Monday, June 25, 2012

Progress Not Perfection

That's my new approach. I saw my oncologist today to go over the results of my bone and CT scans.  Here's the interesting part.  My oncologist was so concerned that the cancer had grown in size, she was thrilled the scans showed a decrease in size of the tumors. I, on the other hand, had been hoping that all the tumors were gone.  So I was slightly disappointed. Same result, different expectations, and, therefore, different reactions. My doctor has seen patients like me show increase in tumor size at this point, and I have no experience so figured I'd be at zero tumors by now.

Certainly, my oncologist's experience and reaction had an impact on me.  I am now grateful that the tumors have decreased even a little and that the chemo and Herceptin are still working. I learn quickly.

But here is what I am really thrilled about.  I get a two month break from chemo. Thank God. I need this break. The chemo has been kicking my butt to the point where I feel ground into the floor.  I am exhausted, my hands and feet are plagued with neuropathy, and now my nails are falling off.  My body feels very weakened and I would like some time to get my strength back.

So for two months I'll be receiving Herceptin every three weeks (the Herceptin will keep the cancer from growing) and I will be closely monitored to make sure nothing starts up again.

Plus, during this period, my oncologist wants to take a closer look at the metastatic area on my femur and consider using radiation on the spot. Based on the bone scan, the area is less active but the oncologist still wants to asses it. Compared to chemo, this all sounds like a breeze.

What struck me the most though is my oncologist's overall reaction. She's very relaxed about it all. There's no urgency, no air of "we need to deal with this now or you'll die." She views the cancer as something we can contain for a period of time and then go back to attacking.  This air of relaxation means I can relax too and enjoy my break, although I am fully aware that if the tumor markers go up, I will be back on chemo lickety split. My oncologist is demonstrating a progress not perfection approach, and that is a healthy view.

Even a Weeble has more hair than I do
I'm looking forward to the next social occasion I'll actually be able to attend since I won't be knocked out by chemo. And I'm looking forward to seeing the tiniest bit of hair growing back, even if it is immediately thrown off my head by the next round of chemo. I've become a person who is grateful for the very small things.  Hair growing back, the tiny bit of healthy nail showing at the base of my nail bed, the ability to even get up and attend a movie, any feeling coming back to my hands and feet. 

Progress not perfection. It's not a bad idea. And frankly, when you look like a Weeble, but with no hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes, progress sounds like a really fine thing.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Is This What Hell Looks Like?

I've seen the inside of Hell a few times. There was the stunningly abusive boyfriend of my early 20's who I was sadly head over heels in love with. After finally escaping from him, in spite of his stalking me, that one took years to crawl back from. When  I described the experience to people, they likened it to a stint in a Southeast Asian POW camp.  That was Hell.

Then there was the death of my beloved mother and sister within too short a period of time, deaths that could have been prevented had my mother not been affected by the after effects of food addiction and my sister not lived so deep in her food addiction, she chose death instead of recovery. Those losses were Hell.

Now I have metastatic breast cancer and this is a new version of Hell.  No one is yelling at me or berating me. The grief of death and loss is not rolling over me like a wall studded with sharp, poisoned knives. Instead I am being beaten by constant chemo and constant fear that comes speeding in like a roller coaster. And I don't even like roller coasters.

I keep reaching for bits of hope.  Let's be honest. My situation is hopeful compared to many.  Metastatic folks come in three varieties: one group will get the cancer and die soon after; another group will get the cancer, be treated, and go into remission for a while and then the cancer will come back and take them; the third group will get the cancer, be treated, and go into remission and live a long, long time.  We all want to be in that third group.  I sure as hell do.

At this point it's clear I'm not part of group one, since I'm responding so well to chemo, but instead a contender for groups two or three.  But meanwhile the chemo continues and with it goes my spirit, beaten down by constant exhaustion, neuropathy and other side effects.  I reach for any bit of hope to keep me floating above the constant hum of impending despair.  I just want to find out which group I'm in, two or three. So I ask my doctor about more scans, blood tests, anything to get a read on this.

Here's the deal though. Every effort I've made toward finding out more have slapped back at me, from seeing the CT scan and realizing this is real, really real, and then dropping into yet another depression fed by fear; to having the ultrasound technician scanning my liver tell me she measured a mass of 4.2 cm in my liver.  4.2 cm is what we started out as the largest tumor before chemo, and that tumor had astoundingly shrunk to 1.7 cm. Had it grown back?  This remark was made just before the weekend, leaving me in yet another weekend of terror, only ended the following Monday with a visit to my my oncologist who told me that this was not a cancerous mass but something benign.  Geez and cripes. What a waste of terror.

After this I decided I no longer cared.  Not about living. I do care about that. But I don't care about the scans or the results, at least not from the mouth of the technician doing the scan.  And I no longer care what group I'm in. Fact is I can't do a damn thing about any of these things. I can only show up, be scanned, hear the results, and then talk about the next steps in my treatment.

Here's what I want.  A break from chemo so I can experience a normal life, even for a little bit, and so I can fly back to Wisconsin and bury my sister (Melissa died in February 2011 and was cremated, but my brother in law is not doing well in his grief so seems to have avoided the actual burial in an effort to forget about all of this).  There are other things I want, like my hair back, my eyelashes to regrow (when you lose your eyelashes, you realize they actually do something like protect your eyes), to be able to walk my dogs, a social life, and on and on.  But those things will have to wait until I'm completely done with chemo. For now, I'll focus on a break from chemo and my sister's burial.  Small but at least it's something.

I've  also realized I can't look very far forward into the future, mainly due to chemo. So I've got no choice but to focus on immediate pluses and hopes.  Today is my last treatment with Taxol and my oncologist is already talking about using a new chemo formula for the next round (the Taxol has been giving me a heck of a case of neuropathy and my oncologist wants to avoid that becoming permanent). At the end of this round of Taxol, I'll have had 20 weeks of Taxol chemo. That's a lot.

Monday I go back to the hospital for a new CT and bone scan. Then the following Monday, 6/25, I'll meet with my oncologist to go over the results and talk about what to do next.  I do not believe in a God who does things, saves some, takes others.  But at this point I am a foxhole atheist, openly praying that this cancer goes away, that it won't be seen on this next set of scans. Even if it's shrunk further, that would be wonderful.  But nothing showing on the scan, that would be miraculous and wonderful.  So I'm in this foxhole praying, praying desperately.

And I'm focusing on the week break I get from chemo while we scan and talk, the one week I'll have of being awake.  I'm not quite sure what I'll do with that time. Walk a dog? Go out with friends? It's boundless. See what I mean? It's the little things that count and help.

And by the way, I wanted to thank all of you for your cards, emails, calls, assistance during chemo, going with me to doctor appointments, helping me with grocery shopping, helping me around the house.  I am deeply grateful to you all and every little thing, and I mean little thing, helps.  You all have been keeping me afloat and I cannot begin to repay you.  If I had an in with the kind of God who did things, I'd get you all straight into Heaven, or at least buy you a Slurpee. Wait a minute, the Slurpee I can do.  Slurpees on me, everyone!  Right now I'd really appreciate you all joining me in my foxhole for a prayer. Come on down. It's clean and dry and I got boxes to sit in.  Just do me a favor and pray for a miracle.  That would really help.