Short and Sweet

As of tomorrow I will be 50% of the way through my microwave chapter. It is a quick daily ritual in the Windansea radiation room in La Jolla, watching green lines stretch across the ceiling and walls as I am aligned just right for each zap, guided by the micro-dot tattoos that I now have. I lie very still and count four specific sounds that come from further away, mixed in with other sounds of moving equipment. After the last, the machine rotates away and I am released. Once a week x-rays are included, which become six of the specific sounds. Since September with all the scans and treatments, it seems as if I have received a Chernobyl dosage of radiation.

But I now focus upon the reality that in less than a month, I will be DONE.

At times it is deeply surreal that cancer has happened to me and that I am now up close and personal with the frightening vocabulary of chemo and radiation. But then I only have to look in the mirror to be reminded that oh yeah, it did really happen.

I am still working on hatching hair. Although it did not fall out on my head, chemo affected the regrowth rate with the top now over two inches while lower areas are under an inch. But it’s really starting to kick in and feels like a carpet when I run my hand over it. I subsequently lost eyebrows and my eyelashes are now scarcer and crazily crooked, making mascara application a ridiculous mess. I hope they come back. And so far there has been little collateral damage with radiation.

I am finally closing in on an end to a nightmare that rocked my world.

It has seemed like forever but the impossible is nearing.

It is almost a wrap.

Trail of Tears

Four months ago today I received a diagnosis of cancer.

I will never be the same as I was before that fateful moment. Just follow the trail of tears that I have cried every day since.

Tears are an adjunct to cancer.

Initially, my tears were a response to the shock and denial of a medical nightmare. Within my new terrifyingly dark tunnel, they rushed forth, tumbling in the terror and confusion, waterfalls of tears for fears. It seemed as if they would never stop.

Soon more tears gushed as chaos defined my course ahead, with countless medical appointments, tests, frightening dialogues of possibilities and treatments, the loss of all control as daily events took a severe detour to the left.

My happily anticipated future plans had to be cancelled when life was hijacked. Cascades of tears followed, endlessly. Loved ones tried to console me but they were speaking from a sunlit perspective, a vantage point I no longer shared. Their regular lives were rolling along but I had no map where mine could one day be. The cancellations of cheerful events stripped the only light and air from my tunnel, wounding me like amputations.

Then new tears joined my mix, but now a different kind. Suddenly, as friends and family started reaching out with loving support, their generous actions brought waves of tears, thankful ones. Calls, messages, gifts, assistance offers, visits, they all made me cry glorious tears of courage and hope.

A successful lumpectomy and subsequent optimistic pathology report brought torrents of grateful tears. So did the news that I would only need four chemo treatments, spaced three weeks apart, rather than six cycles.

Tears of steel fell as I mentally prepared to shave off all my hair proactively. Tears of incredulous laughter fell as I realized the chemo treatments did not affect my hair after all. Tears of awe followed as the majority of anticipated chemo side effects failed to materialize.

Chemicals and steroids induced uncontrollable buckets of tears over everything and nothing. Then my proclivity for crying all the time made me cry because I seemed to no longer be the strong person I once knew myself to be.

I am now done with all of my chemo treatments with six weeks of radiation ahead, beginning in April. My family will be here in another month, their annual visit to San Diego. Tom and I already have our August tickets for England, and we are planning when we can get down to Baja, something we have loved doing together for forty-five years.

It seems that life as I once knew it is slowly returning. And it is.

But, I will never be the same person in that life, although I will certainly resume being a happy one. A cancer diagnosis has emotionally scarred me, something that only other cancer patients will understand. For the first time, cancer has introduced future trepidation as a permanent reality, something that has never characterized my life before. I now feel a new fragility, one that transcends the health unknowns all of us face. I am suddenly vulnerable. I know the visceral fear.

At the conclusion of my treatments, I will celebrate. I will cry tears of unfathomable joy and relief. My family and friends will join me, expecting me to continue along my yellow brick road, as if nothing ever happened. They will mean well.

