That Time Again

About a week ago, I was showering when I felt a bump near my armpit.

“It’s back.”

That was all I could think as I scrambled to the mirror to take a closer look at the lump.

It was an insect bite.*

Not really a funny story, I know, except it is. Kind of like the adage about seeing an animal with cloven hoofs running toward you and immediately assuming it’s a zebra instead of a horse.

It doesn’t make any sense. Unless you live in Africa and have seen zebras running in the wild.

Well, the last time I found a lump, it was cancer. So though I’d swear to you the possibility of its return is never uppermost in my mind, it is — and always will be — a possibility.

Not something I think about every day, but buried deep in the back of my mind where it belongs.

And since my yearly mammogram and oncologist appointment is coming up, I’ve been running through the scenarios, which pushes the thought a bit more forward than usual.

“This time, I won’t stay home as much. I’ll keep working, I’ll …”

I work through the details in my head — how to make it easier on everyone if it happens again.

For now, these scenarios remain theoretical, and I’m well aware of how blessed that makes me. For so many others, this kind of planning is a daily reality.
“How can I get to chemo and still get my kids to choir practice on time?”
“Is it possible to shop for my aging parents when I’m so tired I can barely stand?”
“What kind of employee am I?  I don’t know from one day to the next if I’ll feel up to doing my job.”

There are other dilemmas, I’m sure, beyond my imagination that others deal with every day.

It should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. If you know someone in treatment for cancer or any other ailment, find a way to support them. Even if it’s just dropping by with supper or sending a card.

This disease — like many others — can happen to anyone, at any time. I think survivors are exponentially more aware of that, which makes our call to duty is even higher. Not because it could be us next time or we owe to people from the last time, but because it’s the right thing to do.

As for me, I remain happy to be here, happy to have hair. And the second part is optional.

*I haven’t completely lost perspective. Since going through treatment, I’ve become a magnet for every kind of biting bug, and many bites affect me more than in the past — swelling to the point that it requires no stretch of the imagination at all to take it for another cancerous lump. 

Cancer Lesson #86: It’s the Little Things that Matter

Cancer Lesson #64: It’s the little things that matter.

In January 2013, I brought some new bras. And, no, the word “little” in the title is not a reflection of their size (though it would be accurate). If that’s TMI, so be it.

You see, for a year, nine months and 21 days, I wore sports bras, camisoles or — and this was a big step forward — the sort of garment you’d buy a ten-year-old who’s outgrown her undershirts.

Everything else was uncomfortable and occasionally outright painful. The kind of bras I’d worn in the past felt like they’d been designed for the sole purpose of rubbing my scars.

For those who don’t understand why this matters, I ask you to imagine trying to wear a big girl wardrobe over something that looks like this.

日本語: スポーツブラを着用しているマネキン。

日本語: スポーツブラを着用しているマネキン。 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They’re called sports bras for a reason — these undergarments were never meant to be worn beneath anything less athletic than a t-shirt.

Things improved when I had what they call a “revision,” a process by which they remove the scarring and replace it with other soft tissue (read “fat”).  I finally graduated to  the training bras, which I could handle for a couple of hours at a time.

In January, however, I found two average looking soft cup bras that were actually comfortable.

Oh, they were nothing exciting — no La Perla, or even Victoria’s Secret — yet it felt good to be able to wear something that’s comfortable, doesn’t look stupid under a blouse, and is moderately pretty. Something feminine.

Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal — nothing compared to having survived cancer — and it isn’t. But cancer changed me, both physically and emotionally, and there was, and is, no way of knowing which of these changes will be permanent. I was happy because I thought I’d be wearing ugly undergarments for the rest of my life.

Being able to wear a regular bra again was a win. Even if it’s small as victories go, I celebrated.

Make no mistake about it: little things matter.

Addendum: It’s been nearly six years, and my scars still hurt sometimes when I’ve worn a non-sports bra all day. And I have a friend, diagnosed a year after me, who is still uncomfortable in anything but camis. On the other hand, I believe some women don’t have these issues at all. Everyone is different. 

