A model cancer patient

On Monday I participated in the Wellspring Well Dressed For Spring fashion show at Holt Renfrew. I got to wear expensive clothes and be fussed over and be a model for a day. I met some great people, many of whom had also had cancer, which of course gave us an instant connection. It is so strange how the second you learn someone else has had cancer, you suddenly start talking about very personal things that you might not even discuss with a good friend. The ties that bind.

Me and another model I met that night, who also had breast cancer, four years ago.
Me and another model I met that night, who also had breast cancer, four years ago. (Photo credit: George Pimentel)

As the show began and we waited backstage to be called, my stomach started flipping and I got extremely nervous. Why did I agree to do something where a bunch of people were going to stare at me? For someone who hasn’t felt very good about her appearance in quite some time, this suddenly seemed like a bad idea. A few of the other models were having butterflies as well. But then I reminded myself, and them, “We’ve all been through a lot worse than this.”

“Very true,” remarked my fellow model. The show must go on. So on it went.

After hearing my name called, I walked up onto the stage, while Amanda Lang from CBC read a short bio about me and my cancer story. As she said the words and everyone looked at me with tears in their eyes, I too started to tear up, which I really didn’t expect. I have no problem talking about my experience and have heard the story so many times. But it still sometimes catches me off guard, when I hear someone else describe what I have been through and where I am right now. It was all a bit overwhelming.

I walked down the runway, and the rest is really a blur. I remember I had had a plan of how I wanted to walk and I really wanted to seem cool and model-y, but that quickly went out the window the second I started walking. Cameras were flashing and everyone was cheering and my grandpa was blowing me kisses and I had a bit of a mental black-out. I really don’t remember walking. But somehow, my feet carried me, to the end, and back. And I didn’t even trip.

The awkward "Hi everybody, I feel weird!" look. You saw it here first.
The awkward “Hi everybody, I feel weird!” look. You saw it here first. (Photo credit: George Pimentel)

After the show, I had lots of people introduce themselves to me, and many people told me they have followed along with me since the beginning. No matter how many times I hear this, it always shocks me. I still have trouble comprehending that anyone other than my mother would be interested in reading my blog.

The evening was wonderful, and emotional, and fun, and exhausting. I am really glad I did it and had the chance to be surrounded by so much love and support. A nice feeling.

The next morning, I got up bright and early to do my final blood draw using my good ol’ port-a-cath. The nurse messed up the first try, so she had to give me a second needle, which was a bit frustrating. But I had a feeling things wouldn’t go smoothly, seeing as it was the last hurrah, and isn’t that just the way it goes.

After the blood draw, I had a check-up with my oncologist (actually, I got to see two doctors because I am just so special). We talked about various issues I’ve been having, and also some stats around recurrence and my odds. It is funny how when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want to hear any stats or numbers from anyone, because I couldn’t handle how scary it was to talk in those terms. It is still terrifying, but I have a much firmer grasp now on the reality of my situation, and a certain comfort level with it. An acceptance, of sorts. It still feels like a punch in the stomach to hear that after everything I have done, my chances of survival are still not as high as I wish they were (i.e. not 100%, which is what we all wish for… isn’t it?). But my doctors do seem genuinely optimistic, and I fully believe that they are not bullshitters, which is why I have allowed them to remain a part of my medical team. I like real talk. I also like hope. And they give me both. So I actually came away from this appointment feeling fairly good, especially after being told I will now get a nice THREE MONTH break from hanging out with cancer doctors, which is the longest I’ve ever had. So that is quite thrilling.

After my hospital morning, I went home to change and headed up north to attend Naomi’s funeral. The service was beautiful, with touching eulogies and stories shared about this amazing woman. I feel so lucky to have known her and to have gotten to know some of her friends and family. Of course, as nice as the memorial was, it was also extremely difficult. I wept the entire time, having it fully hit me that my friend is gone, and that someone so important to so many people, is gone. It is a hard reality to face. It is so hard to make sense of why these things happen. To know that it happened to such a loving, amazing family, who deserved nothing but happiness. It is all just terribly unfair, and my heart aches for all the people who are feeling the loss of Naomi and all that she brought to this world. I am also confronted with having to face my own mortality, and the notion that it could just as easily be my funeral, and my family left behind. The death of a friend causes many emotions to stir up, and in this case, maybe a few more. It is hard, to say the least. But I’m so glad I got to be a part of saying goodbye to someone who had a very significant impact on my life.

And, since my week wasn’t cancer-filled enough… today, I got my port removed. I was initially supposed to be sedated for the procedure, but I called yesterday and asked the nurse if I could do it without any drugs. She said I could, if I felt relaxed enough about it. And I told her, honestly, I really just didn’t want to fast all day, because not eating for one day is just way too challenging for me.

