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.

The happy cancer dance

Unless you are one of those people who doesn’t know how the internet works, you’ve likely seen this viral video circulating around social networking sites, where a woman who is about to undergo a mastectomy dances with her medical team prior to having her surgery.

I have no issues with this woman and her dance party. I liked watching the video and it made me smile. I love a good dance party and I totally danced at odd times throughout my cancer treatment. When the urge strikes, I say go for it. Her display of joy does not bother me in the least.

What bothers me, however, is people’s reactions to this video. The video went viral because people LOVE seeing patients who have fun with their cancer. Patients who subvert expectations of being a cancer patient and who defy convention. These types of stories are the ones that spread like wildfire because we find them to be inspirational and uplifting. Thousands of people shared and commented on the video: She is so awesome! Wow, she is brave! What amazing courage this woman has! I wish I could be like her!

Okay, fair enough.

But I’ll tell you a secret: EVERYONE who gets their boobs lopped off possesses courage. We just all choose to do it in different ways. Sure, no one wants to see the video of the young mom being wheeled in her hospital bed, into the operating room, with tears running down her face, hopped-up on anxiety meds. Fine. You don’t have to see it. But all these women are no less courageous and no less awesome and no less worthy of being celebrated.

Our society loves showing the lighter side of cancer, and the people who laugh in its face. We need to perpetuate this “happy cancer” myth so that we feel we have some sort of control. If I get cancer, I will dance too, and I will be okayCancer’s not that bad.

But the truth is, most people aren’t dancing. Most people are scared as hell, and isolated and anxious, which is how I feel most days. I can tell you, as someone who loves to dance and loves giving the big EFF YOU to cancer, I most definitely was not dancing the day of my mastectomy. I cried. And I cried for many days after.

I still cry.

I am no less brave.

And neither are you.

Breast awareness

So many anniversaries lately. So many at this time last year, I was doing X, remember?

Today is yet another date that still stands out to me. October 19th. One year since I bid adieu to my breasts. One year since the cancer treatment really began.

There hasn’t been one day since then that I don’t think about my breasts. The current ones, the old ones, the cancer. Breast breasts breasts. My whole life, centered around some hanging, bouncy (albeit, no longer bouncy) body parts. Impossible to escape, especially now, during the month of October, BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH (or have you not noticed?).

I think about breasts every time I stretch my left arm to turn off my lamp beside my bed, when I feel the uncomfortable pull and remember that my arm does not move the way that it used to.

I think about breasts when I realize that none of my fancy dresses fit my body anymore because of the firm side-boob implant I have that prevents the left-side zipper from zipping.

I think about breasts when I hear them spoken about on television, in a movie, in a conversation. So much talk of breasts, everywhere you look. Breast-obsessed.

I think about breasts when I walk by a lingerie store in the mall, and think of all the bras that are still sitting in my drawer that I will never have any need for again. The comfy ones, the pretty ones, the lacy ones. Relics of the past, gathering dust, taking up room.

I think about breasts when I receive a tight embrace. A simple hug. When my ribs are squeezed just a bit too hard, still feeling bruised from the stretching, from the implants, from the surgery.

I think about breasts when I look in the mirror, every morning, every night. Every time I am in the shower, every time I get out of the shower. When I see two large red scars across my chest, when I am confronted with the reminder, oh hey, you had breast cancer… and you still might have breast cancer.

I think about breasts when I remember this day. Being injected with radioactive dye before my surgery. The pain I felt as the dye pushed into my veins. The tears that flowed as I realized what was to come next, and wondering, why me, why me, how is this happening, why me. I cried alone in the changing stall, while I slipped into my hospital gown. I don’t even remember staring at my breasts. There was no farewell. No last glimpse. No time to mourn.

I think about breasts when I remember being drawn on with magic marker, as my surgeon marked up the areas to be cut. I kissed my husband and said goodbye to my parents and lay down while someone rolled me into the elevator and down a hall. I cried and felt as though I was 5 years old, scared of what lay behind the doors. I didn’t let the doctors see me cry. I didn’t want to show the fear. There were so many people in that operating room. Surgeons, nurses, fellows, anesthesiologists. It almost felt like a party. Everyone there, to be with me. To save me.

