Getting Beyond Your Cancer-Crazy

It all began the other day when I was taking a shower. I was sitting there, on a stool, underneath my mom’s supervision because I cannot shower on my own yet, and I became overcome with emotion. I had not really cried about my own situation since I had found out about it about a month or so before. If you know me, you probably understand that this is actually quite impressive. I have always been very in-tune with my emotions, if you will. People have actually complimented me on my ability to really feel my emotions, which I always found a tad humorous, but hey a compliment is a compliment and I won’t back down from one easily. Well, if you were a friend telling me this, I took it as a compliment. If you were an ex-boyfriend, on the other hand, I thought you were being an insensitive tool. Regardless, I had not taken any pity on myself for quite some time and suddenly I felt the absolute and overwhelming urge to do so.

Maybe just a few tears, I thought. A minor pity party will do. But it was too late. I had let some tears fall and tons of their friends came to join the party in droves. I was having a good old-fashioned sob fest right there in my shower. I couldn’t really move so I was just sitting there letting the water fall over me, washing away my tears, with my mom looking in on me saying, “it will be alright.”

The quiet crying exploded and became loud, extreme wails, accompanied by heaving, and painful sobs. And I couldn’t stop. Now, before you go on congratulating me for being so strong, a big reason why I had not really cried much over my situation stemmed from an absolute stubbornness—I don’t want to let the cancer win. If I break down and get all sad and pitiful, then that means the cancer is winning. There is a big part of me that is so against letting cancer have any impact on me it is borderline concerning. For it to change my life, define my life, or be my life means that it has won, and I don’t like getting beat. Not by anyone. Play scrabble with me once and you will understand. So, a major reason why I refused to get all down on myself was really just to shove it to the cancer. But hey, whatever works, right?

I am reading the book “Crazy, Sexy, Cancer,” by Kris Carr who was diagnosed with stage four cancer in her early 30s, and with a few minor and some major changes in her life, she was able to basically stop the cancer from killing her. (Note: if you are dealing with cancer stop reading this blog immediately and go get her book…NOW!) In her book, she actually instructs her readers to allow three days to wallow in one’s own cancer sadness and only three days. When I was first diagnosed and read that, I was running on adrenaline and I felt as though three days was a bit much. Really, I thought? I am going to be super bummed out for three days at a time? No way. Give me one good cry and I will be right back in the game. Little did I know, she was absolutely right. For some reason there is a magic to the number three in cancer-time and that is what I have found it takes to really bounce back and get back out there with those lucky cancer-free people you are trying so hard to not despise. So I allowed myself three days to just be mad, sad, annoyed—you name it I was it.

At first, I was so angry that I had had to have the mastectomy. I couldn’t get over it. That was all I could think about. I WAS SO ANGRY! It hurts, I can’t feel my arm or underarm about 50% of the time, putting on deodorant has quickly become the worst part of my day, I am always hot, I can’t exercise, and I cannot get comfortable even with the aid of about ten pillows. Comfort, currently, just isn’t a possibility. I was just so ticked off. Another day I could not stop crying. Anything would set me off. But as I always tell my sister—crying is good for the complexion—so I just let the tears roll. By the third day, I was an absolute horror. No one wanted to be around me. I couldn’t even use the cancer card. It was too late. The card had expired. I was an awful person and everyone had given up on me. Even my mom, which almost never happens. She literally was scared of me, I think. Every time I entered a room she left it. Circumstance? Doubtful.

By the fourth day, the clouds had lifted and I was semi-normal again. It was Sunday, which means football, and you really can’t get me down on football Sunday (at least until the Cowboys lose) so that helped. (Until, of course, the Cowboys inevitably lost.) It is also Halloween weekend, which happens to be my favorite holiday. (I have purchased a cupcake costume but can’t really go anywhere so I will be that crazy person just sitting at home, on the couch, in a full-blown cupcake costume with nowhere to go.) But Halloween was another positive that enabled me to climb out of my cancer-crazy. I am able to maintain conversations again and family members are not running from me in fear. All good things.

