Friday, January 30, 2015


I begin radiation on Monday. As I've said previously, I've taken to referring to it as "roasting", because I needed a word to describe it that doesn't sound like I traveled to Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Speaking of words, I stumbled across an interesting cancer essay in my Facebook news feed that has me all riled up. Living With Cancer: Coming to Terms is the antithesis of what I'm trying to accomplish by writing this blog, which is to communicate my experiences using plain, hopefully humorous language, rather than sounding like an elitist windbag, or a medical professional intent on regurgitating a textbook. Yes, I understand the "medical lexicon" is rife with terminology that is contradictory to everyday language, but that doesn't mean I have to succumb to its existence. Granted, I am not living with metastatic disease like the author of the piece, and I hope never to be in that situation. Excuse me if I get all "Brooklyn" here for a minute, but chronic illness, in my opinion, is not an excuse to flout one's intellect in order to get a grip on the situation. I mean, not for nothing, but, ya know? 

Now that I've gotten that off my flat, magic-markered, tattooed chest, I want to explain why I used an image of Joan Rivers at the top of this post. Joan was an incredible woman (again, my opinion). She used humor to get through some excruciatingly tough times in her life, and I respect the hell out of her for that. Her quote, "Life is very tough. If you don't laugh, it's tough", is something I keep repeating to myself because it reminds me not to take everything so seriously. Do I feel that way all the time? Of course not. I do, however, try to spend a portion of every day, sometimes against my will, laughing at something. It certainly beats trying to figure out why "fine words [are used] in grotesque settings." 

Come to think of it, Joan Rivers and roasting do have something in common. A few years ago, she was "roasted" on Comedy Central by a group of comedians, similar to those Dean Martin celebrity roasts that used to be held at the Friars Club in New York. Comedy, in particular, stand-up comedy, is a skill that requires one to be particularly verbose, in a way that will make people laugh. Said comedy sometimes utilizes a great deal of profanity which can be offensive, but genius when coming out of the right mouth. The key to striking a balance between profanity and genius is to know when to apply them in the context of a particular conversation. Joan was an expert at that. 

Speaking of experts, the author of the essay used this quote from the poet W.H. Auden in her writing: "Language is the mother of thought, not the handmaiden of thought." I prefer this one: "Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about." Fuckin' A. 


Friday, January 23, 2015

The Soy Debate

As I cool my heels waiting for radiation, or "roasting" as I've been jokingly referring to it, to begin, I've started working a bit, and also returned to as much normal activity as I can. That normalcy has included leisurely strolls through public places, so I can get my body used to moving again.

Earlier this week I visited Costco to pick up some super-sized necessities. One of my favorite areas to browse in is the personal care section, where you can buy liter-sized bottles of shampoo, lotion and mouthwash, in addition to boxes containing 100 or more tampons and other menstruation supplies, which I no longer need. On occasion, you can find the odd gem among the shrink-wrapped bundles of toothpaste and razor blades. The other day, that gem for me was two four-ounce bottles of Aveeno face moisturizer, accompanied by a bonus tube of face scrub, for $19.99. Since I've been having issues with extremely dry skin and rosacea on my face, I grabbed one of the packages and placed it in my cart. When I got home, the realization hit me that Aveeno, a well-respected and oft-recommended brand for problem skin, uses soy in its facial products. I immediately felt like I did a bad thing by indulging in the bargain face lotion. A quick check of the ingredients showed that the products did contain glycine soja, or soybean seed extract. I proceeded to have a hot flash as I sat down to compose a post on Facebook, asking my friends if any of them avoided soy products for health reasons, in particular, estrogen positive breast cancer like I'd had.

The responses I got were mixed. My writer friend and fellow breast cancer sister (neither of us is fond of being called "survivor"), said that she doesn't go out of her way to avoid soy. Another breast cancer sister said she avoids soy products and red meat. She has been cancer-free for over 20 years. Another friend told me that I risk ingesting soy if I eat non-grass fed beef. It turns out, soy is almost as ubiquitous as high-fructose corn syrup, which we know lurks in just about everything in the supermarket.

Instead of ratcheting up my soy tizzy, I decided to e-mail my medical oncologist, since we never had a discussion about avoiding foods and personal care products that contain soy as part of the effort to prevent recurrence. In his response, he said that soy is a very controversial subject for both medical professionals and the public alike. He included abstracts from a few recent studies that were a mixed bag on the topic of soy supplements and foods, and whether or not they are beneficial for menopausal and post-menopausal women, along with women who have, or are at risk of developing breast cancer. Two of the studies concluded that soy was beneficial to Asian women, particularly in Japan. After reading this information, I am no more or less convinced that a small amount of sobean extract in a facial moisturizer is going to harm my health. In fact, I met my friend for lunch yesterday, and we had Thai food, which included - you guessed it - tofu.

