We recently had a company called Magic Hour provide a free photo shoot for our family. They do this work pro bono for people with cancer, and we are so grateful. The photographer who worked with us, Melissa of Icarian Photography, was wonderful. She made us feel instantly at ease. I have been in the mind of legacy lately, and what could be left for my daughter and husband, and so it was such a relief and gift to have this offered.
Here are a few shots:
I like to read. A lot. On days when fatigue wears me down, I rest here. Sometimes I close my eyes and the same soft breeze that brushes the Golden Gate wafts through those curtains. I remember the outside world, and I remember the long wide ocean that moves not far from me.
Our messy garden. The cherry tomatoes have gone bonkers. The colors and bees and flowers cheer me up. Sometimes the best living is not organized. In disarray you might find your heart.
These are just some of the questions that many of us, myself included, consider when dealing with a cancer diagnosis. If you were diagnosed before retirement, questions about work, your work life, finances and benefits may weigh heavily. This link to the American Cancer Society answers some of those questions, but the bottom line is this: It’s personal. And there’s no one right way to go.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate. Lottery, pot of gold, best-ever fortunate. And I’m saying this here not to boast, but to hopefully help those of you whose co-workers might not be responsive, whose superiors might not understand, or whose work conditions might not support your needs. Let me tell you why I’ve been so lucky, and grateful:
Supportive, sisterhood-level colleagues. For confidentiality, I won’t describe the details of my job, but my coworkers are incredibly supportive. Sometimes this means checking in, sometimes it means silence, but it is always surrounded by kindness. I wish I could send them all to Hawaii with mai tais and a warm quiet sandy beach. They are, each to each, a hallelujah chorus. I love them.
Supportive boss. My higher-ups have pretty much said, ”We’ll have a job for you whenever you come back.” I can’t tell you how much this has meant. Even though my prognosis is currently in flux and unknown, to know that this one certainty exists acts as one small light in the darkness.
Work I love. I find it challenging, engaging, meaningful, and it stretches my capabilities as a human being. To be in an environment where we all are learning and practicing and supporting each others’ growth is a privilege, and one that I hope to return to.
Practices that have helped my employment situation:
Transparency. But, caveat emptor: your diagnosis impacts coworkers, and it’s important to be judicious and mindful in how it’s communicated. Others may be struggling with ill loved ones, or in grief, or not wanting to deal – and that is to be respected. Everyone is in a different place. I have deep trust in my coworkers and so communication and transparency were not an issue, but your work place may be different. If your situation is hostile or not supportive, I am truly sorry. This might be the time to look at your legal rights, or call your local American Cancer Society for guidance.
Assistance with disability and other employment paperwork. Your benefits and/or HR department should direct you, and sometimes other coworkers have excellent insights into sick leave benefits, disability, and/or other options.
Flexibility. The ability to return to work part time after my first treatment cycle ended was incredibly helpful. We know that fatigue, depression, anxiety, and post-treatment pain can come suddenly, and that our new, post-treatment bodies need time to heal. Part-time work can act as a bridge to help you return to full-time employment.
Communication. Letting your superiors know what’s going on and providing even tentative timelines is important. Others may be carrying a larger workload in your stead, and your coworkers need to plan and organize their work lives. Check in. Keep your employer in the loop.
Work is personal, and carries so much weight. It impacts how we live and our finances. And with a cancer diagnosis, I think it symbolizes our ability to return back to the river of normal life. In that sense, work is powerful. It is a step back into the continuum of living.
I wish you, or your coworkers, or your spouse or relative, a supportive and meaningful path back to work.
This last chemotherapy treatment, the 6th out of 6 cycles of Taxotere/Xeloda, has caused fevers, flu-like bone aches, and general misery. I’ve been in and out of bed for days in a haze of napping and trancelike kitchen/bathroom visits. The pain in my bones and shoulder became so bad that the oncology nurse prescribed Norco, a known opioid. I plan to be judicious and careful about its use.
Today is the first day in over a week that I’ve been able to go outside and walk more than a mile anywhere, and just sitting in the sun gave such relief. Looking at the yard, at the tufts of clouds, at the sunlight and tomatoes and lobelia draping over the planter boxes, I couldn’t help but marvel at the gift of health. Of energy returning. Of life.
I’m very fortunate that I did not get HFS, or hand-foot syndrome, a potentially debilitating side-effect that causes deep peeling/cuts in hands and feet. I’m fortunate that neuropathy has never been more than a few short tingles in my toes. But this last treatment knocked me out, and the fevers – which fluctuated between 99 and 101 for about two days – and deep bone pain, and dizziness, and fatigue, were hell. It was worse than the worst flu.
