Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Canadian Health Care

I'm about to embark on the next phase of my cancer journey: Canadian Health Care. Yep, I've left Seoul and my amazing doctors and nurses behind, but I still need check ups. So today I sat with my family doctor and got a whole list of referrals.

Now that I'm back in Canada I will have the BRCA test done. I'm fairly confident that I'm not a carrier and that I am, instead, unlucky. But it never hurts to know. And oddly enough, my sister can only have the test done once I've had it done, regardless of my results. So I will have my DNA read, and then she can too (but probably only if I am actually a carrier).

I was also pleased to be referred to an oncologist here. I wasn't sure how cancer follow up was managed in Canada and if I would be with my family doctor. I like the man but he isn't a cancer specialist. I know breast cancer is pretty run of the mill, but I was only 30 when I was diagnosed and that certainly isn't par for the course so I'm happy to have cancer experts involved. Plus, it will be refreshing to talk about cancer with an expert medical professional that is completely fluent in English. My doctors in Korea did well, but there was a lot of slow talking, repetition and periods of nobody knowing what anybody else was saying.

I think I will also look into cancer survivor supports now that I'm home. At this moment I'm not actually worrying that much about cancer, which is an amazing and welcome change of pace. Do you want to know my secret?

Simple: Buy a 60 year old house and start doing renovations.

This consumes so much of my brain power I have very little left to worry about rouge cancer cells. Instead, I'm worrying about wiring and plumbing and wall colours.

So that my news. I'm coming up on my 2 year cansiversary and that means tests and results and updates to follow but for now, I'm doing well and feeling good. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Why I Write

Long before I had my own cancer blog, I became obsessed with another (you can find it here). I've had the good sense to turn this man into an internet friend - he's actually my one and only. All of my other friends are people I've actually met in real life but his story was so important to mine that I couldn't possibly not count him among my friends. We don't have the same cancer but I think we've shared an outlook: a desire to find a way to live this experience with hope and positivity, allowing it to showcase all of the wonder and beauty the world has to offer even when it's also giving you lemons. (Also, side note, why do lemons get the bad wrap metaphor? They're awesome. I digress.)

I read his blog with a passion that borders on creepy. I checked it so often he actually mused in a post about his readers in South Korea!  I remember reading and thinking "If I ever face something like that I hope I can find a sliver of his world view." I didn't know how soon I'd get to test that wonder. But when I was diagnosed all I could think was that I had to somehow pay it forward.

The blog was born because I love to write and I wanted all of my family and friends spread over the globe to be able to keep up with me, in spite of time differences and long distances. But it was also born because I wanted to be able to say "yes, cancer sucks but here is everything about it that you can laugh at" and if I was lucky, maybe help someone the way that Ruban's blog helped me.

Cancer can make you feel alone, especially if you don't actually know anyone in real life who is dealing with it. All the more so if you are navigating treatment in a country where you don't speak the language. I write to feel connected to a world filled with people who get it in a way that I hope no one in my "real" life ever will.

I've had 14,500 hits and a handful of comments from women and their families telling me that this blog had helped and I can't tell you how much joy and peace that brings me. That is why I write. Because if I can bring comfort or a smile to someone on the same path as me, cancer is (almost) worth it. If I can help just one person resolve to find a silver lining in their diagnosis, I will have paid forward the gift that Ruban gave to me.

Really, at it's core, writing is selfish. It helps me to feel better about being diagnosed. If it helps you feel better too, I'm glad we could share the lemonade.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Long and Winding Road

Our time here in Korea is drawing to a close, more quickly than I would like. These past three years have been filled with adventure and exploration and oh, yeah, that whole cancer thing. I can't believe how long it has been since I was diagnosed and how much has happened since then.

On Friday, we are setting out for what is likely to be our last trip in the region. We're taking a long weekend and flying to Phuket. (Yes, I know, my life is awesome.) But in preparing for the end of our time here, in squeezing in as much adventure as possible, I've started to become nostalgic  I'm nostalgic for a place I haven't even left yet, which is kind of weird. But honestly, I look around all the time and think of how much I will miss aspects of this place.

Part of me wonders if I will leave behind some of my worry when I get on the plane for the final time to return to Canada. If I will be able to associate cancer more with Korea than I do with myself. People have a funny way of creating false realities and this might be something I do.

Although I have no wish to taint my memories of Korea, I do want to start moving away from thinking of myself as a cancer patient or a cancer survivor. I want to just be Laura again. I think this is probably wishful thinking. I'm finding the further I go from actual cancer treatment, the more I worry about recurrence and metastasis. It would be lovely if all that worry stayed in Seoul when I finally leave, but I don't think I work that way. My cancerous shadow comes along.

