holding patterns

On hold…again. Apparently the tightness in my chest is of great concern, considering the dose dense chemo that I’ve been receiving. Reen and I were rushed from my oncologists office to a digital imaging center a block away where I was put through a CT scanner for images of my chest. We waited to hear from the doctor on staff that there was nothing unusual in the images. A weekend of waiting. On Monday, I will undergo an echo cardiogram before I’m given the go ahead for chemotherapy. If all is clear, I will hopefully have my infusion on Monday, and then again on Saturday to be back on track.

My sleep last night wasn’t the best. I tossed and turned thinking about the possibility of heart damage or pneumonia that can be cased by Herceptin, Taxotere or Carboplatin. Why wouldn’t my insides be the mess that my outsides are? If my nails can’t even stay on my fingers, why wouldn’t my heart, which is the first organ to receive these drugs, be negatively affected? How can the 2000 iu of vitamin E that I take daily be a guard against permanent damage to my fist sized heart? And then I woke up this morning feeling slightly more optimistic. I’ve had some severe cases of heart burn, and this tightness doesn’t feel so different from those symptoms. It’s a deeper feeling that I notice when I take a deep breath…and I’ve been doing a lot of deep breathing these days.

Tuesday will mark the inauguration of our first openly bi-racial president. The first president to self-identify as African American, and to admit to being raised without a father. My heart is open wide to the hope that this election continues to bring, and I breathe deeply as a reminder that what I’m going through physically is nothing compared to the centuries of racism, violence, genocide and poverty that precede this time in America. I breathe deeply as a reminder that nothing is permanent, and that I am fortunate to have my body and spirit as intact as they are. I breathe deeply to calm my ever busy mind and to connect to the people around me. In short, I like to breathe, and I prefer those breaths to be full and intentional. No wonder I have tightness in my chest- my heart is expanding with hope. Who knows what type of test it will require to catch those results?

finding a path

Rejoice! My counts were decent enough yesterday to send me on my way to my twelfth chemo infusion- which, in my continual count-down, leaves six to go. Six resonates in my body as a good even number, and somehow I’m not daunted by it. I’ve done twice that many so far, which means that I only have one third of my treatment left. Math genius, I am not, but I can certainly appreciate the power of a good old fashioned count down!

My phenomenally beautiful friend Lena attended my full Friday of cancer treatment yesterday to give sweet Reen a much needed respite. It was a treat to have another day with Lena, and also to have the gift of seeing my regimen through her eyes- a perspective filtered out of love and openness. Even in the long periods between having my port accessed, waiting for my dearly adorable yet perpetually late oncologist, and then awaiting a chair in the infusion unit, Lena was radiant, upbeat, and on the task of advocating for anything I may need. After our nearly seven hours at the clinic, Lena zipped me home and we were greeted by a cozy, candlelit home with pizza and salad on the table, Reen and Marcos standing by, and a lemony delicious cake with fruit chaser to complete the meal. Who could complain about that? I went to bed as pleased as a girl could be, and had a night of deep and delightful sleep.

Today, after using moxa and sage on my fingers, hands, toes and feet, I’m trying not to obsess about my darkening nails. The pain of neuropathy hasn’t been as bad after taking the two week break from chemo, but I have one nail on the verge of falling off, and every day brings a new hue to each nail (fingers and toes). My task today is to research cryotherapy- a suggestion from one of the infusion nurses- and to send positive energy to each digit, despite my urge to cringe at the appearance of yellow, brown, green, and red on my nails. There must be something to learn from this…

Living this experience has taught me to be humble, but also that I have a deep potential for anger. I have found my patience in everyday life to be short and temporary, and I am continually having to remind myself that it would not be appropriate to scream, spin around, and fall to the floor in a fit when I feel overwhelmed by the world. And the world is so overwhelming these days. I’m not just talking about the people that drive through crosswalks when there are pedestrians or the folks who avoid looking me in the eyes when talking to me, but also the perpetual violence happening on a personal, community, and world level every day. My little case of breast cancer seems so minor when I consider people living in or near a war zone or the people in my very community who have no access to safe homes, clean clothes, or a daily meal, let alone health care. So what if I’m boobless, bald, and that my nails are falling off? I’m sitting in a lovely little condo with a cup of tea and heat, and, as Lena reminded me yesterday, I am rich beyond words when taken in the context of the world. I am lucky. And the anger and outrage that I hold are awaiting a path of action.

inhale. exhale. repeat.

New year- new port. Surgery went without a hitch, though I have tenderness today. After waiting over two hours post-surgery for my blood test results, I was given a hesitant “go” for chemo infusion. My white blood cell counts are wavering just above the level in which chemo is stopped and blood transfusions considered. What I have come to appreciate during my nearly 2 week sabbatical from chemo is that I don’t need to rush this process- I can absolutely take time to recuperate from the intense weekly regimen, and I will eventually be through it. Even if I’m told next week that I should hold off from sitting in the infusion chair, I will do my best to gracefully focus on my own healing and the control that I do have. If all goes as planned (I laugh as I type this), I will have 7 more infusions, with a break after the next 3. I am prepared for alternative plans.

