A year later

Remember when you watched cartoons growing up, the good and evil thoughts of a person would be depicted as a mini angel and devil sitting on opposite shoulders of some poor, conflicted, cartoon hero? These mini-characters represented the hero’s subconscious and often got into their own little comical battles, one finally triumphing over the other, the victor kicking the loser off his shoulder perch.

A year ago today I had a real life experience with those two. I wouldn’t say they were representatives of good and evil, but definitely two parts of my subconscious…the altruistic and the self-preserving.

Dr. Claire Buchhan, her eyes smiling, take with my iTouch as I was fading away. The iTouchwas for the music I listened t

Dr. Buchanan, eyes smiling, taken with my iTouch (for music during surgery) as I faded away.

It’s been one year today since I had a mastectomy, a day I remember well. There wasn’t too much drama and trauma to my experience, just anxiety, the anxiety I feel going into any surgery, and of course I wondered what life would be like with one breast. Thanks to the wonderful support of my husband Mike and cousin Shaun, and the most personable, down to earth, skilled team of doctors – surgeon Dr. Claire Buchanan, and the anesthesiologist (whose name I’ve forgotten), I felt in good hands, literally, and well cared for. The drama and trauma I witnessed was that of another woman who also had a mastectomy that day. Here is my weird mastectomy story:

 

Shaun sent me this photo from last yr., looking pretty relaxed for pre-masectomy! I was in good company!

Shaun sent me this photo from last yr., pretty relaxed for pre-mastectomy! I was in good company!

My surgery was in the afternoon and it was dark out when I was wheeled into the tiny, pie-shaped hospital room where I was to spend the night. Mike was not there, he was in the hospital cafeteria eating dinner with my sister-in-law, hospital staff had not reached him yet. I lay alone in the darkness, still groggy, and could hear a woman screaming right outside the door to my room. (She was actually in the next room.)

“You cut my breast off!”

“I’m bleeding!”

“There’s a hole in my chest!”

“You cut my breast off!”

“I’m going to die!”

These were the words she screamed, repetitively, as loud as she could, with great horror and panic in her voice. I lay there listening, apparently no one was able to calm her or stop her fearful, angry rant.

My first thought was “I need to get up and go to her, they don’t know how to deal with her.” This is the deep-seated social worker persona in me, the one who worked with people with schizophrenia, people having manic episodes, as well as people experiencing fearful traumas, such as domestic violence.

Then the other voice chimed in “Are you crazy! YOU just had a mastectomy yourself!” Nothing practical like “you can’t even get out of bed”, just the voice of reason…why would you even think of addressing her emotional trauma when you just had the same experience she had!

My little altruistic cartoon buddy got kicked out.  Self-preservation won, I not only came to my senses (which were pretty dull from drugs), but I tried to put the plaintive screams out of my head, which was not easy…they went on until 10 or 11 that night. (I learned the next day they finally got a psychiatric doctor to order a sedative, administered by injection, to calm her.)

Flowers sent to my hospital room last year by the crew at Sunshine Propane.

Flowers sent to my hospital room last year by the crew at Sunshine Propane.

I still felt compassion for this woman, and sad her issues were not addressed better and more immediate. The next day I got a peek at her, sitting in her room, still looking angry, but subdued. She looked life-worn.

On my follow-up visit two weeks later, I asked the surgeon what it was like to tell someone who may have mental illness that they have breast cancer. (I don’t know that the screaming woman had a diagnosed psychiatric disability, her explosive anger and fear may have been triggered by the surgery and/or medications.) My doctor told me she has had people explode at her, threatening her life, when she told them they had breast cancer, and they weren’t people with mental illness.

Life is so messy, there are so many challenges for us all.

Here I am a year later. Not an easy year. A month after the mastectomy I had a skin cancer removed from my lip.  Once I recovered from the mastectomy I began the task of closing my mom’s estate, she died a month before the surgery. Like most people with one or more cancer experiences (this was my third go-around with breast cancer), I live with the great unknown. It’s like an umbrella over you, sometimes blocking the sun with its shadow, but you constantly try to close it and put it away somewhere in the corner of your mind. The preventive meds I’m supposed to be taking cause too many bad side effects and aggravate other health conditions. When on them deep muscle and joint pain cause me to be dysfunctional. The oncologist says I’m one of the small number of women who can’t ‘tolerate’ them.  I follow a protocol of supplements. I’m trying to learn better self-care.  My self-preservation cartoon-character was strong and loud that night a year ago, but I too often ignore her in day-to-day living.

It has also been a year of deep appreciation. I’m acutely aware of multiple little blessings in my life. Often over shadowed by the BIG challenges, they accumulate and fill me up.

I hope the woman in the room next door has had even half the blessings and love I’ve had this past year. It would sooth her soul.

