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Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

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After radiation, it was time to return to Dr. Hershman, my oncologist, to discuss aromatase inhibitors. Dr. Hershman had previously informed me that she would recommend hormone therapy since my tumors were estrogen receptive. Estrogen receptive, or ER positive, is considered “good” in terms of breast cancer types since recurrence can be prevented by blocking estrogen production. In ovulating women, estrogen is blocked with tamoxifen; for menopausal or, rather, post-menopausal women, the popular drug is arimidex, a brand name for anastrozole. Given the chemo induced menopause that I experienced, Arimidex was the drug recommended for me. The treatment involved taking a little white pill, every day, for five years. No big deal – right? Well, I wasn’t thrilled.
Just like those ad nauseam lists of side effects described in pharmaceutical commercials on TV, Dr. Hershman had nauseated me with the possibilities – achy joints, bone loss, heart problems – so, I was not blithely walking down the hormone therapy road.  I paused to gnash my teeth at the gate. My primary debate was that it seemed a sort of Dr. Moreau arrogance to tamper with natural hormonal processes. Plus, from the start, I was struck by the notion that my cancer was aimed at distinctly female organs and created or promoted by distinctly female hormones which made me wonder if I had distorted beliefs about being a woman. Actually, I knew that I had misgivings about being a woman and felt that breast cancer was calling me to surface malignant attitudes (societal and personal) and to recover a true love for myself. As reported in this blog, I learned that embracing the divine feminine was essential to my healing journey. Therefore, I felt that blocking or rejecting natural female hormones was anathema to my spiritual ideal of health and wholeness.

In November, 2009, I boarded the elevator at the hospital for my hormone therapy consultation, pushed the button for the 10th floor, and stood to the back to make room for others. Two women entered, stood in front of me and preceded to talk loudly and joke with each other about the drunken escapades they had shared the night before. Their ribald humor reminded me of my drinking days and the way I used to hide my shame behind jocular, bawdy talk. I decided that they were callow just as I was then, and untroubled by anything more than their hangovers. The short blond referenced bumping into a guy in the hospital lobby and quipped, “You know we’re bad when we see people from the bar wherever we go,” and both women sniggered. I thought, give me a break.

The people in the Herbert Irving Pavillion at Columbia Presbyterian were contending with serious life and death matters.  These women were tittering about frivolous pursuits. They pissed me off. The elevator stopped, the doors opened, people got off, new people got on, the women composed themselves, and then started laughing again when they realized that they forgot where they were going. A few people on the elevator offered information. I tried to ignore them, but my ears perked up again when it turned out that the women were going to the 10th floor, oncology, like me. At the 8th floor, the tall, pretty, dark-haired woman asked the short, plump, blond for help, and lifted her sweater so that her friend could adjust her drainage sack.

My heart softened instantly and I said, “Oh, I had one of those,” in order to strike up a conversation, make a connection, maybe offer some guidance from my experience.

She responded, “I had two,” as if boasting about how many martinis she had for lunch, and indicated both her breasts.

I thought, “Oh, my.” The elevator doors opened and she lead the way out to the 10th floor suite of oncology offices, and, although we stood side by side at the receptionist desk and I glanced at her repeatedly, she did not meet eyes with me again.

Perhaps, the dark-haired woman had enough of a friend in the blond and had no need to connect with a stranger on an elevator with a similar experience in order to weather her feelings about having breast cancer and probably, judging by the two sacks, loosing one or both breasts to the disease. I, on the other hand, don’t drink anymore, and I have to share and try to be of service in order to feel at ease in sobriety.

I started writing this blog after that encounter on November 13, 2009.

Beginning the blog is essentially the end of the blog story, except to say that I did surrender to five years of hormone therapy. The still, small but strong, voice within me said, “Take the Arimidex, there will be no side effects,” and a calm washed over me just like in the beginning when I received the breast cancer diagnosis and thought “this is my walk with God.” So, I followed doctor’s orders at the behest of my inner voice and, two and a half years later, I’m enjoying great health and a full head of thick dark blond hair. I did have to work on my attitude though, and so, every morning as I swallow the little white pill, I say, “thank you.” And I pause to feel the waves of gratitude due to my lump lessons that echo through my body, heart, mind, and soul.

