?`s and ANNEswers

Ten minutes to write. Less time to read.


These past two days have been most frustrating. I thought by now I’d be feeling more and more myself, even with the drain still in place.  But I’ve felt less and less optimistic, less and less able, less and less satisfied with my post-surgical progress.

So I contacted SW, the oncology nurse navigator, in the belief that she would take time to listen and I could then get on the right path before seeing the surgeon, who is a man of few words in the first place. SW and a physical therapist spent two hours with me, answered my questions, looked at my incision, and sympathized with how bandages and tape make me feel crummy.

More than that, they asked what I’d been doing these past two weeks and concluded I have been working against myself. Playing piano too much, writing too much, using my right arm too much. I honestly don’t know how I can do less; I’m not ironing, not cooking, not making beds alone.  To which one of the them suggested I do nothing (as much as possible) for three days and see if the numbness, tingly-ness, and achy-ness that I’m complaining about subside.

Nothing for three days! You’ve got to be kidding! Tomorrow for instance, I already have one teleconference, one hair appointment, and two doctors’ visits. And in life before surgery, I would have also scheduled a workout with my trainer, made dinner, and bustled about our house making sure everything was in place before settling down to read in the evening. Piano goes without saying too.

Still, I’ll think about it. I just have to find three days and hope they’ll turn the past two from 5-6 to my usual glass-half-full 8-9.

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Fresh Sheets

“Will you help me make our bed?”

“Sure,” Earl said. And, because he’s Earl, he wanted to do it as soon as the dryer stopped.

Normally re-stretching the mattress pad and then putting on the sheets is a one-person job, but it must be noted that such person needs two functioning arms to stretch the various layers in the corners and then lift the king-sized mattress to keep them in place.

I’ve done this alone for years, but these days I have only one good arm, the other being compromised in the name of halting cancer. Still, my secret weapon is Earl.

The thing is he has never made a bed before, at least in my memory. So we struggled with getting the mattress pad on in the right direction. Since the bed is not square, this matters. We also disagreed about how the top sheet should be: right side up or right side down.  But I was raised by a nurse who just happened to be my mother, which means I’m rigid about doing it her way. It’s right side down. I will say we did not do hospital corners.

Changing the sheets is a great example of how life after breast surgery is life in the slow lane. And the irony of this is that I’m currently sleeping on our couch, as it’s more comfortable.

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If Earl were here, he’d remind me that a month from today is Christmas.  But he’s not. He’s in Chicago attending a funeral. The forty-four-year-old son of close friends died unexpectedly a week ago today.

In the usual scheme of things, parents are not meant to bury their children. Siblings are not meant to face old age with one missing. When this happen, the world seems skewed; and I can’t think of any other situation that’s sadder.

It offers a certain perspective regarding my current breast cancer situation. Yes, it was unexpected, but I’m still here. And regardless of what’s ahead, at least we have more time together.

My own sons belong to the same decade of life as the man who died. If it had been one of them, my heart would be screaming, “Not fair; not fair. Take me instead.”

Under such sad circumstances, I would have willingly traded places.

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Bob’s Place

In the end we ate Thanksgiving dinner at Bob Evan’s yesterday. It was easy, which counted for a lot under the circumstances.

We didn’t have to make conversation with other guests; we didn’t have to dress and bring a hostess gift; and we didn’t have a ton of dishes in the kitchen sink when the feast was over. The price was right too.

Hoping to avoid both the mid-day rush and the early evening onslaught, we arrived around 4 PM. There were plenty of empty tables, although most needed to be cleared. But a waitress found one for us, and we settled in. The menu offered turkey and dressing or ham or chicken fried steak as the entrée with three sides, unlimited bread, and dessert. A dollop of cranberry sauce was also included.

The service was erratic as other diners wandered in: one couple in their pajamas, an older man pushing a woman in a wheelchair, two men, a woman alone with a walker.  I wondered what brought them all here, and I hoped that – like us – it was a personal choice and not their only alternative.

Truthfully, we had a miserable experience at this same Bob Evan’s three, maybe four, years ago and told the cashier we’d never come back.  We hadn’t either. But of all the alternatives we considered, this seemed the best way to get stuffing, which is what I like most about the Thanksgiving meal. I ordered a double helping and was rewarded with four giant scoops of it.

With that Bob Evans redeemed itself, and I rated the day an 8.

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On Balance

Today is Thanksgiving Day 2017, and I lay awake this morning thinking of what to be particularly thankful for.

How about the six weeks I spent with bronchitis which prevented Earl and me from visiting Mexico but still paying for the privilege because we didn’t cancel in time? Or the cancellation of two other trips? Or the skin cancer that left a four-inch incision as a precursor to the larger breast cancer incision now next to it?

Or the loss of a grade school girlfriend, the first of our group to die? Or the cancellation of our plans to build a house from scratch because I have this motto that “When it’s time to paint, it’s time to move.” This time we’re staying put.

I don’t believe I needed the object lessons inherent in any of these events.  At my age, I’ve had ample opportunity to practice patience and acceptance. So what am I thankful for?

It’s not the events; it’s the people surrounding them: Earl, who believes I hung the moon. Kevin, with whom I’ve done marathons for over 35 years (He runs; I cheer.) Keith who shows up just when I need someone most. Their partners. Our extended families on both sides. And our friends.

