Sunday, March 29, 2015

Truce & Realization

The title isn't as quite as zippy as "truth & reconciliation," but it'll do, it'll do. Which is, in large part, what this post is all about. Ever since the tour through the suburbs of Cancer Town started about five months ago, I've tried my best to look for the good parts; the lessons of kindness and grace that could be learned. In large part, I've had success with that - friends have been unfailingly kind, my medical team has made me feel that we're actually a team instead of me being Chart #17, my family has been just incredible, and even acquaintances and near-strangers have been beacons of support for me and for FryDaddy through all of this.

I can say with honesty that I wish I hadn't had to learn any of it, or at least I wish I hadn't been put into this class. But I can also say that I'm glad I have learned some things along the way. What follows are personal lessons; actual mileage may vary and heaven knows, the contents may have settled during shipping.

My stint of radiation treatment has concluded and I didn't expect/prepare for the aftermath. Even though I'd been told what to expect, I didn't listen. I truly thought that I was different and that while it might take other people a month or more to get back to about 80% energy-wise, well - that wasn't going to be me. Fewmets, I say. I've been out of treatment for a touch over a week and I get tired very easily. It took me about a week to recognize the obvious. (Speaking of which, I passed on Saturday's Color Vibe run - a decision I'm convinced was the right one due to my physical state and the weather that day [clear but quite cold], but a decision I agonized over far more than a sane person would have.) It also helped that FryDaddy said something that actually got through the butcher's block of my head. Yes, he said, it's true that I'm not vomiting or feverish, but I'm recovering from a super-mild case of radiation sickness. Somehow, that term made an impact that nothing else (including his [joking?] threat to go to the vet and get a tranq gun) had made. From that epiphany, a number of others have sprouted, all of which can be summed up with this:

I'm not what I was before the diagnosis but I have the ability to be magnificent in this new skin.

To me, this is completely eye-opening. As I've gotten older, I've struggled with - well, with getting older. I spent much of my growing-up years being the youngest in my crowd - I'm the baby of the family (both immediate and extended) and was the last of my friends to get my license and pass the other markers of teenhood. Also, I read the roles of my family as the pretty one, the athletic one, then me. (Don't bother telling me anything about that isn't accurate; I know it's screwy, but there it is.) Mind you, I never thought I needed plastic surgery to avoid scaring the livestock, but I always saw myself as plain, clumsy, and bookish. (Funny, though. I always thought I was funny.) Over the years, I made peace with that and even modified my opinions a bit, but there's my baseline; that's the skin I lived in.

And now my skin is different. The texture is different and the color is different - the treated area is both burned and peeling at the moment. My overall body is different - due in part to aging and due in part to dramatic changes (read: not the good kind) in the last few months in my diet and exercise habits. Things aren't tight and jiggle-free. My clothes are larger, which I spent a good deal of time hating, feeling that I was "letting myself go." (God, what an awful phrase, as if I need to be tightly controlled at all times instead of inhabiting my own body.) The fact of the matter is that yes, I'm different physically than I was twenty, ten, or even five years ago. I'm not willowy or waifish. I like a good, dense cheesecake and I long for the day when I can tie on my shoes and slowly jobble to the end of my road again, huffing and covered in the honest sweat that comes with exertion.

We had some tree work done over the last few weeks. Now that it's completed, the yard looks different. Messy in some places where leaves weren't raked due to the brush and also sort of raw where the trees and brush are cleared out. I'm looking forward to figuring out what to do with the space, determining what will best grow there and preparing the ground.

You know what? I feel the same way about my body. It's different than it was. In a way, brush has been cleared out and that's left changes on the landscape. And - it's true - I'll never, ever look like I did 20 years ago.

I'm so much better. 

Even on the days when I feel frumpy or tired or overwhelmed or like an impostor. I worked hard to look like this - to be upright and breathing and of at least a reasonable amount of usefulness to others and whether I do that with shiny hair and mascara-ed lashes or mismatched socks and a well-used ballcap jammed over pink hair - well, as Billie Holiday would saucily remind me, ain't nobody's business if I do.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


As in, "How many radiation treatments are left?" That's right - today is Day 3 post-radiation of my DCIS journey. On the final day, FryDaddy came with me to meet my treatment team (who really were just fabulous throughout the entire process) and see me ring the bell that they have for folks on their final day of active treatment. My techs gave me a glowstick necklace to simulate the superpowers that (sadly) never manifested - turns out that comic books lie about that part - and drew a funny picture on me that made the (ahem) affected area look an awful lot like Jeff Dunham's puppet Peanut. And there was, of course, cake and celebration.

