I Didn’t Expect THAT: Radiation Tattoos

It’s not the kind of tattoo you’re thinking of.

I’ve written a lot about my chemo experiences for breast cancer, but I also underwent radiation treatment. Compared to chemo, it was a breeze, however, it came with its own surprises. I was preparing myself for potential discomfort and burns, but was caught off-guard when I realized I would get four permanent marks on my body to help align the lasers and make sure that radiation was being delivered where it was needed.

Permanent marks = tattoos. Now, I have nothing against tattoos on other people, though I admit to occasionally thinking, “You realize you’re stuck with that, don’t you?” about a particularly colorful specimen. Sorry, it’s the era I grew up in. I’ve seen absolutely gorgeous tattoos; I just never wanted any myself.

Venus_de_Milo_RAD-TATTOO
Venus de Milo illustrating where three of my four tattoos are (the 4th is hidden by the stub of her arm, but mirrors the visible one on the other side). Not actual size, obviously.

I remember being told about the tattoos and instinctively wanting to protest. It wasn’t about the dots themselves — I keep my dermatologist in business with all the moles that pepper my body. I think it was about not having a say regarding something that was going to be done to me. For me, cancer was about feeling out of control. Being forced to get tattoos was frustrating and completely unexpected. It felt like bait-and-switch, where the focus was on preventing burns and what to do about tender skin, but then ohbytheway, you’re getting tattooed too. It was one more thing to endure.

I know I was blowing this out of proportion. These are just small dots. There are four of them, one on the ribcage below each armpit and two running down the center of my chest. They’re blue, which was a necessity, given my highly mole-y skin. And they’re definitely permanent. I wrestled with the concept but eventually sighed and just accepted it.

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One of my tattoos, closest to the belly, several inches below the sternum (see Venus). Glasses for reference. Yes, It’s teeny.

Maybe it was the friendships that I developed with the radiation team, maybe it was finishing all my cancer treatments, but my prejudiced view of those tattoos softened over time. Now they meant something to me. Previously, I couldn’t imagine any reason that I would submit to being marked like that. But then I started wishing that the tech had drawn teeny stars or hearts instead of plain dots. And I heard of breast cancer survivors covering mastectomy and implant scars with inked art, or foregoing the reconstruction altogether and allowing their chests to serve as a canvas, making something beautiful out of an emotionally painful situation.

 

 

I’m glad I have my little tattoos.

 

I Didn’t Expect THAT: Chemo Port

When you’re told that you have cancer and will need the full complement of treatments, you focus on the concepts of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Chemo, for example, can be frightening to think about because of purported its side effects, so you gloss over the details. But when you get down to a practical level and start learning about exactly how the infusions will take place…

I knew I needed chemo. I assumed that it would be administered intravenously, as in, into an arm vein with the bag o’ drugs hanging from the IV pole. Ahhh, but the drugs are caustic and would cause damage to a smaller vein, so to avoid that, they go directly into a major blood vessel to allow for quicker mixing with blood, faster circulation through your body and much less discomfort. This is done through a port.

Let me be clear: a chemo port is a revolutionary device that has made administration of chemo drugs far easier on the patient. Not having the port would be absolutely miserable and likely necessitate breaks in treatment as the patient recovered.

Port_in_a_box
This little marvel makes chemo much easier. The dark purple circle is a soft membrane into which the needle is inserted (through the skin). The tube delivers the meds straight into a major vessel. Easy peasy!

However, it wasn’t until we were talking about setting up a port implantation appointment that I began to grasp what was actually going to happen: a small disk would be implanted onto my chest wall, just under the skin, from which a thin flexible tube would run up and over my clavicle and then down into the blood vessel (probably the superior vena cava, but I didn’t ask). Once I started infusions, the needle from the bag containing the drugs would be inserted through my skin, through a membrane on the port, and that was it for the needle prick. Simple and relatively painless.

But about that port. To me, “port placement”, as the implantation procedure was called, was surgery. And I wasn’t great at handling surgery. Usually I like a lot of info to prep me for what’s coming, but I couldn’t even handle watching a video of a placement procedure.

Port_Placed
After port placement. I was acutely aware of a foreign body poking out of me. Alien, anyone?

I don’t have a lot of fat on my chest. There was nothing to nestle the port down into, and as a result, after implantation my skin was stretched tight. I could see the lump in my chest and I could see the tube as it ran up from the lump, over the clavicle. Turning my head pulled the skin — ow! I avoided looking at it, let alone touching it. All I could think was that I had an entire year of this.

