Sunday, August 31, 2008

Almost unimaginable

When I was first diagnosed, my oncologist talked seriously with Noah and me about whether we wanted to have children. Chemo often puts women around my age--late 30s and up--into early menopause. Sometimes it's temporary, just during treatment (as it turned out in my case); other times, it just keeps going after treatment.

We were advised to consider carefully whether we wanted to pursue egg harvesting or in vitro before I started chemo. It took about 2 seconds to decide that no, if the dice rolled that way, we were perfectly willing to adopt one of the many children out there needing a family and a better life; let's get going and cure me now, thank you.

As easy as that decision was for me, I'm sure it's quite tough for many women. And it seems unimaginably agonizing to think of learning you have breast cancer while you're already pregnant. The NY Times' latest thought-provoking breast cancer article is a long piece about the current state of treatment. It's really amazing--it appears that pregnant mothers can receive chemo through most of pregnancy without apparent harm to the developing child. Nonetheless, the depiction of new mothers--having just given birth, dealing with a newborn, and now going through more rounds of chemo--just makes me shudder. It is hard to go through cancer treatment. I stand and salute the women who do it with that much more at stake, and that much more to make it tough!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Role Models and Broken Records

I was really surprised, and then really happy, to see that Christina Applegate is being so open about her response to her breast cancer. In case you've been on a desert island for the past few days--her mom struggled with breast cancer, surviving it twice, and Christina tested positive for the BRCA-1 gene. This puts her at high risk for getting breast cancer again in the future, so she opted for a double mastectomy, and then went on a morning talk show to tell the world about it.

As a starlet prized for her appearance, this has to be tough, but her attitude is great. And I just love the message it sends to all women who face the reduction or removal of breasts as a result of this disease: You don't have to be ashamed, you don't have to feel invalidated, and your life is far more important than your boobs. Oh, and along with those other women rushing out to buy fake ones anyway, remember you'll have perky ones in the nursing home.

It's no less traumatic to face a mastectomy, I'm sure, just because a celebrity has talked about hers. But it's just one more area of life in which we don't have to be silent, to hide in shame; we can speak out and own our experience, and know that we are still worthwhile and valuable even though something has been taken from us. Damn right!

Finally, I've said it before and I will keep hollering about it: We can cut our risk enormously by just watching what we eat and really exercising. Apparently most Americans already know this, and yet we're still not doing it. Watch a slightly fluffy treatment of the topic by CNN's Sanjay Gupta:

(It's looking like the embed might not be working; if not, here's the link.)

Now, I know it's hard. After losing 37 pounds post-treatment, I recently gained 6 of them back, and now I am having to watch my food strictly once more. (Exercise I have covered, with beach volleyball--go USA!!--at least 6 hours a week.) As I forego bread and use balsamic vinegar in place of salad dressing, I feel some pain. But a) eating healthfully is a lot more fun than going through chemo; and b) my life is too important not to do it!

Edited to add: I've already gotten rid of 3 of the 6, in just a few days. Yay.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A-ha...It's a theme

Following up on my post from a few days ago: Today,'s advice columnist replies to a letter-writer who, in her 30s, has survived cancer and isn't sure she wants to go back to her exact pre-cancer life. It must be really tough to be filled with a fire for living and have everyone else standing around you with buckets.

The letters section already has a little debate going (and, as of this writing, there are only 5 or 6 letters). Should she do what she wants, bucket brigade be damned, in the spirit of living her life to the fullest? Or should she rein in those impulses, recognize the precious gift that is a community of loved ones in her life, and accept some limitations in exchange for those ties that bind her to others and to this world? It's a hard question, and heck if I know the answer.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Who I was/Who I am

The NY Times, in its ongoing fabulousness, has an article today about coping with identity changes, and I love it.

Two quotes in particular stand out. First,

A critical illness is like a great permission, an authorization or absolving. It’s all right for a threatened man to be romantic, even crazy, if he feels like it. All your life you think you have to hold back your craziness, but when you’re sick you can let it go in all its garish colors.

This is so true. And once the critical illness is over, the permission fades. You were allowed to deviate, given lots of leeway, even permitted to say NO to things and to live your life to maximize health rather than busy-ness. But as time passes, people stop thinking that you are delicate and must be handled with care; they start thinking it's time you stopped whining and started being like everyone else again.

The other quote I loved:

I wanted to be someone, a recognizable personality, a full-blooded, memorable human being, and not just a cancer patient. I had already lost the person I used to be, that healthy, energetic 45-year-old woman. I wasn’t capable of losing more. Other friends had their own spins on claiming individuality in the cancer world.

I alluded to this in an early blog post. At first, I wanted so much to maintain my professional identity, to be the smart, strong person who just happens to be going through cancer treatment. I didn't want to be like those grey, wispy, shadowed people sitting in the waiting room in their headscarfs and their wheelchairs. When I had surgery and couldn't wash my own hair, it was hard to accept help because it just drove home my incapability. When I couldn't walk outside for a full half hour at a time, I felt the loss of my physicality more than I had ever felt its presence.

What the writer doesn't say, and what happened too slowly for me to watch, is that you really can go back to something like your old life, and leave that self-loss behind; but it's almost like a projection of your old life, one rendered in all the same colors and moving in the same patterns, but against a different screen, parallel to the old but never quite touching.

I actually have to fight with myself not to just go the straight denial route, and turn my back on the truth that I had cancer, and ignore anything to do with cancer. Someone close in my social circle just started chemo (her first treatment was on the 2-year anniversary of my last treatment). It is surprisingly hard for me to see her go through this, in part because I just want to deny, deny, deny; and, unexpectedly, her reality becomes a constant undercurrent for me, reminding me of what I experienced and what I am as a result.