Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hair Growth After Chemo (Part II) - It's been Almost a Year

One of my most popular blog posts is the one I did in April, talking about hair regrowth. I remember doing search after search after search when I was bald, scouring the interent looking for answers or guides for what I might have in 2 months, 6 months, a year.

So, this post will be dedicated to giving you an overview of a year. (Well, almost a year.)

I finished chemo on December 20, 2011. Most people say hair will start to grow back 5-8 weeks after your last treatment. I had a bit of fuzz at the beginning of February but I wasn't going around without a hat or a wig until mid to late March. It is possible I started wearing my hair out much sooner than others would. I just couldn't stand the wig - even though I'm sure no one noticed I was always worried that they would. At least with my real hair, there was no lying or hiding. Plus, it was kind of liberating to wear short hair and so, so, so easy to do.

Since most of my photos happen on vacation, you will also be getting a small tour of my trips this past year.

April 2012 - 4 months after last chemo
It is short, it is still straight and it is maybe a tiny bit lighter than my old hair. (That is a giant panda in the background. We're in Hong Kong!)

May 2012 - 5 months after last chemo

I actually quite liked this length, though I do think at the beginning my hair grew more slowly than I was used to. This was mid-May, about 4 weeks after the photo above. I'd cut my hair once in between.

I've cut my hair about 4 times since it has started growing. Although I want long hair back I also want nice hair while it is growing. I'm willing to wait a bit longer for length if it means I take a more stylish path to get there. Obviously the choice is yours, but I'd recommend my approach.

June 2012 - 6 months after last chemo
Taken at an amusement park after riding many rides. Please note the carefree, windblown look. Also note, the hint of curls. There will be many more to come!

I'd had another cut in between here and the last photo. I don't know why but the hair at the back of my head grows way faster than the front. I guess I'm biologically prone to mullets? Luckily, I promise to fight against that nature until the day I die. Well, unless mullets become super fashionable again but man, I hope that doesn't happen.

August 2012 - 8 months after chemo
Curls! I have no idea how to deal with them. Here is my advice - find a good hair product (I use about 3) and find headbands. Headbands make a world of difference.

This isn't the best example, but it is one of the few sans-Paul. 

October 2012 - 10 months after chemo

I'm telling you - HEADBANDS! They manage volume and make the curls work. I go out without them, but I think I look better with them. At this point, my hair is still a bit too short to straighten.

November 2012 - 11 months after chemo
This was my first attempt at straightening my hair. I've managed to get it so it doesn't flip out quite so much but that really depends on how much my hair is willing to cooperate on any given day. This takes longer but I can get more days out of it. Curly-haired bed head is pretty insane.

So, there you have it. An 11 month overview of cancer hair. I think I thought it would be longer by now. Or maybe, more honestly, I had no idea how short five inches really was. I think my hair grows about half an inch a month. That is probably pretty standard.

Koreans say that if you want you hair to grow you should spend a lot of time thinking about sex. Seriously! They tease people who have fast growing hair, implying they are dirty minded. I don't know if this little trick works, but hey, if you're desperate for growth any thing you can do, right? 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Pinktober (Also known as Breast Cancer Awareness Month)

Ah, yes, it is that time of year again. When everything turns pink and companies encourage you to buy crap you don't need in a colour that is kind of lame so that a minuscule amount of your money can go to some charity that does something sort of related to cancer. Can you see which side of Breast Cancer Awareness Month I fall on.

This is a bit late, since the month is already mostly over. I don’t know why I’ve put off writing this entry. Maybe it is because I don’t want to seem sanctimonious. I mean, I am going to be sanctimonious, but I don’t want to appear that way. It is all about appearances, you see.

Before I was diagnosed I never took much note of October. Sure, it’s Breast Cancer Awareness month and that means that suddenly everything has to be pink. Beyond that, I never gave it too much though. Cancer = bad, awareness=good. It seemed simple, obvious even.

On the one hand, I was aware that breast cancer was an incredibly well funded cancer. I don’t know the stats off the top of my head but I know that it receives a lot more money via donations than a lot of much more deadly cancers. Now, part of the reason breast cancer isn’t so deadly anymore is all that money helped pay for research which helped improve outcomes for women like me. So the money has done a lot of good.

But it also seems unfair on some level, that it is a cancer that continues to get so much money and attention. There are people who will be diagnosed with esophageal cancer or pancreatic cancer who will face much worse odds and do so with less funding. Maybe more of the cancer money pie should be going their way. I felt this way before I was diagnosed; I feel this way today. 

I know, I’m taking a long time getting to my point. My point is this:

I hate Pinktober or Breast Cancer Awareness month now. You know why?

Breast cancer doesn’t need any more awareness. At least not the kind of awareness that is being peddled through pink crap.  I feel like awareness is a dead horse. It’s been flogged to death but every year we trot it out and take it through the streets and ask people to give their hard earned dollars so the damn thing can come out again next year and create more awareness. The horse looks like crap. Let’s just bury it already.

Don’t miss my point. I’m not saying don’t donate. I am saying donate to charities that do more than awareness. Stay away from Susan G. Komen! Stay away from charities and fundraisers that don’t fully disclose where their money is going. Don’t buy pink crap you don’t need since odds are only a teeny, tiny portion of that purchase will actually go to cancer related stuff.

Now is the part where I’m going to tell you where I think your money should be going to, if you want to give at all. Because there is still lots about breast cancer that could use money, it just isn't awareness. Give  to:

1. Research!

We need to understand why some Stage 1 breast cancer will be cured and other Stage 1 breast cancer will become Stage 4. Right now doctors don’t know, so we have to treat it all like it will try to kill you. Bet you didn’t know that not all breast cancer is making attempts on your life. Some will just hang out in your boob, leaving well enough alone. And if they can tell how badly cancer wants to kill you with more certainty, they can spare some people unnecessary treatment. Heck, we don't even know what causes breast cancer - you better believe I'd like some answers to that particular question.

