Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Phoenix Rising

Beginning a post can be such a challenge--especially after a long hiatus. But as this post is all about beginnings, I suppose I'll just launch in and let the pieces fall together as they will. I was talking to a good friend of mine the other day--she also happens to be a doctor who followed my cancer journey closely--and she expressed something that no one else has dared say to me before. "That cancer could have killed you, you know." Her comment caught me off guard, but...I do know.

I think in a broad sense, we know cancer is lethal and that it kills people. But for the most part, breast cancer is pretty treatable and, while the treatment is a nasty business, the survival rate is very high. Lots of women get breast cancer--only a few don't make it through to the other side of treatment. But let's be serious--how in the world did a tumor of 9 cm with involved lymph nodes (one of which became a decent tumor in its own right of about 2.5 cm) stay contained in one general area? And then how in the world did it disappear almost without a trace? I really don't know. I've heard of two other cases where the women were not as fortunate. They were around the same age as me and with the same type of cancer and a similar severity, and yet for both of them, it spread to their brains. One has already passed away and the other is projected to live only a few months. Yeah. I could have died.

I'm back in France now, ironically separated from Roby again for a few more days while he works short-term for the MTC in Madrid, and trying to make sense of what just happened this past year. It's funny to come back here alone--almost as if nothing happened and I'm picking up where I left off, still single and waiting for the next phase of life. Everything inside of me feels different and yet I'm surrounded by things that haven't changed. It makes me laugh a little bit to see how confused some people are when they see me at church again--it's like they know something is different and that I was gone for a while, but they can't seem to put all the pieces together. Maybe they are thinking, "Wasn't she the one who got sick? She looks so...normal." In large part, I think their confusion is related to my wig. I'm not quite ready to stop wearing it yet, and now that my eyebrows and eyelashes are back in full vigor, my skin is looking quite healthy, and I've stopped retaining water, all the dead ringers for "recovering cancer patient" are carefully concealed. What none of them knows is that in so many ways, my cancer journey isn't over yet.

You see, what they don't really tell you when you get started is that once the trips to the chemo room are done and the radiation appointments are over and the surgical scars are healing up, recovery still takes a long time. I let doctors beat up my body for nine months, so I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise that I have a lot of healing to do. And while that process can be very frustrating at times--particularly in terms of fatigue--it's also completely fascinating. I don't think I ever fully appreciated the legend of the phoenix until I learned what it means to live through dozens of small deaths and rebirths. I hope you'll indulge me, then, while I share with you some of the things I've learned as my body comes back to life.

Me on the last day of chemo--my
eyebrows were penciled on...
The Truth About Hair Loss
Not many people talk about what it means to lose your hair during chemotherapy. Everyone knows that many cancer patients go bald, but few realize that hair loss means more than losing the hair on your head--you lose all of your hair. As in, normal humans have hair all over their bodies except on the soles of their feet and the palms of their hands. Imagine all of that hair being gone. Many women may think, "Hey, that sounds great!" But I'll tell you--it's really not as lovely as you might suppose. Being hairless somehow makes you colder, and losing eyebrows and eyelashes is a major bummer. I suppose one nice point is that I didn't have to shave my legs or armpits for a while and I have learned that I never wish to wax or shave my arms. :) I don't have any pictures of myself as I really looked--bald with no eyebrows or eyelashes--so I can't show you the contrast, but it was a big thing. And having it all grow back is like seeing myself heal every day. I stopped drawing on my eyebrows, I watched in wonder as my eyelashes came back longer than I remembered, and I had moments of surprise when I started feeling soft, white hairs on my face (I had to remind myself it was normal). And, of course, I watched my head anxiously every day as my hair turned from pale, patchy fuzz to kitten fur and now finally to a very pixieish, wanna-be-curly inch-long head covering. That's why I'm hanging on to the wig for a while longer...I'm not ready for short hair. I never wanted it before, and having it forced on me hasn't helped me warm up to the idea.

Behold--the chemo line! Just a little
farther to go...
The Death of Fingernails
I honestly had no idea that chemotherapy would trash my fingernails and toenails. Or at any rate, I didn't know exactly what it would do to them and how long it would take for them to return to normal. I always had strong, healthy nails, and while I usually kept them relatively short, I never noticed how many things I did with those nails--separating key rings, pulling off sticky price tags, prying off the cover on my phone, scratching caked-on food off dishes, etc. When my nails grew out to the point where the chemo had affected them, they started folding in half any time I tried to use them. They broke and ripped and snagged at the slightest provocation, and it was fairly painful. As my nails have started growing more, I can actually see a line of healthy to unhealthy--a physical landmark of when I stopped chemo--and I'm waiting anxiously for that line to get farther down on my nail.

