Saturday, October 15, 2016

I'm Rounding Third and Heading Home ...

Long, long ago ... in what seems a lifetime away, I got a bit of bad news and my life began to change.  Over nine months ago, I was reeling from a diagnosis of breast cancer and living the surreal life that comes with it.  And when I found out the date of my surgery, I posted And Here's the Wind-up  because, hey, what better analogy for cancer treatment than baseball, right?

Both seem to take for frick'n ever and include long periods of boredom only slightly mollified by food and drink along with a series of side-shows attempting to entertain you as you wait for each pitch, waiting for something inspiring to occur.  Or, as the player, you try to keep your eye on the ball, some seem to fly high and wide, others nearly take your head off, so you dig yourself in deeper, take a deep breath, and wait, hoping to crack that little m******f***** out of the park.

My personal trip around the bases included a dash towards first with my lumpectomy, then a frantic dash back to first as an infection required a second surgery.  I scrambled next towards second base - mired in chemotherapy - and took some nasty hits that continue to bother me today.  Someone should really knock that second baseman on his ass, maybe fine him for unprofessional conduct.  I limped toward third base - radiation - and started to see the end in sight.  A horde of third-base coaches stood waving me on home.

And here I am, straining to make it to home base, that initial ball o' triple negative breast cancer still (hopefully) flying out into the blue to be hopelessly lost forever.  Pretty sure I broke the bat on that one.  My long, soon-to-be 11 month rounding of those cancer-ball bases will continue this November 11, 2016, when I go into surgery again. 

This is the "matching set" surgery I was so excited about in the wind-up post.  After the lumpectomy and the "revisioning" surgeries last January and February, Frankenboob continues to recover.  Now it is time to re-create some symmetry between the girls. 

No, I won't suddenly be needing to don DD-sized brassieres.  Let's leave Frankenboob alone, shall we?  She's literally just gone through the fires of radiation for goodness' sake.  Her game is over - send her to the showers.  In fact, let's send in another runner for her, okay? 

After some tussles early on in the game that included multiple mammograms, ultra-sounds, and a particularly nasty MRI-guided series of biopsies, Righty has been sitting the bench, resting. 

Now it is up to her to finish this game.  She'll start for home November 11th and she won't emerge unchanged. 

Recovery will take roughly three weeks according to Dr. Livingston (I can't make up ALL these names).  Dr. Andrew Livingston will handle this last surgery for me.  As I reminded him that it only took me two weeks to recover from the creation of Frankenboob (and another 1 1/2 weeks following the "revisioning" surgery), he wisely directed my attention to the months of chemotherapy and radiation in-between and suggested that it just might take a bit more for me to bounce back this time around. 

Right. True.  Players feel a tad different at the end of a game than at the beginning. 

I'm nearly three months out from chemotherapy and one month out from radiation.  Already, I find myself looking back on those months and wondering how on earth I made it through it.  We are SO much stronger than we believe.  I don't believe anyone truly knows their own strength until it is tested.  My hair is back - full and thick ... and gray - and grew as if it had been struggling wildly against a barrier that has suddenly been removed.  The persistent cough that plagued my end of chemo ended in early August. My nails are slowly (agonizingly slowly) healing and growing. 

Treatment has certainly left me weakened, with scars and continued pain, but the important part is that it left.  Treatment is over.  Each day, I look for new ways to hasten recovery.  Currently, that means trying to figure out what I can do for the continuing pain of neuropathy that will not involve medication.  As you can imagine, I'm kind of tired of medications, of putting anything in my body that includes some long list of possible side effects that invariably ends with ... "oh, and death."  The pain and my fatigue should continue to improve over the next weeks and months.

If I were to ask one more thing from all of you who have been so incredibly supportive during this year, it would be for prayers, good thoughts, and hope that by next July (or sooner .... so much sooner), I will be free from the pain of neuropathy.  I am told that if I continue to have pain a year after chemo has ended, it will likely be lasting pain. 

And, yeah, that would suck. 

But first, it will soon be time for a transformation - the creation of Bride of Frankenboob. 

[Yes, I know I'm silly. I prefer that to whiney.] 

I know I've said it before, and I'll continue to say it:  Thank you.  Thank you for your support.  For your prayers.  For your notes of encouragement.  You overwhelmed me with support when I needed it the most. 

If only every person who faced this deadly ... game had such fans.  Such teammates and coaches. 

[See how I steer this back to an American pastime?  My least favorite American pastime.]

I'm going to cross home-plate even if I have to dive for it.  And then I'm going to rest, ice down some joints and muscles, and head to the after-party. 


Reminder: if you've stumbled across this through a search for breast cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, neuropathy, or any other such word because you're looking for answers, for hope that you can do this or that a loved one can make it through treatment, please feel free to contact me via comments or email.  There is immense hope.  You CAN do this.  Your loved one CAN handle it. 

As a dear friend said long ago: Life is Good. 

If your search was for baseball, well, there is hope for you as well. 

It's called basketball.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Radiation Queen

It's a queen. ~ Ripley, Aliens 3 (1992)
At least, that's what I thought when first confronted with the massive radiation machine on my first day of treatment.  In my mind, I saw this:

The Queen, ready to spawn thousands of aliens in Alien Resurrection (1997)

In reality, I encounter this brightly lit machine each weekday of my five weeks of radiation treatment:

The Radiation Machine aka The Queen
In quick recap of my 2016, I was diagnosed with a "bit" of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC) in January 2016 and ended that month with a lumpectomy/breast conserving surgery wherein my surgeon, the wonderful Dr. App, removed my tumors, moved around my breast tissue and relocated my nipple to form a slightly smaller yet relatively unmolested left breast.

I call her Frankenboob.
My right remains jealous.

I endured AC/T chemotherapy from March 3, 2016 through July 19, 2016, and am still recovering from the side effects.  My chemo port was removed August 5, 2016, so that I'm no longer a member of the Borg. And the following week, I met the "Queen" above to begin my daily radiation treatments.

I have one each day, Monday through Friday.  Do you see that table with what looks like molding along the top?  Here, let me show you a closer picture:

Radiation Table

Under the sheet is a "bean bag" that has been molded to my body.  During my initial appointment - my simulation appointment - the technicians placed the large bag underneath me and, once they had me in the desired therapy position (arms above my head), they sucked all of the air out of the bag in order to create a "mold" for my body to be used at each treatment.  It helps to ensure that I'm in the same position each time they aim that little beam.  As do my four new tattoos.

What? Tattoos? That's right.  I told the tech with the needle that she was giving me my gateway tattoos.  I'm sure this will lead down a path of elaborate sci-fi references and jaunty looking owls covering my pale flesh. 

That desk lamp looking contraption above me is actually a breathing tube.   

Right.  What?  A breathing tube?  Don't I just close my eyes and relax while any possible remaining cancer cells are zapped out of me?

Nope.  See?  I put my mouth around that large blue piece. 

Go ahead, try to convince me that a man didn't design that thing.

In the end, I look kinda like this:

Actually, I look exactly like this since this was taken by one of my technicians.  See?

Yep, that's me looking uber comfortable, right? Not at all like I'm being used to incubate an alien.  Actually, put me in a vat of water and I'm a bit more Luke Skywalker from Empire Strikes Back recovering from nearly becoming a snow monster's popsicle.  

Anyway, this is a fully interactive radiation.  Because my tumors (the main and its mini-me) were located in my left breast, my radiology oncologist opted to have me use the breath-hold technique when receiving radiation treatments. At that first appointment, they had me use the breathing tube to inhale as much as possible and measured my lung capacity.  Then they had me do it again.  And again.  After three large breaths, they used these measurements to find a range representing 75% of my lung capacity.  During treatment, I inhale until I reach that 75% range then hold my breath as the actual treatment takes place.  This creates extra space between the tissue being radiated and important parts like, oh, my heart.

But how can I know when I've reached that 75% range?

