Back to (Radiation) Reality

My break between chemo and radiation has officially come to an end. Sad right? I think so too! The time I had between treatments, however, was truly amazing. I was able to visit tons of people, travel a bunch, eat an abnormal amount of frozen yogurt, and get new boobs! So, in other words, it was a complete success. To be honest, it is hard to get back into the grind of another stage of treatment. Just because radiation isn’t supposed to be pure hell like chemo was, doesn’t meant it is going to be super fun either. But I am still going to try my absolute best to make it as fabulous as I can.

So far radiation has been another interesting process. I had to go in several times prior to my actual treatment to get marked up. Basically, a girl would line me up with all these intimidating machines while I would rest in my cocoon (see previous blog post for details on the cocoon). After lining me up just perfectly, she marked my whole chest up with a Sharpie. I have all these dots and lines with semi-permanent stickers covering them placed all over my chest that make absolutely no sense to me. (One woman saw these dots/lines and told me how much she just loved my tattoos, and she was completely serious.)

My bare breast is literally the star of the show when I arrive for these appointments. I whip it out and it just sits there (looking ever so perky I might add), exposed, with all these women rushing around it, lining it up with the machines and the laser beams, and getting super close to it to place the perfect mark on my skin. When I arrived for my first pre-radiation mark-up, a lady who works there asked me if I wanted her to leave the room while I changed into my robe. Ha! I thought. I have been in a room, wearing little more than my underwear, in front of about ten medical professionals at one point. Stay for the show lady, I thought, because it is bound to get good. Modesty went out the window a long time ago…along with my first set of boobs. (I now refer to those boobs as the “trial pair.”)

On my third and final appointment before radiation was set to begin I walked into the serenity room like a pro. Serenity room you ask? Ya, that’s right. That’s what I said. Before I head in for radiation I am supposed to wait in this area…this serenity area. It is just like a spa until you walk in the back and are faced with a giant laser instead of a hot stone massage. There are changing rooms with robes for your convenience just like at the spa, and then the waiting area surrounds you with plants, flowers, fountains and soothing music. It is pretty nice. So, I was sitting there, alongside a woman in a neon orange jumpsuit (awesome), waiting for my last and final dress rehearsal before the opening show. I didn’t think my family and friends would understand the ridiculousness of the woman in the jumpsuit’s choice of attire that day, so I ever so covertly snapped a picture of her with my cell phone so I would have proof.

Ok, ok…back to me waiting in the serenity area. I was content. Not super worried about treatment yet. It was still a few days away. I had time to mentally prepare. They called my name and I walked back into the treatment room where there is this long table waiting for me with large radiation equipment attached. I was still doing fine. The two women that work in the back lined me up with the beams which took about ten minutes or so and I just laid there: arms up, boob out, staring up at the big red light that shines down from the ceiling. That is when I realized that the next time I would be on that very table I would be receiving radiation treatment. I was still fine, but a little less so after that realization. I was trying to talk myself down off the breakdown-ledge I was involuntarily creeping towards. No worries, Abby. You will be out of here in a few minutes. Keep it together.

The lady told me that it was all set up and they were going to take a few X-rays. Ok, I thought. This is totally doable. They started walking back to the room they hang out in while the treatment takes place when one of the women said, “Oh wait! I forgot to do one last thing!” I figured she was going to move me again or put another dot on my chest. But no, that is not remotely what was on her mind. She walked right passed me, I heard a click of a button, and then music started blasting throughout the room. And it was not just music, it was Adele, belting out another sappy ballad she recorded. The lady then began to belt out the song along with Adele and the words were sad (of course, I mean it is Adele), so then I got sad, and I found myself just laying there, unable to move, resting in my cocoon with the music surrounding me, crying because Adele was singing about some man that tormented her heart. Her pain was my pain. Unreal. After this unexpected pity party for who-knows-what, I was finished and allowed to go on my happy way until Monday (aka Radiation Round One).

