Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Gift

I had my last round of chemo this month. It hit me like a steamroller. As a friend of my best friend recently described her own experience, it's like I woke up in a gutter in New Orleans after jazz fest, but somebody forgot to tell me how much fun I had and who I kissed. That was a week ago. And then, on Tuesday, I had a follow-up PET/CT scan to see whether all this poison had done its job. We wouldn't get the results for at least two days, probably three.

I wrapped my mind around the fact that, worst-case scenario, the news couldn't be as bad as it was in August. I felt like I was around the corner from the end of a marathon, and I really didn't want to be told I'd have to run another few miles. I was exhausted.

My best friend, Alana, flew in for the week to keep my mind off cancer, and for the most part, it worked. She finished baking my Christmas cookies, helped me plan Christmas dinner and shop for ingredients, wrapped gifts to go under our tree, and went with me to the dingy part of the hospital where they conduct the PET scans.

But I still had my moments. One night, Quinn pulled himself up on Chris' pant leg. Alana told him, "You'll be as big as daddy one day!" I lost it, just started crying right there in front of the Christmas tree while watching my boy stand next to his dad. Alana squeezed my hand tight and asked me if it was going by too quickly. "No," I said, "I just want to be here when he grows up."

And after six rounds of chemo over eighteen grueling weeks, I got a call from the oncology center on Thursday. I assumed they were confirming my appointment with my doctor this morning. "Jennifer, it's Leti," the head nurse said. "I'm calling with an early Christmas gift. Your scan looks good. The doctor will go over everything with you tomorrow." I was elated, but I didn't ask any questions. Alana and I had been baking cookies in our pajamas while Q napped. We started jumping up and down in the kitchen, tears streaming down her face, a giant shit-eating grin on mine. When I called Chris - always the more level-headed one - to tell him the news, I was squealing. He pointed out that a "good" scan could have a pretty wide range. We'd wait until we met with my doctor before we shouted the news from our rooftop.

Our meeting with my oncologist this morning confirmed the happy news: my scan was squeaky clean. All of the "hotspots" that had previously lit up - in my chest wall, my spleen, my lung - were totally gone, along with all signs of cancer in my breast. I'm cancer-free, and it feels incredible.

We still have my surgery on January 20th and six weeks of radiation, plus the Herceptin every three weeks for the rest of my life. For the foreseeable future, I'll also have follow-up PET scans every three months. Our fight isn't over, but our enemy is MUCH less intimidating now. As my husband so eloquently put it, "Our Christmas came early, with a gift that wasn't wrapped in paper or with a pretty bow, just a page-and-a-half pathology report, but what a gift it was."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Bad News, Good News

This has been a strange week for me. My company's annual holiday bowling party was Wednesday night. We have a white elephant gift exchange, a raffle you win tickets for by bowling strikes (which is why I don't ever win the raffle), gifts from our company and general competitve camaraderie. Chris and I hired a babysitter, and I even had a beer. Other than the near-constant application of hand sanitizer (hey, we were at a bowling alley), I almost forgot about the cancer for a bit.

And then I heard the story of another woman who had been through breast cancer three years ago. When I asked how she was doing these days (expecting "great! totally cancer-free! doesn't even think of it anymore!"), I was told the cancer had recently come back, in her bones. Moreover, that there wasn't anything her doctors could do now except manage the pain. What do you say to that? Did I mention she has several young children?

I spent an inordinate amount of time crying at the office on Thursday. I went to a lunchtime yoga class to try to clear my head, and wept in savasana (corpse pose). I left the office early and had to pull over on my way home to compose myself before I pulled into my driveway. Neither Bug nor the nanny needed to see me like that. I repeated the word "fuck" over and over, just in case someone was listening and as if that word would explain everything I was feeling. It might have.

That night, I got a call from one of my best friends. She's a researcher at Genentech, the company that makes Herceptin, which very well may be the drug that saves my life. I had asked her some questions about long-term use of Herceptin, since my oncologist is recommending that I continue to receive it every three weeks for the rest of my life. My friend had incredibly reassuring things to say, but the sentence that continues to resonate in my head is: "Jen, this is the closest thing we've got to a cure." One sentence turned my whole day around.

A thousand miles away, San Antonio hosted a Breast Cancer Symposium this week, which released at least two positive news items for women with disease progression like mine. The first is about a drug, pertuzumab, that (when used in combination with Herceptin) shows even more promise than Herceptin alone for keeping tumors from recurring. Although the new drug is not yet available for purchase in the U.S., an application is pending. The second story had to do with a bone drug that is boosting survival rates in younger breast cancer patients. Scientists think because the drug strengthens bones, it makes it tougher for cancer to spread to them. Bones are one of the more common sites for breast cancer metastases. Halt the disease, increase survival.

Speaking of halting the disease, I have my LAST round of chemo next Friday, December 16th. The following week, I'll have a PET/CT scan to survey my body and see how well this poison did its job. Results on the 23rd will either say there's no evidence of disease left or that I've got to start some other course of chemo in the new year. My gut tells me to expect good news just in time for Christmas. I really hope my gut knows what it's talking about.

Monday, December 5, 2011


I've had a half-written post about Thanksgiving for a hundred years now. In that time? My dad came to visit from Texas, my brother was here from Alabama, my mother-in-law stopped over for a few days during her Thanksgiving visit, I had round five of chemo followed by a pre-mastectomy planning meeting with my surgeon, and then a good friend left her family in San Diego for a few days to help our family make it through my post-chemo week intact, which brings me squarely to the whole point of my Thanksgiving post: gratitude. Immense gratitude.

One of my favorite t-shirts is black with the word "Grateful" written across the chest. Is it a little ironic that the word is emblazoned in pink across my breasts? Probably. I bought the shirt a few years ago at a yoga studio, a sartorial reminder of what I was there to practice. These days, I try to wear it with purpose, to let it serve as a reminder that despite cancer, I have so much for which to be grateful.

And then last week a hundred years ago, just before Thanksgiving, I read this article about how Thanksgiving is the healthiest holiday for us, psychologically speaking. And it has nothing to do with the second serving of mashed potatoes. Turns out, feelings of gratitude can lead to "better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners." That's a heap of expectation you've set for yourself, there, gratitude.

If I'm being honest, I had a tough time plating up my serving of gratitude this year. Sure, I'm infinitely thankful for my son (I mean, check out this sweet boy),
my husband, my extended family and friends, my health insurance...the usual stuff. Yet I still felt more disengaged than I'd like on Thanksgiving - which probably had something to do with trying to keep Quinn to a semi-normal eating and sleeping schedule while feasting at another person's house with 35 other people. Our boy does not like to miss a party.

And it's tough to fully engage in conversation while an 8-month-old wriggles on your lap. He practiced making raspberries with his lips while I tried to feed him sweet potatoes and catch up with my husband's aunt who's only in town a couple times a year. We made a mess. I felt anxious because the day was moving past me too quickly. I hadn't spent enough quality time with anyone, and before I knew it they were on to after-dinner drinks and engaged in soft conversations of their own. Plus, by then it was getting to be past Bug's bedtime and we needed to get home.

As I settled into the driver's seat for the ride home, I realized that - harried and disjointed as it may sometimes be, this is life. I wish I didn't need the occasional reminder to be grateful for it, even in its imperfection, even when it seems to move by too quickly or get cut off mid-sentence by a zerbert-making eight nine-month-old. Even when it hits you with cancer. If nothing else, the New York Times says that thoughts of gratitude can lead to better health, which is reason enough for me to give thanks. Better health, here I come.