Thank you, a thousand times, thank you, for supporting this blog journey. I could not have walked this way alone.

In Awe, L.

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This is the Certificate of Merit that the hospital gave to patients upon finishing radiation:

The crude diploma impressed me that the doctors recognized our need for a proper pat on the back and something tangible to hold on to by way of closure. I wanted closure anyway. After 6 weeks of a work-a-day rhythm that involved visiting a bunch of lovely people whose job descriptions included saving my life, I had a groove in my weekdays. They say it takes 21 days to make a behavior, good or bad, a habit, and I’d been getting my breast blasted for 30. Seems silly, but I missed the routine a little, and so I met one of my radiation buddies for tea.

Marisa (pronounced ma ree sa) and I had struck up a comradery during an unusual delay in the waiting area. Self identified as a “high anxiety” type,  Marisa’s blood pressure spiked when the radiation tech explained the delay was due to equipment malfunctions. She reasoned that faulty equipment might also malfunction on her breast, panicked, and turned to me to talk her down. I was committed to trusting the process, so I probably said so, and, really, I have no idea what I said to soothe her, maybe it was simply that I listened and let her blow off steam. Whatever, she calmed down enough to wait out the delay and stick to her radiation regimen. I remember that I fancied myself her savior that day, but, I wonder now if tending to Marisa was a divine distraction for me. Given some free time, I was just as able to concoct a scary story.

As it happened, we both received our Certificates of Merit with our breasts intact and, so, arranged to celebrate by meeting for tea. As we shared our breast cancer stories over steaming mugs, I learned (what came as no surprise to me) that Marisa and I had very different approaches to our diagnoses. As I wrote at the start of this blog, when the doctor told me to line up a surgeon because the two lumps in my right breast were malignant, a calm washed over me as the still, small, quiet voice within me whispered “this is your walk with God.” Marisa reported that when the doctor told her she had cancer, she screamed. Yet, despite our different temperaments, we had similar approaches. Marisa determined at the start, like me, that it was futile to wallow in  “Why?” or “Why me?” and chose to focus instead on how to heal. And, now at the end of arduous healing journeys, we both shared greatly enhanced appreciations for life as we sipped our herbal teas.

We did not manage to keep in touch, but I have a keepsake from my radiation buddy that I have in a scrapbook right next to my Certificate of Merit. It’s an essay written in 1989 by Anonymous (a terminally ill person) that described how Marisa hoped to be in her post cancer life. It’s entitled I’d Pick More Daisies:

If I had my life to live over, I’d try to make more mistakes next time. I would limber up. I would be sillier than I have been this trip. I know of very few things that I would take seriously. I would be crazier. I would be less hygienic. I would climb more mountains, swim more rivers and watch more sunsets. I would eat more ice cream and less beans. I would have more active troubles and fewer imaginary ones. You see, I am one of those people that lives life prophylactically and sensibly and sanely, hour after hour, day after day. Oh, I have had my moments, and if I had it to do over again, I’d have more of them. In fact, I’d have nothing else. Just moments, one after another, instead of living so many years ahead of each day. I have been one of those people who never go anywhere without a thermometer, a hot-water bottle, a gargle, a raincoat and a parachute. If I had it to do over again, I would go places and do things and travel lighter than I have. If I had my life to live over, I would start barefooted earlier in the spring and stay that way until fall. I would play hooky more. I wouldn’t make such good grades except by accident. I would ride on more merry-go-rounds. I’d pick more daisies.

Thank you, friend and teacher Marisa, for the reminder as there are new daisy fields to ravage, there are new adventures just around the bend, as this epic healing journey is almost done.

to be cont…. one mo’ time.

