August 25, 2021

Yay!! My plastic surgeon took out my drains today!

I will say that getting them removed was really something. I had two on each side, so two nurses worked together to take them out at once. After they clipped the sutures, they grabbed both and pulled in one long motion. All four at once. Patrick was watching and said each one was at least 12-18” long, and I could feel every twist as they came out. It burned but wasn’t really painful, thank goodness. Just weirdly uncomfortable.

While they took off the binding on one side, the P. Surgeon wanted to leave the other side intact for another week. Even so, he gave me the ok to shower again. BEST. DAY. EVER. Well, ok, best in a couple weeks. And I showered as soon as possible once we got back home. Because I could.

I saw my plastic surgeon in the afternoon, but I had an appointment with my general surgeon in the morning. He explained how his portion of the surgery went, giving us an anatomy lesson in the process. Did you know breast tissue typically extends up to the second rib and has to be peeled off of the chest muscle during a mastectomy? And that there is a visible difference between tissue and muscle? The upside to knowing this is that the area that showed positive margins for cancer was where the tissue and muscle met. That means my tumor was right to the edge of my breast tissue, and according to my surgeon, it wasn’t like the tissue extended into the muscle.

Now, since so much of this cancer stuff gets overwhelming and confusing and scary, I like to ask a lot of questions during my visits, sometimes repetitively, and without fear of sounding stupid. Yesterday I asked my oncologist if the only way cancer could spread is through the lymph nodes. He said yes. And then through the blood. He assured me that my breast cancer could not just move directly from my breast tissue into my muscles.

My takeaway is that there is a good chance my surgeon really did get all of the cancer, and any microscopic cells left behind should be eradicated by the upcoming radiation. I’m thankful for that. I’m also thankful that both my surgeons had the same reaction to how my healing is progressing —an almost surprised happiness. I think it’s because there was worry about adequate blood flow to one side. It was deep purple after surgery but today it’s almost bruise-free. Their reactions and explanations helped ease my mind about how things are going.

Today it’s going pretty good.

August 24, 2021

Today I saw my oncologist and radiation oncologist, so I have some next steps in place. The cliff note version for today’s gratitude is no more chemo. Yay! My oncologist says he hopes I never need it again.

That being said, I am considered high risk for a reoccurrence due to my initial type/size of cancer and that the pathology from my surgery showed that cancer cells were most likely left behind. That means at least six weeks of radiation that will target not just my left breast but the adjacent lymph node regions of my underarm and neck. The doctor wants to make sure they reach “deep” so as not to miss any areas of my chest wall. Fun. Once radiation is done, I’ll start hormone therapy that will last for 10 years. This piece, my oncologist emphasized, was absolutely necessary in the fight against reoccurrence. Once all my treatments are done, I’ll start follow-up visits every three months for two years and then every 6 months for three years. Good thing I like my doctor.

I’m hoping my visits tomorrow with my surgeons end with me getting my bandages and drains removed. I mean, I’m really hoping. Full disclosure: I was told I couldn’t get them wet which means no showering. I’ve been sponge bathing for the last two weeks, and I’m at the point of dreaming about a bath. Our neighbor has a fountain going 24/7 in their pool and I feel like it’s taunting me. I sometimes just stare longingly at our shower.

Besides the need for a dunk under running water, I’m also hoping bandages/drains are removed because they really are getting annoying. And painful. The radiation oncologist pointed out that the visible ridge I see is the metal section of my implants that are used for filling with saline. The binding is so tight that the skin along there has become extra sensitive so that even my clothes rubbing against it hurts.

The lower edge of the bandages are also coming loose and beginning to uncover the drain insertions. I put bandaids along the edge to try to stop it, but they aren’t holding up either. As the drains move more, they’re also starting to ache more, to say nothing about how gross they’ve become. (Sorry if you’re reading this while eating.) At the very least, I need a bandage change. Sponge baths only go so far when you’re wrapped in plastic during 90 degree weather.

At any rate, fingers crossed that tomorrow’s my lucky day. I’ll be extra, extra thankful. For today, I’m grateful to have some next steps laid out that don’t involve more chemo. In the words of my doctor today, radiation should be the easiest of all my treatment steps, so I’ve been through the worst.

August 3, 2021

One week to surgery and I had my pre-op appointment with my general doctor to get clearance. Unfortunately, I didn’t know I’d have bloodwork done or I wouldn’t have eaten a chocolate cupcake just beforehand. Surprise! My glucose is high. I should just put that on a t-shirt. I’m pretty sure it was high every time I had bloodwork during chemo.

