Thursday, November 5, 2009
Anything is possible -- halfway through the chemo marathon
Today I completed my third chemotherapy treatment. I have learned a lot of "tricks" over the past 6 weeks, and I have learned a lot of lessons. Lesson one -- hair keeps your head warm!
But, first, before I share my lessons with you, I want to share an event that gave me the biggest boost I could have asked for -- my dear cousin Ken is going through a similar challenge. On September 12 his wife Harriet had a surprise 60th B'day party for Ken, inviting his many Trex fraternity brothers, as well as cousins - many of whom have been close friends for decades. She included me, my mother, and my cousin Roger. That evening was one of the most memorable, happy evenings I have ever experienced. We all had a great time visiting, reminiscing, and enjoying our time with cousin Ken. Ken and I were close during our childhood days in Inglewood, and when we were in our 20's. I was so happy to share a few minutes with Ken one on one, knowing that he and I were both fighting a battle that strikes so many of our generation. Courage -- that is a word that crossed my mind that night -- Ken is fighting his battle with courage, and I intend to do the same.
CHEMOTHERAPY -- NOT A BAD WORD, JUST BAD STUFF WITH A GOOD PURPOSE
The infusion of chemotherapy itself is not difficult, especially after having a porto-cath surgically inserted into the chest. No more stabbed veins having to bear the brunt of infusion. One tiny little pin-prick stick into the port, and the rest is easy. Each treatment lasts about 4 hours -- first the steriods, anti-nausea meds, and benedryl, then Herceptin, Taxotere and Carboplatin, one at a time, dripping into my vein. I find myself sleeping through most of the procedure - thanks to the Benydryl. On the "off weeks" I go in for Herceptin infusions - those last about 30 minutes.
The side-effects of the toxic chemicals flowing through my blood stream are more challenging. Dry mouth leads to sores in the mouth. Lots of them -- and, I found (I think) the solution by brushing with Biotene. Chemo round 2 - no canker sores! Yea!
The anti-nausea meds play havoc with the GI system -- I seriously considered checking into the ER at West Hills hospital on day 6 to request assistance with "delivery". Enough said ... thank you Milk of Magnesia, Dulcolax, and prunes!! I'm armed after session three with all of the tools I think will help --- let's see if they work.
Blood levels and blood pressure go crazy -- pulse rates at 115, BP at 150/99, low hemoglobin, low iron, low white blood cells, and then all of that reverses. And, the weight goes up and down by 10 pounds every week - - water, "stuff", then no water, no "stuff" -- one really learns to get in touch with ones entire body in a unique way.
Neulasta injections are the next thing on the agenda -- that drug stimulates white blood cell growth and helps the immune system -- and, it's like going through growing pains for a day. Those injections will follow each chemo treatment, beginning tomorrow. My lucky brother Brian has been designated to inject me on Thanksgiving (doctor's office is closed) -- payback time!!
And, thank you Lauren -- my savior -- her acupuncture treatments and plan for taking numerous supplements (herbal and vitamins) have helped me stay balanced and supporting my waning energy levels, all with my oncologist's blessings!
NO HAIR LEFT? LOOK AT THE POSITIVE SIDE!
When I was little, I had thick curly hair. Before chemo, I had thick straight hair -- a beautiful dark auburn hair with red streaks. At 60, I will be partially bald, with a thin layer of white hair. And, next spring, I will again see the curly hair, not dark but salt and pepper -- the cycle begins again.
Just as predicted, about 14 days after the first chemo, my hair started shedding. Sorry - no pictures of that one! The day after the 2nd chemo, I had my hair buzzed, leaving a fine layer of hair on my head. Within another week, after a few "hair"-washings with soothing tea tree oils, all of the dark hair was gone and I was left with a very fine layer of white hair covering my blotchy scalp. The Dustbuster was my friend for two weeks - vacuuming the bathroom, the pillows, the beds, and around the bed.
