written 2 weeks ago…(February 15th)

Funny to think about the many ways a life can change in one year- to consider how challenging it can be to make it through that year in one piece (or at least without losing so much of ones self as to become completely unrecognizable). And, truly, when I look back at one year ago, I hardly do recognize myself. In this year, I have had to reach down and pull from every ounce of courage and strength that I could muster, borrowing many times from friends and family, and outright faking it much of the time. I’ve come a long way, baby, but I have a long way to go.

After a one week break from chemo, I’m looking at three more infusions. Even though it’s been over a week since I’ve had my last treatment, I’m still feeling pretty crappy. The heartburn and urpy sensations continue, along with some very raw nasal passages. This chemo thing is no joke- it’s pretty damned unpleasant. I have no clue how I will muster what it will take to make it through the next three treatments. I used to think of three as such a small number…

On the beautiful bright side, this weekend I enjoyed a lovely visit from my sister Tami and her family. Although I was nervous about the initial shock of everyone seeing me in my post chemo state, it was actually quite an affirmation that family can be a good source of unconditional love. Even with moments of chemo brain, hot flashes, and a bald (or at least mostly bald) head, I felt like me- wacky and silly Wendi who says off the wall things and is a walking contradiction. Who couldn’t appreciate that? And even though I was tentative about having any strength to make it through a full day of family fun, I actually experienced a surprising amount of energy and had an incredible time being a part of a tribe- no matter how dissimilar we all are. That’s the beauty of family- that a person can be whoever he or she is and he or she will still be loved. Warts and all.

poster child

I had the strangest feeling after my fifteenth chemo infusion- a feeling similar to being on dry land after a day of boating. Standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth, I sensed that I was still connected to the tubes and equipment that hold the bags of chemotherapy medications. When I moved, I had the vision of tubing coming from my chest, and I had the urge to wheel the infusion pole beside me. I made my way to bed and curled up in an exhausted heap, thankful that I’m nearly finished with this routine. I woke up unattached to any medical equipment, but with a lingering reminder that I have three infusions in the near future.

Maybe the fact that I’ve finally re-entered a structured yoga class is helping me with the mind-body connection, and this episode was a wakening of my senses. Or maybe it was a reminder that this cancer treatment experience will continue to be with me, even when I’m not connected to tubes. Either way, it was a freaky sensation, and it was a reminder that I hold every detail of this process in my body- every bit of what I’ve been through leaves an imprint, whether it is physical, emotional, or spiritual.

On the physical side, I’m the chemo chick poster child. I’ve become attached to my three cotton turbans, and I’ve decided that I have no time or energy to learn how to tie the proper head scarf (and I’m not as brave or dynamic as I had envisioned I would be- boldly going without any head covering at all). All but my thumbnails are gone, and my fingertips are looking pretty darned unhealthy. I’ve gained a good bit of weight from those pesky steroids (and the food that I can’t seem to keep from eating), I continue to experience daily nose bleeds, my skin tone is pasty, and I have some lovely bags under my eyes. Not the diva I had hoped to be…but, all in all, good spirits.

I’m ready to be done with chemo, though- to have Fridays free and to know that I won’t have the pesky side effects of fatigue, nausea or heartburn- to have the promise of good things in my future.  Countdown: three more infusions. March 6th should be the last one (time for a celebration!). Then it’s every three weeks for Herceptin treatments for one year, PET scans every 6 months, and the beginnings of a new normal. Whatever normal means.

finding grace

The very first advice I received after being diagnosed came from a fellow survivor, several years out from treatment. She took me aside, and told me that I would be continually reminded how strong I needed to be throughout the treatment process, but that, in truth, there was far more grace and growth in accepting what my friends and family wanted to do for me. For the past four months, I have struggled with this lesson, attempting to recognize my limits while accepting the kindness and generosity of the people in my life. No matter how difficult this process becomes, every step has been softened by constant reminders that I am loved beyond words. Not that I ever denied the amazing qualities of my friends, family, and co-workers, I just never expected to be the one to test the depth of their compassion or, dare I say, dedication. I am one fortunate woman, cancer or no cancer, and not one day goes by that I don’t recognize it.

Friday marked my thirteenth infusion, leaving five to go (the countdown continues). Irene accompanied me, toting along a bag of healthy snacks, my chemo quilt, and the ice mitts that I purchased online in hopes of saving my hands from further neuropathy. Although it may be too late to save the nails that are pulling away from my fingers and turning a fascinating array of colors, I may be able to avoid further trauma to my finger tips. So, with fat blue icy mittens on my hands, I attempted to cozy into the treatment chair. Soon after, I was blessed by the fabulously distracting presence of Nayer, a new-found friend from work. Ahhh, the joy of diversions! While Irene went for coffee, Nayer kept me company. When Irene returned with yet another dear friend, Gol, Nayer played music and projected various images of the sea onto the wall in the treatment room. I couldn’t have felt more fortunate, surrounded by beauty and the joy of friends, even as the nurses came and went, checking my blood pressure, monitoring my meds, and confirming my name and birth date. I left my thirteenth treatment feeling like a princess, with a strong desire to dance under the wintery night sky. Although my energy quickly dissipated, my appreciation for friends (and an incredibly patient and loving partner) continues.

