I Am Thankful

After my let’s-talk-about-chemo-appointment with my oncologist, I had one final task before I am set to begin chemo (besides getting my port put in, but I refuse to remotely acknowledge that that is even happening, so that degree of denial is working thus far). My final task was to speak with a fertility specialist. But first, a brief Chemo 101 session: Chemo attacks rapidly dividing cells, those that are cancerous and unfortunately those that are not. Chemo does not discriminate, it just attacks. The areas of attack include the ovaries and other such areas that we really do not want the chemo to mess with at all. I needed to speak with a fertility doctor in order to discuss what chemo was going to do to the possibility of me having a family of my own one day.

So I sat down with a fertility doctor to discuss options. One of the first questions out of his mouth was, “Are you married?” “No,” I had the privilege to say to yet another medical professional, “I am not married.” The entire medical community seems to be overly preoccupied with my marital status if you ask me. This is not eHarmony, people. I cannot count the number of times my single-hood has come up in conversation with my medical team. He explained that the task of fertilizing an egg after it was initially frozen is difficult. Generally you need to fertilize the egg, THEN freeze. Bummer, I thought. I was really hoping I could walk in, my doctor could do a few tricks, harvest some eggs, put them safely away somewhere, and then when I am ready to have some little ones I could just head back to my vault-o-eggs and get the party started. But of course, I am not married. I have no one to fertilize my eggs. I think to myself—yet another outright discrimination against all the single ladies. Unbelievable. So, my mind wandered to the possibility of obtaining a sperm donor. Perhaps Ryan Gosling is available? If only I had his cell phone number…

What are my other options if, for some strange reason, I can’t get Ryan Gosling on the phone? My fertility doctor proceeded to inform me of this miraculous shot that they can give me to put my ovaries “on pause.” Basically, the chemo won’t attack the ovaries if they are on pause. We are totally going to pull a fast one on the chemo! Awesome, I think, sign me up! My ovaries aren’t really doing me any favors at the moment anyway, so let’s pause them, shall we? He mentions that I will not have any periods while I am on the shot. EVEN BETTER, I think. Oh, he says, a minor detail he failed to mention… “You will go through menopause…TEMPORARILY.”

I just looked back at the doctor blankly and smiled. OF COURSE I WILL!!!!!!!!!!!! Why wouldn’t I go through menopause? At this point, he could have told me that my skin was going to turn bright purple and my head was going to explode and I really wouldn’t have been surprised. So much has happened to me, and my poor body in the last few months, that the sky is really the limit. So, I opted to go into menopause, voluntarily (if you can really call it that). The doctor warned me of the hot flashes, moodiness, weight gain, and fatigue associated with menopause. Whatever, doc. Just give me the shot. Who are we kidding? Obviously, if I have the ability to protect my ovaries in order to have a child in the future, I will do what I need to do. How to make menopause chic will be a hefty task but I am up to the challenge!

A few days later I showed up to my oncologist’s office where I was supposed to be getting this shot that will send me into menopause at the age of 28. I am doing this for the possibility of having a family someday, I told myself, and I walked in confidently. Until, of course, the oncology nurse led me back to the chemo room and told me to sit and wait in there. NOT THE CHEMO ROOM! I had glanced at it a few times, always quickly turning away. It always seemed so sad in there, cold, and depressing. I looked around and saw about ten people getting their chemo administered. One lady was on her cell phone. She looked as though she was wheeling and dealing. She had no plans on letting her cancer slow her down. I immediately loved her. Another woman was there with her husband and he was holding her hand. How sweet. Another woman was sitting with a friend and they were eating some trail mix and playing cards. Just a little girl time in the chemo room. I continued to scan the crowd and I saw a few people who looked like they were at least half dead, possibly worse.

I panicked, I started to cry, I looked at my mom and told her that surely there was some mistake. “Why am I in here? Why am I in here? WHY AM I IN HERE??!!?” I kept repeating this. Are they about to give me chemo? What is happening? I was losing it at this point. My mom asked one of the nurses and they explained that the chemo room is where they administer the shots as well. I quickly determined that this is obviously a terrible plan. After that initial moment of thinking I was going to get chemo on accident I got the menopause shot and headed home. I sat there waiting for my first hot flash, I kept looking in the mirror expecting my backside to grow exponentially in front of my very eyes, or I thought at least a severe onset of the menopause mood swings was about to take over my body. Nothing happened. I continued to wait. In the following days the one symptom I noticed was fatigue. I got extremely tired. I am determined not to gain menopause weight and keep my backside in check, so I walk every morning (I still can’t run after the surgery) and try and be as active as possible.

