It has been two years since my breast cancer diagnosis. I am so thankful for advances in modern medicine that allowed me to forgo the most aggressive treatment option- chemo. I am also thankful for my family.
I am thankful that my loving husband always knows when I need a ‘pick me up’.
…and that without even being asked, he lends a helping hand around the house.
… And I am thankful that Andy always puts food on the table.
I am thankful that I have an adoring son who is always happy to see his mom.
Mom has the “X”. Dad has the arrow pointing to his head, with the check next to him.
Nathan posted this sign on his bedroom door to keep me out.
Henry and Prudence
I am thankful for Henry and Prudence, who never want me climbing into a cold bed (Even if it is 8:00 in the morning).
If you take 2 Phillips + 1 Underwood = The Phunderwoods. For this I am most thankful.
These days breast cancer treatment is like going to In N Out Burger. You can get it tailor-made if you use the secret language. Those in the ‘know’ sound like this:
“I am HER neg, PR/ER positive”
“I found out mine is triple negative”
“What are your staging numbers?”
“BRACA neg, which is good”
You thought that was confusing? Try navigating through the treatment plan options. If your lymph node biopsy is positive then you do not pass go nor do you collect $200 dollars. That will get you a pass straight to Chemotown. Since I was diagnosed as “node negative” (layman interpretation: the cancer cells enjoyed my ladies so much that they didn’t want to leave), the next step was Oncotype testing. The doctors used this test to decide the rate of exchange between breast cancer recurrence and chemotherapy. Pick a door. Any door.
Door #1-17 Oncotype Score: “Get Out of Town” free pass.
Door #32-100 Oncotype Score: Welcome to Chemotown! Sit back and relax. You’ll be here for a while.
Door #18 – 31 Oncotype Score: Painted an ambiguous gray, behind this door you’ll find a “Complimentary Stay” gift card and a “Get Out of Town” free pass.
I chose the excitement and ambiguity of the gray door and was offered the “Free Stay” and the “Get Outta Town” Pass. Decisions, decisions… what’s a girl to do?
ER/PR POSITIVE: Out of 100 cells tested for cancer, 97 of mine were found to be an unorganized mess of estrogen and progesterone. The cells love me so much instead of dying off and growing, they just wanted to stick around.
NORMAL CELL INVASIVE CARCINOMA
GRADE (0 – 3): The higher the grade, the more disorganized and irregular the cells and quicker they divide. Because there was a party happening, we (me and the ladies!) were given the clear cut “High-Grade, grades 2 and 3”.
STAGE (0 – 4): The higher the number, the bigger the showmanship. Being completely disorganized but enjoying each other’s company, we decided to that moving was too much of a hassle. I had one tumor that was 1.5 centimeters. But because news of the party spread, there was a total of 6.5 centimeters of cancer growth around the initial tumor. My lymph nodes tested negative, but I did have lymphovascular invasion, so I earned a Stage 2.
LVI (Lymphovascular Invasion): These guys know how to do it right! They turn their house party into a block party by making their own network of blood vessels. Just like the game of telephone, my blood vessels created a system of disorganized communication. The good news is that the police came and broke up the party before the phone line reached my lymph nodes. The less good news is that like any good house party, a few quick ones always escape the fun police.
ONCOTYPE DX (1 – 100): As the winners of a score from 18 to 31, the treatment is more of a “go with your gut”. The advice I got was “Your score is pretty low. But it is in the intermediate level. But your lymph nodes are negative. But you do have lymphovascular invasion. But Tamoxifen is a very effective hormone therapy. But it is very harsh on the system. But chemo is even harsher. But it might give you a peace of mind.” Armed with all this helpful information, I was sent home to think about starting chemo or Tamoxifen.
Ever play roulette? Imagine you have a jar with 100 green marbles:
Option 1- Tamoxifen: Now, take 15 out and replace them with red marbles. Next ask a friend, spouse, neighbor or dog to blindfold you. No peeking! Reach your hand into the jar and grab a marble. It’s like the game Operation… careful not to pick red marble or you lose your turn!
Option 2: Chemo and Tamoxifen: Take out three of those little red guys to replace with the green ones. Blindfold. Rinse. Repeat.
I understand we’re not talking about your mother’s chemo. This chemo is a kinder, gentler chemo. But is it worth three extra balls to destroy my entire immune system? Is it worth postponing the ER/PR receptor condom (i.e. Tamoxifen) to first destroy all my cells? Are three more worth the possibility of permanent heart damage? For me it was a no-brainer. Didn’t even have to think about it. Decided right there, with my cancer-buddy in tow. “Thank you very much but no thank you. I’ll pass.” We left Oncology with three lucky green marbles rolling around in my pocket.
