Archive | November, 2011

Dating with breast cancer

22 Nov

A few weeks back, I published a story for MSNBC/Today called The Cancer Kiss-Off:  Getting dumped after diagnosis, prompted by some interesting research, some killer anecdotes and my own personal experience.

Now while it’s true that a study conducted by a handful of researchers, including Dr. Marc Chamberlain of Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, did find that women diagnosed with cancer or MS are six times more likely to be separated than a man diagnosed with the same disease (as Chamberlain put it, “there was a disproportionate number of partner abandonments in female patients.”)

And while it’s also true that the fledging relationship I was in imploded shortly after my breast cancer diagnosis (oddly enough, after months of silence, the guy actually called to apologize for ditching me the very night before my Cancer Kiss-Off story went live – weird!), I don’t think breast cancer and broken hearts are a natural pairing, unless of course you’re married to Newt Gingrich.

Sometimes, the cancer diagnosis is just the straw that breaks Cupid’s already bowed back. Other times, a woman diagnosed with breast cancer may decide that life’s too short and staying in an unhappy and unhealthy relationship with an unsupportive partner is far worse than fighting this crappy disease alone.

Whatever the case, some of us with breast cancer eventually find ourselves Out There. And according to the women (and men) I talked to for a recent story I did for Match.com’s online magazine Happen, it’s not really that bad, especially if you have the right attitude.

And according to Gina Maisano, author of Intimacy After Breast Cancer, attitude is everything when it comes to dating — especially for women dealing with breast cancer.

“You can look at yourself as damaged goods or you can look at yourself as the strongest superhero on the planet,” Masaino says in my new story. “Surviving the words ‘You have cancer’ is enough to win a medal of honor. But to come out standing strong and moving forward with your life instead of living in a closet, that’s a powerful woman — and you should be proud of yourself.”

I’ve certainly been trying to give the whole dating with BC thing a go and have found it to be a mixed bag. Some guys completely get what you’ve been through and think of you as a cross between The Big C’s Laura Linney and Xena, the Cancer Warrior Princess. Other would just as soon steer the conversation back to their own fascinating challenges, like learning how to fly fish (yep, been there, suffered through that). Still others want to talk exclusively about reconstruction, as in when are you getting your new boobs and just how big are these boobs going to be. Sigh.

The bottom line is people are people and just because you’re an official card-carrying member of the Cancer Club, it doesn’t mean they’re going to act any better or worse than they normally would. That’s what makes life so fun and interesting and, yes, infuriating, at times. But you have to admit, it’s not boring. And that, my friends, is something.

So have you done any dating since your diagnosis? Have you, like me, actually tried to date through chemotherapy and radiation? If so, I’d love to hear about it. In the meantime, feel free to read about some inspiring success stories in my latest piece, Dating with Breast Cancer.  

Welcome to Limbo Land

17 Nov

“I have a port,” I tell the woman at the front desk of the Cancertown lab, feeling a bit like a character in a spy novel.

“And I have a fine Madeira,” I imagine her replying while surreptitiously handing me some microfilm.

Instead, she tells me to take a seat where I wait dutifully until an oncology nurse fetches me. It’s my first post-treatment check-up and as with all my doctor’s appointments, bloodletting is the first order of business, something easily and efficiently accomplished via the port buried in my skin under my right clavicle.

After leading me back to a small curtained booth, the oncology nurse first flushes the port (instantly filling my mouth and nose with the smell of Liquid Hospital) then begins taking blood, chatting all the while about her twin sister, a radiation oncologist in another city (“She’s Beam-O and I’m Chemo,” she tells me. “Beam-O and Chemo, get it?”).

After she has what she needs, I go back to the main lobby and loiter until yet another oncology nurse comes out and escorts me into the inner sanctum, where I’m weighed, cuffed (blood pressure not hand) and asked questions about everything from my sex life to my bowel movements.

“I’m a little nervous,” I tell her, after the Q & A is over. “This is my first post-treatment appointment and I don’t really know what to expect.”

