Midlife necessities

Midlife necessities
Midlife necessities

Monday, November 24, 2014

T is for Take That, Cancer!

Today was Chemo #5.

I've been fighting something for the past week, pretty sure it's allergies but it got me down. The wind, and cleaning out the garage with all the dust, plus an interrupted sleep schedule and a compromised immune system equals problems.  Prayed that I'd feel better today and that the results from today's blood test would be good enough for chemo.

My prayers were answered. Slept well last night, and felt better when I awoke. Sandy B. and her granddaughter were my escorts this morning. My weight on the scale was a few pounds less and my blood pressure was low. We did a recheck of the blood pressure but not the weight haha. I love taking someone with me to experience my blood draws and dressing changes. They are so interested in the procedures and ask great questions. Today Sandy asked the nurse what the "circle thing" was that she stuck to my chest where the catheter tube enters my skin. The nurse said it slowly releases antibiotics for seven days to prevent infection. Oh! So that's why I need a dressing change every seven days. Makes sense.

Sandy treated us to a tasty breakfast at the usual place near Kaiser, then she dropped me off in time for my 1:00 chemo appointment. Today was a tag team effort. I read a magazine while Rowena prepped my pre-meds. Pre-meds included saline for hydration, Dexamethasone for nausea prevention and to inhibit allergic reactions, Benedryl to "make me drunk" (Rowena said since I can't drink alcohol on Thanksgiving, she would get me drunk today! Actually it was to relax me because I was getting a new drug and she wasn't sure how my body would react). Mary arrived at 2:00 with water and snacks, and got to witness the effects of the Benedryl. She and Rowena were laughing at me because I really couldn't speak, and I was laughing at myself as I tripped over my tongue and slurred my words!

Once I had all my pre-meds it was time for the real thing. The third part of my ACT regimen, Taxol. It comes from a plant and attacks the cancer cell when it tries to divide and replicate itself. Some good, very detailed information on Taxol can be found here Taxol info. Because it's a new drug being introduced to my body, Rowena spaced out the drip to give my body time to adjust. If I felt "different" or my face got flushed I was supposed to tell Rowena, but luckily I felt fine. Today's chemo session took four hours, and it will be the same next Monday. Then it should only be about an hour every Monday after that.

A woman waiting for her dressing change came up to me and asked me if there was anything I could eat with my nausea. I was initially confused, because I haven't been nauseated. This poor woman said she is losing weight because she can't eat anything, nothing sounds or smells good, and she's having a hard time keeping food down. I told her that my anti-nausea meds have worked wonderfully, and she told us that she hasn't been taking her meds. Aha! I've been taking my meds as prescribed, on schedule, never waiting until I actually felt bad but instead taking preventive measures. Mary and I told her to take her meds on schedule, and then she said something that indicated that she didn't quite understand her meds and their instructions, but was going to ask the pharmacist. Thank goodness. I hope they straightened things out so she can eat. It's so important to understand all aspects of your illness, treatment and medications.

The bad news today - no wine with my Thanksgiving dinner. Rowena again made it clear that it's not good for me, so I will bring my non-alcoholic wine from World Market. Also, one of the main side effects is peripheral neuropathy (hands and feet tingle and go numb), which may get better by dunking my hands and feet in very cold water (what?). The good news is really good - nausea is not a main side effect from this drug. I still have my pills just in case I need them, but maybe I won't. And...Rowena said if I haven't lost my eyelashes and eyebrows by now, I most likely won't!!! I can tell that I 've lost some of each, but if I can keep the rest, woohoo!

On Thanksgiving I'm going to wear Gabby, mascara and a bit of eyebrow pencil. Looks like I'm gonna be the fancy one in the family!!!

"Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good." Psalm 136:1 Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Identity Crisis

Last week I started feeling restless. Maybe because I finished the first four cycles of my chemo, or because I felt pretty good. Maybe I'm just getting comfortable with my routine of chemo, recovery, flushing weird body tubes, stomach shots, and being nearly bald. The reality of being in treatment hit again today when I discovered that energy level is a real thing. My little three hour outing tired me out! To Kaiser for my dressing change and to pick up two bags of flushing supplies, then to the 91 Express Lanes office, and finally to Stater's for a few groceries. Fast walking from my car to Oncology made me breathe so heavily that the receptionist made a comment to me. And walking to the car with my two large pharmacy bags completed the strenuous exercise I would do today (sorry dogs, no walk). Yesterday we braved Ontario Mills for about an hour and it was more than enough. I wore my mask on my doctor's orders ("Avoid crowds but if you can't, wear a mask"). Afterward my nap was longer than my outing! I guess for awhile my restless brain will have to accept my tired body.

