Cancer Super Achievers: An Unproductive Lament

The world of cancer is peppered with super achievers. For some people, a cancer diagnosis propels them into a flurry of mountain treks, book deals, year-long walkabouts, profitable blogs, the starting of foundations. They do cleansing diets, quit or change their jobs, marry or get divorced, adopt children, remodel their homes. The wind machines of productivity blow their long, flowing (metaphorical) hair into the photographer’s lens, and the world, it celebrates their proliferating efforts.

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I wish I had her hair. 

“You don’t have long to live,” cancer says. It is, to be sure, a wake up call.

Respect. And it’s no one’s business how we react to cancer or any disease. The music of coping has a wide, wide range.

And yet I can’t help feeling pressured, at times, to do. I realize this is partly cultural. Americans value productivity, work, achievement, productive leisure (think high-end tents, travel, what did you do this weekend?). Even cancer is no ticket out of this race. Even the cancer patient (and the chronically ill in general) must justify their rest, their healing, their not-productive-sitting-reading-resting being. We don’t honor enough that healing is an active, regenerative process in which the body’s reserves must be deeply tapped. This causes fatigue. It can cause grief. We don’t honor rest. We don’t honor the trauma that cancer heaps on the mind and the body, and the concentric circles it then echoes into family, friends, community.

In this vein, I want to say that I haven’t been terribly productive. This has its pluses, its minuses. Working outside the home is a way of staying engaged with the world, is a way of having another thread of meaning woven into your life. And I have been away from a job I love for nearly seven months.  Working inside the home is a series of tasks that are constantly being undone, and therefore there’s little to show for it.  And I haven’t written a book, haven’t remodeled a room. Kitchen cabinets remain in disarray. The wet mop is still outside, the linoleum has holes.

Not productive.

I ask myself: What should I be doing, exactly? Should I be sorting through the old books, cleaning the garage? Another Costco run? More vigorous meditation, reading professional manuals? Piles of poem and other drafts stack each household table, as do my husband’s paints, brushes, figures. I wander and sit. I read, then rest. I cook a little, grocery shop. Then rest some more. I spend 2-3 hours a day doing physical therapy exercises. “What do you do all day?” someone asked. Cue maniacal laughter.

Not productive.

I once scrolled past a Twitter post that read something like, “Click to see how breast cancer inspired this woman to climb Mt. Everest!” I replied, semi-snarkily, “Breast cancer made me cranky and tired.” Oh, the dark humor of it. But it was the truth.

And you know what?

It was the most productive thing I did that day.

 

How do you cope with your body’s need to heal? Its unpredictability, the need for rest?

 

PT: Physical Therapy, Post-op Torture, or Potential Travel? Oh, and Lymphedema.

After the surgery, the work.

In order to remove all the cancer, the surgeon excised a rib and a “significant portion” of back muscle. But time has gone on.  The drains are out, the surgical tape is gone, and now it’s scars and stretches and reaches and grit. Argh!

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DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT EATING THAT BRIOCHE. 

Step 1:  Exercises for the lymphedema I’ve developed in my right arm due to the surgery. For those not familiar with it, lymphedema is a temporary or permanent swelling of the extremities (usually arm or leg) due to lymph node damage. Lymph node removal, often a part of later stage cancer surgeries, can result in a backup of fluid into the arm or area where the nodes were removed. And it’s what’s happened to me. My right arm swells and ebbs in accordance with my movement and idleness, and it’s now another side effect of breast cancer that I must – grudgingly – face. Next week’s agenda involves appointments for arm measurements and compression sleeve fitting. And if I must – and I must – get a compression sleeve, I’m going to get one that screams “DIRT BIKE SLAYER,” or one with dangerous-looking tattoos. Because sisters and brothers: Badassery is not solely for the able.

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My compression sleeve will have scrollwork, and it will emerge from an unfriendly and barlight-lit field of hydrangeas. 

Step 2: Stretches. Oh, what fresh hell is this? My right arm currently swings like a dangling banjo. It is awkward, bumps around, is unsure of what gross movement and gesture it needs in order to return to the chorus. And so the kind physical therapists at my HMO have embarked gleefully (and oh how they laugh and type and so cheerfully cheer the grouchy patient on),  on a program to challenge my movements. I stretch with bands, exercise balls, a pulley, and a cane. I reach up the wall to expand the chest and shoulder. I lay down and pull and reach and groan, soaking up hours of each day in order to knead and raise the bread of my tendons. Hello, serratus anterior. Hello, pectoralis minor. 