So today I made my way to another hospital, and checked in, and commenced a very long wait for my procedure. I had a phone call from someone on the medical team asking if it had been explained to me that I could receive medication and get an IV and all that. I told the guy that I had just eaten a bagel, so that ship had sailed. No turning back.

When they finally called me, I went into the operating room and lay on the bed and stared at all the machines and monitors. I instantly started to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake by offering to be awake. For the port insertion, I had been so nervous that I asked them to give me an insane amount of drugs, and I completely passed out. How things have changed. How I have changed. I have a new sense of bravery about these things that I never possessed pre-cancer.

A young doctor entered the room, looking like he walked off the set of Grey’s Anatomy, which for some reason put me at ease. He explained what was about to happen, asked the usual questions, and then began. I had to have several needles to freeze the area, which didn’t bother me. Then he made his incision, and I could feel a bunch of tugging and pulling that seemed to go on for awhile.

I started to feel very warm and noticed I was feeling a bit faint.

“Is everything okay with it?” I asked.

“Yes, there’s just some scar tissue that I have to scrape out first.”

He continued to remove the scar tissue and I could feel pulling on the vein.

“Are you almost done?” I asked, “because I think I’m pretty close to passing out or vomiting.”

He asked me if I needed a break and I said no, just get ‘er done. Before I knew it, he yanked the tube out and out came the port. Then he sewed me up and bandaged me as I felt my blood pressure return to normal and the room stop spinning. Easy peasy.

And now I am home, a bit sore, after what feels like a very long, highly emotional, exhausting few days. I’m having some bleeding come through the bandage, which is slightly worrisome. If it continues, I am supposed to go to the emergency room. But I am hoping that does not happen. I’ve had enough cancer-related events for one week. Time to get back to watching bad TV, sleeping, and being a regular human being… which, these days, is what I hope for, more than anything.

Me, now. Time for bed.
Me, now. Time for bed.

Dressing up and moving on

UPDATES!

1. Next week I am walking the runway in the Well Dressed For Spring Fashion Show, supporting Wellspring. All the models have some sort of connection to cancer, and most are media personalities or executives. I am neither of those, but apparently I still made the cut.

Today I got to go to Holt Renfrew (our high-end fancy-shmancy department store, for my non-Canadian friends) and meet with my stylist, Christopher. YES, I HAVE A STYLIST. Christopher pulled several different outfits for me to try on, which was pretty much a dream. I wear $9 jeans most days, so this was a tad different from what I’m used to. I was a bit nervous going in, worrying that nothing would fit me properly. In fact, last week, when trying on a bunch of dresses from my closet, I had a bit of a breakdown when I learned that none of them fits me anymore, due to my new implants that don’t really move or squish in the way natural breasts do/should. So I now have a bunch of nice dresses I can never wear again, which is a bit sad.

I was worried something similar might happen at my fitting today, but it did not. Luckily, Christopher picked stuff that I was comfortable in and that wasn’t a far stretch from what I would wear in my daily life. The complete outfit costs more than my entire wardrobe at home (which really doesn’t say much… I am pretty cheap). And I even get to wear Prada shoes, which hopefully, I will be able to walk in without having a Carrie Bradshaw fashion roadkill incident. The whole thing was really fun and made me wish I were a rich celebrity with a personal stylist and a giant closet full of fancy things picked just for me. Sigh. But it will be fun to pretend and play dress-up, if only for a day.

2. Next week I’m getting my port removed. Remember my port? I have had this thing implanted in my body for a very long time. I don’t ever look at it or think about it. It’s just there, and I’ve gotten quite used to it. But now that I’m done with the whole drug pumping bit, I no longer have use for it, so it’s time to yank ‘er out.

The port removal is very symbolic to me, because it truly marks the end of that phase of my life. However, I can’t help but worry that taking it out will somehow jinx my health, and the cancer will come back, and I’ll need chemo again, and they’ll have to put the goddamn port right back in. I realize that type of thinking is illogical, but the thought has crossed my mind. Nonetheless, it’s time to come out, and that’s a good thing. More cutting, more stitches, more scarring. Just another day.

3. Last, but not really least… I have given notice at work that I will be leaving my job. So, I am looking for a new job. And as much as I really wish I could skip the whole job search/application process and just send an email saying, “I had cancer and have been through a ton of shit and have quite a bit more life experience than can ever be summed up on a resume and I deserve a friggin’ break, and I am pretty much awesome at everything so just hire me and let’s be done with it,” I can’t really do that because I would come off as completely insane and slightly hostile. So I’m on the hunt, looking for the next thing in my life, and excited for the future… and hoping it doesn’t take forever to get here.

(P.S. Anyone out there hiring and in need of a brilliant, hard-working, all-around fabulous employee? Remember, I had cancer, therefore you should probably try to help me out. It’s kind of your duty as a fellow, compassionate human being.)

