Eating an apple

I’ve been content lately. I didn’t work for it, or do anything special. It just settled over me like a blanket.

I really do love my life.

My life has plenty of work to do. There are bungee cords securing the trash can so Cleo doesn’t raid it. My Toyota has 245,000 miles on it and spends more time in the shop than it does with me. My knee hurts when I walk and will probably never be right. I check my bank account every day to see if I can afford lunch.

It’s O.K. I’m happy.

I was sitting in the front lobby at work the other day, eating an apple, watching the setting sun bathe the parking lot.

A very kind woman from the marketing department walked through the empty lobby and greeted me.

“What are you doing up here by yourself?” she asked.

“I’m eating an apple. Watching the sunset,” I said.

She smiled and we talked for a bit. I like her. When I got back from my weeks of cancer treatment, she walked over to my desk and said to me “You haven’t missed a step,” and there was something authentic in her eyes that I liked.

She couldn’t have given me a higher compliment.

I don’t want to miss a step. Not one. I don’t want to miss one crunchy bite of this life.

The apple break was between my regular shift and an overtime shift I worked  that night. I  wound up at the scene of man barricaded in his house. I ate a chicken sandwich in my car while I waited for something to happen. I raced back to the office, wrote about a peaceful resolution to the barricade (the man calmed down), then wrote about a power outage.

I came home, settled in my soft recliner, and watched the rest of “Project Runway.” On the way home, I slid open the roof on my Toyota so I could see the spray of stars and the slice of moon.

I settled into the covers that night with Jackie’s warm body in the crook of my arm and Winston in the crook of my knee. Jasmine snored at the end of the bed. Cleo and Mr. Stinkee were curled in their own beds, and I felt peace.

When I drive to work in the morning, I love the bright roll of the sea that I pass. It’s as if the waves are greeting me. I’m happy to see my friends at work, anticipating the surprise the day will bring. What I missed realizing before being widowed and having cancer is that no day is ever, ever the same. It’s a gift all of us have every single day.

I’m engaged in my life, the serious and the silly, and I love it. My friends are funny and fascinating, and they’re all over the United States. I love writing, reading, walking, thinking, and always, always, the people around me, whether I know them or not.

The joy crept in about two weeks ago. I don’t know how or why, but it did, and it has stayed.

I don’t know how long I will live. I don’t know if this cancer will come back, but I’m not afraid anymore. Losing Dennis and facing my mortality has afforded me something I’ve pursued for so long. I am living. Really living.

 

 

 

 

Done

I turned off the car radio and talked to Dennis on my way to the very last of my radiation treatments.

“I’m older  now,” I told him. “I’m going into the second half of my life without you, health problems and all.

“I had hoped we would face these things together, but I guess not….I sure do miss you.”

I drove along in silence for a while. I pulled up into the cancer center parking lot.

One breast cancer survivor in my online support group calls it “Groundhog Day.”

For the 35th time, I waved to the receptionists.

“Hey Rafael. Hey Brenda.”

For the 35th time, I went to the women’s dressing room. Dressing Room One, and moved through the routine. Gown, slip locker key over wrist, sit in waiting room.

“Hey, Kim! C’mon back,” Rebecca the radiation tech called.

She and another tech, Ryan, joined me in a little graduation dance. We did a butt shimmy and Ryan and I sang a spontaneous song that made no sense, just as we always do.

“It’s my last day, yay, yay, yay, yay!”

“I’m going to miss you,” Rebecca the rad tech said, positioning me onto the board under the machine.

I lay there, heard the familiar buzz of the radiation, then silence. Her voice came over the intercom in the lead-lined room.

“You’re done!”

I’m done.

The gown I would wear for treatments. And the aloe vera I would slather on after each zap.

A November victory

Election Day 2012 will be historic. It’s a close race and nobody knows whether it will be President Obama or Governor Romney who wins the White House.

November 6 will be historic for me in a much humbler way. Tomorrow marks the last of my 35 radiation treatments. I will have to heal the areas on my breast are swollen, burning and weeping, but after I get off the table tomorrow, I will be done.