2. More research!

They’ve been treating breast cancer the same way for the past 30 years. Sure, you don’t get as sick from chemo anymore but you still have to endure chemo. And radiation. And surgery. And hormones. Many women call the treatment available now: “slash, poison, burn.” I hope you never find out how accurate that is. And I hope that someday soon those aren’t words that can be applied to cancer treatment.

3. Support for cancer patients

The only charity I know for sure that does this in Canada is the Canadian Cancer Society. I’m sure there are more but the Canadian Cancer Society is the one I know. I trust them, and I used to work for them. They hooked me up with a wig, no questions asked, for free. They gave me resource material, for free. If I’d been in Canada they would have helped me get to chemo and radiation if I’d needed it, for free. Had I asked, they would have put me in touch with a survivor with a similar kind of cancer at a similar age, for free. They do that all for free because other people give them money.

I’ve been inside the Society and I know the work they do – it’s good work, it’s volunteer driven and it really helps people living with cancer (and the people who have to live with the people living with cancer, let’s not forget them). As an aside, they also channel a good chunk of the money they raise to research. Sure they’re bureaucratic and a bit old-school, but I can’t say enough positive about them. They aren't the only choice, but they are a good one.

And, if after all that, you still really want to be aware of breast cancer I'll leave you with an image that conveys what took me about a thousand words. 

Breast cancer isn't cute, pink shit; it's just shit. So make sure you donate to organizations that are trying to change that. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Year in Review

This is a photo taken the night before I got the results from my first biopsy, the night before I found out I really, truly had cancer. We went for a late night walk because I was so restless and needed out of the house. Paul was still confident that this was going to work out in our favour but I was much less convinced. I've never been so stressed out and weary in my entire life. I've gone back to this photo many times in the past year, on days when I felt particularly crappy, and looking at this has been emotional for me. I don't know if everyone sees what I do when I look at this picture, but I feel like this is such window into how I was feeling then. I've gone back to this photo, even at times when I felt really sick or down, because I never felt as bad as I did during this period and knowing that helped. 

It's been a year now. A year and 14 days since I was diagnosed, a year and 5 since Ethel got the boot, on the 20th it will be 9 months since I finished chemo and it has been 7 months since I completed radiation. It's been quite the year. Let's look at the stats shall we....In the past year I've done the following:

Surgery: 2
Biopsy: 3
Chemo: 4
Radiation: 33
Ultrasounds: 6
Xray: 3
Bone Scan: 3
CT Scan: 2
Mammogram: 2
Pet Scan: 1
MRI: 1
EKG: 1

I really wish I'd kept a tally on the number of needles I've had because I'd be willing to bet that I am in the low 60s. This is compounded by the fact that chemo seems to have ruined my veins and I have become every nurse's favourite patient to try and get blood from. The nurse who took my blood on the 5th, after a failed attempt at one vein and quite a lot of trouble finding another, filled up a latex glove with hot water and held it on the back of my hand for 5 minutes. This seemed to help and felt quite nice. I hope they do that again in the future.

I've also done this, so it hasn't all been bad:

Canada: 2
Cambodia: 1
Vietnam: 1
Hong Kong: 1
Singapore: 1
Bali: 1
Japan: 1

The best news is, I'm still in remission. My doc said today that most recurrence happens in the first 2-3 years (or at least, it does for my kind of cancer) so I'm glad to be 1/3 to 1/2 way through this period.

The other upside is my hair. One of the harder parts about cancer is looking sick. You look sick for so long and even at times when you feel okay. It is the terrible visual reminder to you and everyone else that something went horribly wrong on your life's path. I can't tell you how happy I am to have my hair back and have it finally look like something that someone could conceivable choose as a hairstyle. Not so much for the vanity of it all, but because I'm no longer a "survivor" or "cancer patient." I'm back to being just Laura. At least, on the outside.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

An Ode to Jane

Those of you who read this blog regularly have probably noticed the commenting presence of my good friend Jane. Those of you who know me well know what an important part she has played in my life. I've said it here many times, when it comes to friends and family, I have been abundantly blessed. I hope I have the friends I deserve, but often I think they are better than I deserve. This is especially true when it comes to her.

Maybe it is because it feels like it has been so long since I've seen her and had real, quality time with her, but she is very much on my mind these days. I've been lucky to have some other close friends come through town recently and having them here helped scratch that itch but with her, it has been awhile. We had a rushed visit when I was home after my grandmother passed away, but I long for the days of our childhood and teens, when our time together was never-ending. When we talked about nothing and everything, amused mostly ourselves and generally stayed out of trouble.

It is Jane (aside from my immediate family) who has been in closest contact with me throughout this cancer odyssey. I don't know how she managed but I've felt her presence the most in the last year, even though she is 8000 kilometers away. She was one of the very few people I told before I got the actual news - when I was still in limbo. She has been there for the best days of my life and for some of the darkest.

She recently shared an article about female friendships. So much of what we see and hear about female friendships focuses on women who are not supportive of other women, who are jealous and mean spirited. This has never been my experience. I have always found women to laugh and share with, to prop me up and make me better. If I ever have a daughter, I hope she can have her own Jane.

Jane, who sent me a beautiful card, licorice tea and some nibs at a time when it was the perfect gift. Jane, who is always there to talk about whatever and for however long I need. Jane, who was sadder about my hair loss than even me. Jane, who even when she doesn't share my beliefs or understand them, is willing to put her own on hold and just be there for me. Jane, who is amazing.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Awkward Questions About Babies

Babies. Let's talk about them. Everyone wants to. Paul and I have been married for 2 years so we are now right in prime "when are you two going to have kids?" territory. We understand that we are not getting any younger and that we aren't really spring chickens anymore. My knee reminds me of this daily. But here is the catch - for the next 4.5 years babies are not an option. It would be very, very bad to get pregnant while on tamoxifen. And it is entirely possible that once I'm done tamoxifen, I won't be fertile anyway (thank you chemo).