The day of my surgery I was assured there would be no drains, which is fine because I can just relive that experience by reading my earlier blog, no need for a repeat performance. Post-surgery, showering is prohibited for 4342 minutes. After 1440 of those minutes I couldn’t take it anymore. With the grace of a swan and agility of a mountain lion, I sat in 6” of lukewarm water with a washcloth in one hand and a bar of soap in the other. To be honest, everything was going according to plan except I missed one key factor. The blonde, curly-headed wrench in the well-oiled machine. DANG IT! I forgot to lock the door.
Nathan: Mommy! I want to take a bath with you!!!
Me: Nathan. Please close the door.
Nathan: Mommy! Why are you wearing a shirt? That’s so silly!
Me: Nathan. Get out of the bathroom and close the door. Please.
Nathan: (Stripping off his clothes) Put bubbles in Mommy! And more water!!!
Me: Nathan. Stop taking off your clothes. You are not getting in this bath. Get out. Please. Now.
Nathan: (Screaming and fake crying) I’M GOING TO TELL DADDY!!!
Andy: Honey. What are you doing? The doctor said you can’t get your stiches wet for 3-days! You’re soaked!
Me: Thank you for that observation.
Nathan: (Still fake crying) MOMMY WON’T LET ME GET IN THE BATH WITH HER!!!
Me: (Sitting in cold dirty water) For crying out loud, will you both PLEASE get out of the bathroom?
Andy: (Ogling like the dirty old man he is) Do you need some help babe?
Nathan: I can help too mommy!!!
Me: I am sitting in dirty bath water, freezing, after surgery less than a day ago. So yes. Clearly I want you to “help” me bathe. That is exactly what l was thinking.
Me: GET OUT OF THE BATHROM. GET OUT. GET OUT. GET! OUT!
Nathan: You don’t have to yell! And Mommy. AND you didn’t say please.
Three days later I revisited the doctor for big reveal. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting; maybe something like this:
She sat patiently, on the exam table as the nurse slowly unwrapped the bandages and removed the gauze. She was anxious, afraid and excited as she averted her eyes. Finally, the nurse declared, “They’re perfect. A work of art. I have never seen such beautiful breasts except on Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.” Finally, looking down, she smiled. It was true. They were perfect in every way: two unblinking eyes, staring straight ahead, youthfully standing at attention.
… And now back to reality…
She sat on the exam table while the nurse said, “What are you waiting for. Go ahead and take off the gauze. You can have some privacy so call me after you’ve put on this paper robe, open in the front.” She shrugged her shoulders and started unwrapping. When it was all said and done, she jumped off the table, walked over and stood in front of the mirror.
Huh. Well then…
The girls looked like Rocky after a barroom brawl with both eyes looking askance in opposite directions, bruised, stitched and swollen. Her hair wasn’t even seductively windblown; it was matted to the side of her head from a three day shampoo vacation. On closer inspection, she noticed her unibrow was filling in nicely to compliment her intricately knotted coiffure.
The nurse soon returned, along with the doctor, who took a cursory glance at her handiwork and declared: “Looks great. Any questions?” …. Uhhhhh…. “Okay great. See you in six weeks.”
Since the initial unveiling, the swelling has gone down and things have shifted and sort of evened out. There is one additional surgery to go. As my doctor says, “We’re about 75% there…” While the idea of another surgery is akin to a day at Chuck E. Cheese, when will I ever have another opportunity to have fat liposuctioned from my hips and stomach and used to sculpt the ladies to near 100%?
I’ve informed Andy that I now have two birthdays that we’ll be celebrating, the day of my actual birth and the day my new ladies were conceived. I’m not quite sure how the “Happy Birthday” song would go but I’ve got some great ideas for cakes:
I was diagnosed with pneumonia. After walking around for an entire month coughing, I begrudgingly admitted I may need professional medical care. This was only after pulling a muscle from… well… constant coughing. I was put on antibiotics, which I took until the very end of the cycle (I also floss my teeth every day and come to a complete stop at every stop sign….).
The pneumonia came back and brought a friend, pleurisy. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of meeting pleurisy, it is the inside out version of pneumonia, where fluid builds up between the chest wall and the lungs. Pair these guys together and you’ve got yourself quite a party filled with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and pain-killers.
