Saturday, March 5, 2011

Breast Cancer

The photo above was taken in June 2007.  I was forty years old and heading to Mexico for a caving, completely oblivious to the fact that upon returning my life would change drastically.

Shortly after coming home I went in for my first mammogram.  I had been told to have my first one by forty years of age for various reasons.  Not knowing what to expect, just anticipating some discomfort from having my breasts squished between two cold plates, I wasn't really nervous.  Mainly I just wanted to get it over with and enjoy the rest of my summer vacation before school started back in August. 

I went in to the Women's Center at Mercy Hospital on June 26, 2007.  After waiting for what seemed an eternity, I was finally called back and got to put on a flimsy top with its two icy cold snaps in the front.  Then I waited in a different, smaller waiting room until I thought I might freeze to death.  Is there some medical reason to keep those waiting rooms so frigid?

Eventually I was called back to the room where the mammogram would be done.  Luckily I am not a modest person.  Otherwise I might have been mortified by having a complete stranger handling my breasts, moving them, repositioning them, and then squeezing the hell out of them with the machine.  However, the woman having her way (medically) with my breasts made me feel very comfortable as she got out of the way of the machine and said, "Hold your breath" and then made image after image.

Since this was my first mammogram, I wasn't sure if I should be worried about the way she kept looking at my images, repositioning me, looking at the images further.  But, trying to be a positive thinker, I told myself they did this with everyone...that it was routine.  After my breasts had been mashed like potatoes, I was told to go to the waiting room and wait...again...while she showed the images to the doctor. 

The next part is fuzzy for me.  I don't remember exactly what happened.  I just know that either that day or the next day I was told I needed to have a biopsy, which I did, immediately.  That experience is hazy as well.  Everything was so rushed.  I remember lying on a table with a Patient Advocate or someone like that talking to me and explaining how she'd be there for me throughout the whole process.  I think I maybe saw her one other time.

I wasn't scared.  I remember going over to Keith's, my boyfriend at the time.  I think I told him what was going on.  He said not to worry, it wasn't cancer.  I didn't really believe him, but I still wasn't scared or freaking out.

The next morning I got a call from the doctor.  It was pretty straight forward.  She said I had cancer.  Breast cancer in my left breast.  After getting all the information from her, I thanked her and hung up the phone.  I remember thinking, "Damn, that's just what I need.  Just one more thing to deal with." 

In a way, I had known for a long time that I would get cancer at some point and that I would just be frustrated by having to deal with one more thing, and that it wouldn't be fatal.  Maybe I brought it on myself, who knows?  Anyway, I wasn't at all surprised by the diagnosis.

So much happened over the next few days or weeks.  I met with a surgeon who was just plain cheesy in his golf shoes and gold necklace.  His bleached blonde trophy wife nurse fit him to a "T".  They looked like something from a Saturday Night Live skit.  However, I had many assurances that he was a fine surgeon and would do a great job. 

He told me that I had ductile carcinoma in situ.  It was in Stage 2, but barely.  So, that was good news.  According to the surgeon, this tumor had been growing for about four years.  Interesting.  The last four years of my life had been beyond stressful.  The issues with my ex-husband escalated daily which caused stress with my boyfriend and children which affected my job, all of which affected my health and sanity.  Most days I felt as if I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. 

The doctor gave me several options to choose from.  I chose to just whack the thing out instead of having my breast totally removed.  I had paid damn good money for my implants and had no intention of losing money on them.  Surgery was scheduled almost immediately.

The morning of my surgery, my mother was in town.  She decided that with all the medical mistakes that had become so commonplace that she'd ensure the doctor worked on the correct breast.  Below is a photo of what she wrote on my chest the morning before surgery.  On the right breast she wrote, "Keep Out!!" and on the left one she wrote, "Take very good care of me!" with a heart and a smiley face.

Surgery went well.  While I was in surgery, the doctor inserted a mammosite balloon into the cavity where the tumor had been removed.  Attached to this balloon was a long tube that hung out from the side of my chest.  This would be where the iridium seed would be fed to the cavity during radiation.  I think it was during surgery that they inserted the port into my chest, just above my right breast.  It looked like someone had stuffed a plastic bottle cap under my skin.

For about a week, I went daily to get my dose of radiation.  I laid down on a table as a team of very young and good looking radiologists (I guess) took care of me.  At one point I even asked them if there was a requirement that they all be young and attractive.  I felt as if I were on the set of a soap opera.  This room looked like something out of a science fiction movie.  I was basically barricaded in the room while everyone else went for cover.

For the radiation itself, a seed of iridium was fed through the tube hanging out of my side.  It went into the balloon and radiated the hell out of me for about eleven minutes.  Before I was able to leave the room, a Geiger counter had to be used to scan my body for any radiation leaks.  One time after I had already left the room and was in my dressing room changing, I hear a frantic voice calling my name.  Someone had forgotten to wand me to check for radiation!  It was pretty funny at the time.

