Three. (Or, survival by lilacs, virgin mojitos and red meat)

Yesterday I ticked off my third chemo box, leaving me with one more date with the red devil. Not hugely different from the first and second, only it was too early to find a way to have steak for breakfast. I’m going to make sure I leave time for it next time – I am blaming my sluggishness on the lack of early morning steak.

A few things that stick out for me about this particular visit to the blue chair:

The people who love me understand my need for symbolism, and for marking occasions, and celebrating each step taken toward recovery.  One of my very good friends who hasn’t worn heels in years brought hers and actually did a second entry into my room just to show me she was doing chemo ‘Tanya style’. Great moment – even though the heels were abandoned for more comfortable footwear in seconds.

My seester, me, and Krys, wearer of heels for special occasions.

My seester, me, and Krys, wearer of heels for special occasions.

This same friend brought her husband, who was amazing enough to get up early and bake homemade raisin loaf and bring it, still warm, to my 8:30 chemo session, complete with complimenting cheese and butter. We offered some to other patients and it was appreciated by all. These are the kind of friends I have getting me through this.

Seriously. Too bad you can't smell this picture.

Seriously. Too bad you can’t smell this picture.

It’s amazing how quickly two hours pass, surrounded by people who love you, people who you consider to be extended family, and your own family. My sister spent much of this session planning a ‘half-way done’ party. I have suggested that maybe we tone it down a bit and do a hike and a brunch as a gang, and it’s looking like this is going to work. I feel the need to celebrate by continuing to move my body and do the things I love to do – walk in the woods and eat (obviously there will be broccoli. And no chips.)

One thing that amazes me about this chemotherapy stuff is how even though it doesn’t hurt, and I’ve been very very lucky with my serious lack of miserable side effects to date, the body remembers. Somehow, after just two sessions chewing on those favourite sour-mint candies to mask the taste in my mouth during injections, I literally cannot stand the smell of them. I took them with me yesterday and was actually unable to remove them from my purse. I’ve been told that there are some things associated with chemo that I will never be able to look at again. I suspect those mints are already on the list.

After chemo this time, everyone was hungry, and we ended up having an impromptu lunch on my back deck, and my sister, mother and good family friend (who might as well be family) decided that because it was past noon, mojitos were in order, and they celebrated my third and made me a virgin (mojito, that is.) Everyone finds their way to mark these occasions, and let’s just say there was a lot of fresh mint purchased today in preparation for their new ‘tradition’. I look forward to it.

Their new tradition.

Their new tradition.

Mine.

Mine.

The fatigue has, I am forced to admit, kept me down since just after that lunch (I am hoping it’s not because I managed to eat two large sandwiches in one sitting — sorry, favourite oncologist!). I am tired. Not necessarily more so, but in longer jags. I assume this will continue to increase. I am a little worried, because my sanity is intact largely due to the fact that I have been able to continue to be social and get out and get fresh air, whether it’s lilac hunting or lunching with a great friend who flies in from out of town for the weekend to see me, or walking in the woods on my old running trails.

The smell of lilacs is possibly one of my favourite things- I go 'hunting' every year, and this year I have help.

The smell of lilacs is possibly one of my favourite things- I go ‘hunting’ every year, and this year I have help.

This is Jane, who travelled for the weekend just so she could 'give me a hug'. I am lucky.

This is Jane, who travelled for the weekend just so she could ‘give me a hug’. I am lucky.

If I am not able to continue to do these things as much, I will definitely continue to see the beauty in the fact that my sister pajama’d up for chemo 2, and my mom for chemo 3 – not too sure I’ll forget anytime soon snacking and watching old reruns of Sex and the City snuggled up with my mother on the couch last night. I will definitely continue to see the beauty in the fact that two very pregnant friends continue to drop over with home-cooked meals for me, and plant veggies in the garden with which I cannot deal this year. I am enveloped in the smell of lilacs inside my house, thanks to friends. I am flowers and vegetables and herbs growing in my garden because of friends, and I have a lawn that will continue to be mowed and weed whacked because of my friends. The meals I eat are planned behind the scenes, by my crazy-wonderful network of people who want me to be well. Who could possibly complain?

Advertisements

“Eat more broccoli”, “Your pubis is funny”, and other reasons I have lucked out with my cancer treatment. For real.

Yesterday I had an appointment with my oncologist. There have been a few changes, including the baldness, but he’s reading my blog, so he’s up to date. These appointments, although often full of high emotion, are not normally occasions from which one emerges in fits of giggles, but I felt the string of events and chain of circumstances led to some hilarity, which was, to be frank, a great way to start my day.

Channeling my inner gypsy now, and building a collection of hats and scarves.