I'm in the midst of a month long headache which the doctors are very, very confident is just stress and anxiety. When I'm being rationale, I agree with them. But it is hard not to worry about every ache and pain. However, if you are reading this as a survivor, here is the list of post-cancer aches/pains/weirdness that I've had since finishing radiation that I actually went to the doctor about and they turned out not to be cancer:

  • hip pain
  • rib pain
  • back ache/spine ache
  • headache

I'm sure there were others that didn't last long enough for me to get them checked out. The reality is those aches you are worrying about are probably just you getting old. Plus chemo is no picnic. I mean, the rule of thumb is any new symptom that lasts longer than two weeks is something to check out, but try to remember that more often than not it really is just a new ache and not the first sign of your impending doom. Now, if only I could say that to myself and believe it forever! Maybe you won't believe it either. People farther along on this road tell me that it does get easier with time. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I'm reading books on worrying less and trying to follow that advice. I'm a good student, but controlling your own mind is very difficult. I have started meditating which I am truly horrible at. Keeping my mind from wandering for more than five seconds is, at this point, a feat of strength. But like anything, I will get better with practice.

I'm hoping the serenity of a near-empty beach may help motivate me.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

1.5 Years

I have no idea how to write this entry. No idea what to say. But I guess, in the context of this blog, an absence of material can only be seen as a positive thing.

Drumroll please.....

Yes folks, I'm still in remission. That makes it 1.5 years! I just got the 6 month all clear a few weeks ago. Whatever that weird hip/abdomen pain was, it wasn't cancer. They don't know why it was bothering me as all my tests are clear. This time those tests included a contrast CT so I can be fairly certain that none of Ethel's roommates have moved in to other parts of my body. For the time being, and hopefully forever, she is well and truly evicted.

I wish they could tell me more definitively what that pain in my hip was but for now I must be confident that these doctors know what they are doing. No one has come right out and said this (except for ladies on the internet) but I'm sure that for the next few years, and possibly the rest of my life, I will have weird aches and pains that are most likely related to chemo or radiation.

Don't get me wrong, in general I feel pretty great. But I still have a lot of tissue tenderness from radiation. For example, hugs can sometimes be quite painful for me. Isn't that sad? Hugs hurt, but don't worry, I still like them. Also, the tissue of my right breast just feels different - denser or something. I'd invite you to do a squeeze comparison but that is weird and also, you are probably not in Korea. According to the doc that difference normal and will (maybe) go away in another year or two. It is scary to think that all the zapping I did a year ago will affect me for a few more years to come but there is no going back. Besides, I do not regret doing radiation one bit. Finally, my wise radio-oncologist  also told me the right one "might be smaller" as though it was radiation's fault and I wanted to be like "Thank you Captain Obvious, that one only had an egg size piece of tissue removed. You think that, and not the radiation, might explain the size diference?" Honestly!

I feel like I still have a touch of the chemo brain, but I guess it could also be the tamoxifen. It isn't anything I think anyone else would notice but sometimes I feel like words aren't at the tip of my tongue like they used to be. I have to search longer and harder in my brain to find them. Who knows, that could just be age. I am a well seasoned 32 now. Of course I worry it means the cancer is in my brain, but since no one else seems to be worrying that this is the case I'm trying not to let it get to me too much. The truth is, I was probably always like this but I never worried about it before because I didn't have cancer before.

I'm listing all of my complaints not only to complain (which I do like to do, don't get me wrong) but so that if any one is out there using Dr. Google and finds my blog they can find at least one example of a woman with all sorts of weird after effects that aren't cancer. I always love finding those sorts of examples when I am in the midst of a Dr. Google session, so I thought I'd pass that gift along to the wide interwebs.

Laura: achy, tender, a bit slow in the noggin', cancer-free.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Internet is Not Your Friend

Okay, I don’t really mean that. I love the internet. It entertains me while I’m at my crappy job. It lets me talk to and see my family. It keeps me up to date on celebrity gossip. But it is also a terrible place filled with scary things. Especially when you google things like “hip pain after breast cancer” and find page after page after page of women talking about how their pain was bone metastasis.

Those pages are so hard to forget.

There are also pages and pages and pages of women who had bone pain and it was bursitis, or arthritis or ….not cancer, but for some reason, those ones fall out of my mind more easily. I’m sure all survivors feel this way at times, that their fate is not the “happily ever after” kind. The chances that my cancer will return and spread outside the breast are low (single digit given my stage and treatment strategy) and yet I see myself in all these women who will not survive cancer. I am haunted by a tiny little number, when I should be focused on the other, much nicer “88% chance of no recurrence” number. Why do I do that? Why am I unable to box up my fears and leave them on a shelf for the day? Why is this hip pain bothering me so much, not physically but emotionally?

