Kicking Breast Cancer's Butt

Beauty

It’s been a while since I last gave you all an update.  I guess that’s good in some ways, as it means I’m not focused on the next phase of my treatment/surgery/recovery, and more focused on living my life.  Because, Surprise!  There is life after breast cancer, and you’ve got to go out on live it.  What else are you going to do, but move on forward?  I certainly am.

My range of movement in my right arm is not back to 100%, but hey, it doesn’t hurt to bend, load the dishwasher, or fold laundry.  So my house is sort of/semi clean, for the moment.

My hair is long enough to color, and long enough to cut into some kind of style – which I finally did!  No more chemo curls, no more gray.   I’m now a super dark brunette with a mean blonde streak, with a short, Pin-Up Girl style bob cut.  Whoo, hoo!  I think of it as the kind of hair I have to live up to, now that I have the energy (and the eyelashes) to make an effort to look like a girl, instead of a patient.  What a difference a year makes…

I have two breasts now, as you know, and mostly look normal under my clothes.  It is obvious to me that I’m not exactly symmetrical, in some of the tops that I own, but I like to think that most people wouldn’t notice, if they didn’t look too closely.

My phase II is next month, where Dr. Neligan will reduce and lift my left breast, and do some fat grafting on the right.  Hopefully this will result in both breasts appearing to have the same size and shape.  I have been looking forward to this, for the most part.  Still a longer surgery, but a shorter hospital stay.  Overnight, at most.  I also don’t expect to hurt as much as I did after the phase I, where I had two surgical sites.  This time it’s only one (well, one and a half), and it sort of feels like familiar territory.  I feel like after the phase I, phase II will be a piece of cake, relatively speaking.

Then I happened to be looking at one of the discussion boards on the breastcancer.org website, and read a post written by one of my sister flapper’s phase II, wherein she mentioned she has two drains.  Head slap!  Crap.  I’m going to have drains again.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful they have such a thing, as they give the fluid trying to fill the vacuum left by the surgery a place to go, until such time as the tissue heals itself.  But they are also kind of like having an extra appendage.  Three hands SOUNDS like a good idea when you’re wrangling kids or pots on the stove – but more often than not, you find it gets in your way when you’re trying to go about your usual activities.  You have to make allowances for it, you see.  More clearance when using the bathroom or getting dressed.  Always worrying about where it is when you’re taking a shower, hoping you don’t catch it on something.  I guess an extra hand you could get used to, but the drain you hope you never have to get used to!

I had two drains after my mastectomy, and one after the DIEP flap reconstruction (I was lucky; some women get three, or even four!).  I don’t know what to expect after my Phase II.  For some reason I keep focusing on the left breast, always forgetting my right breast will be getting some “tweaks” as well.  And where exactly are they getting the fat, for the above mentioned fat grafting?  And will those “harvest sites” need drains, too?  I think I’m going to stop thinking about this now….

Hopefully my recovery will continue, and after the Phase II I’ll be done with surgery and anesthesia for the year.  I’m behind the mental schedule I set for myself in February of 2013.  I honestly believed I’d be complete with everything in one year.  Surgery, treatment, reconstruction, recovery, and back to my old self like I was before breast cancer happened to me.  Ha!  I forgot, I had Stage 3 breast cancer, and aggressive treatment for 10 months, plus recovery time before I could even schedule reconstruction.  I’ve been doing this for a while, and still I find myself saying “Well, this is the hard part.  After this it will be easier.”  As I’ve mentioned before – it’s never easier, it’s just different.

I’ll have a couple more procedures after this Phase II, but nothing like the last three surgeries, or the chemo, or the radiation.  Really just cosmetic stuff, but still part of the process.  And I’m sure I’ll be thinking then “Oh, I’ve already been through the hard part, this next part will be easier.”  And I’m sure I’ll be just as amazed to discover yet again - it’s not any easier, it’s just different.

 

For those of you keeping track, my initial reconstruction surgery is now scheduled for May 27.  I say “initial” because I had assumed, and perhaps you did too, that reconstructive surgery meant “one and done.”  It does not.

We have the first “big surgery”, then when everything settles, we follow that up with another surgery.  Not as long as the first one, but we’re still talking anesthesia, stitches, and a hospital stay.

Then we have two more minor procedures, to encourage symmetry and an even appearance.  To be frank, the surgeon builds a nipple for the new boob, and then we tattoo an areola,  if I choose to do that.  Apparently some women don’t.  Can you imagine?  I guess you’d get used to it.