Not a Cancer Lesson, but an Explanation

When I began this blog, it was with the intent of updating and adding to the “Cancer Lesson” posts I’d written on my “Reading, Writing, Ranting, and Raving” blog, with the eventual aim of self-publishing these lessons in a book. As such, I began to re-read and re-write these lessons with the perspective that only the passing of time can provide.

I was pleased to discover most of my lessons still ring true.

Being diagnosed with cancer, going through treatment, and coming out the other side, can change a person. Again, it is only with the passage of time that we see how we have changed.

My life is vastly different from the one I led six years ago, and I know many of the decisions I’ve made are informed by a newly strengthened understanding that my time here, like everyone’s, is limited.

I retired from the library in November and now work part-time in a grocery store and one morning a week at a yoga studio. Earlier in the year, I chose to stop writing romance because it had begun to feel like work, like an unpaid job I no longer enjoyed. But I still wanted to “finish” this blog series, determined still to publish these lessons. This had been my goal for so long, I almost forgot why I’d decided on this course of action to begin with.

The reason was, of course, so others in a similar situation would feel less alone.

This duty weighed on me, and that’s part of the reason I’ve been so very sporadic about posting. It’s an unattractive aspect of my personality, but guilt makes me contrary, and so I put off writing.

Then, as I sometimes do, I woke up in the middle of the night about a month ago with a startling realization. I don’t need to publish these blogs in a book of any form because they are already published here, freely available to any who would care to read.

And so, I have finally returned to my cancer lessons.

If you are new to reading this blog series, I should warn you, the lessons — like life itself — are not necessarily in logical order. There are two reasons for this. As I’ve said, life lessons don’t always come in an orderly fashion. Also, when I planned to publish these lessons, in order to make the book worth buying I took the first lessons off the blog. That way, people would not have access to the full series for free.

I will be re-posting these in the near future, but they will be out of order. If you want to read the lessons in order, I suggest you use the search box.

In the six years since my diagnosis, I’ve come to believe that a big part of the reason I’m still here to write these blogs is luck. There are many cancer patients who do everything right, who undergo much more rigorous treatment than I did, and they are no longer with us.

Does this mean I am discounting the many ways a person can make it less likely s/he will die of cancer?

No, but until we understand what causes every form of cancer in each person it chooses (and I’m not convinced we ever will), I will remain thankful that, at least for now, I am one of the lucky ones.

Thank you for reading.

 

Cancer Lesson #84: Locks of Love

Cancer Lesson #84: Locks of Love

If I seem a bit obsessed with hair, that’s partly because people associate hair loss with chemo, and not because I’m especially vain about my hair, though I used to be.

My wavy chestnut strands dwindled in importance when I was diagnosed. And when the doc confirmed I would lose those strands with chemo, I decided it made sense to get them cut before surgery. A shorter cut would be easier to care for during my recovery and might make the inevitable loss of hair a little less stressful.

It also made sense to donate the hair instead of leaving it on the salon floor. I was going to be bald, but maybe my hair could help someone suffering a more long-term hair loss.

So, here’s an idea. If you’re making a similar change in hairstyle (hopefully not because you’re going to lose your hair to chemo), perhaps you’d like to donate your clipped ponytail to  Locks of Love.

The process is simple, and it’s a nice thing to do. Just click on the link above for more information.They’ll even send you a certificate of appreciation like the one below.

And, for what it’s worth, you’ll earn my thanks too.certificate-of-appreciation2

 

Cancer Lesson #82: Everything Gives You Cancer

Cancer Lesson #82: Everything gives you cancer.

One of the (many) weird things about having survived breast cancer is that no one really knows why I got it. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to figure out how to avoid a recurrence.

That doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of opinions on the subject, in fact, quite the opposite. There are a plethora of behaviors, foods and environmental factors that have been linked to cancer.

Next time you’re bored (or even now), try typing  ___________ and “cancer” into your favorite search engine. Fill in the blank with whatever you like. I’d lay money your results will say that thing either causes or prevents cancer.

