It’s only been a week. The blue dye they injected into various spots on my arm & hand is fading, but still there, looking a little sci-fi. Yesterday the doctors checked everything out, removed the weird tubes, and gave me the thumbs-up to return to Michigan for a bit.
Saturday, I’ll make my way back to Ypsi. For the next couple of weeks, my only job is to rest and have some gentle hangs with folks I adore who want to help me recover. I can totally do that!
I was so busy running around getting ready for surgery, trying to prepare for difficult emotions, that it hadn’t occurred to me just how deep a sense of relief I might feel afterwards.
Yesterday, the doctor went through the pathology report with me, and each thing ended up better than I’d hoped:
the tumor was significantly smaller (< 5mm) than they’d anticipated, even from the most recent imaging (the chemo + immunotherapy worked well!)
the surgeon achieved clear margins (the problem area was completely removed!), and
NONE of the lymph nodes they removed showed any signs of cancer
After months of treatment and side effects, this feels like a real milestone. I still have some treatment to do to ensure things don’t come back, but those pathology findings mean that as of last Wednesday, I’m cancer-free! Fuck yes.
It’s remarkable how much easier it becomes to not sweat bullshit once you’ve had one of your worst fears occur and somehow (great doctors, therapy, friends, family, total chance, grace, friends, dumb luck, oh, and did I mention friends?) come out on the other side.
For all of that, I am thankful. Resting. Living.
*If you recognize the mural above, you’ll know where to find me!
Six weeks ago yesterday I got the call from my doctor. “I’m so sorry,” she said. My stomach turned, and my road trip car-mates just heard me emit a long, reflexive, “Fuuuuuuuuuck.” “I’m so sorry for using that word,” I backpedaled. “No, no, that about covers it,” she countered, “that’s an entirely appropriate response to something like this.”
If I made it three years clean, my chance of recurrence went down; if I made it past five, it was almost nil. Only 5% of the people in recent studies of triple negative breast cancer had a recurrence after 5 years. My scans in January were clean, my bloodwork in July was fine. And by mid October, I was staring down the barrel of recurrence.
“You’ve done absolutely everything right,” my oncologist assures me, “sometimes, unfortunately, this just happens and we don’t know why. But we can treat it.” It just happens sometimes. I’m sitting on the table in the exam room, my boyfriend Jonah in the chair beside me. I’m looking over the papers with my treatment plan. There’s a checklist of what the stated goal of treatment is, and the box that’s checked?
“The intent is to cure. ☑”
October through November is a flurry of action, of calling and recalling, of checking cancellation lists and checking again. 50+ phone calls, 20+ voicemails, 85 emails, 40 MyChart threads, 9 scans, 2 biopsies, 19 Drs appts, 3 phone appts, and two Zoom Dr consults – one where I had to drive across state lines back into Michigan to be legal about it all. 364 miles driven for appointments, 10 ice packs of various sizes acquired (incl. mittens, booties, calf wraps, and ice helmets), 6 dry ice suppliers called, 280 pounds of dry ice delivered and schlepped.
We get the scans scheduled, the various appointments. So many calls and emails and MyChart messages. Jonah takes lead on reaching out to the oncology social worker, and his knowledge of that side of how things work comes in handy daily at this point. He’s the one who knows where to look for financial support, who walks me through my Advance Directive/Power of Attorney paperwork. Who knows where to apply pressure in this system. I’ve been my own advocate before, but this time will take both our combined powers.
But we get in for things, and we get in fast. So much so that I start chemo less than four weeks after my diagnosis. If this type of cancer is fast-moving and aggressive, then we will have to be too.
This past Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, I did my fourth chemo (out of at least twelve, TBD), on the exact date my first body/brain scan was initially scheduled. Even with orders marked as “urgent,” we wouldn’t have gotten things moving without both Jonah reaching out to the social worker and me and the nurse calling each and every morning for cancellations.
There is so much to do. So much has already happened. I’m looking ahead at 8+ more weeks of chemo, a pretty intense surgery and recovery, and then radiation. It’s going to be a long haul of at least six months, likely more. And so I need help.
