Monday, July 31, 2006

Another Day, Another Pink Gown

Had my annual mammogram today. Plus a breast sonogram for good measure. And a sonogram of my left axilla, where everything feels so funky that I'm not sure I could tell the difference between run-of-the-mill scar tissue and a run-for-the hills lump.

The technician couldn't understand why I wanted a sonogram of, basically, my armpit.

"If you insist," she said, the way you talk to a crazy person after you've given up on logic and reason.

"I insist," I said, the way you talk to someone who has not recently found a cancerous mass in her armpit.

I just want to know what's normal, now, for me. Because last December, I had every reason to think that the lump I felt was nothing more than scar tissue. And right now, I have a whole lot more scar tissue than I did back then.

So it's a relief to know that all is well, at least as of today. That's one fringe benefit of being a cancer veteran—the radiologists are always very quick to tell you good news.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Now I Know Who I Look Like

If you are old enough to have watched The Carol Burnett Show, you might remember a recurring character played by series regular Tim Conway: the white-haired (or -wigged) old man whose painfully slow gait was always at odds with his arms, which he rapidly chugged like the axles of a freight train. It was as if the top half of his body was running the 50-yard dash while the bottom half was trudging through quicksand. The combination never failed to crack me up.

I have to say that for the past week or so, I've felt a lot like Conway's old man. Most of me has the energy and motivation to leap up from the couch, the bed, or the chair, but my knees and toes seem to be made of cement that has almost—but not quite—set. I can move them, but only with great effort and not a little bit of pain. The first few steps are wince-inducing, and after that I typically have enough momentum to continue. But every time I stop moving for more than a few minutes, the whole process starts all over again.

The last time I remember feeling anything like this was six years ago, when I was arm-twisted into going on my very first hike. I had protested again and again that I was not in shape and, furthermore, that I was a New Yorker and therefore not cut out for hiking. (This was during our stint in the Bay Area, where, it seemed, everyone hiked. Or biked. Or camped. Or kayaked. Or all of the above.) My arm-twister (aka my boss's boss) pointed out that I was young and thin (younger and thinner than he was, at least) and that on those grounds alone I ought to have no problem with the hike, which was part of a work outing and which he happened to be leading.

So I went.

I climbed steep hills.

I walked down seemingly endless switchbacks.

I crossed vertigo-inducing ledges without looking down.

I traversed rocky terrain without breaking an ankle.

And, 9.1 miles later, I walked off the trail, unaided. I didn't finish dead last, but I was pretty close.

That was on a Saturday. When I arrived at work on Monday morning, I could barely move. Every muscle in the lower half of my body ached. Walking in some kind of slow motion down the halls of the office, I looked like my own private special effect.

When my boss's boss caught sight of me, he could barely stop laughing long enough to say, "When you said you were out of shape, you really weren't kidding, were you?"

No. No, I wasn't kidding.

So please believe me when I say that I'm now walking like Tim Conway's old man.

But only from the waist down. I don't even have the energy to chug my arms. <sigh>

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Go Back to the Gym

All these months of communing with the couch, not to mention the resulting residual flab, have motivated me to renew my acquaintance with the concept of exercise.

Six months or so ago, I froze my gym membership—I had an inkling that the whole surgery-surgery-IVF-surgery-chemo-surgery experience would put a crimp in my workout routine. By "routine," of course, I mean "rare instances in which a) the planets aligned and b) it was neither too hot nor too cold outside to walk the nine blocks from our house to the gym."

And even though my left arm is still not back to its old self, and despite the recent pain in my joints, I'd really like to get off my ever-growing duff and get my heart rate and metabolism back to levels at which signs of life can once again be detected.

Before Breast Cancer: The Sequel, I had gotten up to 35 or 40 minutes on the elliptical trainer (not particulary impressive, but not embarrassing, either). So yesterday I asked my physical therapist if I could start back up again.

The good news: She said yes, wholeheartedly.

The bad news: She told me to do no more than five minutes at a time.

So now I have to figure out if it's worth it to start paying my regular monthly membership fee and walking 18 blocks round-trip in 90-plus-degree weather so that I can simulate cross-country skiing for a total of 300 seconds.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Creak Show

MOSWO prescribed Motrin for my joint pain. It's helping, but it's not exactly the magic bullet for which I might have hoped.