So yes - 33 treatments over six-and-a-half weeks have come to an end. (Yay! Cheers! And the crowd goes wild!) I'm not done yet - I have frequent follow-ups and five years of tamoxifen ahead of me, but this endeth the active stage of treatment. It'll take a little while for me to heal from it all - I'm burned and the healing involves itching, peeling and overcoming the fatigue that comes with 33 doses of radiation dangerous enough to the healthy to be delivered in a room that could withstand a nuclear attack - seriously, the door to the treatment room is a good foot-and-a-half thick. Therefore, I'm not planning on doing much beyond my day job for at least the next two weeks (and I hope to do large chunks of that from home). I'm using Easter as my marker. It seems appropriate to use that day of joy and resurrection as my new starting point.

Back before I realized that I was like everybody else, and would therefore have side effects from radiation treatment (seriously, I'm not always the brightest bulb in the chandelier), I signed up for a 5K Color Vibe run with a friend who's never done a 5K before. That seemed like a great thing to do. The Color Run was my first 5K a year ago, it's untimed and tremendous fun, and it was the official "coming out" of my jobbling persona, the Dancing Sloth - I was eager to share that experience. But the event is next weekend and I'm not in any kind of shape for running. Well, that's okay. There will be very little running from this Sloth, but I expect to walk the route and get doused with color and cheer on my friend. No doubt about it, I'm starting my training over pretty much from scratch (and I'm not really starting anything until Easter), but that's okay. I understand things differently now and part of what I understand is that I'm still a runner, even if I haven't run in a while. You have to take time off to heal from injuries, whether those injuries are running-related or not, and by my calculation, cancer treatment counts.

Other changes are also indicated, especially in diet and stress reduction, and these are areas FryDaddy and I plan to work on together. Much work remains to be done but wow! am I glad to be moving forward! Let me once again give a shout-out to everyone, everywhere who's been part of this with us. Whether it was your willingness to wear a colander on your head, whip up dinner for us, tend to the Spookinator, rake the yard, pray, meet for coffee, send cards - the list of kindnesses that let us know that it wasn't just us against the world goes on and on and on and on. And I don't know that I can adequately express how much it all matters. It really, really did - and does! I've learned so much about kindness, compassion, and (weird as it sounds) joy over the last few months and I'm grateful for the lessons, although I still dislike the teacher.

Be kind. Everybody needs it - especially the ones you don't think deserve it.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


I'm pleased to report that I'm on the home stretch! Yesterday was my last "big" radiation treatment and I had my "field check" to mark the area that would be involved in these last eight treatments. These "boost treatments" are more narrowly focused than the previous treatments and focus more on the actual surgical site instead of on the entire breast. The good news (aside from the fact that this means the end is in sight - YAY!!) is that I'll no longer be getting radiation on the area that has been most affected by the radiation. While my side effects haven't been that bad, there has been some burning and irritation, as well as noticeable fatigue. Not exhaustion, mind you - it's not that I can't get out of bed, but it takes a bit longer to do things, running is a pale memory right now, and I conk out by the time television considers "prime." This too shall pass, although it may take the better part of a month post-treatment for me to really feel like myself again.

Of course, the end of radiation treatments is not the end of this whole thing. I'll still have check-ups and there's a medical regime I'll be on for five years. FIVE YEARS. Then again, post-surgical radiation statistically cuts my chances of recurrence in half and following this regime cuts that number in half again, and even I can do that math.

Another one of the common side effects of even a brush with cancer is increased anxiety and boy, did I get that one in spades. Stupid ol' brain just wouldn't settle down and look at reality. Oh, no, it had to spinandspinandspin. Lack of sleep led to more fretfulness over a wide variety of things - my Calvinist work ethic makes me think fatigue is laziness and I should just "buck up." Also, like many academics, I suffer from "impostor syndrome" from time to time, feeling that my writing, ideas, and observations aren't really original and that people are just being kind - ideas like that went into overdrive.

After a few weeks of trying to think my way out of it, I used the common sense God gave geese and made an appointment with my doctor, who patiently informed me that, at this juncture, not feeling normal was - well, normal. So we came up with a plan to work on that issue. Seriously, people - check your headspace. You don't have to feel rainbows & roses constantly (in fact, that's pretty off-the-normal-scale), but you wouldn't "tough it out" with a compound fracture, would you? Same idea. You're worth taking care of, but you have to be willing to do it.