Losing one's hair - particularly when the hair is a notably thick and beautiful - is a very humiliating experience, for a short time. And, it hurts! The follicles tighten up and my scalp actually hurt for two weeks -- somewhat like having a pony tail too tight.
I had to accept that I looked like a pumpkin, temporarily. I had to accept that I had white hair (covered by a very talented colorist for many years!). I had to accept that I am a cancer SURVIVOR, because I look at myself like that every single day in the mirror.
And, I had to accept that I had two choices -- fight it, beat it, and get on with life, or live in denial and depression. So, as I stood in the shower on that second Sunday, rubbing my head vigorously to rid myself of the last of the naturally dark hair, seeing LOTS of hair on my hands and at the bottom of the shower -- I cried a little, and then I looked at myself in the mirror and said DONE. Get over it.
The song "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" from South Pacific came to mind -- I wasn't washing out the man, I was washing out the CANCER -- and, wow -- the aha moment came to me right then. Big deal, it's only hair.
So, now I am brave enough to go without a hat around my family (once the shock subsides) and around the house, and it feels good. But, hair keeps the head and body warm -- and my head gets cold at night! Thanks to my cousin Judy M. who sent me a great cozy knitted cap that is soft and comfortable -- I wear that to bed a night.
And, I have lots of cute little cotton turban hats, brimmed hats, and scarves for accessories, and I wear the combos to work every day. I've worn the wig once - not my favorite thing - but, it works for formal events (like a formal group photo with my fellow judges in a few weeks). I'm becoming a fashion statement at work -- my new colleagues have suggested that they would have a day where everyone wears a hat to work in honor of my battle with cancer.
LOTS OF LOVING FRIENDS AND FAMILY MAKE THIS AN EASY ROAD TO FOLLOW
Judge Krikorian ... wow, a dream come true!
I go to work as a JUDGE every day, tired, sometimes queasy, sometimes achy, and not always in a good mood. But, I go. And, I just cannot say enough about how incredibly supportive every one of my new colleagues at the Office of Administrative Hearings is and has been, particularly my presiding judge Ann. I am training, learning a new area of law, new procedural techniques and rules, and new rules and regulations. The training and Friday furloughs have given me the ability to go to work, even when I don't feel well, and get through the day without a really rigorous schedule. Once this is over, I intend to hit the ground running and put the energies I am now focusing on getting healthy into my job and take on my share of the workload that my colleagues are selflessly absorbing as I get through these challenges. What a team we have in Van Nuys!
Friends, Family, Neighbors ... lots of support!
What has made this process feasible is the overwhelming support I have received from those around me. I will never be able to repay the kindness and generosity that has come my way.
The phone calls and cards from many friends asking what they can do for me mean a lot -- that alone helps me stay focused. I am learning to accept help and rides to treatments. My cousins Sandy, Susan, and Debbie, and my mom and dad (brave in the face of watching their daughter enduring this challenge) have come to the hospital during and after every surgery, and cooked for me regularly, keeping my refrigerator stocked with healthy food I can eat, and supported me with love. Cousin Frances and my dear friend Alice have kept me company at the hospital, supported me, and made Dolma for me (thank you Alice!!). Natalie has given me massages and energy work. Lucy Y. and Lauren (my acupuncturist) have given me CDs to listen to, and have provided me with positive energy. Nadya V. and Judy M. have been there for me, sharing their own similar experiences and giving me tips and encouragement!
Laurel K., Lorraine P, cousin Janis, and childhood friends Barbara H. and Joanie F. have offered me respite in their homes on the beach, at the desert, in the mountains and in the countryside. My neighbors Julie and Steve have been there for me whenever I have needed anything, including rides to the hospital and house chores. And, it goes on and on and on! Wow!! I'm going to have to make a LOT of fudge for the holidays!!
IS THIS EASY? NOT! IS IT DOABLE? YES!