I think about breasts when I remember the feel of my surgeon squeezing my hand as I waited for the drugs to wash over me, while the whole room stood by, waiting to remove a major part of my femininity. The body I once knew, no longer.

I think about breasts when it is October 19th. My own breast cancer awareness day. All mine.

I don’t need a pink ribbon, or pink toilet paper, or pink football players to remind me.

Believe me – I am aware.

The bonds of cancer

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I was very ambivalent about being introduced to other women with the same disease. I wanted to find people I could relate to, yet each situation is also highly individual. Not to mention, most women with breast cancer are considerably older than I am and my set of issues are largely different from theirs.

I was also cautious of making “cancer friends”, as I knew it could mean potential heartbreak. When you and a friend both have cancer, there is always the possibility that one of you might make it, and one of you might not. Or both of you might, both of you might not. It’s entirely unpredictable. I worried about creating friendships where I would be forced to deal with cancer again and again, or compare my disease to someone else’s.

Eventually though, you realize that cancer is majorly lonely and that all your best friends have zero idea what you are going through, as much as they might try to understand and connect. Eventually you need to find others who have been through what you have, and truly understand all the emotions that come with cancer, and after cancer.

Awhile back, I connected with another young woman named Naomi, through my blog. She is a bit older than I am, but in her 30’s, and still very young in breast cancer terms. She has a husband and a little boy, and I learned that we were both at similar phases of our treatment, and being treated at the same hospital.

We bonded over our shitty luck and became friends quite quickly. It is easy to connect with someone when you’re both bald and have had your breasts removed and your life has become batshit crazy. Naomi is a beautiful, kind and generous person and I’m so grateful that we found each other, despite the reason.

Unfortunately, very recently, Naomi learned that her breast cancer had made its way up into her brain, forming another tumor that was causing her headaches. Of course, this was devastating news to hear. We had both just finished up with the worst of our treatment and wanted to celebrate together. This wasn’t supposed to happen, and definitely not so soon. But as I’ve said before, cancer doesn’t really care what you have planned, it just has a mind of its own. And Naomi’s cancer is a particularly nasty beeyotch who clearly needs to be put in its place.

When Naomi called to tell me her cancer had metastasized, she was immediately concerned with my emotional well-being and how that type of news might affect me personally. This is an example of how totally selfless and awesome Naomi is.

Last week, Naomi had brain surgery to remove her tumor and she of course rocked it like a rockstar, because that’s how us cancer galz roll. And now she has another scar to add to the lot, although this one is particularly bad-ass. Once you have staples in your head, you’re pretty much cooler than anyone else around.

I visited her in the hospital a couple times this week. Obviously this was not an easy task. Having cancer friends is complicated for this very reason. I am painfully aware that it could just as easily have been me lying in that bed. I know that that could be my future. A tumor in the brain, or bones, or lungs, or liver. All within the realm of possibility. This is what I have to wake up and face, every day. Every single day. And seeing my friend have to go through it is a pretty harsh reminder of the beast that is breast cancer and the giant question mark that is my future.

But with all that said, and the many emotions I have been forced to confront, I have no regrets over making cancer friends. Naomi popped into my life during a time where I really needed her. And now she needs me again, so I will be there. It is as simple as that. She is no longer just a cancer friend, she is a real friend and a part of my life. I will do what I can to ease her troubles, and I will be a shoulder to lean on. I will cry with her when things get tough and curse cancer for continually picking on us nice guys. And I will celebrate all of the good moments along with her, because I know there are still many to come.

Watch your step, cancer. You are totally messing with the wrong bitches.

 

Surgical tales, volume II

It has been a few days since my surgery, and I’m happy to report that I made it through. Thanks to those who have written to me. I’ve been a bit slow on responding but I appreciate your concern and warm wishes. Thanks to Katie S. for that sweet hospital gown, and Tiffany for the nice tea, and Maytal for the lasagnas and banana bread (which made the hubs very happy as well), and the Rock-it Promo team for all the fun products and DVDs, and everyone else who has sent cards and nice things. Thank you!

