As I near the first anniversary of my diagnosis, I find myself comparing life now to how it was before. Quite literally, time is now noted BC (before cancer). Everything that happened and will happen will always have the distinction of being before or after that moment. I see photos from last year from this time and think, “That was before. Look how happy and unaware I am of how absolutely, devastatingly your life is about to change.”
Fear and celebration are dovetailing right now. I’m approaching the painful memory of specific dates from 2016 while trying to stay focused on the happiness of reaching the same date in 2017.
For example, I had my hair colored the day of the terrifying biopsy last year. Hair styling very shortly after became an event so luxurious and precarious that combing took infinite care and usually resulted in uncontrollable tears. Never has there been such a focus on the top of my head. Never has so much money, time, effort, and emotional bandwidth gone into this forgettable tangle of highlights.
I had my hair colored again for the first time in almost a year. I have hair to color! It was blissful.
Savoring those beautiful moments will be what gets me through the next few months. Dates like May 17 (diagnosis) and June 15 (first chemo) are forever burned into my memory like a poorly planned tattoo, regrettably, even disgustingly, irreversible.
But, things certainly are looking up. The final treatments are scheduled. Surgeries are all healed. The new gummy bears are looking pretty darn good. My strength is returning and life is getting back to normal. And, blonde. BLONDE!
Today I am having the second and (hopefully final) phase of my breast reconstruction. They’ll be removing the tissue expanders, which I’ve affectionately named the “Iron Maidens,” and replacing them with soft, squishy, much more natural looking cohesive silicone implants over the pectoral muscle. I’ve got to say, I’m ready.
I went to my plastic surgeon yesterday to be marked. I look like a gradient elevation map. In addition to the boob swap, he’ll also be harvesting fat from my legs, hips, and flanks to nestle around the new implants so they look natural (without wrinkles or dents). They call that fat grafting. The liposuction may be the hardest part tomorrow.
Many people have asked me what size I’ll be after tomorrow. It is not something I can answer I’m afraid. That’s the thing about reconstruction vs. augmentation. I don’t get to choose. The existing space only accommodates a small range of sizes. Also, my doctor is hyper-vigilant about this looking good at the end. (So am I!) He’s measured every contour and will determine tomorrow in surgery exactly what looks symmetrical and attractive on my body shape and size.
He doesn’t speak in cup sizes. He measures in liquid CCs which is really tricky to convert to a bra size. Since I can’t get a straight answer on what I’ll look like and because it honestly doesn’t matter as long as it works out and I don’t have to do it again, who gives a shit?! The new ones won’t try to kill me!
I saw the “before” pictures today as well. Those boring old junkers weren’t worth all this trouble! I thought I would mourn them. I thought I loved them. But, like other times in my life, I’ve moved on. I don’t even miss them. I’m better off.
So, old boobs, I don’t much care about you. I don’t even think about you much anymore. I’ve got a new thing going. And my new boobs are going to treat me better. Settle on in to those corners of my mind with things I used to adore. Befriend those comfy platform shoes and sweet, hopeless boyfriends. Or just fuck off like those terrible clogs and mean jerks that made me cry. Either way, you’re being replaced and I’m glad.
One step closer…
The lowest lows must exist. I get that. And for the first time in a while, my highs are amplified by those lows. I got great news today. The blood clot I developed from the portacath is nearly resolved!
A few days after my portacath placement in early June, my arm turned purple and swelled. They discovered a clot that extended into my armpit from my chest. I went on Xarelto, a blood thinner, and have been on it since ever since. The medication doesn’t have side effects other than easy bruising and one should avoid cuts at all cost. As someone who is poked with needles almost weekly and anticipated several major surgeries, the blood clot and associated blood thinners were a huge concern.
It is the painful and ugly relief map of veins in my sundresses. It is the thing that pulled me down from the silks. It is the ongoing, nagging, threatening thing that made chemo and surgery far more scary than need be. I hate that blood clot. I really do.
Before my last surgery, I had to do what is called a Lovenox Bridge which is another type of short-term blood thinner that must be injected (by me) into the chubbiest part of my belly twice daily. Like so many of the trials of the last year, this task was a low low. It hurt. I looked like I had been run over.