Whenever I've been sitting (or lying down) for an extended period, standing (or getting) up becomes a full-on process. I can't straighten my knees right away, and my toes feel like they're trying to curl up into individual fetal positions. And my Achilles tendons are so taut I think I could coax music from them if I had the proper bow.

Today I had to go up to school to drop off a form and a couple of checks in order to extend my student health insurance through the fall semester. My destination was an office on the fourth floor of the Health Services building. For reasons I cannot fathom, this is one of several university buildings in which the ground floor is actually the second floor. (The J-school is the same way. I think it's so that folks with basement offices can use "first floor" as some kind of euphemism.)

The Health Services building doesn't have a public elevator, but I was not really up for climbing those two flights of stairs. I'd had my Herceptin treatment earlier in the morning and had already descended and climbed stairs in order to take the subway 100 blocks north from the cancer center to the campus. Plus it was really hot and humid out, and I was more than a little fatigued.

So I walked over to the security desk and asked the "guard" (aka 19-year-old undergrad with the least taxing summer job imaginable) where to find the elevator.

He looked at me askance and spoke in a tone laced with skepticism.

"Do you require the elevator?"

It's times like these that I am tempted to start removing articles of clothing to demonstrate that while I may not be walking with a cane or a cast or a seeing-eye dog, I am not, in fact, in peak physical condition. You'd think being bald and nearly eyebrow-free would be some kind of tip-off. Apparently it wasn't.

I'm not sure what he thought I was trying to get away with. I asked where to find the elevator, not the locked drug drawer.

I was reminded briefly of the TSA security guard who checked my ID the first time I flew after finishing treatment almost five years ago. My hair was super-short, but my driver's license still sported an old photo in which my thick waves almost reached my shoulders. The guard glanced at me and then at my license. She had been on auto-pilot, but now she stared at me, shocked. I got the sense that she didn't like my short "cut."

"What happened to your hair??"

She had practically shouted the words.

I was mortified. There were dozens of people behind me in line, and I could feel the sharp focus of their attention as their heads swiveled toward me.

I uttered a single word, slowly and loudly enough to make my point to the guard and to the spectators lined up behind me:


Then I snatched the license from her hand and proceeded to the metal detectors. Looking back, I feel a pang of guilt. After all, she had committed an offense no greater than failing to think before she spoke.

Perhaps that's why I chose not to zing the petulant teenage security guard this afternoon. And why I kept my clothes—and my hat—on.

He's young and probably very healthy. Those are good things to be, for as long as one can.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Just Call Me Sinead

On one of the last nights of our trip, Zach and I dressed up a bit for a nice dinner on the town. I put on a new dress, applied mascara to my last lingering lashes, drew something resembling eyebrows at the bottom margin of my forehead, and walked out the door, sans hat.

I figured I had nothing to lose, even though I'm still several weeks away from legitimately looking newly shorn rather than recently bald. There was virtually no chance of running into anyone I knew, so I didn't have to worry about helping someone else through a potentially awkward moment. And by that night, the heat wave we'd escaped in New York had made its way to the formerly cool and dry Northwest, so it was a blessing to go topless, as it were.

I definitely got a few sidelong glances on the way to the restaurant and to our table, but I have to say that it was mainly a non-event. I had actually used a bit of pomade to tame the errant tendrils poking out from various spots around my head, so I even appeared mildly coiffed. And I had on a great pair of earrings, plus a healthy dose of eyeshadow and eyeliner, so it was clear that I was cultivating some kind of look. The woman sitting at the next table had super-short hair, and I think she was trying to figure out how I could possibly have bested her.

If I were heavily tattooed and dressed entirely in black, I think I could easily pass for an avant-garde artist. Instead, I'm going to hang onto my little black baseball cap just a little while longer. But it's nice to have that first preview under my belt.

Better Never Than Late

It's been two months since my last round of chemo, but someone forgot to tell my body.

Or parts of my body, anyway.

My brows and lashes have been the most remedial, of course. Note to ocular follicles: hair is supposed to fall out during chemo, then grow back afterward, not the other way around.