(Pulley drop.)

Have a nice day.

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Die, very kind physical therapist, die.

Step 3: Aerobic exercise. I must now begin walking again. Months ago, pre-recurrence, I was regularly running 3-5 miles several times a week and lifting weights as well. I was in probably the best shape of my life. And now, after chemo and weeks of rest and tottering around like the old man Tim Conway,  I am ready for the streets. 1 mile, 2 miles, and then back to running. Travels around the neighborhood, scouting the town. Sunrise and sunset, calf and bone.  Trees.

Starting today.

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“It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. If you don’t keep your feet, there’s no telling….”

 

I hope you, reader, are finding your own road too.

And keeping your feet.

Love out.

 

 

 

Current Status: Pending. Better.

It’s been about a month past the actual surgery, and I am slowly, slowly, feeling the tide of “normal” energy return. It arrives briefly, a teaser, and then fatigue kicks in again.

But it’s coming back. I can feel it. And this gives me strength.

Pluses:

  1. The surgical drain will be removed this week.
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I would probably pop a bunion if I did this, but still. 

Freedom! What people don’t tell you about surgical drains is that they are clumsy, they stink, and they make normal movement difficult. Here’s a link for more info about the Jackson-Pratt drain system.

 

  1. I can drive again.
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I will be alert. I will look both ways. 

This, ladies and gentlemen, is also a freedom. No more do I have to call Uber. No more will I be confined to the walls of this (admittedly loved) house, trapped between naps and half-hearted attempts at chores. I can get drive-thru coffee. I can drive to forests.

Woot!

 

  1. The holidays are coming.

This one is balanced with some cons as well. I struggle with envy of those who are healthy, have intact, functional families that come from all around to visit. Cutting back on social media – the showcase of our hoped-for selves – will be a requirement. I can’t handle the perfect Facebook posts and the full-haired mothers and clean houses and cousins and grandparents. It makes me sad, and jealous. This is petty, isn’t it? I should cheer, root for them all. I should be a better person, meditate on it, extend the full light of compassion. And in my better heart I do. But not now. I’ve still got grief on my shoulder, fatigue on the other, and the twins of hope and fear to contend with. They take up a lot of my time.

On the other hand, there is the food. And the color. And the celebrations and neighbors and friends and candy and presents and watching my daughter open presents. There’s my husband’s goofy good cheer when I cook his favorite roast. There is the yearly ritual of baking a fabulous cake. There is packaging, pumpkin spice, coffee and pastries. This whole season: It’s too much sugar and carbs and drinks combined with the ancient warmth of huddling together against the darkness. Diwali, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or just the tree.  It is this rallying-together-against-the-cold, this gratitude and kindness across the set table that says I’m here –  that I love. It’s the human condition. It’s us.

And hallelujah for that.

  1. I can write again.

 Recovering from both chemotherapy and surgery dragged me into a depression. Fatigue sapped my thinking into some vague void where words float, linger, don’t connect. This meant that writing anything – even reapplications for disability, let alone phone calls to the wireless service – were Sisyphean tasks that were best left gathering on the kitchen table. And they piled and piled until this past week.

New motto: When all else fails, make piles.

But leaf by leaf, this leaning tower of smog certificates and insurance notices is coming down. Like The Thing from the old Fantastic Four comics says right before a fight: “It’s clobberin’ time!” Instead of fists, I’ve got a dark roast, my papers, and a pen.

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Cheers.

What We Carry

Hello again.

It’s been three weeks since surgery. I’ve been really, really wiped out. I’ve spent most days in bed or on the sofa, wandering the house, doing this or that odd chore, but mostly resting. My oncologist said I probably won’t even start to feel recovered until four weeks, and not “normal” until eight weeks out. This, to my need-to-be-productive-self, helps me feel better.  Two drainage tubes have made it impossible to sleep in any position except my back, and my right arm is slowly gaining range of motion back. Today’s the first day I feel like I can type for any length, and this, too, gives me hope.

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That small flower is finding its way. 

If you are a regular reader of this blog, thank you for your patience.