Time (obviously) marches on. It's already been two and a half months since my surgery (almost fully healed) and I still have five or so months of treatments left. I can't help wondering what's next. At the moment I'm so excited for my entire family to be together for Thanksgiving! Family get-togethers are what I live for, and this will be one of the most special ones ever! There will be lots of firsts in one weekend. I'll be starting my new chemo drugs on the 24th, and traveling on the 26th. My nurse said that will be my "low" day, but since I'm a car passenger, I'm not too concerned. In fact, I'm confident that I will feel fantastic the entire trip and able to enjoy every last moment!

Along with happy new memories to make, there are old memories to deal with. Being somewhere you didn't expect to be in midlife is both scary and exhilarating. Figuring out who I am now and what I want from the next phase of my life will help me determine where I'm going. My current identity consists of being a divorced, unemployed chemo patient diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. However, as my loved ones are good at reminding me, being a chemo patient is temporary. I may have to take chemo drugs for the next five to ten years, but I will no longer be a chemo patient with a bald head and a tube in my chest! Right now, living in the present moment, I must focus on being a (temporary!) chemo patient, meaning that I must put all my energy toward healing and staying healthy. And once I'm finished with my treatment, I believe the rest will fall into place. I'll be able to pursue job opportunities and will feel confident to start something new. I'll move forward with plans for the future because I'll be spending this "down time" cleaning up my past (note to self: do not look at family photo albums or shred 30 years of tax documents while listening to The Fray). My life may not be proceeding according to my plan or at the pace I'd like it to, but at least it's proceeding! And I know that God has good things in the works for me.

The only thing that won't change is the fact that I had breast cancer. But "had" will be the operative word, and I will not let it be my identity.

Patience! "Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer." Romans 12:12

Faith! "'For I know the plans I have for you', declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'" Jeremiah 29:11

Identity! "For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:26

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

You Can Take Care of Yourself AND Enjoy Life

Gabby and I went to our first event, and Gus accompanied us. We joined Chris and Holly at our dear family friends' wedding. Jeremy and Emily were married in a lovely and very personal ceremony on Saturday afternoon in San Clemente. The reception was super fun, with a delicious dinner, sweet and funny toasts, and as much dancing as I could handle (always love that cupid shuffle!). So blessed to be able to share in the Wise family's special day!

Holly, Gabby and I whooping it up!

Sunday was a recovery day. Happily I made it to church, though, and after hugging seven people without asking anyone if they were sick, I plopped myself down next to my two bodyguards, Penny and Sandy B., and they took care of me during the rest of the service! Several people told me that they pray for me daily, Shelly bought me a cute and yummy sugar cookie, Sylvia reminded me that the girls have my upcoming bunco food handled, Sandy got herself scheduled for my next chemo day, and Louise booked herself to bring me a meal. I think my church family is awesome!

Home for the rest of the day for football and Louise's homemade tortilla soup. She brought all the fixins to go with it, along with a chocolate silk pie and some  pumpkiny goodies. So sweet of her! Made me feel better after the Giants loss.

Monday November 10, Chemo #4. Holly picked me up and dropped off everything for a carne asada dinner! What a nice surprise! Plus homemade banana bread and a Starbucks PSL. Off to Kaiser for my blood draw and dressing change with Cora. My friends and family find the blood draw through Pixie, my catheter, facinating. Had omelets for brunch, then back to Kaiser for the last of the first chemo regimen! The AC part of the ACT is done! No more red devil! Woohoo!

Rowena was my nurse for the first time. All my nurses have been great, but she's my new favorite. She was really funny and fun, and also very informative, explaining all kinds of things about my treatment and how I need to take care of myself and how we are a team to get me well. Of course we had Kimmy with us, but the funny thing is, Holly and I never even looked in her! We didn't read one magazine, or play one game, we just enjoyed talking the entire time! And the two and a half hours flew by!

Holly and I at Kaiser, a bit more subdued!

And now for some advice for you women, and the women in your life (and any human actually). The healthier you are, the better. I feel like I was reasonably healthy going into this cancer thing. Sure I could have been healthier, I could have been in better shape, but I was not a couch potato and I ate a balanced, nutritious diet. And I believe it has helped. Walking is fantastic exercise, and brisk walking is best for cardio. I enjoy getting outside to do it, but if you like a treadmill, do that!  If you have a gym membership, use it! If you don't, dance around the house! Take the stairs! Anything you can do to add activity to your lifestyle. We also need to stretch our bodies (do yoga or just stretch) and build our strength (arm weights, a full workout or on the couch while watching tv). A healthy lifestyle may reduce your chances of getting breast cancer, and if you do get it, I believe you will handle it better.