Channeling my inner gypsy now, and building a collection of hats and scarves.

Loving the new hats. For real.

Loving the new hats. For real.

Blood work. Check. Greasy breakfast in hospital cafeteria. Check. I generally am someone who eats whatever she likes, and usually it’s healthy and really good for me, and sometimes it’s not. There are two things in which I indulge on a regular basis (well, food-wise, anyway). Greasy breakfasts, and chips. My weight doesn’t fluctuate very much, and when it does, it is easy to keep it in check. I realize this makes me lucky.

Cancer is not cooperating. While waiting, the nurse goes through the usual litany of questions, and finishes up by taking my pulse, oxygen levels and weight. Check, check, and whaaaaaat? Five pounds gained in two weeks. Gulp. So we discuss, my wonderful cardigan-wearing bearded oncologist whom I actually really look forward to seeing every two weeks, and I.

Me: I eat a LOT of chips.

Him: Do you like fruit?

Me: I’m allergic to most of it raw, but I can eat berries.

Him: How about broccoli?

Me: I like broccoli.

Him. Don’t eat chips. Eat broccoli.

(I find this somewhat hilarious.)

He assures me that this weight gain will not continue at the same rate, that it’s the steroids in one of the anti-nauseants I’m taking, and I am somewhat satisfied. (Although secretly determined to have that 5lbs disappear by next appt.)

So that’s one thing to swallow. (not the broccoli; the fact that cancer has the audacity to make me bald AND fat at the same time. Geesh.)

Next comes my favourite. The discussion of the bone scan. I had asked a detailed question about the scan results, and so he produced the report, which contained not only references to early signs of degeneration in basically all of my joints, (which is code for “You’re SO middle aged.”) and also the following line:

“Mild prominence of the symphysis pubis is likely related to the patient’s slender body habitus.” 

Me: “Ahem. I’m not sure I understand this. What is prominent about my pubis? Not cancer, right?”

Him: “No. Not cancer. It’s just …  funny.”

Me: “Funny? I have a funny pubis?”

Him: (laughing) “Yes. Don’t worry. “

Me: “So what I’m coming away with today is I’m fat, I should eat more broccoli, and I have a funny pubis; is that correct?”

(The irony of the above reference to a slender habitus is not lost on me.)

Handshakes, and I’m off in a fit of giggles. Good appointment!

This appointment is followed by what’s becoming a traditional day-before-chemo-burger with my father, about which I’m now very conflicted. Mine is usually sided with fries and nothing that grew from the ground. And topped with bacon and cheese. So although I couldn’t abandon the bacon and cheese, I actually ordered mine with broccoli. And salad. And there’s proof.

So here’s the plan: A little more of this,

Note: At least 3/4 of the plate is veggies.  Should also note: I really really wanted the fries. Dammit.

Note: At least 3/4 of the plate is veggies.
Should also note: I really really wanted the fries. Dammit.

And a little less of this.

This is NOT going to be easy to give up. There will days  when I indulge. Who doesn't love a truffled grilled cheese with a side of poutine??

This is NOT going to be easy to give up. There will days when I indulge. Who doesn’t love a truffled grilled cheese with a side of poutine??

A little more time on the trails, a little less time on the couch, for as long as I can. Starting today.

Awful picture, but needed proof that I'm out there, doing my thing and trying my level best to 'just be normal', more sage advice from my favourite doctor.

Awful picture, but needed proof that I’m out there, doing my thing and trying my level best to ‘just be normal’, more sage advice from my favourite doctor.

There are many things we do regularly in cancer-free existences, and we don’t necessarily to take the time to really appreciate them, and connect with exactly what it is we love about our chosen activities. This is a trail I normally run. It’s challenging, it’s beautiful and full of filtered-light-beauty in the forests, and one rarely crosses paths with another human. The soundtrack is rushing water and birdsong, and it is among my happy places. Now that I have to walk it, I get to spend a little more time there. And it’s a really good place to be on the day before next chemo session, because I get to remember that I can, indeed, ‘just be normal’. Silver linings.

Naked (Or, coming to terms with oiling my scalp)

Although I have spent the past few months preparing myself for the prospect of being completely bald, this new stage has still managed to necessitate some mental hurdle-jumping and therapeutic processing. And maybe some frenzied midnight cupcake-eating.

First of all, when the proverbial ‘they’ tell you about the ‘gradual shed’ that will eventually take place, let’s just say they don’t necessarily tell you in what order this will happen. So there’s that. And I must say that when I was on about Day 15 post-chemotherapy-start, I was amazed by my loved ones’ capacity to hold on to the belief that maybe I would be that one exception to the rule, and that my hair wouldn’t actually fall out, and wouldn’t that be ironic, etc, etc.