For the first time since beginning chemo, I took down the book of blessings from friends and photos of me and Irene  from the bookcase. I re-read the tender words that people shared at my blessing ceremony and I looked at the images of me prior to surgery- baring the chest that would soon be altered forever. That Wendi had only a slight idea of what was ahead of her, and yet I can see some amount of strength and courage in her eyes (along with fear). Looking in the mirror today, I see a different beauty- stark, humble, hopeful, and marked by a deep desire to find grace amidst the avalanche of change. On Friday, Nayer asked me what my relationship with this cancer is, and I didn’t have a good answer. I considered the fact that my body made this cancer, and that it is/was a part of me. Because of cancer, part of me has been taken away. And because of cancer, I have allowed the beginnings of grace to grow from the scars.

The deepest gratitude to everyone who shares this journey with me. I can’t possibly imagine what it would take to make it through this craziness without the love, laughter, and presence of my community. Oh, and the meals, cards, emails, surprise grants, and encouragements have been gratefully and graciously (I hope) appreciated. My heart is full of abundance, and I am blessed, blessed, blessed.

holding patterns

On hold…again. Apparently the tightness in my chest is of great concern, considering the dose dense chemo that I’ve been receiving. Reen and I were rushed from my oncologists office to a digital imaging center a block away where I was put through a CT scanner for images of my chest. We waited to hear from the doctor on staff that there was nothing unusual in the images. A weekend of waiting. On Monday, I will undergo an echo cardiogram before I’m given the go ahead for chemotherapy. If all is clear, I will hopefully have my infusion on Monday, and then again on Saturday to be back on track.

My sleep last night wasn’t the best. I tossed and turned thinking about the possibility of heart damage or pneumonia that can be cased by Herceptin, Taxotere or Carboplatin. Why wouldn’t my insides be the mess that my outsides are? If my nails can’t even stay on my fingers, why wouldn’t my heart, which is the first organ to receive these drugs, be negatively affected? How can the 2000 iu of vitamin E that I take daily be a guard against permanent damage to my fist sized heart? And then I woke up this morning feeling slightly more optimistic. I’ve had some severe cases of heart burn, and this tightness doesn’t feel so different from those symptoms. It’s a deeper feeling that I notice when I take a deep breath…and I’ve been doing a lot of deep breathing these days.

Tuesday will mark the inauguration of our first openly bi-racial president. The first president to self-identify as African American, and to admit to being raised without a father. My heart is open wide to the hope that this election continues to bring, and I breathe deeply as a reminder that what I’m going through physically is nothing compared to the centuries of racism, violence, genocide and poverty that precede this time in America. I breathe deeply as a reminder that nothing is permanent, and that I am fortunate to have my body and spirit as intact as they are. I breathe deeply to calm my ever busy mind and to connect to the people around me. In short, I like to breathe, and I prefer those breaths to be full and intentional. No wonder I have tightness in my chest- my heart is expanding with hope. Who knows what type of test it will require to catch those results?

finding a path

Rejoice! My counts were decent enough yesterday to send me on my way to my twelfth chemo infusion- which, in my continual count-down, leaves six to go. Six resonates in my body as a good even number, and somehow I’m not daunted by it. I’ve done twice that many so far, which means that I only have one third of my treatment left. Math genius, I am not, but I can certainly appreciate the power of a good old fashioned count down!

My phenomenally beautiful friend Lena attended my full Friday of cancer treatment yesterday to give sweet Reen a much needed respite. It was a treat to have another day with Lena, and also to have the gift of seeing my regimen through her eyes- a perspective filtered out of love and openness. Even in the long periods between having my port accessed, waiting for my dearly adorable yet perpetually late oncologist, and then awaiting a chair in the infusion unit, Lena was radiant, upbeat, and on the task of advocating for anything I may need. After our nearly seven hours at the clinic, Lena zipped me home and we were greeted by a cozy, candlelit home with pizza and salad on the table, Reen and Marcos standing by, and a lemony delicious cake with fruit chaser to complete the meal. Who could complain about that? I went to bed as pleased as a girl could be, and had a night of deep and delightful sleep.