Monday came all too soon. It was go time. No turning back now. I tried to distract myself in the morning by catching up on Brad (Pitt) and Angelina (Jolie)’s engagement. I am team Jennifer, so I grumbled to myself while reading about their plans to wed in their French Chateau. I want a French Chateau. Then I quickly got dressed and drove to my appointment with the radio blasting on high to keep my mind from wandering anywhere at all. Just don’t think about it and you will be fine. I got into the changing room and that is when I saw it. I was utterly appalled. Absolute disgust shot through me. But first we need to take a step back…

I lost the (long, thick, beautiful brown) hair on my head about three weeks after my chemotherapy began back in December. It was a traumatic experience, but after a few days I got used to my head and dealt with it. I didn’t really have a whole lot of other options. I also lost a lot of other hair on my body as well. Let’s just say that my Hispanic heritage shines through in my hair growth and I am a hairy beast. Well, I was a hairy beast. Before I even lost the hair on my head, I lost the hair on my legs. That was not sad at all, but I said goodbye to that hair with a wink and a smile. In addition to my leg hair disappearing, my armpit hair was gone, my eyebrows and eyelashes thinned, as well as my arm hair. I got very used to not having leg hair and I did not have to shave for over four months until just last week. Last week I noticed my leg hair was growing back! Of course it was. So, I shaved my legs for the first time in forever and I didn’t really have to shave again for another full week. Nice, I thought, I can get used to this!

During this time, I had not really checked for growth in my other hair-prone areas. I had become so used to being hairless that I never looked to see how the hair growth was coming along. Until, of course, I was in the changing room putting my robe on before my first radiation treatment. To put it one way, I don’t own a French Chateau like Brad and Angelina, but I looked like I could. My armpit hair screamed, “I am one of those totally lax French chicks that walks everywhere she goes, and smells like the earth and old leather, and I don’t care about anything, especially the state of my armpits.” I was horrified. I was about to walk into a room with four women where I would have to take off my top, and, wait for it, PUT MY ARMS ABOVE MY HEAD, where my hairy armpits are full-on exposed and basically in their face. There was no turning back now. I had no razor. They would see it. Wow.

The beauty of this horrific discovery regarding the state of my armpits was that it threw me entirely off my game. I had no time to be sad that radiation was beginning because I was too consumed by how grossed out these women were about to be when I put my arms above my head to get my treatment. I stared at myself in the mirror of the changing room and said aloud to myself, “Get it together, Abby, and for the love of God, shave your pits.” The moral of the story is that my hair-free days are coming to a close and with that comes great responsibility…to SHAVE.

To me, this is more than just hair growth. With every leg hair I have to shave and every eyebrow hair I have to tweeze, I see possibility. No, seriously, I do. It means that the end is near. It gives me renewed hope for life post-treatment. My life has centered on battling this disease for over seven months now. My hair growing back is just another reminder that this too shall pass. I just remind myself that everything in life is temporary: the good, the bad, and the in-between. I celebrate with the good, I deal during the bad, and I thank God for every day in-between (and I remind myself to shave).

New Boobs, New Year

“If the cancer has spread to your brain, it’s not like you would die in a week, or a month, or even a year.” These are the words of “encouragement” I received at my radiation oncologist appointment this past Monday. My heart dropped through my stomach, through the floor, and then through the planet. Didn’t I just go through a double mastectomy followed by four months of brutal chemotherapy? How could the cancer have possibly spread? I literally held back the vomit, but at the same time I kind of wanted to spew it all over this man who was giving me this news.

***

It has been four weeks since my final chemo session and I am now currently on my self-imposed “summer break”—that precious period of time I have between chemo and radiation. After my final round of chemo I had to sit through the pain once more that only chemo can bring. I was down for a few days, and then I busted full-force through that cloud of chemo and headed to Nashville to attend a fundraiser for a program that helps breast cancer survivors get back on their feet after treatment. It was quite a remarkable experience to meet several women who had been through this same turbulent journey that I am currently on. It is funny how when I meet a breast cancer survivor there is this instant bond that develops. It is powerful and it is real and it is unlike anything I have ever experienced before. I value meeting women who have been through this, and their words of hope, wisdom, and support have become so very precious to me.