Journey Through Fatigue
As I already mentioned, I still struggle quite a bit with fatigue and need more sleep than the average adult. It's been hard for me to realize that I just can't do everything that I was accustomed to doing--I've been in France for two weeks and yet I still haven't gotten up the energy to visit some of my favorite places and take up my old habit of long walks after school. Most of the time, I go home absolutely dead tired around 4:00 and don't stir from my apartment the rest of the day. I think having Roby gone certainly doesn't help, but the lifestyle I have to follow now is not at all what I was used to. I've started taking fifteen minute walks in hopes of gradually increasing my stamina, but it's still going to take some time...

Emotional Messes and Chemo Brain
When I started my treatment, I think I essentially stuck a lid on my fears and emotions, put my head down, and barreled through it without allowing myself to think too frequently on how hard it all was. When everything was finally over, however, I started having panic attacks in the middle of the night and had the strangest feeling that I was back at the beginning of my cancer treatment. Somehow, the lid popped off my emotions and I realized that I still had to feel them in order to work through them. It was a crucial time to have a wonderful husband at my side. I still have some anger and other latent emotions to work through, but I am feeling more and more like myself every day.

Somewhat linked to the emotional traumas is the dreaded chemo brain. In a nutshell, chemo kills cells and that includes some of the ones in your brain. From the very beginning I noticed memory loss issues that I'd never experienced before and now that I've completed all treatments, I still struggle to mentally connect things as quickly as I used to. In other weird developments, there was a week or two (not that long ago, I might add) that I started having strange episodes of not knowing who I was. It would happen as I would lay down to sleep, and similar to a dream, my brain would start telling me stories. Unlike a dream, however, I wasn't really asleep yet and my brain thought the story (usually related to something fictional I've read somewhere) was real. I would feel very confused for a few minutes and not know where I was or even who I was. It was terrifying. The only explanation I can come up with (and it's a hopeful one) is that my brain--similar to a live wire--is shooting out signals a little randomly in an attempt to find a good connection. After those two weeks, it stopped happening--and I have noticed that my memory has improved since then.

Here I am today!
There are many other things that I'm discovering on a daily basis--how to break up scar tissue being the biggest issue at present--but the bottom line is that I'm healing. I don't know how I got to where I am, but I'm alive and healthier than most people would expect. Sometimes, I feel like I must have cheated...and I guess I really did--cheated death, I mean.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

People Are Awesome; Cats Are Not

Two awesome things happened this morning: 1-I plucked my eyebrows. 2-It hurt. I know that sounds pretty bizarre, but when you consider that I haven't had eyebrows to pluck for a couple of months, it's pretty exciting to me to actually have something to work with! As for the hurting part, shortly after beginning chemo last November, I realized that all I had to do was slightly approach eyebrow hairs with tweezers in order for them to fall right out. It seemed awesome at first--until I realized that meant my hair follicles were too destroyed to hold on to any hair. SO--hurting eyebrow hairs = recovery! :) Funny how lack can make the nuisances of life seem exciting.

In other news, I just wanted to let you all know that our fundraiser yard sale went incredibly well! We had an awesome turnout for the sale and there were so many donated items that it took us almost a full day just to get everything set out! The thing that really amazed me is how generous people were--more often than not, people would bring their items up to me (I was the "cashier") and give me $20 for around $2 worth of items, insisting that I keep the change. It was moving to see how much perfect strangers can care. On the lighter side of things, we also had a funny experience that resulted in a brand new rolling pin and a $48 donation from some very humbled high schoolers.

My mom had started setting items outside the afternoon and evening before the sale, not remembering that it was graduation day and there were bound to be crazy kids running around all night. Around 9:00 on Friday night, we heard some loud laughing and the sound of a car speeding away--we went outside to see what was going on, but didn't notice anything unusual. 30 minutes later, however, a police officer showed up at our front door and said that a neighbor had seen some teenage boys steal some "small items" off one of the yard sale tables. Because there were so many things, we didn't know what was missing, but said we'd appreciate having it back if the officer could find out who had taken it.