Let me repeat that - you're worth taking care of.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Silver Linings

It was going to be far too easy to make this a very whiny post. However, if I've learned one thing in the last four months through my dealings with Cousin Cancer, it's that attitude really does matter. No, it's not going to turn a horrible diagnosis into a garden party, but I need to sometimes remember that I drew the best draft number available in this war - my diagnosis was made earlyearlyearly and my treatment has (so far) been far more inconvenient than tragic. So let's look at a few weeks of silver linings here.

DOWNSIDE - as you know from my previous post, right as I started radiation treatment (I'm not quite half-way through right now), we had a bad windstorm which knocked a tree down into the fence around the dog pen, scaring all of us (especially the Spookster!) and causing quite a mess. Well, the tree is cut off the fence and we have to have fence work done. To be on the safe side, we had a friend who's a professional arborist (let's call him "Big Tree") come and inspect the rest of those ivy-covered trees. Upshot - wow! Tuesday, we're having about half a dozen trees taken out. So a hefty bill for both tree removal and fence replacement.

UPSIDE - I'd trust Big Tree if he told me to dance counter-clockwise around an oak. He inspected my trees when I first moved into this house - which was nearly ten years ago. (Side note - wow! Ten years!) And trees are beautiful, but less so when they've smashed through your roof and are in your living room. Having one tree come down prompted us to do some "what if?" work, which in the long run, is likely to save us from a much worse scenario than having a couple of bills for tree removal and fence work.

DOWNSIDE - Like all rational people, I hate Carolina ice storms. They aren't especially pretty and they cause havoc for days after the storm itself moves through. We had record low temperatures here over the last few days, which has a tendency to make me move at sloth-pace, so I got a little behind at work. Nothing bad, but we had to re-arrange our weekend a bit. Making plans is a surefire way to make God laugh - yesterday, when it finally warmed up above freezing, FryDaddy and I had to deal with our first (and please, last!) burst water pipe. Sigh.  Huge mess, and a plumbing bill on top of the other expenses.

UPSIDE - Aside from a ten-minute period during which I was a full-scale raving lunatic, we came through this one pretty well. I found the water cut-off under the house without too much trouble, although it took FryDaddy's Hulk-like strength to actually get the valve to turn. We went to my gracious mother-in-law's house for showers and laundry facilities and our faithful plumber (seriously - a great guy!), Piping Hot, had us up and running (water) within three hours. Also, it was an outside pipe leading to the washing machine, so no flooded kitchen. We got the mess dealt with toot-sweet and I just flipped over our first post-broken-pipe load of laundry, so we're all good.

ALSO UPSIDE - Being stuck in the house waiting for the Big Thaw, I moused around one of my favorite Websites and located a Little Free Library near me. (It even has dog treats!) A friend had pointed it out to me, but I couldn't remember exactly where it was - the roads get rather twisty in that area. I dropped off about ten books yesterday and picked up a light chick-lit read. Now that I know where it is (about a mile from the house and again - dog treats!), Spooky and I will visit regularly.

ALSO ALSO UPSIDE - People are kind. Coming home from radiation this week, I stopped by my favorite coffee shop in town and realized that the trees ringing the old courthouse square were festooned with scarves. Seems a local chapter of a women's service organization had done that to provide warm scarves for anyone who needed one in the bitter cold weather.

DOWNSIDE - Radiation treatments five times a week.

UPSIDE - By going to the treatment center, I learned about a great organization in my hometown called "Because We Care" that raises money for cancer patients undergoing treatment to cover the auxiliary costs, such as medications, transportation, utilities, etc. They had a big fundraiser last night and I received two tickets, so FryDaddy and I got ourselves slicked up and went out on the town. It was a New Orleans-themed masquerade party with wonderful food (avoiding the sweets table and the roving trays of beignets was hard, but Lent calls), Mardi Gras style decor, and dancing. Yes, FryDaddy and I danced - a little 80s funk, a little shag (I'm a bit short for him with that, but we still managed to twirl a little), even a touch of contemporary whatever-it-is-the-kids-are-listening-to-these-days.

We had a marvelous time - although our assigned seats were purloined by several women who apparently are still stuck in junior high. Ladies - all the sequins in the world can't cover up that type of ugly. I suppose I should thank them, as we wound up at the table with the band, who were undoubtedly more fun anyway. It was huge fun to dress up and see other people all gussied up - I learned that my college president is a huge Dexter fan (hmm??), his wife goes all out for the Oscars, and my oncologist can well and truly bust a move.