After radiation I began chemotherapy treatments.  Since I had begun to gain weight over the last year or so, I was actually happy about having to go through chemotherapy.  From what I knew, chemotherapy meant throwing up and losing tons of weight.  I thought at least there was a bright side to this whole cancer thing.  But, as I soon found out, they have fabulous anti-nausea drugs that they give you so you do not throw up.  Oh well. 

Chemotherapy was one of my favorite times.  I started it in September 2007, right when school was getting into full swing.  Chemotherapy was the one time I could sit and read, pay bills, nap, whatever.  I actually looked forward to it.  There were so many different people in with me.  They were all in different stages of cancer.  I saw strong people, weak people.  I met an old man who was feisty as could be.  What a flirt!  He and his buddy would sit and talk and talk.  They'd flirt with the nurses.  The nurses would flirt back.

But, chemotherapy also weakened my immune system.  Being a teacher around hundreds of germ filled, snot-nosed kids didn't work well with me.  I got sick a lot.  It didn't take long for my principal to decide that it would be best for me to take off while I was going through chemotherapy.  It wasn't my decision.  It was hers.  So, I took off for about four months while undergoing chemo every other week.

I slept a lot.  I'd have one week right before chemo where I felt somewhat normal.  The next week I had no energy at all.  All I wanted to do was sleep. 

I had been told by my medical oncologist and the nurses that the chemo would make me lose my hair.  Many other people told me that lots of people did NOT lose their hair.  Since I had long, blonde hair that I loved, I thought I'd wait it out.  At first it was fine.  But then, I started to have hunks of hair falling out as I brushed my hair.  I thought about it for a few days as the hair continued to fall out and decided I didn't want to look like a mangy dog as it took its sweet time coming out.  I would shave my head. 

So, we decided to have a head shaving ceremony.  My kids and Keith and his daughter would all help me shave my head. I wanted to try to save my long hair to send it off to Locks of Love.  So before the "ceremony", I braided my hair all over in small braids to help keep the hair together and also to make it easier to cut.

You can see the port in my chest.  It sort of looks like a freakishly huge zit.  Eeew!  I had Caroline and Holly around me ready to start chopping my braids.

My son Bradley taking his turn.

Kind of a cute cut here

I felt like I was in the military

NOW I look like a mangy dog

almost gone....

There I am, shaved, with a huge port in my chest, but with both breasts!

That night my head was so cold.  I was shocked that hair kept your head so warm.  I had to resort to sleeping in a stocking cap for several weeks before my head finally adjusted. 

During this time my hair still grew but fell out at the same time.  One beautiful autumn day, I took the Brad and Caroline to the zoo.  Not thinking ahead about my shaved head, it didn't occur to me to put on sunscreen.  So we bought a small tube of it in the gift shop and I started to rub it on my head.  As I did, hundreds of buzzed hairs came off in my hand.  I showed my hair and sunscreen covered palms to my kids.  Their father, my ex-husband, had told them that I hadn't really needed to shave my head, but just did it for the attention.  All it took was for them to see the hair in my palm to know the truth.

Eventually all the hair did fall out, completely.  My eyebrows were gone, eyelashes were gone, even my nose hairs were gone.  People were very sweet saying that if I had to be bald I had a good shaped head for it.  They lied.  I've seen the pictures!  Seriously, it wasn't all bad.  It is definitely easy to get ready in the morning when you don't have to do your hair.  I missed it long blonde hair.  I suppose it had defined me over the years.  Now I had to define myself, without it.

I think that has been the most important lesson I learned from my breast define myself, by myself.  It has taken several years for it all to sink in.  But day by day, I get stronger inside.  I don't ever worry about the cancer coming back, not really.  On particularly stressful days I have a little chat with myself, ok more like a knock down drag out.  I remind myself that I have to live my life the way I want to live it and do things that enrich my soul so that I can be of use to everyone else.  I remind myself that life is meant to be lived fully, abundantly, and passionately.  And there is no one out there that can make that happen for me, except me.

I also have another couple of daily reminders.  I have a lovely port scar above my right breast and an indented left breast with a splotchy red scarring over it.  It's lovely.  But, both of those scars are there every morning as a visual reminder that I am the only one in control of my life and it is up to me how the journey goes. I want my journey to be the following:

"Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, chocolate in one hand, wine in the other, body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming 'WHOOOO HOOOO' what a ride!!"

So...take care of you....


turquoisemoon said...

Powerful post!
And, I think you looked beautiful!
My husband died of cancer...I know what you went thru. You are so very brave and strong! xoxox

Edgington Family said...

That was amazing...I am so moved by your story and your attitude. Thanks for inspiring me!!!

mom said...

I love reading your blogs. Love you my sweet daughter.

Jeff Goins said...

You have many gifts. The most obvious is the ability to share with others. I am so glad things worked out for you, and I hope others find the inspiration in your journey that I have found.

Juleah said...

Love your story! I am cracking up that Sue wrote those sweet messages on your breast! You are such a strong woman Kelli.

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