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It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to

15 Apr

So I had quite the party last night. There was music, there was wine and there was me, curled up on the couch with a heating pad, an old timey quilt and an ever-diminishing box of chocolate cookies. Yes, as you’ve probably guessed, I was the guest of honor at a good old-fashioned pity party last night, brought to you (or me, rather) by Living with Cancer and My Bad Attitude Productions.  

I’m still not sure what exactly happened or why it decided to happen on what must have been the most gorgeously vibrant spring day in Seattle history. I woke feeling a little under the weather, with fever, chills and a bit of a sore throat and for some reason couldn’t convince myself that going out for a run would be the thing to lift my spirits and clear my head. Instead, I pointedly ignored my running shoes (and the running laptop) and started watching Sex and the City (the movie), which didn’t exactly help my mood. (How could Big do that to Carrie? Why is Carrie reacting like such a dork? And what the hell is with that bird on her head?)

Before I knew it, morning had blended into early afternoon, which then coasted slowly towards late afternoon. And I still hadn’t left the house. I’m not even sure I ate anything, although I did take my medication: the anti-anxiety pill, the tamoxifen, the two tabs of Vitamin D and one tab of Vitamin B12, all chased down by a fish oil tab the size of my little finger. I take all of this crap every day (and more on days when I have bad chest pain or a migraine or can’t sleep), although the only pill that really counts is the tamoxifen, which acts like a hawk-eyed chaperone at a seventh grade dance, perpetually shouldering its way between those two old lovebirds — estrogen and cancer — so they can’t hook up and produce a slew of baby tumors.

And that, I believe, is what was … or is … at the heart of my funk (truth be told, I haven’t quite kicked it yet).

Not that I have any reason to be in a funk. Last Wednesday, I had a stellar one-year follow-up with my breast cancer surgeon, who told me that my left side had healed so well she couldn’t even tell that I’d had radiation there. Plus I’m working as much as I was pre-diagnosis; I just got back from a trip to Arizona and Texas; and spring has finally sprung in Seattle, chasing the constant drizzle and gray away with glorious sunshine and days that stretch on forever (or at least until 8 p.m.).

And yet yesterday (and even Wednesday while talking to my doc), all I could think about was the dreaded R-word: recurrence.

Obviously, with no more “mamm” to gram, that particular method of breast cancer screening is off the table. And in the year since my surgery, I haven’t received an ultrasound or MRI to see if any new tumors have sprouted in my chest. I also haven’t received  any assurances or guarantees that I’m completely out the woods and that I’ll never again have to climb onto the bad carnival ride that is cancer treatment. Instead, I’ve been living in Limbo Land, where ever ache and pain is ripe for a new kind of dark, desperate scrutiny.

My BC surgeon said that a physical examination — which she performed while we chatted about reconstruction, swing dancing and whether or not I could take up boxing — was the best way to determine if I was developing anything hinky in my chest. But what about all the other areas of my body? My liver, my lungs, my bones, my brain — all those places where breast cancer likes to pop up and wreak havoc like a bitter, inebriated ex-boyfriend at your first major book launch.

That’s where things get a little muzzy. According to my oncologist — who’s gone over my recurrence rates with me on more than one occasion — I need to tell her if I start “feeling bad” or suddenly develop a weird persistent pain. Or, I imagine, I end up with a broken rib after getting a hug or a have a seizure while grocery shopping.

Do fever and chills and a sore throat fit within the “feeling bad” category, I wondered yesterday, watching bright sunshine blur into gray dusk. (Or was the fever not a symptom of a cold at all, but one of those infamous hot flashes I was told I’d get as tamoxifen hip-checks me into menopause?) And while we’re on the topic of hinky things developing, what about that sore spot under what used to be my left breast. Was that a tumor starting to sprout or had I knocked myself with the vacuum cleaner handle yet again?

Oh the places you go when you’ve had cancer.

And the things you say. Friday night over drinks with a girlfriend, I casually mentioned that I knew I wasn’t going to live all that long.

“Once you have cancer, you tend to get it again,” I told her, sipping my martini and grazing on a goat cheese, mint and bacon-sprinkled bruschetta. (Might as well live it up, since I’m going to die in ten minutes, ten days, ten years or whatever, right?)