For example, “tea and cancer” (since I’m drinking a cup right now) rewards us with “Among their many biological activities, the predominant polyphenols in green tea―EGCG, EGC, ECG, and EC―and the theaflavins and thearubigins in black teas have antioxidant activity (12). These chemicals, especially EGCG and ECG, have substantial free radicalscavenging activity and may protect cells from DNA damage caused by reactive oxygen species.” from Cancer.gov. Excellent! I’ll go pour another cuppa.

“Reading and cancer”  brought up “A new study released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control has found a direct link between a particularly aggressive strain of ocular cancer and reading text on a computer screen …” Good thing I noticed “The Onion” heading at the top of the page, or I’d have been worried.

The Mayo Clinic says a glass of red wine is good for your heart, so let’s try “alcohol and cancer.”

From Breastcancer.org“Research consistently shows that drinking alcoholic beverages — beer, wine, and liquor — increases a woman’s risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol also may increase breast cancer risk by damaging DNA in cells.”  But according to a  CNN health blog, drinking alcohol may improve breast cancer survival.

Which is it?  I know which outcome I favor.

Because there’s a lot of talk about pregnancy’s effect on the risk of breast cancer, I searched “pregnancy and cancer.” Here’s what the Susan G. Komen site said: “Although a first pregnancy may increase the short-term risk of breast cancer, it lowers the long-term risk. Pregnancy’s effects depend on your age when you first give birth.”

Confused yet?

“Exercise and cancer,” “soda and cancer,” “lemon juice and cancer,” even “vinegar and cancer” — according to someone somewhere they’re all connected to cancer.

I finally searched “things that give you cancer” and got several lists, including one from the UK’s Daily MailIt tops out at 116 items and includes wood dust, outdoor air pollution, and oral contraceptives, along with at least 100 chemicals I can’t pronounce but have no doubt come into contact with.

I’ve concluded I must do what seems logical to me. So here are my personal anti-cancer strategies:

  • Eat more vegetables (grown organically and/or locally when feasible) and less chemical-laden processed food (although I still can’t bring myself to eat kale).
  • Exercise regularly. For me, this is at least three times a week and should be more.
  • Know what’s important and what’s not worth worrying about.
  • Take a multi-vitamin, calcium, and my hormone inhibitor.
  • Enjoy time doing the things I love, with family and friends and sometimes by myself.
  • Keep my sense of humor.

Will it work? No one knows.

As the American Cancer Society says ” … even if you do everything just right, the cancer still might come back.”  Later in the same article, they continue, ” … with our current understanding of how it develops and grows, cancer is still a mystery in many ways.”

There are no guarantees.
There never has been.

Still, to help with the keeping your sense of humor strategy, here is a link to  Joe Jackson’s  jazzy thoughts on the subject.
Click through. I think you’ll enjoy his song.

 

 

Cancer Lesson #81: I Am Hope.

Cancer Lesson #81: I am hope.

When I did the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life a few weeks ago, I didn’t introduce myself with the rest of the survivors. This year, it felt a little too self-congratulatory, celebrating a result over which I had minimal control.

My mind began to shift, however, when the “Honorary Survivors” spoke. The “Junior Honorary Survivor,” who was about fourteen, talked about how she understands there are some things you can change and some you can’t. She said how important it was to focus on what we can do, instead of worrying about what we can’t, which I thought was very wise for one so young.

The adult spokesperson was a theirteen-year survivor of pancreatic cancer. This is almost a miracle, and that fact alone made me begin to think a little differently. (The Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research quotes the American Cancer Society as giving an average five-year survival rate of about 6%.)

My perspective began to change that day, but the lightbulb moment came when I was folding a load of laundry earlier this week.

I am hope. I am hope. I am hope. FullSizeRender-2
On t-shirt after t-shirt, the message stared up at me. IMG_0347

I am hope.

Not because I did anything special.  And certainly not because I deserve it more than those who are gone. But just as my friends’ deaths were beyond my control,  I also don’t want to change the fact that I’m still here.

It’s time to focus on what I can control , to consider what I can try to be for others.