Before we do ANY of that, I have to have a couple of scans done so that Dr. N can find all the blood vessels he needs to move tissue from my belly in order to build the new breast.  I know I have to do it, I know the scans are easy, but I think I’ll be calling my GP for an anti-anxiety prescription refill just the same.  Needles I can deal with, but those big white donut scanners, not so much.  Too much time lying there with crazy $hit running through my head.

More details to follow.

It seems like my hair is not only growing, but the fuzz on my head is actually getting a little thicker.  I am happy to report that it’s not ALL white, either, as I had feared.  Years ago my bestie asked me “What color is your natural hair color, by the way?”  I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, but I feared the worst.  I’d been coloring/covering it so long, and in between visits to the salon, I just didn’t look too closely in the mirror to assess the drastic demarcation of the grow out.  My sister likes to point it out, in her special, loving way.  :)  But I just laugh that off.  Ken says if it comes in all white, it would probably be because of the chemo, but I believe that’s just him being a loyal, loving husband, flattering my vanity.  But if I’m really honest with myself, what I was most afraid of about losing my hair, was how much I would be confronted with the truth when it began to grow back.  As long as I could color my hair, I could be in denial about getting older.  I still think of myself how I looked when I was in my 20′s.  I still feel as ignorant and unsure of myself as I did when I was in my 20′s, why shouldn’t I look like I’m in my 20′s?  Well, stupid, (this is me talking to myself), have you looked at yourself in the mirror? No, not a really GOOD look, because every time I do that I see my mother’s nose and jowly cheeks and chin.  Yikes!

I haven’t thought of myself as vain before this experience, but I actually am.  You all figured THAT out by all my moaning about losing my hair.  It took this cancer journey to open my eyes to it.  I thought - I don’t really care about clothes, hair, makeup, looking good, so I can’t be vain.  I am not pretty to begin with, so why bother?  This whole experience with my hair has taught me better.  First I worried about losing it.  Then I worried about what people would think, so I wanted to hide my bald head from everyone, including my husband (that didn’t last long).  Now I brag about being out in public, and forgetting about my bald head.  Turns out all these things just point to the fact that I am extremely lazy.  Thinking carefully about my clothes takes effort.  I want to look as chic and put together as those ladies on What Not To Wear, I don’t actually want to do the work to shop and think about what looks good on me.  That would require actually going to the mall, going into a store, picking out clothes, and trying them on.  I have to get undressed for that, and see myself in those extremely large, revealing mirrors under those unforgiving florescent lights.  Uck, no thanks.  I’ll just keep wasting money buying clothes on line, and being disappointed when they don’t work out.  See?  Lazy.  Same thing applies to my whining and complaining about my hair, or lack thereof.  Similar lack of initiative, lack of creativity, similar rationalizations for the lack of creativity and initiative.  I don’t know how, so why bother?  And you all know it’s all BS on my part, isn’t it?

Anyway, back to hair.

After we checked in at infusion, while we were waiting for our turn, I mentioned to Ken my recent impressions about my hair, i.e., doesn’t it seem to be getting thicker?  He agreed, especially in the back, which I hadn’t noticed, I was so obsessed with how thick and dark my scalp fuzz was growing.  We wondered aloud to each other when it would start falling out again.  Then my infusion pager went off (it’s just like one of those little square bricks they give you at restaurants to let you know your table is ready), and we went back to the infusion bay to settle in.  The nursing assistant comes to take my vitals, and then we wait for the nurse, which I am thrilled to see is Kevin.  Kevin is the oncology nurse I’ve had every week since I started taxol.  Kevin is AWESOME.  He tells me just enough about what we’re doing, and in such a way that it’s interesting and easy for me to understand.  Plus he’s HILARIOUS.  Anyway, we’re chatting about how the last week has gone, and I bring up the subject of my hair (see how vain I am?  I keep calling attention to it!).  I ask him “What do you think about all this hair?  Isn’t it getting thick?”  He agrees, and I wonder aloud again when I might notice it falling out again.  Kevin says it might just keep growing, but really, really slowly.  This is an option I hadn’t allowed myself to admit out loud, but I have to say now this has been a secret hope of mine.  I don’t think he was just flattering my vanity, and I know we have a long way to go yet, but I can’t help it.  I DO hope that my hair will continue to grow, oh, so slowly.  As much as I’ve been enjoying my bald chickness (never thought I’d say that), it’s fun to run my hands over my scalp and feel downy soft hair up there instead of prickles.