Wanting to protect the rest of the merchandise, my mom decided to sleep outside on a lawn chair. She hadn't gotten settled in for long when a van drove up and a couple of embarrassed high schoolers hopped out, apologizing abjectly for having stolen our rolling pin... Funny thing is, I had intended to throw that thing away since it was terribly broken and almost unusable! I didn't even know it wound up in the sale--but they humbly gave my mom a brand new rolling pin and each donated some money to our cause. My mom felt bad and told them it wasn't necessary, refusing to take their money. However, a determined mother got out of the car and insisted that she take their money as a way of teaching the boys a lesson about stealing. I applaud her decision, but I also feel a little bad that there was so much fuss over a broken kitchen tool! Hee hee... We decided to keep the new rolling pin as a souvenir rather than sell it. :)

Well, this all proves my point about people being awesome, but now you may be wondering about the cat issue from my title... Sadly, Roby and I have been adopted by a stray cat this past week. Let it be perfectly understood that I love animals and think cats are adorable, but I'm terribly allergic to all things cat-like. To my frustration, this lovely, blue-eyed creature has taken a huge fancy to us and comes out of the bushes to rub its insanely loose-furred back against our legs the minute we step outside. I've resorted to keeping a broom on hand if I feel like sitting out in the backyard--it's about the only thing that will keep the sneaky creature at bay. Roby, who grew up with and loves cats, thinks it's hilarious. As for me, I just think my eyes are itchier than normal these days... Here's hoping that its grumpy meowings this morning are a sign that it doesn't love me as much anymore! I had intended to put a picture of our fur-shedding friend on here, but it seems to be avoiding me right now. Roby says it just proves how cunning the cat is--it knows precisely how to irritate me...

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Wonderful World of Radiation

Me and my mom ringing the
end-of-chemo bell--WE MADE IT!!
Well, friends, I have some of the best news ever, so why not just jump right in with it? CHEMO IS OVER FOREVER!!! I'm three and a half weeks out from my last treatment, and I'm starting to feel like a normal (if quite hairless) person again! It's a bit incredible how energy-depleted hardcore chemo has left me, but each day I feel a bit stronger and the warming weather and more consistent sunshine are helping me build back up. And of course, the very best news of all...ROBY IS BACK!!!!!!! And now, everything feels right with the world. :) He got back nearly two weeks ago, and everything has been a whirlwind of activity since then--I'm only just starting to catch my breath and have a look around at our changed circumstances!

Before Roby even had time to recover from his jet lag, we met with my radiation oncology team, helped my dad plant a garden, moved down to a mini mansion in Provo, prepared for a fundraiser yard sale, and I caught a glimpse of what it might be like to be strapped to a torture rack shortly after receiving six tattoos...sort-of. Ready for some elaboration? Well, I'd be delighted!

Because the nearest hospitals where my insurance will pay for my radiation treatment are each about 25 minutes from my parents' house, Roby and I had been exploring and praying about other temporary housing options. Radiation treatment is a 5-day-a-week deal, and I didn't feel like driving almost an hour every day for a ten minute appointment. Since I have lots of contacts down in Provo, we got in touch with everyone who might be willing to put us up for a bit, and we miraculously came across a family who didn't even know us but was happy to let us stay in their basement. Even more miraculously, they live only five minutes away from the hospital and we found them just days before I needed to begin my treatment! In case you haven't noticed, my life always seems to come together in crazy ways at the perfect moment...

Enjoying the backyard paradise before heading
off to my first treatment
Now that I've completed three treatments, it's clear to me that while radiation treatment is fairly simple, transportation would quickly have become a major problem had we not moved. And what, you may ask, about this mini mansion I mentioned? Well...the Hodges, the family who kindly opened their doors to us, have everything from a legitimate home theater near our bedroom to a waterfall/creek in the backyard. We wake up every morning in our king-size bed to the sound of gently flowing water outside our window--it's honestly quite zen-like! And although the Hodges have four young kids, they hardly ever come down to the rather-large basement, so it almost feels like we finally have our own place!

And now, on to the torture chamber... I've heard a fair amount of things about radiation treatment, and most of them are decently positive. Almost everyone says it's easier than chemo, because the side effects are much less severe, and long-term side effects are relatively rare. After meeting with my friendly radiation oncologist, I was pretty optimistic about the whole thing and ready to move forward. Of course, the one thing I really didn't love about the whole process is the need to get tattoos...yup--that's right--TATTOOS! The doctors and techs have to line up the radiation machine in the exact same spot every day, so they use the tattoos as a map to guide the machine. But, not to worry--rather than sitting in a dark tattoo parlor while a spikey-haired, overly pierced, black-clad tattoo artist painted butterflies on my arm (sorry for the stereotypes...), I was treated to a cheery, 20-something radiation tech sporting blue scrubs. And after running me through a CT scan, she simply put six dots of ink on strategic parts of my chest and armpit and then poked me with a needle on each one--it kinda hurt owing to the sensitivity of the area, but it was nothing more than one prick per microscopic dot. Most of the dots (I prefer that to tattoos) aren't visible to the public, but even if they were, they actually just look like dark freckles--none will be the wiser...

