Monday, September 29, 2008

9/29/2008: The Outer Banks

Twenty-foot high white waves crashed into the shore of the Outer Banks. With my feet buried in the sand I felt the cold water engulf my ankles and shoot up my legs. I sucked in air as the icy cold water caused goose bumps to form all the way up my body to my scalp. I watched as the waves would swell into intimidating walls of water and then crash in a spiral of fury with a large rumbling roar. I thought to myself how appropriate that Jennifer should mean white wave. I opened my arms, arched my back and looked to the sky. I embraced the strength and beauty of the ocean in that moment and felt more centered then I have in years. A gust of warm air wrapped itself around my neck and trickled down my back like a sun-lit scarf. A warm tear ran down my cheek.

A seagull limped along the foamy edges of the sand. He had a broken foot that faced backwards which made it difficult for him to walk, so instead he hobbled uncomfortably. He finished sunbathing, lifted both of his feet and soared above the waters break. Despite his deformed foot, he flew with no problems and gracefully dove and spun in delight. He was magnificent.

The recent storms had eroded the beach and left some of the homes on shaky foundation. These homes take so much pounding storm after storm. How many times can they break before they shatter? Instead of throwing their hands in the air and giving up, these home owners placed new foundational beams next to the old one’s and reestablished the base of the home. A new foundation was laid in order to face the next storm.

This was a trip for my family to get away and regroup. We laughed until our bellies hurt chasing our Yorkshire terrier puppy, Abigail around the house. We yelled at the TV and cheered on our Skins as they defeated the Cowboys. We were shocked to find out about the death of Paul Newman and talked about his life over breakfast. We discussed the presidential debates. We reminisced about beach trips in year’s past. We ate amazing food, drank sweet martinis and complained about not getting our bread fast enough. (Well, that last one was just me.) It was just a normal vacation without cancer looming over us. I think my mother said it best, “The glow in your cheeks was not from chemotherapy and radiation … but from Carolina sun.” We will never be the same, but we will move on and embrace that powerful and beautiful white wave, soar high despite a crippled foot and lay a new foundation.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

9/24/2008: Radiation is Over

Multi-vitamin, Aquaphor, Vicodin, L’Oreal day and night cream, vitamin C, emu oil, Ambien, Mary-Kay firming eye cream, protein powder, Aveeno body lotion, Lexapro, Aveeno skin brightening daily scrub, Visine, Pepto, Burt’s Beeswax Balm, organic aloe, Neosporin, Cortizone 10, IBS stomach powder … and occasionally Xanax with a small glass of orange juice with no pulp.

If I were to watch someone else lay out this evening routine night after night, I think I would be concerned that perhaps they are overdosing, or psycho. I suppose I wouldn’t be too far off in my judgment.

I have finished all twenty-eight radiation treatments and now suffer from severe third degree burns on my chest, breast, back and underarm. I am doing everything in my power to ensure that I am healing from the inside and outside. This is my new focus now that treatment is over. My last week of treatment was incredibly intense. I had quarter-sized blisters on top of other blisters that popped and bled. The skin under my armpit burnt and quickly dried causing it to bleed when I moved. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or function, and all the doctors could advise me to do was use my creams and take pain pills. Luckily, the pain has subsiding and my skin is improving. The doctors said it could take 4 to 6 weeks just for the redness to subside.

My plastic surgeon said due to the severity of my radiation reaction, she won’t do my next surgery (swapping the expanders for the permanent implants) until early January. At least the whirlwind slows and I am able to take a breath and enjoy the holidays. I have one more fill to get me fully expanded (scheduled for Oct. 3) and I must say … my cups runneth over. I am really pleased that I had reconstruction done immediately following surgery. I am beginning to embrace my new body and appreciate the work that my plastic surgeon has done.

I head to the Outer Banks next week and I think it will be the perfect time to start working through some of the psychological damage caused by cancer and my bilateral mastectomy. I don’t plan to have it all figured out and packaged up for storage in the life experiences section of my closet, but at least I can start the process and get myself in a better state of mind. If only packing all my medications and lotions was so easy.

Monday, September 15, 2008

9/15/2008: First Haircut

"STOP IT!" My whole body shook and my eyes widened. I wasn't expecting to scream out loud or, for that matter, for my voice to be so high pitched. I sounded like a 12-year-old girl throwing a tantrum because her Mom wouldn't let her go to the mall with her girlfriends. My pulse was racing, the beads of sweat were forming on my nose and cheeks and my ears started ringing. I felt sick to my stomach and dizzy … a panic attack set in. I looked to my left and noticed that the man sitting in the blue Corolla next to me in traffic was staring at me. I managed a smile and envisioned the scene he must be witnessing inside of my car. "Jesus, he must think I am a nut!" I thought. Well, aren't I? Who gets this worked up over something SO stupid!? Ugh. I propped my elbow on the edge of my car window and covered my face with my hand. I tried to convince myself it was to protect my eyes from the sunlight when in actuality I was hiding from the man in the Corolla. Traffic started crawling again and the driver witnessing my tantrum moved ahead of me. Whew.

I arrived at my destination and sat in the waiting room. My stomach was now in my throat and my foot shook intensely making my thigh jiggle under my charcoal-colored dress. The minutes dragged and I sat there thinking of excuses to leave. "I feel sick… or my Mom just called and I need to rush home … or my friend is having a baby … or simply, I just can't do this." I kept ignoring the urges to run for the door and kept myself planted. "You can do this. You can do this." I kept repeating these words over and over in my head. Mandi turned the corner and saw me. Without thinking she ran, grabbed me and squeezed me as hard as she could. "Not too hard!" I yelped and she quickly apologized, calling me Baby Girl and loosened her grip. "I haven't seen you since …" her voice trailed off. "It's just so good to see you. Are you healthy now?"