The moral of the story is that it isn’t all going to be a cakewalk. I know, real enlightening, right? Well, to me, it actually sort of was. I didn’t realize how low this whole cancer thing could get a person. Sure, call it ignorant or whatever you will. I choose to try and remain as positive as possible so these moments of absolute despair came as a shock to me. I have found, however, that you will have the inescapable moments when you want to kill someone, the thought of another shot of wheatgrass makes you cry, or small, fuzzy bunnies anger you. You will not understand it, but you are justified in your feelings. Try and deal with them constructively as to not burn too many bridges. My mom has to talk to me again so it is good I took it out on her. (She may have a different take on the story, but hey, I say, GET YOUR OWN BLOG MOM!)

For those of you reading this that are undergoing treatment or about to, I remembered a tip that I wanted to share with your section of my audience in particular. For the big, whopping, let’s-get-down-in-the dumps-weekends, you may have aspirations to have; this next tip might not be for you. However, I have found that in those moments when you are at the supermarket, eyeing yet another kid buying a pack of powdered sugar donuts while you angrily ask the employee where the organic aisle is so you can stock up on tasteless yet nutritious foods, this tip might work splendidly—it does for me. Just stick with me because it may seem a bit trivial but it really isn’t. I promise.

My instructions are to find your happy place. For me I picked a few. They are each a time period in or a snapshot of my life where I felt an overwhelming sense of calmness and peace. (I only have about two or three of these moments in my lifetime anyways, so it wasn’t hard to choose.) I know this may sound so simple but it is actually much more difficult than it sounds to get to this place when you are dealing in the moment and your mind is spinning from one negative thought to the next. Dude, you gotta get it together. If you have not found that happy place, you may find yourself in a dark spot that you just can’t get out of. When I start to go there I have these moments in time that I go to. Meditate, do a downward dog, or just sit quietly in the sun and get to your place of tranquility and get there quick. The more thought you put into your happy snapshot before you are overcome with a sense of sadness, the easier it will be to get back there. And that, my friend, is how you go from crazy to calm in sixty seconds. And if you can’t get there, leave the supermarket fast, if not for you, for the sake of the kids.

Recovery

Sorry to keep you hanging there, people… I did wake up! The anesthesiologist mixed a perfect cocktail for me and here I am today bloggin.’ It’s what I do. I figured you would infer that I made it safely through surgery from my previous post, you know, the one I made post-surgery, but I did get some inquiries. I assure you, my ghost did not write my last post. It was all me.

I did not intend for there to be a major cliffhanger. I believe that a cliffhanger, in that context, might indicate signs of pure evil, which I do not possess. Rather, I was so hopped up on drugs (really good ones I might add) that my blogging inspiration and motivation fizzled at the end of my surgery explanation. I told my mom that whoever invented Percocet should be granted a Nobel Peace Prize. She said maybe he should be given one in science instead. No way, that man has for sure spread peace across the world. Good for him. He should have his own holiday.

The surgery went well. I was in actual surgery for about four hours and recovery for about one. The hospital generally gives patients two hours in recovery but they said I was ready early. Figures. I have always been super punctual. I hate to disappoint.

When I first opened my eyes I remember a nurse telling me where I was, that surgery went “just fine” (whatever that means!?!), and that I was there to rest and recover. If you know me at all you can understand how simple instructions like “rest” and “recover” aren’t really my thing. I was already trying to wake up, sit up, talk, or make a new facebook friend. Basically I was dying to socialize in the recovery room. Surgery was over. Let’s party. I needed a full report on what happened in the OR for goodness sake.

After quite the battle I was sent up to my room where my family was there to greet me. I had told them numerous times before the surgery that I wanted to know as soon as possible after I woke up of any complications or problems the surgeons ran into while I was under the lights. I didn’t want to be in the dark. “No matter how hard it is to tell me,” I told them, “tell me. I can handle it.”

So, we discussed my new favorite thing—lymph nodes. Man, lymph nodes are so lame. Going into surgery we were unaware as to how far the cancer had spread. Even after several ultrasounds, MRIs, and PET scans, it was hard to know for sure. (I am already working on a machine to change all that, don’t you worry. Give it time.) There was some indication on my right side (which is where the cancer originated) that there were some inflamed lymph nodes. Also, that area of my underarm had been giving me some pain over the previous months. So it was not a big surprise when my family gave me the news that the cancer had, in fact, spread into my lymph nodes. The only problem was we weren’t sure how many lymph nodes it had gone to. Kind of a buzz kill if you ask me. With that news I went back to sleep for another hour.