However, something did happen, and I have the trail of tears to prove it. Now there will likely be new tears ahead, tears of anxiety, as I am medically supervised for the rest of my life. They will not define me, those years of tears to come, nor will I wallow in them.

But I know they will be there waiting for me, as the adjunct trail to cancer meanders on.

Shock and Awe

I am having an out of body experience, one that has now been ongoing for over a month. I am hovering over myself, witnessing what I thought would be a miserable nightmare but is actually a magical dream state. I was fully prepared to walk softly and carry a big stick beforehand, but now I feel as if I should be buying boxes of lottery tickets and handing them out to homeless people.

I am witnessing myself undergoing chemotherapy treatments, with almost nary a side effect. I simply cannot believe my good fortune. I am one lucky little chemo ducky.

For anyone who knows me well, they are familiar with my philosophy of life that has guided me for decades. I am what I consider to be the world’s happiest little pessimist. Unlike the Pollyanna optimists who always anticipate hopeful, positive outcomes and then are devastated and ill-prepared when gloom and doom occur, I always anticipate gloom and doom, firmly readying myself for every possible negative fork in the road ahead. Then, when gloom and doom occur, I am Girl Scout ready, not missing a beat as I navigate through any given morass.

But, in the event that a favorable outcome arrives instead, I am euphorically happy. A turnabout that was unforeseen and therefore I can gloriously celebrate. It is a fool-proof strategy for me, a win-win for one who hates surprises in life. I am always auspiciously spared from being caught unprepared, and possibly giddy with joy.

As to why this latest turn of medical good fortune is mine, I absolutely have no idea. Is it due to a cancer diagnosis that was so mild that only a chemo top-off was indicated, cutting edge medical advancement, or the astrological alignment of the stars? Regardless, you won’t hear wisecracks coming from my peanut gallery. Just a collective sigh of relief, charmed pennies landing in a fountain, and sacrificial lambs being laid on the altar. Never in a million years did I see this coming.

In typical fashion, I had done my extensive chemo homework prior to my first treatment on December 15. I had talked to my friends who had already traversed the poisonous chemical Oregon Trail. I had read countless books and blogs about the experiences of others, some numbingly devastating ordeals. I googled everything, notably my own prescribed cocktail.

I bought a bunch of head coverings and had my head shaved prior to my first infusion. I stocked up on foods and regimens to address nausea, vomiting, and debilitating mouth sores. I was prepared to say goodbye to favorite foods, not wanting to have a negative association result from a metallic mouth taste which might ban them from my palate in the future.

But, shock and awe. This is your lucky day. Look what’s behind Door #3.

I have now experienced two chemo treatments in over a month and no deleterious side effects. Let me repeat that. No. Deleterious. Side. Effects.

To date, I have not lost a single hair. My shampoo and conditioner are back in action as my hair is growing in from my buzz cut.

I still use mascara for eyelashes that have not fallen out.

I have no nausea or vomiting.

I have no metallic taste in my mouth that affects how foods taste so I am eating regular favorites and can skip salmon, okra, lima beans and pancakes.

I have no mouth sores.

I have no pain.

I have no complaints.

So, one asks, what do I have? How do I know it’s not a placebo?

For a couple of days following an infusion treatment, I have three symptoms. I am less-energetic. There is some intestinal laxity. And I have a weird mouth feel. Period. Then they go away. Back to pre-chemo normal.

I am diligent about avoiding germs, infection and populated public spaces and will continue to do so until the end of February. It is a small price to pay to not alter the treatment schedule ahead.

And, because of my life philosophy, I am fully prepared that my sparkling good luck could change at any moment. But, given that I have already experienced 50% of my treatments, I am starting to uncharacteristically wobble towards the side that thinks there may be two more chemo happy dances in my future.

I still have radiation ahead, but I will be ready. In the meantime, I am celebrating a chemo out of body experience, and gratefully humbled by shock and awe.

Artifacts

It has been one doozy of a week. I decided to take the very unsettling step of having my hair shaved completely off before my first chemo treatment yesterday.