This surgery sent me into a tailspin of depression. The truth about general anesthesia is that it is a temporary coma, and can have major effects on mood. Post-operative depression is not something I anticipated, but immediately after surgery I fell into a well of despair that had me near some monster edge. My husband and daughter were bewildered and concerned. Combined with the pain medications and the lack of mobility and drain tubes and magnitude of this surgery and this diagnosis, I was in a very dark place. I would walk into the kitchen and just stand, bearing wave after wave of utter, complete grief and despair. I’m not sure I’m describing the physical aspects of the sadness enough – my body felt physically dropped into some hopeless, dark well and I was flailing for air.  Dear friends and colleagues reached out, and let me tell you every text, every visit was a life buoy. There is a kind of salvation on this Earth, and it is called Kindness. And each day is one inch better. That is my measure. One inch, or one half inch. That is what this body can do right now.

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You will not fall prey, little one.

 

The surgeons (thoracic and plastic) took out one rib. This was the rib that was borrowed from Adam, and he can have it back.

What’s next?

In a nutshell: wait, see, hope. Checkups every three months. Periodic scans. Because this is a local recurrence of TNBC, there’s no hormone treatment I can take. There’s no other preventative chemotherapy available. The new immunotherapy treatments are for metastatic disease, meaning disease that’s spread to the bones, or organs, or brain, and consequently they don’t apply. I could search for a clinical trial, but my case is not typical, and I don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to do much more than read magazines and watch TV. I’m in remission now, and yet the risk for recurrence is high, over 50%, and happens within 1-2 years.

We are in uncharted territory, said my doctor, gently. We sat in silence.

What can I do? This is the part where I look down into the valley and decide. Despair or hope? Another step up the mountain, or quit?

I look around and down and see the faces of my family, friends, coworkers and a world of sisters and brothers and I draw on the kindness that is there. I am so grateful. To extend the metaphor, the air gets thinner as treatment continues. The body wears out. A person has to make more frequent stops and gather strength. But you, readers, friends, family, cancer sisters and brothers, are my oxygen tank.

Breathe.

photo of mountains
There is still so much to see

 

 

 

These are the (Detached, Strange) Voyages.

The CT and bone scans came back negative for metastases.

I should feel elated, grateful, should be jumping for maniacal, life-affirming joy.

But I’m not. I feel like: whatever. Meh. As if in a Star Trek episode, my shields are up. Odd, huh? The closest description I can come to this feeling is that of an abused lover. Cancer is the abuser. He (and it could just as well be she) punches me out with a diagnosis: stage 3, triple negative, lymph node involvement. I am injured, and then I grieve, and slowly begin healing. Cancer gets quiet. Goes into remission. Behaves, offers hope.

background beautiful blossom calm waters
For a brief moment, you could stand here. You might feel relief.

And then he returns with another punch: the tumor’s back. And then another: surgery. And then another: high likelihood of recurrence. And each time my ability to emotionally engage with the process is reduced. I’m not talking about depression. I’m talking about a step by step process of detachment from a body that no longer feels trustworthy. All news is now to be listened to and taken like a memo, and I’ll consider only the action items. And the abusive lover’s apologies – cancer’s temporary respites from terror – are not to be believed.

animal animal portrait animal world annoyed
Back again, little fucker? Seriously? Don’t even.

Surgery is now possible and my doctors are planning to remove the tumor. Two ribs will be excised, and permanent nerve damage to my arm is likely. The tumor has grown, even from last month. I picture it, sometimes ask it what it wants, and all I see is a little dark factory that has programmed itself to proliferate. It’s like V’Ger from the original Star Trek. A satellite that was originally built to gather information, it eventually became self-aware, and then colossally destructive. I think the cancer cells are a little bit like that: they are cells that got programmed incorrectly, and now are replicating and replicating in a lethal effort to survive.

Please stop, I want to say.

Take your efforts elsewhere.

In the meantime, one day at a time. We wait now for the surgery date and plan for four weeks of recovery. Maybe I can have my ribs from the surgery.

Maybe I can turn them into salad spoons.

food on table
That would be strange. And yet: 

Magic Hour

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:

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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.

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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.

 

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And here, with my daughter, is mine.

Love out.

 

Solo Tahoe Hike. Bucket List. File Under “Not Dead Yet.”

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.

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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.

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And afterwards?

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The best, sauciest, crab cakes EVER. With wine and a sweet lake breeze.

Cheers.