This is only a small portion of the "artwork" from
the first day of treatment. I was thoroughly marked!
At any rate, I thought I was free and clear of difficulty after I got my dots and set up my first appointment. Oh boy...bring on THE RACK... Because I'm receiving radiation to my chest and underarm area, I have to lie on a rather hard table with my arms stretched above my head gripping two plastic handles while my feet are rubber-banded together to prevent me from moving and messing up the radiated area. It generally only takes about five or ten minutes each day for treatment, so being in that position shouldn't be so bad. Unfortunately, owing to some miscommunication about where I was supposed to place my head (to the side or looking straight up), in addition to x-rays and some crazy, first-time sharpie drawings all over my chest, I was on that table for almost an hour the first day. Believe me...my arms were killing me! The same day I got my tattoos, they created a mold for my arms (also helps with the lining up)  and made sure my head position would be comfortable if I had to lie there for up to twenty minutes. But on that first treatment day, they told me I had to look to the side to avoid a radiated and scar-tissued airway in my throat, so I didn't mention the fact that the mold felt intensely uncomfortable since it was made with my head straight up. It wasn't until I had pain shooting up my arms and through my neck that I finally decided to say something...silly me...turns out it took forever because they couldn't seem to line up the machine without my head in the right spot. At any rate, all was resolved  and they promised not to torture me again! (And just in case you wondered, they said that because I'm thin--woohoo! best news so far!--I don't have to turn my head in order for them to avoid radiating my throat.)

My friend, the radiation machine
Although I was a little wary of going back the second day, it turned out to be a breeze. They created a special Pandora station just for me, propped up my legs with pillows, lined me up, and were done in ten minutes. Phew! Now I just have to pop in each day and listen to my tunes whilst trying to ignore the buzzing machine rotating around my upper body and at times resting ten inches from my face. I can live with that. :) In a couple weeks, I may get a sunburn-like redness in the radiated area in addition to some fatigue, but I figure nothing is as draining and crummy as chemo! I also have to stay out of the sun as much as possible--a bit of a bummer for this time of year, but shade is also a good option for enjoying the outdoors!

Last but not least, I have to explain my reference to our upcoming fundraiser yard sale! Even though my insurance is pretty awesome and pays for most things, cancer is a pretty pricey beast... We've had lots of unanticipated expenses. As I've been sorting through boxes of my old stuff, we decided to have a yard sale to raise some money! A bunch of neighbors and other family members have donated things to our sale, so we have an incredible amount of great things that people can buy! We'd love it if you want to stop by and see the loot (my mom will be making yummy cinnamon rolls too!), so if you're in the area, come to 564 S. Main in Kaysville this Saturday (May 31st). The party starts at 8 a.m.! If you aren't in the area but would like to donate to our cause, please go to this website: http://donnaleeandrus.org/  It's mostly under construction, but the donations link will allow you to send a little something through Paypal. Just bear in mind that I don't expect anything from anyone--your prayers have produced many miracles, and that will always be more than enough for me! I only posted the donation link because a few people asked if they could help out. I'm grateful to all of you for following my story this far--everyone's support has helped me more than you can ever know. And, of course, there will always be new adventures and updates in the future!
Yup...my eyelashes are all gone--but in a couple weeks,
they will be back to stay!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Raising Awareness

There's been a rash of silly Facebook statuses recently ranging from $7000 scratchy wins to subbing socks for toilet paper--I finally came to the bottom of the weirdness a few weeks ago when a friend explained to me that it's some sort of breast cancer awareness campaign for 2014. It's been stewing in my mind since that time and my thoughts have only grown as I see more of the culprit statuses. Not to be rude to those of you who have participated in the "campaign," but I have to admit that I'm very put off by the idea; I'm honestly not sure what good it does to raise awareness in that way. I mean, we all know breast cancer exists, right? Do we need reminders from obscure posts? And what does it mean to raise awareness anyway? Is it a way of poking your neighbor and saying, "Hey, don't forget--breast cancer is a disease that a lot of women struggle with." Um...I think we know that--what purpose does that conversation serve? What can we do to really raise awareness for something that costs lives and puts many women through months or years of grueling treatment?

In the course of my cancer journey, I've had a lot of people tell me that I'm too young to be going through this. At first, I appreciated the sympathy, but now it just seems a little odd to me--obviously I'm not too young, because it happened. And it's been a strange and surreal journey with no doctors being able to give me a satisfactory reason for why it happened--I had absolutely no genetic predisposition and none of the typical risk factors beyond a high level of stress. And so here's where the real awareness comes in, friends--any woman currently reading this blog could find herself in my shoes some day. It can happen to any of us. I don't want to freak anyone out by saying that, I just honestly wish that I had known it could happen to me. Because if I had known, then maybe I would have done something about it much sooner. That, my friends, is awareness. And while I don't want to consider myself an expert or an authority on all things breast cancer related, I do want to offer a couple suggestions on how we can be aware and make a real difference.