I hate asking for help. It’s something I learned to do better last time, but it still doesn’t come easy to me. So, my dear friend Onna made a wishlist and a GoFundMe for me. What I can use the most, though, is love, and encouragement, cards, notes, general support.
Send me your good vibes and your healing thoughts. Beam me love with intention, hug a tree for me (I’m looking at you, Laura!), gaze at the sky or something unusual in nature and think of me. Send me a song that soothes you or fires you up, or just makes you thankful for the weirdness of the world.
Whatever it is that you do to call in or send out healing energy and strength – I’ll take every little bit of that I can get!
Yesterday was my very last chemo session (!). I hope hope hope it is my last ever. But harsh as it is/was, I am glad it’s a treatment that exists, and a series of types of treatments that are constantly improving through research. Because even if it is my own last-ever (crossing my fingers for the next three years!), many many more people will continue to need it and be helped by it. People all around us that we love.
I am still kinda in a weird emotional limbo about it. I’m relieved (especially because the double-dose regimen change shortened the total time by so much), but as I get ready to give myself my last bone-marrow-boosting-shot, I’m still not really ready to feel celebratory as much as relieved.
Although I’m gonna get to see some much-loved ladies over the next couple days, so that may make me feel more celebratory. Yesterday and today, the only thing I have an incredibly strong urge to do is to go sit quietly by the river. Once it stops raining, find me somewhere along the Huron. I used to have this old red t-shirt that said “always a river,” and I wish I still had it.
For now, I am simply exhaling and feeling a little bit of extra peace.
Yesterday, while waiting for treatment, I went to visit my favorite piece of artwork in the cancer center — a print by the great Ann Mikolowski. It’s a print that I’ve written about privately, but am not ready to share until it feels less raw — a print that has been what I return to, my refrain, throughout the last four months. I think a lot about the Great Lakes and the ocean and waves. Which, being a long-ago English major, could simply just be the theme of “transformation” sneaking its way in somehow. I don’t know.
I’ll get all the fun side effects this week, but I am already relishing that those may be close to over. After that, I’ll get a few weeks of space to recover from chemo, starting radiation mid-April, going through June every weekday. Still a bit heavy-duty, but not as systemic, thankfully, as chemo.
Last night, Jeremy was watching videos, and this one came on. One of my favorite Joy Division songs, and yeah, I admit it, it made me cry — but with hope and with much, much feeling for the whole wide world and how connected it all is, and so very many other things that I can’t even process into words yet. Be kind to each other, friends. Your kindness to me means something every single day.
I have been thinking a lot about why I have harkened back quite a few times to earlier years — to being 18-23 or so — but not even in an overtly nostalgic way. I have some ideas. I’m writing about it to try to figure it out, but in that revisiting (and in the sorting-through-old-stuff that only being house-bound can spark!) I came across a rather emo poem I wrote when I was 19/20. I mean, it’s cheesy, but not bad for a 19 year old! It seemed appropriate, like maybe I was writing it to future-me…
Loving each and every crocus I see reaching up this week… ❤
I hadn’t listened to Heavy Cream’s Super Treatment in a minute, and was suddenly in the mood for it during my chemo sesh today.
All the songs are making me wanna drive around with the stereo cranked. So heavy, like these songs should be. Thumbs up to Ty & the band for producing something that sounds nice and thick and heavy but still snotty and defiant.
Jeremy keeps old Bang! mix CDs hanging around, and sometimes one will be in the car. I love how they are little time capsules of the things that he’s/we’ve been listening to or loved at a particular point in time. Since we’ve been together for almost the entire life of The Bang, 14+ years, there’s a lot of time with touch points in that music.
This last week, I was listening to one that happened to include Joan Jett’s version of Shout — kinda the only version of Shout that doesn’t make me feel like I’m at a wedding reception (way to be, Joan). It’s not like, my very favorite song ever or anything, but I like hearing some different energy in the vocals, and I had totally forgotten it existed.