“I’m feeling really blue,” I texted another buddy last night while cancelling plans. “I don’t want to die young and I know I’m going to now.”

Who does that? Who dumps that kind of crap into the laps of their friends? Certainly not me, unless I’m in the throes of a deep emotional funk. Which may or may not be something I should report to my oncologist (Hmmm … I’m normally so upbeat. Perhaps my foul mood is symptomatic of a brain tumor?).

It’s probably just the cold (or allergies) taking me to this dark place. Or the spate of friends and former neighbors who’ve recently lost (or are in the process of losing) a parent, grandparent, spouse or beloved pet. Maybe it’s the one-year anniversary of my double mastectomy, which looms on the horizon like a tax deadline. Or hey, maybe it’s the frigging tax deadline itself.

Whatever the case, I’m blue because I hate not knowing what the hell is going on with my body and knowing that I’ll never really know as long as I live, which I hope will be a long, long time, but chances are it won’t because of this crappy disease.  I’m blue because I’m a bit of a control freak and cancer is not something you can control. Or predict. Or prevent, no matter how much sauteed kale you consume (and trust me, I’m consuming a lot these days). I’m blue because recurrence happens; it’s happened to friends and family members and to some of my cancer buddies on Twitter and while some of these people have been able to stay on top of the disease, it’s not always possible to kick cancer to the curb once it starts “traveling from organ to organ like a gypsy caravan,” in the words of the late, great Dave Hodgson.

I’m blue because it’s gorgeous out and I should be out there celebrating the sun and the spring weather and the life I have while I have it, but instead I’m moping around the apartment “giving in to myself,” as my mother used to say. I’m blue because I’m usually the one trying to cheer other people up when they confess these kinds of dark thoughts and for some reason, I’m not quite able to do that for myself.

I’m blue because I’m angry and scared and don’t feel well and because I have to pay a bunch of money in taxes and I gained like four pounds while visiting my sister in Texas. I’m blue because I don’t have a Mr. Big or a body (or budget) like Sarah Jessica Parker and because despite having cancer, I’m just as shallow and self-absorbed as I ever was.

Oddly enough, though, now that I’ve gotten all this crap off my chest, I actually feel a little better. Thanks for the ear, folks and for stopping by my little pity party, which as of this moment, is officially closing down. Time to go run in the sun. Time to stop whining and live.

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Flying the friendly skies

7 Apr

The first annual Cancer Treatment Centers of America blogger summit. That's me on the left, looking like I have to go to the bathroom. ; )

I’m back in Seattle after a week-long working vacation that took me first to Phoenix, Arizona, for a blogger summit sponsored by Cancer Treatment Centers of America, and then on to Dallas for a sister summit, sponsored by my big sister Mary.

As you know, I was a little nervous about whether I’d make it through the TSA security checks with my dignity — and my girls — intact, but I managed to breeze through without a hitch (except for the lost bag in Phoenix and the cancelled flight in Dallas). I was especially happy that I didn’t have to go through the new, high-powered X-ray machines, not because I don’t enjoy mouth-breathing strangers looking at my naked body in the most unflattering light known to God or man, but because I’ve had quite enough radiation for one year (or one lifetime), thank you very much.

Unfortunately, not all of my breast cancer sisters have been so lucky with the wand-wielding folks of TSA.

Nancy’s Point sent me a link to a blog post she wrote about the trials and tribs she endured during her vacation in February, which included being threatened with a pat down after explaining to a TSA agent that she might not be able to lift her arms over her head while going through the X-ray machine (anyone who’s had a mastectomy can understand this) and a slight freak-out on the part of a security agent regarding her “scary” lymphedema sleeve (all the terrorists are wearing them this season, apparently).

Also got a note from Amy who pointed out that more fun may await, should I choose to go the tissue expander route when I get my reconstruction. “Those suckers have a magnetic valve for when you get your ‘fills,'” she wrote, “and actually set off the alarm at the metal detector! THAT is a fun one to explain!”

Rocking my chemo curls (and a pretty vintage scarf) in Dallas.