They’ll take the label off my locker at the cancer center. I won’t have to show up day after day after day, park, enter the sliding glass doors, and go to the back of the radiation lab. I will no longer have to enter the dressing room, remove my blouse, and shrug into the cotton gown.

I will no longer have to lie down and bare my skin to the circling, buzzing machines throwing green grids across my breast.

Next to losing Dennis, this has been the most difficult time of my life. The relentless fear and uncertainty. Constantly waiting for tests and results that would set the trajectory for the rest of the treatment–the rest of my life.

How big is the tumor? Has it spread to my lymph nodes? Will I need a mastectomy? Will I need chemotherapy? Is my CT scan clear? Is my PET scan clear? What stage is it? Is it fed by hormones? How bad will be burns get?

The exhaustion, the pain, and the one uncertainty that will follow me the rest of my life.

Will it come back?

Just as I must live without Dennis, I must live with this.

Tomorrow, after I leave the cancer treatment center, I will go cast my vote.

I don’t know who will win the election, but tomorrow for me, there is a guaranteed victory.

Halloween 2012

Another Halloween without Dennis.

No, it does not get easier. I thought it would, but it doesn’t.

His ashes on are still the mantle, right next to the WalMart light-up Halloween pumpkin we inherited from his mom. The $5 price tag is still on the box.

His mom pulled it out every year and stuck it in the window.

“Eh, I don’t want to carve a pumpkin,” she would grouse.

Dennis would have loved the choreography I had to arrange tonight in order to accommodate Trick or Treaters.

I had to confine all the whining, crying dogs in the garage. They barked all night.

It hurts to wear anything on the blazing, peeling boob so when the doorbell rang, I would whip on one of Dennis’ loose T-shirts and mince to the door, trying to minimize any boob sway. (My bras don’t fit over UberBoob right now.)

Just in case an alarmed Trick or Treater asked about my costume, I had my answer ready:

“I’m Honey Boo Boo’s mom.”

Twenty-nine down, six to go

I was depressed and worried this weekend. The burns hurt to the point that I couldn’t sleep. When I shifted my body, the skin would pull and it would hurt.  I couldn’t lie on my stomach because my breast is too swollen and painful.

I took a lot of Advil.

A swath of skin from my underarm to my collarbone and all across the left breast is tomato-red, with some stretches of open, weeping swamps. The radiated breast is very warm to the touch.

And I was tired. So tired.

It’s all normal, my oncologist told me, but the skin was suffering so badly, it was possible there would be a break in the treatments to let my skin heal before they could resume. I did not want that. I did not want this dragged out another week while I tried to heal as fast as I could.

I wanted my last treatment on Nov. 6, as scheduled. Election Day, 2012.

So all weekend I soaked the sores in a special saline solution. I winced and sucked in my breath while I smoothed burn medicine on the open areas.

I was liberal with the radiation burn cream. I soaked, I slathered, I slept. Friends asked if there was anything they could do, but there is, of course, nothing.

Today I saw the oncologist. The peeling skin is so grosse, it’s actually gray in color. But he took a look at my underarm, my chest and a few other problem spots and declared that it was healing nicely and we could continue with the treatments.

The area will burn and hurt for about two weeks after the final treatment, but I can handle it. We are killing the cancer and I will be finished on schedule.

On Nov. 6, I will be cooked for the last time, vote, and then go on with a life that has changed too much in the last 16 months.

 

 

My inner drill sergeant

I feel like a weenie.

I am so damn grateful not to have to go through chemo, but I feel, of all things, guilty that I’m not sailing through the radiation with no problem.

It feels neverending. Today I had treatment 20 of 35. There are days I go in to my locker, greet everybody–(because we’re all on a first-name basis by now)—strip from the waist up and shuck the gown over my head. I don’t even untie it anymore. Just slip it on and off over my head.

I am smiling at the technicians as we walk into the zap zone and I lie on the table, but my stomach is tight and I blink fast so I don’t cry. Then I feel stupid for wanting to cry.