Well, as you can see above, along with the breath tube and tiny clamps closing off my nostrils, I also wear goggles during treatment.  Goggles that show me the computer screen being used by my techs.  And this is where it becomes like a video game.  A ridiculously easy video game but, really, those are the only kind I enjoy.  During treatment, when I look through those goggles, I see a screen like this:

Radiation Mock PC Screen - Breath Hold
The red line moves across the screen from left to right as the tube monitors my breathing.  First, I aim for my exhale to end within the gray bar across the bottom.  Once I've done that three times in a row, the tech is able to press the big green button, which causes the green bar to appear on the screen and I inhale until the line is within that green bar; then I hold my breath.  I hold my breath until the big red button lights up.  I usually do this three times during a treatment.  The first two times tend to be about 20 seconds each with the third coming in at about 10 seconds. 
I believe the longest I've held my breath doing this was during the simulation appointment at 34 or 35 seconds.

Now, before and between each of those breath holds, the radiation machine moves around me as my table also moves, putting the machine and me in specific positions for the radiation.  That circular part of the machine over my face in the picture?  That typically begins along my right side for the first zap then moves to my left side, down low, for the following two.  Three breath holds and I'm done with a treatment.

One treatment each day for 25 days.

As of today, I've finished 23 treatments.  My last ... LAST ... radiation treatment will be this Thursday, September 15, 2016. 

My skin held up really well until about treatment 21.  Sunday night, I realized that a large blister had formed and broken in the treatment area just under my left arm.  Fun times.  As of last night, other parts of the treatment area have started to peel like I had a really stupid time on spring break in Florida.  I cannot wait until Thursday.

My friends these days are called Aloe Vera (the clear kind) and Aquaphor.  I apply them generously and often.  Enemies include heat and ... well ... anything touching the area.  Since last Thursday, the worst hoodlum is called "bra." 

Thursday really cannot come soon enough.  Someone else can meet the Radiation Queen and play this video game of zapping cells.

I'm ready for Ripley 2.0 to head on down to earth.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Brave and Inspiring

Not today.

Just. Not today.

You will hear the words "brave" and "inspiring" a lot during your treatment. You likely said them yourself when it was a friend or other loved one going through the same fight.

"You're so brave."

      "You inspire me."

                   "You are amazing."

  "You're so strong."

It's all a part of that support I've mentioned before. That immense support that can sometimes seem overwhelming and so unexpected.

You focus on recovering from surgery. You do your best to take care of yourself during chemotherapy. You learn all that you can about radiation. Each day, you take that next step forward.

And, if you're like me, you often don't feel all that strong.

You're more amazed at the time that's gone by than at yourself.

Inspiration? Bah. Brave?

Well, I sometimes feel brave to be seen in public with my cancer-altered body. Does that count?

If you're like me, there will be days when you just can't.
You can't be the brave, strong, amazing warrior that your world expects. You feel incapable of positivity. At this point - my point - you've finished chemotherapy but chemotherapy hasn't finished you.

                                   It just can't quit you.

Many side effects have blissfully gone away and your body is sprouting hair once again and often in places you really wish it wouldn't. Nose bleeds have ended and coughing is lessened. But ... fatigue continues and even worsens. Your toenails have yet to fall off and, what's this? Why are they itching?
What seems a minor inconvenience quickly invades your life.  Itch.

                              Itch! Itch! Itchity Itch!

Still managing to ignore it? Well, let's add blisters. Many, watery, itching, burning blisters.
Jesus - Are these the elephant man's toes?

What. Is. Happening!?

Ask your doctor.  Perhaps, like me, you'll find out that it is "just part of the process." 

On that day, my friend, you'll not feel brave, or amazing, or inspiring. You'll feel like hitting something. Hard. Starting with the person who said, "just part of the process."

You'll feel like crying a lot. Except that, well, crying comes with a runny, stuffy nose and you'd rather not.

You might want to talk to someone. To vent. But ... this isn't brave. Or inspiring. You don't want to burden your loved ones when there's nothing they can do and little they can really understand. 
I remember this. I remember seeing this is my friend Robin's eyes but not knowing what it was exactly.  I'd ask how she's doing and she'd smile and say fine. I knew it wasn't fine. But I also didn't know what to say or what I could do for her. Looking back, I wish I would have simply said, "I wish there was something I could do for you."  But I digress.

Hopefully, like me, you've found a support group - whether it is live or online - it's important to have a group of people to whom you can vent. Share worries. Share experiences.  And sometimes they are your best lifeline. A group of people who are going through the same or similar treatment are invaluable. They know what you're going through. If they're not able to give suggestions for coping, they understand completely and sometimes that is the most needed thing in your life. True understanding. Acceptance of your bad days.

The days you say ... not today. There's no bravery, no inspiration.
Just. Not today.

I'd love to end this by saying that tomorrow is another day. That all will be well. That the sun will come out or some shit like that. But I'm waiting for my blistery toes to start driving me insane once again. I'm realizing that the holiday weekend is nearly over and I've neither visited friends or family nor gotten loads of work done. 

I've done ... really nothing.  Actually, wait, I've managed not to draw blood scratching. 

Right now, that's pretty fucking impressive. 

Screw brave and inspiring. 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's All Too Much

I can't believe that over a month has gone by since my farewell to Nurse L.  Time has flown since that last chemotherapy infusion on July 19th.  I saw my beloved Struts again in Cincinnati and am already half-way through my radiation treatments.  Most knowing me would have thought I'd have popped up a "final chemo" blog post within a day or two of that treatment.

I mean, really. FINAL chemo. That's huge. One step closer to being finished with treatment. 

All I can say - what I keep coming back to in terms of a "why" I didn't is - it's all too much.

Chemotherapy is a bitch.  You start out all "I'm gonna kick cancer's ass" and, at the end, you crawl to the edge of that boxing ring and barely allow the ref to raise your hand in victory before falling indelicately over the side and passing out.

The side-effects of chemo are cumulative.  You start out with some nausea and fatigue.  Then you lose your hair (the one everyone recognizes).  Then your feet hurt, your nose bleeds, your mouth tastes awful and you have to use special rinses to curb mouth sores.  Your digestive system is just pissed, and your toenails decide to chuck it all and give up.  Each side effect builds on the one before it.  And throughout all of it, the fatigue increases.

Walking into that building on my final chemotherapy day was a bit surreal - as this entire experience has been surreal.  Honestly, I think that is how I've coped; I'm focused on getting through this year and every step is surreal.  My stepmom, Pam, had come up again and went with me one final time.

I hadn't been in my chair that day for long before a few of my coworkers showed up with balloons, donuts, a cake, an awesome gift certificate to one of my favorite restaurants, and champagne.  God bless them.  Dan, Bonnie, Kim and her girls, all surprised me.  And then, when I returned from a bathroom break, I found my sister Linda (who was supposed to be back at work in Ohio) and my Dad; they'd driven up to surprise me, too.  And just when I'd hugged those two, I turned to find my sister Jenny (who was supposed to be back at work in Indianapolis), my Mom, and my aunt Berb had made the trip as well - AND brought her Texas sheet cake with her.  Too much. 

The family also brought up a pink poster with their hands drawn on it, waving goodbye to cancer. 

The Original Wavers - #ByeCancer

I later took the poster to work and had more people sign it.  It represents just some of the people who have supported me in so many ways during these months. 

Too much.

My sister Glenda stopped by as well.  And one of my bosses, Jim.  Meanwhile, I just tried to take it all in - and failed miserably.  But, honestly, that was probably for the best.  Again ... it's surreal. 

It was a gathering that I wasn't expecting and it meant more than I can adequately describe.  Yet, leaving the infusion center that day felt somehow anti-climactic.  You expect to be overcome with emotion.  You anticipate a feeling of victory or satisfaction somehow.  But you've just had another chemotherapy infusion and what you feel is a combination of steroids and poison coursing through your veins meant to rid your body of any spare cancer cells.

Leaving the building isn't the end of chemotherapy.  Your fresh dose has yet to begin to wreak havoc with your body, to add its own side effects to the mountain that has been accumulating the past five months. 

To try to absorb and recognize at that moment the enormity of my last chemotherapy infusion was to potentially fracture my carefully constructed "let's get through this" façade.  Nope. 

Too much.

I think that is why it has taken me over a month to finally sit down and write this post.  And, frankly, my body is far from recovered from the side effects of chemotherapy.  My feet hurt, some nails are clinging on stubbornly despite the fact that there is no saving them now, and that fatigue.  Oh, the fatigue. 

