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"