Monday, January 6, 2014

A Healthy Selfie

     If I wanted to increase readership (or instill horror in my children!) I would post a couple juicy selfies here, naked ones.  One before. One after.
     Instead, I’ll let one metaphoric image speak for itself. 

     I look almost identical now as I did before my surgeries. To me, this is miraculous.
    As far as my inner Hero’s Journey, I’m still pondering the greater wisdom, the magic elixir I apparently now possess. If I had to give a quick answer, I’d say it's about fun -- having more of it.
     For 2014, I’m committing to find more reasons to celebrate life -- the monumental occasions and the miniscule ones. I’m reminded of my 16-year-old’s beloved doll, Tina, and how for years my girls and I would throw birthday parties for Tina whenever the mood struck. Often, that mood was prompted by a desire for cake, but no matter! Tina had birthdays every season and we celebrated regardless of what else was going on in her life, whether it was the week her hair was butchered by a scissors-wielding sibling. Or whether it was the month she lost her hand, evidence of a life well lived. We didn’t need a big reason to bake a treat, decorate the dining room and have fun. Living was reason enough.
     Sometimes, it’s easy to forget all that.
     It’s also easy to forget that whatever you liked as a kid, you likely still do.
     I celebrated good health over the holidays and asked family and friends for ideas for more fun in 2014. I’d already unfolded my ping pong table and started embracing a bit of ping pong therapy, made all the better when I beat my husband. Apparently I find competition – and the occasional whomping of Ron -– fun!
     Here are a few other ideas that made the ‘How to Have More Fun’ list: 

  1.  Quit waiting. Rush forward.
  2.  Embrace life with all four limbs, heart and mind.
  3.  Ride a train somewhere you’ve never been.
  4.  Go to New York and see everything you’ve wanted to.
  5. Allow contemplation or quiet pursuits.
  6. Go to a summer retreat like SUUSI (Southeastern U.U. Summer institute in VA).
  7. Take ballroom dancing classes.
  8.  Let R and S known when you want to go to New Orleans and stay at our Play House!
  9. Buy your beautiful daughter that iphone she has been lusting after, already! 
    This is a small list, a starter really. I hope to add to it each day. In the meantime, I'm searching for Tina who is currently in hiding. I hope to find her soon because her birthday is coming up any day now...


Sunday, November 17, 2013

One-Knee Focus

     If a man gets down on one knee in front of you, it is serious business. It signifies he cares deeply about what he’s about to say or do.  I remember the times in my life when this happened.
    Once, a charming waiter at a tiny restaurant on the Oregon coast dropped to one knee, got up close and described in savory detail and a soft voice, the offerings on the evening’s menu. He had a compelling accent, Greek perhaps, that made me swoon and my husband Ron roll his eyes. There was no mistaking this was more than charm: the meal that followed was exquisite.   
     Other times included last week (and last July) when another gentleman, my plastic surgeon Dr. Yale Popowich, kneeled before me and drew on my breast with a purple marker. This focused and serious effort was part of the pre-operative procedure. The surgeries that followed were positive and finessed.
     Thursday’s surgery was uneventful. Aside from being assigned to room 13 for pre-op, having veins which refused to offer blood (poke number three was a charm), everything went as planned. I arrived at 6:30 a.m. and was out of post-op room 25 wrapped in a chest bandage by 12:30 p.m.  I’ve popped a pain pill here and there, but all is well and it’s all behind me now.

    To top off the relative ease of this experience, my husband Ron kneeled at my bedside and rubbed my shoulders a couple times since. I realize I don’t always comment on the times he drops to one knee. Sometimes I don’t even notice. Right now, though, my awareness is heightened. I understand the serious business of dropping to one’s knees.  And I seriously appreciate it.   