I'm beginning to believe that "Fatigue" is the very worst "F" word out there. 

But my cough is finally gone, my nose bleeds have stopped, I can take deep breaths once more, and my hair - or at least the "advance team" for my hair - is about half an inch long now. 

If you're in the midst of chemotherapy right now or getting ready to begin it, as I've said before, you'll get through it.  I did.  Take it one day at a time.  Address side effects as they come up.  And rest.  Hydrate and rest.  Accept help.  Trust. 

You'll get through it and, in about a month or so, you'll look back and wonder how you did. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Thank you, Nurse L

Nurse L,

That first day back on March 4, I waited anxiously to find out who my nurse would be for chemotherapy.  I remember worrying about whether I would like her (knowing only her name).  This would be the person who would answer my questions, calm my fears, handle the dangerous drugs - quite literally holding my life in her hands.  She would watch me closely for signs of the allergic reactions that could kill me.  I can't imagine going through this hell relying on someone I did not trust.

Thank God they gave me you.

You have been a joy, a balm, a voice of reason during a time when it is so easy to spin out of control.  You've listened calmly to each of my questions, anxieties, oddities, and answered them all. 

Do you truly understand just how important you are to the people sitting in those pods?  Our chemo nurses are our lifelines and often the first to get our questions - our real questions.  You hold our hands through one of the most difficult times we'll ever have in our lives.  Our hopefully long long lives.

You are loved.
You are respected.
And I am so incredibly grateful to you for helping to save my life.  You realize that is what you do each day, right?
You save lives.

Thank you for making the choice to become a nurse. Each and every one of your patients is blessed to have you.  And I am proud that I have been among them.

I wrote the above in a thank you card today.  There have been so many people who have been essential to my treatment but some do stick out more - those bright lights amidst the gloom - and Nurse L was one of them.  All of the nurses I've encountered at Lemmen-Holton have been fantastic.  Our community is truly blessed to have them.

Oh ... and did I mention:  TODAY WAS MY LAST EFFIN' CHEMOTHERAPY!!

I'll write more on that later.

But now ... we dance! 


Friday, July 8, 2016

The Penultimate

Ah ... the penultimate.
"Last but one in a series of things; second to last." ~ Oxford Dictionaries
Last but one. My little sister reminded me of this word recently and I love it.  In television series, it often seems to mean the episode of the season, often better than the finale.  If you're a Game of Thrones fan, just think of the first three seasons: "Baelor," "Blackwater," and "The Rains of Castamere."  I'd explain why but ... I wouldn't want to ruin them for you. 

Plus I just like saying it.  Penultimate.

Today was my penultimate Taxol infusion. Only one remains. I mentioned last time the various side effects this drug can cause and which ones I've been "blessed" with during the past few months.  Everyone handles chemotherapy drugs differently and I seem rather susceptible to Taxol's evil nature despite doing weekly doses rather than the denser bi-weekly doses.  Despite icing my feet and hands during every infusion.  Even despite my doctor lowering my dose last Friday.

Penultimate. Just one more.

I'm so close. Getting this close to being finished while feeling the cumulative effects of the drug brings to mind a long race.  The literal uphill race.  Picture it ... you've ran long and far, you've had missteps along the way but you're still going and you can see it.  The finish line.  Your feet hurt, you're struggling for breath, but you know you can make it.  Just a bit further.  There's a ribbon to cross, cheering fans even, waiting for you. 

You keep going, step after step, and you notice that you're looking UP at the finish because the hill is getting steeper the closer you come to finally crossing that line. 
SERIOUSLY? There can't be a bit of a break in there? Some sort of relief?

Well, sometimes you make your own break, my friend, your own relief.

That's why my last chemo will not be next Friday, July 15.  It can't.  I won't be there.  I'll be "breaking" on Mackinac Island at the beautiful Lilac Tree Suites and Spa with my sisters (original and in law) and stepmom. 

Just a bit of a break.  But it's worth it. 

And then I'll be back for the finale - July 19th.  I'm pretty sure that one final side effect from Taxol is mushy emotional crap because I can't seem to think of that last infusion without leaking out of my eyes. I don't think I've ever wanted something OVER so much in my life. 

        And I include my divorce in that group.

For now though, I cheer my penultimate.  It sets up the finale, you see.  It a door finally cracking open and the light from outside just beginning to shine through.

It's the beginning of a voiced "You did ....." just waiting for the "!"

I'm so excited!  But first I need to hop a boat to an island and see a Pink Pony about an excellent steak while listening to music and watching boats out on beautiful blue water. 

You know .... as one does. 

2016 has been the hardest year of my life but dammit, I'm taking every bit of happy I can from it.  Cancer can suck it. 

           The "it" being big hairy donkey balls.

Ha!  Wow, that turned more violent than I intended.

Back to pretty boats floating in blue water. 

And waiting for the finale.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The New Normal.

I fill the measuring cup - 4 cups of hot water - and then again. I measure out Epson Salts - 1 cup total.  I  carefully remove last nights' bandages from my feet, and lean back as I relax for a 15-20 minute soak.

That's my current new normal. Twice a day.

I've finished #9 or my 12 Taxol treatments or #13 of my total 16 chemotherapy infusions.  A week ago Sunday night, as I got ready for bed, something about my feet caught my notice.  Something looked weird.
Cue all SORTS of squinting, pulling back, never finding the right distance (i.e., I'm old and chemo is further affecting my eyesight); I took OFF my glasses for a closer look.
My first two toes of each foot - my big toe and next - looked off.  It appeared as if each nail was starting to lift OFF of the nail-bed.
I try not to freak OUT.  I try not to fucking freak out at the thought of one more thing changing.  What the bloody hell is THIS now?
I thought that I was mentally prepared for this freak show and the possibility of losing my hair during it.  That's largely a given when you're given the type of chemotherapy used in the treatment of breast cancer. I was NOT prepared for the possibility of losing toenails.

Or fingernails.
Okay ... maybe theoretically, I'd heard of the possibility but the reality of that ending looming over my head in June 2016?  I looked at my feet and thought, "SERIOUSLY?! You've never been more pampered in your fucking life and NOW you're going to decide to chuck it all and fall off?!"
I've been lathering my feet and hands in cream each day and night after the hand and foot syndrome scare post AC treatment and thought I was largely in the clear. 

They said Taxol was SO much easier.

They said Taxol was a breeze relative to AC. 

There are reasons quick consults don't exist and you won't get a direct answer to your, "How will Taxol affect me," google search.  I've said it before and I'll say it repeatedly:  It's ALL relative.

Some patients never have neuropathy. 
I do. I have a bit of tingling and numbness to my toes and feet.  Not so much with my hands (so far) but I have to keep an eye on it.
Some patients lose their eyebrows and eyelashes along with their hair.  So far, mine are holding on despite the bald head.  Actually, portions of my hair keep growing - I'm very soft and fluffy up top right now - but it is sporadic and I'll likely keep shaving it until the Taxol is officially finished.
And THEN I might still lose the eyebrows and eyelashes once that is done; some do.

Some lose their nails AFTER Taxol is finished. Some never have nail problems at all.

Some patients have real issues with their white blood cell counts and therapy is delayed because of it; thankfully, knock on wood, throw salt over my shoulder, I don't.

Some patients have real issues with mouth sores; thankfully, I don't. So far.  I rinse my mouth twice a day with a combination of salt/baking soda/water to stem off such things.  Mmmm ... tasty. But it has worked so far.

Some patients have changes to their vision. I do. I'll need to wait several months after chemotherapy is finished before getting an eye exam so that my vision can return to whatever 40-something mayhem it chooses.  For now, I keep reading glasses nearby.

The list of possible side-effects go on.  Some patients experience many, some few. 
It is amazing what you can put up with when you ... well ... have no choice.  You adapt. 
And you'll get through it.

I have THREE more infusions of Taxol to go.  July 1, July 8, and July 19.  It's so close I can taste it.
Seriously ... kinda metallic and icky (can't wait for THAT side-effect to go away).
Meanwhile, I'll pour my cup of Epson salts into my 8 cups of hot water and soak twice a day. I'll spray my nails with hydrogen peroxide to check for infection. I'll apply Organic Tea Tree Oil (because why not) to my nails and then add some antibiotic ointment if necessary then carefully wrap the four affected toes in bandages to help keep them clean.  The goal now is to avoid infection.