When I learned I would need chemo, I cried buckets of tears thinking about losing hair. Who embraces that scenario, especially one who is not daring or characterized by making fashion stylista decisions for attention? I was already quaking in the tremors of a cancer diagnosis, and losing my hair was absolutely a gut-wrenching consequence ahead that for me would be tantamount to streaking across a field during Super Bowl.

But chemo was the given, and bald was the fact. And somehow a miraculous fortitude eventually was born inside me, mainly because I had no other choice.

I am a very strong-willed and practical individual who thrives on predictability in my life. That was the curse of a cancer diagnosis which suddenly threw me into a realm of no control, of stepping off the edge of Columbus’s flat earth into an emotionally dark free-fall. After weeks of flailing, reacting, and panicking, it was finally time to return to what I do best.

I had to take the first step to ward doom off at the pass because I really hate surprises.

Other women choose to wait until the undeniable hunks of locks fall out in bed or in the shower, at work, or shopping. Still others decide to negotiate taking baby-steps towards shorter haircuts. But, if it’s going to fall out a week or two following chemo, that was just too short-sighted for me. Practicality is my mantra.

Then the HOW emerges as to pursuing such a course. I had never seen myself without any hair before so there was a paralyzing level of surreal embarrassment ahead. I wanted to be in an anonymous setting for the quick and dirty deed and, initially, I didn’t even want Tom along for the ride. It was going to be terribly shocking enough to me, and foolishly, after 45 years of marriage, I didn’t want to be that shockingly naked for him.

But I finally needed him to be part of my emotional equation. I made an online appointment for a local chain salon on Monday morning with the hopes that few if any other patrons would be present. We walked in and there were two stylists, and another woman patron.

We sat as we waited for Sophie to clean up after her male client. Tom was getting emotional but I had to remind him to help me maintain my steel. When it was my turn, he sat in the empty chair next to me. I told Sophie I wanted it all totally gone. She clarified my decision and then she started in the back.

Tears dripped quietly down Tom’s face as he watched. He could see the jolt before I could.

I tried to maintain my composure as I asked Sophie about former customers she had serviced before chemo. She had just buzzed a young cancer-victim mother with three children the week before. Sophie’s experience has been that women typically choose to lose their hair while their men emotionally melt as they watch. And then the emotional-melt part hit me as she moved to my sides and top.

I sat frozen in the chair as chunks of kitten hair fell on the floor. Who was this person looking back at me? I stared as I tried to process this reintroduction to myself. I felt seismic fissures in the fault line of my persona.

I did not cry as I watched. But as Sophie finished, she said I had a beautifully shaped head and that I was brave. She asked if she could give me a hug. My tears came forth.

I threw on my hat as Tom and I held hands and walked to our car, silently. I felt so foreign to myself and unsure how I would be able to see myself in the mirror again. Thankfully, we had already made dinner plans for that evening as celebration of the courage that it took to get to that milestone. So the next step for me was to focus upon how to reveal the new me to myself and my life.

Thanks to a stash of pre-purchased hats and bling, I felt better that night. And I have to say that a day later was even easier and that now, it’s no big deal. I am more than my hair and it will all come back. The cancer is not invited.

What strikes me most in the five days since I departed my hair are the artifacts that have been left behind. They seem so strangely odd right now. They are tools of historical interest to my recent past, and I am now their curator.

My blue hair pick on the bathroom counter.

The headbands that I use to hold back my hair as I apply facial cream morning and night.

The bottles of shampoo and conditioner that are waiting in the shower. My hair caught in the tendrils of my shower mat.

My blowdryer.

The hairs that I pick off the shoulders of my sweatshirts.

My cooking baseball cap that I keep in a kitchen drawer when I prepare food for others. I made a batch of deviled eggs to take for lunch with friends, but no cap was needed and no errant hairs were found.

The archeological dig that is a reality of chemo. Thankfully, the historical past for all of my artifacts will someday again be alive and thriving.

Levity

You just can’t make this stuff up.