The surgery went well, from what I can tell. I didn’t get to actually speak to my surgeon after I woke up, but I assume if something had gone terribly wrong, I would have been informed. I don’t remember too much, because the anesthetic tends to do strange things to your memory, which is probably for the best. I do recall crying like a baby when a nurse started my IV through my wrist. I’m not sure why she chose my wrist, but she poked me several times and the pain was way more severe than I expected. I was in the middle of talking to a surgical fellow, when I realized I was in pain. So I did what any normal adult woman would do, and I pulled the blanket over my head and sobbed. Lately I have realized that my hospital crying sessions are about a 50/50 mix of emotional and physical pain. The instant my brain receives the signal that I am again in pain, however small or fleeting it may be, I am overcome with the realization of how much my body has been attacked and how much I have gone through since finding that lump, and the sheer absurdity of the entire thing. The tears come more from exhaustion than from anything else. I am tired of the pain, I am tired of feeling like some sort of botched science experiment. The tears are just inevitable at this point, and I let them flow freely, as they wish.

I also remember the mask being lowered onto my face, which I do not enjoy, as I am highly claustrophobic. Upon realizing this, the kind anesthesiologist did his drug magic and gave me something to knock me out before the real knock out. I made a comment about how ugly the ceiling was and how there should be something more pleasant to stare at while you wait to lose consciousness, and then that’s the last I remember. Lights out.

I was not in the hospital very long this time around. I wanted to go home that evening, and I believe I said to the nurse, “Get me the eff out of this place.” So she got the approval for me to be discharged and I didn’t have to sleep in the hospital and hear the chemo machines beep all night. A sound which now triggers a queasy feeling inside whenever I hear it.

I’ve been doing well at home. As people had told me, the recovery for this surgery is definitely much easier than the first, which I’m very happy about. I was only on the heavy drugs for a couple days, and now the pain is tolerable with no drugs, as long as I don’t move around too much. I have my stupid surgical drains, which I hope to get removed by my home care nurse in the next couple days. If you have no idea what drains are, consider yourself lucky. Don’t google it. It’s about as gross as it sounds.

The weather finally seems to be getting a bit nicer outside. I went for a walk today. And by a walk, I mean a few steps out my door and then back. But I got to feel the sun for a bit, which was nice. It’s days like these that it’s best for me to stay away from social media, where everyone is making grand proclamations about their love of springtime and all the fun things they’re doing today. It’s hard to relate to everyone else when you have tubes hanging out of your body. Right now, I am most looking forward to getting clearance to take a bath. You don’t realize how wonderful something like taking a simple shower or bath is, until that privilege is taken away from you. The little things.

I don’t have a current photo to post because I am not feeling particularly photo-friendly at the moment. But posts that are all text are a bit boring, so I’ll leave you with this old photo of me. At some department store, in Paris, laughing over something that probably wasn’t all that funny. I hope to be doing this again sometime in the future.

 

Surgical tales

As I mentioned in my vlog, I will be having surgery this coming Wednesday. Why am I having surgery? Well, to answer that question, we need to go back in time a bit. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

On October 19th, I had a bilateral mastectomy. In non-cancer terms, this means that both of my breasts were removed. Which was about as much fun as it sounds. I realize I never wrote about my surgery, since it happened prior to starting this blog. But it was quite a large piece of the fighting cancer puzzle, as this was when my ugly effing tumor was removed.

The decision to have the mastectomy was ultimately mine to make. Many women opt for a “lumpectomy”, where the tumor is surgically removed but the surrounding breast and tissue remain. Every situation is very different, and often complicated. The period of time spent making this decision was not an easy time in my life. I had just been given this bombshell of a diagnosis, was secretly running back and forth between work and hospital appointments, and had to wrap my head around the idea of losing my breasts, a month after I had celebrated my 28th birthday. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. Looking back, I’m not even sure how I slept, or how I got dressed, or how I got up each day, without completely losing my shit. Every time I would go to the restroom while at work, I would touch my chest and feel the tumor. Yep, still there. It was real. And I wanted it out, as soon as possible.