Perform Self Exams
I hope this section isn't awkward for my readers, because before being diagnosed (and even shortly afterward), I never would have dreamed of discussing something like this in a public forum. Somehow, the shyness leaks out after repeated exams and discussions with a panel of doctors. Anyway--here goes nothing...

Mammograms aren't usually recommended for women under 40, so where does that leave the unfortunate young souls like myself who are still at risk for breast cancer? Well, I want to tell all young women out there that they need to be performing regular breast self-exams. Because you know what? I never did--not once. And maybe many of you are wiser than I was, but perhaps you are similar to me. I vaguely remember a seminar for ten-year-old girls where they talked to us about breasts and menstruation. I think exams were probably mentioned. Of course I thought it was silly and embarrassing and wouldn't have dreamed of doing it. I was increasingly aware of the idea as I got older, but I still dismissed it as unimportant. I mean, what woman in her twenties is thinking about getting breast cancer? Honestly, it's now the biggest regret of my life. If I had been more aware of my breasts, I could likely have saved myself a few months' worth of treatment instead of feeling like an idiot when the doctors discovered a hugely swollen tumor that had been ballooning inside my chest for at least several months. Please catch it early, girls--the full treatment plan that I've been subjected to is not a lot of fun. And I was beyond blessed that the tumor still stayed localized in spite of its size and other characteristics--not everyone will have that same outcome. This disease can kill even young women--don't mess around with it.

Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure
If you aren't already familiar with the Susan G. Komen foundation, it's an organization dedicated to raising real awareness and funding research grants to better understand treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Each year, the foundation has a 5k run/walk that raises a lot of money for their cause. I believe that every state has a race attached to the foundation, and I'd invite you to look up information for your local run and to sign up for it this year. The one in Utah is on May 10th, and you can sign up for $35 right now as well as pledge to raise further funds to benefit breast cancer research. Run it for a friend or a family member who has been affected by breast cancer. Run it for yourself in an attempt to contribute to research that could save you someday. Run it for me, if you really want to. Just know that contributing money to the foundation and participating with people whose lives have been hurt or maybe miraculously helped by breast cancer is something that truly matters. I dearly want to participate in the run myself, but because of where it falls in relation to my last chemo treatment, I'm not sure if I'll be well enough to make it--even walking. So maybe I will be a little selfish and reiterate asking you to run it for me. :)

The Bassett Foundation
Shortly after my diagnosis, my dear cousin created a foundation that he'd been thinking of starting for a number of years. His own father passed away from colon cancer a few years back, and my cousin created the foundation in an effort to help defray the costs associated with cancer treatment. It's not exclusive to breast cancer, as my other two recommendations are, but it's a wonderful foundation that could truly bless many lives. They will also be having a 5k/10k on June 14th for all of the Utah folks. I'm hoping to be well enough to actually participate in this one! Please check out the site for more information on other ways to contribute.

So there it is--my two cents' worth of breast cancer awareness advice. Be aware that it can happen to anyone and be aware that while survival rates for breast cancer are typically quite good, treatment for cancer stinks. Beyond that, once you've had cancer, it has a way of lurking in the background of your life for a number of years--there's no way around it. And whether you're diagnosed at a stage one or a stage four, it's a scary thing to live with. So while I can't save anyone from getting cancer in general, I hope this post generates some ideas on what we can do to really campaign against breast cancer in 2014. There's something out there that can prevent cancer from happening, friends. Let's try to find it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Travels, Trials, and Everything in Between

I've taken to gardening recently. There's something truly therapeutic about pulling out weeds and clearing last year's dead growth in order to make room for the new little flowers shooting out of the ground. In so many ways, it feels like fighting cancer: getting rid of the bad stuff in order to make way for healthy growth. I've become almost fierce about protecting our regenerating herbs and flowers.

In spite of the ever-improving (although still finicky) weather and the signs of spring everywhere, I've had lots of reasons to withdraw into myself these past months. First, I spent the beginning of February being terrified about my surgery--was I going to wake up in severe pain? Were they going to discover that the cancer was still spreading? How would a mastectomy affect my emotions? I had a lot of questions that no one could really answer, so I just stewed and worried about it until it was all over. Then, once I was well on my way toward recovery, I had another thing to keep me locked up inside myself--we had to make the hard decision to send Roby back to Italy for a little while in order to resolve some visa issues. He left on March 26 and won't be back until May 13. I can't even express how much I dreaded him leaving and how hard it's been now that he's actually gone.