My next (and hopefully final) reconstruction surgery is scheduled for February 9 so if the clot had still not resolved, I would have to do another round of tummy shots for 10 days. I don’t think I have to now! This also means that the risks associated with my upcoming surgery are far less. This is a high high.
Also, as fast as it started, my hair stopped falling out about 5 days ago. I don’t want to get too excited because, well…who knows? But, a do feel that a huge weight has been lifted from me. I’m that much closer to being a normal person again, whatever that means.
Could there be an end in sight? As long as there is an end, I don’t mind it being uphill.
I’m frustrated. My hair is falling out. My eyelashes are thinning again. I don’t know why. I’m months beyond chemo and surgery. I should be past this! It makes me realize how not past this I am. That dark cloud hovers in my peripheral.
I tell my cancer team about my hair loss. They recommend I see a dermatologist. This is puzzling. By puzzling, I mean infuriating. They sure were good at making my hair fall out. But, making it stop or growing it back isn’t interesting to them. It is the ultimate in passing the buck. It is KMAGYOYO. It made me cry.
I get it. They did their job. I’m not going to die. But now I have to live.
For the first time in my life, the sensations of life and living are distinct. I always used to live to the fullest. I really did. Life and living were one in the same, an effortless marriage I took for granted.
Now I’ve had the experience many only have towards the end of their life…the slow decent into just hanging on, not knowing if you’ll get to come back. Chemo really takes you there. It is unspeakably difficult. The recovery is snail paced. I’m impatient.
The doctors solved my one big problem but created a million other, smaller problems that I’m now trying to sort through. And I realize that I’ll be sorting through them with just my worries and my calendar. Time, it seems, is the only real cure.
Today I’m in the chemo room for Herceptin treatment. It is an easy appointment compared to the TCHP treatments I finished in September. It reminds me how far I’ve come but also how far I have to go.
I treat these days as if nothing is happening. Just a quick little appointment, like running an errand or taking a long lunch. I don’t prepare for it and often forget it is on the calendar. Today, I happened to have a staff meeting at the same time. I joined the video conference from my chemo chair while the nurse was taking my blood through an IV in my arm. It should seem weird but I’m trying not to let it.
I took my phone off mute for a moment to give my update and something magical happened. Someone “rang the bell!” It was her final chemo treatment and my whole team heard it.
I burst into tears. It is my Pavlovian response to hearing bells now. I cried harder when my colleagues started cheering and ringing the bells they have at their desks to celebrate my final chemo treatment. I wish the other woman could have heard them. I’m sure she would have loved to know strangers on a software company video conference across the whole country were rooting for her.
As soon as I think I’m getting used to things, I realize just how unusual this is. And then I’m reminded how lucky I am to have to have such an unusual life. There is no normal anymore. But the new whatever it is is a beautiful thing.
I haven’t read anything more honest and inclusive of my own cancer experience than this article.
I’ve read it 5 times and cried twice. Thank you, Emily Alford.
At my final chemo treatment and bell ringing ceremony I was presented with a certificate of achievement. It delightfully proclaimed I am now qualified to talk about my experience with anyone who will listen. I’m afraid I jumped the gun. Now, I’d prefer to listen.
I have been talking, ad nauseam, about my experience and feelings for 5 months now. I’ve spent enough time in my own head and I’d really now like to know what everyone else has been thinking but not saying.
I realize withholding things from me before was polite, even necessary at times. I wasn’t capable of hearing it at first. It is one of the reasons I didn’t tell very many people until chemo was complete. But, things are different now so lay it on me.
I want to comfort. I want to commiserate. I want to tell you everything is going to be okay. I’ll scream and yell and curse this thing that happened together if you want to. And I know there are a few of you who want to. Because this thing didn’t just happen to me. It happened to us.
We can also talk about something else. Trust me, I’m so ready for a new topic.
Knowing what to say to someone who is sick is really difficult. (This might help.) Expressing fear and anger or confessing what you need is hard also. I feel the same! But, getting back to normal requires one of two things from all of us: address the elephant or ignore him. I’m ready to do either.