IMG_3641Note to readers: Very grateful to those who took time to do the poll in my last post. It was very helpful to get feedback. Equal votes for Nature and personal stories, photos appreciated (sorry for that lack of in this post), a few requests for more recipes, and comments that let me know I’m doing ok and should continue to give voice to my muse! Thank you!  I have lots of December nature topics floating around, hope to catch one soon!

 

 

Waiting

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Snow bells, though I like to call them snow drops! :o)
Always an early, brave, bloomer.

Many friends have written me the past few days asking how I am doing. It is wonderful how connected we all are in this web of humanity.   Without knowing, folks are checking in with me at the time I must learn a new dance step in this cancer dance.  Thank you all, and excuse me for using my blog to respond, it may seem impersonal, but it is, after all, my blog  and it seems personal to me!  And you know how I like to add pictures to what I have to say! :o)

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Early blooming “Christmas” rhody

I have been waiting, healing from surgery.  And today the wait ends. I see the radiation doctor.

I am holding my breath.

How have I been? I’ve been going to too many appointments.  I’ve been tired. Been visiting my mom and doing things that need doing in her life. Been reading more about breast cancer than I wanted to, though the information has been interesting, and provocative. Been searching for healthier ways to support my body in preventing cancer.  I’ve been more anxious than I wish, given the tumor removed from me was small.  I’ve been learning about recent research that shows many new potential ’causes’, or contributing factors, to breast cancer. Many are factors in my own life, such as chronic insomnia – women with low melatonin levels are more likely to get breast cancer.  I have had insomnia all my life  (No, I can not take melatonin, I am in a ‘subset’, as one doctor put it, of people for whom supplemental melatonin has a reverse effect.)  This melatonin connection just one of several pieces of information leaving me feeling ‘damn if I do, damn if I don’t’.

As does radiation therapy.  There is recent research showing, yes, woman exposed to a lot of radiation through mammograms and other sources may be more likely to get breast cancer.  I began at a very early age due to breast pain, no one told me I shouldn’t, doctor’s would order the tests. Mammograms every year since I was 29.  Plus many many x-rays for other health challenges.

So  today is a challenging day as I go meet with the “radiation doc”.  I hear he is a good guy.  I hope so. My body has many existing challenges that make radiation provocative.  My mind set isn’t helpful either!

It is amazing how breast cancer is talked about, researched, analyzed, studied, yet it is increasingly becoming diagnosed more in younger women.  I urge young women to learn about ways to improve diet and lifestyle to decrease your risk.  I would like to write a blog post just about this, but there is good information on the internet, and I am not quite ready to become a proselytizer, though I may become one!

The statistical jargon both amuses and offends me.  It seems so impersonal.  Increased ‘survival rates’ (don’t you love that term?  Why not just say : “women who live vs women who died”) are waved as flags of how successful ‘cures’ are, yet we are talking years which often include recurrences, more treatment, years of taking medications with side effects, including other cancers and serious health problems.  Yes, for an individual woman who 50 years ago might have died of breast cancer, living 5 more years, 10 more years, is HUGE. (though some of the longest living ‘survivors’ were woman who had breast cancer 50 years ago, when there was only one treatment, mastectomy).  But a cure means a condition goes away and a person does not have to think of it, worry about it, and potentially die of it or a related complication ‘down the line’.   One reason I support The Breast Cancer Fund is their focus on finding the causes of breast cancer.  Eliminating causes and learning prevention means the thousands of women diagnosed every day do not have to have their lives irrevocably changed, and challenged.  At the same time woman are counted as ‘cured’ after 10 years, new research shows more women are having their cancers return after 15, even 20 years.  I know there is value in statistics, but when doctors rattle off statistics to me as I struggle with difficult decisions, I say to them “I am not a statistic”.   Each woman diagnosed with breast cancer is a unique person with so many complexities that need to be understood, at least tried to be understood, by her doctors.  One doctor said to me “who cares if it recurs”, to which I answered, “I do”. Later she acknowledged her flippancy.  The three doctors I have seen thus far have all been wonderful in their own way, yet all have left me feeling like I am an anomaly (definition: “something that deviates from what is standard, normal, or expected”) due to many factors, including other health ‘issues’, lifestyle, etc. yet the more I read, the more I learn many women are anomalies in that they all have unique, challenging considerations when facing breast cancer decisions.  After all, cancer is an anomaly!

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I would like to be writing of spring as it tries, some days against the odds, to make an appearance.  I admire the bravery of  crocuses, shining, tiny, bold color sprites, opening in the sun breaks, closing tight in the cold, gray, rain. They are the center of activity for hungry bees waking from groggy dormancy.  I’ve not yet decided this spring how I feel about celebrating ‘new growth’!  But there is healthy, vibrant new growth and I try to imagine my body as a garden growing new healthy cells to replace the ones ‘offed’ by radiation or removed by surgery.  I try to imagine any new cancer cells dying off, unable to thrive in a place that nurtures only ‘good cells’.  I try to find ways to create in my body nutritious soil for healthy cells only (by treating the immune system).  I have no wisdom to share about this process, the mind is as challenging to me right now as the IMG_5477body!