Looking back at this past year, I am in awe of how much it held. A year ago, I was in the midst of my first year of graduate school and learning to juggle work, school, and life. I had no idea that I would be undergoing surgery and treatment for breast cancer, and I had no clue of my own courage and strength. What I could use a bit more of in the coming year, however,  is grace- that shiny, beautiful ability to welcome change and to allow others to help even when I feel stubbornly independent. I am slow to recognize that I can’t handle it all, and I have had to admit over the past several weeks that I am tired- emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When I received the news that I had this diagnosis, I also conjured up massive amounts of energy from my family and community. Now, after four months of cancer treatments, my energy is dwindling along with my attention span. All of my ideas for making this time a spiritual transformation that fueled creativity have been squashed, and I find myself obsessed with the future- the time that I’m not in treatment- as though my life will all of a sudden feel “normal” and cancer will be magically wiped from my mind. I am continually having to remind myself to focus on this moment in my life, and to appreciatate the wholeness of this experience. When I struggle with this, I remind myself to focus on what I can truly control- my breath.

starkness

Chemo girl is on vacation for 2 weeks. I was told on Friday that the symptoms that I’ve been experiencing are a sign that I need to take a break from from my weekly dose of toxic cancer kicking juice. I was upset at first, because I want this @*!#ing chemo situation to end sooner than later, but when my sweet oncologist suggested that I could possibly have permanent damage if I continued with another infusion, I agreed to a break. Instead of sitting for half a day in the infusion chair, I sat for only one hour of Herceptin treatment. Irene and I made our way off of icy Capitol Hill and enjoyed Indian food in the University District. Much better than chemo, and no nausea or heartburn over the weekend. Not too shabby, I say. And having a weekend of snow made my spirits soar. Nothing like a good romp in the snow to remind oneself that there is good reason to rejoice in the pure joy of being alive. (especially if that romp involves witnessing dogs and/or children experiencing the unabashed pleasure of snow play). And nothing like a blanket of snow to bring a new perspective on the outside world and to enforce a focus on the moment.

Another minor setback in my cancer treatment world is that I will have one more surgery to look forward to in 2008. My porta cath, which has been a trooper for 10 treatments of chemo,will be replaced on January 31st. I’ve been noticing a spot where my skin was darkening, and after weeks of no change, the area became darker and my skin actually split over the port. Apparently, this happens on occasion,  and the suggestion was to remove this port to avoid an infection that could go straight to my heart (yikes). Needless to say, I reserved the first available surgical appointment for removal of the old port and insertion of a new one. Perfect timing to rest between infusions.

I remember beginning treatment as the leaves were turning in the fall. Now, at the winter solstice, I am taking my first break. A time to regain strength, to go inward, and to reflect on what really matters. Looking out at where my garden sits, under a deep blanket of heavy snow, I am reminded of what it takes to make a blossom. Even the most beautiful flower must experience starkness…and this is my stark time. Though I don’t know that plants obsess over their lack of bloom. As much as I attempt to be present in my cancer experience, I am still shocked at my image in the mirror, and I envy women with cleavage, hair, and energy. I regret that I never acknowledged my own beauty before, and that it took a diagnosis of breast cancer to make me appreciate my body. And now I don’t remember what it feels like to bloom.

gratitude

I’ve spent the past two days feeling dreadfully sorry for myself, and I’m absolutely sick of it. I am so blessed- beyond words- by so many wonderful people in my life. I have people making me meals, knitting me hats, sending homemade cards and haiku (sweet Amy, I love them each and every one), lending me scarves and hats, offering their time, love, and energy, and most importantly, continually reminding me that I am cherished. I have to remind myself when I begin feeling pathetically whiny about the side effects of treatment that this is not only a drag, but also an amazing opportunity for me to soak up some seriously fabulous attention. A year from now, I don’t want to regret not being completely present for this experience or for taking these gifts for granted. I want to recognize even the smallest ways that I have been enriched by this experience-every little bit of it. So, in honor of the season, I offer my gratitude for even the things I’ve complained about…

the nausea– I will forever appreciate my healthy appetite, and to love food as fully as possible.

the heartburn– I will continue to be thankful for my breath.

hours in chemo– quality time with Irene and the beautiful people who visit (thanks, Katie, Jenn, and Lena!)

exhaustion– I’ve never understood before now the wonder of an afternoon nap- ahhhhhhhhh.

hair loss– inner beauty, baby. It’s not about the hair- it’s the attitude one can have without it!

loss of breasts– no more underwire. ’nuff said.

I doubt that I will quit whining or being pathetic as my treatment drags on, but I want to mark this, the halfway point of chemo, as a time that I remember. I want to remember the people who have been there for me and who pointed out my strength, courage and beauty, even when I felt empty and tired, and I want to remember this as a time that changed me into a remarkable and kick ass woman- deserving of the title “survivor”.