The Battle

In October 2013 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I had an estrogen based breast cancer, probably from taking hormones during menopause for too long. I made the choice to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I made this choice to avoid radiation and chemotherapy treatments. As much as I complained about my naturally curly hair, I didn’t want to lose it and start over. I didn’t want to go through the days and weeks of feeling miserable and sick from the chemo. I didn’t want the burned skin from the radiation treatments that would hurt more than any sunburn and would turn my skin black from the treatments.

My best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer two years before me and went through a lumpectomy, radiation and chemotherapy. I watched her lose her hair, saw her burned skin and stood by as she lost her sense of taste and sensation in her finger tips. I marveled at her strength throughout the treatments, her smile and the way she made cancer insignificant as she fought and won, beating breast cancer. She is my hero and the strongest, most courageous woman I know. I also knew that I couldn’t be that strong in my fight against breast cancer.

Sometimes I feel like I cheated. Like I took a shortcut in my battle by having a mastectomy and reconstruction. I eliminated the cancer by having my breasts removed and all of the surrounding tissue. I healed up and went on about my life, returning to my normal routine. I take a pill every day for five years to keep my body from making any estrogen and visit my oncologist every six months, but for the most part, my life is the same as it was before cancer.

I read about all of the people battling some form of cancer how they fight, their strength of purpose and will to live. I admire their courage and strength. I always feel a bit odd when I walk into my oncologist’s office and see the really sick people waiting for treatment like I’m taking precious time away from each of them for me.

No, I don’t want to experience the sickness and pain of fighting cancer in order to legitimatize my personal battle; that is not what I’m saying, I admire everyone that had or has cancer and their personal decisions on how they wage their battle. I just feel that I’m not worthy as all of the others are who have fought and either won or lost their battle against cancer.

I don’t know if this is a survivor’s crisis or just me. Maybe this is the truth that people who take shortcuts feel guilty later for taking the shortcut or a quicker way of getting to the endgame. The same way people that are given money squander it as opposed to understanding the value of the effort to earn it. Maybe that is the crux of my quandary, I don’t feel like I earned my win.

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Our Vacation

We took a much needed vacation last week. I have cheated Mitch out of a proper vacation on the last three out of four vacations we had scheduled. All three vacations I had scheduled surgeries. One bunionectomy so I would look good in shoes, a bilateral mastectomy because I got stupid breast cancer and the reconstruction of the mastectomy so I would look somewhat normal in clothes again. So I decided that regardless of anything else, I was going to take Mitch on vacation, anywhere he wanted to go. He and I deserved that.

We had decided that we would drive to Washington State and go wine tasting in the Yakima Valley. Well fate has a sense of humor. The week before we were to leave, Murphy decided to come and stay as a houseguest for a few days. That Monday afternoon Mitch called me at work to inform me that the microwave went out. The really nice three year old microwave died. Yippee! Thursday Mitch called me again at work to relate the story on how the outside faucet disintegrated when he started hooking up the really cool soaker hose system he made. I am going to have to stop answering my phone at work. Sunday was the final blow. I took Mitch to work as usual, came back did my usual Sunday morning stuff and waited for Mitch to call for his ride home. I loaded up the dogs in the station wagon, climbed in and put the key in the ignition and turned the key. Nothing, nada, zilch. The car was dead as a door nail. This meant that I had to unload the dogs, take them back in the house, fix them kongs stuffed with carrots to keep them occupied and jump in the firebird to go get Mitch. Mitch diagnosed the car and determined that we needed a new starter. Someone was trying to tell me something.

Mitch installed the new microwave, a much cheaper not as nice microwave without a hitch. Something went right for once. The new faucet took three trips to the hardware store and one afternoon to install. The starter for the car took two trips to the auto parts store (one to buy the starter and one to take it back) and an online order to get the right starter for our old station wagon. It seems our vintage car also has special vintage general motors parts. After I added up the costs of the new “fun” stuff, I decided that we should stay a little closer to home for our vacation.

Second choice was a trip to Texas. We drove to San Antonio for the River Walk and the Alamo. We both have been there, but it was decades ago and decided that it would be a nice place to go in the spring. The River Walk was beautiful and peaceful even with all of the people there. Down along the River Walk, there were cool breezes and shade, making the stroll very pleasant. Dinner was at a very nice restaurant. Very nice, meaning the steaks started at thirty five dollars and the wine list started at sixty dollars a bottle. I kept a straight face while the steward pointed out the better selections at three hundred and fifty dollars and up. I was pretty proud of Mitch and myself for not dropping our jaws and saying something totally inappropriate. We settled on a nice half bottle of wine saying that we couldn’t drink a whole bottle. The steaks were done to perfection and the wine was very good. A wonderful dinner and one we won’t be repeating anytime soon.

After spending two days at San Antonio playing total tourists, we headed up to Fredericksburg, Texas, the heart of the Texas hill country wine area. You know me I am not going to pass up wine tasting if at all possible. We found out Texas is number five after California, New York, Oregon and Washington in wine production and sales. Plus because of the size of Texas there are so many microclimates and soil types that the same grape planted in one area will taste totally different in a different region.

