Monday, December 31, 2018

Wrapping up 2018 and counting mixed blessings.

Obviously, it's not been my year. And I'm nowhere near done grieving what this stupid disease has taken from me. But today, I'm looking back and reviewing the good in my year directly linked to the cancer. For one thing, I'm walking again! Not entirely pain-free and not without a bit of a limp, but it's a start. The last two days, we've walked a loop at a nearby park. With a forecasted high of 70 today, I am sure we'll make it three days in a row. It just feels so good to be fairly mobile again. Honestly, it was starting to feel like it was never going to happen. And it makes me appreciate the ability to be active that I took for granted before.
In fact, this year has forced me to attend to my health. Along with plans to gradually increase activity, I'm taking cooking back up. I plan to start making whole wheat sourdough bread again, and lots of veggie-packed meals. Holidays and travel are exceptions, but the chemo days of being able to only tolerate bland foods and simple carbs have brought into focus how much better I feel when I'm avoiding processed foods and eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts and fish.
And remember when I said I'd zipped past my Goodreads goal of 52 books mid-year? Well, all those hours of forced immobility and sickness at least leant themselves to the chance to really immerse myself in reading. And read, I did. 141 books in all. Gooodreads tells me I met 271% of my goal. I read a mix of fiction and nonfiction, and became more appreciative of the public library system. I stop into our little local branch every week or so to pick up the books I've requested and browse the new book section. I also signed up for BookBub emails, which includes free ebook offerings each day so I always have something available on my iPad when I'm sitting in doctor's waiting rooms. And even though I won't have the time to read at that pace next year, I've re-cultivated a habit that will serve me well. I've got three books I'm working on now and a stack waiting for me when I'm done with those.
It was fortunate that we were engaged in a no-spend challenge this year because I missed more work than I care to think about. Weeks and weeks of it. Not to mention the many weeks when I could only work part-time or had to take days off for all the doctor's appointments and labs. In private practice, there's no such thing as paid sick leave. In addition, I still pay office expenses like rent and phone and insurance whether I'm seeing patients or not. So it's a double whammy when I am not able to work. Although we had to purchase a number of things directly related to recovering from surgery or accommodating my surgically-altered body, we did not make any discretionary purchases. I'm even more a believer now that stuff won't bring happiness. And so I watch an urge to buy something arise, and then just sit with it until it passes. I am thankful that recuperating financially from this year isn't further hindered by consumer debt.
And more than anything else, I just have a different perspective on my life. There is so much now that would have really angered me in the past that I just shrug off. Road rage? Nope. Complaints about minor irritations or discomforts? Not so much. I'm not saying I can't still snark with the best of them, but I am too deeply grateful for my life to waste much time carping about inconsequential problems. Instead, I find myself humbled by the support of a great variety of people, grateful for the good care I've received from many kind and skilled medical professionals, and happy that the disease has brought a lot of wonderful people into my life. I am keenly aware of my good fortune of going through treatment with the daily help of my husband and in the comfort of my own home. It's true that I'm more than ready to leave 2018 behind me, but I want to carry its lessons with me.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

A scaled-back but still joyful Christmas.

This year, I've decided to let go of a lot of my normal expectations about this holiday season. We put up a smaller than usual tree and decided we'd fill stockings for each other but not exchange gifts, other than giving gifts to the kids. We didn't bother putting up lights outside and decorated inside only a little. Instead, our focus is on time with the people in our lives. My sons (and my older son's girlfriend) will be here for a dinner tomorrow night and again for a brunch on Christmas Day. We went to a Winter Solstice party last night and are going to a neighbor's Christmas party tonight, and also plan to take in the UU church's candlelight service Christmas Eve. I want very much to hold on to this awareness of how precious life is. The Solstice is marks the return of light and Christmas celebrates the birth of hope. Those are reminders I need more than ever this year.

Peace to you this holiday season, whatever your traditions, and may your days be filled with light and hope.

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Cabbage Stew, for those who asked.

This stew is packed with cruciferous vegetables and, on the face of it, sounds too healthy to be good. But it's actually delicious. I make it in a crockpot and just layered everything in, in order.

