Friday, November 1, 2013

I didn't sign up for this, but did it anyway.

I rarely write anything about me, just me. I often write about others in my life, and events that define what my life is like.

 Tonight is Halloween night, my favorite ‘holiday’. October 31 is also the last day in National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I’m not sure why this particular month has been designated, maybe for fundraising and the Susan G. Komen 3 Day walk, but my most memorable moments in October are the trees turning to autumn colors, my husband’s birthday, and Halloween, not Breast Cancer.  Soon after that there is ensuing rush of things to do and places to go, leading up to and including Thanksgiving and Christmas, not my favorite holiday. The daylight hours may be short, but the ‘to do’ list of the last two months of the year are full and hectic. It is also the time of year I have to get the dreaded mammogram and follow-up with an oncologist and surgeon. 

This year I will be entering year ten of finishing breast cancer treatment.  My breast cancer journey has been relatively easy when compared to what others endure or don’t survive. Some cancer patients call themselves survivors.  I don’t.  I see myself as someone who has thrived regardless of the bump in the road that was Breast Cancer.

It was a big friggin’ bump, but a bump, not an earth shattering devastating event that derailed life as I knew it. Wait, yes, it did derail it to a degree, but I got back on track. I did what had to be done and moved on with my very busy and noisy life.

After several lumpectomies over the course of 2 years, the diagnosis came from my surgeon that ‘we’ found some breast cancer. I like that he uses the first person plural when discussing my condition, it’s a bond in a weird way, that he’s in this with me. From the time of that phone call through the next surgery and other events that were mostly complications from treatment, my surgeon always discusses things with me as if we’re partners planning on the next move. It’s comfort and support that makes the hard decisions not so hard and gives me confidence that I’m doing o.k.  It’s been a good twelve years that is almost like a marriage.

I’ve had a few different oncologists over the years, the last one doesn’t piss me off like some of the others. She seems to appreciate and genuinely sympathize with my concerns. Most importantly, she honors and respects the treatment decisions I make for myself. That’s not to say the previous ones were not good physicians, they were better than ‘good’, some of the best in their field of expertise. I am blessed to have been treated by very capable and top-notch doctors and while medicine is certainly not a popularity contest, I want to like the person that is going to grope what’s left of my boobs, while I sit on an exam table, stripped to the waist with a tiny paper jacket hanging open in the front. 

When the reality set in that my doctor visits were going to become a much more regular gig than an annual check-up, I insisted on a sheet to drape around me instead of the ill-fitting paper jacket that was designed to fit nobody I know. When I asked for the sheet instead of that stupid paper jacket, the nurse looked at me, smiled and simply got me a sheet. I have never had to suffer the indignity of that stupid paper jacket again. If a sheet is not already provided at each of my appointments, I ask for one.

With the start of radiation, I felt relatively good. I thought this was going to be a breeze.  By the middle of the fourth week, I wasn’t feeling like it was such a breeze. Monday through Friday, every morning at 7:15 I checked in at the reception desk, was handed my beeper to notify me that it was my turn in the “oven” (patient humor, but the techs did not find this reference humorous). I would go to a changing booth, strip to my waist and wrap myself in a sheet, march into the radiation room, with a large heavy door, similar to that of a bank vault, appropriately labeled with tri-foil radiation logo, lie down on a table with a form created from a body mold of my shoulder to keep me in the same position. Once under the accelerator, a light would switch on,  the tech lined up the blue-black dots tattooed from the center of my chest to the middle of my side under my armpit, it looked like a grid pattern. It was called ‘the field’.  The actual shot of radiation inflicts no pain or discomfort and lasts for minutes. The set-up takes more time than the actual therapy. On most mornings I was back home within the hour.

  Weekly blood work indicated my T-cells were dropping, it was the tail end of winter and everyone around me seemed be fighting a cold. The fatigue set in like a wall fell on me. My skin was burned and blistered.  I wore snug men’s undershirts to reduce the friction of anything I wore against the raw skin. Toward the end of the seven week treatment it was time for the ‘boost’, a more concentrated blast of radiation. My skin was badly burned and I was asked if I wanted to take a few days off and pick up again the following week. I declined, it was the final week and I just wanted to be ‘done’.

After I finished radiation therapy, my skin healed really well, but a few months later developed a blood infection in the treated breast that almost become sepsis. Once the infection healed the scar from the surgery had now become a crater because of the damage from the infection.

A year later, the oncologist asked me if my uneven breasts bothered me. I laughed at first. She stood back, folded her arms across her own chest and simply nodded right and left at my chest. “Really, does the uneveness bother you?” she said. My response was, “of course it does, but what can I do about it?” She recommended a plastic surgeon. When I mentioned that I thought I wouldn’t be a candidate for reconstruction, because of my womanly size, she responded, “ this is not a size 8 world.” I like that thinking.

My visit to the plastic surgeon was a pleasure. I felt like a million bucks with every appointment. He also doesn’t believe this is a size 8 world. While he detailed for me what the results of the surgery would be, the treated breast had substantial damage and he was limited as to how much he could improve the look of it, filling the crater was about the most I could hope for as an end result. When all was said and done, on my last appointment with him I expressed that I was pleased with the view as I looked down. He said that was 90% of his job.

Along this journey the best medicine was something not procured by prescription or a surgical procedure. Nestling under a blanket with my husband while I whined about how badly I felt, and his quiet but constant presence often was more healing than anything else.  Sometimes we’d lay side by side and just hold hands in silence. And those were truly energizing moments, lending strength to each other to get on with our life.

Next week, I’ll have the ‘girls’ checked out, squished, groped and visually assessed by the medical professionals  I call the booby team. From the Radiology tech to the surgeon to the oncologist, it will be a long day but I’m grateful I can get all the appointments in one day, and get it over with. Since this will be year 10, I think I’ll come up with a celebration. I’m not sure just how, but I think a celebration is in order. Maybe a big Sunday dinner with the family. We’re overdue for a Sunday dinner.


  1. Joanne, I didn't know you'd been through all this. Wow! You have such a wonderful attitude about it. Glad you have some good doctors who truly care. Sending you a big hug from North Carolina!

    1. Thanks, Susan. I know you understand the cancer journey with your grandson! Hugs are good, and necessary!

  2. What a beautiful, brave story to put out there. I'll share this because I think your message will help others. I'm glad that you survived so that we could become friends. Good luck next week with the 'girls'

    1. Thanks, Marie. I do believe you and I are or were kindred spirits!

  3. Can't believe you've endured this. Amazing story. I think I'm in love with your husband. Hope mine is so great if I have to go through something like this. So happy you got through this alright, and that I know you.

  4. Thank you, Dawn! Hubby is a real keeper!