What makes these episodes so difficult is their unpredictability. My fever came on an hour after waking up. After a nap I felt slightly better, until nausea and severe nerve pain knocked me back down. This went on for a few days. But it is precisely this roller coaster of side effects and unknowns that has made it difficult for me to return to work, or to commit to activities, or coffee, or dinners, for any consistent time period. And it’s frustrating, tiresome, and it takes a toll on our whole family.
So, I’m hoping the worst – the chemotherapy nadir – has passed, and that soon white and red and stem cells will begin reproducing quickly again. I’m hoping this treatment has sucker-punched the tumor into oblivion, or at least into operability, and that the word “cure” might be bandied about again. I’m hoping my health will begin its slow crawl back. The odds are smaller this time, but I take my cue from the Yankee Clipper.
I’ve always wanted to hike the Lake Tahoe mountain range. It’s been a dream of mine to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail. According to the link, it’s considered one of the most scenic hikes in the world, and I can see why. Starting from the Tahoe Meadows Trailhead, the valley views are incredible.
Altitude: 8, 740 feet.
I went alone. I was a little nervous – not about safety, but more about my health. I’ve had a large number of lymph nodes removed due to cancer metastases, and one of the side effects of this (not mentioned in the “happy pink” and “you’re a survivor” positivity ticker tape) is the lifelong risk of permanent arm swelling, cellulitis, risk of cuts, bites, and possibly permanent manual massage and pumping and physical therapy that comes with lymphedema. After my breast cancer surgery, the list of “things to avoid to prevent lymphedema” included: high altitudes, vigorous exercise, pet scratches, dehydration, weight lifting, vigorous and regular movement of the right arm, saunas and hot tubs, and so on. The list was a devastating litany of losses.
The physical therapist told me, “You might want to think of getting rid of your cat. Also, avoid air travel.” More than the cancer, I felt like my life had been taken away. How much more of my body would be carved, how much more to lose? I went home and wept. I hated it all – the cancer, the lost tissue, the loss of activities I loved. Life.
But, as we must do to continue living, I regrouped. Such gratitude to my support group, to include online ladies, a hallelujah chorus of friends, family, writing group, community, my husband and daughter and wonderful colleagues. This pool of support buoyed me, kept me grounded, prompted (and prompts) me to get back out and live.
And so this hike, 6 miles in high thin air, was more than walking. It was a kind of milestone, a kind of fuck you to the limitations of this disease. It’s not the 10 miler I’d hoped, or the full 15-day outback trek I’d dreamed of, but it’s a start. A small victory.
The best, sauciest, crab cakes EVER. With wine and a sweet lake breeze.
I’m sick of brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, watercress, and other vegetables like artichokes and garlic and peppers and beets. I’m tired of walking the Green Mile for produce and minding each health-conscious bite.
When you are not a cancer patient (and I am impatient, wanting this to be over, which perhaps it never will be), food is an ally, a benevolent companion. You buy and eat, and cook and eat, in a set of light, repeated gestures that do not cause much pause.
Cancer shifts the scales. Food becomes more fraught. It becomes more heavily weighted with meaning, assessed on a scale of its antioxidant values and not of taste or flavor. I have found myself looking up food names and “cancer” many times during the course of a day in order to reassure myself that my meal is fighting free radicals. Searching for “maitake mushroom” and “cancer,” for example, brings up a list of products, research, and formidably-medical sounding articles that paves the way for each reassuring bite. I have felt, at times, a zealous worshipper at the secular altar called “health.” Too much. A person can become obsessive or worse, self-righteous.
Certain foods can become “good.” Some “bad.” And these judgements can extend to ourselves. You are a “good eater.” (Healthy, weight-conscious, working hard to resist with produce.) You are a “bad eater.” (Steak, chips, soda, sugar. Meh. Pass the beer.)
To. Hell. With. That.
I am starting a new diet called the Ice Cream and F&*k It Diet.
Because, sisters and brothers, you’ve lost enough. You’ve worried enough. You’ve googled and read enough. Stayed up late through the night, scrolled through your phone, lost a body part or tissue, reeled through waves of nausea, stayed in while your friends played, lost a sure future, and wondered-what-you-did-to-cause-it enough. You know what? Here’s the answer: We don’t know. People who jog and do yoga and eat vegan get cancer. People who smoke and drink live long lives. This isn’t an excuse to chuck all effort, but it’s a way to give yourself a break.
In that spirit, which is the spirit of We Don’t Know, So Go Ahead and Live, here are the essential principles of the Ice Cream and F*%k it Diet:
There are no essential principles.
Eat what you want.
