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CHEMOTHERAPY

07/10/05

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PREPARING FOR BATTLE

 

   My final surgery to remove even more tissue from the where the lumpectomy site and the excisional lymph node biopsy was done 1 week after the original lumpectomy.   My mom flew in for support.

    It was a very long day as prior to surgery a radiologist injected the area where the tumor was with a radioactive tracer that is drawn up by the lymph nodes and causes them to glow blue for easier identification.  For 2 hours after the injections I sat with a heating pad on my breast to speed up the absorption process.

    During those two hours, another guardian angel entered our life.  A beautiful woman reading the paper was waiting for her husband to come out of recovery from a routine colonoscopy.  She saw me crying in Husband’s arms and asked me why I was there.  This dialog was one of the most powerful moments for me to face my fears.  You see she was a breast cancer survivor.

    Mary said she had just read in the paper that Padre Pio was canonized as a saint that day.  He was an ordained priest in 1910 and in 1918 the five wounds of Christ’s crucifixion appeared on his body.  Padre Pio is remembered for enduring tremendous physical and spiritual suffering and he unwavering commitment to God.  Countless people received help from him through his correspondence. 

    In my purse was a picture of Padre Pio and a few threads from his robe that had been given to me by a friend.  Coincidence?  Who knows?  I believe it was certainly a message from God that I’d be okay.

    Mary shared her story with me and even showed me her reconstructed breast.  There was absolutely no difference between her remaining breast and the reconstruction.  Unbelievable!

   Dr. Triana prepared us that the probable outcome would be mastectomy, especially if he suspected significant lymph node involvement.  Meeting Mary in the waiting room only hours before surgery was like a miracle!

   The nursing staff pinned my Padre Pio relic on my gown and off to surgery I went.  Forty-five minutes later, Dr. Triana gave Mom and Husband the good news… the lymph nodes appeared to have no involvement and my breast and implant were in tact.  We went home, I took a nap and the three of us went to my Rotary club’s installation dinner that night!  (We had to eat somewhere and it was important that the club see that I was really okay and up for the tough ride ahead!)

   Mom was still in town for my post surgery appointment.  For the first times in weeks, I felt upbeat and optimistic.  When Dr. Triana came into the room I hugged him, told him how terrific I felt and how grateful I was to be intact!  I chattered on excitedly about how beautifully the incisions were healing, blah, blah, blah…

   Then the other shoe dropped.  Of the nine nodes he removed pathology found the sentinel node and 2 others showed “microscopic traces” of disease.  What does that mean?  When the nodes were sliced up, frozen and stained it appeared that some tiny specks of cancer appeared to be present.  Hmmm.  Okay, now what?  According to Dr. Triana, protocol says more surgery.  Radical mastectomy and more lymph nodes removed.  Come on, this can’t be real.  I felt kicked in the gut.

    We had our follow up visit with the oncologist, Dr. Andrew Schneider right after we were done at Triana’s office.  The two doctors spoke on the phone at length as we sat in Schneider’s office.  Bottom line, the oncologist felt further surgery wouldn’t be necessary as his treatment plan would be the same regardless.  Four adriamycin treatments 3 weeks apart then 8 of Taxol, 3 weeks apart.  We would begin treatment that following Wednesday.

    Focus on the outcome then, live your life as if that outcome has already happened.

    There is power in focus, tremendous power.  Eliminating distractions or situations that do not support your envisioned outcome is key.  Even well meaning people can easily cause you to slip into negative thought patterns that are hard to pull out of.

    Each of us has a different way of dealing with a cancer diagnosis.  All we have is our own life experience to draw from.  My dear mother for example, the 7th of 15 children has become the family caregiver for her sisters and brother stricken by cancer in Illinois.  Her life experience over the last 20 years has been watching 2 sisters and 1 brother suffer unimaginable (to me) side effects from surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.  She was very close to all of them right up till their deaths.