My eyebrows as well seem to have new growth.  They’re still very thin and sparse, but there are also some very short, dark brow hairs coming in.  While I was getting ready, I tried again drawing them in, and it went a lot better than the last time I wrote about them.  Because of the new growth, it was a matter of filling in some areas with the pencil, rather than trying to replicate a full eyebrow with the same.  Much less obviously clown-like, at least to me anyway.

It hasn’t been obvious to me that my eyelashes are coming back.  I guess I have to admit that they are, but they just aren’t as long as they used to be.  My eyelashes are another vanity of mine.  I have always enjoyed very long lashes.  They aren’t dark, but they are long, which is noticeable if I wear mascara, as they brush up against the lenses of my glasses, making little “skid marks” whenever I blink.  Oh, please, please, PLEASE come back long…

I bought a pair of false eyelashes, tried to apply those today.  But those ARE too long to wear with glasses.  I thought about giving up after the first two attempts, especially when I got a look at myself with the full set.  I thought, “I can’t carry this off, who am I kidding?”  But I really wanted to wear my big dramatic earrings, and to my mind that means a full eye makeup, including lashes, of which I have not much, so I had to carry on.  So I tried trimming off individual sets of lashes, clusters of five or so, and used just one or two clumps on the outer corner of each eye.  That I could work with.  I had lashes I wasn’t embarrassed to go out of the house with (yes, I know, it’s ridiculous that I think about these things), which enabled me to wear my bad-ass earrings to go with my bad-ass bald chick head.  It worked for me.

 

The weather here has been so hot, I find that often I can’t bear to wear any kind of head covering when I go out.  Out to get the mail, out to take the trash to the curb, and even out to the store.

Sometimes I forget I don’t have any hair.

The response I get from other human beings when I greet them with my big, bald head varies.  The ladies and gentleman at Starbuck’s, no matter what city, who graciously minister to coffee addicts around the globe, have been unfailingly kind, cheerful, and lovely.  From Seattle to Chehalis, they greet me as if a bald-headed woman is the most normal, charming creature in the world.  For this, I love you all.  You made a newly bald woman much less self conscious.  The FedEx man is a little surprised when I open the door, but barely hesitates as he asks for my signature before handing me my packages.  Lunching with friends recently in downtown Seattle, no one bats an eye – extremes in hair style are seen practically every day, so what’s the big deal?  And of course, bald heads are always in fashion at the Port Draw Lab at Seattle Cancer Care.  I’m only one of  the many cool kids at SCCA.

Tuesday I was caught by surprise.  As I was leaving the grocery store with my husband and child, I was accosted by a man collecting signatures.  After I refused to stop and sign his petition, or whatever, he chases me down.  He says to me, in reference to my baldness, how he understands what I’m going through, cause his mom died (presumably of cancer), and I need to look up some natural oil, that he claims is a “cure for cancer.”  Now, I’m used to the people I know offering their advice and support.  I’ve been frank with them about what I’m dealing with, and I welcome their recommendations and suggestions, as they all have a personal experience with me, and most have experience with cancer.  But here is a complete stranger offering me his comfort and compassion.  Yes,  I could simply thank him politely and go about my business.  Which I honestly tried to do, but he kept chasing me to tell me about his wonderful cure.  I have never been comfortable with confrontation, even if I am within my rights such as in this instance to tell him to back off.  He’s practically stalking me, and I’m getting a little pissed off.  I’ve been polite, and told him I’m not interested, but he’s insisting on “helping” me.

Now, I’m completely pathetic at asserting myself, enforcing boundaries.  I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings.  So it wouldn’t have been natural to me to quip “What are you talking about?  I cut my hair like this on purpose!”

My bald head is none of his f-ing business.  And I really didn’t appreciate being compared to his dead mother, because, you know, SHE DIED.

The more I thought about the encounter, the madder I got.  I would have liked to tell him, as politely as possible “You don’t know me, so don’t try to tell me that you understand what I’m going through, because you really, REALLY don’t.   There are things in my life that, believe it or not, are uglier than the obvious.  I’m not also interested in your naturopathic cancer cure.  I’m being treated at what might possibly be considered one of the best, if not THE best facility on the west coast, and possibly even the Nation.  The professionals at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance haven’t included your quack cure in my regimen; I’m certainly not going to follow your advice over their proven expertise.  And obviously, your shit didn’t work, cause your mom is DEAD.”   As gratifying as it might have been in the moment, that kind of thing would have made me feel even worse later on.  The guy meant well, though he was seriously trespassing on me, and my family.  I had my kid with me, for Pete’s sake!  This was not the time or place to being talking to me, a complete STRANGER, about your poor dead mother.