The baby question was annoying enough before I was diagnosed with cancer. Not everyone wants children (I'm firmly in the "maybe, probably, but I don't know for sure, oh maybe not" camp, by the way) but apparently that isn't a thing people actually admit to. When I say I'm not sure if I want children, the horror that crosses peoples's like a murdered a puppy before their very eyes.

I mean, I fully understand that people with children love their own children, that they learn about life through them, that they believe that because of their children their world is fuller and more awesome. I get it. But I don't believe that I have to have them. Sure, not having kids means missing out on some stuff. But guess what, having them means missing out on other stuff. In the kids debate, I'm a firm believer that there is no right answer, there is only the answer for you. 

However, it has become very clear to me that this is not the way many other people feel about children. Many people feel YOU MUST HAVE CHILDREN. NOW. I've actually had it suggested to me that I will never be a fully actualized person until I've had children. Yes, someone said that to me once, knowing about my diagnosis, although maybe forgetting about my current inability to breed.

So, pardon me while I roll out my pulpit and lecture you all about what I think you should do, if you like to ask young-ish ladies about their sexy times habits (also, seriously people, asking about babies is basically asking about sex. Yep, I went there.).

1. Ask "are you thinking of having kids?" not "when are you having kids?" if you want to ask. It is a subtle but important difference in the phrasing. One that allows room for the "we're not having children" option.

2. If you get an evasive or indecisive answer to the questions above, do not tell the person "oh but you have to have kids" or "why aren't you trying now" or "you know fertility declines after 35." Sometimes, I don't want to talk about why I can't have kids, and I hate feeling pressured into bringing it up because I have to defend my "choice" to not be pregnant at this moment. 

3. Don't assume that because someone is female and married that they must be desperate for children. Also, don't assume that even if they are desperate for children, that those children are an option.

4. Cancer aside, it is totally okay for a lady not to want babies. That doesn't mean she isn't a real woman, or that she is a bad, selfish person. I can't believe in 2012 I have to write that out but honestly, you would not believe how much I have had to talk about, heck, defend our lack of children since being diagnosed. I sometimes actually feel lucky in that I have an easy out - thanks cancer!

But seriously, number one is probably the most important. You can still totally ask, just don't assume every married couple you know without kids is just one romantic evening away from making a baby. You never know what is really happening in their lives. This world is full of people who don't want children and people who want children and can't have them - I'd bet they all have a very hard time answering questions about "when" not "if".

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Why so serious? Also, MY HAIR!!!!!!!

When I started this blog, the whole goal was to be as lighthearted as one can be about cancer. I think I'm funny (sometimes, I'm the only one), why not then try to put that humor to some use. But it seems, lately, that I've fallen off that path a bit. I feel my last few blogs have been less funny that I might like them to be. Maybe that is good because the truth is cancer really isn't funny and while this blog may have often tried to be upbeat and optimistic, there were many days and nights when I was not. This is still something I wrestle with.

All that being said, I like trying to see the humor in cancer. I like being a bit of an observer, and trying to step back from my life to survey it and see what about it is absurd enough to be amusing. There is no new story about the absurdity of cancer, but there is still my hair. Oh my hair!

It is going to be curly. Well, it already is curly. Insanely so. I have no idea how to deal with curly hair. Most people with curly hair have an extremely awkward phase beginning around 10 (I'd guess) and hopefully ending by 17. By then, they've figured out some way to deal with their curly hair and often their curls look lovely. I get to have that phase at 31. I can only hope mine does not last 7 years.

I'm hoping that once I get another inch my hair won't be as puffy and will maybe settle in to being just nice and curly. This is probably false logic - I suspect I have a way to go. This is a photo from a few days ago. I had actually done my hair, but then I went out in the humidity.

Yes, I go out in public looking like this. I don't know why but the hair in the middle of my head really just wants to stand up. You can't tell, but there is a headband in there too. It is not yet long enough for barretts or bobby pins, but I keep checking.

This was taken this morning. I haven't really done my hair except to use it to dry my hands after washing them. Is that something you should admit to doing on the internet? Using you hair as a paper towel? Either way, it looks fine but I also haven't braved the humidity.

Here is one from the side:

That is some serious curl. What is a girl to do? I'm not even saying I hate it, and I know I should be grateful to just have hair blah blah blah (people say that to me all the time and I get it, I get it, but how would you like it if you had to be bald for 6 months and then after, when your hair came back, it was a stranger's hair and it was going to take twice as long to grow out because it was curly? I'm not sure you would be as grateful as you seem to think I should be. That's all I'm sayin' - rant over.) I'm just really not sure how the next few months will play out. Or how many of them I will spend looking like a grade 8 yearbook photo. You know the kind: where it is obvious the girl is really trying to look her best, she just hasn't quite figured out how to do that and instead looks sort of awkward. But she is probably really nice, so that counts for something. 

Hey, at least I'm not being revisited by teenage acne! In fact, I think chemo was quite good for my skin. Or they are unrelated. Who knows. Anyway, that's all the news that is fit to print from my neck of the woods. And it is all to do with vanity! Shame on me.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

On Life and Death and Cancer

People have asked how the diagnosis has changed or affected my thoughts on death, and life. In some ways, I feel it is too soon to tell. I often find that I feel like cancer is this thing that happened to someone else. I went away for 7 months and in my place was another Laura, who went through all those terrible tests and the more terrible period of waiting that followed, who went to chemo and felt sick, who lost her hair. That Laura had cancer. I'm just a girl with a sassy, short hair cut.

I have these moments of revelation, probably once a day, where a voice in my head whispers, "you really had cancer, that really happened." At the oddest of times, while washing dishes, or looking at the beautiful temples of Angor Wat. Hardly ever while looking at my short haired self in the mirror.