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Coming Home

I haven’t written for a while because I have no news. No news but an inner guilt associated with the stage I’m at, which is called ‘survivorship’.
       Here are a few of the things I feel guilty about: not exercising enough; indulging in a few too many of those left-over snack-sized Milky Ways at the bottom of the trick-or-treat barrel; sliding back into coffee again (although I went a couple days on the weekend with none and no headache so I don’t feel addicted); grabbing less-than-healthy meals rather than salad on busy days, i.e. not being fully intentional and still loving food; and sometimes forgetting to take my stash of vitamin supplements, which include Magnesium, Calcium, Vitamin D and Turmeric.
       If I unpack the “guilt”, I find ‘fear’. Fear that because I’m not perfect and vigilant and disciplined in all my habits, as I never have been, the cancer could come back. Fear that maybe I was responsible in some way for this journey in the first place. My fear is so real that just now I wrote C and then went back and inserted the word ‘cancer’. I find myself not wanting to write the word, not wanting to say the word, just wanting to forget all this happened in 2013. It was a fluke, the year ’13 was simply bad luck; ’14 will definitely be better. I also find myself checking my right breast daily, feeling for anything suspicious residing near the chest wall. I’m happy with my decision to not have anything done to my healthy breast, but these feelings are real and present even as I deny them.
          Tomorrow, bright and early, I have my last surgery. This is the one where the plastic surgeon swaps out my croquet-ball-hard tissue expander with the implant. This is a good thing. I’ve scheduled it so I won’t miss my Tuesday and Wednesday night classes this week or next. I check in at 6:30 and expect to be home by 2.  I'm thinking of wearing the red shoes I bought two months ago, clicking my heels together and saying those magic words...
           This is the coming-home again part of my journey.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review and Remind

The school term has started anew and with it comes bittersweet memories of spring. This morning, I'm organizing my teaching files -- honing the efficiency of my (right-brained!) system and removing duplicates. I found this e-mail I sent my students at one campus at term end. It's the e-mail that prompted student responses. I'm copying it here so all my content relating to this journey is neatly in one place. 
    This also serves to remind me (and maybe readers) of what the Hero's Journey is all about and what it can mean for me and you.    

     Thanks all for the celebration last night and for your portfolios. I look forward to reading them over the next couple days.
     In terms of inspirations, one thing I wanted to reiterate last night was the idea of The Hero’s Journey. The timing didn’t seem right so I’ll share it here. The reason I’m drawn to the Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell/ The Writer’s Journey by Chris Vogler is that it relates to more than the stories we write. It relates to embracing the challenges we face in real life. There will be segments in each of our lives where we encounter seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Embracing the Hero’s Journey helps frame these obstacles and even know what to expect. Your Hero’s Journey could take the form of making it through a particularly challenging term in school; getting over a heartache; overcoming grief; kicking an addiction; moving to a new city; or even finishing a screenplay. This term has been unforgettable for me, and not just because of the energy of the Rock Creek class! but because of a personal journey I’ve been blogging about.
     A week before spring break at my annual mammogram, suspicious spots were found in my left breast, which upset my ORDINARY WORLD. I was called in the next day for an ultrasound and my REFUSAL OF THE CALL began at that moment. At the ultrasound, the spots were suspicious enough to biopsy. On spring break at Disneyland with my family, I got THE CALL that yes, I have breast cancer. I then proceeded to “enjoy” the next two days as we rode the rides designed with The Hero’s Journey in mind – rides like Indiana Jones or Space Mountain where facing death makes the ride worthwhile. Back in Portland, I started the teaching term, met my medical MENTORS, and the second week of class, I entered the SPECIAL WORLD of chemo. I got my hair cut short a week later and a week after that, it came out in clumps, hence the short wig (hopefully I fooled you.) I continued with a myriad of medical TESTS weekly and encountered many ALLIES while battling the ENEMY, which is the cancer, thankfully caught early. And today is my last of four treatments, (scheduled on Thursdays so I wouldn’t miss our enthusiastic sessions.) So for some of you, I’ll be reading your portfolios in the comfort of the chemo lounge sitting in a recliner. The mood is much like a Starbucks, except they serve up medicine cocktails rather than coffee. I figure I am now at the APPROACH TO THE ORDEAL stage, prepping for the surgery, the ORDEAL, the midpoint, which happens in three weeks. Then it’s SEIZING THE SWORD, which I envision as a positive surgery outcome and recovery and reconstruction via THE ROAD BACK to my ORDINARY WORLD where I will be changed and RESURRECTED due to this journey, culminating in a RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR, my newfound wisdom or something that is yet to be determined. I should have that answer by fall.
     I hope to see some of you again in class this fall or winter... For those of you who can’t fit this class in again, I hope you keep writing your script. I hope you keep writing your stories. It’s been my pleasure to have you in this class.



Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Big Still

     These past weeks, I’ve enjoyed a breather from analyzing my Hero’s Journey.  The good news is there hasn’t been much external story to share. The deeper admission is there’s simmering content below the surface.
     I noticed this at the dentist last week. My appointments are on a nine-month cycle so the last time I sat in the reclining chair was before my cancer journey started.
     "Anything new in your medical history?” the young technician asks from her chair-side computer. I stare ahead and answer quietly, “Well, yes.”
     “What’s that?” she says.
     I mention the surgery I had in July and then detail what kind. She asks a couple more questions. I answer briefly.
     My words breast cancer shock the air, then dissipate into an empathetic still. There’s no “aww, I’m sorry to hear.” No attempts at pacifying me with language. Just silence. An invasive silence like a huge balloon pushing everything else out of the room. It presses against me. Tears form at the corner of my eyes, then stream. I smear them up and out like one of those facial creams promising youth, hoping my young female comrade doesn’t notice my weakness.
     I experienced similar tears a week earlier on another appointment. The emotion surprised me then too. I’m not sure why it’s difficult to tell people about my experience.  I don’t feel I’m harboring post-traumatic stress or malingering grief. I don’t feel sorry for myself. And I definitely feel I’m moving on, that I’m firmly footed on “The Road Back” to my ordinary world. I’m just not sure what the big lesson is yet – the “Elixir” or greater wisdom the Hero’s Journey promises. I acknowledge that getting to that point may take awhile.
     For now, reminders of my recent journey are everywhere. The other day while cleaning a ripe Italian cantaloupe, I realized it was a perfect model of how my nipple-sparing mastectomy went down. My surgeon essentially scooped out the inside of my breast leaving the exterior intact. Amazing, actually.
     I realize the way I see things or describe things may shock others who haven’t experienced this journey. I realize I’ve caught up to the place my surgeon was the first day we met when she explained, “Think of your body like a car. Sometimes parts need repairing.” Her words were jarring at the time. Now I get it. Got a bit of rust. No problem. Cut it out. Then move on.
     Summer's end and the croquet set in the garage was another recent reminder. I’ve been undergoing “fills” each week, the process by which the plastic surgeon injects 50 or 100 cc of saline into the tissue expander under my chest muscle. I have now officially graduated from this process. Six weeks from now, I’ll have another surgery to replace the expander with the implant. I anticipate this will be the “resurrection” part of my journey. Until then, my left breast is as hard as a croquet ball. 
     This game is not yet over.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sympathetic response?

    I saw “The Wolverine” the week before last, a movie I’ll never forget. And I can say with a fair degree of assurance that my singular viewing experience does not match up with that of any of the gazillion others who have seen this movie.
     The film wastes no time launching our mutant hero on his journey. A few minutes in, he lunges his gigantic metal talons into rowdy hunters. Not long after, his comeuppance comes via blades and arrows. With the first major attack on our hero, I felt a sensation of warmth on my side, then running down my back. Was I so engaged in this story that I empathized to this degree? Hugh Jackman’s blood filled the screen, and my body responded.  (After a mastectomy, you have absent nerves that still give off sensations. Sometimes when I drink water, it feels to be running down my side.)
     In the theatre, I put my hand under my arm and ran my fingers down my shirt. My fingers were sticky and soaked. It was too dark to tell with what, but it didn’t take long to realize the site of my drain that had been removed three days prior had chosen this movie moment to spring open. 
    Let’s just say I missed about 30 minutes of the film. I’ll admit “The Wolverine” is not my kind of movie anyway. I only went to stay abreast (no pun intended) of what the mainstream masses are drawn to. Movies, walks, reading, music are part of moving beyond my story, which I’ve been relishing the past couple of weeks. I’ve been doing anything but think about what I’ve gone through on my medical journey. Apparently, though, my body is saying this story’s not over yet. 