It really is all in how you look at things. And my overarching resolution to "be kinder to myself" seems to be intact and even growing!

Monday, February 2, 2015

Bzzzz - Zap!

I waited until today to post so I could give you the Very Latest. Today was not only Punxsutawney Phil's big day, it also marked the beginning of my six-and-a-half week journey through radiation treatment. Over the last couple of weeks, everything has been done to get me ready for today - sample films were taken, a personally-molded headrest was made, and I've even gotten three teensy "triangulation" tattoos that are used by the radiation techs to make sure that I'm properly aligned for each treatment. After all, radiation is useful stuff, but it's also very strong stuff and you want to focus the beam as narrowly as possible. After all of that, today was actually a little anti-climatic. It's not like Steve Rogers getting bombarded by Vita-Rays and screaming as he transforms from a skinny Brooklyn underdog into Captain America - instead, it's actually a lot of lying still on a VERY hard table while a couple of techs fuss over getting you into position and then a machine moves around you and you hear some buzzing sounds.

Then you're done for the day!

Seriously, I know it's a cumulative thing and that I'm likely to experience some slight sunburn-like effects and some fatigue, but if this is anything to go by, it's not bad. It certainly doesn't hurt (aside from the tattooing, which isn't awful, but definitely stings) and it's fairly quick.

Then I came home to this. It's been very windy here today and a mature, covered-in-ivy pine tree couldn't take it. It smashed down across the back fence of the outdoor pen (if you look hard, you can see bits of the chain link peeking through the branches), no doubt scaring the bejeezus out of Spooky-the-Delightful. We're working on how to get it cut up and removed - it's a BIG tree - and we'll probably have to replace at least the back part of the fence, but no one got hurt. It's solvable.

I'm learning that phrase - "It's solvable" - can be applied to a number of things in my everyday life. I'm still working on my yearly resolution to "be gentle with myself," and I can report some progress in that area. FryDaddy and I are still working the fine details, but if we organize our time and work (and I mean work HARD!) six days a week, we can actually have a real, non-working Sabbath. We've done it for two weeks now and it seems to be something that we both really want to continue. Honestly, it's not easy. We've gotten these great opportunities outside of "regular" work and those involve us coming home and/or starting on those projects extra early in the day, but again, it's solvable and we really enjoy having one day that's ours to do with as we see fit. So we'll keep working at it.

Now, about that tree . . .

Sunday, January 18, 2015

In Praise of Sabbath

Instead of taking on huge resolutions as I did with last year's mania, I boiled things down to their essence this year and resolved to "be kind to myself." (You can read about what that means in this post.) It turns out that this isn't quite as simple as it first appears, but hope springs eternal. My approach to this umbrella goal, which I hope will eventually include changes in my diet, exercise, work, and home habits, is to start slow and go slow, but keep progressing.  With that in mind, since I've last checked in here, I've done three things:

  1. Worked to incorporate waterwaterwater into each day. I hadn't swapped water out for soft drinks; I just wasn't hydrating much at all. Drinking plain ol', life-sustaining water isn't actually that hard once you commit to carrying a water bottle with you everywhere you go. I use a 24 oz. one I picked up at Connemara, which was the home of the magnificent poet Carl Sandburg. It's not that far from where I live and it's well worth the drive (and hey - they have the descendants of his wife's prize-winning dairy goat herd!), but you can, of course, use anything you want. 
  2. Tried to expand my diet by including new foods. I've never been much of one for eggs, so I started with that. They're not expensive, can be fixed in a hundred ways, and are chock-full of nutrition, so it seemed like a sensible starting place. I found a frittata recipe and discovered that adding salsa - YUM! I can make a batch and eat off of it all week, thus guaranteeing to start the day with protein.
  3. I've gotten serious about keeping a "Sabbath day." Traditionally, Sabbath is a rest day, generally used for worship. Denominations get (to go Southern on you) "all tore up" about what day Sabbath should properly be and there can be all sorts of rules and regs about just what's okay to do on that day. I cut through all of that, although I respect the conclusions others come to in that regard. FryDaddy and I talked this one over and what we're striving for is a day during which we do not work, beyond simple household chores. "Simple" being the key here - a load of laundry and making the bed is fine; raking the yard is not. Puttering around with flowers would be fine for me, since I enjoy that, but digging a new flower bed is BSS ("beyond the scope of Sabbath"). If we manage to pull this off consistently, I'll rank it among the highest achievements of my adult life - thanks to electricity and computers, it's far too easy to blur work and home. I have to actually make an effort to NOT check work messages from home and with a new book project, I constantly feel like I should be getting more done. But I've seen the results of regular breaks and I'm determined to do this. In fact, the reason I didn't post yesterday was because it was Sabbath for us this week and blog posts are BSS.