I used to go out with a man who often lamented my lack of sass and brass.  “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” he’d complain.  But I’m not like that, and yesterday’s incident convinced me that I never will be.  I didn’t like the man in front of the grocery store hounding me, and I didn’t appreciate his well-meant butting in.  But I also don’t want to be the one shutting down one human beings compassion for another, however ill placed it is.  Yesterday, while I would have liked to leave a greater impression on him than my obvious intention to simply to get away from him as quickly as I could (and that must have been hurtful enough), all I could think of is “I’ve got frozen food to get home as soon as possible, I have my child with me, and I don’t have time for this, please, sir, just stop talking to me and go away.”

So if ever you encounter someone like me, a bald-headed stranger, or anyone obviously dealing with things beyond normal life (what’s normal, anyway?) and you try to express your compassion for them as they walk away, try not to be offended by what seems like a snub.  They know you mean well.  It just may be that your concern for them is one drop in the bucket more than they can handle at that moment.  Let them pass, but don’t give up on people, and never give up on your compassion for your fellow man, woman, or child.  We’re all of us dealing with some kind of bat guano.

My love and best wishes to you in your own fight.

 

My eyebrows are bald enough that I had to draw some in before I meet my oldest and dearest friend (who ALWAYS looks fabulous) for lunch.

I kind of look like a clown.  Hmm, perhaps a trip to Shine is in order.  They may have an eyebrow stenciling kit I can purchase.

Now, do I wait for ALL my eyelashes to go, or should I start using my falsies right now???

Some of you already know that I gave in to the inevitable and shaved what was left of my hair about 10 days ago.  It was a relief, as I was starting to look like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.  It’s true what you hear – a bald head feels a lot colder than a head covered by hair.  It’s been warm here lately, so I was grateful for no hair, at least while the kid was at school.  I could go around the house without my little cap, and it was refreshingly cool.  In fact, I wondered how I would have survived our heat wave if I had hair.  A few days ago, the kid caught me without it.  She’d gone to bed, and I thought she was asleep.  She asked me something, and we were chatting for a minute, when she asked me “Mom, are you wearing your hat?”  I’d completely forgotten I’d taken the hat off.  I tried frantically to cover my head, when she said “You know, it’s not so bad.  You have kind of a cute head.”  She is still worried about letting her friends at school see it, but apparently not concerned with telling our favorite checker at Safeway “My mom had her head shaved.”  I didn’t mind.  It’s common for us to share life events with this particular checker, and she with us.

I had my head shaved about two weeks ago, at Shine, SCCA’s volunteer staffed services shop.  It wasn’t a smooth bald head like I expected, but I’ve since learned that an electric razor doesn’t give you a smooth, close shave.   I had sort of an uber crew cut, which left a nice stubble poking through my scarf like Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tiggy Winkle.

So when we talked about chemotherapy with the medical oncologist, we talked about losing the hair on my head, and on a different timeline, possibly my eyelashes and eyebrows.  I thought, hey, maybe leg and armpit hair, too!  No shaving!  But no such luck.  I was seriously bummed about this, as I’m not allowed to use a regular razor.  Because they had to remove a pad of lymph nodes, I’m at risk for lymphedema. And I haven’t shaved since two days before the surgery.  You are advised that to cut down on infection, you should refrain from shaving any where on your body for 48 hours prior to the surgery.  Well, I cheated a little, and shaved everywhere but the affected arm.  While it’s not as thick as I feared, I was still dismayed about the length and curliness of what is there.

Here’s a funny thing, though.  The underarm I did shave doesn’t appear to have any hair growing back.  And my legs?  There is still some hair, but it’s not growing back quickly at all.  I noticed it is very light colored, and not at all heavy.  I still buzzed it off with the little $10 shaver Ken got for me (thanks, babe!), and I was able to rid myself of that pesky underarm stuff.  Whew!  You have no idea what a relief that was.  He’s so good to me.

My hair continues to fall, in a consistent, all-over shed.  Some of it falls down my neck, so it’s like having just had a hair cut.  No matter how well my hair dresser covers me up, I still get a few snips down the back of my neck.  It was making me crazy, so I broke down and wore the cotton cap I received from the Patient and Family Center at SCCA.  I was planning to take it back, since I found two hats on line that were cuter, and thought I don’t need the freebee.  But it has turned out to be useful.  Not only does it catch the hairs from falling down my neck, it covers my head when I feel a little self conscious, such as last night after my shower.  Every time I ran  my hands over my hair to help rinse out the shampoo, the conditioner, my palms were full of hair.  Yikes, I’m so glad Ken bought a drain trap for the tub and shower.  Looked like a drowned Tribble.