Mediterranean Cabbage Crockpot Stew

·      1 red onion, chopped
·      1 sweet yellow onion, chopped
·      2 garlic cloves, crushed
·      3 carrots, scrubbed and sliced into rounds or half-rounds
·      2 russet potatoes, scrubbed and sliced into quarter rounds
·      1 box baby kale
·      ½ lbs red cabbage (1/2 head cabbage), cored and chopped
·      1 bay leaf
·      1 T cumin
·      2 t paprika
·      ½ t coriander
·      ½ t turmeric
·      1 t dill
·      2 T ground flaxseed
·      1 large can crushed tomatoes
·      1 box vegetable broth
·      Zest and juice of one lemon
·      ½ C fresh dill
·      Sour cream or olive oil

1.   (Can caramelize onions first by suateeing in olive oil with the garlic)
2.   Layer onions, garlic, potatoes, kale, and cabbage in crockpot.
3.   Add bay leaf, spices (and salt/pepper if desired).
4.   Top with tomatoes and broth.
5.   Cook on LOW for 7-8 hours or HIGH for 4 hours.
6.   Add lemon zest, juice and dill.
7.    Add a dollop of sour cream (or a drizzle of olive oil).

Sunday, December 16, 2018

I'll spare you the photo of my stitched up ankle.

When we went back a week and a half ago for a follow-up on my ankle surgery, the PA checked the incision and exclaimed, "This is beautiful!" I responded, "You and I have very different ideas of beauty." It took her a minute, then she laughed. I've been told my deadpan delivery often makes it difficult to tell that I'm joking. The surgeon came in and agreed, and told me I could now start putting weight on it. I asked if I had to keep wearing the Shrek shoe, and she told me if I could fit my ace bandage-wrapped foot into a regular shoe, that would be fine. Because when they said, "It's blue, so it goes with everything," they actually meant, "It goes with nothing any sane person would ever consider wearing."
I was mostly glad to be done with that bloody walker. My husband was promptly dispatched to buy a cane. When he returned home with it, I tested it out by shaking it in the air and shouting in a crotchety voice, "Get off my goddamn lawn!" It worked.
I returned to work last Monday in our first snow of the season. The roads were fine, the dusting just made for pretty scenery. I used the cane for the first couple of days and then found I no longer needed even it. I was so excited to be mobile that I stopped at the grocery store and came home to make a Mediterranean cabbage and potato stew. That actually doesn't sound all that good, but it was delicious. We went back to the podiatrist this past Friday to get my sutures removed. I covered my eyes and whimpered a little because I'm a weenie about things like that. But a compliant weenie - I did not move a muscle. My ankle was very swollen and I was instructed to keep walking but to wear a compression sock during the day and to elevate my foot when I am sitting down. Done and done. Every day it gets a little better.
So for the time being, my days of lying on the couch watching mindless television while the cat stares me down are done. And I'm glad. I continue to read a lot, but I am more and more ready to just resume my life as much as possible. Now, if only spring would get here...

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Early in the week, we had a visitor who unintentionally spun me into a very dark place. It started with my answer to a question about eating meat  - I'd said that no, I wouldn't eat mutton barbecue because I didn't eat mammal of any sort. I don't care if other people do, I just don't. He made a joking remark about how he made a practice of abusing his body through junk food and heavy drinking at every available opportunity and yet had never really been sick his whole adult life. Ha ha ha ha! I smiled politely, but I will admit - inside I seethed. I wanted to suggest that maybe it was pure dumb luck that had protected him. So far.

I think, at least on an unconscious level, people delight in the stories of someone who lived a healthy life and then was struck down by disease anyway. It fits our rough sense of justice about people who think (we believe) that they making superior decisions. It doesn't even matter if the person is just doing the best they can to take care of themselves - it still irritates people. The long distance runner who drops dead of a heart attack in his 40's, the vegan who finds they have dangerously high cholesterol, the thin person who develops Type II diabetes. See? See??? And, conversely, everyone knows the stories of the centenarian who attributed their longevity to cigarettes and whiskey. And who doesn't want to think the statistics don't really apply to themselves? But even knowing all that about how people operate, there was something about that offhand jab that rankled. Over the next day, I brooded about it.

By that night, I was unable to sleep much. And I woke up sunk in a misery I can't even quite describe. I've worked really hard to stay away from the "why me?" questions and not to indulge in self-pity over my cancer. But I started yesterday morning wondering if living an active life and eating a healthy diet are all in vain and if there was any real point in continuing to try. Any of it - diet, exercise, endocrine therapy, visits with the oncologist, follow-up tests. I spent all of that morning and most of the rest of the day lying in bed, tears flowing like a freaking water faucet had been turned on, and feeling nothing about my life except despair. Not scared, just lacking any motivation to get up and keep moving forward.

I know - it's not what you typically read here, is it? Well, I'm sorry. I'm human and I think I got kind of a raw deal. At every step of the way, since I was diagnosed, things have been worse than anticipated. From the sad-sounding young radiologist who called to say he was very sorry, they weren't expecting it but found invasive cancer, to the breast surgeon and medical oncologist who were both certain I would not need chemotherapy, to waking up from my reconstruction surgery with a foot that no longer worked, to the podiatrist who thought the damn thing welded to my tibia would instead be an easy free-floating lesion to remove. None of this leaves me particularly optimistic about what's ahead for me.