And even though my swollen fingers have gotten a bit better, they’re still not right after several weeks, so I mentioned it to the doctor. She added a couple tests for arthritis to the blood panel, so there’s that. Every week I get about ten years older. The first test results looked normal to my untrained eye, but the other results aren’t posted in my online chart yet. I’d cross my fingers if they weren’t too fat.

The nurse who did my blood draw was flabbergasted by my picture in my chart. She looked at it, then looked at me, then back at my picture. Finally, she asked, Have you seen your picture on here?! I laughed when I realized what she meant and told her I was sporting my chemo hair. I’m pretty sure she thought they hadn’t updated my picture in 20 years. She had the grace to tell me it looked good, and I think she felt bad for not noticing the diagnosis in my chart.

So while I seem to be falling apart bit by bit, I’m still good to go for surgery. The countdown now begins while I keep telling myself it will be fine. All is good. At least I’ll have young boobs when it’s all over.

July 20, 2021

I’ve mentioned previously that I’ve been trying to have more faith, especially during this struggle with cancer. I’ve never been someone who is comfortable publicly shouting out my beliefs or trying to convert unbelievers. You’ll probably never see me on a street corner with a sign that says “Jesus loves you.” In fact, aside from a garage sale sign, you probably won’t see me posting signs for anything. I don’t even care for political signs in my yard. It’s not that I don’t support or believe in things, I simply tend to be more private about the big stuff. Maybe that’s really a weenie way out of it because I dislike arguments about the big things like religion and politics, which tend to get too heated and emotional and personal.

That being said, I don’t mind sharing my struggles. I think most people have struggled with faith in some form or another. Most folks I’ve had any real relationship with have revealed their desire for meaning in their lives and wondering what their purpose is or what life is all about or why things happen (good or bad)…the list goes on. For me, believing in a higher power is easy. I’ve never had a problem thinking that God created the world and allowed it to evolve as it has. In my mind, creation and evolution don’t fight each other. My internal fight is and always has been, why do I matter in all of this? Why would the God of creation care about my daily life. Doesn’t he have bigger things to worry about? I mean, keeping the earth rotating is a big thing.

To be honest, I’ve always been a bit perplexed and jealous of people who claim that their God is personal to them. A father. A friend. Someone who cares. So I keep finding churches to go to. Over my lifetime, I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover. And I continue to struggle with mind over heart.

Last weekend I watched church online, as I have been. And at the end of the message, they played a song called A Million Little Miracles and it made me want to cry. I’m not a cryer. But songs, like poems, can get me. Part of it goes like this:

I’ve got some blessings that I don’t deserve
I’ve got some scars but that’s how you learn
It’s nothing short of a miracle I’m here

I’ve got miracles on miracles
A million little miracles
Miracles on miracles
Count your miracles
One, two, three, four, I can’t even count ’em all

I feel like it was a breakthrough for me. Despite my current struggle, despite other terrible times I’ve been through. I can see that my life has always been and is currently blessed in so many ways. Miracles everywhere. I don’t know how that isn’t personal.

January 20, 2021

Today was the day. I shaved my head. Or more accurately, Patrick shaved my head. I’ve actually been losing my hair over the last several days, but I refused to shave it prior to my second chemo treatment. I was told it was after the second one that I would most likely lose it, so I was disappointed when I noticed it earlier. I was keeping it through the second treatment out of principle.

First off let me say that losing your hair is difficult to describe. It’s weird. I thought I was prepared but I’m not sure anyone really is. Running my fingers through my hair resulted in a fistful of strands. Eventually, I’d notice hair hanging lower than others and if I tugged on it, it would pull out in clumps.

And brushing?! Holy cow. I could make small animals with what came out. This was from one gentle brushing yesterday.

Yikes!

Today I couldn’t wait any longer. I felt like PigPen and his dust cloud only mine was a cloud of fallen hair everywhere. On my clothes, on my desk, in every plate of food. It was time to get rid of it.

Am I ready?

I turned on All American Girl by Melissa Etheridge which felt fitting for the moment as well as the day and Patrick got started. This is another thing I can honestly say I never expected to be doing, but here we are.