Other than the menopause, I am doing just fine! Yes, chemo is quickly approaching. My first treatment session will be next Tuesday. So, if you think of me next Tuesday, send up a prayer or transmit some positive vibes my way because I sure am going to need it. And if you aren’t partial to prayer or positive vibes find someone that is and have them send out a few.

Since it is Thanksgiving and all, I feel it only appropriate to express a few things that I am most thankful for this year. I am thankful for my family. First, I am thankful for my mother who has stuck by my side, not only through this experience, but also through every moment, both good and bad, in my life. She has been my rock and I would not have made it through any of this without her. I am thankful that whenever I am next to her I know I will always be safe and that is the most precious feeling in the world to me. I am thankful for my father who taught me that I can do whatever I want to in this world. He taught me to do everything I do with everything I’ve got, and the passion I carry for what I believe in and the people I love is a direct reflection of that. He also taught me how to make people laugh, and how to laugh at myself, which I do frequently and gladly. I am thankful for my sister who prayed for me to come into this world when she was a little girl every night before she went to sleep. I am also thankful that she didn’t take me out of this world when I did arrive and became a pesky (and perhaps annoying at times) little sister. I am thankful for my brother-in-law, because I always tell my sister that I want to marry someone just like him. Not in a creepy way, people, but because he is one of the best men I know. I am thankful for my nephew, because he has taught me the power and beauty of unconditional love. He has also taught me everything I need to know about super heros. And I am thankful for my niece, because she has taught me the power and beauty of unconditional cuteness, which she is highly aware that she possesses.

I am thankful for the survivors I have spoken with (family members, friends, and people I do not even know have reached out to me), and those who have called and left me voicemails and emails, those who have shared their story and provided me with hope. Linda, a survivor and a good friend of my mother, has been an inspiration to me. The day I was diagnosed I went to Linda’s house, when my whole world was spinning out of control. When I didn’t know if I was going to be able to fight my cancer and beat it. When I knew I had a massive cancerous tumor in my body. Linda walked me through everything I needed to expect, and she was where I got that initial spark of hope—that first inkling that I clung to when I realized that everything was going to be ok. It wasn’t going to be fun, but I was going to live, and anything else just is not an option.

I am thankful for my friends who have provided me with such an overwhelming amount of support. It is simply impossible to express how touched I have been by all of them during this difficult time. I am thankful for the old and cherished memories I have been able to share with them and the hope I have for the ability to share in making new ones. I am thankful for the laughter that my friends have provided for me, which I will always consider to be the best medicine of all.

And finally, I am thankful for these final days before chemo begins where I still feel excellent, I still have my energy, I still have my hair, and I still appreciate the magnificence of simple carbohydrates which I plan on indulging myself in over the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving. We have much to be thankful for.

“Battle Scars”

Although I have gone through some very challenging moments in the last few weeks, nothing prepared me for the visit I had with my oncologist a few days ago. Honestly, I don’t think anything could have. It is what it is. It turns out that chemotherapy is no fun. I’m shocked.

It was my most dreaded trip to any physician I have ever had in my life because this was the appointment where I would be discussing my chemotherapy treatment with my oncologist in detailed and concrete terms. I would come out of that appointment with a start date and that was petrifying. I am healing well from my mastectomy, and it was time to talk chemo. They sure don’t waste any time. I walked down the long hallway (it felt as if it had grown a mile since I was last there) to the lobby of the Cancer Center and I told my mom that I really felt as though I was going to pass out. I did not want to be there. I did not want to face the realities of what was about to happen to my body. I just wanted to get out of there. I wanted to turn around and run back to my old life.

My oncologist sat down with us and stated that he first wanted to go over the pathology results from my surgery and then we would discuss my chemotherapy treatment. He explained to me that my tumor size was a three on a one to three scale. Basically, it was the most aggressive type of tumor there can be. Go big or go home I suppose. He also explained to me that my cancer is stage three when my doctors and I had previously thought it was stage two. He continued to break down other aspects of my path report and I digested some portions and not others. My mind was on the chemo. And then it was time.

