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.

counting, “normal”, and heart connections

I’ve officially hit the double digits on my chemo- 10 down, 8 to go. Never thought I would be so obsessed with dates, but here I am marking my mental calendar in an attempt to sooth my psyche. I want hair! I want useful fingertips! I want to lose this steroid weight! Mostly, I need to know when life will get back to whatever normal will be post chemo. As if there is ever such a reality as normal. Seems “normal” shifts and changes minute to minute, second to second. Oops- that was normal this morning, but the afternoon normal has shifted to include urping and watering of the eyes. Tune in for this evening, when normal may well involve manic housecleaning and sudden onset of nausea….there is no planning for what a body on chemo will do, and it just adds to the excitement. When I feel great, like on most Saturday mornings, when I have steroids pumping through my veins, I feel as though I could run the hills of Seattle without taking a break- then I go to walk the dogs, and my muscles ache and I’m gulping for as much oxygen as my mouth and nose can ingest. Good thing Franny and Emma don’t judge me or require me to bound hills or even walk at a fast clip. I’ve found joy in just walking slowly and noticing the very small things. Only occasionally do I lose patience with myself (or those sweetly neurotic dogs).

This past week also marked my last class for fall quarter. I spent last weekend attempting to maintain my energy for writing a final paper, and it took every last bit of brain capacity and physical stamina I could muster. It was challenging, to say the least, but it also made me reflect on the fact that I am so thankful to have been in this program during this time in my life. Who would have guessed that I would have the opportunity to use my classmates as a therapeutic healing force in my breast cancer drama? But that’s exactly the gift that I have had, and so this week was both exciting (knowing that I’m taking a quarter off to rest) and sad (knowing that I won’t have class as a blissful distraction as well as a healing tour de force). I will miss having the anchor that school has offered. I will also very much miss the hugs, tears, and open hearts that I have encountered each and every time I entered the classroom.

And so here I am on my first “free” Saturday morning, reflecting on the past year, which has been, um, wild. I have no doubt that the year ahead will offer just as much thrill. My hope (fearful of the word “plan” these days- too many expectations attached) is that I can stay on this ride and yet keep as rooted as I think I have been. To be present. To be joyful when I need to be, and to allow the tears to flow when they will. Isn’t that what life is? I actually had just this reminder this past week when I had the opportunity to have what can only be described as a heart connection with my niece, Destyni (how perfect is that?). I won’t go into the details of our conversation, but I will offer that I remember being a “tween” and I could relate to the feelings that she offered of being lonely and smothered at the same time. Because who knows at any given moment what we may need as human beings? “Right now I need some space- WAIT! Don’t leave! I need you!” Random acts of being human. Give us all a break. We are filled with hormones (don’t I know it) that make us wildly irrational sometimes. It’s so damned fabulously wild and irritating that sometimes you just have to sit and laugh (or is that the hormones talking?). I am thankful for those heart connections. And I have lots of them. I experience pure bliss when I have what is a painfully rare opportunity to chat with my sister, Tami, who I admire beyond words for what appears to be an infinite capacity to be loving and giving amidst chaos (it’s humbling, believe me). I look forward to my weekly connections with my parents, who are a perfect blend of sweet and spicy, and always leave me grateful for being a daughter. I am joyful for friends who are experiencing new love (joy, joy, joy), who send me emails and cards, gifts of free facials (I’ve received two gifts for facials- yahoo!), as well as those who need to vent how pissed off they are about this or that. Truly, I am just disgustingly thankful. I just need to figure out how to tie these damned scarves.

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”.

redefining beauty

liquid courage

sassy 'do!

Last night, our friend Jenn visited and she and Irene took turns cutting, shaping, and finally shaving the hair that remained on my head. For all of the anxious anticipation, the actual loss of my hair was relatively easy. It helped having two phenomenal women to down a shot of bourbon and laugh with during the process, but also to find a bit of playful joy in being the model of multiple varying hairdos (to include a mullet and a mohawk). Now I look in the mirror, and despite the wacky shape of my sparce hair and the funny lines of my sideburns, I feel refreshingly beautiful. This is me- stripped down to the bare bones with little to hide behind. This is who I am right now, and it doesn’t actually feel as bad as I thought. It feels real and ripe for potential. I will use scarves and hats to dress up my naked head, but nothing can hide the fact that my world has been ripped to the core, and I am only wiser and more radiant because of it.

This weekend, I walked in the park in the early morning, soaking in the foggy mist that penetrates the trees. I luxuriated in the crunching of the multicolored leaves, and stood beneath a tree occupied by a resident owl. I love these reminders of the cycle of life and the fact that everything is integral and yet at the same time just one part of the whole. This cancer is just one part of my story- it’s the now. It’s my multicolored leaves in the fall, with the promise of rich soil to foster the budding of flowers in the spring.