As soon as we started chatting the fear and anxiety washed away and I was completely at ease. I shared my feelings of reluctance and Mandi quickly sympathized telling me that she has two other cancer patients and can understand. The appointment only took about 45 minutes. Once it was over I stood up and surveyed the floor. I saw my hair laying there in a little 'C' around the base of the chair … and I didn't freak out. I felt nothing. Psychologically, this was a huge feat for me. When I left the other women in the salon were gathered around me, sharing in my story, suggesting I wear large earrings, calling my new haircut "fierce" and even rejoicing in my health and praising God openly. Once again, I survived.

These past few weeks, my family and friends have recounted my story. They remember so many distinct details, both good and bad. I am simply shocked at how my story has affected others, especially those close to me. We will forever be changed. Some of the things I have said and even blogged about surprise me now that I can look back objectively. I cannot believe how completely erratic I was over the silliest of things. I know now that psychologically, I chose to focus on my weight gain, not having a boyfriend, my hair and things that were tangible rather then the fact that I was fighting for my life. I needed to control something and "cancer" was much too big. Now I am focusing on the big picture and trying to come to terms with the whirlwind I have experienced the last eight months. I keep living by my mother's words. She said them the moment I was diagnosed and I will never forget them … "It's going to be okay. We will get through this together."

I have only five more treatments of radiation which means by next Thursday I will be finished. I have second degree burns on my chest and my skin is blistered, peeling and bleeding. Treatment has been excruciating. I noticed yesterday during my radiation treatment that despite working with the same technicians daily, I don't know their names. As that thought crossed my mind, I looked at the woman's nametag. Darlene. Everyday she has been examining my skin, complimenting my shoe collection, pushing and pulling on my body to get it centered under the radiation rays … and all along I have distanced myself. It's not that I am oblivious; it is that I purposely am trying to not get personal. I keep my interaction minimal in hopes of blocking this out of my memory as soon as it is over. I even plug my nose when I put on my layers and layers of skin cream to not recall the smell.

Subconsciously my mind has determined how much I can handle and has created these little barriers to keep me safe. I am amazed at how astonishing my body and mind are. Whether it's getting through my first haircut or separating myself from treatment … I have come to learn that in addition to my spirit, my mind and body are just trying to survive the best way they know how. And you know what? It's going to be okay. We will get through this together.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

9/2/2008: A Day in the Life ...

At happy hour I ordered a mojito from a young, attractive female bartender. She asked for my ID and after reviewing it, handed it back to me and said, "This looks nothing like you." I paused for a moment and said, "I know, right? But this fake ID's been working for years." She gave me a stupid laugh and went to make my drink.

Walking to my car at Reston Hospital after just having had my sixteenth radiation treatment, an old woman parked next to me in a handicap spot was getting something out of her passenger seat. She said, "You sure do walk well in those heels for being handicapped." I unlocked my door and thought for a moment about what she was implying. I turned to face her; she wouldn't look me in the eye. I said, "I have cancer." Still not looking at me, she closed her door and locked it. She started shaking her head back and forth in disgust and said under her breath, "It's a shame they give handicap spots to people who are sick." I refrained from physically hurting the woman. As she wobbled off I said, "You are rude and ignorant. I hope you don't ever have to endure what I did these last seven months." She continued up the path still shaking her head. I choked back the tears as the anger boiled inside my stomach.

Shopping with my mother at Banana Republic we quickly acquired a rockstar sales woman. She continued taking my handfuls of clothes to the dressing room and helped pick out items she thought would look cute on me. I explained that any dress or top with a built in band under the bust would not work for me since I was still under construction and not at my final size yet. As I continued browsing the gorgeous fall clothes, my mom shared with the woman that I had breast cancer. I am not sure exactly what their conversation entailed, but when I turned around the woman looked at me completely different. She asked if she could hug me and I agreed. I could feel her chest convulsing against mine … she was trying not to cry.

At the check out line at Harris Teeter I purchased a ton of fruits and vegetables to start my 10-day detox regimen. The young man scanning my groceries was pimple-faced with a head covered in dread locks. As I was paying for my organic selections the boy asked, "Are you a hippie?" I tried not to laugh and responded as serious as I could with, "Yep, I sure am." He said, "Righteous." I barely held myself together and upon leaving I turned to the boy, threw a peace sign and said "Make love, not war." He responded just as I expected … with a peace sign. Righteous!

Finishing my treatment I clinched the hospital gown at my waist and headed back to the changing room. I hadn't noticed the woman sitting in the chair. She said, "Oh, I was hoping I would get to see you today." This woman (whose name I do not know) has treatment right after me, so sometimes our paths cross. I noticed she wasn't wearing her wig today, although most of us don't when we are being treated. Her blonde, fuzzy hair stood about a half-inch off her head and went beautifully with her porcelain skin and rosy cheeks. She looked at me with such conviction and said, "I want you to know that you gave me the courage to go without my wig today. It's certainly not as long or thick as yours and because it is so light I still look bald." I was stunned and truly touched. I sat down in the chair next to her and said, "I am so proud of you. What happened to us isn't our fault and you shouldn't be ashamed of it. You are absolutely stunning." Her eyes were swelling. I smirked a bit and asked, "Do you know what the best part is? You don't have to worry about the rain messing it up." She laughed and instantly the mood was lightened. The technician came back to get her and we said our goodbyes. I stood in the changing room and cried.