The mirror was too steamy to see the damage right away, so I got dressed and cried a little about what was happening to me.  Cried a lot more with Ken, trying to figure out what it means to me.  Everyone says it’s just hair, it’s just a short phase, it will grow back.  I know all this.  Ken wants to know what I want.  I say I want to live, I don’t want this to come back.  Ken says my hair lost means we are doing what we have to do to kick this things butt.  I know this too.   But I don’t like change, especially when it is change I did not choose.

Funny thing about change, though. If I chose it or not, I’m always, ALWAYS better off for the change.  That will be true this time, as well.  I may not see all of the wonder  right away, but I know it’s there.

Later last night, when the bathroom mirror cleared, I took a look at my hair.  Definitely thinning, no real bald patches.  I know that is coming, though, and we are prepared.  I’m not going to be one of those patients who doesn’t lose any hair, but I’ll take it.  I’m lucky.  I’m halfway into this, and as long as I don’t eat too much  when I do feel good, and remember to stay well hydrated and eat small meals when I don’t feel that good, stay ahead of the nausea with my anti nausea medications, I’m pretty functional.  Until I overdo the activity and get tired.  But getting tired is a good thing, too.  I get tired when I do too much, I’m not so fatigued I can’t get out of bed.

The nausea is manageable, the fatigue is manageable, and the hair? We got that covered, too.  I just gave myself the giggles there.  Hair.  We got that covered – in more ways than one!

So my hair isn’t coming out in clumps as I had feared.  It does come out in my hands with I shampoo (very gently), condition, and apply my leave in scalp treatment.  Because we are not only cleaning the hair, we are caring for the scalp, and I think it really helps.  I don’t have that ucky waxy feeling as I experienced last time.

But my scalp does ache in places, and where it itches is where the hair seems to be falling out when I run my fingers through it.

When it does come out, there is no root attached.  Ken’s theory is that follicle just shuts off, and so the hair stops growing and simply detaches itself. As I mentioned in another post, I hope when the new coat grows in, there’s not so much silver.

Started to worry about my eyebrows and eyelashes, but on www.headcovers.com they have that covered, too.  You can stencil and temporary tattoo, you can draw in brows that are sparse, or they’ve got three different shapes of brows in a few colors you can simply glue on like you might attach false eyelashes.  Oh, and they have those, too.  Lots of styles, plenty of colors, and a few ways to attach them.  Don’t know if I will lose my eyelashes and brows, but I ordered some back up just in case.

At www.headcovers.com they also carry wigs, wig care, turbans, scarves, and hats.  I have my eye on one of the short wig styles.  But I did order a couple of the cuter night hats, as they said they would also be cute under a sun hat.

I started off this morning wondering if it was time to talk about shaving my head.  That got me crying again, because I don’t like change, no matter if I choose it (moving to a better home) or if I don’t (losing my job, losing my hair).  At least, not at first.  I was pretty upset when I was told that my job was ending at the end of April.  But now I see this as a good thing. My former employer has done so well in supporting my care, that what I had grieved about previously (leaving my boss, who I loved; watching them all make plans for the future, and knowing myself not part of that future) is not the greatest of benefits.  I couldn’t imagine trying to work up to my standards while I was undergoing chemo.  It’s too exhausting.  Everyone would be great about it, but I’d feel so guilty.

So instead I spend my time almost completely self-absorbed, worrying about when to pull the trigger and shave my remaining hair off, and how to look cute while I wait for my spring/summer coat to grow in.  And shopping for wigs and cute hats is kind of fun.  Because you have to shop for cute outfits to go with them, right?

I was feeling kind of sad and mopey about my hair and my lack of control over it when I started this post.  I’m not any more.

 

 

I’m getting ready for my second infusion.  Showered, used my Nioxin as advised by Jami at MODA, did my makeup (forgot eyelid primer, oh well), then started on my hair.  Seems like if I mousse it when it’s still wet, it takes longer to dry, and I don’t get the lift that Emi did when she styled it for me.  Well, I started to blow dry my hair, realized I forgot the mousse.  Oh, well, it still looks cute.  Went to put in the styling paste on the back and the bangs – there is quite a bit more hair coming out than normal.  Not huge clumps, as I was afraid of, just 30-40 strands, where it seems like I get 10 or so when I style my hair.  So it begins, I think.  I tried not to cry, as I didn’t want to mess up my eye makeup. Not sure I can keep it up all day.  Wish me luck.

Good thing I’m getting fitted for a wig today, huh?

I still need to learn how to tie a head scarf, but that’s what YouTube is for.

Here we go….