The voice whispers other things; sometimes she isn't very kind. She thinks every ache is cancer, ever tremor is a permanent side effect of chemotherapy. She's my least favorite part of myself, the part that is too willing to be negative and wallow in self-pity. I guess she too is like a cancer, a cancer that I have to keep at bay. How to do that is something I'm still figuring out but I certainly don't want to give her room to grow and spread.

I wonder if other people who've been though similar experiences feel this splitting of their personality. On the one hand, I really feel exactly the same. I came through this an unchanged person. The person who existed before the diagnosis is still very much here except....she has a visitor. The whispering visitor, I'll call her. I now have moments where I feel like I am outside myself and inside myself at the same time. And the me outside myself is whispering about how the places I'm in or the people I'm with will still be there whether I am or not. She is telling me about how life will go on, without me in it. How my husband will continue to do the mundane, like go out for meals; how my sister will continue to go to work and cut hair; how my parents will still sit in their backyard on the deck, chatting away warm summer evenings. How everyone and everything I love will still be here, even when I am not. It is comforting and it is distressing. I want those lives to go on, to be happy and joyous and the thought that they will even if I'm not here to see them brings me comfort. But the though of my life without me...I don't care for those thoughts much.

My life has changed and it isn't just because of the whispering visitor. Right after my diagnosis, in the minutes after hearing the news, while walking down the hill from the hospital to catch a cab I cannot tell you how clear and vivid everything looked. Even as I contemplated what I had just been told, another part of my brain was noting how bright the colours were, how sharp the edges of things looked. I don't think I've ever seen more clearly. I still have flashes of this. Moments where I feel like I am looking though different eyes. The world literally looks different. Not all the time, not permanently, but for fleeting minutes it looks different. I would even say it looks more beautiful.

So I guess cancer gives gifts too; not nearly as many as it takes, but cancer can show you beauty you didn't see before or give you gratitude for how lucky you've been in ways you didn't always think to acknowledge. I didn't realize that something so horrible could also make space for positivity. Before my diagnosis I always figured I would just shut down and lay in bed if I ever got such terrible news. I know now that isn't the case; that I can face adversity and still see all the ways it can be amusing. That is certainly a gift.

Sadly, the one thing cancer hasn't changed is my ability to procrastinate and waste time (particularly on the internet). I had hoped this would be one of those things that would change, that I would start "carpe diem-ing" all over the place but I guess some personality traits run a little deeper than pesky cancer cells. Oh well, there is always tomorrow!

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Hair Regrowth After Chemo

I've been thinking about the blog hiatus, in light of some of the things that people have said to me. The one that resonated most was the idea that the blog should go on, if only to show that there is life after cancer (thanks Maegan). I'm not making any promises about how often I'll write, but perhaps a "hiatus" is too strong.

Besides, I did think of one more thing I could post about. Aside from worrying about every little ache and pain being something very bad (the internet and my mom say I shouldn't do that), my new obsession is my hair. Is it growing? I mean, logically, I know it is growing. But I live with this head every day, I see it every day, so I forget that it is changing. Also, patience is not one of my virtues, and I want style-able hair back. Now.

Paul and I were going to do a photo of the day to track progress, but soon that turned into a photo of the week and then a "hey, the camera is next to you, can you take a photo of my head" sort of thing. We have not been diligent. However, I do have some progress to show.

First, let's begin with where I started. At the time I thought I was looking pretty good, all things considered. And I guess that is still true. I just didn't realize how sick I looked. It was a gradual decline too, so I had time to get used to my new look, which I suppose is why I didn't think I looked THAT sick. Anyway, here is a photo from January 25th.

You will note my obvious baldness, though at this point I was staring to sprout a bit. Yes, I was actually balder than this, if you can believe that. Also, at that point my eyebrows were actually just shadows formed by the muscles that make them move and I had no eyelashes. Well, I might have had three eyelashes. Some did hang on to the bitter end, bless them!

So, fast forward about 2 months, give or take a few days to....

And one from the front:

I think I look considerably better (I'm also wearing makeup in these later photos which is cheating, I know). Now, I'm not saying I'm keeping this look but I don't hate it. It is pretty much the easiest hairstyle I've ever had, so there is that. I'm still anxious for a bit more length but I've been going out sans wig for about 4 weeks now.

I point this out so that if anyone out there is reading this and wondering what their hair future is, this might be a glimpse of it. I was anxious to stop wearing a wig as it made me feel like a big old liar pants. I'm pretty sure no one could tell but I was always worrying that they would notice. At least this is honest, even if it is very short! Besides, wigs are not comfortable. At least, mine wasn't. I really do prefer this, though I wouldn't mind a few more inches. All in good time, I suppose.

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." ~Garrison Keillor

It's been one month since I finished active treatment. Writing a blog about cancer when you don't have it anymore isn't as easy as you might think. I'm torn about continuing. I've loved writing this blog and I really feel it has been a form of therapy for me but I'm not quite sure where it goes from here. Monthly entries checking in to tell you all I'm still kicking? That seems rather macabre.

Many people have asked me how I've coped so well with a cancer diagnosis. I've had many people say to me that they never could have done what I've done, which I just don't believe. You really don't know how you will react until you are faced with a situation and then, you'll soon find that you don't really have a choice in the matter. I had to deal with cancer (or not, and just wait to die - no thanks!). All the choice I had was in trying to be as positive as I could be. For me, knowing I had an audience that would read what I wrote was helpful. I thought of you all as I went through this.

From the beginning I wondered how I could explain this experience in a way that people I love, who couldn't be here, would understand it. How could I make cancer less scary for you and hopefully, at the same time, for me. That is what this blog has really been about: sharing my experience, letting people know I'm doing okay, and if I'm really lucky, helping other women or their families who are facing a similar diagnosis.