Hearing it was a welcome jolt and also hearing anything related to The Bang was bittersweet as I had more mixed feelings than I’d expected about the fact that last week, the guys moved out of what had been The Bang! Studio for many, many years. The studio was where I celebrated my 30th birthday. It was something that enabled the crew to built giant sets. I spent some happy time there with staple guns, glue, PVC and paint. I stored merch there for the job I had before going back to grad school. It was a place of grand possibilities, and we finally got access to/could afford it after a LOT of hustle and watching J and the crew build sets and paint outside/in a windy carport in terribly cold weather for a few years.
A lot of stuff happened there. A lot of friends found space to make music and do things there. I sang backup on a song about pizza, even. It had a good run.
I feel like I’ve been in a sleepy, occasionally frustrated bubble zone for the last two months. Having to settle for mostly sleeping and jotting things down in notebooks for later, catching little moments of the way my brain and energy usually work. I am still myself, but I am a version of myself that is so inward-turning and bit-by-bit and unable to sustain extended focus that it’s hard to recognize it. I’ve always really prided myself on my focus and tenacity in all sorts of situations, but sometimes those qualities have to be set aside for a little while.
80% of the time I’m accepting that this is the way it is now, and the other 20%, a gut level reaction, one that can be accepted but not eliminated by resting, meditating, yoga, and other healthy things… that other 20% of the time, I want to scream and run and dance and jump up and down. I want to crank the stereo and drive with the windows down. I want to turn up the volume on my amp and play along with a song just because it’s fun, not ’cause I’m any good. I want to work on projects and most of all make things. I want to have the actual energy to talk to people and really, really listen and make a plan or two I don’t have to hedge because I might need to cancel.
Those things are still a little ways off, but today I got pretty badass news, befitting of spring, that that horizon is much, much closer than I thought.
I thought I had 3-4 more sessions of chemo and then radiation. Today, in an act that feels like spring mercy (but is really just based on solid oncologist knowledge and the fact that blood cell nadir was reached a few weeks back), my oncologist went through everything and told us this is my SECOND TO LAST chemo session.
I’m ELATED. This doesn’t mean that the next few days post-treatment won’t hurt or be kinda difficult, but it does mean that mentally, I’m more ready for spring and for change.
Weirdly, I feel more allowing of myself to rest knowing that there is a timeline for the tiredness getting less and less. I don’t know what that phenomenon is, but it’s a thing. I’m totally ready to accept that I only have so much hibernation left. And the fact it’s less than I thought catapults me much farther forward. I thought I was just at the halfway point from our conversation two weeks ago (granted, the visit two weeks ago was kinda bonkers because of the power outage/no computers thing), but I can’t even quite describe the type of relief I feel at not only moving along, but being farther along that I thought. Definitely feels like a sort of grace.
We could still use a little bit of a hand with meals through at least the early part of radiation. It will still take awhile for me to be able to cook more (though I made a couple meals during my pause from chemo). Everyone has been so, so very generous so far, so no pressure, but if you want to take some weight off Jeremy and I, there are a few more meal-help sign-up days open through early May.
Earlier this week, I was still so tired, but it felt like my brain was waking up a little more. I began noticing more and more (not my own!) typos in anything I was reading online. My first thought — “does this mean my blood counts are back up?”
Luckily, I found out late Tuesday that was the case! My white blood cell counts bumped back up after two weeks on-pause from treatment, and were over 100 again, so we could start a new chemo regimen yesterday.
For now, the plan is to switch from a lower dose every week for 12 weeks (only got 2 weeks in on that plan) to a higher dose every two week, with a neulasta shot to give my bone marrow a nudge between sessions. I gave these shots to myself during AC treatment in Dec/Jan anyhow, so I’m used to doing this. There are different potential side-effects, but so far, it’s not terrible.
So, I think yesterday’s chemo session was 7/10 instead of 7/16, but I’ll know more certainly about that next week. I’ve been told not to think of the end-date as set in stone at this point. This entire thing is a constant lesson in not getting ahead of myself.
Yesterday was a record-setting day — from showing up to heading home, it ended up being an eight hour day. WHEW! No wonder both J and I are worn out today!
It was intense and hectic for everyone from the patients to the support staff to the docs yesterday — a water main broke on the top floor of the Cancer Center, and water leaked down, down, down… shorting out almost every single outlet on the floors below except for the “emergency” outlets.