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It was difficult to write while I was weak and loopy from the amassing drugs which was fine because I had a sublime acceptance of the condition. In fact, I enjoyed the slow mo tempo that chemo brought to the summer of ’09. Not since my childhood – before pc’s and cell phones and with limited tv – had I become absorbed in the velvet folds of a dahlia or marveled at the gold on sun-drenched grass as I sat amid it. Plus, I knew that “this too would pass” which was both a comfort and a concern for me as I worried that this season of luxurious lethargy and prodigious kindness – the entire chemo trip – would pass without remembering if I didn’t write it down. So, while the steroids kept me buzzed at night, I came up with a plan to make gratitude lists that would both keep my spirit boosted in the present and jog my memory in the future.

In the weeks between the 3rd & 4th infusions, during the hours usually reserved for journaling, I sat with my big black book and reviewed the blessings of the six months since being diagnosed with breast cancer by way of listing names. This is the book.

The card on the cover of the book is from dear friend Rooney from Santa Fe, NM. Rooney sent this card to report that she had all the Sisters of a nearby convent praying for my health. Little did my friend know how much Our Lady on Fire would speak to me at the time of the 3rd Infusion.

This page was in appreciation of Western Medicine and all the angels therein.

In honor of my beloved Light Brigade.

For my family.

There were nearly a dozen pages that included the Reiki circle, friends, colleagues at work, church communities, neighbors, people from the health food store… the lists went on and on, and so does my gratitude for each and every one named as well as those that remained nameless like the praying Sisters in Santa Fe. If I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, it was the love from all y’all that really healed me.

In awe,

L.

 

 

 

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Each round of chemo had its distinctions. By the third go round I looked like a seasoned player with my bald head and slight swagger for knowing my way around the chemo ward; but, the truth was, I dreaded this infusion. My fear of needles was rippling through my brain waves, gripping my stomach, twisting my nerve endings. I didn’t want to be a pin cushion again. I didn’t want the initial blood test to check the white cell count, I didn’t want to endure the botched attempts at finding a strong vein. My supply of courage felt depleted. So, I needed to refuel.

Something that occurred to me in the meditative hours between infusions, as I thought about having completed two rounds – just two more to go, I was half way home – was that there were four rounds. Four. Four corners, four legs, four seasons, four directions, four elements – “1, 2, 3, 4 Tell me that you love me more (Feist).” In numerology, four is stability, the builder, and a sort of completion in physical. I wanted these four infusions to be a complete circuit of chemo healing for me and so I determined to honor the fourness of this process and recognize or honor the elements and directions.

There was a song in my head then – it’s in my head now and has been in my head for days, prodding me to write this post – that goes like this: The earth, the air, the fire, the water, return, return, return, return….  The chorus is sung over and over again like wild folk dancers, holding hands, skipping swiftly in a circle around a blazing fire until the mad circling and the song whirl into one.

the earth, the air, the fire, the water

The song seemed to beckon to me to dedicate each round of chemo to an element in the order the elements were listed in the chorus. Rounds 1 & 2 were behind me, so I honored them simply by meditating on each experience and its connections to its respective element.

The first round was earth, the spirit of the north. The first round grounded me in the physical experience, the reality, of chemotherapy. I was introduced to the room, the chair, the players, the system, the instructions, the needles, tubes, plastic sacks of chemicals, plastic mug of ice cubes, miniature cup of support pills; and, therefore, I learned my needs and that I needed  to advocate to have my needs met.

The second round was air, the spirit of the east. The second round was about implementing ideas and breathing my life into the infusion experience. I spoke up and let the winds blow away all that I didn’t need. Then, that which would work for me – a gentle nurse, a loving outlook – was inspired and respirated. I inhaled and exhaled slowly, deeply, meaningfully.

And, now, the third round that I’d been dreading took on a measure of excitement for me as I thought on it as the element of fire, the spirit of the south. Fire is passion, thrill, drive, ambition – I love fire. But it also burns. Therefore, thoughts of fire ignited some fresh fear in me. So, on the evening before infusion day, I emailed my beloved Light Brigade to explain my dismay as well as to describe the refreshed attitude I hoped to bring to the experience, and requested an extra oomph to the energetic support that they offered me.