I’m lying, of course. What I expect is that my oncologist will take one look at me and hand me a Get Out of Cancer Free card. Or maybe a diploma or certificate or testimonial like the Wizard of Oz gave the Tin Woodsman. I’d be equally happy with a report card stating that I’ve just graduated from Cancer U with all A’s (pending my extra credit Reconstruction homework). I want something, though. Something that confirms that the boob loss, the bone pain, the radiation burns and the hair loss — god, the hair loss! — have all been worth it. That I’ve kicked cancer’s ass. That I’m done.

 The look on the nurse’s face indicates that some of these expectations have been spoken aloud. Which is when I start to get the feeling I’m not going to be told “Good job, well done.” In fact, the look on her face makes me wonder if there is such a thing as done.

 “The doctor will be in in a minute,” she says, getting up. “She’ll explain everything.”

A couple of minutes later, my oncologist opens the door and we chitchat until I can’t take it any longer.

“So am I cancer-free or what?” I ask. “Am I cured?”

“We don’t really use the C-word around here,” she says, speaking slowly, like you would to a person with a recent head injury. “You remember when we talked about recurrence? When we went over the statistics?”

I remember. The chemo cocktail I chose — taxotere and cytoxan — offered a recurrence rate of 12%. The other cocktail, the one that contained adriamycin (aka the Red Devil) had a smaller recurrence rate (10%), but upped your risk of heart disease. And as they say in Skagit Valley (where I grew up), my family has bad tickers up the ying yang.

“Some of the breast cancer survivors I talk to on Twitter have mentioned something called NED,” I push. ‘”That whole no evidence of disease thing. Can I at least get an NED?”

She sighs.

“You’re low-risk,” she says at last. “I have other patients I’m a lot more concerned about. But really, what you need to do right now is just focus on healing. You have a lot of emotional healing to do.”

She then starts to tell me the lay of the land. I don’t know it at the time, but the country she describes has a name. Limbo Land.

I listen as she talk about how I’ll be coming in every three months for what sounds like the rest of my life. Just like today, they’ll take my blood to look for tumor markers and such. My job will be to tell her if I develop a weird persistent pain. Or become short of breath. Or start coughing a lot.

Metastatic breast cancer, I know, occurs most often in the brain, the bones, the liver and the lungs. (I’d memorized this my first day of cancer class.)

“Your test results will be back tomorrow,” she says, after spending a few minutes checking out my glowing red chest. “I’ll call you when they come in.”

“Okay,” I say, wiping my eyes. Somewhere during the exam, I’d started crying. I always do when reconstruction comes up. Apparently, I’m still mourning the loss of my girls. And praying that I’ll be able to salvage what’s left of them (i.e., my left nipple and skin) although I’m in Limbo Land there, too. I have no idea if my irradiated skin will hold a tissue expander and implant or if I’ll have to have a series of surgeries to build a new left boob. This will be determined by another doctor, another time.

Right now, though, it’s time to leave. Sans diploma.

I blow my nose and get dressed and make my next follow-up appointment with the receptionist out front. Then I lurch out of the office, trying to remember the important things that were said, only half of which I managed to write down, as usual.  Once I get back to my neighborhood, I duck into my favorite watering hole and practice coping mechanisms for a couple of hours. Then I go home and try my best to keep my head from exploding.

The next morning, my doctor calls and tells me my white cell count looks great. Ditto for the tumor markers.

“They were 12,” she says. “Anything under 40 is normal.”

I thank her giddily (good news, at last!) and try to hang up but she has more to share. Apparently, she’s reviewed my file and noticed that my CT scan from last March showed something funky on one of my lungs.

“You have a 4 millimeter lung nodule,” she says. “It’s probably just scar tissue but I’m going to have you come back for a CT scan in March.”

Okay, I say and put down the phone.

I was hoping for a testimonial. A report card full of A’s. A certificate I could hang on my wall, telling me that this cancer crap was history. That it was all over. That I’d won and was done. Instead, I got a lung nodule and a cold hard glimpse at my future, a future filled with quarterly blood draws and anxiously awaited test results. A future pungent with the aroma of Liquid Hospital and hot fear. A long, endless mindfuck of a future as comfortless and abrasive as the discount tissue dutifully stocked in each and every exam room.

I’d fought my way through surgery and chemo and radiation to get to the other side. But there was no other side, I realized now. There was only Limbo Land, where there were no answers, no gold stars, no C-word (at least not the one my oncologist was referring to) —  not for a very long time.