Avoid delay.

Push through and get it done.

That's my new normal on my last day of age 45. 

If you're facing a new normal from cancer, from treatment, remember that you can handle more than you think in the beginning. No, really. You can. And you will. Take things one day at a time.  Make a point to focus on little things that make you happy each and every day.  Ask your doctor and nurse question after question until you feel they've answered your concerns. Be your own best advocate. Rest.
Seriously. Rest.
Drink lots of water.
You can do this. I really do have no doubt.
How do I know?
Honey ...  because if I can do this, YOU can do this.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

That Woman in the Mirror

This is the bottom, right?

You know that saying "scraping the bottom of the barrel"?  That idea of not being able to go any lower?  Actually, I don't know that I believe that's possible.  I think there is always a "lower" to reach.  We might not be able to conceive of it in the midst of some current horror, but, really ...

... there's always a lower.

But right now, I feel like I'm living the bottom of my life.  I might be wrong, certainly.  But ... relatively speaking, I'm living my barrel bottom.  And that's an odd feeling.  You might be surprised but this really isn't a negative nelly post. 

Really. NO.

Think about it.  If you truly feel that you're living the bottom, you truly have no way to go but up.

Chemo is changing me.  I look in the mirror these days and don't recognize myself. 

If you're in the midst of this mayhem, or if you're just beginning it, let me give you hope (even if it might not seem like I can at this point).  You'll get through this.  It might be the hardest thing you'll ever do ... but you will get through it and you'll be stronger when it is finished.

When you look at yourself in the mirror and laugh ... laugh because you can't imagine feeling worse about your appearance than you do at that moment, then that is one less thing life can take from you.  I looked at my reflection in the mirror and laughed.  It's truly ridiculous.  I've ballooned up in weight during treatment so far.  I'm at my heaviest ... EVER.

I should be a linebacker. 

And I'm bald. 

Fat and bald.  That oh so heavenly combination.

So what else will cancer do to me before the end?  Take a few toenails or finger nails?  That's possible on Taxol.  Bring it. 

More pain?  Fine. 

Weird eyesight?  Tingling pain in my hands and feet?  Possible.

Life is surreal at the moment.  I never would have thought I'd be in this shape:  bald, fat, with tingling feet, an often bloody nose, and twitching right eyelid. 

You know what?  When life becomes this, I say fuck it.

Okay ... life, you can mess me up.  So now what?  Seriously, what are you going to do to me now?

Take it all?

There's something oddly freeing about that thought.  The idea that I feel so foreign from myself.  I never imagined ever seeing this image in the mirror.

That woman in the mirror?  She's going to get stronger. It's not going to be easy.  Sadly, it won't be a movie-like montage ending with me in the best shape of my life. 

That woman in the mirror?  She's taking it one week at a time.  Seven more Taxol treatments to go. 

Often, she's taking it one day at a time. 

One hour at a time.

Putting one foot in front of another.  [I was NOT expecting Santa Claus is Coming to Town to flash into my head just now but you get the idea.] 

That woman in the mirror?  Soon she'll be walking out the door.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Red. 3 Hearts.

"Excuse me. I'm sorry to interrupt you ..."

It was Saturday, mid-morning, and I was sitting in the middle of my favorite café - Real Food - reading on my Kindle and enjoying an omelet (avocado, bacon, Monterey Jack) with toast.  I'm reading the fourth book in The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan and was concentrating on Rand al'Thor's escapades so it took a few seconds for me to realize the woman was talking to me.  I looked up and saw a thin blonde woman, my age or a bit older, holding a to-go container, and wearing a blue-checked shirt and dangly earrings. 

           - she continued -

"... but I was sitting over there and ... well, I read energies..."

Say what?  What is happening?  Who is this person? At least, these are the questions I'm fairly certain were written across my face.

"... and you have SO MUCH energy surrounding you.  I just wanted to tell you.  And I drew what it looks like."

My attention is fully on the woman now.  It isn't every day that a stranger comes up to you and tells you that you have lots of energy surrounding you.  And certainly not when you're wondering when in the day your most recent round of chemotherapy is going to zap your ... well ...  energy for the day.

My cancer was caught early but it's an aggressive form and I'm half-way through treatment.  I'm bald, anemic, and my feet hurt.  To say this was not the 2016 I expected is an understatement.

The woman produced a napkin on which she had written:  "Red. 3 Hearts."  And then she drew the same along with an eye peeking up from just beneath the hearts.

"So much energy.  It's a good thing."

I was stunned.  I know I said, "Thank you," but hadn't even begun to process what had just happened before she was gone.  Poof.  Out the door. 

She was leaving and already putting her to-go container in a little red car directly in front of the café when I realized that I would regret not thanking her again for this odd but fantastic little exchange.

I got up, weaved my way through the tables, went outside and asked if I could thank her again.  We hugged.  I told her that her words meant a lot to me, especially with "this" - my "this" included a general wave toward my head and its vague yet explanatory baldness.

She stopped, looked me directly in the eyes and said with a self-possessed confidence of one secure in their knowledge, "Oh ... you're going to be fine."

And just like that, I believed her.

What a wonderful gift to give a complete stranger.  God bless her. 

And God bless the color red, three hearts, and a shot of hope during a rough year. 

Friday, May 20, 2016

Drumroll please .....

It's here. That day.

No .... not THAT day but still a good one.

After my infusion this morning, I'M HALF-WAY DONE WITH CHEMOTHERAPY!

                        *frantic happy dance*

Okay ....but really *happy but slow head toggle to an invisible beat*

This will be number 8 of 16 total. 

I'm heading there soon with my little sister.  Here's hoping for good blood numbers, an easy port access, and completely uneventful icing, drugging time. 

Plus, my new home is looking better and better thanks to all of my fantastic help moving and setting things up.  I hand in my old keys later today.  I see much unpacking in my weekend.

But first ... chemo.

Water? Check!

Star Wars chemo quilt? Check!

Cryotherapy study week-long questi........ uh....... well shit.

                         *looks around at boxes

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Sleeper Must Awaken ...

"Without change, something sleeps inside us, and seldom awakens. The sleeper must awaken." ~ Duke Leto Atreides in DUNE by Frank Herbert
I'm sleeping.

That's what it feels like, this post three of twelve Taxol infusions.  I realized recently that I've not written anything here this month.  My final thoughts on cancer were of my fear of my first Taxol treatment - the unknown.  My final writing was about Robin - her death, her memorial, her loss - and how she still feels present.

Robin's memorial was beautiful.  People gathered in shared emotion, some spoke, many listened, and throughout it all, life seemed surreal.  What a year it has been.  Facing the truth of mortality - your own or that of a loved one - is at once surreal and terrible.  Comforting where the circumstances ensure that continued survival of a loved one means pain and suffering with no complete healing.  I'm 45 years old - prime middle-age (if such a thing exists) - so I'd love nothing more than to ignore mortality.  Most of us do most of the time.

We walk though our days without a thought of death being around the corner.  We make breakfast, drink our coffee, half-listen to the news of the continued horrors of war and famine then jerk in greater recognition of a threat of snow in May.  We scurry to jobs, fret over bills, and wonder what to do next. But so often it seems we are only blurred images of ourselves.  Have you ever had the experience of being fully present in a moment?  Some of you are surely better at this than I am.  I'll find myself sitting - perhaps drinking a coffee - and suddenly feel completely present.  A ladybug crawling up the side of a table outside Starbucks jumps into my consciousness and becomes one of the most substantial things I've seen in a long time.  I remember that moment.  Why did that moment make itself felt? What was different?

Taxol is messing with my reality.  Cancer is messing with my reality.  My focus right now is - and I've been reminded repeatedly that it must be - on getting through treatment, trudging through each day and staying "healthy" (she writes with a grimace).  Healthy means not getting ill on top of the chemotherapy side effects; healthy does NOT mean staying in any form of decent shape it seems.