Understandably, I haven't had the heart to write lately. I've been feeling very sorry for myself and struggling to find those fabled silver linings in my life. I'm not done with my treatments yet, and the one thing that was helping me stay happy and grateful--i.e. having Roby with me--isn't even a reality at present. So why did I finally muster the courage to write today? Well, two things happened this weekend that have helped me change my perspective. First, I listened to dozens of awesome and inspiring talks this weekend during our General Conference, and one in particular shook me out of my gloom. President Ucthdorf, with his irrepressible optimism and fabulous German accent encouraged us to choose to be grateful no matter what our circumstances may be. Gratitude, he said, doesn't have to be tied to tangible things--it's a way of life. I cried during the entire 20 minutes of his talk. Then, as if to reinforce the idea of being thankful in all things, I've been reading Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place--a remarkable holocaust memoir that I always intended to read and just now managed to borrow from the library. And you know what? If Corrie and Betsie ten Boom can thank God for the fleas jumping around the straw in their extermination camp beds, then I can definitely be grateful for chemo even without my husband by my side. After all, as nasty as the side effects can be, it's ultimately saving my life.

So, enough of the explanations and emotions--how about a little update? Because you know what? There are more awesome things that have happened since I last wrote than most people might expect. :)

In an attempt to get my mind off the impending surgery, we took a road trip down to St. George where we stayed with my uncle and aunt for a few days. It was a brief trip, but we enjoyed some much-needed warmer weather, a trip to a temple that I hadn't visited before, and a fun (though brief--owing to my decreased energy level) hike through some lovely red rocks. It's amazing the difference a small trip can make on your mood. I came back much more prepared to head into the unknown world of major surgery.

A mastectomy can be a pretty scary thought--especially where I'm still just trying to get used to needles and IVs. But you know what? All things considered, it was honestly a breeze. I mean, I hurt a medium amount for several days, I was incredibly tired for weeks, and I've just barely gotten back my full range of motion in my arm, but the pain level was not that bad. Of course, that's actually because I've lost all sensation on the left side of my chest and even under my arm, but if nerve damage means I don't have to feel deep incisional pain, I think I'll take it for now! And as for the emotional impact, because I opted for immediate reconstruction, I don't feel that abnormal. I'm currently equipped with a rather uncomfortable tissue expander (it's something like a hard-edged balloon that they periodically fill with saline) until I can get my implant post-radiation, but it actually doesn't look too weird.

A few days post-surgery--not looking too bad!
And, of course, there was more awesome news that came with the surgery: the pathology report showed that the cancer was almost undetectable! There were only a few "pre-cancer" cells lurking about, which basically means they were individually mutinous cells that hadn't done any recruiting yet. Admittedly, though, I struggled to be excited when we got the news. You see, it doesn't change anything about my treatment plan--I still have to do more chemo and radiation, and while radiation doesn't seem so very dreadful, the thought of doing more chemo was extremely discouraging. Why would I want to put myself through even harder treatment and stronger drugs when I was finally feeling well and my hair was even sprouting in fluffy fuzz all over my head? We prayed about it a lot and even got a second opinion before committing to further treatment, but in the end, we decided that for everyone's peace of mind, it was best to bite the bullet and bring on the chemo.

At this point, I have one treatment behind me and two more to go--and the thing that's getting me through the 12 sick days out of every 21 is the thought that when Roby gets back, chemo will be OVER! Now that is something to be very excited about--the return of all good things at one time! Besides, the positive pathology report means that my chances of complete remission are very good. And you know what? I've had a deep reassurance through all of this that this cancer isn't going to haunt me forever. I've always known that, in spite of the scary initial prognosis, I was going to get through it okay--I still have a lot to accomplish in this life. And if that isn't a silver lining, then I don't know the meaning of the phrase.

Happy in spite of everything!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

...So Every Moment Was Magical.

Remember how I said this story was very related to faith? Well, before heading off to my unknown fate in Switzerland, I had a very strong feeling that something truly right and wonderful was about to happen. Funny how that sense of rightness can get buried in our worries and we easily forget what God has been whispering to us. I still have a lot to learn about taking counsel from faith rather than fears.

Bern Temple Celestial Room
After every temple session, everyone filters into a beautiful room known as the Celestial Room--it's seen as a symbol of heaven and is generally one of the prettiest rooms inside of a temple. I got in first and carefully selected a spot where Roby was sure to see me and sit next to me. I had a few moments to decide exactly how I wanted to lay my cards on the table before he came in.