I didn’t set off any alarms with my boobs, but I did experience some alarms (and alarm) in Dallas when a slew of tornadoes (15, to be exact) set down in and around the city just as I was getting ready to leave for the airport on Tuesday. Luckily, no one was killed and none of the twisters came within 10 miles of my sister’s house. But my flight (and hundreds of others) were cancelled, thanks to winds that tossed 18-wheelers around like Tonka toys and hit DFW with hail the size of peas then ping pong balls then baseballs then grapefruit then, I don’t know, the planet Pluto, all within a half hour.

Finally made it out of Dallas late Thursday night with a slew of notes, information, and interviews from the blogger summit. And a rash of mosquito bites from my sister’s back yard, which didn’t bother me all that much since it meant the chemo had finally left my system. (Last August, during my “I’m So Chemover This” party, the mosquitoes that plagued everyone else left me completely alone, thanks to my toxic avenger status).

I’ll be writing more about the blogger summit in days to come, but for now, I’ll share a quick video that one of my new cancer buddies, Catherine of MassKickers.org, shot while I was there. Why do tumors suck? she asked. Oh, let me count the ways!

Flight of the phoenix

29 Mar

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything here. Which is good in some ways because it means I’ve been busy and not just moping around having cancer. Not that I’ve done a whole lot of moping, but there’s been some quality “under the coffee table time,” which I think is allowed (even in my family).

Primarily I’ve been working, writing stories about everything from the Hunger Games Workout to getting naked at the gym to Ashley Judd’s weirdly puffy face. I’ve also been running and socializing and swing dancing and doing a bit of dating here and there. In other words, wending my way back to my pre-cancerous life.

Or at least giving it my best shot.

But there are always reminders — and I’m not just talking about the new “pixie cut” or my flat-ironed chest. I’m flying to Arizona today which used to mean stressing out about packing and getting to the airport on time and worrying whether I’d be seated next to someone I’d accidentally made out with in college. Now that I have my breast cancer merit badge, though, I have new things to worry about.

TSA, for instance. Are they going to make me slap out my “gummi boobs” in front of dozens of passengers the way they did a breast cancer survivor from Charlotte, N.C., back in November 2010? Are they going to confiscate my prostheses as potential weapons of mass (transit) destruction? (Cue the fembot video).

Curious as to how other breast cancer survivors have fared while flying, I went online and immediately found a discussion board filled with posts from women with the exact same concerns. Some had indeed been subjected to invasive pat-downs and/or queries about what exactly they were packing in their bra (a question I haven’t had since seventh grade). Others talked about leaving “the girls” in their suitcase so they wouldn’t be grilled about the strange blobs on their chest after going through the body scanner. A couple (jokingly) talked about tossing their fake boobs into the gray plastic bins along with their shoes and purse and everything else.

I’m definitely not going to hide my girls away in a suitcase like some kind of illegal contraband. Likewise, I don’t want to have to announce to a complete stranger that my pretty Spanx bra is full of spongy silicone and not much else (although the thought of throwing my gummi boobs onto the conveyor belt with my bags and shoes and coat does have a perverse comedic appeal). On yet another note, I’m not too keen on going through the full body scanner, at least not after receiving 33 daily blasts of radiation this last fall.

Then there’s the whole lymphedema issue. Since I had lymph nodes removed from both sides (9 on the right, 3 on the left), I’m at risk for this crap. And flying, of course, is one of the big ways it can be triggered. Unfortunately, I remembered this about two days before my departure date, which didn’t give me enough time to find what’s known as a “compression garment,” i.e. a super tight sleeve (preferably in black).

So now in addition to worrying about the plane crashing (or the pilot or flight attendant having a meltdown), I have to worry about getting publicly outed by an over-zealous TSA agent and possibly having my arms swell up to twice their size.

On a positive note, though, Seattle is a sad, soggy mess while I’m headed for 85 degree weather. Also, more importantly, I’m still alive to bitch about all this stuff. ; )

Wish me luck, folks, and as always, thanks for the read.  Also, if anyone has any stories to share about flying with fake boobs (or fake anything else), I’d love to hear them!