The rest of my hospital stay was filled with your normal excruciating amounts of pain and details that are real boring or may scare young or male readers. I am going to sensor myself here and just say it was rough, very rough. But I did get Italian ice that my sister dutifully spoon-fed to me that I was convinced had been imported straight from Italy. I had never tasted anything better.

Now I am home. I sleep a lot. I am currently in a thick cloud of sleep and pain medication as I write this. Some tubes and drains are hanging off me and placed in “holsters” as I like to call them. Oddly, my charades of taking my imaginary shot guns out of my “holsters” like we are in a Clint Eastwood film aren’t a real hit with the fam. Weird right?! I know you are as shocked as I am. And I carry a fanny pack now with my pain pack in it. I am bringing the fanny pack back, just to let you know. It is going to BLOW UP in the fashion world. If fanny packs are on the cover of Vogue’s September issue next year, you heard it here first. And, I got a call a few days ago from my surgeon. He had good news. Out of the 17 lymph nodes pulled, only 4 had cancer. “Is this good news?” I asked my surgeon, still not fully understanding lymph nodes and their role here. “Oh yes, this is very good news,” he assured me.

Although cancer is a terrible disease I try very hard to focus on the positives I can gain out of it. Besides the good meds, the number one positive for me has been finding a part of me that I never knew existed—finding strength in myself that tells me I am going to get through this, and any of life’s other trials, just fine. I am blowing my own mind over here, people. The second item in my what-we-can-gain-from-cancer hierarchy is relationships. Cancer really gives you the opportunity and excuse to cultivate those relationships that may have faded or find new ones. When you are diagnosed your world is going to open up and you will feel very blessed. I know I do. I am literally unable to keep up with all the calls, the emails, all the messages, and gifts. But that is such a good thing. People love me! And you will find that people love you too. What a wonderful thing to discover! Having the C card has given me the ability to open the door to some relationships that probably would not have been opened for some time, if at all. Cancer essentially cuts out all that extraneous stuff that really does not matter in life and allows us to zone in on what does. I understand that no one wants to be dealt this hand. But this experience of going through cancer is powerful and can be life changing. You just need to open yourself up. I bet you will be surprised and delighted with what you find.

Surgery Day

“Are you nervous?”

My anesthesiologist probably asks every patient he sees before a major surgery that very same question. In my mind I hoped to be that strong person that answered, “no, are you kidding me? A bilateral mastectomy? No big deal. Bring it on.” Instead, I replied in a very small shaking voice, “yes.”

My bilateral mastectomy was scheduled for noon on Wednesday, October 19. I arrived at the hospital at ten o’clock as instructed and signed myself in. Why do I have to be at the hospital two hours early? Doesn’t that seem like a bit much? Oh yes, the purpose is sheer and utter torture. I forgot. Those two hours enabled me to have plenty of time to think about what was about to happen to me. I felt like I was in an unjustifiable detention—I had done nothing wrong to deserve this.

In the waiting room my family and I were given a big plastic buzzer like the ones you would see at Chili’s or something, like we were just waiting for a table. “When your pager buzzes it is your turn!” Great, I thought. Do I get an awesome blossom with that?!? Several friends stopped by to wish us luck and to pray with us, carrying massive floral arrangements and gift baskets. I was overwhelmed by the love and support I had. I am truly grateful. I tried to be social but for obvious reasons my mind was far away in another place where I was determined to keep it. At that point I was just trying to keep it together. No fainting was my number one goal. After about 20 minutes of waiting my buzzer went off and my heart dropped to my knees, through the floor, and possibly through the entire planet as well. The air was completely sucked out of me. I kept thinking, this is really happening. THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!

After two hours of meeting with my medical team (I will save the details of what that entailed—trust me you don’t want to know. All I will say is that a radiologist came in with six canisters that looked like bombs. And she was the lucky one assigned the task of breaking the news that she had to put some radioactive material in my chest which meant 6 shots of it—3 on each side.) It was time to go after all the prep was finished, consent forms were signed, and questions were answered such as, “Do you have a living will? What about a DNR?” No, lady, I wanted to say, do you? My nurse came in and told me the time had come. Now? You mean like right now? It all happened so quickly. One minute I was talking to my family and the next minute I was being wheeled down this stark white hall with huge fluorescent lights hanging above me from the ceiling. I was moments away from the operating room. No turning back now.