This meant no computers except laptops charged off the emergency power strips, so all of the steps that usually involved scanners and check-in, etc. were on printouts. Even my medical ID bracelet was sharpie-on-plastic DIY-style.
Jeremy’s exact words were “this is like a hospital in a movie!”
You know when you watch a TV show and a hospital is all crazy with bonkers-overflowing waiting rooms and a man is walking around in circles for an hour with the most EXTREME hiccups you’ve ever heard (sorry, mister, everyone totally understands that might just be a part of what you’re dealin’ with), and there’s an older gentleman who REALLY wants to play a game on his phone but doesn’t understand how to turn the sound off, and then the nurses are running all around calling folks’ names over and over because there are just SO many people? Bingo.
Once we got back into the chemo area itself, it was relatively chill, but even one of the nurses there admitted he was kinda waiting for things to turn into a zombie movie or something. If I was a rich woman, I would’ve bought an after-work round at Casey’s for every single person on duty at the CC yesterday.
But the bottom line? Dang do I have admiration from every single staff person who showed so much professionalism. It was pretty amazing, the level of not only grace, but graciousness-under-fire that I saw each step of the way.
The last two weeks I’ve gotten sent home from chemo
…due to low white blood cell counts. The first week, I tried not to let it phase me — it’s a pretty common thing to have happen. But then yesterday, we got my bloodwork results, and despite no chemo the week before…my counts were even LOWER.
So… that part isn’t as common. But it isn’t totally unheard of. It just means my body metabolizes Taxol very differently (over a longer period) than other people. My doctor has seen it before.
Can I say here that I am really thankful I have a super-smart doc who also has enough background and clinical experience to have seen/navigated something like this before? My Dr. is funny and humble and whip-smart and just very real and human. It’s not often you find all those things together in one doc.
We’ll do some more bloodwork next week and then hopefully restart a different chemo plan.
It’s a little weird to think you have this idea of what the next few months will hold, and then be in limbo to go into something different. But really, aren’t shifts like that just kinda, well… life? A good reminder to not get/think too far ahead of myself, for sure.
The good news
…is that although my immune function is still pretty low, and I’m still anemic, I’m not on as harsh of lockdown as I had initially put myself on. Still, given that 2/3 times I’ve had “moderately” low WBC counts I have picked up a cold during 1/2 days at work (despite obsessive hand-washing), I will probably still limit my exposure to spaces where the general public is hangin’ — which is kinda a bummer ’cause I find a weird comfort in grocery shopping. And as someone who geeks out about sound and images and media, I know tonight’s Nerd Nite with Ross and Martin is going to be a really fun one (special thanks to Sara and Elyse for holding down the fort on the NN-organizing front).
And I really miss shows. I’ll definitely appreciate being able to go to the next one I’m able to. For now, I’m just taking the time to revisit my records (thankful for that comfort), and though conceptually, reacting to each is an appealing idea, I’m just gonna keep my own rediscovery low-key.
The even better news
is that although it sucks to feel so wiped out, the theory goes that if the chemo is being THIS hard on my own cells, it’s also thoroughly kicking the ass of any sneaky cancer cells still hanging out and hiding anywhere. And that is GREAT, since chemo is really the best tool we have right now.
Sparky Coupon Report
The last week-and-a-bit has felt kinda tough. On top of all of the limbo and house-arrest and unknowns, my best-pup buddy and constant companion Sparky Coupon got a little too wild jumping around and hurt his tiny back.
The big relief is that he’s going to be OK, but he has to spend a lot of time forced to rest in his crate, and the medicine he’s on makes him sleepy. It’s hard to really let him know that even though it sucks right now, he will feel SO much better soon.
So, really, as I type this, I’m thinking — Sparky’s situation is kinda like mine, huh?
GIANT thanks to everyone who has sent along a recent note, something to read, or a little pick-me-up present. Again, I continue to be absolutely both humbled and held up by all the expressions of folks’ caring. It’s so amazing that I asked Jeremy yesterday if he was sure he didn’t bribe everyone to be so sweet to me! ❤
pic of something amazingly rad from some of my girl-gang…
It’s sunny and beautiful in Michigan today, but it also finally got around to getting cold. Might snow tonight, which I’m actually kinda excited for (don’t get annoyed at me!). It is almost Thanksgiving after all!