Happy cancerversary to me

11 Feb

Me, pre-diagnosis (Nov 2010)

So today is my one year “cancerversary”. One year ago today, I got a phone call from the radiologist (aka Dr. Debbie Downer), the woman who initially found the three masses in my chest via ultrasound and then performed the biopsy on those (and a fourth one she discovered at the time) a few days later.

Needless to say, the phone call did not go well. For starters, she used the word “positive” which for anyone NOT waiting to hear back about a cancer diagnosis is a perfectly fine word. If you happen to be waiting to hear whether you’re going to maybe die or lose some of your body parts, though, “positive” isn’t all that, well, positive. And as it turned out, I was a very positive patient, with all four of the masses in my two breasts coming up roses for invasive lobular carcinoma, otherwise known as ILC, or “evil cancer” as my breast cancer surgeon likes to call it.

I still have the notes from that horrible conversation, slip-cased in a plastic sleeve and stuffed into a giant three-ring binder. In fact, I have everything from this past year stuffed into that binder  — scribbled notes from phone calls with nurses, social workers and breast cancer survivors; MRI reports where they talk about my “unremarkable uterus” and my “grossly normal bowel”; pages and pages of printouts of upcoming doctors’ appointments; get well cards from friends and colleagues and my wonderful nieces and nephews (I still love 9-year-old Charlie’s post-surgery card the best: “Doctors are dumb,” he wrote. “You are so not sick. Also you have a lot of sex in you!”).

Me, post-surgery, pre chemo, May 2011. WTF, indeed.

Somewhere amidst all of the pathology reports and medical handouts and hospital bracelets (yep, I saved those, too), I even have a lint roller sheet covered with the last vestiges of my dearly departed blonde hair. After shaving my head, my scalp itched like crazy so my wig guy said to just take the rest off with masking tape. Somewhere in a closet, I even have one of my drains and the port they took out of my body three months ago (both completely scrubbed up and sterilized, of course).

I’m not sure why I’ve saved all of this stuff, but it just seemed important at the time. I guess I wanted some kind of record of my awful year — my annus horribilis — and at present, this notebook, these odd bits of breast cancer detritus, are it. Now that I’m three months out of treatment, I have very few things to save in my notebook. Instead, I’m finding myself taking things out and reading through them, trying to decipher what the hell, exactly, happened to me over the course of these last 12 months.

While I was living it — those first tearful appointments with the surgeon, the indignity of the drains following the double mastectomy, my three months of chemo and then those long six plus weeks of radiation — I remember telling myself that I would never forget a single moment of the torture I was going through. That the anger, the shame, the pain, the fear, the weakness, the “otherness” (with my bald head and flattened chest I felt like a space alien half the time) would be seared into my brain as deeply as the radiation burns seared my chest.

Greetings from Planet Chemo (and obviously, radiation). October 2011

But the memories have already begun to fade — either due to medication or stress or chemo brain or the body’s miraculous ability to do what it needs to do to heal itself. Truth be told, there are probably some things I shouldn’t remember. Although if I want to, all I have to do is open my notebook (or close my eyes and begin to type) and a lot of it comes flooding back.  

Not that I’m anywhere near done with my great breast cancer adventure. Reconstruction — in some form — still looms ahead. One day, maybe even some day this summer, my flattened gnarled chest will no longer look like one of the talking trees from The Wizard of Oz or that old WWII cartoon, Kilroy Was Here, whenever I lean forward. Instead, I’ll have boobs and cleavage and fat covering my very visible ribcage. If there’s a god, I may even get some feeling back in my skin and nipples. Or finally be able to get rid of the weird constricting pain in my chest and armpits that comes from scar tissue and adhesions, pain that I and other breast cancer survivors use nicknames to describe:  Gulliver chest, rubber band pits, twang arm.

Not that things are all that bad. As I sit here typing and ruminating on the dark days that are behind me, I can definitely see progress. I seldom cry when I talk about the cancer or my lost girls anymore. I’m no longer a chemo invalid, hobbling around my apartment, hanging on to chairs for support and using a wrench to open water bottles. I no longer have to slather Aquaphor healing ointment onto a lobster red chest or pop Vicadin for the deep burning pain that comes with radiation. These days, I’m back out running and swing dancing and tap dancing and doing everything I did before (including making poor food choices — still need to work on that). These days, I’m no longer a bald space alien — I’ve got at least an inch worth of hair on my head and a pixie “haircut” that looks almost intentional. Granted, my hair’s a completely different color and a completely different texture than it was before (it’s much more gray, for instance), but it’s a start. Most importantly, it’s not going to start coming out in handfuls the way it did 10 days after that first dose of taxotere and cytoxan.