The final goodbyes before a major surgery such as this one really are as dramatic as you see in the movies. Or at least in my family they are. I said goodbye to my sister, dad, aunt, and mom one by one as I headed into the surgery prep area. I kept telling my family I loved them and it was going to all be fine. Whatever the surgeons find in there we will deal with. Did I believe that with all my heart? No. I was scared just like they were. But I wanted my family to be comforted. I didn’t want them to be afraid. I turned back around and my whole family was standing there watching me be rolled away with tears in their eyes. I kept trying to say, “it will all be fine, it will all be just fine.” But I was so petrified myself that the words came out only as a small whisper.

I was all alone now. Just the doctors and me. And all the blood rushed to my face—I have trusted my life to these doctors. And that was when I heard those three little words when my anesthesiologist appeared to wheel me the rest of the way to the OR, “are you nervous?” “Yes,” I answered. “I am trying very hard not to be.” “Well,” he said, “we are about to make you not nervous at all.” And with a quick introduction to my “happy mask” my anesthesiologist sent me off to another place.  Hopefully a beautiful and spotless cancer-free one.

Deal Accordingly

“What should we have for my last meal,” are the words I spoke to my parents who occasionally (emphasis here) appreciate my dramatic nature. Am I going into surgery or being executed? Although I realize an execution is a tad more permanent, I feel as though these final hours before they “chop off my boobs,” as I like to call it, are like my boobs’ version of going into the chamber for a double homicide. No suicide watch is necessary, but you know what I mean. So, everything is in reference to my surgery and its impending arrival—my last meal, my last jog (wont be doing that for 4-6 weeks), my last outfit (ya a girl’s gotta think about these things)…dead boobs bouncing.

I went to New York to check on my bite-size apartment last week (I am getting my treatment done in Ohio where my family is but I was living in Manhattan) and one of my friends gave my boobs a special tug and said goodbye to them. Weird? No, I liked it. If you have to go through this as well, say goodbye. Mourn your loss. And then focus on your new breasts. Ya, the cancer free ones. The ones that don’t want to KILL you! Those are the ones we want. Get out of that dark place because honestly your boobs were on their way south anyways and luckily enough we can just get nice new ones! Any size you want for the low, low price of…No wait! Insurance will cover it! Yet another score!

For me, the days before my bilateral mastectomy are filled with concerns over the potential complications of the actual surgery. I am a worrier—we will get to that later. The Internet is not my friend in these final hours and may not be yours. Assess and deal accordingly. Any potential risk is a problem for me because I obsess over it. For you, it may be different. You may not have slept the last few weeks and are eagerly anticipating that special cocktail the anesthesiologist has whipped up just for you. Get your REM on, girl! So my advice during these final hours is to do whatever you need to do to get through it. Whatever keeps your mind off it—you have thought about it enough—do it. Use your “C” card as I like to call it. Be as selfish as you want. Spend all day at Dairy Queen (can I join?), go to Bloomingdales, watch an 80’s movie marathon, have a going away party for your boobs, START A BLOG perhaps. Do whatever you need! If that means calling your surgeon 30 times in one day then do it. No I did not. Did I want to? Absolutely.

You most likely will need to see your team of doctors the day before your surgery but other than that you have time to kill. After I head over to my plastic surgeon where he will draw on my chest with a sharpie, I plan on getting a pedicure and baking pumpkin muffins and perhaps some kale chips. Kale is your friend. Remember this. Ya these plans are girly I know, but I also watch football, I am at least aware of who is in the World Series, and I can bro-down with the best of them. But I am excited for a majority of my day and am focusing on the good parts. Tonight may get a little dark but that is where the movie marathon comes in and several family members are flying in to be with me as well, which will keep me both happy and distracted. Here is to my final hours pre-op!