I cannot wait until Chemo is over. That's the darn truth -- I hate this!! But, what other choice do I have?
So, I have chosen to feel lousy when I feel lousy and accept feeling lousy for short time, and being grouchy! And, then I pick myself up, get on with life and face it the way Patrick Swayze did -- I may have cancer but I will not let cancer get me.
What's next -- Chemo the day before Thanksgiving, my 60th birthday 6 days later, then more chemo, then Christmas, New Years, and then one more chemo. Three weeks later (or so), I have a double mastectomy and take a leave of absence from work for 6-8 weeks. Then, hit the ground running until May, when the 2nd surgery for reconstruction happens. Then, more Herceptin through Fall. And, then, ... healthy and traveling again.
Tricks of the trade --
Cancer doesn't like sugar. Adrienne likes sugar. So, right now cancer wins this battle -- metallic tasting See's candy isn't my favorite flavor, so I've stayed away as much as possible from too much sugar. Dark chocolate occasionally -- a box of See's candy has NEVER lasted in my house more than two days, until now! Wahoo! Something good comes of this nightmare.
Ginger helps nausea -- ginger ale, ginger candies, ginger tea, ginger biscuits, even ginger locum -- just make sure it has real ginger in it! Ignore the sugar.
Water -- I HATE water! It tastes like metal! But, tea works, coconut juice works, and stewed mint leaf tea works ... water, well - it is a necessary evil!
My favorite "mix" for keeping the food moving through the system (and a good side dish under more normal circumstances):
1 small can of orange juice concentrate
1 package of dried prunes, pitted
1 package (or about 1/2 pound) dried apricots
1/3 pound dark raisins
8-10 dried mission figs (Trader Joe's)
1 fresh pear, peeled and cut into chunks
3 cinnamon sticks
1 cup water
fresh ground nutmeg
Place all of the above in a saucepan, bring to a gentle boil, then simmer 20-30 minutes until the fruit is soft and liquid is absorbed.
Serve with cottage cheese, yogurt, oatmeal, or as an accompaniment to roasted pork tenderloin.
Exercise is necessary but hard during chemo -- after 12 years of weight training twice a week with my friend Hilda, I'm taking a break on the recommendation of my oncologist. Stretching at home, light free weights for upper body, occasional bike riding (in the bedroom) will have to do it for now. My body needs to send its energy to other places to heal.
No razor needed! No hair grows during chemo - so, no leg waxing, no shaving, no plucking. Wahoo!!
Avoid salt, spicy foods, and things with strong odors. Drink lots of water. Eat foods rich in potassium, iron, fiber, without salt, and anything that tastes good. But, avoid favorite foods unless you want to hate them when it's all over.
Use the Internet -- there are so many websites out there that refer us to sources of support -- not just for cancer, but for specific issues -- like "how do I resolve constipation when I can't walk" "what works for nausea" "where do I find hats for hair loss" ...
Draw on your faith, pray and take 10 minutes every day to just be inside your own self. Don't be afraid of fear, and draw on your inner strength to pull through -- a real challenge. This is easier for me with the support of my dear friends Fr. Sarkis and Fr. Shnork, who are praying for me.
Surround yourself with friends and family - maybe not in person, but by email, over the phone, a quick dinner out, or just a quick visit.
These things are not limited to someone going through treatment for cancer or some other disease - many cancer survivors have told me that once they are finished with their treatment, their lives change -- they look at life, and the people around them, differently. Their priorities change, their stress level in life changes -- the little things don't matter anymore.
Slowly but surely, I see these things are happening to me ... I am learning to let go of the predictable lifestyle, the predictability I have always tried to have over my life, and just let it all happen -- because, like it or not, it will. It's how I deal with what happens that matters, not what may happen.
That's it for now. More recipes to follow in the coming weeks -- if I can't cook, I might as well share the recipes for my friends! Thank you everyone for being there for me ... it is the most priceless gift one could ever ask for.