Finally the moment arrived--Roby came up the stairs and took his place beside me. We both shifted awkwardly in our seats, attempting to return to our comfortable conversation from before. Trying to help things along and not yet ready to be bold, I asked him to finish telling me about that dream he'd mentioned. He began talking about how we had been together and someone was trying to hurt me. In an attempt to protect me, he had grabbed my hand--and right at that moment in his story, his hand was suddenly holding mine in reality.

I don't know about all of you, but in my world, holding hands is tantamount to saying "I want to date you and no one else." And, fortunately, I didn't have to guess at Roby's intentions because he accompanied the hand holding by asking if I'd be his girlfriend. Funny how I had half expected him to ask a weightier question...

I have no idea what we talked about after that, but whatever it was, we spent two hours discussing it. Somehow, my brain has created a golden haze around the rest of our time in the Celestial Room--like one of those sappy old movies that switch to soft focus during the love scene. Or maybe it's just that I'm becoming like Jane Austen and zooming out of the first-acknowledgement-of-mutual-feelings moment. Either way, I do remember that everything felt almost magic. And I can't imagine a more perfect place in the world to officially begin a relationship than in one of the most sacred rooms in creation.  It finally occurred to me that no one else was in the room and that we probably ought to find my friends and get some lunch.

We went our separate ways to change into normal clothes, planning to meet out front. I made it out before he did to find my friends impatiently waiting, but the big news would have to come out later. Roby soon joined us and we decided that since he had to leave soon, the two of us would wait on lunch and let the others go find something to eat while we took a little stroll.

They were primroses--I'll always love them now...And
actually, all yellow flowers have become a special
symbol to the both of us. :)
As we were walking, I noticed that one of the yards of the surrounding houses was covered with beautiful yellow flowers springing spontaneously out of the ground. I stopped to comment on them, because where I come from, flowers don't really grow unless people plant them--I loved how in Switzerland they grew on their own right in the middle of someone's yard. And as I turned to tell him how much I loved those flowers, I realized he was going to kiss me.

Now, you have to know that kissing someone on a "first date" is not my style at all. But somehow, I knew it was the perfect moment. Besides, I already felt that we had known each other forever. And that perfect moment and all of the emotions I'd been feeling throughout the day gelled into the sweetest, gentlest kiss I could have imagined.

Though I took this picture months
later, it actually looked just like
this on our little walk.
We continued our walk through a nearby forest--another wonderful thing about Switzerland is that large clumps of very tall trees are never that far away. We found a small grove and stopped to talk and enjoy the newness of our relationship with a few more gentle kisses. After only a few minutes, however, one of his friends found us and told him they needed to leave as soon as possible.

Before I knew it, he was gone. We had just enough time to snap a quick picture to send to my mom before he hopped in the car and drove away. I was left to talk everything over with my friends, who of course wanted to know all of the details. My head felt detached from the rest of my body. Had that really happened or had I imagined the whole thing? We had only spent a total of eight hours together, and everything was as new and delicate as those primroses. In most situations, a new couple wants to spend every available moment together to cultivate the budding relationship, but in our case, that proved to be impossible; Lyon is as far from Lecce as San Francisco is from Salt Lake. I wouldn't see him again for six weeks.
The happy couple on that glorious day

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Hey! Remember Me?

Yay! We just got MARRIED!!
Well, friends, let's start with some business: Merry very be-lated Christmas and Happy somewhat late New Year! The past month and a half has been more than eventful for me--holidays, my wedding, a whirlwind trip to Italy...living that charmed life again, I suppose. And while I know many of you would love to hear all about those details, they will actually come down the road several posts...because...by popular demand...

I've decided to start up the love story again!!

Hooray! I figure we are all dealing with some January blahs right now--why not make things more interesting with a dash of fairytales? So starting next time, I'm going to put away some of the cancer updates (although those may come in sporadically, assuming they are of interest) and pick up right where I left off in October. I recommend coming to class prepared by reading this post first: To Be Together. :)

In the meantime, let's look at the current update! I apologize that it's been so long in coming, but I not only turned over ideas in my mind several times recently, I also actually wrote a complete blog post that I almost published last week. However, when I re-read it, it struck me as so boring and depressing that I scrapped the whole thing and started over. I've been a little self-conscious about my posts of late, because my audience has increased quite a bit these last months. I don't want to disappoint anyone! That said, here's a more upbeat look at the past month's highlights.

