Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Some News and a Bitchfest

I promised I would reveal what the next leg of my journey is going to be. I thought I would be doing it with a bit more levity, but right now, misery trumps everything.

I'm going to be taking part in an immunotherapy clinical trial starting in April. My medical oncologist apparently had me in mind early on, because my cancer fell within the parameters necessary for participation in this particular study. In a few weeks, I will begin receiving the drug, Herceptin, every three weeks for a year, along with a "vaccine" that is supposed to prevent the recurrence of breast cancer. The reason why I put quotes around the word "vaccine" is because it is a single-blind study, and I won't know if I am getting the actual vaccine, or a placebo.

I promise to have more information about the study when I'm not feeling quite so bitchy. I'll just say that I am very happy to take part in it. Maybe in some small measure, I will one day be responsible for saving a life. If I can prevent anyone from going through the hell that is chemotherapy and radiation, it will all be worth it.

Now, on to the bitchfest.

I'm miserable because my epidermal decline brought on during the last week of roasting still has me cursing like a longshoreman. There's no way to describe it other than to say, this shit fucking hurts. And it itches. And I subjected myself to a pre-study CT scan and cardiac ultrasound yesterday, which was a huge mistake. Drinking about 900 mL of berry-flavored barium suspension was rough, but it turned out to be nothing compared to the unrelenting pressure of an ultrasound probe pressing into my chest.

The ultrasound technician kept remarking that he was having a tough time getting the images, and I was lying there exasperated. When I asked why he was having so much difficulty, he said he couldn't explain it. Mind you, I had one of these back in August, about a week before I started chemo. The technician who performed that one uttered nary a complaint. Yesterday, I was in no mood. I almost went all Brooklyn on the poor guy because, "If you stuck that thing up my ass, would you have a better vantage point?" was on the tip of my tongue. Naturally, the words never crossed my lips, but I was ever so tempted.

So, here I am, 24-hours later, still sore, burning, achy, and cranky. To top it all off, I have a slight cold, which is adding to my misery. And, I got word this morning from a reliable source that Joan Lunden is writing a book about her breast cancer experience. Of course she is. I mean, why wouldn't she? She's Joan Lunden for fuck's sake. Who am I? Oh, just some random schmuck toiling in obscurity in my minuscule little corner of the Internet. 

I know; I know; I shouldn't say things like that. But come on... I have things to say that are just as relevant. And I really can write. There's no ghostwriter all up in here taking dictation from me; there is no interlocutor between brain and fingers. I think I stole a variation of that last line from a "Sopranos" episode.

I don't want to turn into one of those bitter writers who does nothing but lament about never getting published. I used to have a friend/colleague who would post all his rejection e-mails on Facebook. Not only did I unfriend him, I blocked him because I just couldn't take reading them anymore. Maybe karma is smacking me for that, but I don't care. I am trying to keep the faith that this will all work out. It has to. I will not take "no" for an answer. 


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Roasting Completed

I'm posting a few days late again. This time, I've been busy tending to my roasting injuries. It is absolutely shocking how quickly your skin goes from "pinked" to the worst sunburn you've ever had in your life. 

My epidermal decline went into overdrive last Monday, when the skin in my underarm area started peeling, unbeknownst to me, because I couldn't feel it, and because I was in a pretty dense fog less than 24 hours after having to part with my cat. From there, it just kept getting worse. At present, I am beet red across the entire left side of my chest, and the redness has crept about halfway up my neck. I don't even want to discuss what's going on under my arm. All I will say is that I am so thankful I don't have any sensation in most of that area. If I did, I'd probably need to be in a medically-induced coma, or attached to a morphine drip. 

Please keep in mind that like everything else having to do with cancer, the radiation experience is different for everyone. Maybe I got a little full of myself with all the "schmearing", thinking that I would get away completely unscathed. I don't know how much worse it would have been if I hadn't been diligent with the skin care. Regardless, it's over. And once the sunburn has healed, I don't want to think about it anymore. 


Tuesday, March 17, 2015


When you're diagnosed with cancer, the days, weeks, and months following that news are filled with loss. You lose a body part or two, you lose your hair, you sometimes lose your dignity, and often times, you even have to sacrifice your livelihood because the treatment leaves you incapable of earning a living. In most cases, you can recover those losses; I can even replace my breasts if I want to, but I've yet to make that decision.