Another interesting item that crossed my path this week was the documentary Cancerpants. I found it in my cable network's movie library and watched it. It was released in 2011 and followed a breast cancer victim in her late 30s who was diagnosed with a stage three tumor in one breast. She was physically active, ate healthily, and besides her grandmother, didn't have a history of breast cancer in her immediate family. Yet, despite her efforts to live a healthy lifestyle, she was stricken. That reinforces my belief that it's not just the foods we eat or the spare tire we carry around that are dangers to us; cancer is the bogeyman hiding under the bed that can strike despite our best efforts to avoid it.

I don't want to get overly political here, but the conclusions in the studies that looked at Asian women kind of bother me. Everyone knows that food is revered in many places outside the United States. The fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains grown abroad are not bombed with pesticides the way they are here. The animals slaughtered for food are not pumped full of steroids and and antibiotics to fatten them up. In fact, many of those substances are banned in certain countries. So, even if Asians and Europeans are indulgent in their eating habits, the food is likely better for them than what we're getting here. Personally, I blame Monsanto; after all, they've got a patented, genetically modified soybean seed that American farmers must use, or else the pesticide police will show up to confiscate their crops. God bless America.

I don't want to straddle the soapbox for the rest of the day, but I will reiterate that there are many things out there that cause cancer other than a family history. The reason why so many studies about what causes breast cancer are inconclusive is because the lifestyles we live vary wildly from place to place. Until we can find a way to level the playing field and truly live healthy, productive lives, we are at risk from almost everything.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wrapper's Delight

The photograph above is of my left forearm and hand, which were expertly wrapped earlier today by my physical therapist. I think I mentioned last week that she specializes in helping women stricken with lymphedema following breast cancer surgery. She is another example of the wonderfulness I've encountered along the way; someone whose compassion and empathy has been nothing short of amazing. It's getting to the point where I think I need to bear-hug everyone I've met (and some people I haven't) during the past eight months. So, slather me in sanitizer and let the loving begin.

I'm going to spend the next few weeks, at least, mummified in order to get the swelling to go down, and then I will be fitted with a compression sleeve that will ensure my arm does not explode while I receive radiation. This experience very much reminds me of when I fell off my bicycle the summer I was 14, and broke my wrist. What's so amusing about the photo is that I tucked my thumb in under my palm, which is exactly how my arm was set into the plaster cast I wore for about two months. It's fascinating what the body manages to recall, even after decades have passed.

The good part about being wrapped in bandages, as opposed to being encased in plaster, is that I can unravel myself to shower. When I had the cast, I had to wrap it up in a green garbage bag and secure it with about a dozen rubber bands to make sure I didn't get it wet when I bathed. Moreover, I don't think I will experience the "seven o'clock itchies". That was when I sat on the porch of my parents' house after dinner, and my next-door neighbor would give me a set of knitting needles so I could jam them down my cast in order to itch my arm. I am most grateful, however, that it is my left, not my right arm, for reasons that, well, I don't think I have to expound on.

For some reason, the wrapping has left me a bit demoralized. The process of wrapping one's arm in bandages isn't that difficult, but it is time-consuming and somewhat intricate. The thought going through my mind is along the lines of "one more pain-in-the-ass phase I must endure." I even asked if there is a pill I can take - a diuretic, maybe - that would make the swelling go away. My physical therapist gave me a stern, and very educational lecture about how there is not a drug available (legal or illegal) that could do the job of the bandages I am wearing. I shut up and submitted.

Tomorrow, I am to be scanned and mapped in preparation for radiation. More about that to follow.


Friday, January 9, 2015


One of the unfortunate side effects of having lymph nodes removed from your body is the swelling that can occur. It's called lymphedema. I never realized how important lymph fluid is to the body, but since I'm now light 26 lymph nodes, I now see how valuable those little suckers were. My left wrist and hand have begun to swell, and there are things I am going to have to do if I don't want to see my arm blow up to the size of a tree trunk. 

I had my first ever visit with a physical therapist yesterday, and she told me that lymphedema is almost unavoidable for women who have had lymph nodes removed as part of breast cancer surgery. One other thing she told me, which my radiation oncologist failed to mention, is that lymphedema can worsen after radiation treatment. When I visited with him last week, he seemed very concerned about the evidence of swelling, but said nothing about the possibility of it worsening. You just can't seem to get off scot-free with cancer; it infiltrates your body and still manages to surprise you even after you think you're done with it. I thought since I showed no evidence of swelling until about a week ago, I was going to be one of the lucky ones. Guess not. 

My physical therapist, who is originally from the east coast, like me (funny how many transplanted east-coasters I've met), told me not to panic. She gave me some information about how to perform lymphatic drainage massage on myself - yes, lymphatic drainage massage actually works;  it's not just a bullshit treatment you pay hundreds of dollars for at a fancy spa - and told me to order a specific type of arm bandage, which I will have to wear every day, for 23 hours at a time. I'm not at the "compression garment" phase of treatment, yet. I may or may not need a compression sleeve for my arm after I complete radiation. 

I am trying to stay positive about this latest side effect, since it certainly beats the alternative. I don't, however, want to spend the rest of my life with an outsized limb, as I mentioned above. I was shown pictures of what lymphedema can look like and it's not pretty. What's even less attractive is the fact that many insurance companies fail to cover the supplies like bandages and compression garments needed by patients to treat the condition. 