I explain to the doctor that although my house guests left, I still was having a difficult time breathing. Just like George Costanza’s ‘leave behind’, Pneumonia wanted to leave the door open, just a crack, just in case…
September 2013 – September 2014
For the next year, my general practitioner and I became good friends as I visited him often, through various attempts at a diagnosis: anxiety, asthma, stress, allergies, anxiety, pulmonary embolism and anxiety.
I tried to explain:
“Yes, I am anxious and twitchy, I am fully aware of that fact. Nothing new there. No more so than before I couldn’t breathe well.”
“Yes. I do have allergies, like everyone else to dust and hard work but no, it isn’t causing my shortness of breath either.”
“No. I will not step on the scale because really…. What does that have to do with my breathing except to cause me anxiety, which will cause me to have shortness of breath.”
And then the unthinkable happened.
In September 2014
I felt a lump.
I called Annie, the Physician’s Assistant (because anyone who knows the medical community will always go to the nurses and PAs first). I had actually never met her before but was assured that she was very good. From the minute we met, I knew it was a match made in East Coast heaven. She’s someone you want to hate. As in, “Well yea…sure… she’s beautiful but what a bitch.” But noooooooo… On top of being beautiful on the outside, she is even more beautiful on the inside. After getting felt up, she assured me that the lump felt like a fibroadenoma but, for shits and giggles, let’s go ahead and get a mammogram. I thought, “Well sure. Why not? I enjoyed it so much two years ago that I can’t wait to do it again.” Here’s how it went:
After some smashing, tugging and pulling the nice Mammography Technician, who was all of 12 years old, said:
“Okay sit tight. I’m going to show these images to the doctor and see if we’re all set.”
“The doctor wants me to take a few more images on the left side and then I’ll be right back.”
“Thank you for being so patient. Just a few more angles and we should be good to go.”
“Do you mind hanging tight for a bit? We’d like to do a quick ultrasound.”
By this time I knew that something was up. But not in the fun way where you suspect a surprise birthday party is being planned or an engagement ring was on the horizon. After some more smashing but this time with the added fun of really cold, slimy jelly, she smiled and said, “The doctor will be right in to talk with you.” Great. As I wrote in an earlier blog, here was our conversation:
Me: Well Doc… you look like you’ve been in the profession for a while, just sayin’. What do you think?
Doctor: I have been practicing for a few years. I’ve seen this size and shape before. It’s usually not good.
Me: I have a giant in my pocket that I just filled with 100 pennies. How many of those pennies are falling out?
Doctor: I’m guessing you might drop about .65 or .70¢ on the ground. Are you going to be okay?
Me: Why wouldn’t I? I have .35¢. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go sew a hole and find some dropped change.
After having core needle biopsy, a teary-eyed Annie (my amazing PA) told me that I had breast cancer. A lot. At this point, if you’ve been following my blog and my affinity for Paul Harvey:
Let’s begin with a lesson in history and art. Michelangelo’s David is one of the most well-known sculptures in history. But why? What makes him so special (I mean besides… well… you know…).
In the early 1500s, at the ripe old age of 25, Michelangelo decided to try his hand at the same piece of marble abandoned for decades, by two other artists who tried to create a work of art but ultimately left the mammoth stone to be taken to a 16th century landfill. Along came Mike, I bet that’s what is friends called him. He was always up for a challenge. If someone says “Well… this just isn’t possible”, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni says “Let’s do this!”
He chipped away at that marble block until David emerged, in all of his perfection, standing ready for battle. Michelangelo took something misshapen and discarded and created David, a symbol of courage and civic duty. David is a cool statue (he’s even kind of old-skool super-hot) but without knowing the back story, you cannot truly be awe-inspired by his accomplishments. Let’s be honest, what were you doing when you were 25-years old?
The three of us have had some good times together, Vince: You, me and Lefty. For the past six months we’ve visited you regularly, even looking forward to it (just a little)… chipping away, little by little, at that proverbial marble slab. You’ve seen us through thick and thin (and thick again), as we’ve been sculpted and molded. But to truly appreciate you, Vince, our readers must know with what you’ve given to work.
I am not the suppleness of clay, I am not pliable balsa wood and I do not soften like heated wax; I am the marble slab. And you, Vince, did not shy away from the challenge. Quite the opposite; like the famous Michelangelo (AKA Mike), you said, “Bring on Lefty and the pain in the ass to whom it used to be attached!” Since coming toe-to-toe with this 17-foot marble impenetrable boulder, you squared your shoulders, sized up the job, chose your tools, rolled up your sleeves and got to work.