(And yes, I have no shame playing the cancer card. I totally earned that card and will do with it what I please.)

(But seriously, if you want to hire me, get in touch. Besides the whole cancer-killing superhero thing, I’m fairly awesome at doing many other things.)

ronburgundy

saturday night

Since it’s a Saturday night, I decided to get a little crazy and remove the dressings that were covering my port. The tape yanked at my skin, which is a sensation I have become all too familiar with, but I soldiered on. At one point, I thought I saw an actual gaping hole in my neck as I continued to tear off the bandage and I was about five seconds from passing out. It ended up just being the way the light was hitting the skin beneath the dressing, creating a shadow. Crisis averted. Repeat: There is no giant open hole in my neck. Very glad about this.

My skin was bright red, which I assumed was from the antiseptic stuff they paint on the area pre-surgery. I tried washing it off and realized that was no dye, but rather the actual colour of my poor, abused skin. I also have some little blister bumps around the incisions. This is not at all shocking to me, as I have learned via many weird and mysterious rashes that my skin, just like me, HATES cancer.

Here’s a pic, for those who enjoy some illustration.

CANCER IS SOOO SEXY!
CANCER IS SOOO SEXY!

I learned today that I was given a whole package about my port when I left the hospital. I had no memory of receiving it, because drugs do strange things to the memory and I had received a whack-load of drugs.

I flipped through it, and noticed this extremely happy fellow on the front of the brochure.

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“Ports are so much fun! High five!”

Look how happy he is! I’d say he’s even laughing a bit. As if ports are just the bee’s knees. I’ve noticed this on lots of various cancer-related brochures and websites. People always look so darn happy. Do they know something that I don’t? Is cancer actually this big super fun party where everyone is smiling and dancing and giving each other high fives? I can only hope.

The package also included a card, key ring, and an extremely attractive bracelet so that the whole world can know I have a port inserted underneath my skin.

Don't mess with me and my power port!
Don’t mess with me and my power port!

All in all, I was pretty satisfied with the port package as a whole, especially because I got some freebies out of the whole deal. As a cancer patient, you get endless handouts full of information (although most don’t include bizarre bracelets). Every procedure, surgery, treatment, side effect, etc., gets its own handout. It can all be pretty overwhelming. In fact, I have an entire box that is overflowing with cancer-related paper and binders.

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This used to be my wedding box. Now it’s my cancer box. Life is weird.

So now I have to make a new folder to add to the pile, which will be labeled “port stuff”. I will refer to it whenever I want to be reminded that cancer can’t be all that bad, because the doctor on the front of the pamphlet is smiling, and doctors know best.

My bio-port

Today I am once again bandaged, in pain, very itchy, and looking extremely unfashionable as evidenced by this photo:

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These bandages are covering a fun little device called a port, which was implanted under my skin yesterday during a surgical procedure where I received so many drugs, I was knocked unconscious and now, thankfully, remember nothing. Many people don’t know about ports, or why they’re needed. Well here I am, your friendly cancer patient, to give you the 411.

As mentioned earlier, I have tiny veins. This can make it difficult to get access, and I have the most revolting, grotesque, horrific bruise currently on my arm to illustrate this fun fact. Because of the specific type of cancer I have, I will be receiving chemotherapy, followed by drug infusions, for over a year. That much poking over that much time could cause some serious problems. I wish to avoid these problems. Hence, the port. (I act as if I had any choice in the matter. I had no choice. But I like to pretend that I did.)

The port is a small device that is place near the upper chest under the skin, via an incision. Another incision is made, which is where the tube/catheter is inserted. This tube connects the port to a vein near the neck which ends near the top of the heart. Just typing that out makes me want to vomit. Moving on.

When I receive chemotherapy, drugs, blood draws, etc., they will access the port, which means no more searching for veins in my arms. So technically, this should be a good thing. Today, however, I am not such a fan, as it is causing severe pain all around the surgical site, and into my neck and shoulder. It kind of feels like a gun shot wound, except that I have no idea what that feels like, so I can only assume I must have been some sort of Bonnie and Clyde-type outlaw who was shot, in a former life. Naturally. It is also making it difficult to lift anything with my right arm. I learned today, after attempting to eat spaghetti with my left hand, that ambidexterity is not a skill I will be adding to my resume any time soon.

Because I don’t possess a great deal of fat in my upper body, my port will likely stick out under my skin, and be visible. Since I can’t see it yet, I’m hoping it is not completely hideous. I’d like to think of it like a bio-port from the movie Existenz, which will allow me to enter some exciting virtual reality game. Maybe Jude Law will be there. Maybe we’ll go on thrilling adventures. Maybe it will all have absolutely nothing to do with pumping toxic drugs into my body and making myself ill.

Maybe.