So, I now have one more hurdle to jump in this journey. Let's hope I manage to clear it. 


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Beauty In the Breakdown

After yesterday's post about the continuing horrors of chemotherapy, I feel I have to redeem myself a little bit by posting something positive. 

Last July, shortly after my mastectomy, an old and dear friend of mine started posting links on my Facebook page to some YouTube videos made by one of the countless beauty "gurus" who review makeup and skin care products, in an effort to keep my spirits up. The videos she chose are made by a woman who is relatively close in age to us, with a very down-to-earth attitude and sense of humor about beauty. She ends each video with a few minutes of bloopers culled from the filming, which are flat-out hysterical. I've gotten many a giggle from those videos, and as a result, I've taken to viewing such snippets regularly. I've also become somewhat of a disciple of these women, and now there is a growing group of them whose videos I've begun watching obsessively. 

The link above is to a video made by British makeup artist Lisa Eldridge, who I wouldn't classify as a "celebrity" makeup artist (even though she regularly makes up celebrities for red carpet events). She doesn't have her own line of products, nor is she well-known here in North America. I stumbled onto her YouTube channel when one of the gurus I watch regularly mentioned her in a video. As the saying goes, I have found my "holy grail" beauty guru, because Ms. Eldridge embodies the aesthetic I very much admire: the ability to use cosmetics to look like the best version of yourself. It's not that I don't enjoy watching girls half my age transform themselves into goddesses of maquillage, with perfectly applied foundation, concealer, contour, highlighter, along with half a dozen eye shadows, liner and false lashes - it's never been a look I could ever pull off. I admire the skill and artistry these girls possess, but at this stage of the game, I would look like the draggiest of drag queens if I tried to emulate a look like that today. 

When I found Ms. Eldridge, I found my beauty scholar; her soothing, lilting accent, and her talent, have been a balm to my soul. Even though I don't have any eyebrows or eyelashes to speak of right now, I enjoy watching her expert tutorials where she applies makeup to herself and others, and the knowledge she imparts about makeup and skin care products. I've always been a junkie in that regard; there was a time in my life when I had in my possession enough makeup and skin care products to last about three lifetimes. It's possible I missed my calling by not becoming a makeup artist, or at least getting a job in the beauty industry, but I'm not the sort that would likely fit in well in that arena. Despite that, I do love to write about the stuff, and lately, watching these videos has been something of a lifesaver.

I must admit that before I was introduced to all this, my only use for YouTube was to search for snippets of old television shows, or watch music videos. I was not at all clued in to the vast beauty universe on social media. Now, I'm hooked; I've subscribed, followed, and commented, and I've learned quite a few tips and tricks I can't wait to try on myself. This has been my version of the "Look Good, Feel Better" part of having cancer, and it's done wonders for my psyche. 

You might be thinking, why doesn't she get all dolled up right now? The answer to that question is because I acknowledge my limitations. I refuse to be false, drawn on, and shimmery in my current state. For now, I prefer to express myself with my cheeky beanies and maybe a little lipstick. The time will come when I will once again join the ranks of the goddesses, and this time I will be armed with the knowledge that will ensure I get it right. 


Monday, January 5, 2015

Ten Days After

It's been ten days since my last chemotherapy treatment, and, well, I still feel like crap. I've felt like crap for so long that part of me was hoping for a minor miracle: I thought maybe since the chemo leg of this journey is over, I would feel better more quickly. Turns out I was kidding myself; I actually feel worse if you can believe it.

I've read so much and spoken to so many people that I don't even want to discuss the time frame for how long it will take to get back to normal. "Normal" has an entirely different meaning now, and part of me knows (but doesn't want to acknowledge) that this is going to take a very long time. My eyesight is still off, my hands and feet would get me thrown out of the dodgiest manicure/pedicure parlor - yes, my fingernails and toenails are that scary looking - and the supply of bloody crust my nose produces is prolific. If I could sell the stuff, I would likely be a very rich woman. And then there's my stomach, which can only be described as "bi-polar", and off its meds. Have I disgusted you yet? I could go into much more detail if you'd prefer; all you have to do is ask.

It really isn't my goal to disgust my readers, but the point I'm trying to make is that there has to be a better way. New ways to detect cancer are being introduced with some degree of regularity, but the treatment options remain somewhat archaic. Yes, many of them work quite well, but you have to put your life on hold until they work their way out of your body.

Part of what's causing my high level of sarcasm and irritability is that I am chomping at the bit to get back to work. I need to, for financial reasons, and I want to, because writing is what I do. Blogging helps, but no one is sending me money for my efforts here, much as I would love that.

Cancer, and many other illnesses have a lasting impact on people's lives, much as we don't like to acknowledge their lingering effects. We read countless stories about how some individuals manage to keep working and maintain a high level of normalcy in their lives despite the toll the treatments take. I have a hard time finding much truth in that.

When I saw my radiation oncologist last week for the first time in almost six months, he asked me how I was feeling. My response was "ravaged". That is an apt description for my experience. Even though I'm upright and muddling through, the treatment has indeed ravaged me. And it's not over yet.