going back into the Infusion room.  I know that the smell of rubbing alcohol makes my stomach turn and I am more than a little anxious about going back to the chemo chair even though it’s really not as bad as anything else I’ve been through.  I reckon, like chemo and radiation, the effect on the human psychy is cumulative.  Perhaps it would be fitting to take a shot of 12-year-old Redbreast whisky to calm my jangled nerves.

Gratitude is a Verb

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Don’t get the wrong idea.  I’m not going to tell you that I am grateful to have been diagnosed with breast cancer.  I am not going to say that the lessons I have learned during my months of treatment have been worth the stuff I’ve been through.  I certainly didn’cocoakrispiest feel grateful when I found out that I would have to have chemotherapy, radiation, and infusions of Herceptin over the course of an entire year.  But it wasn’t long after my treatment began that I realized that feeling and expressing gratitude might be the strongest medicine I could give myself to help me through everything that lay ahead.

I made the decision to be quite public about my diagnosis; posting the news on Facebook and starting a blog. I had known friends who were very private about their diagnoses and told only those closest to them. I realized, almost immediately, that this was something I didn’t want to go through alone. In one of my early blog posts, I made the point that, now that I had been diagnosed, my friends should be prepared for me to freely wield the “C’ card whenever appropriate – or even “just because”. It was my first glimpse at a shred of something I could be thankful for.

Prior to my diagnosis, I was also the kind of person who felt that people could either “take me or leave me.” As I witnessed the outpouring of love and support I received from friends and family right from the get-go, I discovered, much to my surprise, just how many people really cared about my health issues and were praying for me to get better. It gave me a tremendous sense of calm; a feeling of being cared for, and at a time when everything felt chaotic and out of control, I was surely grateful for that.

Over the course of my chemotherapy, I was visited by way too many side effects and with each one came another opportunity to be grateful.  When I had horrible lower GI problems, I was grateful that I wasn’t throwing up. When I totally lost my sense of taste, I was grateful that everything didn’t taste metallic. And yet, a few weeks later, when everything tasted like wet concrete, I realized that I should have been more grateful when I couldn’t taste anything at all. It seems that gratitude is like that.  If you don’t get it the first time, most assuredly, you’ll get another opportunity to give it a try.  My taste buds still have not returned to normal, but boy, will I be grateful when they do. Its been made clear to me that the flip side of gratitude is taking things for granted.

There were many days when I thought I could barely harness enough energy to get from the bedroom to the kitchen, let alone muster the inner strength to feel gratitude.  I thought of all the hard times in my life when I had found gratitude in saying, “At least it’s not cancer!” So much for that!  On the days that I asked myself, “What could be worse than this?” my mind would wander to all of those situations that could, in fact, be worse.  Sadly, I would recall many dear friends who had lost their battle with this disease. My friend, Tony, died after a heroic fight with liver cancer and I will never forget how his final days were filled with as much grace, graciousness and gratitude as he had lived. These thoughts made gratitude come easy. And anyone who has ever sat in an infusion room getting an IV drip knows that across the room there could be someone going through something tougher than you.  I discovered that compassion and gratitude are constant companions.
A quick Google search will produce tons of research on gratitude and how study after study has proven that people who practice an “attitude of gratitude” or what others call “grateful thinking” report fewer illness symptoms, feel better about their lives and are more optimistic about the future.

But that’s just it.  Gratitude is a practice.  It is skill that has to be developed, and when you don’t feel well, it doesn’t come easy.  When I was too angry or too sad or in too much pain and I couldn’t find anything to be grateful for, I would sarcastically write in my journal, “I’m grateful for the anger!”  With practice, I came to understand that I actually could be grateful for all my emotions because each was there to teach me something.  In many ways, gratitude is a verb. It requires our attention and our action.  On the day of my diagnosis and for many days after, gratitude was hard-to-come-by, and yet, with some time and perspective, I came to realize that few things were as important.
6 Ways to Find and Express Gratitude

  1. Keep a gratitude journal and set aside a time each day to write down at least 3 things you are grateful for. When all I could stomach was Cocoa Krispies, I was grateful for Cocoa Krispies, milk and a spoon.
  1. Start a blog and share your experience with friends and family. They will feel grateful and honored that you are sharing your story, and it will give you lots of opportunities to thank them in return.
  1. Thank your medical team; the doctors and nurses, appointment schedulers and hospital volunteers and then, thank them again. Learn everyone’s name, and take the time to tell them that their care and support makes a difference.
  1. Spend the $7.00 for a store-bought thank-you card for your husband, mother, best friend or sibling. We often forget that those closest to us are going through something pretty terrifying, often with little support from others.
  1. Search Google Images or Pinterest for “gratitude quotes and sayings” and re-post them on your Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. You’ll be surprised at how many LIKES you get.
  1. Join a support group and share with other patients how you are struggling to find gratitude. Others will be grateful for your honesty.