Right now, chemo demands that I lather feet and hands in Cetaphil Cream to curb damage from the drugs.  My mouth, primarily my tongue, feels foreign, thick and sore.  Not horribly so, just annoyingly so.  I rinse my mouth multiple times a day with a combination of water, baking soda, and salt to curb any sores (thankfully I've had none of those).  I put organic coconut oil on my scars - the 5 inch one under my arm from checking my lymph nodes and the roughly 12 inch winding road scar surrounding Frankeboob - and on top of my bald head.  I have hair that keeps trying to grow, bless it, but it is sparse, course, and/or in patches, which will not do pig, no, not at all so I occasionally shave it.  I was relatively pleased with my head when I first lost my hair. 

Now I just want my hair back.

I want to not feel like Varys from Game of Thrones anymore.

[No offense to the talented Conleth Hill.]   

Perhaps I'd feel differently if the Grand Rapids Comic Con were around the corner.  But it's not.  And I want my hair back.  And energy.  And the ability to walk long distances without putting $&#*ing cream on my feet. 

I'm sleeping.  I'm going through the motions of each day, both amazed and appalled at how quickly time is passing.  Amazed because it means an end to treatment.  Appalled because I wonder where on earth the time has gone.  Probably the same place my body has gone.  My mind, too.  Away. 

I'm in a holding pattern except the hole I have to dig myself out of at the end just keeps getting deeper.  I long for a day that I pick in the future when I'm back to normal - with hair, without my current amount of body fat, with energy - when I can truly celebrate being back.  Being present.  Being awake.  I don't feel like I can set a date for this now because, quite frankly, I don't want to jinx myself. 

The people surrounding me during this time continue to be amazing.  My family, friends, coworkers have repeatedly humbled me with support.  I know what Robin meant when she tried to describe how difficult it was to accept the support.  I'm truly doing nothing more than what I need to do to survive.  We do what we must.  You would, too. 

Chemotherapy for me continues into July.  After that, I'll have six weeks of radiation.  After that, a Dr. Livingston will lift Bride of Frankenboob (my right breast) to look at the same horizon as Frankenboob (what's left of my left).  I'll try desperately (and fail) not to say, "Dr. Livingston(e), I presume?" when I first meet him.  Finally, I'll have a new "base" mammogram taken next January or so.

The new normal.  With changes.  The sleeper must awaken.

And awaken I will.

With non-lopsided boobs. 

And hair.

Lots of hair.  

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Her Light Burst Out

On Sunday, April 24, 2016, the following obituary appeared in a local newspaper:

Robin Deana Eslinger, age 46, passed away peacefully at her home in Belmont, MI, on March 30, 2016, surrounded by family and friends, following a 2 ½ year battle against appendiceal cancer.  Robin is survived by her husband, Paul Eslinger, daughters Brianna and Amanda Eslinger, grand-daughter Leah Skeel, all of Belmont, MI; her parents, Roscoe and Julia Specht of Rantoul, IL; sister Joy Specht, and brother Roy (Misty) Specht, and a multitude of extended family and friends.  Robin represented the People of the State of Michigan for 19 years as a Senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney for Kent County, and was universally respected by her peers as a fierce advocate, a loyal friend, an exceptional wife and mother, loving sister, daughter, and mentor.  

A Memorial Service for Robin will be held on April 30th at 11 a.m., with visitation preceding from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at Northlawn United Methodist Church, 1157 Northlawn St NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49505.  In lieu of flowers, donations will be accepted toward an engraved bench or other similar memorial to be placed in Robin’s name with information available at:

A few facts about one's life - name, age, date of death, who was left to live without said loved one, and perhaps a sentence or two about a career - meant to neatly encapsulate a person's life. But we know that life - however loving and grand - is rarely, if ever, neat.  Robin asked me to write her obituary and speak at her memorial service.  Robin knew well that I, too, am rarely, if ever, neat.  Rarely, if ever, traditional.  So here, dear reader, is my unapologetic, unabridged obituary for my wonderful friend:

On Wednesday, March 30, 2016, at 4:40 a.m., an immensely kind soul flew up and away from any pain or suffering, and surrounded us with love.  Robin Deana Specht Eslinger, 46, was born on June 30, 1969, to Roscoe and Julia Specht in a farmland area of Illinois known as Rantoul.  Robin was the middle child a/k/a peacemaker, growing up on a farm with her older sister Joy and younger brother Roy, albeit blissfully with a rhyme free name. After an 80's montage of idyllic teenage years that included band geekdom (playing flute and ordering her peers around as drum major), and stage (including the portrayal of Nurse Ruth Kelly in Rantoul High's production of Harvey), Robin joined the workforce where she fell for her classic car-loving coworker, Paul Eslinger.  Given that they worked at Menards, the two of course decided to build things together - a marriage, home, family, and life, appropriately in that order, and, during their more than 22 years of marriage, they were doubly blessed with gorgeous daughters, Brianna and Amanda, and then granddaughter Leah Grace. 
In her career, Robin ultimately donned a white hat as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Kent County, using her combination of kindness and tenacity to secure justice for victims and offenders for nearly 20 years.  As a prosecutor, Robin was extremely organized and methodical, carefully highlighting the facts in each case necessary to prove a defendant's guilt yet she married those skills with an empathy that could be felt by the victims in her cases.  Our Prosecutor, Bill Forsyth, described Robin well, "She was such a genuine person.  I think people could see that in her and it helped her relate to victims, to witnesses and to juries." 
Robin is beloved by her friends and coworkers in the Prosecutor's Office, as I know she is also loved by court staff, police officers, the defense bar, her church family and community.  She never hesitated to provide an ear, or shoulder, or trip to Culver's when needed.  Indeed, even in the midst of her struggle with this vile disease, it was nearly impossible to leave her office without her turning the interaction around - "But how are you?  What is going on with you?"  Her experience - both in criminal law and in life - was invaluable and her heart immense.  She truly was the heart of our office.
Even as she was rising in the ranks of assistant prosecuting attorneys at the office, Robin raised two beautiful daughters with the help of husband Paul.  Her first-born, Brianna, is named after a cherished character in Robin's favorite book series - Outlander by Diana Gabaldon - and developed a talent and love for art. Robin's office walls are adorned with wonderful examples of Bri's art.  And Bri also inherited her mother's incredible heart and empathetic nature, which she is now passing on to her own child.  Robin's youngest, Amanda, inherited her mother's perfectionist nature and strives to excel at every study or activity she undertakes; and, like her mother, typically succeeds.  Both have their mother's beauty; both have her sense of humor and love of life. I have no doubt that Robin lives on in the two of them.
In September 2013, Robin began her fight against the appendiceal cancer that ultimately took her life.  Yet 2 ½ years of rigorous cancer treatment did nothing to alter her basic core of kindness, empathy, and faith.  And what a bright shining core.  You see, Robin understood the meaning of life.  To live. To love. To share your light with the world.  And she did this every single day. 
Robin was universally respected by both coworkers and opposing counsel.  She treated everyone with kindness and fairness.  And those aspects of her personality were evident no matter the context in which you encountered her.  She was a fierce advocate, a loyal friend, an exceptional wife and mother, a loving sister and daughter.  And a mentor to everyone in her life.  She was, quite simply, an ideal human being.  If you noticed a bit more kindness around you on March 30, 2016, it was her light bursting out and flying free from our spinning blue orb.  So as we celebrate her life and honor her memory, please "Keep On, Keeping On", and let kindness guide you along the way.

As I share this with you today, I'm reminded of one of those first doctor's appointments over two years ago, when she introduced the doctor to those who were with her: "This is my mom, Julie; this is my husband, Paul; and this is my best friend, Kim."  Best friend.  In truth, the phrase caught me off-guard because I was used to hearing it in school - grade-school, high-school, even college - but it had been a long time since I'd been labeled that way.  And I can't quite describe how immensely proud I am to have held that title in her life for even a short time. 

Today, I'll share the above obituary at her memorial service.  I know that she is with us.  I know that she will hear us, laugh with us, shake her head in a self-depreciating way, and wonder why on earth so many people felt the need to gather on a Saturday just because of her. 

Beauty + kindness + empathy + intelligence + a love of really good desserts.  That's why. 

