Tuesday, January 27, 2009

1/27/2009: Done

I'm done.

It's hard to believe that a year ago at the age of 26 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I have had six surgeries, 18 weeks of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, four heart scans, two PETscans, intense anxiety attacks, vivid nightmares, more blood work than any one person should ever have to get done (how is there even any left?), six implants (and to think – most people are content with two), too many sleepless nights to count, pillowcases soaked with tears, moments of surreal clarity, people moving in and out of my life faster than my hair growing back in and tremendous growth work. This is a journey that shook me to the core, opened my eyes to true love and beauty and changed me forever.

This week is an important one for me. Not only does it mark my one year cancerverary, but I will have my second to last cancer treatment and a PETscan to ensure that I am still "clean" and there is no reoccurrence. (Don't think for a moment that my stomach doesn't turn when I think about the PETscan results.) If my PETscan goes well, then my next surgery will be the first week of March to have my mediport removed since my treatments will be over. I told my oncologist last week that I wanted it out as soon as possible. He responded with a huge smile and said, "You are like no other cancer patient I have ever dealt with. Usually patients want to keep it in until they have a couple of tests and get a little … further out." He said, "I am just in awe of your drive and passion for life." I smiled and said, "If cancer were my boyfriend we would have broken up a long time ago. I'm done."

The phrase "I'm done" has been used a lot in my life lately. I'm done living in the gray -- everything is now falling very clearly into blacks and whites. I described to my friends that I did a little clean sweep of my life and relationships. I took a step back and logically (yes, Steve, I can be logical) and systematically categorized things that were positives and negatives in my life. Those things that I deemed positive I will invest more time in. Those things that were negative that I cannot change, I developed a new way to approach them and those that I could change, I cut. I'm done.

I have made a decision about my reconstruction – I am taking a much needed break. Since my stint in the hospital over the holidays, I had another surgery a couple of weeks ago where my plastic surgeon swapped my implant (again!) and redid my incision since it wasn't closing properly. This means that I was also put on two more weeks of strong antibiotics since I still have an open wound which can get infected easily because of my immune system. Blah! The skin on my left side is having such a difficult time healing where it was radiated. I get my stitches out February 2 and I am praying that this time my skin will cooperate and stay closed. This year I am going to focus on getting my body healthy and giving it some time to heal. In a year, I will then finish my reconstruction and make any necessary "tweaks" to the girls at that time. I have been through so much and am exhausted on all levels. I'm done.

My healing is just beginning. I pulled my wigs out the other day and was prepared to donate them when I broke into tears clutching them to my chest – I am not ready to part with them just yet. They serve as something more than just wigs. I know it sounds ridiculous, but there are a couple of things of that nature that I still need to work through, like eating asparagus again (the smell still makes me violently ill like it did during chemotherapy). I know time heals all wounds, but this little 98 pound body is torn and tattered for fighting for an entire year. I'm done.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

1/3/2009: I'm a Survivor

I was going to write a blog entry about how my holidays sucked because I spent five days in the hospital and then a couple more at my parents house recouping from a horrible infection and yet another surgery -- until last night.

Referring to myself as a survivor and believing that I am a survivor are two totally different things. For the last several weeks (and possibly months) I have been caught up in my very own pity party instead of staying focused and continuing to fight. My priorities shifted and I wanted to pretend like none of this ever happened.

Last night I played a game called "Would You Rather … ?" (Seriously fun game!) and when my friends all responded differently then I did to a question, I immediately knew why. I was asked if I would rather die in an airplane crash or survive and eat the dead passengers. I immediately answered that I would eat the dead passengers despite my other friends agreeing that they would all rather die. My argument was that I have fought too hard and would do whatever it took to survive. (A bit of a stretch? Eh. Would I really eat a dead person? I don't know … maybe. After all, my mom insists that I look like a vampire now that my blood count is low, my skin is pale and my hair is coal black. This is just another reason why Edward Cullen and I should get married. Sorry, I digressed. Am I a little mentally unstable? Perhaps. But I found my own response quite interesting.) These last couple of days have tried me to my core and the sassy spirit I once had has returned. Cancer picked the wrong bitch.

