Friday, February 20, 2009

Three years, all clear!

Three years ago today, I'm pretty sure I was skiing at Copper Mountain in Colorado. Three years minus 7 days ago today, I was standing in the shower saying "Oh, shit" as I felt a subcutaneous golf ball on my right breast.

Today, I drove 26 miles north to Norris Cancer Center. I had my blood drawn by my favorite "stick," Dean (he said my arm-crook veins are hardened by the chemo, and he took the blood from a vein that crosses the back of my thumb--but he got it painlessly, and on the first try). I waited for a long time in the mammogram waiting area, with about a dozen other women, some with the short crew-cutty hair that marked them as recently completing treatment; some looking frightened, with husbands' hands clutched in theirs; others playing it cool, telling anyone who starts the briefest conversation that they're "just there for my yearly!" I wore my new t-shirt: "I already kicked Cancer's ass. Wanna be next?"; only one nurse commented on it (positively), but it garnered a lot of furtive looks. I wondered if the "ass" was shocking people, or if I looked too young and healthy to be a cancer survivor (I like that one!), or if maybe they secretly liked it.

Anyway, I was called late for my mammogram, by a cute little radiographer who did a fine job of mushing, smashing, and subjecting me to excruciating pain. I also think mammograms must have been invented, by the way, by someone with no concern for breast perkiness. Those underside ligaments must age about 6 years with each image.

All was going fine; she went off to consult the radiologist and I relaxed with my iPhone to wait to go see the doctor. But then she came back and said that the radiologist wanted "a few more views," to look at something she wasn't happy about. I barely blinked; we've been keeping a close eye on the left side (the one not previously involved) because it's fibrous and sometimes achy.

But they didn't want to look at the left. They wanted to look at the right.

And for the next 5 minutes or so, I experienced real terror. I've already had surgery and radiation on the right. If there were a new tumor there, the whole thing would have to go. And I've sat through enough support group meetings to know there are worst things than losing a breast, and there is life after a mastectomy, and reconstructed boobies actually look pretty real and cute--but still. While she mashed me into new, contorted positions, and used a compression plate whose effect was like having a stiletto heel pierce a nipple, I just kept thinking, "I don't want to lose it after all of this." It's funny; I didn't even think about chemo or radiation or months of illness. I've thought about that before, but even my nightmares of getting cancer again--somehow they just never involve it happening on the same side.

It was super scary, but when the tech went back to consult again, she returned saying that it was all clear, that the extra mashing had given a better view and I was fine. I couldn't quite relax and believe it until I saw Christy, my oncologist, but her exam and the bloodwork and the images were all telling one happy story, she said, and finally I did believe.

Still, not until I was driving away did I get the moment of full realization that I've now reached the third year of survivorship. With my cancer profile, this is really huge. Two years was huge, but three years is huger. My risk curve drops off precipitously at two and then three years. Not like I'm ever "home free," but at this point I can really relax much more about the prospect of recurrence.

In the car, I felt the grin spread across my face like someone was stretching it with their fingers--and it stayed there until the third time a slow driver cut me off in the left lane. Then I was back to reality, which is what life is, after all, and I must say I'm pretty glad to be here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Monday, February 09, 2009


I caught myself in some insanity this week.

Friday was my 42nd birthday. Around Friday, you could have found me gazing into a mirror, looking at the lines and wrinkles around my eyes and mouth that weren't there before chemo. You could, if you could see into my mind, have watched swirling thoughts of sadness and loss about getting older, losing skin elasticity...and resentment toward cancer, for how its treatment has hastened and deepened my "inevitable decline."

I'm not sure how this craziness took hold of me, but when I went out to the beach yesterday, on a tenuously lovely day sandwiched between days of rain, and ran and hit a ball and enjoyed playful banter with friends, the world righted. I remembered that I don't mind aging at all. I am thrilled to be aging, thrilled to be getting older. I'm especially thrilled to age, for as long as I can, in a strong and healthy body.

It sure beats the alternatives.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

It's not too late

It's not cancer-related, per se, but I just read an incredibly moving article about a man who, during the civil rights era, beat a young black activist bloody. The activist survived, and grew up to be Congressman John Lewis; his assailant lived for years without realizing who his victim had been, but plagued by guilt over his own actions. When he did come to understand the link between his behavior and this member of Congress, he contacted Lewis to try to offer an apology. The two men met, Wilson (the attacker) apologized, and Lewis forgave him.

I find this moving for so many reasons. First and foremost, it's never too late. These guys waited over 45 years--waited to make amends, or to accept them. Wilson is the first person involved in that attack to come forward to Lewis. They are both humbled and profoundly changed by their new bond of understanding, which grew out of shared violence. People can address their regrets, even if it takes too long; other people can forgive, and experience the wholeness that comes through forgiveness. And from a Buddhist perspective, it is wonderful to have the additional compassion and healing in the world, that didn't exist before these two men met, and that now extend benefits to all of us.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

The LA Times today mentions a study by USC researchers that found green tea to block the effects of a specific kind of chemo agent used on multiple myeloma and a couple of other cancers--not breast cancer, though. Green tea is an antioxidant (perhaps it would be more precise to say it contains antioxidants) that are effective at preventing breast cancer, and it may even aid in the treatment of breast cancer. Although some very conservative oncologists, such as the local practice near where I live, don't want their patients using green tea or other antioxidants during chemo, I found a substantial amount of research showing that green tea actually aided the effects of chemo. It may help chemotherapy target cancer cells better, while protecting non-cancer cells and thus easing the damaging effects on the body. (Note that I am linking to a layperson-friendly page, not to one of the studies, but a quick Google search will get you the real research.)

I'm very happy to say that I was treated at USC, which--this study notwithstanding--seems more open to green tea; I wasn't treated at the local practice.

Just wanted to share!