We can only hope that our own lives inspire others in such a way. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Barring Any Difficulties

I begin a new chemotherapy drug today - Taxol - which means I have 12 weeks left of chemotherapy (barring any difficulties).  Ha. It seems I have to add that disclaimer to the end of everything related to my treatment. 

"barring any difficulties"

Used in this way, the word is a preposition (ah, high school English) and means "except for; if not for," which is funny in a sad way since the only thing you'll, at times, feel comes from chemotherapy IS difficulties. 

I've been told (by my oncologist) that Taxol is generally easier for patients than the AC portion of treatment, which I ended April 15, 2016.  A day of celebration rather than the dreaded tax day this year. 
Barring any difficulties.
Hey, funny story ... last week a new side effect from the AC treatment reared its ugly head.  Toward the end of the week, I was generally feeling better but kept thinking that I was getting several blisters on my feet.  See, the day after my chemo, I generally feel pretty good so I've gotten into the habit of doing things - shopping, cleaning, getting some MUCH needed exercise - and this past Saturday, that included walking over 18,000 steps.  GO ME!  Gosh ... I must have REALLY walked, right, to be getting blisters like that. 
Except that what I was feeling was actually the red devil a/k/a Doxorubicin a/k/a the A part of AC treatment leaking into the capillaries of my feet because of heat and friction.  You remember the red devil?  The drug that can cause 3rd degree burns if it touches your bare skin?  It seems that sometimes it can make its way through those tiny blood vessels and damage the skin tissue that way as well.  You should avoid friction - because THAT's easy to do with your hands and feet - and avoid heat to minimize your chances of developing this nasty side effect. 


It's called Hand and Foot Syndrome.  Thankfully, I *think* I've caught it early, i.e., before actual blisters, and have been slathering the creamiest of creams on my tootsies in the hopes to minimize damage.  Dr V's office will check me this morning to make sure I'm good to go on the next set of chemotherapy but I'm not anticipating a delay.  But I WILL be having many talks with them about updating their take home instructions for chemo patients to include specifics about this POSSIBLY AVOIDABLE CONDITION.  [I'm actually much more calm about this now - you should have heard me last week.]

Unfortunately, did you notice Taxol on that list of drugs known to cause this condition?  Yep.  And once you've developed it one time, apparently you're more likely to the next time as well. 

What can I do for it?  What will cure it?

Stopping chemotherapy.

I have TWELVE weeks left of chemotherapy.  So Cetaphil Cream is my new best friend for the next three months.  That and less walking.  Because THAT will help my weight gain explosion.

[Sorry, my sarcasm is strong this morning.]

I actually didn't sit down to write about my feet.

I sat down to write because it usually helps me deal with my fear and anxiety over my cancer treatment.  And because I'm starting a new drug, that fear is pretty hefty at the moment.

So back to the new drug.  Taxol.  Again, Dr. V has told me that most of her patients feel better on the Taxol than the other two drugs that I just finished.  Yay!  You know ....

Barring any difficulties.

You see, with any of these powerful chemotherapy drugs, there's a risk of an adverse reaction.  An allergic reaction.  And, although unlikely, it can kill you.  Piece of advice:  If you're getting ready to start any new treatment, the Internet is both your enemy and your friend.  While you can find many supportive communities out there in which you can share your experiences with other cancer patients and see tips on how to cope, you'll also hear the worst of the worst in horror stories and, I think, you'll likely begin to think that the rare side effects are more common than they really are.


There is the tiny part of me that can't escape the idea that I could die today.  That I could have one of those reactions, that the counter drugs won't work quickly enough, and that this morning could be my last.  If cancer does nothing else, it makes you face your own mortality. 

The reality is ... I could die any day.  You could die any day (sorry).  Any of us COULD die any day simply by walking out our door through any number of evils. 

A careless driver. 
A crazed ex brandishing a weapon. 
A madman with a bomb. 
Donald Trump.

I know, I know .... I meant to only include scary yet unlikely causes of death.  That last one is TRULY terrifying and incomprehensibly growing more likely every day.  Remember Hitler?  DO NOT ELECT HITLER!

But I digress.

Way too much.

I'm scared.  The truth is that everyone is different and I don't know how I'll react to Taxol until it is coursing through my veins and that terrifies me.  I hope that I'm with the "many" patients who Dr. V says tolerates it well.  I hope I don't develop neuropathy badly.  I hope the bone pain isn't bad (I thought I'd left THAT behind with the Neulasta shots).  I hope I don't lose my eyebrows (but that's a definitely possibility).

I hope July comes soon.

So please take a moment and send some good thoughts my way today.  A prayer is appreciated.  Wearing your lucky shirt, tie, or underwear is appreciated.  Good karma is appreciated.

Barring any difficulties, you'll hear from me tomorrow.  Actually, even if the unthinkable were to happen, I *think* you'll hear from me tomorrow because I *think* I've figured out how to schedule a post.  And tomorrow's post is my obituary for Robin.  Her memorial service is tomorrow and I'm scheduled to speak at it so .... barring any difficulties, that's where I'll be.

If the unthinkable were to happen?  Then know that I'm okay.  No, really, I'm good.  But for C, I'm happy.  I love my life and I'm pretty confident that what comes next is going to be even better.  I'm not ready to leave by any means but whatever comes, whatever I can't avoid, well ... I'll be okay.

SEE WHAT I MEAN?  I'm a bit nervous.

In the end, just do two things for me.

1) Don't let my mother near my bedside table


Sunday, April 17, 2016

A Little Cranberry Never Hurt Anyone

So my Mom came up Thursday night; she took me to chemo for the first time Friday.  Actually, this was the first time my mother has seen me in person since my diagnosis.  Mom winters in Florida - snowbird that she is - and just got back a little over a week ago.

My first chemo day, back on March 4, she sent me a long prayer via text.  As in "Dear Lord, ....." - honestly, I was pretty impressed with the sheer length of it given my Mom's old-school phone.  No flip out keyboard action even. 

I sent my Mom a picture when I first got my hair short ... the magenta mohawk caused some initial confusion:

I thought my mother knew me better than to think I'd revisit the early 80's in THAT way. *shudder*

Every few days, I'd get another, "How r u feeling?" type text and a request that I type out what the doctor said for her.  Seriously, Mom has the texting thing down. 

My third chemo appointment brought another prayer text but just a tad shorter than the first:

Quite the sense of humor, eh? Oh, is it cold up there in Michigan while you wait for poison to go into your veins, young one? Well, I'm praying for you by the pool. Actually, though, it was meant in no such way.  She was just stating the facts.  It didn't stop me from laughing and calling her out on it though. 

So Mom headed up Thursday night for her first chemotherapy experience.  One of my biggest worries was her in-person reaction to my bald head. 

Actually, perhaps I'm not alone in this fear.  Yes, I'm going through a tough year.  My surgeries and treatment have not been fun.  But - as I've told you all before - I'm lucky, extremely lucky, that my cancer was caught early.  My tumor was relatively small, there's no indication that any got out into my lymph nodes, and I'm stage 1.  If you're in the same boat with me, perhaps you will recognize this scenario: 
You see a friend or acquaintance for the first time in a few months or more, for the first time since your cancer diagnosis and treatment began.  They may or may not know about it yet.  Regardless, they see you and you get that look.  That look that says, "Oh, that's right. Oh, dear.  Oh, you have the cancer. Oh, you're dying, aren't you? You could be dying, couldn't you? Oh dear. I pity you. Oh, but look how brave you're being. You be brave, little one.  You be brave."
That look ... although it comes from a place of caring ... that look just sucks, good people.  That look makes me feel like I need to comfort YOU because of MY disease.  Comfort that person, instead of being able to receive comfort.  I hope I'm explaining this well.  I truly don't mean to come across as offensive or unappreciative.  I guess I'm wanting to share this so that when you come across that person who is going through or about to go through a serious medical fight, you can provide optimism instead of pity.  Tell them that you're sorry that they are going through this - yes - but also tell them that you'll be there for whatever they need and that you KNOW that they will make it through.  Sometimes, honestly, simply saying ... "Well .... THIS sucks!" is a beautiful thing.  Providing you don't have the above-mentioned look on your face.

