Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Wall

Nineteen treatments down; I guess I should update you guys as to how I'm doing.

Going in to radiation, I was frustrated. Being in "active" treatment again - and treatment every day, at that - brought cancer back to the forefront of my brain (and it hadn't even really had time to get to the recesses). Radiation dusted cancer off and revved it up, when I was ready to let it collect rust and have weeds grow up through its broken parts. Simply put, I was done with cancer. (Still am, actually.) So I went in to radiation reluctantly, even though I know it's not the enemy, even though I know it's good for me.

As survivor/doctor/author Kim Allison put it: 

Can't I just go on with life? I did it. The cancer is gone. I feel like a sick little kid asking her mom, "Come on can't I PLEASE go out to play?"

And logistically? Radiation is a pain in the butt. You have to block off every day between 9:45 and 10:45 plus travel time. At least once a week the machine has issues or the computers that talk to the machine need rebooting, and you sit around in the waiting room wearing an oversized salmon-colored smock reading brochures about coping with a breast cancer diagnosis. You can't even check Facebook because there's not a smidge of cell phone service in the building. On top of the daily grind it entails, radiation reminds you that cancer, in a very real sense, is still controlling things - or at least your schedule.

Physically, my skin is holding up pretty well. Just a little pinkness and itchiness, as if I'm allergic. I slather on aloe four or five times a day, hoping sores won't erupt on my chest in my final week of treatment.

Final week! I am elated that this is so close to behind me.

When I was diagnosed last August, the nurses at the imaging center warned me that this year was going to be a marathon. That was 8 months ago today. Runners talk about hitting a "wall," usually around mile 20 in a marathon. It's that point when your shoes feel like cement blocks and your legs might as well be made of lead. No amount of Goo or Gatorade is going to help, but somehow a cheering crowd does wonders to get you to take one more step, and then one more after that, and again until the finish line is in sight. It hurts. It's exhausting. You just want a hot shower and a beer. But you also want the glory of finishing strong. 

I hit my wall this month, and my body is screaming at me to take a break. I have six more treatments. The exhaustion is catching up with me - from radiation, yes, but also from eight months of shoveling this shit they call cancer. I am spent. But I also have the best cheer section out there. I am supported by this community of mine, and I will finish strong.

Plus, we booked a trip to Mexico. Not soon enough, but it's within sight.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Biopsy's a Dirty Word

That lymph node I mentioned last weekend? It didn't respond to the antibiotics my oncologist prescribed. In fact, it grew to a painful, golf-ball sized lump under my jaw, and gave me my first real scare since beating cancer.

My oncologist frowned at me on Wednesday, and his words sent a chill up my spine:

"We need to have this biopsied."

Even though I knew it was probably nothing, that broken part of my psyche that was told by a couple of different doctors last summer that the lump in my breast was "probably nothing" had me scared out of my mind. When I went in for radiation Thursday morning, my radiation oncologist and my surgeon both tried to ease my fears. But between the anxiety and the pain, I had a couple of rotten night's sleep this week.

I was referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist, who saw me Thursday afternoon and said all I needed to hear:

"This isn't acting like cancer at all."

I almost hugged him. He went on to say cancer doesn't crop up in 3-5 days' time; it isn't usually tender and hot to the touch; and breast cancer doesn't tend to metastasize to the upper neck. He diagnosed me with an infected salivary gland - because I am the queen of weird diagnoses that are only supposed to afflict people over the age of fifty.

He also switched my antibiotic and said it should start to clear up this weekend. I am supposed to drink lots of water and suck on lemons to increase my saliva production. I am also making my way through a bag of Sour Patch Kids that my sister-in-law bought me.

I'm not out of the woods yet; if these antibiotics don't work, a biopsy could still be on the table. And I can't tell yet if the golf ball is getting any smaller, but it no longer feels like I had my wisdom teeth removed, so that's something. More importantly, it's probably not a lymph node after all, and almost certainly not cancer.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Aches + Pains

"This getting old stuff stinks," I remember my dad saying half-jokingly a time or two when I was in high school. After a career in the military his knees and back were worn from running in boots, on asphalt. His morning yoga routine had lapsed. Instead, some mornings we'd have competitions about who could crack more knuckles - from our fingers to our toes to my left ankle. We were like a Rice Krispies commercial - snap, crackle, pop. At the time, I just thought it was funny; now I know how palliative those pops can be.

I shouldn't be surprised that I have aches and pains of my own now. I am, after all, getting older.

Case in point: two years ago, after a couple of months of excruciating pain, I had a cervical discectomy - meaning, a neurosurgeon went in through my neck to remove a ruptured vertebrae from the uppermost part of my spine. The disc material had been pinching a nerve, and I still have some pins-and-needles sensations in my right index finger because of it.

At the time, my neurosurgeon told me: "You're not exactly the house made of brick." And Chris joked that there must be some provision in our contract about me falling apart before my expiration date. Little did we know.

Still, in my pre-cancer world, it was easy to chalk up a headache to stress, or have a bruised hip and wonder what table I'd run into the night before. These days, though, it's like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. Cancer has turned me into a hypochondriac, wondering with every ache whether my doctors missed something - or worse, whether the cancer has already come back.

Last week, I had an echocardiogram done on my heart, and the technician was pretty rough as she moved the instrument around my ribs. But later that night when I had rib pain, I panicked. I didn't make the connection until a few days later, after I'd already run my fingers along the spot over and over, feeling for a tumor (and not finding one), but wondering already how many ribs a person can live without. Of course, now my rib feels fine.

Then yesterday, I sat with my elbow propped on our kitchen counter, my jaw resting in my palm. And the pain I felt in my jaw was enough to throw me straight back into a tear-filled frenzy. I immediately called my oncologist's office, even though I had just seen him that morning. He was gone for the day, but his nurse and Chris (and I, if I'm being honest) are all 99% sure the pain I feel is a swollen lymph node from the cold I can't seem to shake, the cold that's been lingering in our house since the end of February, the cold that delivered a double ear infection to Quinn, who's now on his second round of antibiotics to knock this thing out. That cold.

But in my post-cancer world, it's no longer as easy for me to chalk things up to rational explanations. There is a significant part of me that falls into a tailspin with every twitch, tic, bump or cramp. I need to figure out how to shake that part of me loose - or arm myself with more motrin.