But now, aside from the 6 month check-ins, I don't have the wealth of source material I once did. I'm so grateful that this is the case, but it still doesn't resolve the "cancer blog without cancer" issue. So, for now,  I'm putting Boobey Trapped on hiatus. What does that mean? It means that I'm not going to update very often. I'll try to stop by and update occasionally, about tests or thoughts on cancer and life, but it certainly isn't likely to be as regularly as it once was.

For those of you who stumble upon this blog because you have been diagnosed, please don't worry about the fact that I'm not writing. I hated finding blogs about women with breast cancer that just ended. I, being the eternal pessimist, always worried that this meant something bad for the woman who had written the blog and often that made me very worried for myself. Try not to worry as much I do. Instead, you should assume that I am off, living a happy, active, cancer free life and therefore can't be bothered to write in my old blog. It's the likeliest option anyway.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Remission is a Beautiful Word

I got the results from all my tests and everything looks good. This is extra good news, since I had a biopsy last week on another lump and it was giving me worry. Well that, and the fact that people are poking around in my insides looking for cancer.

On the 6th, I had blood work, a chest x-ray, a chest ultrasound, an abdomen ultrasound and a bone scan.  During the chest ultrasound the tech noticed that one of the lumps in my non-cancer boob had grown. It still looked benign (based on shape) but since it had grown, they wanted to check it. She did a fine needle aspiration in the hospital and pulled out what I can only describe as "black gunk". Her exact words: "I was not expecting that." Well, awesome. This story loses some drama, as you know everything turns out fine, but I didn't know that then. She said they would send it to the lab to test, just to be safe, and I got to spend a week worrying.

In truth I wasn't super worried. I knew the lumps were there, I knew they had been pretty closely examined back in September (MRI, mammogram, ultrasound) and I knew that in all likelihood, the test would come back benign. However, knowing something in your head and knowing something in your heart is not the same thing. Just like I knew that my odds of a reoccurrence, especially this close to finishing treatment, were low but I was still worrying about cancer being all over my body.

The past week has been long and I have been worried. I have combed the internet looking for answers I know it cannot give me. All I could do was wait, and I didn't want to write until I had something to say. I hoped it would be something good, and thankfully, it is.

I met with both my chemo oncologist and my surgeon today, who both had the same good news. Oddly enough, my surgeon never remembers me, but as soon as he sees Paul, he lights up. Today he actually said, when he laid eyes on Paul, "ah, now I know who you are." I mean, honestly, how many foreign women is this guy treating? Aren't I enough? Apparently, no. This isn't very good for my ego.

They do want to do some follow up on the lump in three months but it isn't cancer. He couldn't name it, but he isn't worried. There are many kinds of lumps that can make homes in boobs and I'm just glad this one had the good sense not to be cancer - I did not want to go down that path again. I had the realization today, that at least in the short term, I'm probably not going to be one of those "it's probably nothing" patients. Everything will be investigated and followed. In general, it's nice to know that people are keeping eyes out for problems; I just wish I wasn't in a position where a lookout was required. However, let's not dwell on that.

Tonight I'm focusing on the fact that I'm cancer-free and I have been for six months. The plan now: stay that way. Are you listening boobs? I will cut you off if you can't abide my rules!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Tamoxi-fun? (also known as Tamoxifen)

I started hormone therapy about the same time I started radiation. Of the two radiation seemed more immediately severe but that isn't to say I wasn't worried about tamoxifen. In fact, I had a full-blown melt down the night I had to start it. You see, I'd had the misfortune of reading the internet.

I need to remind myself that often people that comment and post on the internet are there because they have an axe to grind. They want to complain and they want people to listen. I'm not saying that isn't valid or even that people shouldn't do that, it's just that when you start doing research about the drug you have to take for the next FIVE years and everyone on every message board is talking about how it is ruining their lives, you start to worry. I was imagining the next five years being a slightly better version of the 4 months of (mostly) hell I'd just completed and trying to tell myself that even a shitty five years was better than no years at all. This was of little consolation.  So what did I do? Well, I cried, a lot. I felt sorry for myself. I whined while Paul dutifully listened. And then, I took the pill.

I got some great advice when I first started taking it, which I will pass along. I take the drug just before bed. I heard through the grapevine of cancer connections that doing this seems to make the side effects much less noticeable. I don't know if I'm just lucky or if this bedtime thing really is the key but tamoxifen (for me, at least) is hardly noticeable. The list of potential side effects is long and depressing. I won't get into it here, you can find that list easily in many places across the internet. I'm just here to say that there is one woman out there taking this drug who isn't having any noticeable side effects. I mean, I think I've had some hot flashes/flushes/whatever the hell they are called, but I can't really be sure. For someone who is always really cold, these bursts of heat have actually been kind of a nice change. And I read somewhere that tamoxifen interacts with grapefruit so that is off the table, literally, for the next five years.

All in all, this has been a great relief. I'd like to say in the future I will wait to have freak outs until I actually have something to worry about, but we all know that just isn't going to happen. Case in point - I have my first round of investigative medical testing on the 6th (totally normal and just to check in, by the way) and I'm already worrying. Even though I'm in a pretty good spot, with pretty good odds. I guess some things never change.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


I'm extremely glad to say that I am done radiation and no longer in active treatment!!!! I had my last treatment on Tuesday and yesterday the Ambassador and his assistant hosted a party for me to celebrate.

I know it is a weird thing to say, but in addition to being very glad, I also have a bittersweet feeling. It wasn't that I enjoyed radiation but while doing it I felt like I was being active in dealing with cancer. Now, I've moved into the "wait and see" part of the cancer journey. Hopefully this part is a lot of waiting and no seeing, but either way I have to start getting used to this new worldview. I'm on the other side of cancer now. I know what it is like to be told that you have cancer, I know how terrifying it is to sit across from a doctor and hear those words. I know how shitty it is to deal with treatment; the slash, poison, burn approach that is currently the norm. Worst of all, I know what it feels like to really think about your own death - not in the abstract way that I think we all do, but to really contemplate the reality of your own mortality and the fact that the end may come much sooner than you had ever anticipated.

