?`s and ANNEswers

Ten minutes to write. Less time to read.


I’m one treatment away from reaching the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel or grabbing the brass ring on the merry-go-round. It’s an achievement I’ve worked at for almost six months total; and, truthfully, it feels strange to be at the end.

 Of course my skin needs to heal from the radiation, the bills will continue to arrive occasionally, and I’ll have to keep watch for signs of concern the rest of my life. But for now, respite is in sight.

 How do I feel? Somewhat excited, but not elated. Somewhat tired of the whole thing, but not exhausted. Somewhat relieved. No, greatly relieved. That’s the overriding feeling.

 When cancer patients finish their radiation, they are invited to ring a bell. I’ve been in the waiting room when others have rung it. Some ring tentatively; others clang. I plan to ring loudly and long. I’ll wear my lucky Fargo sweatshirt, and Earl will be there. He wants to take a picture, but I don’t need one. There are plenty pasted in the scrapbook of my memory.

 I’ll relinquish my “job” as parking permit police person, thank everyone for their kindnesses, and we’ll walk out the door. Regardless of the weather, the sun will shine.

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The Longest Day

This was to have been my last day in radiation, but I missed two sessions: one because of weather and the other because Liam broke. I had no control over either situation, but it meant I needed to make up those days.

 Which means that this last day is really 72 hours long.

 I’ll go to Book Club tomorrow and to a funeral the next day before bidding farewell to Liam.

Then my “staycation.” All of which is to say that the normal events of life go on in spite of health issues. That’s a good thing.

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Doc Day #7

Today was our last meeting with the radiation oncologist, and it was noticeably shorter than usual. I have three sessions left before being discharged, so there’s really not much more to say.

 In fact, unlike the previous six meetings, I came with no questions. Instead we reviewed what to expect after discharge. The radiated portion of my skin will eventually return to normal from its current lobster color. I can do whatever I want, but if something unforeseen occurs, I’m to call Dr. G for an appointment.

 The doctor didn’t recommend this, but I plan to take a “staycation.”. I’ve kept a rigid routine these past seven weeks, and now I’m going to treat myself to a week of relaxation with few appointments or commitments. No mall walking, no personal trainer, no physical therapist. Just revving my engines. Knowing me, I’ll be busy but mostly it will be about clearing the cancer cobwebs from my life.

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Next Chunk

Seven weeks from now, my son Kevin and I shall be in Boston; he to run the oldest marathon in the world, me to offer support. Seven weeks is also the length that my radiation sessions took.

Between now and Boston, I am reclaiming my pre-cancer diagnosis routine (the one from last September) as much as possible. This means not having little c in the back of my mind all the time and not allowing myself to eat anything that isn’t nailed down. Both will be difficult.

The truth is that my life will never be without little c from now on. But the emphasis will be on the little and not the c.  As for returning to my old diet – the one where I counted calories and watched the scale – that will be harder. I loved all those second helpings of mac and cheese, garlic bread, and French fries.

But I tried on a pair of summer slacks this morning and determined they were too snug. So my new goal isn’t really about weight as much as it is about fitting into those same slacks before Boston. If I accomplish this, then the rest of my summer wardrobe is good too. It’s almost a financial challenge as well as a nutritional one, because who wants to spend money for slacks in a larger size ever?

Tonight I’m making a “healthy” grocery list and purchasing the ingredients tomorrow. I’ve read that working one’s way around the perimeter of a super market lends itself to better nutrition, because that’s where the fruit, vegetables, fresh meats, dairy products, and booze live. Items with preservatives or high fructose corn syrup or other nasty additives live on the inside aisles.

Seven weeks to Boston seem like a reasonable amount of time to salvage a wardrobe. I hope it’s a lucky seven, just as I hope the seven weeks of radiation were lucky too.

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My husband fixes a smoothie for himself every day. It’s filled with some milk and water to help liquify the spinach, apples, banana, blueberries, cinnamon, turmeric, and protein powder he adds. He believes they help him maintain his thirty-pound weight loss from two years ago. I agree.

Earl has even made me a couple smoothies in the hope I’ll like them as much as he does. But the thing is that while I find them filling, they are unsatisfying. There is nothing to chew, and chewing is a pleasurable part of the eating process for me. For instance, I’d rather eat an orange than drink its juice or sauté spinach than puree it.

Yesterday I attended a class on smoothies and watched the presenter make fresh ones for us to sample. One had organic peanut butter; another had tropical fruit. The third was a variation of Earl’s concoction, only grittier. That’s another thing: I’m not keen on liquid grit.

They were good, but I preferred the peanut butter scoop that I ate with a spoon and the piece of pineapple I took from the leftovers. There was also a lot of talk about anti-oxidants, the value of flax, and the fat content of nuts. The portability of a smoothie when you’re running late was extolled.