Stay tuned, I will know after today what help I may need for this next dance step.  Mike has a few medical test to go through first, I will be waiting  a bit longer to start, unless convinced other wise!  I deeply appreciate each email, card, or phone message I receive letting me know someone is thinking of me, and will answer when I can between appointments, when the energy is there.

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Another bright early bloomer

Note: The Breast Cancer Fund has useful educational material on their website about chemicals known to be carcinogenics and ways to reduce your risk. They have been instrumental in many studies, political action, and sponsor the annual “Climb Against The Odds”.

Lila

Lila is the Sanskrit word for cosmic play, or creative sport. I use it here to mean a little dance, a little play, a drama between two people – the players are myself and the radiology doctor I met this week. 

This is the story of my breast biopsy.  I’m aware that some readers may not want to read it, and that is understandable.  I  don’t even know why I write it.  Except that it is a story of how people can change, and interactions shift, if we better understand the other person. No matter what our own drama is at the moment, it is beneficial to remember this simple concept, too often forgotten.  On this day it was critical for me to remember.

IMG_0179The Doctor and Me

Early morning drive to biopsy.  White frost everywhere, bright sun low in the January sky.  It is beautiful.  I can think of a million things I’d rather be doing.

I have danced around the roller coaster of fears, anxiety, even moments of calm acceptance, for a week, since the dreaded call telling me my mammogram has something ‘suspicious’ on it, an area of  ‘concern’.  A ‘call back’, what every women with a history of breast cancer dreads.  This was my second in three years.  All these carefully chosen words that beat around the liability bush, as if those vague words will calm the fears and anxieties.

Responding to my asking again (our conversation Monday did not go well), the doctor reaffirms she believes the lesion is cancerous.  She starts the biopsy procedure after telling me I’m likely to bleed and develop a hematoma because of a large blood vessel at the site. The pressure on my already painful breast is excruciating and I flinch.  The doctor tells me I can’t move and says she won’t start something she can’t finish and maybe I need to be anesthetized and have a surgeon do the biopsy (she is a radiology doctor), she knows I have a reaction to anesthesia, have almost died from it.

What the hell am I suppose to do, lying there all prepped for this vacuum assisted needle biopsy?  We have a tense conversation, I’m in tears telling her I can’t help it if I live in a painful body (the breast pain, at the site of the lesion, has been particularly bad lately).  She is being contrary, I am ready to get up and walk out and tell her I will come back when I can have a different doctor.  But I don’t, that inner voice is overridden by something else in me that knows I need to go through this with her and it will be okay.  Since Monday that voice has told me this lila with her simply is, don’t let it get to me.  I convince her to go ahead, I will do the best I can and expect her to do the same.

Something shifts, after a self-disclosing remark that makes me realize this doctor has poor self-esteem, as a woman in a male dominated field (radiology docs) I am not surprised by her defensiveness, and nervousness about doing a procedure on a body that is an anomaly.   After she starts with the local anesthesia needle, she cracks a joke and then says she has a bad sense of humor, and mumbles something about how she isn’t creative, or good at gardening either. This unintentional exposure of her vulnerable, “underbelly” side,  shifts her energy.  She starts asking me what would help with the pain, a warm blanket? (again she is self disclosing, “I’ve had lots of surgeries and I like warm blankets”), something to grasp in my other hand? (Out comes the smiley face squeeze ball).  We are working together now.

The procedure went perfect, the blood vessel “amazingly” contracted and was not in the way.  I joked a bit with her. Afterwards she was surprised at how well I did. I told her I would tell her my ‘secret’ some day, she said, why not now? I told her about taking oral Arnica, did not get around to telling her about Rescue Remedy,  the Ayurvedic herbs for balancing the nervous system, or the homeopathic Calms I took right before she came into the room. (They wanted me to take Valium.)  I also didn’t tell her about focusing on the “third eye”, and using breath.

She left the room with a smile, a softer person than when she walked in.

Overweight, rather pale, a woman in early middle age, she identifies with her work, it is where she feels good about herself, she clearly is experienced and tries to do a good job.  Some of my questions Monday, I believe, she took as challenges – questions like “would another doctor read this the same and recommend a biopsy?” or “Is this a gray area?”, none of which were meant to challenge, only to inform me, the ambivalent patient who had just been told she needs a breast biopsy due to a ‘suspicious lesion’.

Now, with ice packs on my poor poked boob, I recover…….and I wait.

The doctor, by now, is on to another biopsy.  What is a routine day for her is a life-changing day for me.

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View of Olympics from the parking lot.