We got some mostly-good news as a follow-up to last week’s surgery!
Still waiting on some puzzle pieces (mostly genetic information that will influence chance of recurrence/consideration of additional surgery), but here’s the breakdown so far —
The biggest significant thumbs-up is that the surgeon achieved “clear margins,” which basically just means they have proof through pathology that they were able to get the whole tumor out with a small bit of regular tissue around. Awesome.
Although the growth was slightly larger than they initially thought, it has not spread to the surrounding lymph nodes. Hooray! This is a BIG relief! This likely puts me at Stage 2, but stage 2a, rather than 2b. We will double-check this distinction with the Drs in a big ol’ follow-up appointment on Monday.
The type of cancer that I have (we’ve known this since initial biopsy/diagnosis) is called triple-negative (TNBC), and cells can still spread via the bloodstream, so of course it’s important to follow surgery with full chemo and radiation. But, chemo and radiation were in the plan already, we just didn’t know exactly what types of chemo.
Now taking favorite wig-shop recommendations. If I’m gonna lose my hair, I may as well have a sweet Ronettes ‘do or at least Pleasure Seekers-style bangs/long hair for a little bit!
The good news about triple-negative is that although this type used to be one of the scarier breast cancer diagnoses, research on it has come exceptionally far in the last ten years, and it looks like it sometimes actually responds better to chemotherapy than other types. Its lack of extra hormone receptors also helped me feel more OK doing all the fertility-preservation stuff, and it’s especially lucky that I caught it early, as that improves my prognosis greatly!
So, all-in-all, I’m feeling good (with occasional pangs of nervousness, I mean I’m human), about the outlook and the 6-8 months ahead. It will still be a long haul, but after our introduction to the medical oncologist (chemo expert doc) on Monday, we’ll have a better idea of what things will look like ahead.
My friend Tori and I have had a long history of swapping music and mix CDs (even if we haven’t done it as much the last couple years), and she’s always had great taste.
In fact, she was the very person who introduced me to Chandra’s Transportation EP waaay back when, so it seemed especially perfect timing that a few other friends on tour this last week actually got to catch Chandra perform! File that under things I never thought would happen but am totally psyched did/do. Life, man!
So, in honor of today’s sunshine and good news, I’m sharing a mix she made for me to get me through this last month or so. ❤
Positive Vibrations for your Friday!
*Regular Spotify disclaimer — if you hear something you like on here, think about buying the record or an actual download o’ the song. Art and music are important and deserve your support, financial and otherwise!
…or as well as things are right now. Had a minor surgical procedure today.
Still groggy, really sore, but everything went really well. I’ve been back home recovering most of this pm with the aid of my dude Jeremy, Sparky the wonderpup, and drop-offs from a few other friends & family (the ones who understand when all I have in me is a bleary “ughhhh” as a momentary hello from the couch).
Last week, I planned on being at work all day tomorrow, but then some very kind coworkers gently pointed out that I might be temporarily INSANE, and from the way I feel at the moment, I am extra thankful for their intervention.
Still planning on being at work Tuesday, though. Have a few loose ends and some Normal Life Stuff™ I wanna fit in before things get entirely bizarre.
SPEAKING OF BIZARRE, Wednesday afternoon/evening, I get RADIOACTIVE DYE injected into MY NIPPLE, which is — as my friend Amy pointed out — a possible super-hero origin story. Then, Thursday is my real-deal surgery, here at U of M’s Cancer Center.
In general life, I don’t really talk that much in detail about my anatomy (maybe in a zine/but not too much on the interwebs), but it also feels like total honesty is best in this situation, for a lot of reasons.
Tip-toeing around certain things can be exhausting, especially when you don’t feel those things should be stigmatized to begin with. But typing about my temporarily radioactivity still stirs an odd feeling that’s both uncomfortable and maybe a little exhilarating?
But really, guys, lbr — we all know about nipples! In fact a LOT of us HAVE THEM!
Ok, ok, despite finally being awake for a few hours in a row, I’m obvs. still kinda loopy — time for more sleep.