My oncologist explained what the chemo treatment will entail and that it will span over approximately four months. He named the drugs I will be given: doxorubicin hydrochloride, cyclophosphamide, and paclitaxel. Tears silently streamed down my face. The plan was being mapped out. The risks and side effects were being listed in full force. Hair loss, weight loss, appetite loss, change in taste, aches, pains, bleeding, mouth sores, allergic reactions, swelling of the ankles, hands, and feet, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, bone pain, muscle pain, joint pain, sweating, nausea, vomiting, fever, chills…

Port scars.

I would need to have a port. I do not want a port. I had been pretty adamant about that one up to this point. I guess sticking a device in my chest is where I draw the line. Who knew? He explained to me that he had never given a patient with my type of cancer this type of treatment without a port but it was not impossible. Oh, but he highly recommended me having a port. Sure buddy, I am just going to go against your recommendation that you give highly. I know best. He discussed how hard the chemo is on the veins. Also, there are the potential issues with the IV and the drugs leaking out (what??!!?!). Basically, if the drugs leak, it can burn your skin severely and some patients even require skin grafts after all is said and done. I listened. Sort of. After he was finished I stubbornly told him how much I still did not want a scar from the port. I then proceeded to explain to the highly-respected-cancer-specialist-physician how I thought his team could administer the drug intravenously without harming my skin. I had a plan. Maybe they just had not thought it all through. I guess I became a doctor last week. Did I fail to mention that? Oh wait, no. I became a lawyer. My mistake.

Friends and family of mine have referred to the scars as “battle scars” as if that type of rock star description makes it way better. Well, it doesn’t. I understand they are just trying to help, but I don’t want any more scars. I have enough.

I am sure some people will wonder why I am so concerned about a port scar after I went through a double mastectomy three weeks ago. It seems like chump change compared to that, right? When my oncologist was describing the pros about getting a port I felt as though we weren’t really connecting regarding my concern about the scar and that was frustrating. In the long term, yes, I am sure it will help me, hopefully save my life. In the abstract, and from a logical standpoint I fully understand that. But as a young woman, my concern is on that scar that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. One that will stare back at me each time I look in the mirror. I just want my body left alone! I DO NOT need more indications that I had breast cancer. Call me crazy, but my thoughts easily wander to my wedding and I get so saddened by the thought that one day it will be my wedding day and I fear that all I will see when I look in the mirror when I put on my (Vera Wang) dress (fingers crossed) is that scar. I can’t wear a turtleneck to my wedding. Ok, ok, who are we kidding? I could probably pull that off.

A few days later I was watching Oprah’s Lifeclass (don’t knock it till you’ve tried it). I have become über reflective these days. The topic was about living in the moment. Instead of letting life and all of its chaos deprive us of actually allowing ourselves to participate in our own lives, we must actively stop and consciously decide to be present in the moment we are living right now. One facet of the show was the story of a burn victim and her journey and I started to feel absolutely ridiculous. This young woman was in an airplane crash and subsequent explosion and survived. Talk about rock star. She has her own share of “battle scars.” They just so happen to be burns from the explosion that cover approximately 80% of her body. She has four children and is in constant pain. Her burns are so bad that she cannot pick up and physically comfort her own children. And here I am worried about a port scar? In the words of Seth Meyers and Amy Poehler, “Really??” Wow, Abby. Just wow. Oprah would be so disappointed. I am not belittling myself here, but my eyes were opened and I thank God for that. People are not the scars they have and shame on me for ever allowing myself to go there.

Although I have had the inescapable moments of facing my own mortality through this whole process, I realized something last night that really stuck with me that I feel compelled to share: you don’t have to face a life threatening illness to change your approach to life. Sure, this process has opened my eyes and I will never be the same. The Abby that I am trying to run back to is never going to be there again. There are things about me that are transforming, my view of the world is forever altered, and fears of mine are evaporating. I am exceedingly thankful for each breath I get to take, and each new experience I encounter. Many days I look outside and delight in the fact that I get to witness another fall, my favorite season. The vibrant colors are so lovely and that nostalgic, autumn scent in the air gives me a kind of comfort that it never has before. I cherish every single moment. Just because I happen to have come face to face with cancer and I have this ultimate excuse to take considerable pause and truly reflect on where I am and what I am doing here does not mean you are required to go through something of this magnitude to take your own pause. Take my story and those of others and allow yourself to have that moment right now. We cannot control the future and we cannot change the past. So, live in the moment. That is all we can do. Don’t wait for cancer, or a plane crash, or some other devastating event to change the way you approach life. Life is just too precious for that.