Today, after using moxa and sage on my fingers, hands, toes and feet, I’m trying not to obsess about my darkening nails. The pain of neuropathy hasn’t been as bad after taking the two week break from chemo, but I have one nail on the verge of falling off, and every day brings a new hue to each nail (fingers and toes). My task today is to research cryotherapy- a suggestion from one of the infusion nurses- and to send positive energy to each digit, despite my urge to cringe at the appearance of yellow, brown, green, and red on my nails. There must be something to learn from this…

Living this experience has taught me to be humble, but also that I have a deep potential for anger. I have found my patience in everyday life to be short and temporary, and I am continually having to remind myself that it would not be appropriate to scream, spin around, and fall to the floor in a fit when I feel overwhelmed by the world. And the world is so overwhelming these days. I’m not just talking about the people that drive through crosswalks when there are pedestrians or the folks who avoid looking me in the eyes when talking to me, but also the perpetual violence happening on a personal, community, and world level every day. My little case of breast cancer seems so minor when I consider people living in or near a war zone or the people in my very community who have no access to safe homes, clean clothes, or a daily meal, let alone health care. So what if I’m boobless, bald, and that my nails are falling off? I’m sitting in a lovely little condo with a cup of tea and heat, and, as Lena reminded me yesterday, I am rich beyond words when taken in the context of the world. I am lucky. And the anger and outrage that I hold are awaiting a path of action.

inhale. exhale. repeat.

New year- new port. Surgery went without a hitch, though I have tenderness today. After waiting over two hours post-surgery for my blood test results, I was given a hesitant “go” for chemo infusion. My white blood cell counts are wavering just above the level in which chemo is stopped and blood transfusions considered. What I have come to appreciate during my nearly 2 week sabbatical from chemo is that I don’t need to rush this process- I can absolutely take time to recuperate from the intense weekly regimen, and I will eventually be through it. Even if I’m told next week that I should hold off from sitting in the infusion chair, I will do my best to gracefully focus on my own healing and the control that I do have. If all goes as planned (I laugh as I type this), I will have 7 more infusions, with a break after the next 3. I am prepared for alternative plans.

Looking back at this past year, I am in awe of how much it held. A year ago, I was in the midst of my first year of graduate school and learning to juggle work, school, and life. I had no idea that I would be undergoing surgery and treatment for breast cancer, and I had no clue of my own courage and strength. What I could use a bit more of in the coming year, however,  is grace- that shiny, beautiful ability to welcome change and to allow others to help even when I feel stubbornly independent. I am slow to recognize that I can’t handle it all, and I have had to admit over the past several weeks that I am tired- emotionally, physically, and spiritually. When I received the news that I had this diagnosis, I also conjured up massive amounts of energy from my family and community. Now, after four months of cancer treatments, my energy is dwindling along with my attention span. All of my ideas for making this time a spiritual transformation that fueled creativity have been squashed, and I find myself obsessed with the future- the time that I’m not in treatment- as though my life will all of a sudden feel “normal” and cancer will be magically wiped from my mind. I am continually having to remind myself to focus on this moment in my life, and to appreciatate the wholeness of this experience. When I struggle with this, I remind myself to focus on what I can truly control- my breath.

starkness

Chemo girl is on vacation for 2 weeks. I was told on Friday that the symptoms that I’ve been experiencing are a sign that I need to take a break from from my weekly dose of toxic cancer kicking juice. I was upset at first, because I want this @*!#ing chemo situation to end sooner than later, but when my sweet oncologist suggested that I could possibly have permanent damage if I continued with another infusion, I agreed to a break. Instead of sitting for half a day in the infusion chair, I sat for only one hour of Herceptin treatment. Irene and I made our way off of icy Capitol Hill and enjoyed Indian food in the University District. Much better than chemo, and no nausea or heartburn over the weekend. Not too shabby, I say. And having a weekend of snow made my spirits soar. Nothing like a good romp in the snow to remind oneself that there is good reason to rejoice in the pure joy of being alive. (especially if that romp involves witnessing dogs and/or children experiencing the unabashed pleasure of snow play). And nothing like a blanket of snow to bring a new perspective on the outside world and to enforce a focus on the moment.

Another minor setback in my cancer treatment world is that I will have one more surgery to look forward to in 2008. My porta cath, which has been a trooper for 10 treatments of chemo,will be replaced on January 31st. I’ve been noticing a spot where my skin was darkening, and after weeks of no change, the area became darker and my skin actually split over the port. Apparently, this happens on occasion,  and the suggestion was to remove this port to avoid an infection that could go straight to my heart (yikes). Needless to say, I reserved the first available surgical appointment for removal of the old port and insertion of a new one. Perfect timing to rest between infusions.

I remember beginning treatment as the leaves were turning in the fall. Now, at the winter solstice, I am taking my first break. A time to regain strength, to go inward, and to reflect on what really matters. Looking out at where my garden sits, under a deep blanket of heavy snow, I am reminded of what it takes to make a blossom. Even the most beautiful flower must experience starkness…and this is my stark time. Though I don’t know that plants obsess over their lack of bloom. As much as I attempt to be present in my cancer experience, I am still shocked at my image in the mirror, and I envy women with cleavage, hair, and energy. I regret that I never acknowledged my own beauty before, and that it took a diagnosis of breast cancer to make me appreciate my body. And now I don’t remember what it feels like to bloom.