Don't worry, I won't leave you on that note. There is a bright side. For me, this is the bright side: cancer is life changing but for me it did not become a catalyst for wanting to make change in my life. Why is that a good thing, you ask? Because it means I'm actually really happy in my life. There isn't much I would change. I have a husband and family I love and LIKE. I have great friends. I have a comfortable life filled with love. Sure, day to day I'm trying to live more fully (or I will be now that I feel better) but in the big picture sort of way, this wasn't a wake up call except to highlight to me how much I value my life and everyone in it.

Although I don't want to die tomorrow, if I did, I would leave behind very few regrets, save for the regret of the years I would miss with those I love. I can't think of a better way to live my life, or a better regret to have. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

Cancer 411

I was at a party the other night, and cancer came up, as it so often does. In part, I'm sure this is because I still look weird. In a couple months (I hope) I should no longer look like someone who is going through treatment but for now, I do. My way of coping is to talk about it. I don't want people to feel weird about being around me for fear that they can't discuss cancer or my baldness or whatever. Cancer is the elephant in the room and I prefer to just acknowledge the elephant so that other people can too.

I know that people handle cancer in their own ways so I try not to get too worked up if people respond in ways that I think are weird or insensitive. That is just their way of coping. When you get diagnosed, inevitably you run across a website or a blog or just another person warning you that people cope differently; some people are there for you during these times and others aren't. This has been true for me too. I have to say, in general, people have been amazing and supportive and so there for me (even if they are in another country) but some haven't been in touch at all. That is life. Maybe these people don't know what to do, what to say or how to say it. The real truth is, no one does. So I've decided to jot down a few notes for people. I'd like to think I have some insight, but I also know that what is true for me might not be true for every other person with cancer. I'll try to keep my advice general.

1. Don't mention every person you know who has DIED as a result of cancer. THIS IS NOT HELPFUL!!!!!

One person here, in particular, just does not know what to do about me and my cancer. She (I'm giving away secrets here) spent one 15 minute conversation telling me about all the people she knew who had died of cancer. I think it was because she felt like she should talk about the elephant in the room but didn't know what to say. Do you know what isn't at all helpful? Getting the rundown of cancer death tallies from your life! But she isn't the only one. Are people insane!?! I guess it is comparable to those people who like to tell birth horror stories to the pregnant woman in the room. So free advice part 1 is this: if you want to talk about your friends/family with cancer, try to talk about the ones that are doing really well. Please!

2. Don't ask what you can do to help, just do it. 

People asked all the time what they could do. I hate asking people to do things. I hated even thinking of ideas. I felt so rude and demanding, I simply couldn't do it. Were there days I would have liked to have someone drop off food? Yes. Did I ask anyone, ever? No.

In my case, I didn't need a lot of help but I know that isn't the reality for everyone. Free advice part 2: If you know someone with cancer, or any serious illness for that matter, and you want to help, just do whatever it is that you were thinking of doing. Dropping off a meal is probably the easiest thing. If you feel comfortable enough (and you know they won't mind) invade their house and vacuum or dust. Instead of waiting for people to ask, make an appointment to do it, whatever "it" is.

Before this I was totally guilty of saying "if you need anything, let me know," which I completely meant, but rarely did anyone ask for help. In the future I'm going to try and take a page out of my own book and just do.

3. Don't ask "why did you get cancer?" or "what did you do?"

I know this question comes from a place of fear and that people ask it hoping to hear that you did something that somehow explains why you got cancer. Even if I had, which I hadn't, it is still a crappy question to be asked. Free advice part 3: If you really must ask, do it in a round about way and ask if someone has a family history of cancer.

4. Be hopeful, but realistic. 

I've saved the hardest for last. This one is hard to put into words but I'm going to try. One of the things I found most challenging/frustrating was dealing with people who refused to accept the realities of my treatment. For me, this happened primarily about my hair but it could be true for any negative aspect of treatment. Some people insisted that I might not lose my hair. Hair loss, in particular, was a side effect that people wanted to naysay. At the start of treatment my doctors told me I would lose my hair. All of it. My doctor wrote up a list of all my possible chemo side effects and the only one she guaranteed was that one. She wrote out "100%" and then underlined it! However, people actually told me "not to be so negative" and not to make those assumption because, "you never know." If a doctor gives you a 100% certainty (and they almost never talk in certainties) you'd be a dummy to deny it. That approach wasn't helpful. I needed help dealing with losing my hair, not pretending it wasn't going to happen.

Sometime people with cancer have very real fears about death and about treatment that are justified. I have fears about death. However I have about a 10% chance of a reoccurrence; my fear is normal but not rational. In cases like that, having people remind me of those statistics is helpful. It is a bit of a reality check. However, it was justified to be worried about losing my hair because that was going to happen. For other people, it is justified to be worried about death because of the kind of cancer they have or the stage of their cancer. Free advice part 4: Where fear is justified, while it is totally appropriate to encourage people to be hopeful, it is also really important to acknowledge that these fears have foundation and to help people find ways to deal with those fears without denying their validity.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Boost

I have moved into the final stage of my radiation - a period know in the cancer community as "the boost". Up until yesterday I was zapping my whole breast. Okay, technically, I wasn't doing anything except laying there but you know what I mean. Today I got the first of 5 "boost" zaps. The boost is additional radiation targeted at the site of the original tumor. Although I understand this is pretty standard treatment I've also read that it seems to be extra beneficial for young women. Excellent! Zap away!

How they figure out exactly where to aim is a bit of a mystery, especially considering all the tissue surrounding Ethel moved out when she did. I mean, the scar helps as a guideline, I'm sure, but it all seems rather enigmatic to me.