Because our family is spread all over the country, our friends are the ones who pick up the day-to-day caring. Who encourage us. Who laugh and cry with us. Who are the siblings neither Earl nor I ever had.

I only hope to tell each of you in person how thankful I am for your presence in our lives. That would make this day a 9.

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I love to ask questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? and How? have been stalwart friends for years.  But since my surgery, I’ve realized that it’s hard to ask the right questions when you don’t know what you don’t know.

I asked the doctor, “Can you remove the tumor?” What I should have asked was, “What’s involved in removing the tumor?” He answered the first question with a nod of his head, but gave no indication of the second.

I asked, “How long will it take?” It was all in an afternoon’s work on an outpatient basis.  What I should have asked was: “What kind of restrictions will I have when I get home?” I didn’t know I wouldn’t be able to raise my right hand more than 90 degrees, that I couldn’t wash my hair because I couldn’t raise my right hand, or that dressing oneself would become an exercise in contortionism.

What I asked was: “How long will the drain be in?” And what I should have asked is, “What is the longest possible time the drain could be in?” The answer to the first question was couched in wishful thinking (“Oh, maybe the doctor will remove it at your next office visit.” ) while the answer to the second appears to be the reality. (“Up to a month.”)

I am still in the beginning stages of this health situation, but I’ve learned that nobody volunteers information – particularly unpleasant information – unless you ask for it directly.

Today was a 1 until the home care nurse came and fixed my bandages. Then it was a 4 until I got my hair washed at a salon.  After my nap, it turned into an 8.

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This blog isn’t about that time at the racetrack where you picked the winning horse on a feeling instead of studying the facts. It’s about breast cancer patients and posture.

I’ve worked with a trainer for years and still must remind myself to stand tall with shoulders back and down, chest out, and chin high.  It’s even harder to do with a large incision on your right breast that extends to the back of your armpit. There’s a tendency to “hunch” for relief and protection.

I told SW, the nurse navigator, and said my solution was not to wear a bra so that I could hunch even better. She cut me off mid-sentence: “Now we have to have the bra discussion,” she said. First, not wearing a bra helps gravity’s pull but not you, the breast cancer patient.  Bras provide support and help in standing tall.  Because when it’s all over, you still want the posture your trainer worked hard for you to have. SW even gave me a variety of post-operative breast cancer bras to try. (Grist for a different blog)

The truth is that since my surgery I find myself unconsciously hunching over: at the table, at my computer, at my piano. Even with these special bras. It must be a natural tendency, but I’m working to avoid it. I imagine my back will also thank me down the road.

On a scale of 1 to 10, this was a 9. I will never list 10 until this all over. So 9 is good.

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Surgeon’s Report

Today was my first post-op visit with the physician who did my surgery last week. He is a matter-of-fact kind of guy, wastes no words, and is an authority on Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a general of the Civil War. I mention this last, because once he shared the medical news, that was how we really connected.

Earl is a Civil War buff too, and before we left the examining room Dr. R. invited him to join a local civil war group. So history brought my husband and my surgeon together as much as the cancer itself. Did I mention that Dr. R and Earl go to the same church?

Yeah, it’s spooky!

And the report? Stage 2B cancer with two lymph nodes out of eight involved. Still a long row to hoe, but one more piece of information to absorb and use. And because the drain that was inserted during the surgery isn’t ready to come out, we get to see Dr. R weekly for the near future.

Who knows what other connections we’ll unearth.

On a scale of 1 to 10, today was a 9. No nap, feeling perky. More tomorrow.

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It’s been five days since my surgery. Yes, I’ve curtailed my activities as directed; but I’ve still managed to dress, make the bed, pick up the house (It’s not that heavy!), and generally move about in relative comfort. Without pain meds too.

I credit all those years I’ve gone to the gym, worked with a trainer, and mall walked regularly with my feeling as good as I do and being as flexible as I am.  That is, until today.

I hit the proverbial wall. Woke up this morning stiff and sore, mostly because I’m consigned to sleeping in only one position due to the location of my surgery and the ever-present drain. My back is rebelling. My incision is offering sympathy pains, and the arm where the surgery was done is becoming tingly and numb.

I was warned about these latter symptoms, but at the time I was far more focused on the surgery and not the aftermath. I should have realized it’s the aftermath that gets tedious.

So I took a pain pill and spent most of the day sleeping. Asked Earl to wake me in time to see the sunset, which he did. I’m hoping today’s rest will result in tomorrow’s feeling chipper once more.

On a scale of 1 to ten, today was a 5.

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Big C

In the almost six months since my last blog, cancer has come calling. I hope it finds me a formidable opponent, as I have no intention of letting the Big C have its way. In fact, calling it Big gives cancer too much power, so I’m referring to it as lower case c.

I’m not being flip or casual; this is serious business. But I believe a positive attitude, coupled with an appreciation of every day we have on this earth, is an important component to facing lower case c.

Long story short: I discovered a lump in my right armpit the middle of September; after a variety of tests it was determined to be cancerous; my surgery to remove it was this past Tuesday, November 14, and now I’m looking at several weeks of radiation that will start before the end of the year.

But that’s just an outline for what has been an amazing experience so far. It’s an experience that defies everything I ever thought about cancer and doctors and family and friends. So I plan to write about it. This is the start . . .

On a scale of 1 to 10, today was a 9.

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