My toenails have also come late to the party, sporting various degrees and types of discoloration.

And now my joints are getting in on the action. Or inaction.

Over the weekend, my fingers, knees, and feet mounted a coordinated rebellion against any attempt to bend, flex, or otherwise function. It felt like sudden-onset arthritis, and it was not an enjoyable element of our otherwise-fabulous trip. I was quite literally hobbling around, especially first thing in the morning or after sitting anywhere for more than a few minutes. We visited Seattle's Experience Music Project on Sunday, and I had to take two special, reserved-for-staff elevators to get around. Not good.

This latest development, on its own, can be a symptom of Lyme disease that wasn't caught early. Combined with the other two, however, it more likely means that I am having a delayed reaction to one of my chemo drugs. Never having dropped acid (shocking, I know), I guess this is the closest I will come to a flashback. Fortunately, I don't expect to need to be talked off a ledge anytime soon.

In this condition, I'd never be able to climb out there on my own.

Lightning Round

Several short posts coming today. We've been back from the Great Northwest for just over a day now, and I'm working my way back to longer entries. Meanwhile, here's the first update:

I shaved my legs yesterday for the first time in almost six months. My right underarm went a few days before that. Can't do the left one until I buy one of those miniature electric shavers—no razor blades or other sharp objects allowed, unless I want to court the lymphedema fairy.

Still no need to tweeze my brows, unfortunately. And I may have to give the false eyelashes another go if things don't pick up pretty soon. I did put the eyebrow pencil to use a couple of times on our trip, and my skill level seems to be improving.

My ability to refrain from rubbing my cosmetically enhanced brows, unfortunately, does not.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Mission Accomplished

For the past two months, I have been plotting and planning to surprise Zach for the quinquennial (look it up) birthday he had yesterday.

It turns out that planning a surprise vacation is the perfect activity when you are recuperating from chemo and surgery—it can be done almost entirely from one's couch.

In my case it was extra-perfect, combining as it did two of my favorite activities: planning stuff (yes, I'm a dork) and making Zach happy.

So here we are, thousands of miles from home, in breathtakingly beautiful (not to mention cool and dry) British Columbia.

Details to follow, although perhaps not until we return next week. In the meantime, rest assured that we are both very relaxed and very happy—and one of us was very surprised.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Putting Lipstick on a Piggy (or 10)

I don't have a bathtub.

My residual flab, the limited range of motion of my left arm, and the as-of-yet-undissolved dissolving sutures in my abdomen make it difficult for me to contort myself.

And my toe-polishing skills are second only to my eye-makeup-application skills.

But the age-inappropriate polish from my last do-it-yourself pedicure was really bugging me (not to mention growing out), and it's a quiet night here on the homefront, with Zach out of town for a pre-birthday pub crawl with his college pals.

So I hoisted myself up onto the kitchen counter and soaked my feet in the kitchen sink.

And I somehow managed to remove the old Fairy Dust polish (no, I did not make that up, and yes, I did follow through on my vow and bequeathed the rest of the bottle to my two adorable nieces when they were in town last week).

Sadly, that's when I discovered that I have one more late-breaking side effect of chemo, to go along with my belatedly sparse brows and lashes: the dreaded discolored toenails.

Not all of my toenails, actually—just a couple.

And it could be worse—my toenails could fall out. (And it could still get worse, I'm sure.)

In the meantime, I have covered them with a deep claret-colored polish.

A Scarlett O'Hara maneuver?

Well, yes.

But I'm not seeing MOSWO for another 10 days. Until then, at least I will be able to look myself in the feet without cringing.

Friday, July 14, 2006


My sister and her girls were in town this week for a visit, and my four-year-old niece gave me a good once-over. She is enamored of my "bald hair" and treated me to a couple of enthusiastic head rubs over the past few days.

Her one-word verdict?


True, that.

My hair is coming in, and there's more of it every day. In fact, Zach thinks I'm about ready to go out sans headgear.

But you can still see my scalp, so I'm not quite ready to go commando as far as the follicles are concerned.

