Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Meaning of Giving Thanks

I struggled to get the numerous storage bins down from the attic on my own. Liz had offered to help me – and she usually does as it’s normally an annual two-person gig - but I sensed an urgency I could not immediately explain to do it on my own, so there you have it.  The first thing I wanted – had – to do was unpack the tree.  It’s a small, kinda gawky, sad thing of a tree – but its ours. Half the pre-installed lights gave out a few years back and all I had to re-string it with were lights with a white cord and so, you guessed it, it could look better. But its OUR tree.  Actually, it was a gift. 

With the tree put together, set up, and plugged in, I next tackled the ornaments.  I love gathering ornaments  - like keepsakes - from our travels around the world.  Each ornament on our tree brings a significance from our past as a reminder of a life well-traveled and well-lived.  Taking them out of their crate. One by one, I spend time with each of them, remembering where in the world we got it, how we enjoyed the trip, the travel, the people, the food, and the joy of discovering it in a tucked away gift shop, from a wonderful street vendor, etc., and adding it to our carefully curated collection.

Last year, at the end of December, I had my annual mammogram. I’ve had these uncomfortable appointments for almost 20 years and they become a bit routine – and as most women can attest, an annoying routine. This one, however, not so much. After the mammogram, I was asked to enter into a dark room where a technician sat looking at a computer screen. She moved the screen into my view where I saw what I guessed was my boob - duh. On the screen, I could make out the outline of what was my left breast from the side view. She pointed at what looked to me to be a tangle of bright lines, closer together than the other swirly bright lines on in the image, and she asked if perhaps it was scar tissue as a result of a traffic accident or if I had had any other sort of trauma to my breast. Not recalling anything, she said the image looked a bit suspicious and recommended an MRI to rule out anything “bad”.

We spent last Thanksgiving in Mexico that year, trying to calm down and find a sense of peace after the election. I developed shingles as a result of the stress of the election results and sent most of my time in sunny Mexico in the shade and in a lot of discomfort. We returned home a few weeks before my mammogram appointment. Prior to the appointment, however, I unpacked our holiday decorations and put up the tree. My first MRI was scheduled for the end of December.  By this time, I had an inkling this was not “normal procedure”. I had had sonograms as follow-ups to mammograms a few times before, but never an MRI. Perhaps, I thought, this was just the hospital being overly cautious and “nothing to worry about”.  But I was worried.

I usually leave my holiday decorations up and lit for all to see until after the New Year.  As I was taking down everything at the end of that first week in January 2017 and carefully packing away the ornaments, I had some pretty dark thoughts about whether this would be the last time I would get the opportunity to unpack the ornaments, reminisce about their meanings, and place them on our small, gangly, but beautiful tree. I remember crying “quiet tears” as I lovingly stored these mementos of our life way and thinking that Liz may be on her own to unpack them next. I came close, but did not, leave a note lovingly tucked inside to her.

My second MRI – this time with a “fun” biopsy thrown in to REALLY get my attention – was mid-January 2017. By this time, there was clearly nothing “normal” about any of this. I tried to keep a calm and relaxed pace through it all, but deep down I knew all these procedures would not have a happy ending.  And of course, we all know what happened from there. Diagnosed with Triple Negative Breast Cancer shortly thereafter. Followed by 20 weeks of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and 18 weeks of preventative chemo to top off a very shitty 2017.

So, as I unpacked my ornaments last week, I thought back to the time a had carefully packed them in between MRI appointments last January. Thought about my fears of not seeing another Christmas season, thought about my heartbreak of Liz unpacking them without me.

“Gratitude” is a word widely used this time of year. The time of “thanks giving” should be a time to reflect on your god-given gifts of health, family, friends.The word has a deeper meaning to those of us who have come much too close to the realization that life is precious, and tomorrow is NOT a given. There is no more taking for granted those in your life are special. That traveling to other countries and learning about other cultures make you a more well-rounded individual contributor to this planet. That the color of a deep blue sky brings a smile, the warmth of the sun can bring tears of appreciation, the breeze through the swaying trees reminds me of my granddad, the sight of a beautiful red cardinal is a sign my grandma is watching over me, and the comfort of a hug from a stranger can bring shear contentment, are gifts. Gifts to be recognized, appreciated, and NOT taken for granted.

Back to that other “gift”. I lost my mom in 2012 at 66 years of age. That same year, Liz turned 50 and picked a trip of a lifetime to celebrate – a trek to the Base Camp of Mt Everest.  Yep, THAT Mt Everest. It truly was a trip of a lifetime. And a trip that almost cost me my life. As luck would have it, I developed blood clots in my legs and eventually in my lungs as a result of descending too quickly while being dehydrated. I spent the remainder of 2012 in and out of hospitals and unable to travel over the holidays.  It was devastating to me not to be with family during Christmas. 

That same year, we happened to share a cleaning service with friends. 
One of who lost her mother that same year. As they were going through her mother’s belongings, they came across this small, plastic Christmas tree. Instead of tossing it, they finagled their way into our home with the help of our mutual cleaning service, put up the tree, and left a few but meaningful ornaments on it for us to find upon returning home from work. A beautiful sentiment that I can only image of reciprocating to another in need of joy and hope.