Cruciferous (which means, by the way, “of the cross,” as in crucifix, a cross to bear) vegetables are great, but they will not save you.
We will all die. (Don’t say this at parties.)
Is there syrup on it? Frosting? Fat or sugar? You know what to do.
I know I know– “not every day.” Of course.
Popcorn with butter first, then the seats. Bonus if you scarf it before the trailers end.
I am recovering from my fourth cycle of Xeloda and Taxotere, and I’d like to talk about how things are going. This treatment plan is for a recurrence, a 5 cm tumor that showed up during my annual MRI in March of this year. The goal is to shrink this tumor in order to make it operable, and therefore remove it.
I receive Taxotere every three weeks, and, on the same day as the infusion, begin a two-week cycle of 4000 mg of Xeloda. Four pills in the morning, four at night.
As of today my eyes water constantly. My nose is an incessantly dripping faucet, causing me to wipe, drip, wipe, drip, and because of this I’ve become wary of cooking and paperwork. Restless legs make it difficult to fall asleep, leading to a cycle of fatigue and sleeping until 9 or 10 AM that has thrown my summer for a loop.
So far, I feel fortunate that I haven’t experienced Hand/Foot Syndrome, a common and difficult side effect that causes peeling, itching, and can cause the permanent removal of fingerprints. And so far, I have no neuropathy. Knock wood.
But the fatigue. I’m writing this to share with others in treatment, other survivors – you will know what I mean when I talk about the crash, the far, low tide that comes with waking and feeling as if some deep core of bones and blood has been removed, and all that remains is an easily-toppled monument of skin. You become a heap of unmoving muscle, resolved only to rest. Rest and sleep are what the body orders. Mail opening or reading an email becomes an orbit of language that revolves but does not land – I can’t wrap my head around any cognitively demanding tasks after infusions. Give me TV, give me easy magazines. Youtube cat videos and naps.
I find myself cueing up bingeworthy shows: old episodes of The Office, Handmaid’s Tale, Sherlock Holmes, and soon the latest Orange is the New Black. Some of these I watch at night when my husband and daughter sleep. Others I fall asleep to. Dr. Phil is another favorite. After all my losses, I can at least assure myself that I am not duped by internet Don Juans, or that no one in my family has been kidnapped by a cult.
The fatigue, it comes and goes. It is unpredictable and when it comes it must be honored. This is one of the many lessons of cancer: Listen to your body. It is its own untameable animal that requires tending, and if you listen it will lead you well.
How do you deal with fatigue? What are some ways you pass the time when your body says Stay?
I love fresh, homemade waffles, coffee, shrimp scampi, big piles of fresh greens with a light, tart dressing, peaches on the cusp of leaking, sushi, garlic bread, creme brulee.
I love a hearty burrito, melted cheddar, and the fresh combo of strawberries and cream.
Before cancer, I ate healthy foods, mostly, but I did not worry as much. Before the cancer diagnosis, eating carried less weight, less urgency.
Not anymore. For the past two years, it’s been a pretty strict regimen of cruciferous (and other) veggies, beans, fruits, eggs/fish, occasional bread and/or meat. I’ve limited sugar. I’ve sipped green and graviola teas with regularity, and taken a host of supplements: Turkey Tail, turmeric/black pepper, Vitamin D, aspirin, etc. I’ve exercised 5 hours a week, sometimes more, and I’ve kept my BMI low. All in the name of preventing a recurrence.
Which happened anyway. And while this local tumor continues to shrink, thank you Taxotere and Xeloda, I have begun to ease up on my food restrictions. I feel ambivalent about this. For example, instead of my usual morning Amla powder smoothie (with berries, sprouts, ginger, greens), this morning I ate a waffle with jam. Carbs and sugar. Another: Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday, and I ate an ice cream sundae (bubble gum ice cream and caramel sauce). It was heaven! Then, like a culinary schizophrenic, I went home and had a brussel sprout/kale salad with a small serving of salmon. This is turning into a pattern of inconsistency.
Part of me thinks: What the hell. Cancer has taken so much already. Must I give up favored foods? Another part: Keep the discipline, keep the habits. You never know if it’ll be the “nudge” that stamps out the tumor for good. It’s a pendulum of “good eating” and “bad eating,” mitigated and slowed by the fatigue of trying so hard.
Because it does take effort. Eating a healthier diet requires more intention and thought into food purchases, food preparation, and food keeping. To add this to the cognitive and physical load of a person with cancer is asking a great deal. It means added tasks, money, time and energy devoted to health. This is not terrible, can even be joyful, but it is more.
How do you manage eating, food, cooking, shopping, and staying healthy?