I assured them it was coming. The night that it actually started to come out of my head in clumps I had actually had a friend pull on it earlier – completely convinced it wasn’t happening. Two hours later, just after tucking my boys in on a Saturday night, I decided to give it a little test tug and there it was. One minute to the next, it would seem.

Decision time. Do I wait and hope that the ‘gradual shed’ will take a week, or do I dig deep, get the boys up  and bust out the razor with no ‘inch’ designation on it?  That’s the one. No cameras, please.  With the help of two very excited boys, I worked on it for what seemed like forever, and did a rather patchy job (this is one of those activities requiring another adult – NOT as easy as one would think).

I am not going to pretend I went into this one feeling empowered and gutsy. There is something incredibly isolating about shaving one’s head at 10:00 at night alone while your friends and family are largely unaware, sipping wine and deciding which late-night appetizer in which to indulge downtown.  I went to bad feeling more than a little sorry for myself, I’m not proud to admit. Sometimes you just have to let the ugly in.

Enlisting the aid of a good friend with a sharp razor and a strong constitution the following morning, I went from patchy-bald to shiny, smooth, not-unlike-hairless-cat bald, which was not without its trauma. This was quickly followed by a panic-driven trip to anywhere-they-sell-accessories, and the disconcerting realization that I didn’t want to go out by myself. Here’s where it gets difficult. Now, people are forced to acknowledge this sickness. And, as much as I love to accessorize, I find myself almost resentful of all of the options being made available to me to cover this shameful little secret up. ‘Oh, you’ll look lovely in scarves.’. ‘You’ve always worn hats really well.’

Image

There are compelling arguments for all of the accoutrements. Some of them have to do with saving my pride, others have much more to do with making other people more comfortable. For making this disease more palatable for those who are forced to bear witness to this journey. A dark pair of sunglasses allows us to avoid eye contact. The brim of a hat can shelter me from the sun, and bystanders from my reality. A pink wig can confuse and entertain people just enough so that their minds are suspended above the reality of what lurks underneath said wig. I will, undoubtedly, play with all of these and rely on some smoke and mirrors to get all of us through, and I will endeavour to make appropriate choices where the props are concerned. Most of the time.

Image

That said, though, be forewarned. What seems to be emerging from this journey is a pretty unshakeable sense of self. It is difficult to hide from one’s completely unadorned reflection, whether it be in the mirror or in someone else’s eyes.

I like to think there is value in all of this.  I wouldn’t choose for anyone of my friends to have to gain this insight in this particular way – it is not by any far stretch easy.  But I am also keenly aware that I have been given a fairly unique opportunity to learn something monumentally important for a woman in her 40s. Cancer changes you. We know this. Maybe part of that change isn’t because of how gut-wrenchingly difficult the passage from sickness to health can be. Maybe part of that change comes from being forced to drop one’s crutches and props and stare at oneself naked in the mirror, and realizing that we haven’t fallen down.

Image

Taming the Pterodactyls (Or, how my friends and family calm me down)

Image

This photo was taken the during a pre-surgery celebration awhile back. Unbeknownst to me, my sister and friends had gone out and rounded up some tiger garb, and called themselves Tanya’s Tigers. Wonderfully cheesy, unapologetically open, shamelessly sentimental and the most incredible, eclectic group of people by whom anyone could be surrounded, these are my friends. They are not all pictured – there are many others making daily phone calls, sending daily texts, making daily check-ins and sending cards, virtual hugs and just about anything I could ask for. One favourite in the past few weeks was a quick note written by a friend’s mother who lives close by – assuring me that I could call her and she would come and sleep with me if I needed her to do so. Brought me to tears.

Someone told me at the beginning of this journey that people were going to want to help, and they knew that I was going to have a hard time with that. I have often been known as a collector of strays, and my kitchen has fed many wanderers and friends because it’s what I like to do. The first few weeks after my surgery I had a different girlfriend drop off food (not just food – hearty, two and three course meals ready to put on the table for me and my children) every day.  I had a very emotional response to this and still do, because I don’t know how I will ever repay them. To know that I have a freezer full of casseroles, soups, lasagnas, baking for lunches, homemade breads (I have learned how to properly pronounce ‘Challa’ and ‘Pulla’ – although my spelling seems somewhat suspect!) My girlfriends used the magic of facebook, and continue to do so, to make up a schedule. And, magically, whether I’ve spent my afternoon napping or puttering or trying to get outside, there is an amazing meal ready on the table.