The other day, I suffered an irretrievable loss. My cat, Lily (pictured above), passed away on Sunday, and I am heartbroken. Lily had been with me through many ups-and-downs in my life, and she was only eight days short of her 18th birthday when I had to let her go. In many ways, it is harder to make peace with losing a pet because you count on them for support you sometimes cannot get from humans. Anyone who tells you that humans are capable of the kind of unconditional love animals are, is full of shit; an animal loves in a way humans can't, and that's just the way it is.

Lily came into my life from somewhere in the Pocono region of Pennsylvania. A former colleague of mine was in possession of a female cat that was regularly birthing litters of kittens. In March, 1997, he asked me if I'd be interested in adopting one from her latest batch, and I said yes. I asked him to choose one of the females, and bring her to me when she was about three months old. At the time he asked me, I had just gone to contract on a house. Anyone who has ever transacted real estate in New York state knows you can feel your hair growing during the time it takes to seal the deal. Finally, early that June, "Twitcher" came to live with me. The name was bestowed upon her by my co-worker's children, because she twitched a lot after she was born. My ex-husband re-named her Lily. She joined Clarkie, the male cat I adopted from the county animal shelter in October, 1994.

Lily and Clarkie were my first pets. I wasn't allowed to have pets as a child for two reasons: the first was because a bird my brother had before I was born, died while it was left to fend for itself when he and my parents were visiting the family in Toronto. Second, my mother had no affection whatsoever for animals. They loved her, but for some reason, she was unable to return their affection. My father was ambivalent, and fond of quoting a Yiddish expression which meant (loosely translated) that cats plugged up your head. So, I was 27 and living on my own when I finally adopted my first pet.

Regaling you with stories about both Lily and Clarkie would require me to write pages, so I will condense by saying that both cats brought so much joy to my life. I can't imagine going through life without caring for an animal. It became a passion of mine and I don't intend to give it up. Many people feel that way about children, but for me, that wasn't an option. I've never been sorry I haven't had kids, even though I do like them. Pets, however, are more my speed. Say and think what you will, but I'm being completely honest. I'd rather clean a litter box than change a diaper; and yes, I've done both.

Clarkie lead a life of leisure with me in two apartments and my house, before he passed away in April, 2007. He was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor in his mouth that winter, and I tried like hell to save him. I never knew exactly how old he was, but I was told he was approximately one year-old when I adopted him, which meant he was 14 or 15 years-old when I lost him. At that point, I had lost both my parents, and a few other people I was close to. Somehow, losing my first pet was a blow that hurt worse than all those human deaths combined. Clarkie was there for me when my dad passed away in 1996; he slept on my head and kneaded his paws, claws intact, on my face. He nursed me through bronchitis, colds, and kidney stones, and waited patiently in the window for me to return whenever I was out. He once pulled a chicken carcass out of the garbage and picked it completely clean on the kitchen floor. I never figured out how he got at it without upending the garbage pail, which was under the sink, inside a cabinet.

Lily, on the other hand, kept me company in a few dark, unhappy places. She endured 24 hours on the road during an aborted trip to Toronto, when exceedingly officious Canadian border wingnuts would not let me bring furniture into Canada, because I wasn't yet officially a resident of Ontario. That bureaucratic horror cost me one sleepless night in a grungy motel room, and thousands of dollars in legal fees. She accompanied me on a move to the Washington D.C. area, and was happy in her home there, because she had about 1,000 square feet of carpeting to sink her claws into. From there, we successfully made it, furniture in tow, to Toronto, where we lived with a psychotic relative for a little over a year. Lily knew who she was dealing with: one night, said psycho was rewarded with a gash on the nose for encroaching too far into Lily's personal space. A few weeks later, she sent me to the emergency room for penicillin and a tetanus shot after a swipe of her paw scratched my eyeball. Not long after, the psycho threatened to dump her in an animal shelter. We moved out into our own apartment.