The oncology nutritionist told me I’m very tough on myself and I need to ease up, but I just can’t seem to do it. I feel like I need to suck it up. So many women have it so much worse than I do.

I have a friend in the newsroom with breast cancer (I know! Two of us within a month of each other) and she’s got to go through so much more than I do, and she’s younger. So I feel like a drama queen.

I feel bad when I have to nap. I know, intellectually, that my body is telling me to power down so it can repair the damaged cells, but my inner task master just “tsks.”

I feel bad when I don’t have the energy to interact with too many people. Some days, even one person exhausts me. My dad helped me feel better about it the other day. He said he was the same way when he had prostate cancer

“I’m like a dog who needs to curl up in a corner until I get well,” he said. “You are a lot like me that way.”

I’m working on it, but I can’t seem to quiet the drill sergeant in my head telling me “Suck it up, Gregory! Drop and give me 15, you big puss.”

Sir, yes sir. Fifteen more treatments to go.

 

Seventeen down, 18 to go

My chest itches. Itches, itches, itches.

My poor boob is red and burn-y. I slather a Crisco-thick grease on it, then sit there with the fan blowing on it. Yes, I have the window shades drawn.

It’s all I want to do, and that’s O.K. The therapist I’m seeing reminds me to keep saying “no” to anything but healing.

“That’s your one and only job right now,” she said.

My job got a little easier yesterday. The gynecologist called with the results of my MRI. He says we’re just going to watch the fibroids on my uterus right now and go for another MRI in four months. If they haven’t changed in size, we’re going to “blow it off,” to quote him.

I told him I love it when I doctor tells me to blow something off.

The aperture at the end of this tunnel just opened up. I can see light.

Eight down, 27 to go

It’s routine now. I park my dented Camry at the Coastal Communities Cancer Center near the jaguar with the license plates that read: IRAYD8U.

I stride through the sliding glass doors, wave to Rafael at the front desk, then walk back to the women’s waiting room. I greet two women in gowns and scarves who are sitting, waiting, in chairs next to the at-home hospice brochure display.

Once inside Dressing Room Three, I twist open the locker, strip from the waist up and whip the gown over my head .I don’t even tie and untie the back anymore. I loop the key around my wrist and join the women in waiting room.

One woman is older, about 75. The other is in her 30s, the young mother of four. The older woman is smiling weakly. This has been tough on her, I can tell. The young mother looks scared.

“Every morning I cry,” see says. “My husband doesn’t know why I cry.”

All three of us are being treated for breast cancer.

Danielle, the radiation technician who could have enjoyed a career as a supermodel, motions the two women, one by one, back to the radiation room. Then it’s my turn.

Danielle is tall, her nearly-waist-length black hair is secured in a ponytail that cascades down the back of her white coat.

I lie down on a sliding board under the machine. The radiation machine is a movable multi-headed hyrdra. Each head is a manhole cover on mechanical arms. There’s also a couch pillow-sized square that emerges out of the machine and tilts over your body, then shoots out radioactive beams.

“I have to take a second to bore you,” Danielle grins as I lie down on the board and lower my gown to my waist.

She whips out her iPhone and shows me a photo of a toddler with a toothless grin, siting on the floor in a diaper. He is darling.

“That’s my son,” she says.

We discuss cuteness and how fast the days fly by until another tech’s voice comes over the loudspeaker with instructions.

“One-point-two, posterior. Two-point-three, superior.”

She adjusts my hips. I raise my arms and hold onto two upright plastic handles. I hold still. Very still.

“I’ll throw on some music,” Danielle says, and disappears from the room.

The silent green eye glows from the ceiling.

Its a green light that shoots a thin line down onto my breast. I turn my face to the right because it’s bright. Like a star trying to burst.

Other delicate green lines from the right and left of the room create crosshairs over my breast. The lights creep up and down the walls and ceiling like trails of green blood as the manhole covers rotate around me, stop, and whirr.

I stay very still and watch the green lines bleed up and down the walls, and over my breast.