Gratitude means living a life fully and loving unconditionally. 2017 has sucked in so many ways. It’s also given me a gifts. Appreciation for having a wonderful and supporting wife, family and friends; Contentment for being cancer-free at this moment; and Hope that I will see many more Christmas seasons, unpacking and packing our ornaments.  Indeed, THE gift of gratitude.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Finding My "New Normal"

I know the way by heart now. Approximately 40 minutes door to door. Most of the traffic will be from the house to the Pentagon, where it will ease up across the Key Bridge and then pick up volume thru Georgetown and then north through the toney Foxhall neighborhood.
I was on my way to Sibley hospital, on a much too familiar route to a much too familiar place. A place where my life has been saved multiple times already in my 53 years on Earth. Let’s hope that string of “wins” continues.

After surgery, there was discussion with my oncologist about “next steps”. For Triple Negative Breast Cancer, those next steps are pretty limited. Radiology is one of those options. Doing nothing is an option. And, thankfully, due to recent clinical trial results taking more chemo is now an option.

Today was a follow-up ultrasound. A follow-up needed because a small, but strong-handed Director of Radiology felt a lump in my chest three weeks post mastectomy.

So there I am, I’m in my gown and laying on a table in a dark room with a bunch of medical equipment surrounding me. Oddly I’m familiar with the surroundings. Maybe too familiar. I can feel the hardness of the table and feel my back give way as I try and relax. I’m feeling the fatigue of my chemo rush over me. I almost fall asleep. In the background I hear the comforting sounds of the radio station playing soft, classical music.

I really did not give much thought to today. I did not ask Liz to go with me. I had had multiple ultrasounds, MRIs, sonograms, etc. Pretty routine. Painless. Arriving on time and checking in, I overhear a conversation between another woman checking in and the assistant behind the desk. I hear the woman mention my cancer surgeon’s name and wondering if she’ll like her. Apparently, her initial surgeon was not available and so she was being referred to Dr Garrett. MY Dr Garrett. The quirky ex-Army surgeon with a Southern twang who was the first person to tell me she could and would rid me of cancer. I try and put her worries aside by expressing my support for Dr Garrett and give her a bit of my history with her. She smiled in appreciation and relief.
My initial 19 weeks of hard, gut-wrenching, hair-falls-out, chemotherapy did not result in a 100% success. In only about 25-35% of the time it does. So, we talked about radiation therapy as a possible next step for me. Five weeks, every day. Having had a complete mastectomy verses a lumpectomy (whereby just the tumor and the area surrounding it are removed but the breast is conserved for the most part), radiation is not always a recommended treatment. However, most lumpectomy patients do have radiation because most of the breast tissue remains and radiation can help kill any cancer cells that may still be lurking about in the breast tissue. But because I had my entire breast removed (both of them actually), there’s conflicting thought among the medical profession if it’s worth any positive results verses the potential physical damage that radiation can cause. So, after the before mentioned exam, the Radiation gal called the Oncology gal to discuss my next steps. As it turned out, both gals agreed that for me and my triple negative status, the best course of treatment is more chemo - 18 more weeks of chemo - if I was willing. And I am willing. But before the Radiologist let me go, she sent me over to Sibley’s Imagining Center for an ultrasound, where they could see the area in question -the area she could feel. The images looked benign. But she wanted me to return in a couple of months for a follow up just to be sure.

The radiology tech enters the darkened room and squeezes the warm jelly on my chest. She turns the screen towards me, sensing my interest. She rolls the ultrasound-thingy on my chest through the jelly. Now, I can see her hand move and I see images change on the screen, but I can’t feel anything. My chest remains numb since surgery and may stay that way, or so I’m told. In any case, it’s a weird sensation. She finds the “12 o’clock position of the area in question and takes a picture, then the 1 o’clock position takes a picture, working her way around the area taking a picture at all twelve clock positions. I watch on the screen, looking for what I’m not sure. But hoping it’s nothing.

Still feeling ok and “in control of a familiar situation”, the tech finishes and tells me she’s going to send the images to the radiologist and I need to try and relax as it may take some time for her to review. Well, now I’m not feeling so ok. Why couldn’t the tech just tell me it’s all fine, herself? Did she see something she could not identify? Ugg.

After what seems an eternity, the original tech returns and tells me that the doctor will be in shortly to talk to me. Well, that’s it. The already dark room gets even darker. The radio chatter is drowned out by the ugly demonic cancer chatter that so easily fills my head. Jesus, it’s only been three months since my surgery. Could it really return that fast?  I lay on that hard table because sitting up would mean throwing up. I try to focus on my breathing only to find I’m hyperventilating. I try and listen to the sound of my heart only to feel it pounding. After what seems to be perpetuity, the doctor enters the room.  She smiles politely and introduces herself. Didn’t matter, I couldn’t hear anything she said over the pounding and heaving. She asked me “how are you” and I respond with a very honest “that will depend on what you have to tell me” and somehow conjure up a smile.

She walks me through the images and we talk about why I’m back on that table. She takes images of her own and then gently tells me everything looks fine. It was – as everyone thought – swelling from surgery that has now gone away.

Perhaps this is now a “routine” medical visit. Freaking out. Just this close to being in tears. Over nothing. Nothing at all. Everything is fine. I am fine. Keep rooting for me. #Onward