I stare at the phone thinking about how much I already hate this place, especially the sneaky way it came up behind me, squelching my breathless triumphs with a fat spiteful thumb.

And then I smile. Because it doesn’t matter whether I like this place or not, just like it didn’t matter whether I liked surgery or chemo or radiation or any of the other crap I’ve endured and overcome these last ten months.

Because I’m going to kick Limbo Land’s sorry ass.  I am.  And then I’m coming back for my goddamned diploma.

Just doing a little housekeeping

12 Nov

As Dorothy Parker put it (on her headstone), please pardon my dust.  Just spent the last hour or so bringing all of my breast cancer-related posts over from Single Shot Seattle to DoubleWhammied.com. Apologies to any and all subscribers who may be wondering if I’ve had too much coffee this morning or what. (Hey, I’m a fast writer at times, but nobody’s that fast!).

Anyway, I’d love to bring the comments over, as well, but I’m not sure if I have the WordPress savvy to accomplish that. At least not this morning (at the moment, I’ve got about an hour to shower, wrap my nephew’s birthday gifts and then hoof it to tap dance class).

Thanks so much to those of you who subscribed to my new blog during its first few hours (my baby’s already got followers!). Looking forward to chatting with you about all things breast cancer in days, weeks, months to come.

Speaking of which, now that I’m all done with radiation (can I get a hallelujah?), the doctor appointments are starting up again. I’ll be meeting with my oncologist on Monday, who will most likely be checking my blood to see whether I have any white cells left at all. And perhaps weigh in on the condition of my skin. After that, I’ll start meeting with my plastic surgeon to discuss my reconstruction options (am praying I have some).

For those interested, my lobster red chest is much better since it’s had a couple of weeks off from the EZ-bake oven (i.e., my daily radiation treatments inside a tomography machine). In fact, I actually went out in a scoop-neck shirt for the first time in ages last night (I’ve had to wear my V-neck shirts backwards for the past month or so because of the radiation burns). The left breast, which continued to get a “boost” of radiation the last week, still looks like somebody ironed it on high. But I’m hoping the skin will return to normal soon, especially the nipple which for some reason has started to lighten (am hoping I don’t have to use a Magic Marker from now on to even ’em up).

Anyway, that’s probably enough boob talk for one morning (hell, it’s probably enough boob talk for a month).  Take care everybody and thanks, as always, for reading!

Burn, witch, burn

12 Nov

Originally published November 3, 2011 on SingleShotSeattle.wordpress.com

I don’t know if it’s the Halloween season or the fact that I’m currently going through radiation treatment (burn, baby, burn, radiation inferno!), but I’ve been feeling a lot like a witch in one of those old Vincent Price movies lately. You know, the ones that feature a variety of tortures for women accused of witchcraft. Or maybe they’re just accused of being women. Or single. It’s hard to keep all that straight.

Anyway, the bottom line is, it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between breast cancer treatment and torture.

When I was diagnosed back in February, one of the first things I learned was that I was going to lose my breasts, i.e., in order to get rid of the cancer, they had to take away the most symbolically female parts of my body. Presto chango — no more boobs. If that doesn’t sound like something straight out of the Spanish Inquisition, I don’t know what does.

After that, there was more “good” news. The surgery showed that my tumors qualified me for additional treatment, i.e., chemo and radiation. For those unfamiliar with chemotherapy, it’s basically a concoction of poisons that are pumped into your body through a port.  In my case, the port was surgically placed just under my right clavicle (where it still resides to allow easy access to my blood), a walnut-shaped lump that reminds me at times of an alien eyeball.

A third eye, if you will. Very witchy.

One of the worst side effects of chemo (at least for breast cancer patients) is complete and total hair loss. In other words, you’re shorn of your womanly locks, your crowning glory. That fabulous blonde stuff you flick over your shoulder and fluff whenever an interesting man comes into view suddenly starts to come out by the handful. Just as in the good old days of stocks and imaginary spells that supposedly caused some farmer’s milk cow to dry up, you’re robbed of yet another symbol of your womanhood. (You’re also robbed of your strength, your appetite, your dignity and so many other things during chemo, but we’ll save that for another time).