It’s a good thing that Mitch was the designated driver and adult because I was like a kid in a candy store. I wanted to stop at every one of the wineries I saw. Mitch being the adult and not totally feeding my wine habit stopped at a few. I tasted many wines and even brought a few bottles home.

I got to find my vice, wine tasting, so next up was feeding Mitch’s vice, history. There is a National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg and Mitch wanted to go so we did. I should have paid more attention when the nice lady explained that the tickets were good for two days and that we could come and go in the museum multiple times. The tickets also included the Admiral Nimitz Museum, Pacific Combat Zone, Japanese Garden of Peace Memorial Courtyard and Plaza of the Presidents. The first museum, George H.W. Bush Gallery was huge. I had no idea how much time, effort and money had gone into the museum. There was so much detail and photos throughout; there were even planes and a jeep in the museum. It was Mitch’s turn to be the kid in the candy store. I wandered around and looked at the photos, read some of the stories, but he was totally enthralled absorbing everything he could.

Three hours into the museum and only about two thirds of the way through, I was getting a bit antsy. I wanted to be outside in the fresh air, taking pictures and people watching, but I controlled myself and acted like an adult. I kept reminding myself this was also Mitch’s vacation and I had my turn, now it was his turn. Sometimes it sucks to be grownup. It took us four and a half hours to get through the first museum. I felt like I was back in school. I couldn’t wait to get outside. Poor Mitch, by the end of the tour I almost dragged him out.

On our way back north we wanted to stop at this huge outlet mall in Gainesville that Mitch had gone to about twenty five years ago. The mall he remembered was huge with so many stores and the parking lot was filled with cars making it difficult finding a parking spot. So we stopped in Gainesville and checked into a hotel for the night, planning on doing some serious shopping in the morning. After breakfast I asked the front desk clerk if there was a map of the outlet mall so we could chart our shopping trip for expediency. She looked at me and said that almost all of the store fronts were empty that there were only about six shops still open. We couldn’t believe it so we walked over ourselves, just to see. It was like a ghost town, store after store front empty. This would be a great place to shoot a zombie apocalypse movie. What a disappointment. There was nothing left to do but hop in the car and head home.

After we got home, the really fun stuff started, unloading the car, getting the dogs out of hock, washing all of the clothes we wore and putting everything back on hangers that we didn’t wear, because I am a firm believer in over packing. Of course the yard has gone to seed and needs to be mowed and the weeds are planning a coup on tomato plants. I wonder why we came back.

Suspended Animation

I realized the other day I’ve been holding my breath since October 22, 2013. That was the day my surgeon called to tell me I had breast cancer. The next thirty-six days were a gut twisting, pulse racing rush from doctor to doctor trying to make an informed decision that would hopefully be the best choice for me. On the thirty-sixth day, November 26th, I underwent a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. The surgeries (2) one by my general surgeon to remove both breasts and one immediately following by my plastic surgeon to start the reconstruction process by implanting tissue expanders to stretch the remaining breast tissue over a period of time to a size of my choice. After I reach the size of my choosing, I will go back in for more surgery to remove the tissue expanders and put in the implants.

A few days after my surgery the results came back as Stage 1 cancer with nothing in my lymphatic system. Outstanding news and I thought I was done, but no I was told that I needed to call and make an appointment with an oncologist. I did and had to wait six weeks to get in to see the doctor. I had no idea that there are that many people with cancer. When the day finally came I thought for sure that it would just be a simple in and out, no cancer, pay your ten dollar copay and thank you very much for stopping by. But that wasn’t the case. The oncologist wanted to run another test, called an Oncotype DX test, where they test twenty-one genes of the cancer to see what the chances of it returning and then score the results. I told the doctor that I didn’t have any more cancer to share and he said that the lab saves it. Why would the lab save my cancer? If it was me, I would have tossed in the trash and been done with it.

The oncologist spent an hour just explaining my type of cancer and what different types of treatments were available. It was so overwhelming, because I kept thinking that was what I had the surgery for, to remove the cancer and my breasts so that there was nothing left to get cancer. Even my surgeon had said that he didn’t think I would have to have any extra treatment, eg. Chemotherapy because the cancer was so small and only stage 1. No matter how hard I tried to remain detached not getting my hopes up that this would all be over, I started believing that I would walk out of his office with a clean bill of health. So news of an additional test threw me back a few steps.

I went online to read up about the oncotype-DX test and found that the lab tests 21 genes of the cancer cell to check the likelihood of the cancer returning scoring it from 0 to 100. A score of 17 and below puts a cancer patient in the low range of the chance it returning, a score of 18 to 30 puts the patient in the moderate range of the chance of the cancer returning and a score of 31 to 100 puts the patient in the high risk range of the chance that the cancer will return.