Hope.
A beam of light to those who are beginning treatment.
A voice of — if not reason — then at least perspective on what the future might look like.

I am the hope, that five years after surgery and chemo, you can still ride a bike, play soccer as badly as you did before, enjoy your family and loved ones.

I am the hope that, like me, you might take a little extra time to appreciate the beauty of our world — the green of the trees, the glimmer of sun on water, and yes, even the raucous cacophony of cicadas.

I am the hope that you will survive to become hope too.

And I am the hope that we will always remember those who didn’t.IMG_0348

Namaste, Pat, Dale, Maribeth, and everyone else who is no longer with us.
The light within me salutes the light within you, the light that lingers on in those you loved.

 

Cancer Lesson #80: Planning for a Day I Hope Never Comes

Cancer Lesson #80: Planning for a day I hope never comes.

I wouldn’t tell my daughter right away. She was graduating college five days after my appointment. How could I ruin the occasion?
Should I take an extended sick leave this time? How would that affect my retirement?
What about my bike trip? Could I put off treatment until I returned?
My soccer cleats and shin guards needed replaced, but I’d do that when I knew I’d get the chance to wear out both.

Once again, it was time for my mammogram and oncology check-up.
Once again, I was convinced the test would find cancer.

I’m not a hypochondriac, though my thoughts before my appointment might make you think otherwise.  After jumping to the wrong conclusion (cancer) several times in the last few years, I refuse to do it again. I decided unless cancer re-presented itself in a way that brooked no disagreement, I won’t make myself crazy looking for it.

At 55, my body is changing (without my permission and certainly not for the better!). Because I’m reasonably active — no marathons in my future (or past, if I’m entirely truthful) — I get the occasional pain in places that never hurt before. If I ran to the doctor every time, well, let’s just say he’d soon lose patience with such nuerotic behavior.

And yet, every time I have an appointment, I find myself planning for that day, the one I hope never comes. The day they tell me my cancer has come back.

It’s probably because I’m a bit — The Engineer and Darling Daughter might say more than a bit — of a control freak. I like to think ahead, to have a plan, though I know cancer doesn’t give two hoots about anyone’s plan.

For that matter, life in general doesn’t give two hoots about my plans. I know this. I truly do.

It doesn’t stop me from making them. I guess I want to be ready for anything, even a cancer recurrence. Ha! As if anyone is ever ready.

Readers, my mammogram was clear. My twice-yearly visits to Dr. H are now switched to a single, annual appointment. Darling Daughter was graduated (Summa cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Departmental Honors, and a prize for her senior thesis — yes, I’m one proud mama!)

There was no need for sick leave or worrying about my retirement, so I was able to enjoy a lovely bike trip  around Chincoteague Island.*IMG_0210I bought the cleats and shin guards. IMG_0333And I’ve put my cancer planning away.
At least until next year.

*Warning:If you ever visit Chincoteague, take insect repellent. The mosquitos are vicious!

 

 

 

 

 

Cancer Lesson #79: I Thought I Had Something to Say.

Cancer Lesson #79: I thought I had something to say.

I started blogging about cancer because I thought I had something to say. Or maybe I just had something I needed to express.

Looking back, I see myself as willfully naive, almost arrogant, about sharing my experience. And I’m no longer sure anything I can say has any value.

You see, in February, my friend Pat died of ovarian cancer, nine days before her birthday and almost exactly four years after being diagnosed. Some birthday present, eh?

Today I talked to a friend whose daughter-in-law also recently died of ovarian cancer, a death that was not peaceful or painless. And it struck me as it always does, why her and not me?

How is it that some of us get to live at least a little longer, while others — who have endured much more — seem to die too soon?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel guilty because I’m still here, only incredibly fortunate and grateful. But I can’t help but wonder, “Why me?”

Nor is this post is a plea for compliments about my blog. Instead, it is an explanation for my absence.

Since my friend died — actually since it became clear there would be no happy ending to her story — I lost interest in posting to both my blogs. Anything I could write seems impossibly superfluous.

My words can’t bring Pat or my friend’s daughter-in-law back. These sentences won’t cure anyone, so why write them?