I do have one possible solution, though. Taking my cue from all those parents with baby daughters masquerading as Children of Indeterminate Gender, I'm thinking of getting one of these to wear out and about.

I think the personalization really makes it.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Come ON!

My brows and lashes are now officially sparse.

Actually, the lashes on my left eye are hanging in there, literally, but the ones on the right—and both brows—are in a sorry state.

I was therefore compelled yesterday to purchase two tools for which I do not remotely have the appropriate training, experience, or skill: a) an eyebrow pencil and b) false eyelashes.

I'm not sure what I was doing when all the girls my age learned the secrets of successful makeup application, but it's a developmental stage that I most certainly missed. And if I can't figure out the right lipstick color to wear (and I can't), you can be damn sure that I have no idea how to create the illusion of lush eyebrows with a soft brown pencil and some strange brush-like attachment. Make that the illusion of lush, symmetrical eyebrows.

I also cannot remember not to absent-mindedly rub said illusions while in public, which really detracts from any semblance of lushness or symmetry.

I have also never before attempted to apply adhesive to my eyelids. It might just be the most counterintuitive thing I've ever done. Also the least successful.

I have no idea how anyone a) gets those things on straight or b) makes them look remotely natural. Before I peeled the things off in frustration, I swear I could have passed for a camel.

Not an attractive one, either.

Monday, July 10, 2006


I've been feeling like a slug-butt again for not having posted these past few days. I actually sat down to do it several times but didn't think I had anything to write about.

I did, of course. Just nothing of the blockbuster variety. No dramatic medical interventions or gut-wrenching decisions, no rants about our health-care (should be -careless) system, no fog-fueled meditations on illness.

That's because, I now realize, I'm spending a lot of time doing something much subtler and, therefore, much more difficult to chronicle. After all these months of enduring assaults, my body is finally—slowly—starting to heal.

In truth, I'm not yet accustomed to it. I know intellectually that I've moved from what I'll call acute medical care to something more akin to maintenance and upkeep. But I find myself not quite able to relax my defenses—either physical or emotional. I still seem to be bracing for another assault.

I don't mean to suggest that I'm suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or anything of the kind. It's just taking me a little while to adjust to this phase and to figure out how to be right now. And the fact that my days remain unstructured, and will at least for the very immediate future, is probably not helping the cause.

If we were filthy rich, I imagine we'd spend this time on a restorative round-the-world cruise or in a well appointed villa in a remote corner of Tuscany. I'd take long walks and read the classics and indulge in hours-long naps under handmade quilts. I'd listen to the crash of the waves or the crackle of the fire. Maybe I'd even grant Zach's eternal wish and learn to play bridge, although that would require two bridge-playing strangers to materialize in our midst. Perhaps I would finally finish that scarf and start another, or learn to bake bread, or do a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

Back here on planet Earth, where we are sometimes filthy but never rich, I will find other ways to regain my equilibrium. This morning, we are in Phoenicia, squeezing out a couple of extra hours before we head back to the city. The air is cool, the trees are green, and I can hear the birds chirping and the wind chimes softly ringing.

It's a start.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

PT = Pretty Tiring

Yesterday morning I had my first physical-therapy session since the oophorectomy.

Beyond lymphedema prevention, we're now working on my body mechanics. This probably should not have been a big surprise, but after everything it's been through—three surgeries, a course of radiation, and the mucking about that had to be done to make way for my faux breast—my poor upper-left quadrant is having issues.

Although my range of motion is pretty stellar, the whole area is very tight (thank you, scar tissue!), and now I naturally tend to kind of hunch over. (Hence the stretching exercises that I can't do for another week or so.) And the tightness and hunching haven't been doing my shoulder any favors.

My physical therapist figured out the shoulder problem right before the surgery, so yesterday was the first chance she had to do something about it.

What did she do?

She worked under my shoulder blade.

I bet you didn't even know that was possible.

I didn't.

And my shoulder blade certainly didn't.

We had a lot of "deep breath in" and "exhale" going on, which I'm sure was intended to make the whole thing much more comfortable for me.

I can't say it was all that effective. (The deep breathing, that is.)

But I could tell that my shoulder was loosening up, and that was good.

Still, the whole experience took something out of me.