“OK, you can relax now,” Danielle re-enters the room with her ponytail and white coat.

“See you tomorrow,” I tell her.

I will say that 27 more times. And counting.

Waiting

The electric outlet. The rug. A head scarf sitting askew on a see-through plastic head.

I look from one to the other to the other. I’m sitting in the women’s waiting room at the Coastal Communities Cancer Center, waiting for my first radiation treatment. Waiting. Waiting.

I try not to look at the brochures offering home hospice care. Or the plastic head.

Somebody in a white coat walks by in the hall. Disappears into the radiation treatment room. The door shuts.

I wait. I look at a painting of waves of golden grain against a seascape. A painting meant to make us feel more peaceful. But it looks like a lie and I can’t escape into it. I keep waiting.

My friend Katy, who is also dealing with breast cancer, warned me that the waiting is the worst part. She was right. Oh boy, was she right.

The waiting begins with the yearly mammogram. Please, let everything be normal.

After waiting for a day, you hear what no woman wants to hear: “We found something suspicious.”

You wait for the day of the biopsy. Then you wait for the call with the results. The call telling you if it’s cancer.

Every single day since that first call has involved more waiting, with the stakes rising every time. Waiting for one phone call after another that adjust the trajectory of my life.

Waiting for the results of the MRI. Has it spread to the other breast ? The PET scan. Has the cancer spread to the rest of my body?  Waiting for my turn in the blood lab. Waiting in a paper gown. Waiting on a gurney with a needle in my arm.  Waiting for the tests to see if it spread to my lymph nodes. Waiting for the PET scan. Waiting, waiting, waiting.

My mom and friends were waiting out in the lobby as I underwent surgery. For one hour, two, three. They grew more and more anxious.

“It’s just a waiting game, ” the receptionist told my mother. “You just have to wait.’

Our culture has evolved around not having to wait. We hate waiting. We have drive-through food and movies on demand and fast-track tickets at Disneyland. I have deadlines and calls I have to get before 2 p.m. and a guy who washes our cars in the parking lot so we don’t have to wait.

But here, with this, I wait.

Finally a young woman in a white coat named Danielle greets me. She shows me into Dressing Room 3 where I am surprised to see a locker with a printed name on it: “Gregory.”

It is my locker.

“Every weekday for seven weeks, you’ll come in here and change into this, open in the back,” she says, holding up a cloth gown with a sad, faded print. “Lock your purse and blouse in the locker. When you’re through, put your top back on, then leave the gown in the locker. We clean them once a week.”

A medical gown. My gown. A locker in a cancer center. I swallow.

I do as she says, go back to the row of padded chairs, sit and wait. Then I follow another man in a white coat into the radiation treatment room. This will be Treatment Number One, 34 to go.

After the treatment, I return to the locker room, get back into my bra and top, and fold the cloth gown. It will be there for me day after day, waiting.

Ok, done whining

I am so lucky.

I live in a time when we can fight and often cure or at least manage breast cancer. We have mammograms We have an  awareness campaign that is about to begin again in October.

I have compassionate doctors, techs and nurses who go the extra mile, like Dr. Awesome and Dr. UberSmart.

I have faithful friends who accept my thrashing around, not a one of whom I couldn’t call on a moment’s notice to help me with anything and everything.

I live in a postcard. Ventura is warm and peaceful, sunny and scenic.

I have my dogs and kitty. I smile every time I look into their faces or stroke their fur or snuggle up with them.. They get biscuits and a belly scratch and that’s plenty in return.

I was able to keep my house. I have enough money now to make it until I can draw on my 401K at 59 1/2 if I have to.

I have a family and blended family who are all connected and involved. My mom and dad are both 83 and still healthy.

I have a great crew at work who keep me in the loop, and managers who have been understanding.

I live in California, which has a safety net for those of us with unforeseen medical crises. We don’t get dropped into financial oblivion for weeks on end. We have the Family Medical Leave Act.

I have all of you who read the blog, and comment. You are helping like you will never know.

I got a second chance. Dennis did not.

Yes, I am one lucky woman.