Losing your hair is the worst, though, probably because for a woman, losing your hair means you’re being punished. You’re a witch, a Nazi sympathizer, a prisoner. As Wikipedia puts it, “prisoners commonly have their heads shaven, often ostensibly to prevent the spread of lice, but clearly also as a demeaning measure.”

Head shaving, it goes on, “can be a punishment prescribed in law, but also something done as ‘mob justice’ – a stark example of which was the thousands of European women who had their heads shaved in front of cheering crowds in the wake of World War II, as punishment for associating with occupying Nazis during the war.”

In other words, when you lose your hair as a woman — not when you shave it yourself during that bad punk rock phase — but when it’s taken away from you without your consent, it ain’t good.  

But wait — there’s more.

After that, the witch — excuse me, the breast cancer patient — is burned. Not at the stake, mind  you, but in the bowels of some type of radiation machine. In my case, a new tomography wonder that my professional and attentive rad techs refer to as Tina.  It’s all very clean and technologically impressive. The treatment I receive at their hands is friendly and, yes, even comforting. But the machine still burns you, causing your skin to redden and blister and peel and throb so much that it takes your breath away at times. Sometimes, it causes the skin to harden enough that reconstruction becomes impossible. Or requires additional torture … er, surgery … to achieve.

Again, maybe it’s just the Halloween season. Or the fact that I’m in the last few days of my treatment and I’ve reached critical mass. Who knows, maybe I have a gigantic plastic bug up my ass.

I know that I have a vivid imagination. I know that the people who are treating me are not trying to hurt me, but get rid of this horrific disease so I can live a long and happy life. I know that researchers are desperately trying to come up with better solutions — solutions that don’t require this kind of torture — each and every day. But truly, I can’t help but wonder what the frigging hold-up is. Or whether this tortuous treatment for breast cancer is somehow considered acceptable. Because, after all, we’re just women. And women have been taking this kind of shit for hundreds of years.

But this particular woman — who happens to be feeling particularly witchy (and yes, even bitchy) this particular night — would just like to say, one thing.

I’ve had it. Seriously. I’m done.

In fact, if I have to take any more of this crap, I may just break down and turn somebody into a frog.

Cancerspeak: the good, the bad, the you gotta be kidding me!

12 Nov

Originally published October 28, 2011 on SingleShotSeattle.wordpress.com

My latest (and perhaps last) essay about life with breast cancer went live this morning on Today/MSNBC.com.   Here’s how it starts:

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I was a wreck.  I tried my best to keep it together, to keep a muzzle on my hyperactive mouth, but inevitably some highly inappropriate comment would come tumbling out.

“Would you like paper or plastic?” a grocery clerk would ask.

“I have breast cancer,” I’d answer. “They found three masses and now they’re saying the masses are tumors and that I have to have a double mastectomy. I didn’t even know how to pronounce mastectomy until this happened! Oh … uh … paper would be great.”

After awhile, though, I didn’t have to worry so much about the inappropriate things I was saying because others were coming up with their own questionable cancerspeak.

Don’t get me wrong. My friends and family (and even a few kind strangers) have been there for me 100 percent — bringing by meals and flowers and homemade pies; taking me for walks and checking in to see how my 173 doctors’ appointments went that week.

It’s just that getting sideswiped by cancer — not to mention spending all of your time thinking and talking and waiting for test results about cancer — can make a body oversensitive.

Not to mention testy.

I certainly was the first time somebody made the mistake of wishing me well on my “journey.”

My journey? I wanted to yell at them. I’ve got breast cancer. I’m not going to Acapulco!

To read the rest, click here. To share your own stories of Breast Cancer Comments Gone Wild, send me a note!

Cinderella after the ball

12 Nov

Originally published October 28, 2011 on SingleShotSeattle.wordpress.com

I went out the other night with some friends. We went to hear a swing/lounge type act  and because my girlfriend is glamorous and loves to dress up (much as I do), I put on the dog. Nothing too fancy, mind you, but simple and classic:  black pencil skirt, black V-neck shirt worn backwards to hide my radiation burns and a vintage cream sweater with a fur collar (a gift from a sister, who works in antiques).

Plus fishnets and black patent leather platforms.  Plus fake boobs. Plus a wig. Plus powdered on eyebrows, etc., etc.