I got married 
Like I said, details on this one will be forthcoming! But the wedding was wonderful. It was sunny and snowy and sincerely magical--a fitting conclusion to the first part of our fairytale! We had our one-month anniversary yesterday (Roby dubbed it our monthiversary), and my cute husband surprised me with some lovely roses. Married life is AWESOME! :)

The Return to Europe
A lot of people mistakenly thought that we went to Europe indefinitely right after the wedding. Unfortunately...my treatments are just beginning, so we only had a week-long, honeymoon-esque adventure. But it was so good for both of us to go back even briefly! Things didn't have a particularly auspicious beginning--first my wallet was stolen in the Milan airport, and then we missed our flight down to Roby's hometown the next day and had to re-book a new flight without the benefit of my credit card--but we made up for it with an awesome few days with Roby's family and friends. This, of course, included lots of good food--not the least of which was during our big, fat, Italian wedding celebration! But we'll hold on to the details of that one for later as well.

You'd never know it's not attached to my head!
My wig arrived
This actually happened before the previous two things--magically, I got my wig on Christmas Eve. It is sincerely one of the best "presents" I've ever gotten! Even though I actually gave it to myself... It's unbelievable what a difference it makes to my morale to have my own hair again. And actually, it's not just my hair--even with the huge quantity I had, it usually takes a couple heads of hair to make a wig. One of my sisters chopped off her own one day to send along with mine--she's awesome like that. With that much hair, the wig can be pretty heavy and has taken some practice and, oddly, foam strips wrapped around my head in order to keep it from falling off. At any rate, my sisters and sister-in-law did an awesome job fixing it up all fancy for the wedding, and I honestly love brushing it and playing with it a little each time I put it on.

Treatment Phase 1 Concludes
This actually won't really happen until Thursday when I get my fourth round of chemo, but I figure it's still appropriate to put it in here! It'll be nice to take a break from chemo for a little bit (I'll stop during surgery time and then begin a new regimen with different toxins...erm medicines...once I've healed a bit). Rounds 2 & 3 were a lot better than the first one owing to a wonderful immune booster shot, but it's still not a picnic. I pretty much don't feel like myself for two weeks and then once I'm finally feeling normal again (food tastes good, I'm not super grumpy, my nose doesn't hurt like the devil, and my energy level is climbing back up), I get to start all over. And while I felt mostly good during round 2 (a serious blessing considering that the wedding fell during that time), I lost almost all of my hair during that cycle--there's nothing left but some wispy straggles. I keep my head covered with comfy little hats and my wig, but...looking at myself in the mirror did take getting used to.
His straggles are longer than
mine, but my complexion
looks WAY better!
A friend of mine who recently went through the same thing said she felt like a monster--my heart hurt for her, and yet what she said really rang true with how I felt. Sometimes, I think that I look like the Crypt Keeper, but Roby (who is the only one to have even momentarily glimpsed my head) is sweeter and says I look more like a baby. But on the very bright side, my tumor has completely disappeared. YAY!!! You might ask, then, "does that mean you can be done now?!" Sigh...we've asked multiple doctors this same question...and we keep asking it...but it looks like the answer is no.

I never mentioned it on this blog, but the cancer was a stage 3B--that basically means that the only thing it hadn't done was spread to other organs, muscles, or bones (which is still a very good thing). It was in my nearby lymph nodes and it was approaching the size of a small continent...sort-of. We never got a clear measurement, but at its largest, we were told it was around 9 cm (3.5 inches) in diameter. For the sake of perspective, the best-behaved tumors are less than 1 cm and anything larger than 5 cm is considered quite serious. Long story short, all of the doctors want to take the most aggressive approach possible (considering how many years I have ahead of me in which the cancer could come back), and my treatment will have a total of 4 phases: chemo #1, surgery, chemo #2, and radiation. But we're still hoping to cut back on at least one of those phases...

We found awesome surgeons
A dear friend of mine hooked us up with a seriously fantastic surgeon for my upcoming mastectomy (icky blah--I don't love saying mastectomy next to "my"). She answered all of my questions before I could ask them, she was super nice and yet professional, and she was ready to schedule me right away for February 19. We next met with a great plastic surgeon just yesterday (happy monthiversary!) who will step in right after phase 1 of the surgery to start the process of making me look normal again. We spent the afternoon looking at before and after pictures as well as a book in which one patient photo-documented the whole healing and reconstructive process. Admittedly, it was a little awkward...but it was also helpful to know what's going to happen and how it will look in the end.

So that's pretty much where we're at right now! In some ways, we live a lot like a retired couple since neither of us can work (a green card isn't an option for Roby unless we plan to live here at least 3 years). I spend a lot of my time these days reading as well as exploring the world of vegan cooking (apparently, animal proteins are a no-no for cancer) and Roby likes to study psychology and counseling. To mix things up a bit, we've decided to try going on a few road trips when I'm feeling well enough, which means surgery isn't the only adventure we have coming up soon! So I guess I'm still Mary Poppins in a way--hunting down those spoons full of sugar. :)