Don't get me wrong - I've spent too much time talking with people in the same boat to think I've been uniquely targeted or that other people haven't gotten an even worse deal than I have. Women who have young children at home or who wonder if chemo will destroy their chances of having children at all. People who were diagnosed with cancers that had already coursed through their bodies, setting up camp in their liver or bones. It could always be worse. I know that. But somehow, that's not where my head is right now.

If you're looking for inspiration here about the upbeat person who kept a great attitude as they beat cancer to the ground, I'm not the one to provide that. At this moment, all I know is that I have painful implants where my breasts used to be, a port that protrudes from under my collarbone and hurts when anything brushes against it, and a throbbing ankle I can't put any weight on. Last year I was active and vital and happy, and now a bald, mutilated, crippled reflection stares back at me from the mirror. I don't know how the fuck I got here. Maybe I'm not far enough out of active treatment to feel remotely healthy. Maybe, when I can walk again it will seem different. Maybe if I'm lucky enough to have a period of time without a recurrence, I might start feeling some hope. I'm working on it. But the next time someone suggests to me, even indirectly or in jest, that their own decadence protected them from cancer while I chose the fool's route, I might not be so gracious in my response.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Update on my left foot.

The night before surgery, we went out for sushi. I'd abstained for the duration of chemo, because it's not safe while your immune system is compromised, and I figured 27 days out was close enough to a month. And then went home to my list of instructions that I could recite by heart after four surgeries in the last six months - no food or drink after midnight, shower the night before and the morning of with antibacterial soap, no make-up, lotion, nail polish, deodorant, or jewelry, no NSAIDS for five days prior.
This time I was able to use my port for the anesthesia. As I watched the nurse unwrap the supplies, I casually/not-casually-at-all asked if accessing a port was more difficult than starting a regular IV. She said it wasn't if you'd done it before. I said I assumed she had and she nodded, then noticed the alarmed look on my face and assured me she used to work in oncology and had done many, many ports. Whew! Then the parade of people who stop in your bay to check in with you - the anesthesiology resident, the surgical nurse, the head anesthesiologist, the surgeon (who said she expected the surgery to take only about 30 minutes). All friendly and kind and seemingly in no hurry at all. The anesthesiologist asked about my chemo and then fist-bumped me when I said I'd finished. He asked if I was warm enough and offered to get another blanket. While he was tucking the warm blanket around me (something I've only ever had nurses do in pre-op), he said, "We want to take extra special care of you because you're a survivor." Made me tear up. He told me I would be under medium sedation and promised I'd remember nothing. In fact, it's a blank from the time they were strapping my arms down until I woke up in recovery.
The podiatrist briefed my husband afterwards while I was still out. The surgery took an hour because nothing goes quite how it's supposed to for me on this cancer journey. Turns out the calcified whatever-the-hell-it-is (pathology report pending) had grown in a weird oblong shape around the back of my ankle and attached itself to my tibia bone. The surgery order had called it a "lesion of unknown behavior" and I guess they were right - that sneaky end run around my ankle was not anticipated and they had to remove some of the bone to get it out. It was putting firm pressure on a nerve and the surgeon said between manipulating the nerve and shaving off some bone, I'd be in pretty serious pain for a few days. Once again, yay me! Incidentally, I texted this information to my older son who immediately wrote back, "It's going tibia long recovery process."

So that ridiculously useless walker they sent home with me after my mastectomy is now my best friend. I've already become pretty adept at hopping with it, in spite of the post-chemo leaden thigh that's having to support me. I took the Percocet as prescribed and discovered that I have not magically become able to tolerate narcotics. I woke up Saturday morning with a migraine and broke a walker-assisted land speed record getting to the bathroom before I got sick. It's ibuprofen from here on out, which means I am learning to tolerate the throbbing pain that happens whenever I get up. But it's not often - I was told no pressure on my foot and that I was allowed to be up no more than five minutes out of any hour for a full week!
I go back for a follow-up on Friday (stitches out the following week) and was told not to unwrap my ankle before then. So I am doing as I'm told - reclining all freaking day long with my betadine-swabbed and wrapped leg and foot elevated. And I'm not happy about it. I'm a caretaker type and it just goes against the grain to be so utterly dependent. Even with my mastectomy, at least I could walk. But I don't want to screw up what was fixed, so I'm begrudgingly compliant. I'm napping, and reading, and watching movies, and breathing. Lots and lots of breathing.