Brain Freeze*

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I’ve just completed a 4-session workshop on chemo-brain. It was extremely informative, but I have to say, the phrase “chemo-brain” seems a little light-hearted to me. It sounds like a Beicecreamn and Jerry’s ice cream flavor or maybe a kid’s board game. It’s neither. Chemo-brain is the happy name that’s been given to the serious effect that chemotherapy has on the cognitive function of cancer patients.
Before I was diagnosed, age had already played some tricks with my memory. We’ve all lost our keys, misplaced our wallets and opened the refrigerator door only to forget what we’re looking for. I remember one time, long before my treatment, telling someone that I couldn’t find my cell phone, to which they replied, “You’re talking on it!”
While absentmindedness is certainly one symptom of the neurotoxicity of chemotherapy, some of the other tricks your brain plays on you are pretty tricky.
Here’s what I’ve found:
You not only lose your train of thought, you don’t even know the name of the station.
In the middle of a sentence, I have totally forgotten the subject about which I am speaking. Now, if I plan to have a lengthy conversation, I start out by telling the person that I might forget what I’m talking about. I’ve found it actually makes people pay more attention to what I’m saying. Try it.
You make up words or call things by another name.
My daughter recently left the flat iron turned on. When I mentioned it to her, I said, “Next time, don’t forget to turn off the fire-ling.” It took her a minute to understand what I meant, but it turned out that I’d invented a pretty cool word. And it’s not half as bad as hearing someone say, “Heigth” as in “length, width, heigth.” I’ve already coined a number of phrases in my life like “Frankendating” – the phenomenon of dating several guys at the same time because each has only one decent attribute, e.g. one is funny, one is smart, one is sexy; and “Lilypadding” – when someone jumps into a relationship the second after ending one.
Your words get twisted on their way out of your mouth.
And speaking of getting off the train: When my daughter came up to see me, I asked her if “the crain was trowded.” I actually delight in these crazy twists of the tongue and when it happens, I will repeat them several times.
You mix up your metaphors
Just yesterday, I said, “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it” and a few weeks ago, “That’s a horse from a different mother.” Well, at least I have an excuse. I remember a friend who was quite brilliant once said; “I’m not going to put all my chickens in one basket.” I guess it happens to the best of us.
You have short-term memory loss.
Frequently, I’ll watch a show on TV or go to a movie and then, the next day, have absolutely no idea what it was about. I guess I can chalk it up to bad television or cinema. Heck, I still know every word to every Beatles’ song. Isn’t that what’s really important??
You have difficulty concentrating on a single task
I have no excuse for this except that I’ve never done it before. I’ve always watched TV, surfed the Web and knitted at the same time. Concentrating on one thing is soooo inefficient.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to make fun of any of these symptoms, but like everything, it does help to be able to laugh about it. Of course, I pray this stuff is all temporary and I know there are things I can do to help myself, like always carrying a notepad, getting plenty of sleep, meditating and exercise. That last one seems to be the cure to almost everything. Or, you can go to the store and buy a pint of “chemo-brain” – it contains swirling thoughts, makes you nuts and could cause sphenopalatine ganglioneuralgia*.

Lather, Rinse…Wait a minute…Lather????

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headWomen used to talk about staying home on a Saturday night to wash their hair as if that was a bad thing.  Well, I am home on a Saturday night — and much to my delight, I just washed my hair.  Yup!  I have enough hair to wash. It’s about 1/32nd of an inch long but when I put shampoo on it, it LATHERED!  I was so surprised that I actually rinsed and repeated. It’s hard to tell what color it will be.  It’s a little brown, a little blonde and a little grey.  But hell, it’s a little THERE. To me, it’s a great sign of me returning to being me and that feels great.  In fact, in spite of my ongoing radiation treatments, etc, I know this feeling will continue to grow on me!