Lily's last two-and-a-half years were spent in the company of Mr. Stinkman, a portly, fluffy feline who wanted so badly to be her friend. She tolerated Mr. Stinkman, but they never really became friends. This made me sad because I wanted her to love him the way she loved Clarkie. She had grown old and tired at that point, and I think all the drama of the previous few years had taken its toll on her.

In hindsight, I think Lily started to really decline after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. She lost a bit of weight before we left Toronto, but she was still spry, hungry, and somewhat kittenish when we got here. It was last summer, as I recuperated from surgery, and before I started chemotherapy, when I noticed things were changing. Maybe she hung on long enough to make sure I would be okay. The irony of her dying eight days before such a milestone birthday, and five days before I finish radiation is not lost on me. She'd had enough.

When I took her to the vet to be euthanized, she died in the examination room, before the doctor could administer the injection. It was peaceful, and I don't think she was in any pain. That's the best we can hope for, when our beloved furry friends decide it's time to go. I'm heartbroken, and I'm trying like hell to get through this last week of treatment. Of all that I've lost over these months of being a cancer patient, I feel this one most acutely, and it will stay with me longer than anything else.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

Radiation, Week Six

Maybe some of you like your chicken this way, but not me! 

Sorry for the delay in getting this post up; I've actually been suffering more from roasting fatigue than the burning. Although, my skin is starting to take on the hue of fresh ground beef. It's different than a sunburn; there's a sort of brownish tinge to it that I've never before experienced. Chalk more oddities up to the cancer experience. 

Yes, the fatigue has finally gotten to me these past couple of weeks. Fortunately, it doesn't carry with it the assorted accompaniments of chemo, but I've been napping again. Hence why this post is coming two days later than usual. 

I have four roastings left, which include the "boost" I've been hearing about for a while. The beam is now being concentrated in two areas, rather than the entire section that includes the lymph node area. It involves more table-jockeying than before, since my crackerjack techs have to hit two exact spots, as opposed to a larger area. It's too bad they weren't able to boost me at the beginning. I'm about ready to indulge in some nightmare-patient behavior at this point. Of course I won't, but the temptation is there. 

So, I will report back when this is all wrapped up. I have some news I've been keeping under my hat (pun intended) that I'd finally like to share with everyone. Don't worry - it's all good. 


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Vanity Run Amok?

It is pertinent to the subject of today's blog to say that I grew up with a mother who was constantly worried about what other people thought. Moreover, she passed that charming trait down to my older brother, who, at 61, still lives his life without the ability to say, "I don't give a fuck" about what others think of him. Now I can get on with the matter at hand.

There is no disputing that Farrah Fawcett had the best head of hair of anyone in her generation. Almost every girl and woman in the mid-1970s wanted that hair. I was more in the Dorothy Hamill camp; she is a former figure skater who birthed a short hair trend that was better suited to my hair type. Alas, I was not born with locks that could in any way support Farrah's look, but that didn't stop me from buying hers and Dorothy's haircare products. Anyone who is around my age will remember them.

So, what are my mother, my brother, and Farrah's hair doing on my blog? A Facebook friend posted this article on my timeline, and I couldn't resist offering my take on the latest "fad" being used in the name of vanity while you undergo chemotherapy. It seems that now you can keep most of your locks from falling off your head during chemo by freezing your scalp. You heard me.

According to the article, many European women have been utilizing this frozen cap treatment for a while now. Several hospitals here in the U.S. recently completed a clinical trial involving 120 chemo patients to test the efficacy and safety of these caps, which are sold under the names Penguin Cold Cap and DigniCap. The first one sounds like one of those cylindrical rubber thingies you wrap around a beer can, and the second one sounds like something you would use to hide a colostomy bag.

Researchers are hoping to gain F.D.A. approval soon, so more people will have access to them, at a cost of about $600 per month. If needed, "cappers" can be hired to assist patients with the placement of these devices, a service which can cost anywhere from $300 to $750 per day.

A doctor at the University of California San Francisco commented that losing your hair is a "declaration to the world" that you are a cancer patient, and that although hats are "fine and good", there's no denying that you're sick. I don't know Dr. Hope Rugo, the director of breast oncology at U.C.S.F. from a hole in the wall, but what she said sounds an awful lot like something my mother would have said if she were still around.