After my trip to Nashville, I drove myself eight hours to Washington, D.C. (and then trained to New York City) where I visited family and dear friends of mine. I was so excited to be done with chemo and feeling well that I literally did not want to waste a second. The trip was wonderful but exhausting and that exhaustion showed via my blood work when I got home and visited my oncologist’s nurse practitioner the following day. I was supposed to have my implant exchange surgery two days later and the meeting was scheduled for her to see how life post-chemo was going and to answer any and all questions I had (I just love a good Q & A). I shared with her some concerns I had been having both physically and emotionally and we worked through those as best we could. Then I had some blood work done that would hopefully give me the green light I needed to be able to go ahead with my implant exchange surgery. Since it had been three weeks since my last round of chemo, I figured my blood work would be phenomenal. Wrong. It was actually awful. My white blood cell count was extraordinarily low and my oncologist was very concerned with my upcoming surgery, the state of my white blood cells, and the risk of infection. The oncology nurse then told me something I was extremely unprepared for…I had to get another shot to boost my counts. UN-BELIEV-ABLE.

After every round of chemo, as if that wasn’t tough enough, I had to go in the following day and get a shot to help with my blood counts. The shot is, in many ways, just as bad as the chemo because it makes your bones ache and your body sore all over. It starts in the back of your neck and then, ever so sneakily, spreads throughout your body. I hated those shots and when I said goodbye to chemo three weeks prior, I was sure I was saying au revoir to the brutal day-after shots as well. When I heard I would have to have another one of those shots, I was upset, scared, and honestly pretty ticked off. I just didn’t want to feel like crap again. I had felt like crap every day for the last four months and I was just done. I had served my time. I didn’t want to remotely endure that again and I was just speechless and shocked that I had to go through that again. I got the shot. Headed home. Laid down. I was ticked.

That evening, the bone aches reappeared and I freaked out. It felt like I had had chemo all over again and I had a complete nervous breakdown. I felt as though I was back in that chemo era of my life that I had so safely and securely packaged away and shipped out weeks ago. The pain was agonizing. I soaked in the bathtub for hours to help with the pain and just cried. I felt as though this was a monumental setback, like I was never going to get back on my feet and stay there again. Every time I picked myself back up, it seemed as though something else was right there waiting to just knock me right back down. I feared that the next day would bring more bone aches and the thought of spending more days lying around angered me so, so much. Well, the next morning did not bring aches! I went back in to the oncologist’s office for yet another blood test and my white blood cells had cooperated! Full steam ahead to new boobs! I was elated!

The following morning, I woke up at 6:30 a.m. (I was previously unaware that there was even that hour in the day. I am NOT a morning person to put it extremely mildly.) I headed to my plastic surgeon’s office. In the days leading up to my implant exchange surgery I asked my mother whether or not I could wear my wig into the operating room. I explained to her that there was something so pathetic in my mind about not only being bald, but also being cut open all at the same time, and I did not want to be both. Picturing myself bald on the operating table made me really sad—like there were just too many strikes against me or something. I settled on wearing an adorable hat one of my friends sent me recently. It is green and has pink flowers on it and is adorably cute. I figured that a girl who wears flowers on her head into the OR could never be viewed as pathetic. Turns out the hat was a hit. All the nurses just loved it and I feel as though my friend could start a real moneymaking venture with these adorable hats.

My friends asked me before the implant exchange surgery whether or not I was nervous. I answered no, for two reasons: 1) surgery seems to be my hobby these days much like stamp collecting or bird watching to others, and after a double mastectomy anything else is really a breeze, and 2) I trust my plastic surgeon with my life. The man is the absolute best and he has pulled me through some really dark days and he has also made me waffles (that story is for another day), so in my mind I was all good. I headed to surgery without an ounce of fear. I was ready to get rid of the rocks that had been on my chest since my surgery in October, and I was VERY ready to get my port out.

I showed up and went through all of the pre-op rituals that are now second nature to me. Friends of mine showed up in support with latte in-hand for my mother and everything seemed normal, happy, and calm. I was doing fine until the nurse said, “O.K. let’s walk back to the OR.” Hmm…ok… this was new. I had never walked myself into an OR before. I have always been wheeled into an OR with an anesthesiologist trailing behind while basically pumping my veins with drugs as we spoke. Instead, I walked into the OR, placed myself on the table (that looked surprisingly like a lethal injection gurney) and waited. I was on the table for several minutes and that is when my blood pressure peaked. I had a little too much time to think about what was about to happen to me on that very table and I was eventually just begging the anesthesiologist to go ahead and take me out, PLEASE!!!!!!