    I had to make the decision that Mom could not be around me during chemotherapy.  This was a painful conversation to have with her, as I love her very much and would never hurt her.  I just could not deal with the look of grief on her face or hear one more word about how Aunt Ella suffered, how bloated her abdomen was or that her ankles swelled up to the size of God only knows what.  Just because that happened to Aunt Ella, and just because all 3 of her siblings did not survive does not mean that my experience has to be like theirs.  No doubt, if I were in her shoes it would be difficult at best to not show my concern to my child or share with her my first hand experience.  I was certainly not angry with her.  She was doing her best to let me know that she knew what chemotherapy was like.

                                                     THE GREEN MILE

    That first treatment was by far the toughest emotionally.  The last few nights prior I had to take ambient (a prescription sleeping pill) or else I’d have never gone to sleep.  Husband held my hand the whole drive to Schneider’s office.  We were both still shell shocked.  It was surreal.

   Cure.  A bold word for an oncologist and a word that I certainly needed to hear.  As I sat across from his desk in tears he said, “Roxanna, my office is filled with many people that I can’t help.  You I can cure.”

    Still, the walk down the pale green hallway reminded Husband and I both of the movie “The Green Mile.”  The only difference was my hallway ended with lethal injection, I half heartedly joked!

   Pat, the chemo nurse with a ready smile and hearty laugh was fantastic.  She answered every question with honesty and a commitment that we fully understood what was going on.  When she handed me the pamphlet describing all possible side effects of the ‘red devil’ adriamycin, I simply handed it to Husband.  I have way too vivid an imagination to read about side effects.  Know thyself a wise man once said.  We made a deal that if I experienced any of the possible side effects, he’d let me know.

    Adriamycin according to Pat is the most toxic and nastiest of chemotherapies.  It was coined the red devil because in the syringe it is the color or cherry jello.  She warned me that I would urinate red for the next day or so.  (If she hadn’t warned me, I’d have thought I was bleeding to death!)

    The chemo room left a lot to be desired.  Recliner chairs lined up in a row, the room devoid of pictures or paintings.  So many patients with different treatment plans some 1 hour infusions, some 5 hours, 8 hours and so on.  I was horrified and humbled at the same time by the courageous souls that sat in those recliners sharing chemo cocktails.  They all had their stories and had no problem sharing them to benefit a newcomer to their bizarre happy hour.

    Thank God for my wonderful husband.  He never left my side.  He held me up, cried with me, whispered encouragement and supported me like no one else could have.  First came the I.V. with saline and the pre-medications for managing side effects.  Then came the red devil.  With every passing moment I waited for some dreaded reaction.  Would I just suddenly explode?  Was it possible that my vein would be chemically destroyed by the caustic chemo?  Pat said she would infuse it with as much saline as possible to prevent that from happening.  I was so very frightened.  So was Husband, but the entire treatment went without a glitch. 

    Round 1 down and 11 to go.  “I can do this,” I told Husband.  “How about steak and eggs for breakfast?  I’m starving!”

    After breakfast it dawned on me that I really did feel fine.  Pat and the other adorable little chemo nurse, Kim both told me that any side effects I would have if they didn’t occur right away would most likely happen a few days later and would be mostly digestive related.  I decided that since I had no side effects yet, the only logical thing to do was resume my normal life.  If I’m busy there’s no time to feel bad!

    I went back to my office and worked the rest of the day, met my “Drill Sergeant” Michelle Frazier at the gym and told her, “Look, I don’t care if all I’m capable of is walking in circles for an hour… I’m showing up for every session come hell or high water and need you to help me build muscle and stay fit.”  She’s been extraordinary and I am indebted to her for her commitment to me thriving!  I love her business card, Body Image, Inc. ‘Look Good Naked.’ 

    After my workout, I felt as though I had burned off a bunch of the toxic chemo.  I imagined the stuff exiting my pores in the sweat on my skin, carrying any random cancer cells still lurking in my body.  This really was a battle plan.

    Once I showered and was still feeling great, we went out for dinner and didn’t get home until nearly midnight.  The following morning I followed Pat’s instructions and took the Anzemet before lifting my head off the pillow to prevent nausea.  I laid there in bed about a half hour before getting up and felt absolutely fine.  Back to the gym for another workout then we rode our Harleys for the rest of the afternoon.  We had dinner with friends that night and again didn’t get home until almost midnight.