As a mom, when you are diagnosed with breast cancer (or really any kind of cancer), your first thought goes directly to your child(ren). For me it was more logistics than anything else.
Case in Point #1: Magic Beans
Andy picked up Nathan from school so I asked him to please stop at Marshall’s on the way home. As his fourth birthday approaches, Nathan’s butt is barely covered by the same 2Ts we’ve had since he stopped wearing diapers. On arriving home a full hour after being picked up from school (15 minutes away), Nathan ran into the bedroom where I was putting away laundry (my favorite pastime). “Mom! Look what Daddy got me! A new car!”
Fantastic. Just what we needed. Another car. But this one was not just “a new car”, but rather a new car carrier with four cars (if you’re keeping count, that’s actually five new cars). Even better. I left the bedroom in search of the brand spankin’ new big boy underwear. When I couldn’t find them anywhere I asked the boys “so where are the new undies?” Nathan jumped right in, “They didn’t have any at the store but they did have toys. See!”
Case in Point #2: Green Things
Because of an early doctor’s appointment, Andy was taking Nathan to school in the morning. While packing my bag to leave, I look over at my beautiful little boy watching PAW Patrol.
To appreciate PAW Patrol, you have to click “play” at least 20 times in succession:
Here is the conversation with Nathan, exactly as it happened:
Nathan: Mom, Daddy’s taking me to school this morning and not you. And we’re getting donuts!
Me: Are they vegetable donuts?
Nathan: What are vegetable donuts?
Me: They’re made with broccoli and other green things.
Nathan: No. I don’t think we’ll be getting those.
Case in Point #3: It’s Sampling, Not Stealing
The boys love to go grocery shopping. They think I don’t know, so I pretend like I don’t. But I do. It’s like going to an all you can eat buffet.
Stop 1: Starbucks – After walking through the front doors, the first visit is to Starbucks where whoever is behind the counter gives the charming Mr. Nathan a cake-pop (free.)
Stop 2: Produce – Grapes? Yes please. Strawberries look fresh but best to check to be sure. Oh look! Cherries are in season. Cherry tomatoes? They look just like cherries! I have to taste the difference! Oh, I love sugar so I’m sure I’ll just love those sugar snap peas, I just have to try one!
Stop 3: Bulk snacks– Okay so I have to give them that one. Those are pretty irresistible.
Stop 4: Seafood– After a round of high-fives, Nathan is served a sampler of whatever has been pre-cooked and read to eat such as grilled salmon, ‘sushi’ rolls or crab cakes. By the way, in case you were wondering, Nathan loves crab.
Stop 5: Salad Bar– It should be called a “deli bar” because the boys help themselves to a few bites of ham, a few peperoni slices, a cube or two of turkey and a soup sample to wash it all down.
Stop 6: Bakery – The final stop on the buffet, almost full circle from the cake-pop. While most kids get a free cookie, not Nathan; he’s been known to charm his way to full cupcake or slice of pie. More sugar you say? Fantastic.
Case in Point #4: Old McDonald.
Before taking off for their Bro-Date, I went through the Mom “Don’t Forget” Checklist. Did you remember: Sunscreen (we’re in San Diego, you always need it), something for Nathan to drink in the car, snacks for the car, sunglasses, wallet and car keys. And then went through the Mom “Forbidden” Checklist. Please don’t: give Nathan sugary foods, buy him any more toys, stay out past his naptime and, for the love of G-d, please do not stop for fast food.
The boys came home, all sugared-up, at 3:30; only an hour and a half late. Nathan walked in with his hands behind his back, never a good sign, and then ran into his room laughing like a boy on sugar. The best part of their secret adventure was the unique bouquet that wafted in the air and clung to their clothes. What was that enticing aroma; a mix of sugar, dirt, grease and edible chemicals? I say nothing because I don’t want to know.
But I did know. And the next day, before taking Nathan to school, I had to brush cold French fries off my driver’s seat, throw away an empty Happy Meal box and pick a straw wrapper off the floor. Fantastic.
Final Argument – Nathan loves Andy almost as much as Andy loves Nathan. Two peas in a pod. There is no one in the world I would want to raise my son without me. But if I had to pick someone it would be Andy. Now, who am I going to find to raise Andy without me?