Why, in fact,  write anything when infographics express more than anything I could say?

 

 

 

 

Cancer Lesson #78: How to Create a Legacy

This cancer lesson is from a post on my other blog. 

Cancer Lesson #78: How to create a legacy

How do you create a legacy? If you’re a philanthropic billionaire, you might donate money to a school or a hospital or a children’s home in the hope they’ll name it after you. If you’re an earthbound saint like Mother Theresa, you give up your worldly goods and spend your time ministering to the poor.

And if you’re my friend Pat, you create a legacy by being who you are and sharing your gift for quilting by making them for others. Pat has created quilts for new babies, weddings, the Guthrie Center (she’s a huge Arlo fan), and for charity auctions including Relay for Life and the Ovarian Quilt Project. She even made one for me, which I wrote about last April, though I’m still not sure what I did to deserve it. friendshipquilt

However, a big part of Pat’s legacy is the way she’s dealt with ovarian cancer — continuing to live her life with laughter and fun, through its trials and pain, exhibiting more strength and grace than most of us could muster.

Now, she’s receiving hospice care, which you already know if you read either of my blogs. What you don’t know is how the quilting community has rallied round to make sure Pat’s legacy continues.

First, two  women in her quilting guild and another friend offered to help finish the quilts Pat still had in progress. Then, the rest of the guild volunteered to take charge of the fabric in Pat’s sewing room — a huge task since there’s enough to open a small quilt shop. The group plans to use the fabric to make quilts to donate to charities in Pat’s name.

I have to pause to compose myself whenever I tell people this because it always makes me cry.

<deep breath>

But Pat’s legacy is bigger than that. Like me, she started following “Tall Tales from Chiconia,” the blog of a fellow cancer survivor and quilter who lives in Australia. This blogger was organizing a quilting event called Foot²Freestyle, where 12 members from around the world (USA, UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, and Australia) were assigned a month to receive three blocks from each other member and make three of their own to compose into a quilt. The blocks are 12″ square (the “Foot²”) and could be made in any design the quilter chooses (the “Freestyle”). The recipient could choose three colors for her quilt.

Pat was to be “Miss May,” and her colors included teal, which is associated with ovarian cancer support. But things changed.

<deep breath>

The group responded by bumping her up. Not only are they making the quilt for Pat, who will donate it to the quilt project, they somehow through the magic of computers, created a virtual quilt for her, in case it isn’t done in time. (There’s an awful lot of mailing involved with quilt squares coming from three continents.) Here it is. Gorgeous, don’t you think?pats-virtual-quilt

There’s more. Kate, author of “Tall Tales of Chiconia,” has asked her fellow bloggers to share this story, along with information about the symptoms of that sneaky bastard ovarian cancer and a link to their country’s national ovarian cancer support organization. In the US, that organization is the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. 

The symptoms, alas, are equally vague no matter where you live. As Kate put it:

“We urge you to familiarise yourself with the symptoms of ovarian cancer — symptoms which are so common and so ephemeral that many don’t consider them symptoms at all. For this reason, ovarian cancer is rarely diagnosed in its early stages, often leading to a poor prognosis. Some of you reading this are men, in which case, please pass the information to your mothers, wives, sisters or daughters. It’s important.”

Here are the symptoms, quoted directly from the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance website: “Women with ovarian cancer report that symptoms are persistent and represent a change from normal for their bodies. The frequency and/or number of such symptoms are key factors in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Several studies show that even early stage ovarian cancer can produce these symptoms.

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)

See your doctor, preferably a gynecologist, if you have these symptoms more than 12 times during the course of one month and the symptoms are new or unusual for you.

Kate has also offered to make a quilt for the Australian Ovarian Cancer organization and invited her fellow bloggers to either join her or make a similar offer to the organization where they live.

And now, I have a favor to ask. To help spread Pat’s legacy, I hope you will please share this post, or at least the symptoms and a link to the Ovarian Cancer Alliance.

Because we all have Pats in our lives.

<deep breath>

And it’s very hard to lose them.