    The next day, Sunday I awoke feeling a bit “hung over.”  It wasn’t from alcohol but the chemo.  I was afraid it was going to get worse and felt if it didn’t that maybe it wasn’t working to kill any cancer cells lurking somewhere in my body.  Six hours later, I was fine once again.  Okay, I can do this…

    Whether it was from stress, pre-menopause or just genetics, my hair had been thinning for a couple of years prior to breast cancer.  Even so, I wasn’t prepared to hear that on about day 14 after my first treatment, my hair would come out by the handful. 

    Sure enough on the 14th day, I’m at the gym with Drill Sergeant and a lovely big lock of my hair had slipped from my hair clip.  I reached up to put it back into the clip and the entire chunk – about the size of a half dollar came off in my hand!  The look on both of our faces I’m sure you can imagine.

    We finished the workout, I went home and convinced Husband that it was time for the “Schnauzer Cut.”  He cried.  He also understood that I was not willing to go to bed that night and wake up to my hair on the pillow when I got out of bed.  We decided to make a party out of it.  We took pictures laughed and cried and drank.  A lot.  (No regrets)

    Husband said to me when I was completely bald, “Hey, you look kinda cute!” I could have hugged him to death.  It meant everything in the world to me that he said that.

    When my baby sister became pregnant with her first child at age 32 the whole family was ecstatic.  The baby shower was in August, 2 months after I began chemotherapy.  I got on the phone and set the rules… The shower is Melissa and Steve’s celebration.  All attention and focus (key word) belongs there.  Not everybody that has a cancer diagnosis dies from it.  Besides, I look great in hats.  No need to make any scene about hair loss at the shower!  I had a fabulous ‘hair system’ made for me by J.C. Willard, a salon in town that does without a doubt the most realistic hair replacement I’ve ever seen.  I can part it, do ‘pig tails’ and the membrane the hair is attached to is so thin it looks like my scalp!

                     

                      Roxanna and Dad, Don Johnson, retired homicide detective (no kidding!) Xmas 2002

    Wearing artificial hair in Florida in the summer leaves more than a lot to be desired.  Wigs are hot, itchy and take the desire to be hugged away from fear of it being pulled off by accident.  There is nothing to be ashamed of being hairless.  Aside from many very sexy hairless men out there, women have their share of hairless beauties, too!  Sinead O'Connor (pretty but a bit controversial and Susan Powter the fitness guru just to name a couple.

   My obsession with my hair was one of the many things I have had the opportunity to "get over."  There is nothing like a really powerful experience to teach us what is important and what isn't.  For me, breast cancer was the really powerful experience.  There is a liberation of the soul or the exposure of who a person really is when the trappings of decorations are removed.  For some, that feels confrontational and vulnerable for a few weeks and for others it feels that way until the hair grows back.  Honestly the only thing I miss are my nose hairs (air filtration system and odor management), my eyelashes (boy, do they trap a lot of dirt and dust!) and my eyebrows.  Learning alternative techniques for make-up application have been challenging!  Eyebrows are the toughest, but certainly doable.  I'll be posting some tips I've learned at a future time.

   A dear friend suggested that this site is for anyone dealing with a hardship, not just breast cancer patients, family and friends.  With that in mind, I'd like to offer the following things I have discovered very beneficial to "get over." 

   1.  Saying "I could never live with (fill in the blank; being bald, losing my dog, cancer, etc.)

   2.  Saying "I could never deal with (again, fill in the blank; fear of dying, losing a family member, etc.)

   3.  Saying "I could never go through (here's that blank again;  chemo, radiation, surgery, etc.)

   Now replaced with my new favorites... I CAN!  I AM!  I WILL!  I DID!  Thank God for the lesson. 

   I am working on a list of resources, supplements and other things that have supported me so far and made this   journey easier.  Look for that segment in the next week or two.  I'll sign off with one recommendation of a book I recently purchased that so inspired me called "Surviving Cancer" by Margie Levine.  It's available at Borders or Amazon.com  you can even preview 10 pages to get a feel for the book online.  It's upbeat, informative and a very easy read.  I'll have the pleasure of meeting her next month.  Check out her website    www.margielevine.com

  

                    

                                      Roxanna bald, and Husband, bald faced for the first time...

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This site was last updated 07/10/05