I actually thought it would be funny to let it fall out naturally just to send funny progression photos to my family. If you met my family, you’ll understand. We all enjoy a good laugh, especially at each other’s expense. Which may sound mean, but my family is also fiercely protective of each other when necessary, so it’s a good balance. If my scalp didn’t hurt from the hair pulling, the slow fallout may have happened. The photo album would have been epic too because I’m pretty sure one side was losing it faster than the other. I already had one bald spot on the top.

Who wore it better?!

To stand in solidarity, Patrick asked me to shave his head too. It was such a sweet gesture, and I can’t even adequately express how much it means to me. I’m blessed to have him on my side. Losing my hair isn’t easy, but I’m thankful today to have this milestone over. It’s just hair and it will grow back one day. In the meantime, I get to play with wigs and hats and scarves. Fun!

January 19, 2021

Another big day—chemo treatment #2. Getting through this one means I’m halfway through the hard meds. Yay!

One of the weird things that doesn’t get talked about much is that every treatment goes through the port and that the port is at a weird spot in the chest—about 4” below the collarbone and about that close to my armpit. I need to wear clothing that allows access—a button down or a shirt with a low and wide neckline. I know it doesn’t sound like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but in the middle of winter, all I want to wear is a soft, cozy sweater.

I’m also tired of wearing the easy, “comfortable” clothing they recommend for these visits. I always enjoyed dressing up for work (not anything I need to do for work-from-home) so I decided I’d make a bit more effort for my doctor’s appointments. Since my appointment today started at 7:30 am, I picked out an outfit last night after testing shirts that weren’t flannel. I ended up with a crossover shirt and sparkly cardigan with dressier leggings and cute boots I haven’t worn since last winter. I even put on jewelry!

Patrick doesn’t care about shoes, so he didn’t get my cute boots in the picture. Bummer. Shoes make the outfit, am I right?

We’ve all heard that we should dress to impress. I’m not sure I impressed anyone today, but I did feel more like my normal self, which felt good. It felt like I was back in control. I haven’t been living in pajamas or sweatsuits, but I certainly haven’t been dressing up at home. Maybe I should, at least occasionally. Thoughts for another post. Today, I’m grateful for moments of normalcy during times that certainly are not normal. Oh, and I’m thankful for making it through round 2 without issue. Yay! (Again because it deserves it.)

January 5, 2021

You guys! I wish I felt like celebrating. I am happy to report that today is day one of my cancer cure.

I had my first chemo treatment. I’m not going to lie; I was nervous. After almost two hours of blood draws and port flushes and anti-nauseous drips that took over half an hour to administer, my nurse, Sister Rose, came back into my room in a special blue gown. She donned not one, but two layers of gloves, and then proceeded to handle the chemo drugs that had been specially made for me when I arrived. The first ones were red vials. She said she had to manually push them into my port IV because she needed to periodically check the blood draw. This stuff is what is sometimes referred to as the red devil. I told her it looked like jello shots. While she laughed, I suspect she said an extra prayer for me today. After two vials of the stuff, I got another IV bag drip of a different kind of chemo. Both have similar side effects: nausea is top of the list, hence all the extra drugs; low blood counts, so I’ll go in tomorrow for a booster shot to help produce white blood cells; fatigue (already feeling it!); cardiac damage, which is why I had a heart test prior; and hair loss (my crowning glory!). There are of course a myriad of other things, like skin rashes and mouth sores and extremity numbness/tingling, that may come along.

Me in the home stretch. I was so glad not to have to wear that mask the entire time!

But honestly, right now, I’m just thrilled to have made it through. So far so good. I entered a clinical trial for added nausea medication; maybe I got it, maybe I didn’t. Either way, things are working. I’m tired but I’m now 1 down, 15 more to go. And I’ll handle things day by day, grateful for a cure.

January 2, 2021

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

When I was about 8 or 9, my family saw both Jaws and Piranha one night at an outdoor theater. I spent the next week or two deathly afraid of the bathtub. Or any puddle of water deeper than an inch. I always had a rather active imagination, and as a child, my imagination regularly worked against me. My dad, who was an engineer, finally sat me down one day and forced me to consider in detail the error of my thinking. How could something as large as a shark make its way through small pipes and into our tub? Staring into the light of logic, I had to admit that it couldn’t.