In Very Fetching Hat news, I've been cleared by the oncologist to begin radiation treatments, which will be followed by a five-year course of tamoxifen (that treatment may, of course, be altered once we see how I tolerate the drug). Later this week, I'll go for my "simulation" - I won't actually receive radiation therapy on this visit, but will get measured and prepped and even tattooed so the radiation can be very narrowly targeted. It's actually a fascinating thing - my medical team will now include a physicist! So at the moment, I'm post-surgery, pre-radiation, but this will shift in the next two weeks. It's not as scary as I thought it would be, no doubt due to the marvelous care I've been received and the outpouring of love, concern, and well wishes I continue to receive. I'm interested in making some dietary changes to increase my energy level and keep my mood stable as I go through this next stage and I've gotten some excellent advice on how to do that without totally breaking the bank. (Oddly enough, molasses is strongly suggested.) So it's "Onward Sloth!" at this point!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Looking Forward!

Here it is - the end of 2014. A traditional time to reflect and resolve. I did that this year and - scratch that. What I did was OVERdo that this year! Well, no sense pummeling myself about that. Instead, I've been using that experience as a means to figure out what is to be gleaned from that experience.

Mind you, I had some incredible successes this past year and some wonderful "mountaintop moments," including the publication of Wanna Cook? and seeing FryDaddy complete his graduate studies and come home to live with me and be my love full-time. I reached my goal of competing in a 5K race and, along the way, discovered that I like my version of jobbling. I attended my college reunion and caught up with a number of women who helped form me into the person I turned into. Likewise, I attended the Whedon-based Slayage conference and connected with an amazing circle of scholars who helped shape me professionally. Honestly, it was a very good year in many, many respects.

But the ending needed work. I took on too many challenges, both personally and professionally, and I buckled under the weight of all those obligations. That would have been fine, but I refused to admit that I am not Supergirl and that led to some long, dark nights of the soul. And - oh yeah - cancer diagnosis.* So in some ways it was a pretty lousy year.

Therefore, the key question was what to do, what to do?

Colanders & sloths. It's a thing.
Then I had an epiphany. (Not the Epiphany party I've thrown for years, though. That's one of the things going by the wayside this year as a concession to December's surgery.) I don't want this coming year to be about outside things as much as I want to make it about inside things. Yes, I hope that side effects of that will be a return to healthier habits, but my focus this next year is going to be just on being kinder to myself. As corny as it may sound, the cancer diagnosis, with all its attendant fear, uncertainty, and occasional moments of actual terror, has been a bizarre sort of gift. I've had to slow down. I've had to let others take care of me and no one wanted to hear me apologize for it. I honestly can't list all the kindnesses that have been shown to me during this ordeal, nor can I list all the people who have been so joyous when I had good news to share at different stages of this misadventure.

So - my resolution for 2015 is simple - be kind to myself. Instead of crash dieting and setting checklist and checklist for myself, I want this year to include changes such as:

  • Not eating lunch at my desk while I check e-mail every workday
  • Eating a lunch that consists of real food, not just a meal shake and a granola bar
  • Building breaks into my day instead of having meeting after appointment after conference
  • Making time off a requirement instead of a "wow, wouldn't that be nice?" Seriously, religions that observe a Sabbath are on to something in this regard.

Oh, there's plenty more I'd like to do, but it's a very, very good start that will already require me to make some real changes in order for me to put my own well being at the top of the list in ink instead of tentatively writing my name lightly in pencil at the very bottom of the page.

It sounds so simple, but I think it might be harder than it looks.


*By the way - surgery was a few days before Christmas, which made for an interesting holiday, but I was so glad to get it done! And - calloo, callay! - the pathology report came back excellentwonderful with a report of clean margins on the excised tissue, which translates into "we got it all." You'll hear more about continued treatment for the next few months (radiation is coming and I doubt it gives me superpowers), but things look good, good, great on that front!