And I had a lovely time. Probably drank a little too much (i.e., one and a half martinis), but then I’m in my sixth week of radiation and alcohol helps take the edge off the pain. Right now, my chest – especially the V of my neck — is lobster red and aches and itches and throbs all the time. One of my armpits is also deepening from a lovely tan to a dark brownish red and I’m starting to go about with my left arm a bit crooked all the time, as if I’m a pirate. Or just feeling rather jaunty.

I guess you could say I was feeling jaunty the other night. Loved the music. Loved my friends. Loved the venue, although considering the talent,  it should have been packed (Hey Seattle, what gives?). After the band shut down, I got a lift home from my buds, then got a phone call and spent some time with a recent suitor. Nothing too scandalous. We sat in his car outside my building talking … for the most part. It was a lovely night, a tipsy night, and thankfully, a night when I was able to  forget for five minutes the cancer and the daily radiation blasts and the fact that I’m bald and that my chest looks like somebody dropped a piano on it.

At some point (midnight, perhaps?), I left my suitor in the car and hurried upstairs. Where I took off my wig to reveal my ashy gray stubble. And stripped down to my skivvies, unveiling my flattened red chest. Then I put on a camisole, nothing too fancy since I have to grease up every night with special Eucerin cream that’s made for burn victims. Days back, I’d mistakenly used some of the cream – or my other standby, castor oil – with a lovely black satin nightgown and it had loosened the dye from the cloth so I woke to black smudges all over my sheets. As if I’d cleaned a chimney before bed.

This night,  I looked into the mirror at the end of it all and the glamorous blonde from earlier that evening was gone.  Disappeared — as if by magic. No sexy black silhouette, no halo of blonde hair. No hair at all, except for the wig perched on a white foam head on my dresser. I was the ash and cinder girl again. Complete with chimney stains on her bed sheets.

In some ways, it feels Grimm. In some ways, it feels grim. But for the most part, it feels like my life. And on nights like this, it ain’t no fairy tale.

Love in the time of chemotherapy

12 Nov

Originally published October 21, 2011 on SingleShotSeattle.wordpress.com

My second personal essay on breast cancer, Love in the Time of Chemotherapy, went live this morning on Today/MSNBC and yet again, I’m wondering if I’ve done something completely stupid, self-sabotaging, or — who knows — slightly inspirational. Here’s how it starts:

Call me crazy, but I went on a date two weeks after my double mastectomy.

It was also my first social outing since the surgery, not counting the shambling walks around my neighborhood or the sobering follow-ups with my doc who told me I needed both chemo and radiation since my cancer had been upgraded from Stage 1 to what I called Stage WTF.

The date — a double date, to be specific — was with some married friends and a buddy of theirs. It was very casual, which was good since I was still wearing my surgical drains (stuffed down the front of my pants at this point) and was about as prepared to hold a conversation with an eligible man as I was to walk on the moon.

Thanks to the painkillers, half the time I thought I was on the moon.

To read the rest, click here.

From the online comments so far, it appears that the essay seems to have provided a little humor and inspiration for people (particularly people who’ve gone through something similar) although my guess is the trolls will be waking up shortly and sharpening their knives (and keyboards) for the kill.

Needless to say, I’m feeling slightly exposed.

Not so much because of the essay itself but because of the before-and-after photo shoot that accompanied it. I normally don’t go out of my apartment — or even down to the basement to do my laundry — without makeup and hair. Granted, I do go “commando” (sans wig) when I run, but I wear a baseball hat and sunglasses and figure as long as I keep moving, no one’s going to recognize me. (Of course, the first time I ran without hair, one woman in my ‘hood did the whole sunglasses-pull-down-open-jawed-gape. Nice!)

Anyway, I’d love to discuss the difficulty of “coming out” to a national audience (not to mention every single man within a 1,000-mile radius) at some point, but need to leave that for another day. Right now, I’ve got a deadline looming and a radiation treatment awaiting me in just six short hours. Burn, baby, burn – radiation inferno!  (I’ve been trying to come up with soundtrack to encapsulate each phase of treatment. Hey, you do what you can.)

Again, thanks for all your support, kind words and interest in my writing.  And Enchilada01, if you’re reading this, thanks for the offer of the date! I’ll give it some thought. ; )