    Two days ago, a week and a half after “The Wolverine”, I arrived at the plastic surgeon’s office for my weekly fill, anticipating another 50 cc of saline to be added to my muscle expander. I sat down in the waiting room and felt wet under my arm. It was a hot day and I was perspiring more than usual. In the examining room, it became clear it wasn’t sweat. The timing was good, and the doctor massaged the area to remove the excess fluid. “Wow, there’s a lot,” he said, as I gushed like a little spring. The nurse brought a vessel to catch the fluid.    
   I talked to a couple friends about these experiences. My niece Lisa, a nursing mother, said it’s not a stretch that my body would give a sympathetic response to what was happening on the movie screen. After all breast milk and lymphatic fluid are interconnected. This would be like a nursing mother doing errands away from her child and her body responds with flowing milk to another baby’s cries. I’m not sure if there’s medical proof of this or not, but it makes sense.
    My friend Signe simply said, “We women are used to gushing -- tears, menstrual cycles, breast milk. This all seems natural.”
    I like getting these feminine perspectives. As far as how I’m feeling, I’m not that uncomfortable. Or worried. I’m just hoping the weeping stops soon. I’m hoping for one more connection to “The Wolverine,” the part where his wounds seal shut for good.

Monday, July 22, 2013


     There are rewards in letting go.
     I let go of control prior to 7:30 a.m. surgery.
     Mumbled “see you tomorrow” to my family around 8 p.m. that night.
     The nurse unhooked my oxygen tubes a couple hours later.
     A different nurse unplugged my IV early the next morning.
     I said “so long” to the Physical Therapist, the Occupational Therapist, and my discharge nurse mid-day.
     Twenty-four hours after getting home, Ron removed the catheter for the pain pump from my chest.
     At my follow-up, the plastic surgeon peeled off the tape and bandages, except for those covering my major incision line.
     I stopped the oxycodone and supplemental meds, except for antibiotics, a week after surgery.
     This brought an immediate “sayonara” to my far, far-away land dreams and nightmares.
     And a bit of a “vamoose” to my exaggerated gaiety.
     Now, two weeks out, I want to evict the drain from under my arm. It’s irritating and limits my activities. I’m sleeping on my back because sleeping on my side hurts with a tube sewn into my flesh. Each day, I document the volume and color of fluid the drain sucks from my lymph area. The color has lightened; it’s what the nurse calls “straw” and I call “light peach.” The discharge must be no more than 30 ml in a 24-hour period in order for the drain to be removed. Lately, I find myself wishful cheating. The 20 ml I jot down is really a 22. The nine I just scribbled could really be 11, depending on the angle at which I hold the jar. Still my numbers yesterday added up to 54.

     "So is 30 a magic number?” I ask, “because this thing is really annoying. I would like to get it out.”
     The nurse tells me, “you’ve had the drain longer than the average patient but some have it for a very long time.”
     I say “okay” and make a light commentary about how the vagary of that reminds me of their discharge instructions which detail numbness, pain, tingling and various sensations one may experience that “go away in time.” I’ve had all these symptoms and still do.
     She doesn’t laugh. She says, “you’re doing a great job.” The directive from Dr. Garreau is “wait” before they take the drain out. 
     I listen.
     After all, Dr. Garreau’s words dispersed a dark cloud when she called me two days after surgery with the pathology report. “All of the lymph nodes are clear,” she said. “And the cancer is pure secretory.”   
     This is the non-aggressive, highly treatable form that most often turns up in 20-something women. This is the news – the secret-- I’d been hoping for all along. 
     She said the mass was larger than they thought, but they got it all. The chemo wasn’t effective because chemo doesn’t work on secretory cancer.
    But if there were rogue cancer cells present anywhere in my body, I figure they’re likely not there anymore. And my oncologist, Dr. Vuky, agrees.
    As for not really needing the chemo and the unpleasant side effects, I’ve let go of that.
    After all, the reward is in letting go.