Gina, our High Priestess, responded with an added note to my idea for honoring the elements and directions, specifically the 3rd round of fire. She wrote: In the Celtic system South is about song- so I propose that we all sing out gold to Linda tomorrow. You can just segue from one Goddessy song to another. I’ll send you out some lyric sheets if you think that would be helpful Let me know.  Linda- We are right there with you girlfriend!!! Do you want anyone in person??? Any songs in particular that sound helpful??

I don’t know whether it was the notion of music that had “the charm to sooth my savage breast” or if it was the offer of accompaniment, but I walked bravely into that fiery third round. As it happened, it was more arduous as the chemo was amassing power and I had an allergic reaction that made my face swell and eyes flame red. Yet, somehow I trusted the fire as a cleansing agent and was at peace with it all. It was as though I was being carried by the hum of a celestial choir.

My sister/friend recounted the experience in an email that expressed my gratitude to the Light Brigade:

Hello Lovelies,

I’ve heard from Linda and she is home, calm, resting and well.  She reports to me that she woke up singing and that indeed today was filled with song.  Over the course of the day and at appropriate moments song could be heard, at the nurses station, here and there – lifting her up.  She felt our holding her in a harmonic embrace.

Seems each treatment so far has brought her new challenges and soulful preparations in how to deal with her worries.  I am glad that in some small way we all have been here to support her through.  Reade was again with her today and steadily at her side.  She tells me she had a reaction to one of the drugs, so they gave her Benadryl to combat the reaction, so on top of everything else, she was in a sleepy, Benadryl haze as well!   The reaction manifested around her eyes, so send some healing to her vision and mind/eye centers.

Needless to say a few days of rest, healing, recovery …. and our continued light, love, holding, lullabies and golden hugs pouring over her house and heart are welcome!

In Her Service,
Deirdre

This is a Celtic song that my friends sang that day called the Prayer of Strength:

   Atom-riug in-diu

 Niurt nime

Soilsi greine

Etrochtai esci

aini thenet

deini lochet

luaithi gaithe

fudomnai maro

tairismigi thalman

cobsaidi ailec

Translated:

Today I go forth with

The strength of the Skies,

The brightness of the Sun,

The splendour of the Moon,

The brilliance of Fire,

The swiftness of Lightning,

The speed of the Wind,

The depths of the Sea,

The steadfastness of the Earth,

And the steadiness of Rock.

In awe,

L.

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About being bald. It was similar to being pregnant. Actually, the cancer treatment experience was similar to being pregnant in that the first four or five months were private – only my near & dear knew what was going on. As soon as the belly popped or my hair came off, the experience became public domain. When I was pregnant, there were those with poor boundaries who felt they had carte blanche to touch my belly, and a few that made thoughtless remarks about the apparently large size of my baby; but most people were exceedingly kind and proffered glowing compliments or blessings, held doors, and gave up their seats on the subway, and, for the most part, I enjoyed the extra attention. Which was also how I felt about being bald.

There was only one instance in which a person thought that bald was a fashion choice; all others knew that hairless meant cancer and few hid their concern. Because people were generally lovely and caring, I didn’t mind their questions about my health or the conversations that ensued, the stories that folks shared about how cancer impacted their lives. Those chats were always positive and uplifting at best, and informative at least. There was only one instance in which my bald head attracted a disturbing incident.

A man, a stranger, encountered me in a health food store and assumed that my treatment plan was up for discussion. He had strong opinions against chemo therapy and couldn’t understand why a health-minded person such as myself who chose to buy organic would also choose to take the poison. Like a pesky mosquito, he followed me from the produce section to the juice bar buzzing about my ear with his opinions until I turned on my heel and swatted him.  Actually, I wish I swatted him. I think I said, “thank you for sharing,” and ran off hyperventilating.

What I wish I had said was “God forbid you ever have to find out what you would do if faced with the decision to trust your oncologist’s expertise or not; but until you have a cancer experience, keep your opinions to yourself.”

(Phew, that was cathartic.)