Things can suck, truly suck, yet not be fatal.  I hoped not to see that look on my mother's face.  And bless her, I didn't.  She did fine.  We had dinner at Panera, picked up muffins for the morning, and grabbed some excellent dessert at Spoonlickers

I did don my extra special leggings and Princess Leia wig for Chemo #4 and Mom took it all in stride.  In fact, she demanded a picture. 

So Leia is going through a phase perhaps.

This was the last of my AC chemotherapy. Yay!!! In my best Sméagol voice, "we HATES the nasty AC, precious, yes we do!"  No more red drug for me.  No more peeing red for a couple days (seriously).  Everything went smoothly.  Dr. V. told me my blood counts are still good, and we talked about starting Taxol on April 29th.  The hope is that I will feel better - most do apparently - on Taxol than AC.  Although I'll be getting it every Friday instead of every other Friday.  I'm a bit concerned about that and how long the bad days will last, how many good days I'll have before heading back in for another round.  We'll see.

What was the title of this post? 

Oh right .... this was also my last Neulasta shot. Yay! YAY!! I'm thankful for the higher white blood cell count, for sure, but DAMN, I'm glad to leave the bone aches behind.  My aches are mostly in my skull and sternum.  But given the lower dose of Taxol I'll be taking each week, I'll no longer need to get the Neulasta shot the day after.  I was so happy to have my last AC treatment behind me that I nearly forgot to even get the last shot.

Can't imagine why I'd forget to have someone stick a needle in my stomach.
 I was heading to my favorite Real Food Café when my stepmom reminded me of my Neulasta appointment.  Dammit! Wait ... I can still do this.  I can still get my breakfast and make it to the shot on time.  I told my server my rush and she expedited things nicely.  I ordered quickly, and paid early.  I sipped on my cranberry juice and relaxed, reading while waiting on my omelet.  My server was pleased to bring my breakfast quickly and as she said, "Here you go, you have plenty of time......." she promptly knocked my cranberry juice with my hot breakfast plate and dumped the juice into my lap.

Onto my light gray top.  Yep. 

"Oh NO!  Oh NO!  Oh you were going to be on time and I RUINED IT!!! I RUINED IT!! I'M SO SORRY!!" 

At this point, the almighty perspective of cancer slowly looks over at the scene and smirks.  Honestly.  Cranberry juice?  Who the hell cares about cranberry juice?  Who the hell cares about one light gray cami that can be replaced for $8 at Kohl's (on a sale day obviously but ... aren't they ALL sale days)?  Cancer gives perspective to everything else in my life.

"It's fine.  Don't worry about it.  Seriously .... don't worry about it.  It's no problem." We talked over each other.  Poor dear.  She felt horrible and I really wish she didn't.  It's just not that big of a deal.

It's cranberry juice.  It's red but it's not burn your soul red like .... you know.

A little cranberry never hurt anyone.


Thursday, April 7, 2016

Cancer Journey, My Ass

Forgive me, reader, my mind is all over the place this morning.

Last Friday was my 3rd AC chemotherapy infusion.  [The AC refers to the two drugs I receive, commonly shorthanded as AC, but I think of them as the red mutherf##### and the one after.]  Everything went smoothly. My stepmom was up again overnight and then one of my sisters came up Friday.  I mentioned before that Saturday is my eye of the chemo storm?  I felt good enough Saturday to head into Planet Fitness for the first time in months and get my treadmill/water massage table game on. 

And it felt good.  Sunday ... not so much.  Monday, meh.  Tuesday, come one!

Wednesday, yesterday ... I hit my limit.

I was supposed to be feeling BETTER by then.  But I didn't.  My breakfast sandwich didn't sit well.  My Chinese buffet lunch (yeah, yeah, I know) certainly didn't sit well.  And then a pressure point massage at my chiropractor nearly had me unconscious.  As in passed out.

As in "FINE ... UNCLE!  I give, I give!"
I had a bad day. *shrug*
It happens.

But do you know what else happened in those 24 hours?

I wore my Princess Leia wig (gift from Jenna) with my Hogwarts fleece to have dinner Tuesday night with a dear friend, Tisha, who ....

.... gave me this AWESOME CAP!!! Honestly ... I have a Yoda cap made by Sara Makes Hats (seriously, check her out, she's fabulous).  Pretty sure life is complete.  But wait, there's more ...

Culver's commented on my Facebook link to Robin's post:

Culver's is good people. 

          And then ...

I got to work on that ill-feeling Wednesday to find an HD DVD of one of my lovely friend Robin's last big trials so that I can watch her in her element anytime I want - all courtesy of my friend/coworker Dan (imagine, if you will, Grumpy Cat in human prosecuting form with a hidden post-Christmas Grinch heart - that's Dan).  Meanwhile, a sympathy card from my best college friend Amy waited for me in the mail. I've got such good people!

When I called it a day ... when I gave in and told my boss I needed to head home, I rounded the corner to pick up my coat and found a package sitting on my office chair.  I was nearly at my emotional limit already and found this inside:

Well, shit.  I give, people! I closed my office door and had a good cry.  I try to be tough (as my Daddy would urge), I try to lock this shit down, but couple me with some nausea, innards rumbling, bald bloatedness, and fatigue, shake me around with all sorts of kindness and support and I'm ...

Well ... I'm a mess.  Oh, I'm a badass as well.  But at that moment, I was simply a mess. 

I took the time to stop in and leak all over the sender (Laura) then headed home.

Home.  Where I found another package waiting for me ...

... containing the fruitiest brightest leggings I've every seen!  And extra points for the guffaw that "tall" gave me.  Emily is one of my little sister's friends.  Different than my little sister's friends who sent me the beautiful flowers post surgery.  [Lil sis has excellent taste in friends.]

Well, you can imagine the water works started all over again.  I was a delicate flower last night.

I delicate fruity flower.

I really can't thank you all enough.  You're making this shit bearable.  I'll never forget your kindness.

And you realize what this means, don't you? 

Not only does it mean I have the best support system in the freakin' WORLD, but it means when my Mom gets back from Florida and heads up here to take me to chemo #4, I get to watch her HORROR as I don fruity leggings with a Hogwarts fleece and my Princess Leia wig to be switched out with my Yoda cap for the trip.  Let's not forget my Star Wars chemo quilt that has accompanied me to every infusion. 

Why, yes, I'm an adult. 

As I said this morning ... Cancer journey, my ass.  This is my life journey.  Cancer can fuck off, and drop and roll like the hobo it is from MY train.  Oh, is that a ravine?  Plummet and poof like Wile E. Coyote, mutherf#####!

Yep. Totally an adult.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Let's Go to Culver's."

"Is it good?"

I imagine this exchange at some point in my past.  We went so many times together after that first question that I no longer remember the beginning.  I totally blame Robin for my addiction to Culver's.  I do remember the Culver's workers asking where my tall blonde friend was these days.  "She's fighting Stage Four Appendiceal Cancer."  And then asking how she's doing at later visits.

And I remember telling them yesterday that she has passed away this week.

Robin Deanna Eslinger and I became friends gradually after I began working at the Kent County Prosecutor's Office in November 2005.  I don't recall our first meeting - I wish I did now - but my first impression was of kindness.  That was Robin's core attribute.  She was, quite simply, kind.  To friends, to strangers, to opposing counsel.  She was an immensely strong woman, strong in faith, in conviction, in intelligence, manners, humor, love, and kindness.

As Robin and I became friends, we began noticing odd similarities in our lives.  We both grew up in "I" mid-western states - I in Indiana and she in Illinois.  We were from farming communities and went to small high schools.  We both played flute.  We both became drum majors in high school.

Of course, we both went to law school and became prosecuting attorneys, working for Kent County.

We both played the same part in our high school productions of "Harvey" - Nurse Ruth Kelly.  No, really.

And we both entered this world in a breech position with the cord wrapped around us.  Me around my neck.  I don't remember now how entangled my friend was but to say we didn't know which way we wanted to go isn't an understatement.

I'd joke that with all of our similarities, Robin took all of the height. She was right around 6 foot; I'm a bit above 5 foot.

As you can see ... height was NOT well distributed here.

But see ... she took far too much of her share of the cancer as well.