On other fronts, other friends have found ways to make my life easier, give me a laugh or simply provide company. Walks in the woods, bathed in sun and dipping my feet in the water are pretty precious right now. Returning home from Chemo session #2 knowing that my sister is staying the night just in case I need her? Also precious. This was a favourite yesterday – another friend showing up announcing he was going to work in my garden (which is becoming a community effort) for awhile. Another bonus – he came in and clipped one child’s fingernails because I couldn’t find my nail clippers and had zero energy. It’s the little things.

Image

Every day, I am surprised by the kindness of others, and I wish I could express just how much every check-in, every text, every visit, every meal, every card and every kindness help propel me forward through these chemotherapy sessions. Yesterday, with the help of my sister and two friends, a good supply of candy and some trashy magazines, my session was a breeze. There are few miserable situations that laughter (and a little yoga breathing) can’t make better. Image

Candy selection for session #2 – the icebreakers are still the winners, even though the smell of them during the week had me kind of convinced otherwise. The mind is a fascinating thing when it comes to connecting smell to memory.

Image

We got the room this time – in case we were too raucous. Laughter is the best medicine.

Image

The day prior to this treatment I called a life-time friend at 8am. to get her to come with me, because I was finding out the results of all of my scans: (MUGA scan, bone scan, abdominal and pelvic ultrasounds, chest x-ray and bloodwork). When the nurse took my pulse prior to getting the results it was 104. After a few seconds of some deep breathing like this, it went down to 82. This shit works, and so whenever I feel that wave of panic taking over (a.k.a. pterodactyls, not butterflies) , I breathe. I highly recommend it. Even if I don’t look totally convinced in this particular pic. The fact that the scans all came out clean prompted a hospital-lobby jig with my friend – another favourite.

Image

This friend had her children looked after by another dear friend, who handed me soup and homemade foccaccia bread when we went to pick up said children. This is how they roll. And this is why I am so lucky. And yes, those are my heels tucked in beside my chair. Always wear heels to chemo.

Image

My ‘seester’, who will continue to make sure her work schedule is clear and her three (yes, three) boys 6 and under are taken care of, because ‘chemo is her thing.’ Two down, seester. Love you. (Oh. And she wears heels to chemo as well.)

Shaving my head, (or, How to hang on to one bit of control and litter your living room with hair)

Just hair.

I set the date to shave my head down awhile back, and in a moment of genius my ex-husband and father of my children suggested that he and the boys shave my head together, in an attempt to make them feel like they were part of this journey. I agreed, despite the fact that many might think it a poor idea to activate ex-husbands and razors in the same room. Cancer changes things. I asked a dear friend to come by and take pictures, and here we are.

My boys, getting one last touch in of the mohawk.

My boys, getting one last touch in of the mohawk.

The hair is going anyway. I can honestly say I have no regrets about the way I’ve chosen to deal with that. This stage is interesting, though. It’s not that I mind being basically bald. What is significant about this is not the baldness. It’s the evidence of illness that is now unavoidable. Up until now, I have been able to pull myself together in the morning and leave my house and wander about  (despite double mastectomy, half-complete reconstruction, PICC line, bruises from bloodwork and various injections, extreme fatigue, mild nausea, etc) town without feeling like people look at me and know that I am sick. Even tonight’s razor-short cut may buy me another couple of days. But I know it’s coming. There is no funky fix for chemo-bald. People will now have to stare it in the face when they look at me. That makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want to make people wonder what to say, or look around for a quick exit.

Bit of a moment, I'll admit.

Bit of a moment, I’ll admit.

Cancer is isolating in some ways. You are forced to set yourself apart and make new sets of rules for yourself. Never one to say no to any social gathering of any kind, I surprise myself by making sensible decisions entirely based on my health, even when it means sitting at home while my cherished group of girlfriends heads out on the town to celebrate a birthday, as we traditionally do. There is something about this particular phase of treatment that forces you to look your illness straight in the face, and hunker down for the long haul. This hasn’t happened without grieving for me, and tonight I watched as my youngest son finally fell apart watching me get my head shaved, after a couple of difficult weeks of what looked like anger. Everyone around me will process this differently and in their own time, and I know that the visible reality of the illness, the hallmark bald head, will be particularly difficult for some closest to me.

To them I will say what I did to my son tonight. Each hair that falls out is a sign that this medicine is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do. Zapping out each and every cancer cell that has the audacity to attempt to find a place to roost in my body. This is a good thing. After the medicine has done its job, the hair will grow back, likely with a few more well-earned greys. In the meantime, I will wait for the lovely pink wig I ordered on e-bay the other day, I will experiment with scarves, and I’ll probably rub my head a fair bit, because it actually feels pretty cool.

No hiding now. Dare I say it's kind of liberating?

No hiding now. Dare I say it’s kind of liberating?