An Introduction

“Actually, it is a malignancy.” These were the five words that instantly changed my life forever. These were the words of my surgeon who was “pretty sure” two days earlier that the lump I found in my chest a few months before was just a cyst or dense breast tissue. Nothing to be too concerned about. “Of course, there is always the possibility of cancer,” he told me, “but not a large one.” I clung tight to these words and went in for my biopsy ready to just get it over with and head back to New York where I was living and loving my cancer-free life. Two days later I was told I have invasive ductal carcinoma. I have cancer.

I often wondered what it felt like to have cancer. Can you feel it? That may be weird but it is true. As a born and bred hypochondriac, intrigue regarding symptoms of life threatening illnesses was something I all too often felt. I was always sure I would never experience cancer first hand of course, but still I was always curious. I was a healthy girl. Vegetarian. Exercised regularly. Ate all the rights fruits and vegetables. So cancer could never happen to me. I was sure of it. Well, having cancer first feels like a car has run into your body. Seriously. I don’t mean I was just really upset. No, no. I mean I actually felt like I had severe whiplash for the first three to four days after I was given the news. The stress of knowing and not knowing what was ahead of me was taking a severe toll on my body.

After my mom and I wept in the office of my surgeon (which is oddly furnished with guns and whiskey bottles throughout—I’m just hoping he stays away from both during my actual procedure) my surgeon continued, “we are going to be spending a lot of time together this afternoon.” This was his way of telling me he had a plan of action and to listen up. Good. I love plans! Bring it on. Can we get all this done today?! He continued on while I was in some sort of cancer laden cloud floating angrily above him telling me about the different ducts in the breast—in particular the milk duct where my own cancer had originated, concerns about lymph nodes (what in the world does a lymph node even do? Am I spelling it right?! I don’t know! Why should I?!), explaining the cancer may have spread and we need to do more tests, the fact that it most likely is a genetic mutation because I am so young (I felt old before I got cancer, now I feel like the youngest person on the planet to be dealing with this which unfortunately I know I am not), and then there were bigger words that followed like MASTECTOMY and the biggest word of all CHEMOTHERAPY.

“Chemotherapy is definitely something that is happening,” said the surg. Man, this guy was full of wonderful news today. I instantly thought of my hair. Fine dude, take my boobs. I can get new ones. Big enormous ones that defy gravity. Won’t my friends in assisted living be jealous one day. That is all fine and well. But please, dear God, do not take my hair. My hair is my thing. What am I going to do without my hair? One of my first stops after hearing about my cancer was my hairdresser’s who happens to be one of the most fabulous people I know to see how she could help me. She took on the project like she was doing research for a dissertation (ok maybe not that intense, but she was thorough). She called all over town. She was going to figure this all out for me because if anyone understands my hair and its importance to me it is she. It is surprising what they can do with wigs these days. It will all be fine. I was already envisioning Katy Perry pink hair days, and sporting a blond shag at some point. Maybe red for Christmas. How festive.

Two more weeks of tests, one involving injecting a radioactive substance into my bloodstream—not a problem(?!), I am here today two days before getting a double mastectomy at the age of 28. I have come a long way. I don’t have cancer whiplash anymore. I am able to tell people about my diagnosis without crying or hyperventilating. And I am sleeping—only about 4 or 5 hours a night—but I am at least sleeping a bit.

This is a story about my trip down cancer lane—a real upper, I know. The purpose is twofold. First, for me this is therapeutic. It helps me avoid breaking down in the middle of Starbucks and telling random strangers to pray for me, which I have done. It also helps me avoid retail therapy, which has already cost my mother and me a pretty penny and if we keep it up we will be living at your house. I need to find a more fiscally responsible way to cope with cancer. In other words it is the healthy way of coping. I hope. Second, if I can give any young woman some guidance, hope, inspiration, encouragement, or a laugh then bring it. I will laugh, I will cry, but most of all I will get through this and I want to help others get through this too. I don’t think my story is special. I realize thousands of women are going through this every day. All I want is to put my story out there in hopes that it can be of some amount of help. For my friends and family who may read this, I want you all to know that without you I would be lying dead in a Starbucks somewhere. I would not have made it through these past two weeks without you. Thank you for all the calls, cards, flowers, cookies, etc. that you have sent over the last few weeks. Words cannot express my gratitude. I love each and every one of you. This is only the beginning of my fight with breast cancer, but I am going to make the journey as positive as I can and I intend to smile the entire way to the finish line.