Robin was diagnosed with (first) ovarian cancer in early September 2013.  Her first major surgery was October 14, 2013, and it was only after that first cut that the doctor realized her tumors had not originated with her ovaries; instead, they had metastasized from her appendix of all useless organs. She was diagnosed with appendiceal cancer.   The link really says it all ... this wasn't something that occurred because my dear friend was unhealthy.  On the contrary, she was one of the healthiest individuals I knew - with the exception, perhaps, of her large love for Culver's butter burgers with the works.  And unfortunately, she had the most aggressive form of the already aggressive appendiceal cancer - signet ring cells.  She was stage 4.

She underwent six rounds of chemotherapy after that first surgery and then went under the knife again in February 2014.  This operation went amazingly well.  The surgeon removed the appendix and a small portion of her colon but was able to "hook" everything back up without her needing an endoscopy bag and he was amazed that he was only scraping dead cancer cells out of her.  The chemotherapy had seemingly done its job.  She still underwent the HIPEC procedure during her surgery to give her an even better chance at survival.  During HIPEC, heated chemotherapy drugs are put directly into the abdomen where they can reach a maximum amount of surface cells in and around the organs.  This surgery and this procedure gained my friend a remission and a return to work in July 2014.

Robin continued on a maintenance level of chemotherapy even as she returned to work.  Every two weeks, she would head in to Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion where she would begin one drug and she'd leave with a little fannie pack carrying another drug that took about 46 hours to finish.  She'd then go back in two days later to have the bag removed and her port flushed. 

And during this time, she not only returned to work but she returned to trials and she was promoted to senior attorney near the end of 2014.  Talk about taking names and kicking ass.

Also as 2014 was coming to a close, she told her doctor that she had noticed a knot, lump, ball, near her groin area.  At first, the doctor was not too concerned and focused on the scans showing no new areas of cancer.  Eventually, however, the spot became painful and Robin insisted that it be removed.  Also near that time in spring 2015, she received scan results showing possible spots on her lungs.  The spots were too small to biopsy and, with a second opinion suggesting that the spots could be an infection rather than cancer, Robin opted to have her painful groin lump removed.  This required some time off of the chemotherapy, which, honestly, was a break she relished.

The results of the groin lump testing and a scan in July 2015 confirmed that the groin spot had indeed been cancer and the spots on her lungs had increased in size, further suggesting that her cancer had returned and metastasized to her lungs.  My friend was not surprised.  She knew how she was feeling and it made sense to her that this was one of the reasons.  Where I had continued to be optimistic that the July scan would confirm that the lung spots were only an infection (if they had not grown in size), she was just as sure that it would show a return of the cancer - I say return but it of course had never truly left. 

Robin began full chemotherapy once more in the hope that it would succeed in much the same way as it had in the beginning.  Unfortunately, her body decided that it was DONE - thank you very much - with one of her main chemotherapy drugs and reacted rather violently.  A new drug was chosen, with little success, and yet another drug was chosen.  With each chemotherapy drug, Robin's body had to adjust, or try to adjust, and throughout her regimen, Robin had varying levels of nausea and diarrhea. 

I say varying ... varying between "wow, this sucks" and "HOLY F*&^ WHAT IS HAPPENING!?" *
* The bad word is my take - Robin rarely cursed

While Robin's cancer was indeed returning with a vengeance, it was the nausea and diarrhea that she felt would be her demise.  She was not able to get the nutrition she desperately needed. 

Robin left work in January 2016 to focus on her treatment.  Yet even as she continued her struggle, she was there for me at the beginning of mine.  I was diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2016.  She took up the cheer-leading role immediately.  Despite what was happening to her body, she cheered each bit of good news I received.  My cancer was caught early.  It's a well known type (breast) and survivorship is at an all-time high.  I'm Stage 1 to her Stage 4.  But she nevertheless hoped with me for every ease in my own treatment - that I wouldn't need chemo (I do), that it wouldn't muck up my travel plans this fall (it did).  Such little gripes of mine, she wholeheartedly validated and hoped with me for every little success.  Such a wonderful friend. 

Such a wonderful friend, living through such a terrible disease.  It had taken such a toll on her body.  Robin entered into the hospital in late March due to a partial blockage in her abdominal track, and, after being told that chemotherapy and surgery were no longer options, she made the incredibly difficult decision to return home to hospice care on March 29, 2016.  Her in-home hospice care only lasted roughly 12 hours.

-In this next part of my post, I'll be talking a bit about Robin's last hours.  My goal is to be both respectful and honest.  Please be forewarned that this could be difficult to read -

The hospice nurse - Jan - who is also one of Robin's pastors - said something that has stuck with me through this past week:  "We labor to enter into this world, and we also labor to enter into the next."

Oh, how true.  My beautiful friend had labored not only to come into this world over 46 years ago, but she fought tooth and nail to stay here as long as possible for herself, for her daughters, her granddaughter, her husband, her parents, siblings, friends, loved ones.  She fought.  She labored.  And even as she returned home, knowing that medicine would no longer be a cure, she labored. 

When Jan arrived, she examined Robin and knew that she was already nearing her final hours.  She told us what to expect, what to look for, when and how to give her medication to ease any pain and any anxiety.  She helped us dress her, make her bed, and I'm forever grateful for her help.  I witnessed Robin's husband, Paul, who has watched her so closely these last few years and who had just spent days in the hospital with her, continue by her side at home.  He slept a bit while friends took over but was there at the times she called out his name.  He helped her stand up to get a hug, and to give hugs to her daughters.  He talked to her, assuring her that she had done enough and that she deserved to rest.

I watched her daughter Brianna spend hours by her side, talking to her, telling her how much she loved her, and helping to keep Robin clean.  I have no doubt whatsoever that Robin heard her and that the interaction immensely comforted her as she left this world. 

I'm not going to lie. That night at the Eslingers' was one of the hardest nights of my life. No matter the medications, leaving this world is truly a labor. I found myself feeling completely inadequate at times, wishing there was something more I could do for her.  She had times of complete lucidity - as when our friend Monica arrived.  I told her, "Robin, Monica is here to see you," and she opened her eyes, locked onto Monica and said, "What time is it?"  Talk about two friends frantically searching for a clock.  INDEED - WHAT TIME IS IT!?  And our friend and coworker Dan was able to coax some smiles from her as only he ever could, talking about a recent case, one on which Robin had worked before she left.  I know that Robin was, and will continue to be, his mentor. 

Then there were other times. Times in which, honestly, I think she was already seeing something else.  There was a period in which I could have sworn she was arguing with someone.  I couldn't understand exactly what she was saying but I envisioned her making a case for staying a bit longer.  Can't you picture it?  Robin making her argument, final argument, that she have just a bit more time here.  She had things to do yet.  Robin waiting for the verdict.  And accepting the decision with grace (and a red nose - I swear, all the blood would rush to her nose when she received a verdict, good or bad).  One final argument.  Jan had also told us to expect this - that it might seem as if she is talking to someone that isn't there.  And that is truly what it seemed to be to me.

In the end, after one last stand, another hug from Paul, some clean sheets, and some medication, Robin reclined back and seemed to calm down more and more.  This is the time I think I'll remember the most.  And cherish the most.  A long time family friend, Deb, who had been there the whole night, taking care of her, was there by her side as well.  We talked to Robin about resting.  About it all being okay.  I am so so grateful that I was able to talk to her at that moment and remind her about our discussions about what we believe happens when we die.  I reminded her that I believe we all have that perfect clarity when we pass away that everything will be okay.  That our loved ones, all of them, will be okay.  That life is beautiful, that people are waiting for her.  That her daughters will be okay, that she'll still be with them, still be watching them. 

It was a blessing to be there for her last breath in this world at 4:40 a.m., March 30, 2016, and her first in the next. 

My beautiful, kind friend.  You took too much of your share of the cancer.  You were grace personified. I'll forever miss you, until we meet again.  

I expect some Culver's upon arrival.  You know how I take it - a single with cheese, ketchup, mustard, and onion, fries, and a diet root beer.  And a chocolate custard with Reese's peanut butter cups and hot fudge.  I'll spring for yours - a single with the works, fries, and an iced tea (or more likely a full sugar Coke). 

RIP Robin D. Eslinger