Me, in recovery. December 2011. Where's the frigging champagne?

The bottom line is I’m still here. And the cancer’s not. At least it wasn’t the last time I had my tumor markers checked. The doctors won’t tell me I’m cured or cancer-free (at least not for a few more years), but I can say that I’ve made it a year past diagnosis, which is more than I expected when the phone call from that oh-so-grim radiologist came in, 12 months ago today. And while breast cancer’s hardly something to celebrate, getting through the diagnosis, the surgery, the chemo, the radiation and yes, even the “recovery” process, most definitely is.

So even though it’s only 10 a.m., I’m tempted to pop the cork on one of the champagne bottles in my fridge. Or perhaps make myself a martini or Manhattan or mimosa (anything but a chemo cocktail).

I’ve made it a year, folks. I’ve made it a year.

Chuckles, the cancer clown

7 Jan

It’s a gray, muzzy Saturday here in Seattle and I have to say the external weather and my internal mood are perfectly matched.

I’m not sure what happened. Last night, I went out with a slew of journalistic types — smart, snarky sorts with more quips up their sleeves than tattoos (which is saying something for Seattle) — and I had a perfectly lovely time meeting new people and yammering with old buds. One of those buds was a colleague I hadn’t seen in more than a year, which meant we had a lot of catching up to do.

In other words, there was a lot of cancer talk.

As usual when I’m out with a group of people who know about my situation, I became Chuckles, the Cancer Clown, cracking wise about the double mastectomy, the chemo, the hair loss, the radiation, the daily doses of tamoxifen — the whole nine yards. Listening to me talk about my breast cancer experience, you’d think it was all a big hoot. You’d think I wasn’t a bit fazed by the loss of my beautiful breasts and the fact that my chest now looks like a 10-year-old boy’s that’s been badly ironed.

Sure, my nipples are crooked and there are wrinkles and folds where there used to be lovely feminine mounds. But so what? I’ve got fabulous new fake boobs, given to me by a friend of a friend who got them at Nordstrom for $300 each. “I call them my gummi boobs!” I tell my editor buddy. “Aren’t they great? I can just hand them to some guy if he wants to feel me up and I’m not into it. And when I get tired of ’em, I can just tuck ’em away in a drawer!”

Watching me laugh and joke about my wig — made from my own hair which I had to shave to save (one of the hardest decisions of my life) — you’d never imagine me pounding my bathroom mirror, sobbing “Come back! Come back! Oh god, please come back!” at my patchy bald pate during those horrible long months following chemo.

I hide the pain, the anguish, the grief, the whole horrible mindfuck that is cancer treatment quite well. At least when I’m out with friends.

Once I’m home, though, things are different. Chuckles slips away and I’m left with Cancer Chick, the girl who winces as she pulls off the wig (the double stick tape is attached to new growth now and takes out a chunk of hair with each wear). After the wig is gone, Cancer Chick then changes into a nightgown and diligently rubs castor oil all over her chest — or what’s left of it — hoping it will soak into the skin and the muscle beneath and make it possible for the skin to stretch enough to hold tissue expanders and eventually implants. Hopefully, not implants that will encapsulate or explode once they’re inside.

Of course, this may all be for naught. Thanks to radiation — you should hear my stand-up routine on that particular topic — the skin on the left side might not stretch. It might not heal. So I may be forced to have some kind of complicated surgery that harvests a chunk of muscle and tissue from some other part of my body in order to build a boob there.

“I may end up with a butt for a boob,” I told my friend last night and we both howled at the wackiness of that.

I’m sure part of it was the beer. Part of it was the discomfort of having to talk about cancer in a group setting. Part of it was my almost fanatical insistence on making others feel comfortable about the fact that I’ve somehow ended up with this lousy, terrifying disease. And part of it — and this particularly grim blog post, no doubt — is the tamoxifen that has me swinging back and forth like a emotional version of Poe’s Pit and the Pendulum.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s necessarily a good thing to have a stick up your ass about your problems all the time. Black humor is what got me through my warzone of a childhood and it has served me well through this current cancer zone, as well.