Because the cancer was so small, .5 centimeters, when it was found, I decided that the score would have to be way below 17. Foolish me. When I went back for my appointment to get the results and score, I looked down at the report and all I saw was the number 23 screaming at me. I am in the moderate range, meaning I have a 14% chance of the cancer returning or an 86% chance of the cancer not returning depending on whether or not you are a pessimist or an optimist. My doctor was explaining what it meant and what we needed to do for treatment, but all I heard was a roaring in my ears, my throat closed and my eyes started to well up. Damn I wanted that score to be way below 17 so badly. I had to stop and focus and quit feeling sorry for myself. There are a lot of other women out there that would have given anything to get a score of 23 and I needed to sit up straight and stick out my chin. I can take it, I kept telling myself.

In the end, the doctor told me he was putting me on an estrogen negative drug, Arimidex, as a treatment. The drug is used for treating postmenopausal women with early breast cancer. I asked about the side effects and he said it causes hot flashes, bone softening and can cause joint pain and those are just some of the common side effects, the really bad side effects are a lot scarier. Goody I thought, I will be a bent over old woman walking around in the dead of winter wearing a sports bar and shorts. I am not looking forward to start taking the drug, but I don’t really have much of a choice, I haven’t come this far or gone through everything to date to give up now.

I go back to the doctor every three months for blood work for the next two years and take the drug for five years and if after that I’m still here, then I’m considered a breast cancer survivor. Now that I know what and how we’re treating me, I have a goal and can start planning life again and stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. It’s time to exhale.

What a Tyrant!

I am married to a tyrant. It just proves the adage, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” or something like that. Anyway, I go and have a little surgery and now Mitch thinks he’s the boss of me. And he is certainly enjoying his new job, a little too much I might add.

“No, you can’t do this’ or “What are you thinking, of course not, you can’t fix breakfast.” “You had major surgery three days ago and was just released from the hospital one day ago, what are you thinking?” Granted I only felt like lying in bed and sleeping until this morning, but it’s MY JOB to take care of him and run the house.

If I start to get out of bed, he almost runs to my side of the bed and asks what I want, then pushes me back and goes to get whatever it is I want. The only thing he can’t do for me is go to the bathroom but if there was a way to accomplish that he would do it for me. He follows me around the house asking what I am doing or what do I need? God forbid I stand in one place too long, then Mitch gets really nervous and makes me go sit down or go back to bed. I think he is afraid I’m going to clean something or start cooking.

The dogs are glad I’m home. They give new meaning to the phrase, “Love me to death”. They were so excited to see me get out of the car, I thought they were going to crash through the door to say, “Hi, glad you finally made it. We missed you soooo much.” Mitch had to put leashes on them and take them for a walk to burn off some energy while my son and brother got me in the house and back into bed.

Now it’s a race to see who can get to the bed first and position himself close enough to be in the best snuggle position and not mow me down as they launch themselves from the living room in a race to be first. I’m telling you, two dogs weighing one hundred eighty pounds combined hurling through the air at you is the true meaning of terror. And then there’s Mitch right behind them trying fruitlessly to get control of the situation before he might have to take me to the emergency room and explain how I got squished.

As much as I complain about him ordering me around, I know it’s because he loves me and the longer I take to heal, the more likely he will starve. It would just be nice if he didn’t take so much pleasure being the boss of me. It is nice knowing that there he is taking care of me for better or for worse. But between you and me I won’t tell him that.

It’s Okay

Today is the day. Today is the day I’ve been waiting nervously, anxiously for. Today is the day I’ve been dreading. I made the decision to have a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction. I didn’t make the decision lightly. I came to this decision after three other lumpectomies, albeit all benign, and I don’t want to have to make a decision like this ever again.

I’ve joked about the cancer, mocked it and made fun of myself for getting breast cancer. Some might think I was being callous, not being caring and thoughtful of others that are and have gone through this, but I’m not. This has been the only way I can deal with having cancer. To mock it and laugh about it is my defense against it. Otherwise I would walk around like a zombie feeling sorry for myself, sorry, that is not me. Besides I wouldn’t put my family and friends through that misery.

My family and friends have been outstanding through this long waiting period. There have been lunches and dinners (with alcohol), shopping trips to buy zip up tops, pajamas and undershirts for the healing process and too many hugs to count. A dear coworker even bought me a massage for the night before surgery just to help me relax and have positive energy. Poor Mitch, who has especially had to endure my warped sense of humor and totally inappropriate comments, has no idea how much I love him. I told him last night that he was the best time I ever had. Just in case.

This morning after no food or drink after midnight, not even a cup of coffee, I get to go have dye injected in me, have both my boobs whacked off and the rebuilding begun. Of course on top of having all of this fun, I get to go wearing NO MAKEUP. This from the woman who gets up an hour early on hunting trips just to shower and put on makeup.

Now that today has finally come, I’m scared. I wasn’t going to let it get to me, but it did. Damn cancer. But I’ve decided that today it’s okay to be scared.