Three hours, to be exact. That's how long I was asleep after I unexpectedly conked out on my parents' couch later in the day.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


The rest of the steri-strips came off today.

Not by themselves, mind you. But with the surgeon's blessing. At his direction, really.

I am much more comfortable.

The incisions are truly tiny. And when the stitches dissolve, they (the incisions) should be completely unnoticeable.

I'm mostly free of restrictions at this point, with two exceptions: a) heavy lifting and b) the stretching exercises I'm supposed to be doing as part of the physical therapy for my arm. Both could undo the surgeon's handiwork in stitching me up.

So I guess that means my slothfulness is, for the time being, medically sanctioned.

Would anyone care to peel me a grape?

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


I feel a little like a Chia pet.

I've got lots of new growth on my head, and the pale blonde fuzz is definitely giving way to darker, denser stuff.

Still, it would be a stretch to call it hair at this point. It's more like the promise of hair.

Which is fine, really.

I spent the first year of my life with no more than peach fuzz. My mom always says that she was able to wash my hair with a washcloth. And those early days were not exactly a good predictor of what was to come: a head full of thick, dark curls.

So stay tuned.

I'm pretty confident that there's more where that came from.

Monday, July 03, 2006


You know how it's supposed to go when a couple has a new house that needs a lot of work. You've seen the montage sequences in the movies or on the HGTV shows. They walk around in work-appropriate clothing, wielding lots of tools (power and other), and end the day (or montage) covered in a) dust, b) sweat, and c) flecks of paint.

I am not holding up my end of the bargain.

We have been here nearly 72 hours, and I have worn no work-appropriate clothing and wielded no tools.

I have installed nothing, fixed nothing, painted nothing, organized nothing (I swear!), and hauled nothing.

OK, I'm not supposed to haul anything right now. No heavy lifting, no major stretching, nothing that might pull at my stitches.

But I am certainly capable of the other stuff (with appropriate instruction as needed).

I just haven't felt like doing it.

I've read, I've watched TV, I've taken my first walk around the neighborhood. I've made a couple of smoothies and a cheese plate (not at the same time). I've gone with Zach to the hardware store, to the fruit stand, and to the supermarket.

But I have not really labored in any way.

Meanwhile, Zach has a) installed a sink, b) assembled our new gas grill, c) thoroughly organized our nascent kitchen, and d) traveled hither and yon to try to resuscitate our slowly dying car battery.

All I can seem to do is nourish his efforts with occasional offerings of food. Not real food, mind you. Just the aforementioned smoothies and cheese plate. Oh, and the two slices of leftover pizza that I just heated up for him.

I'm not in any pain. I'm no longer bloated. I was actually able to wear normal pants today.

But somehow my internal gear shift is stuck, and I can't seem to get out of sloth mode.

If it weren't for my size and general appearance—if one went by activity level alone—it would be awfully hard to distinguish me from our cats right now. In fact, both of them are sleeping on our bed as I write.

At least I had the decency to move to the couch.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

2006, Part II

Zach and I arrived in Phoenicia just after midnight last night, toting two mildly traumatized cats, a kitchen sink, and various provisions for the long weekend. In the stupor induced by general fatigue and two hours' worth of indignant meowing, I didn't focus on the fact that our arrival coincided with, by at least one measure, the midpoint of the year.

Let me just say how happy I am to have crossed that particular threshold. It is a great relief to have these last six months in the rearview mirror instead of stretching out before me.

Of course, the first half of the year had its highlights. Modern medicine and cosmic timing and good old karma all got together and gave us the gift of potential parenthood. And I remain amazed and grateful and hopeful whenever I think of the two biological marvels that might, with the help of even more modern medicine and cosmic timing and good old karma, someday call us Mom and Dad.

But by and large, the days were dominated by one medical intervention after another—preparing for them, enduring them, and recovering from them. And while I'm still recovering from this most recent surgery, and I have plenty of tests and check-ups and Herceptin treatments ahead, I no longer feel dominated by the cancer-patient mindset. And pretty soon I will no longer look the part, either.

Life is not yet back to business as usual, but it's getting there, bit by bit.

As sequels go, I am hoping that 2006, Part II is a blockbuster.