Either way, I've been moved to a new radiation room and put under a much more intimidating machine. This one had a nozzle built into it and what I think was a lead plate on the end of the nozzle with a hole cut in it. I suppose it is how they target the radiation more effectively. I'll tell you this much; although I know there is a lot of science behind radiation, this contraption looked a bit like something that had been welded together in a backyard.

I guess I also find it crazy that medical science is still using markers on skin as a means to deliver treatment. They drew all over me again yesterday and today. Once again they told me not to shower. I was going to listen to them but then I decided that this was ridiculous and that I was going to be a total bad ass and go against their orders and shower anyway. It is enough that I am now in the process of growing out the worst haircut ever, I don't need to be stinky on top of it.

Finally, I don't know if it is the boost or the flu that has been going around, but the nausea has returned. At this point, I actually hope it is the radiation since I only have 4 treatments left, and this flu seems like a real doozy. I've managed to stay cold and flu free through this process and I'd like to keep it that way. I honestly can't believe the odyssey that started last August is almost done. I still have the 6 month follow ups and the pill a day for the next 5 years but I truly feel the worst is over. Well, almost.

Monday, February 6, 2012

What Does Radiation Look Like?

In early January, when I was done with chemo I started thinking about radiation which meant I started doing some research. All along I have approached this from a "one step at a time" framework. I was not going to worry about radiation until I had finished chemo, so it wasn't on my mind until early this year. When I started my radiation research I couldn't find any pictures of what to expect, other than a few that were HORRIFIC. I'm sure these were "worst case scenarios" but they were scary. Do you know 1 in 9 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime? How can there not be any pictures of this? I'm sure it has to do with the boobs.

People, I've made a decision. I'm going to put my semi-naked self on the internet. OH MY GAWD!!!! What has possessed me! Well, for one thing, I want other people to be able to look at these in the future and know that this is what it might look like and that it doesn't look as terrible as some of the photos I was able to find. Also, some of you have asked to see what it looks like.

Chances are, I'm not the only person you will know who will get this disease. Think of this as an encyclopedia. You can refer people here. Don't worry about the pics being too racy, I'm pretty sure these pictures would still be classified as PG-13. I mean, my parents have already seen them! I've only put in the jump so people have the option to not look at my upper torso if they don't want to.

So, if you want to see the goods, click below. And by below, I mean those two blue words: "Read more"

Monday, January 30, 2012


I was looking at photos of myself the other day from before the diagnosis. Back when I had a full head of beautiful hair, more than three long eyelashes and full eyebrows. This cancer treatment really does wreak havoc on ones appearance! The sad truth is, while my head doesn't look that great, it looks a heck of a lot better than old righty. Ethel left quite the mark with her departure and radiation is turning my skin a brownish-grey. I've started referring to myself as "Frankenboob". If I was a less modest gal, I'd post pictures. As it stands now, you'll just have to take my word for it.

Thankfully, it looks worse than it feels, though it looks pretty bad. I showed my parents the edge of my radiation burn over skype - it was a totally PG view by the way - and my poor dad did not do such a good job of maintaining a poker face (don't feel bad dad, I thought it was funny!). The poor guy looked horrified! I could tell he was imagining an amount of pain equal to the way the burn looks. That isn't the case at all. Sure, it's uncomfortable but if it felt like it looks, I'd be in a bad way. Besides, I sort of enjoy shocking people with my burn. There are so few bright sides to cancer - let me have my moments! It probably comes from the same place that enjoys showing people really awesome/large bruises. I can't explain it, but if you are a member of the "bruise-bragging crew", I trust you understand what I'm talking about.

At least, as of today, I am more than half way through radiation. While the road ahead might be tougher than the path I left behind, I know that I am closer now to the end than the beginning. When I started radiation on January 4th, the end seemed such a long way off. Now the end is starting to roll onto the horizon. I'm not sure what state my Frankenboob will be in when it gets here, but at least I know the end is closer than it was when I started.

My hair is starting to come back in on my head and my eyelashes and eyebrows are starting to fill in. I don't know how long it will be before I feel comfortable strolling around without a hat or a wig but at least there is some fuzz growing on my head. Maybe one day soon I'll have longer hair than Paul! A girl can dream......

Monday, January 23, 2012

Lunar New Year

I'd write more often if I had more to say but for now I feel like I am mostly biding my time. I'm on a mini radiation vacation, thanks to the Lunar New Year so this is the fourth day in a row I've not had to go to the hospital to get zapped. The timing is good - I'm a little less than half way though and my skin could probably use the break. I'm definitely getting a nice, lop-sided tan. I'm still feeling sick pretty much every day but other than that, radiation is uneventful.

I meet with my radio-oncologist once a week and she checks in on my skin and other side effects. When she asked how I was last Wednesday I ran through my complaints (more on that later) but ended by saying that so far, it was way better than chemo. Her response was "Yah, of course." Although I figured this would be the case, based on internet research, no one has come right out and said radiation will be easier. I guess because guarantees like that are hard to come by in medicine. Either way, her response made me glad. And hopeful that I can ride out the next month with relative ease.

The "more on that later" side effect is the only scary one I've had so far. While riding the bike last week I had very strange vision. It was like it was pulsing and with each pulse I could see all the veins in my eye. Weird, I know. I've had this happen once before, while I was sitting in the hallway waiting to defend my thesis. Since that time I could attribute it to stress I wasn't too worried. This time, I wasn't stressed but I was working out. I was worried that the chemo had done something to my heart. I mentioned it at the hospital and after some consultation my physician decided it probably wasn't anything to be too worried about. I guess at times I forget how much my body has gone through in the past six months. It's very unlikely heart damage and more likely just a combination of fatigue and stress and everything else.

So there you have it - all of the updates from the past week or so. As you can see, there is not too much happening in my neck of the woods and hopefully that is the way that it stays.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Daily Grind

Radiation continues. I've done 7 of my 33 treatments and it continues to be way better than chemo. That is not to say it is without side effects but at least I still feel like a human being while doing this. Well, so far. What I dislike most is that I have to go the hospital every day to spend about 90 seconds in this machine. It just feels like such a drag to haul my ass all the way there and all the way home for 90 seconds no matter how many times I remind myself that it is an important 90 seconds.