Because survivorship is a mindf*ck.

At times I have real feelings of serenity and peace, assured that this cancer crap really is behind me. And in the same day, the same hour, the same minute even, I can feel sheer terror that cancer is at this very minute insidiously making a home in my body, stealing precious time from me.

I think it would be easier to handle if the turns didn’t happen so quickly…maybe. Survivorship is like being on a rollercoaster that you can’t get off; sometimes you love the ride because hey, at least you’re on it and other times you’re sure you’re going to die.

And no one tells you how to deal with this. Doctors never address it. It isn’t part of my medical plan. I talk about hormone therapy and bone scans and blood work with my doctors. I never talk about how I’m doing or how I’m coping.

On the whole, I think I’m doing pretty well. Magically, I managed not to become a total basket case through this whole nightmare. But I’ll never have a day again when I don’t think about cancer.  It is sort of like cancer is this annoying yappy dog who is permanently tied to my arm. Sometimes the dog is quiet and well behaved and I can ignore it. And sometimes is barks fiercely, and I feed it fear, and it grows and gets louder. Even when I'm not talking about it the dog is there: every day, every hour, ever minute.

In case you can’t tell, survivorship is what is most on my mind these days. Some days I’m hopeful (see my previous post). Some days I’m just scared. Mostly, I just want to figure out a way to live in this new reality, preferably in a state of hope and serenity. Worry sucks.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Choose Your Poison

I started this post in a different way. A mopey way. I was outlining all my fears about recurrence or metastasis. Basically, I was whining. Luckily I had the good sense not to subject you all to that.

I realized, “hey, dummy, the more your dwell on those thoughts the more that worry steals your joy.” And cancer has taken quite enough, thank you. It got part of my boob, my really great, beautiful, long, straight hair (can you tell I’m really not over that one) and 8 months of my life. So, I’m going to continue to try to ignore the monkey on my back and instead focus on living. Fully. With joy.

Then I thought about a work lunch I had recently and the internal monologue I had, which I will share with you now.

The other day, the big boss summoned my team for lunch. He gave us ten minutes notice and, let me tell you, attendance was not optional. He was hosting and had chosen a place that served only one thing: blowfish stew. Now, I never really watched The Simpsons but I do remember the episode where Homer thought he had 24 hours to live and it was because he ate this fish. This fish, if it isn’t prepared correctly, can kill you.  Great!

Off we went for lunch. As the only foreigner at work, what I eat and how I handle things is always observed with great interest. Meaning: I couldn’t avoid the stew. Of course, I know I’m being silly. In Korea you have to have a special license to serve this fish and the place we went to has been around for 20 years and they haven’t killed anyone. I mean, rationally, I was safe.

But that is the thing. It’s true for cancer and it’s true for this: knowing something in your rational brain and knowing something in your heart are two very different things. I did not want to eat that fish. I also did not want to embarrass my boss (or myself) by refusing. So I ate the fish. It was tasty, though not so good that I understand why people were willing to risk death for it. As far as fish go, it was mild. For the record, I also ate some swordfish skin. Yep, that was lunch: poison stew, fish skin and kim chi.*

Anyway, I’m getting off track here. The other day, as I was eating this lunch, internally freaking out about ingesting poison I thought about chemo, another poison I willingly took into my body. It's some toxic stuff. You can tell just by the way nurses handle it in the hospital. If it isn’t prepared right or administered correctly there can be some pretty dire consequences. So as I ate this poison fish, I thought to myself, “your body handled chemo, it can definitely handle this.” Of course, I was being extremely dramatic as the fish was safe and toxin free, but you get the idea. In my back pocket is the knowledge that I did chemo, that I did radiation and that I’m still here and I’m still fine.

I’m trying to see this experience as something that can be a source of strength and inspiration for me. Because that is a much more joyful, positive way to live with cancer. Rather than constantly worrying cancer might come back, I have this experience to draw on that tell me I can handle more than I think I can. So whether it is eating some fish I’m scared of, or dealing with something bigger, it is surprising how often I draw on that time. And that, I think, is a better way to reflect on cancer.

* I feel a deep responsibility to point out that most of the time I LOVE Korean food. I love kim chi, I just like to eat it with rice, or sundubu not fish skin. Anyway, my point is, it’s delicious 95% of the time. Don’t think because I’m complaining about one lunch that you should avoid Korean food; that would be tragic.