From the tone of my words, you can tell that I think this frozen cap business is a bunch of malarkey. Going through chemo comes with enough discomfort in the effort to rid your body of cancer cells. From personal experience, I would not have wanted to sit there with a freezing head while the poison was being pumped into my body. It was a given that I was going to lose my hair, and I managed to make peace with that. I knew from the onset that I wanted nothing to do with wigs, and would wear hats for the duration. And so far, no one has ever given me the "Oh, you've got cancer" look. If anyone did, I wouldn't care. That's my brother's bag, and my mother sacrificed many a relationship by employing that attitude.

I've maintained since the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, that none of this is about vanity. I lopped off my breasts, my hair fell out, and in a few months time, my ovaries will likely be cast off, too. And let's not forget about the hot flashes I could easily mitigate with a daily dose of Paxil.

I'll never have hair like Farrah did, and I'm not going to sweat it (pardon the pun). I want to be as healthy as I can be, and live my life with as few regrets as possible. I don't begrudge women the right to wear a DigniCap to preserve their hair, or pay someone to buckle up their Louboutins because they work up a sweat trying to accomplish that feat themselves. I just want everyone to realize that life changes the second you hear those awful words. It stops being about how you look and what other people think. It's about how much you value your life and what you, yourself are willing to do to save it.


Friday, March 6, 2015

Radiation, Week Five

Okay, so I'm getting a little tired of looking at Kramer the turkey. I've always loved the Coppertone baby ad, even though it was popular during a time when we didn't know quite how dangerous the sun is. Now, we slap on sunscreen without having to be told. And wouldn't you know - some of us are looking years younger than we actually are.

I've completed five weeks of roasting. I found out yesterday that I will be undergoing a total of 33 treatments, not 31 as I was originally told. My end date is March 19. Let's hope that I can complete them on schedule, as I am growing weary of the daily grind this has turned into. At least I got time off between chemo treatments; this is starting to feel relentless.

My skin is turning red and angry, even though I'm still doing the twice-daily schmear. I can't remember the last time I had a sunburn; it's been that long. And I am that tired.


Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Adventures In Roasting

I orginally posted this on Facebook. Since it's rather long, I thought maybe everyone would rather read it here:

Nava's Adventures In Roasting, Day 21:

The day started out on an amusing note as I sat in the waiting room watching an older gentleman volunteer from the American Cancer Society pile a new batch of donated books on a table. He pulled a hardcover book from one of his paper supermarket bags, looked up, and proceeded to cross the room to hand the book to me. He said, "I think you might like this one," with a smile playing on his lips. I looked at his selection. The book was, "How To Keep Your Man Monogamous" by that literary giant, Alexandra Penney. After a good-natured laugh, I said, "Thanks, but no." He laughed and said, "It's over here if you change your mind," walked back across the room, and placed the book on the table.

After doing the usual slip-and-slide into proper roasting position, one of my crackerjack techs said, "Oooh, it looks like we've gotten to you." I responded, "Excuse me?" He replied, "You've got some breakdown in the target area." Translation: the bastards succeeded in injuring me. I have a small sore in the area under my arm where the lymph nodes were removed. Since I have no sensation there, I didn't realize what was happening.

Upon completion of roasting, I met with one of the nurses, who prescribed Epsom salts, Neosporin and non-stick bandages for my "breakdown." Then it was back to the changing room to get dressed and leave. Instead of skulking out with my "breakdown", I somehow managed to pull the "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!" cord in the changing room, sending everyone in the area racing to my door to see if I was all right.

I apologized repeatedly and profusely, Steve, one of my radiation techs, put his arm around me and said, "Don't worry; you'll be fine. Go out and enjoy this glorious day."

From the hospital, I went to pick up some Epsom salts. We have a more than ample supply of Neosporin, since Nurse Bubba anoints himself almost daily to treat ouchies he gets when he has disagreements with shrubs, plants, bushes, unfriendly dogs, and humans. I consoled myself buy getting some lip balm, because you can't walk out with just Epsom salts.

I just realized that I bought myself some lip balm last year, a couple of days after I was told I would need to undergo chemotherapy, and wouldn't be needing any shampoo for a long time. My rationalization was, you don't ever not need lip balm. How far I've come...