But it’s also good to remember — to acknowledge to myself and to others — that sometimes my cancer is not going to be amusing. It’s actually going to make me cry in front of you. Or stay at home curled in a ball under my coffee table. And despite the fact that I’m no longer in treatment, my grand cancer adventure is not over by a long shot.

Although, thankfully, neither is Chuckles’ brave little standup routine.

In search of my new bionic boobs

2 Dec

So today’s a big day for me. In about two hours, I’ll be meeting with my plastic surgeon to see what effect the six plus weeks of radiation had on my left side. I’d say my left breast, but there’s not much breast left. There’s a nipple and skin and scars and scar tissue which has adhered to the muscle wall. Your basic beat-up 10-year-old boy look. But with a lot of luck, I’ll hear today that I’ll soon be getting a breast there, hopefully without too much trouble.

That last is a bit facetious since breast reconstruction is not an easy process, although many people still equate it with cosmetic breast enhancement, which is a much simpler, almost cut-and-dried procedure these days. Reconstruction, however, is much more complicated and can involve multiple surgeries and long recovery times. I’m praying that I’ll be able to get what I call the “easy-peasy” reconstruction method involving tissue expanders and implants.

With this method, you basically get a couple of empty tires surgically implanted behind your chest wall which the plastic surgeon pumps up once a week or so (via some kind of valve) until you have the right size. Then they swap out the full tires for your implants (either saline or silicone – still haven’t decided yet) during surgery. I’ll be doing this with my right side which didn’t go through radiation, but the big question is what will happen with old Lefty.

If radiation has screwed the pooch on my skin there (and according to my radiation oncologist, it does with maybe one third of the women who go through it), the skin won’t be able to stretch enough to hold a tissue expander. Which means they’ll be “borrowing” tissue and muscle from other parts of my body to “build a boob.” (When I first heard this, I immediately pictured them nicking tissue from my butt, my thighs, my right armpit, my left knee and sort of cobbling it all together like a boob hot dog. Such is not the case.)

Instead, they usually borrow tissue from one place, like your belly — especially for women who’ve had kids (instant tummy tuck!). Unfortunately (or not), I haven’t had kids and was told during my first consult that my stomach wasn’t big enough to use for the “build a boob” method, which is officially known as a tram flap. (This is another one of those backhanded cancer compliments, like “You’re so young, you’ll be a great candidate for chemotherapy.” The first time I heard that, I didn’t know whether to cry because of the impending chemo or preen because of the “young” word. At 53, you take what you can get.)

Anyway, since I can’t get a tram flap, they’d be looking elsewhere for that muscle and tissue. On my body, not anyone else’s (I’ve had plenty of sweet offers from friends willing to sacrifice their pot bellies for my new boob but the tissue’s got to come from me).  If I have to go with this method, it’ll mean scrapping my carefully saved (and diligently moisturized) skin and nipple on the left side and replacing it with a hunk of flesh from my latissimus dorsi in a procedure known as a “lat flap.” It’ll also mean multiple surgeries to create a nipple, then tattoo the nipple (and aerola). Plus recovery time for both my front and my back. Plus the loss of muscle on my back, etc. etc. 

None of this sounds like a good time to me. If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t have any of it. Not even the tissue expanders embedded in my chest because from what I’ve heard, they can hurt like a son of a bitch as well as feeling like a couple of rocks attached to your chest (can’t wait to see the expression on some swing dance lead’s face when I shove those puppies up next to him).

But the thing is, I want my boobs back — I miss them, I need them, and yeah, I feel like I deserve them, especially after all I’ve been through these last 10 months.

So, yes, I’ll do what I can do get them — endure the pain of the tissue expanders, suffer through multiple surgeries (if necessary) to build a boob out of bits and pieces of my body. And yes, even shamelessly put up a blog post like this, asking all of you to keep your fingers, legs, toes and whatever else crossed for me today.

As always, thanks for the read and for any and all good wishes you can send my way today. Talk to you soon.

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.