I attended this class because I want to explore better eating habits once radiation is over. While I’ve kept myself on a fairly strict routine, I’ve also allowed myself to eat whatever I want as compensation. The smoothie class provided a lot of information; but mostly it reminded me that I won’t be getting my daily nutrition through a straw.

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Home Stretch

The routine I planned for these seven weeks of radiation has served me well. I pretty much cancelled my social calendar to not be exposed to the flu, coughs and colds, or any other lurking germs.

Not being a morning person, I scheduled the radiation appointments near the end of the day and allowed myself to enjoy other pursuits until 3:30 PM. I returned to mall walking and working with a personal trainer, as well as took advantage of any physical therapy my health insurer covered. And I’ve worked hard to maintain a positive attitude; given that I’ve not experienced many of the standard side effects, it’s been relatively easy.

Still, with one week to go, I’m eager to finish. I looked at my calendar for the week of March 4, the first week after radiation, and it’s completely bare. No doubt, engagements will show up before long, but the hours that have been spent going to the hospital, being radiated, and returning home are found time.

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My cancer episode began shortly after Labor Day last year. I discovered a lump in my right arm pit, and we were off to the proverbial races. Next week I’ll finish my radiation appointments just under six months after that initial discovery.

What has the past six months of my life taught me? Technically speaking, it’s gone through the stages of discovery, analysis, diagnosis, first phase of treatment, recovery, second phase of treatment, and conclusion. On the surface, it is a great outcome. Underneath, it is a great outcome too, but less clinical and more philosophical.

These past months have been guided by choosing options I knew I could handle and excluding chemotherapy as one of them. I also learned the value of breaking time into chunks, which dictionaries define as both a noun and a verb. Both apply in my new medical usage.

There was the chunk of uncertainty while the medical community scoped the problem. Then there was the brief chunk of surgery followed by the interminably long chunk of Duane the Drain. Next was the holiday chunk and now the radiation chunk.  Each of these lasted a different number of days, and what they taught me ultimately is that I can withstand anything for a certain amount of time. As long as I know there is an end.

It’s a lesson I hope to use going forward as I chunk toward the next phase, whatever that is.

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I’m not one who settles for less than what I know I can do. I was active prior to this cancer diagnosis and treatment. And I want to get back to the same levels of strength, balance, and flexibility I had last summer.

So there are two PTs in my life.  The first is my physical therapist, A, and the second is my personal trainer, C. They don’t know each other, but they are on the same page.

Once a week, A works on the flexibility of my right arm. I’ve been remiss of late at doing the various at-home arm exercises; that plus the effects of radiation have made Right Arm regress. Today A took measurements and Left Arm can raise to the number 160, whatever that means. But Right Arm can raise only to 150. It’s negligible and doesn’t impede most activities. But from my perspective Right Arm needs to step up. That’s code for “Anne needs to do the exercises.”

I see C, the personal trainer, twice a week; and we work on strength and range of motion. Even though I try, that too seems to be affected by the radiation. The good news is that tomorrow is the last of my “deep” radiation. Next week, it’s only the booster version.

With radiation almost behind me, I hope to make progress with both PTs. None of us expects any less.

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Single Digits

And did I mention that after today, there are seven treatments left?  If I didn’t, now you know.

I told a couple friends, and their reaction was, “Didn’t it go fast?” I wanted to say, “Maybe for you,” but that sounded snide. I could have said, “It’s been six weeks out of my life,” but that sounded obvious. And also snide. So I said, after pausing to really think about it, “Yes, it went quickly, all things considered.” And that’s the truth.

When I went for the first treatment, I wondered how I’d ever get through 33 of them. But I made a plan and stuck to it, week after week after week. For everyone, a plan is different; but for me, I requested my treatment for the same time every afternoon.

I’m not a morning person, so scheduling something that serious first thing meant I would not look forward to waking up. Sure, I’d have the session behind me, but I’m better doing things I really enjoy first thing each morning. Playing piano, writing, even making our bed.

So should you find yourself in my shoes, I highly recommend being proactive and asking for the time slot that works for your psyche and not the radiation department’s psyche. It made a huge difference.

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Doc Day #6

“Who decides how many treatments a patient needs?” I asked Dr. G in our weekly meeting. He had told me early on that my series would include 28 of one kind of “dose” and five of another. But how were those numbers arrived at?

What I like about Dr. G is that he takes my questions seriously and spends time to answer them. In this case, my treatment was based on studies of breast cancer and radiation over the years that eventually created this benchmark.  In many women my age, the usual treatment is only 28 sessions.  The five extra provide a “booster” when the patient’s cancer was particularly aggressive. Apparently mine was, since I’m in for the entire 33.

The other thing we discussed is that there is no way of knowing if radiation worked or not. I could live five years more without it, or I could live five years more because of it. But since these two courses of action are mutually exclusive, the impact on my future is unknowable.

Does that make me wish I’d not done the radiation? Not really. It was manageable and reasonable. Besides, who would be the parking permit police person if I hadn’t shown up?

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