After some thoughtful deliberation and research, and a bit of soul-searching, I decided I wanted to remove the entire breast on the tumor side. And if I was giving up one, I would send the other one packing as well. Although it was upsetting, I didn’t feel any great attachment to my breasts at that point. They were trying to kill me, after all. And I don’t respond too kindly to anything that threatens my life. So, bye bye boobies it was.

I’m not going to get overly detailed about the intricacies of the actual surgery or the weeks that followed. Waking up from that surgery was not easy. Breasts gone. Giant scars in their place. Surgical drains protruding from my skin. Lots of pain. I spent several days in the hospital, completely loopy and nauseous from the constant flow of pain meds through my veins. I can remember how angry I was that first week. When I was lucid enough to feel any emotion, it was anger. Accepting that I had been diagnosed with cancer was still new to me. And now I had no breasts and couldn’t get to the bathroom without help and couldn’t raise my arms. Nothing about any of it felt alright.

When a young resident came to check on me and we mentioned that the drugs they were giving me did not seem to be helping enough with the pain, she remarked in a condescending tone that it was not normal to be in as much pain as I was in. You might guess that I did not respond well to this type of comment, and you would be correct. I did not appreciate this doctor making me feel guilty for the pain I was feeling. Let me cut your boobs off and see how you like it, I might have said if I’d had any strength to even open my mouth at that point. I wanted to tear her blonde ponytail right off. It has been six months, and I still feel anger towards this woman, this stranger. For making me feel inadequate and weak a day after I had lost part of my body. She was a doctor. And a woman. A bit of compassion would have gone a very long way. Luckily, however, there were many other people who helped me get through it all, such as my husband, who slept on the hospital floor next to me for three nights. Not exactly the getaway we had hoped for as we approached our first wedding anniversary, but at least we were together. Nothing says romance like having your wife high on morphine and hearing screams coming from the rooms down the hall all night.

The weeks after were difficult, with many challenges (oh the irony of not being able to shave or wash my hair while I still actually had hair) but things got much easier as the days went by, and I healed well. Eventually I was raising my arms and getting back my strength and feeling almost normal again. Just in time to start chemo. And we all know how much fun that was!

This week, I go under the knife again for my reconstruction surgery. In other words, I’m getting some new boobs. For the past six months, I have had “expanders”, that were placed under my chest muscles at the same time my breast tissue was removed. Over the months, they were slowly “expanded”, like a balloon, with saline from a giant syringe needle. This was to stretch the skin to make room for the permanent implant. Although I have adjusted to having these weird turtle shells sitting on my chest, they are uncomfortable and tight and push on my ribs, and I won’t be sad to see them go. The implants should be more natural and more comfortable, which would be a welcome relief. (And if you’re wondering if I viewed this as my opportunity to have huge boobs, the answer is… No. Sorry to disappoint.)

I’m not sure how I feel about this upcoming surgery. I don’t really feel scared. I have been through so much. I don’t like the idea of being put to sleep again, and being cut again, and waking up in pain again. I would prefer not to be having surgery again and to get to enjoy the week and just have a break from it all, for a bit. That is what I’d like right now. But these days, I am not calling the shots. So I’ll  get dressed in yet another hideous hospital gown, do what they tell me to do, and let them “reconstruct” me and put me back together. As much as they can, that is. No new breasts will ever be able to replace the ones I lost. All that I’ve lost. But it’s a start.

Today.
Today.

 

throwback thursday

When you wake up one day
and big chunks of your hair are falling out
because you’ve had your first dose of chemotherapy
and your chest aches
and it is hard to move freely
because you’ve had your breasts removed
and you have ugly scars all over the place
and you know everything is about to get a lot worse
you can crawl into the corner and put a bag over your head and scream

or you can put on a really cheesy pop song
and dance really poorly
even though your plastic surgeon would probably not be too pleased

Sometimes, you just make a choice.

My bio-port

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

IMG_0317

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.