I’ve always had a comfortable relationship with my body. For a modicum of effort on my part, I expected it to get me through every day as I saw fit. If I wanted to spontaneously dance, I would. If I wanted to run through the snow with the pups, I would. If I wanted to push a piece of furniture from one room into another, I would. But when the call came that the biopsy of my left breast showed cancer, I immediately felt like my body turned against me. I lay in bed at night and inched my arm away from my side. I wanted my turncoat breast to stay away from other parts of me. How dare it defect? I did nothing but support it since it showed up 40 years ago. In some weird way, I felt like I didn’t know myself anymore. Where else was the cancer? Every issue I’ve had in the last 5 years became suspect. Every otherwise normal ache and pain became related. I felt like dead woman walking. It’s then that I heard my dad’s voice from so many years ago telling me, Melissa, you are your own worst enemy.

It’s funny how our minds can control us in such powerful ways. I’ve always loved being imaginative. Being creative brings me joy. However, I’ve been reminded regularly throughout my life that being stuck in my head can work against me. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Focusing too much on a problem doesn’t necessarily solve it. Sometimes it just makes it worse. While I believe that I’m intelligent and resourceful and a problem solver, I also know that sometimes I need to stop listening to my own voice and instead listen to others who can maybe see something differently than I.

I started this blog again as a way for me to look out. To get outside my head and look for the moments in my day that are more worthy of my attention. I asked others to join me in this gratitude journey as a way of sharing what I was going through and maybe helping someone else along the way look for their own moments. I didn’t expect to hear so many, many words of encouragement, support, and strength. Today I’m so very grateful for all of your voices. They helped drown out my own.

November 13

I found out tonight that a good friend of mine was just diagnosed with breast cancer. Cancer. I hate the word. One dictionary entry says it means something evil or malignant that spreads destructively. I think that sums up the disease accurately because it seems to be everywhere. And it’s not just a physical thing; it’s pervasive in all aspects, mentally and emotionally as well. Show of hands on who’s been affected somehow by cancer. I have a hard time finding someone who hasn’t been. In fact, my friend just lost her father-in-law last year to cancer. She lost her mother to cancer. It sucks. I don’t know how else to say it. It’s a horrible thing. When I think of it, it makes me sad and angry at the same time. And helpless. What do you say when someone tells you this? I told her I was sorry. I told her that it sucked. I told her I loved her. And you know what she said? She was going to stay positive; she wanted no sad faces, only happiness and laughter. So there you go. This world is full of battles. We all have one, and it’s really about how you fight it. My friend has cancer. But it doesn’t have her. I’m thankful for that.

Day 23

At the risk of being too personal, I’m going to admit to having a mammogram today. It’s a pretty routine procedure for us women, I know. I think it’s also safe to say that it’s uncomfortable for all and nerve wracking for some. I went into this procedure just a little nervous for a couple of reasons. My doctor was upset to find out that it had been a couple of years since I’d gone and mentioned feeling something strange during my last routine visit. However, the main reason he was upset is that there’s first generation breast cancer in my family. My sister was diagnosed and had a double mastectomy before she was forty.

I’m thankful today for the fact that my visit turned out a normal reading, but mostly that my sister is still cancer free. She was diagnosed in January 2007. Two months after our dad was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Wow that was a tough year. And my sister faced her own cancer with such amazing courage, it’s almost easy to forget she had it. My large family is scattered around the country, and she lived in Kentucky at the time. My oldest sister and I traveled to Kentucky to be with her and help her for a few days after her surgery. When we showed up at the hospital, we had to laugh because she was wearing an Alice in Wonderland Cheshire Cat top with the caption “Poof…gone.” on it. (Our family’s sarcasm knows no bounds.) And after the surgery, when we helped her do the basic functions: get in and out of bed, shower, dress without screwing up the drain tubes and bandages, she didn’t whine or even complain much beyond making comments about the awkwardness or uncomfortableness or general pain of it. Granted, we didn’t stay with her for the duration of her healing, but I can say with certainty that she dealt with her cancer like she deals with all things in her life. Straight on. Head held high. Doing what she needs to do without falling to pieces, like she would have every right to do. Like many of us would do.

I admire my sister’s bravery; words fail when I think of how proud I am of her. As anyone who has been touched by cancer knows, it’s not something that goes away completely. It’s always there, in the back of the mind if no where else. Since her initial diagnosis eight years ago, she has had different follow-up surgeries and routine checks and rechecks. Thankfully, all is still well. She doesn’t talk about it much. She made it through and has continued on beyond it. On a daily basis, it’s easy to forget about until something as mundane as a routine mammogram reminds me. My sister is a cancer survivor and is still a beautiful role model in my life. What a blessing it is to say that.