Otherwise,as I said, like pregnancy, bald was an amazing experience, but I’m grateful it was temporary and that I, once again, can blend in with the rest of the hairy human race.

In awe,

L.

ps. Photos courtesy of the enormously talented, generous, and lovable Carolina Kroon.

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After months of psychological preparation or, rather, avoiding thoughts about baldness, it all happened fast. It was as though the Universe ripped the Band-Aid off my head quick, so I didn’t feel a thing. Monday, my sister offered to buy me a wig. Tuesday, my friends threw a scarf party. Thursday was infusion day, the wig arrived in the mail on Friday, and on Saturday, August 1st, during my morning shower, my hair came out in clumps in my hands. At first, I was fascinated and raked my fingers through as if to clear out dead grass, but immediately returned to my senses when I realized the wads would clog up the plumbing.

Blessed with a thick head of hair, I had some time before my mane would look thin and scraggly. Still, the shedding strands were everywhere and I was annoyed by the extra housework, so I decided to have my head shaved right away.

This is what I wrote in my journal that day:

August 4, 2009

My hair gets shaved today. I am choosing to have my hair shaved, my head shaved. It is the easier (more noble?) way. At least that’s what I’ve heard others say, to keep power, or to take power back, or to feel in control – a dear friend did it that way, and the American Cancer Society website recommends – a lot of folks seem to think that it’s easier on the psyche to shave or be shaved rather than to wait and have hair fall out in hands, pillow, clothes, and just drift around like like like… there’s nothing like it except perhaps the spiders in the basement and their annoying imperceptible sticky webs. The hair is everywhere. I can run my fingers through and 15 to 20 fine strands like milkweed silt cling to the sweat. So, I am going to be proactive because it does seem easier than to watch it slowly thin out leaving straggly patches on my head and traces of myself everywhere. I wonder how many flecks of myself I left in the Monsey Hosiery Shop yesterday where my beloved friend Liz, an orthodox Jew, took me to purchase assorted tichels. We tried on dozens of the pre-tied scarves – that was the fun of the outing – and the shop attendants were so pleasant to the strange goy that sat on a stool in front of a mirror. I imagine their dispositions changed when they discovered all the hair I left behind.  I know I left evidence  just as I know that I purposely pulled out clumps and let them fly from my car window as I drove home from work yesterday along North Broadway past all the pretty mansions. I let my hair fly as if it would turn into something with wings.

What I did not tell my journal was that I had a wonderful experience getting my head shaved. It was filled with love and mirth, and I felt so blessed. Susan Ryan, “Ry”, my tennis partner and one of my BFFs went with me to MB’s Salon & Spa where the owner MaryBeth graciously invited me to come in before business hours.

MB’s is a zen atmosphere anyway, but in the early AM in solitude, it seemed a tranquil shrine and perfect for sacred ritual. In the spirit of all the hairless warrior women  – the Joans, the Sineads, and the Top Ten Bald Babes of Science Fiction – I vowed that hair removal would be empowering and I asked my friends to pray with me. Ry, MB and I held hands like the three graces or muses or furies to say the serenity prayer: God(dess) grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Then I sat in the chair, MaryBeth reached for her scissors and electric shaver, and Ry flipped through magazines and made social commentaries that had us both in stitches. MaryBeth told a few stories too of warrior women that had been shaved in her chair before me. One of them, she said, walked out the shop door onto Main Street, whipped off her scarf and yelled, “LOOK AT WHAT THEY DO TO YOU IN THERE.”

I wanted to be that woman, to have her courage and her humor. The brazen humor, however, wouldn’t have come naturally to me, but I could muster up my own sort of courage. And so, when MaryBeth was finished and I was done trying to get her to take my money, Ry asked me what next and I said, “I want to promenade my shiny head down Main Street.”