I am scheduled to have a lumpectomy next week, on Election Day. I have undergone many surgeries since 1980. Hysterectomy, arthroscopy, osteotomy, capsulotomy, arthroplasty, capsulorrhaphy and synovectomy are just a few of the fluffy procedures I’ve had. None would be notable if they had occurred on Election Day 2016. and any other surgical procedure on Election Day 2016 would be rather unremarkable.

But not mine this time. When scheduled for a lumpectomy on Election Day 2016, you just can’t make this stuff up. And so, with great fanfare, I announce that I will be having a trumpectomy next week.

With a diagnosis of breast cancer, it’s not exactly a barrel of monkeys. But after the nurse called and I realized the date, I could not stop laughing. How many other surgical procedures would work with this happenstance? What are the chances? I can’t think of one that would rhyme with Clinton. Even if I could, I would not sign up. Nor can I think of one that would have rhymed with Sanders. Obama? Bush? Romney?  Gore? McCain? I hope there are no rhyming procedures out there that come my way in the future.

And doctors need not respond.

No, I am scheduled for a trumpectomy on Election Day 2016. And I didn’t even get to vote for it.

It’s hard not to run with the connections, once pushed into this campaign surgical corner. I have triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma and nothing could be more relevant descriptors of this campaign morass than triple negative and invasive. And nobody should have to deal with breast cancer AND this election at the same time. Cruel and unusual punishment comes to mind.

Unfortunately, this surgical confluence with Election Day means it’s going to be an election I will never forget. And, next to having a tumor cut out of your breast, followed by months of chemo and radiation, it’s hard to think of anything worse.

But, given my patriotic and cancerous fusion, I needed some levity. So, I am having a trumpectomy on Election Day 2016, she said with a smile.

Checkers

My life has fallen into Friday markers.

Three Fridays ago, I went in for a biopsy. Two Fridays ago, I was in Cambria where I received a breast cancer phone diagnosis. Last Friday was the full frontal assault at Moores with the surgical oncologist. As of Friday today, I have traveled a lifetime on the human informational absorption rate timeline.

Last Friday, I felt as if my life was now a scattered box of checkers all over the floor. I was suddenly left with no prediction, no control, no organization. All I could do was pick up the scattered checkers and throw them to a jumble in the box.

But somehow, to get through the week to today’s Friday, I had to do something with the checkers. To survive in chaos is not a choice for me, a Type A totally organized specimen. So, following Jody’s serendipitous intervention on Sunday, I picked up a checker. And I realized I had to start moving it forward.

A pre-op day of tests on Monday found me crying with nurses at Moores. But then I came home and started searching online for some early head coverings and I ordered four. I began reading a breast cancer book that my doctor recommended. I made my first checker diagonal push to a forward square.

On Tuesday I had lunch with my dear friend Amy whose husband has both Parkinson’s and cancer. She is one of the funniest and zaniest people I know. She had me laughing out loud over the advantages of having no hair. She was bored that I had ordered safe coverings, wanting instead to go outrageous hat shopping with me. She wants to knit me some yarn curls to hang from my coverings. Envisioning, I pushed my checker forward again, this time with a smile.

Following Amy, I went to what will be my last regular haircut appointment for a very long time with Heather. She talked to me about good and reasonable wig sources she knows and that she would cut and style anything for me. She volunteered to come to my home when the moment comes to be bald. We talked about hair changes in the future, and hair regrowth and re-losses down the road. Again, I landed on the next diagonal square.

Wednesday found me at another close friend’s home who is herself a breast cancer survivor. Jan chose to fight future fear with the choice of double mastectomies and subsequent reconstruction. Her path was a difficult one with setbacks, but she is happy now. She showed me her chest wall, a previous prosthesis and its accompanying bra. Thanks to Jan, my checker went forward to a square in case I learned on Thursday that I would need a mastectomy. I felt stronger still.