On the upside, I've gotten very good at laying perfectly still. I feel like this is some sort of accomplishment when really it is the epitome of lazy. I think it is because the techs always congratulate me at the end. Who knows, maybe I'm less fidgety than your average patient. All I know is that radiation machine scares me stiff - literally!

I also had to get another tattoo. They tried to bring back the no showering rule and I hit the roof. Well, as much as a polite Canadian like myself can "hit the roof". Turns out, my radio-tech was under the impression that foreigners would prefer to not have tattoos and instead spend 6 weeks not showering. While that may be true for the other ladies she has dealt with, it is not true in my case. So, I have another tattoo bringing my total to 5 (4 are cancer related). This one is the most likely to be visible but only when I'm wearing clothing that displays an amount of cleavage bordering on inappropriate. Since this isn't really my MO it will likely not see too much of the light of day. I'll keep you posted if I suddenly decide that my girls need to get more air.

The other major downside of radiation is that I feel sick pretty much all the time, but it is a mild amount of nausea. My stomach is always slightly upset but so far it hasn't ranged outside of slight to moderate so I consider it very manageable. If it gets worse they can give me some of the drugs they gave me for chemo and I know those work pretty well. For now, it's my back-up plan. I prefer to take as few drugs as possible and since I'm coping right now I'm going to opt not to take the dugs.

The only amusing story I have from this week happened on Monday. One of my techs speaks quite good English. I have a variety of other techs who rotate in and some speak better English than others. One in particular seems to think that shouting at me will help me understand. Initially I thought he was always mad at me but I've since realized he's nervous. Anyway, on Monday he shouted "Did you have (inaudible word) yesterday?" at me. I started freaking out, thinking I was supposed to do something to prep for these treatments on the weekend. I had to ask him about 4 times before I figured out he was asking me if I had a nice weekend by saying "Did you have joy yesterday?" I'm sure he couldn't figure out why I was looking so worried when all he asked was if I had a nice weekend. Luckily in the end we figured it out. He had a nice weekend too, in case you're wondering.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Radically Radioactive

Well, actually, I'm not really radioactive. Apparently, by the time I leave the treatment room, all of the radiation has left me. Or so the internet says. I probably believe more of what the internet tells me than I should, but since it speaks better English than many of the people at the hospital, I turn to it regularly.

I have now had one radiation treatment and have 32 left to go. Everyday for the next 6 weeks I'll head to the hospital to be zapped. I also have three new tattoos. I know some women find them very emotional but so far, I couldn't care less about them. They are about the size of a pin head and I'm positive no one will ever notice them unless I point them out. Also, I'd have to be wearing a bikini which isn't something I do a lot.

What is radiation like, you wonder? Well, so far (and this may be premature) it is way better than chemo. I'll give you the rundown of my first treatment.

After getting changed into one of those hospital gown tops, you enter a dark-ish room. I'm sure the walls to this room are extra thick, but I only assume that is the case since the machine inside has one job and that is to be radioactive. Two techs come in and get you into a position they approve of on the bed. In my case that means my arm is in a brace above my head. Then they line up my tattoos according to some lasers lines that are projected from the machine to make sure that I am getting zapped in all the right places. Once that is done, they depart and leave me alone with my thoughts.

Yesterday, those thoughts weren't all that pleasant. In fact, my heart started racing. While I prefer radiation, the upside of chemo was that at least people are in the room with you and can hold your hand. With radiation, you go it alone. So I did what I always do - I took very deep breaths and I started counting. The lady tech said 5 minutes in the machine so I figured I would just count to 300 if I had to. I didn't have to. Eventually I calmed down with an inner monologue that went like this:

"Laura, calm down. They are zapping you right now and you can't even feel it. Wait, is that heat I feel? No, no, it isn't. Or is it? Take a deep another. What is that sound? Is the machine on now? Was it on before? How long has this been? Probably 60 seconds. Maybe more. Okay, now is that heat? No, no that isn't heat, that is just in my head. Breathe. Oh, the machine is moving. Okay, so maybe I'm half way? I'm probably half way. I really should have kept counting. Why can't I focus on anything..... Well, this isn't that bad. And this bed is kind of comfortable. I wonder if I could fall asleep here. The whirring sound is kind of soothing. Okay, the zapping sound is back. So maybe that is the radiation part? Oh who cares."

As you can tell, I am a bit of a panic button. Luckily, I have always been able to talk myself through these fits of panic. After about 3 minutes the techs came back in. They tried to tell me not to shower, again, but I put my foot down. This nonsense had got to stop. Koreans of the world, LET ME SHOWER! Do you know after birth here, Korean women are not allowed to shower for three weeks. THREE WEEKS!!!!!! AFTER GIVING BIRTH (you know what happens during birth right!?!?!). I was not having it! So she got the permanent ink to draw on me instead. They must wonder about this crazy foreign woman who asks all these questions and makes all these demands but in the end I got my way (and a shower last night).

After the drawing, it was done. I got dressed, came home and put on some special cream that is supposed to help my skin tolerate the treatments. Many people get what they call a "mild to moderate sunburn" with radiation. I'm hopeful that this will only be a minor problem for me. I don't really get sunburns. I think I've had about 3 in my entire life.

I feel a bit nauseous today which according to radio-oncologists is not a possible side effect of radiation (or at least not in my case, for breast cancer it is not considered a realistic side effect because the stomach is outside the field). However, the message boards for some of the sites I go to are filled with many women who have experienced nausea during radiation for breast cancer. Whether it's in my head or is a real side effect I can't say. However, it isn't that bad and it certainly can't hold a candle to the way I felt after chemo.

So there you have it 1 down, 32 to go.