Let me explain what happened over Christmas. I awoke Christmas morning at my parents' house in horrible pain. I figured perhaps I overdid it at Pilates or yoga that week, or that the gifts were too heavy that I carried down three flights of stairs at my condo complex. I popped two Vicodin and went into the bathroom to survey the damage. My left breast was swollen to my collarbone and was the size of a soccer ball. My skin was severely black and blue. After opening presents and eating breakfast I returned to bed and slept in to the afternoon. I couldn't even wear the outfit I brought because of the swelling. After dinner I asked my Mom to take my temperature, which registered twice at 102. I called Dr. Wendy Gottlieb (my plastic surgeon) who was on holiday in Pennsylvania. She asked a number of questions and then told me to go immediately to the ER. It only made sense that my family end our year the same way we began it … at Reston Hospital with our hearts in our throats.

The doctor in the ER examined me and quickly pointed to my belly button ring indicating that he had found the problem. (We all had a much-needed giggle.) After showering me with compliments about how beautiful my eyes are and how gorgeous he thinks I am he began running all the necessary tests – blood, urine, ultrasound, x-ray, swab of my nose and breast incision … everything but the colonoscopy. (Darn -- perhaps next time.) My blood work came back with my white cells elevated, and low iron (hence the pale skin) and potassium. The ER doctor called Dr. Gottlieb and they decided to start hitting me with the strongest antibiotics they had in hopes that the left breast would react positively. I was admitted into the hospital and told that I may lose my breast for the second time. I was seething inside, but too sick to even complain.

I spent several days bleeding out of my incision and getting pumped with antibiotics through my IV. I barely had enough energy to lift my head. Dr. Felice who is the head of the oncology practice at Reston visited me daily with magic tricks to lift my spirits. I quickly fell for him. My room was constantly occupied by friends and family … and always my Rock (Mom) who never left my side. It was that Saturday that Dr. Gottlieb called me and told me she was returning from vacation to "sort me out." Upon her arrival, she quickly examined me and determined that she needed to "go in, clean things out, and swap the implant." That night I went to bed and with plenty of Vicodin in my system had a conversation with my body, which unbeknownst to me, my mother overheard. I promised my body that I would fight hard and take good care of it if it could just kick into gear and help me out. I can only do so much from the mind, heart and soul – sometimes you need the body to play a part.

Sunday I was in surgery. A bleeder was found with a large hematoma. It was removed, cleaned up and a brand new implant was put in place. It wasn't until 48 hours later, and watching plenty of 'SpongeBob Squarepants' and 'House,' that we found out that the hematoma had group b strep inside of it. Luckily the infection had not moved to my blood stream or anywhere else in my body or breast. My parents left the room after receiving the news and cried in the hallway with my nurses. (I don't think they thought I knew.) I was finally released on 12/30 with pain pills, iron pills, a strong antibiotic – the list goes on. I spent several days at my parents house recouping. The last night I was there I awoke to our little Yorkshire terrier sleeping on my belly with her head resting in my cleavage. (It pleases me that someone is enjoying the fruits of Dr. Gottlieb's labor.)

Now, I am not out of the woods just yet. I have two weeks of strong antibiotics, four weeks of no physical activity and my blood will be tested again at the end of the month. My blood count being bad leaves me open to more infection and even the return of the big C. It is imperative that I get my body strong and back on track. I am on lots of pills (gag!) and eating tons of greens and red meat. I saw Dr. Gottlieb this past Friday and she said that my recovery is simply incredible from a cosmetic standpoint. She reminded me how bad my blood work was and that I need to fight hard now to get strong so that I don't have to lose my breast for a third time.

In my most vulnerable hour I asked my friend JB for the humor in all of this and his response just about sums it all up … "Well, here's the humor. You get laid off and then hired but then you get dumped but then you find independence but then you get cancer and lose a boob but then you get new boobs but then you get sick but soon you'll get better." Life goes on and I can only fight for a healthier and stronger new year. Just know that if we're in a plane crash and you die … I will eat you. I'm a survivor!