After Jan’s, I went to my weekly Pura Buena Onda (PBO) Spanish conversational class, always a fun highlight. During my previous week’s absence (I was still in Cambria), they had talked about me. They love my laugh and miss it when it’s not in class. There are six of us students and our epic teacher, Danny, who handed me a card. I couldn’t open it until I got home but I knew it was initiated by Carolina, the stellar brains behind PBO. The PBO staff and students are like extended family to me. There were lots of hugs and in the parking lot my classmates told me that if I couldn’t get to class, they would come to me. Push. I cried at home while reading the heartfelt PBO staff and classmate messages. Push again. My cousin Joyce had sent a thoughtful blanket for future warmth. Push again.

Thursday was the radiation oncologist consultation at Moores, and more tests, and the pieces are falling into place. I will be having a lumpectomy, followed by 4-6 months of chemo (determined post-surgery), followed by a month of daily radiation. I continue to hear the good news of how tiny my tumor is, and how there is no palpable detection yet of any lymph node involvement. I am still waiting for a surgery date.

Then more mammogram slides, more ultrasound images. The radiologist underscored the miniscule size and the undetected lymph evidence, but he indicated there are some calcifications near the tumor, which might be a problem. Once compared against previous years of scans from my prior facility, either all will be well or a larger lumpectomy will be done.

My checker is still sliding ahead.

What I have not yet mentioned is all the ongoing support that I receive daily from my family and friends, who reach out to touch a heart that is numb. The emails, the messages, the cards, the calls, and the texts are reminders that I am still a part of my life.

I am grateful for the courageous sharing of cancer journeys, since they shine with blazing hope for me. I know that the coming months will not be fun, but the knowledge that so many others have done it before lets me know that so will I.

Finally, this is the best Friday that I have had in what seems like forever. And, along the way, I have learned that it takes a village to push a checker forward.

Serendipity

It is 1985 and I have just transferred to Rohr Elementary, the second school of my career and where I will remain for 26 years before retiring. I have been assigned a 3rd/4th combo class in Room B-9. It is here where a perfect story of serendipity will be born, thirty-one years later.

Her name is Jody. She is eight. And she is one of my third graders. She is the same age as my son, Eli. And she is now my guardian angel.

Because I taught for so long at the same school site, it was easy for my students to stay in touch with me over the years. Jody was one of those. A wonderful student, she grew into a lovely young woman who even became a teacher at Rohr for a couple of years before she had to leave because of staffing cuts.

She taught in the room next to mine, but she could never bring herself to call me Terri. I was still Mrs. Hamlin from her third grader point of view.

Following her short stint in education, Jody pursued a different career. And then at 34, Jody was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was 34, when I was Jody’s teacher.

Deeply concerned by Jody’s diagnosis, her bosses queried medical connections they had with Eli Lilly and Company to determine the finest breast cancer treatment center and doctors in San Diego. The singular response: Moores Cancer Center in La Jolla.

Jody had a lumpectomy, radiation, and aggressive chemotherapy because she was so young. She is a five-year cancer survivor today.

But because of her life-changing diagnosis, Jody decided to make a career change. She attended UCSD, did her internship at Moores Cancer Center, and she is now a radiation oncology therapist at Sharp Grossmont Hospital.

And here is the magic of serendipity. Because of a second Facebook account that I created in order to remain in contact with my former students, she learned of my cancer diagnosis and contacted me while I was in Cambria. And then on Sunday she read my first post that detailed my terror, and she knew she could help. She picked up her phone and texted me on Sunday: “Good morning, Mrs. Hamlin! Would you by chance have time to meet today? I also got treated at Moores. I also interned there so I wanted to give you info on the doctors, if you think that would help.”

I opened my front door and together we hugged and cried. I felt like a third grader in the presence of my teacher. We had come full circle, thirty-one years later, from B-9. The irony was, neither one of us was benign.

For the next several hours she calmly and lovingly helped Tom and me process our fears and our questions. Her doctors were the same. I felt the madness pause and I was able to breathe. The blizzard in my brain lightened. I allowed flashes of hope and peace.

I can do this, thanks to the heart of a third grader, who will be with me on this journey. We share an academic history, and now a story. It is a perfect story of serendipity.