In the months to come, I wore baseball caps to protect my head from the sun (hugs to Ryan and Tamara) and tichels or scarves to protect from cold air conditioning or my shyness upon first meeting people (hugs to Liz, Susan, Deirdre, Patrice & Katy and more); but, for the most part, I wore my bald head proudly. Except for one occasion when I missed my sister and wore the wig to honor her, I did not choose to wear a wig. Wigs and most head coverings were hot and itchy. Instead, I made an altar with the wig on a black velvet stand as the centerpiece to remind me daily of the power of love in my life. And, I enjoyed the freedom from hair care and the feel of the breeze, sun, or rain on my scalp, and all the added expressions of care that came my way when my bald head took my cancer experience public.

My sister Sandra & me

In Gratitude,

L.

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As happenstance would have it, my daughter was off to sleep-away camp for two weeks during my second round of chemo. We had made arrangements for camp well in advance of learning that I’d devote the Summer of ’09 to chemotherapy, so it seemed that a divine hand placed her session between infusions in a way that allowed me to do the drop-off and pick-up. I wanted to be the one to makeup my little girl’s bunk bed and organize her living space. I needed to feel confident that she was well equipped for her adventures in independence. Plus, I was concerned that separation might be difficult for her this time given my compromised health and the pending loss of my hair even though each time I searched her for hidden worries, Acadia assured me that she was glad to go to sleep away camp. Still, I was anxious for her to know that her mother was well and able to care for her and so I fussed with her sleeping bag and fluffed her pillow and rearranged her toiletries until she ordered me to “Go now, Mom.”

Pow!

Nine years earlier, Acadia had delivered the same punch to my gut. It was her first day of nursery school. I was convinced that my 3 year old would need a gentle separation process, so I held my daughter’s hand and guided her into the room to show her the dress-up clothes, the pint-sized kitchen, and other assorted toys. But, before I even had a chance to point out the grocery cart filled with life-like plastic food, she shook off my grip, looked up, and said, “You can go now, Mom.”

I did go. I went directly to the room assigned to parents with separation issues and sobbed for an hour by myself. And I would’ve sobbed for the two hour trip home from that camp in the Catskills too had I not received the gift of an insight before my daughter had delivered the blow.

As I mentioned a post or two ago, I did not journal much during chemotherapy; however, I did jot that insight down:

July 27, 2009

I noticed something about my 12 year old girl yesterday when we were settling her into her yurt. She became another person entirely when the 13 year old named Grace entered the room. Grace was skinny and pretty and 13 which made her “popular” or maybe “superior” in my daughter’s eyes. I don’t know exactly what Acadia was thinking or feeling, but whatever it was required her to become instantly allergic to her parents. “Go now, Mom,” she huffed under her breath, and then she clucked her tongue and rolled her eyes when I brought out my camera to snap some parting shots.

The rejection was down right rude and would’ve hurt had it not dawned on me that my daughter was overwhelmed by an excruciating self-consciousness that could only be biological – hormonal – and that she and all other pubescent girls can not help themselves – they’re possessed. From the moment those animal instincts to reproduce kick in, they start measuring themselves against each other in a survival-of-the-fittest sort of way. The prettiest girl or the hippest or the smartest (whatever the personal value) will attract and snare the choice mate, and, so, as long as their bodies are ovulating, there’s a tension, a subconscious competition, that takes place.

I believe I received this insight because, in contrast, I don’t feel the same competitive tension. At first, I attributed this to improved self esteem; but it occurs to me that my egg making has been slowed down for a while now and with this next round of chemo, it will cease. So, either the cancer experience has put things in perspective or the hormonal shift has, but other women are not measurements of my self worth anymore.

Phew…

As I reflect on this insight today, I realize that I’m enjoying a second childhood since “the works” shut down a couple of years ago. Besides having better emotional balance without the monthly mood swings, I’m more playful, less goal oriented, like I was when I was a kid. I’m less concerned with what people think of me, so I swim at pool parties with total disregard for my hairdo; I dance despite my lack of innate rhythm. Like a child, I just want to have fun.

Maybe the release from the obligation to perpetuate the species is why women over 50 seem more self possessed and better able to enjoy themselves and each other. And I’m guessing that the second childhood is that much happier for all the lessons learned during the procreative angst.

In Awe of it All,

L.

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