Next thing I knew I was awake and in the recovery room and asking to pee. So basically I was back to my old self. I walked to the bathroom with a nurse’s assistance and after that my plastic surgeon came to see me. He took my hand and let me feel where the once rock hard “boobs” had been. But they weren’t rocks anymore! They were soft and felt like… BOOBS! I started to cry and thanked him profusely in what I am sure was an extremely melodramatic fashion, but I was just so relieved. What a long road it had been to get to this moment. It had been months where I just felt as though I had these weird, foreign things hanging off my chest and it was just so nice to be “back to normal,” or as normal as I ever will or hope to be.

The days following surgery were surprisingly easy. I was not sure what to expect. I had asked survivor-friends who had gone through this surgery about their recovery, but I knew it was different with each person. The only real pain I ever felt was some back pain. I took a pain pill the day after my surgery, and then one the following day and that was all the pain pills I needed. I was so grateful for such a quick, painless, and easy recovery. But then, of course, something else went wrong. Roll with the punches, Abby. Roll with the punches.

***

I woke up three days after my implant exchange surgery with blurred vision. I figured it was probably due to the anesthesia, or the meds—nothing to be too worried about. I figured it would go away in a few hours. No big deal! Well, it didn’t go away. The following morning it was worse and when I looked in the mirror, my left pupil was fully dilated while my right pupil was not. Great, now I look like a bald madwoman. Just perfect. At least I have fabulous new boobs.

This was the day of my “simulation” that I had scheduled with my radiation oncologist. Basically this is the time where my radiation team makes an initial plan on where they are going to “zap” me (this is actually a technical term—that is what the nurses in his office call it). It was an oddly bizarre experience. The nurses placed me on this table underneath a cat scan machine and placed a “blue cocoon” around me—that is what I call it. The blue cocoon was this blanket that they wrapped around the back of me that I am supposed to rest in every time I come in for treatment. After they situated me just right, they let the air out of the blanket and it became a stiff cocoon that they will store with all the other patients’ cocoons. Weird right? I thought so.

Before my simulation, I sat down with my radiation oncologist and mentioned my vision problems to him. I explained that it was not going away and showed him my crazy eye. He said it could be the meds, it could be an aneurysm, and it could be that the cancer had spread to my brain. That is when he gave me the uplifting words of encouragement that even if it was brain cancer it wasn’t as though I would die in a week, a month, or even a year. Well then great! What are we worried for?! My mom and I both went quiet after he gave us this news and my entire body just shut down. It was just more than I could handle. Way more. He told me that we needed to schedule an MRI of the brain to see what was going on. I asked if we could please get this done today because there was really no way I could deal with not knowing for more than a few hours. He scheduled my MRI for later that afternoon.

For most of the day I was very quiet, which is very unlike me. I kept to myself and just tried to work through the situation I was in. I found myself begging God that it be anything other than brain cancer. To find yourself rooting for an aneurysm kind of places life into perspective. The MRI took about forty-five minutes. Being in a tube with a cage over your face and not being able to move an inch gives you a lot of time to ponder your situation or to pray. I chose prayer. I just prayed over and over to please, please, please don’t let it be that the cancer has spread. Please, please, please just give me good news. My mom and I stumbled back to our house after the MRI and just sat there waiting and fighting back the overwhelming urge to throw up. My plastic surgeon called to check on me and my mom explained the situation to him. He said he would make a call and try to expedite the results. The phone rang about an hour later. The test came back negative, no brain tumor, no brain aneurysm, and it was most likely a side effect of one of the many meds I have been on. I just sat there and cried and cherished that moment. I had not received a ton of good news lately, and I wanted to just soak that moment up for all it was worth. You’ve got to focus on the positive, I figured, and that is just what I did.

My birthday is tomorrow and I find it needless to say that this birthday is a very special one. Six months ago, sitting in my surgeon’s office being diagnosed with breast cancer, I was unaware if I would have the privilege of seeing this birthday. My situation sheds a whole new light on the value of life and the value of each birthday one has the opportunity to celebrate. I am just so thankful to be where I am and to have come this far. I am also so grateful for all the people I have met along the way. I am so grateful for another year of life. I am smiling as I write this because I just can’t wait to see what this year has in store for me.