Next, know your breast cancer risk. Learn about your family history, and also keep in mind that while family history is important, it isn't always an indicator (as I discovered). 

Know your normal. Familiarize yourself with what your breasts are like and pay attention to any signs of change. Look at yourself in the mirror, do regular self exams. And if you have any gut feelings that something isn't right, pay attention to your intuition and don't wait to have it checked out. I have dense breast tissue which makes it difficult to see in a normal mammogram. I had an ultrasound back in 2012 because they thought they saw something and they ended up clearing me. Then last year there was no additional screening recommended beyond my regular mammogram, even though I showed them my ultrasound films. But my surgeon said I had the tumor for five years! Maybe I should have insisted on a second mammo or ultrasound. I also noticed a change in my nipple early this past spring. I knew it was a change, but I didn't have health insurance at the time. I did bring it up to my primary doctor, who wasn't concerned, saying breast changes during menopause were common. After I was diagnosed, I asked my surgeon about it, and he said it could have been an indicator of the breast cancer or maybe not. But at least it was something to pay attention to.

Know when to get screened. You should start clinical breast exams at age 20, and mammograms at 40. If you have family history, tell your doctor. You need to know who had breast cancer, how old they were when diagnosed, and their age if they died from it. If you have a family history, ask your doctor when you should start having mammograms, and if you don't like the answer and want one, insist upon it. Early detection is key to fighting this disease if you get it, and I pray that none of you will.

For me, for now, through everything, life is good.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Side Effects are Overrated

Well chemo cycle #3 was the opposite of #2. I was really tired the first week, and had an abundance of energy the second week. I took advantage of it, too! I met various friends for coffee (Debra!), breakfast (Jessy!) and lunch (Shineah and Charles with Gus!). Two other friends brought me delicious home-cooked dinners (Claudia with a short visit and Mary with a long one!). I did some projects around the house, and took myself out for a couple long days of shopping, a mani-pedi, and errands (including voting). I had a GREAT week, and paid for it yesterday with a headache and needing a nap. Totally worth it!

Gus and I were talking about how well I'm doing. After the chemo orientation, learning about all the possible side effects and becoming overwhelmed by everything, all we could wonder was what would happen to me and when. I have indeed experienced side effects, but they have been surprisingly mild compared to what they could be. I've only been nauseated a few times and have never lost it. Sometimes my taste buds don't seem to work but that hasn't impacted my ability to eat, even when I can't tell if I'm hungry or full. My stomach issue has been cured with prune juice, and heartburn with over-the-counter antacids. I have never had bone pain with the stomach shots, and if I remember not to drink a lot in the evening, I won't wake up to use the bathroom more than a few times instead of three or four. Yes I'm tired. But that's just a reminder of how hard my body is working in conjunction with the chemo to make sure that the cancer is wiped out completely. It's hard to know if the headaches are treatment-related, weather-related, or menopause-related. I've only had a few mouth sores that weren't even that bad, and have fought off a few cold sores. My nail beds on both my fingers and toes are discolored, but I took care of that with a few coats of nail polish! 

Then there's the hair loss. Surprised it's taking so long, but every day I notice a little bit more bald than stubs on my head. No more need to shave as the hair on my legs and underarms is not growing back. So far I still have eyebrows and eyelashes, but must have lost some nose hair because my nose is running a lot haha!

I so appreciate the cards I get in the mail, the personal texts checking in to see how I'm doing, and the phone calls to chat. My friends and family who understand how isolating it is to be home alone have made this journey so much easier. The thoughtful acts mean a lot, like Sherri doing my grocery shopping, Sylvia dropping off a card with a little book called "God is Always Watching Over You", Jen bringing Starbucks, my parents with their generous Costco deliveries, and just everything Gus does for me. The gracious gifts are nice, too. Sweet Jessy brought me back some special things from "St. Lebanon". And Gus's nephew and niece, Nick and Jessica, sent over two cute hats. Yesterday mom gave me a cute necklace that says "Love" and the "L" is shaped like a pink ribbon. And I got the best homemade bracelet in the mail from Allie that says "God gave me you".

Blessed to be feeling well as I head into chemo #4 on Monday, and immensely grateful to God for giving me all the wonderful people in my life!