Eventually the skin stretched to accommodate the port, but because it stuck out like a little knob, I worried about twacking it. When I hit it with a dumbbell during a workout, I cried. Seatbelts were a constant concern; I was afraid that the port would get dislodged and injure me in a car accident. Hugs hurt and I instinctively turned that side away from people. And of course, in the event of a huge catastrophe that resulted in the collapse of society and all modern services including port removal procedures, I might be stuck with that thing on my chest for the rest of my pathetic little life.

Eventually, the day came when I finished my last infusion and my oncologist gave the go-ahead for port removal. That thing was out within a week. Removal was simpler than implantation, done under local anesthesia without the need for fasting, and even all the tugging to get it loose didn’t bother me. I was so happy to have it out.

But I’d carried it inside me longer than I had carried either of my children, so I asked to take the port home. While I had hated it inside me, I was so grateful for what it had done. I mean, I couldn’t just let them throw it out! It was handed to me in a bright pink box designed for dentures (apparently, keeping your port isn’t popular enough for the creation of “used port” containers) and now sits on my desk. I prefer it there rather than in my chest.

 

 

Memories of Blood, Sweat and Tears

There are some odd memories from my chemo experience that stick in my head. It was such a jumbled, frantic time when I was struggling to get a handle on what I was dealing with. I was going through my first few courses of chemo when my daughter was diligently learning the dance steps to K-Pop group BTS’ song, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Lying on the couch in the living room as she followed the dance practice video, I became involuntarily familiar with the song and its accompanying dance moves. Because of the frequency with which I heard the music, I was convinced that either I was going to love it — or would get nauseated and anxious whenever I heard the opening bars.

I never developed an aversion to it. In fact, it remains one of my favorite music videos. Any associations that I have with the song also include knowledge of having endured the chemotherapy medications and emerged on the other side of treatment. That positive perspective gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I can watch the video without any “baggage”, which is a feat for things cancer-related. The surreal nature of the video, coupled with the fact that most of it isn’t even in English, reflects my disoriented state during treatment: colorfully dreamy, occasionally inexplicable and an escape when reality became “too real” to handle.

Peace In Puzzle Pieces

One unexpected thing that had a big influence on me in terms of feeling support from others was a jigsaw puzzle in the oncological radiology’s waiting room. It was a large puzzle with a lot of pieces. Every day for six weeks, as I received radiation treatment, I saw that puzzle in various stages of progress. Eventually, I started poking around at it, and often I would be able to add a piece or two. The next day I came, more would have been completed — seems like a lot of us were poking!

This served as a lovely metaphor for what we, as patients, were going through: cancer is a puzzle, and treatment offers pieces that we put together in hope of finding our way through. All of us were working on this jigsaw puzzle at different levels of ability. Some were stronger than others, some had better support networks, but everyone was shuffling along at their own pace, completing their treatment puzzle, piece by piece, day by day. On days when treatment seemed never-ending, there was gratification to be found in the progress of the jigsaw puzzle.

I had never realized that working on jigsaw puzzles was so soothing. Just as in mindfulness meditation where you focus on the breath, the puzzle offers an opportunity to focus on a particular pattern, color or shape of a piece. It requires concentration, but this concentration comes easily. You don’t have to make yourself focus, it simply happens as you search for a piece.

Eventually, my radiation treatment ended and I left a partially completed puzzle in that cozy waiting room for others to finish, but I longed for that familiar feeling of comfort and quiet. That waiting room had been an inviting sanctuary where my only responsibility was to practice self-care. I wanted that to continue. It wasn’t long before I’d found puzzles to work on at home. I chose the images for how they made me feel, and for quite a few months afterwards, working on puzzles was a meditation. My family played the role of other patients, and together we enjoyed the satisfaction of putting the pieces together.

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Here are several of the puzzles I/we finished at home. Apologies again: as with most other photos in this blog, I never intended to post these online, so the photo quality is lacking. I’ve added info on where these puzzles can be found in case anyone is interested, especially if you’d like to see what the pictures look like under ideal conditions.

“Secret Garden” by Alan Giana (Bits & Pieces, 500 pcs, Amazon.com): I was looking for a peaceful oasis and this image fit the bill. I loved the flowers and flying creatures, but particularly the koi, which brought a special zen to the picture. (Bad lighting – doesn’t do it justice!)

Summer_Puzzle

“Marvelous Garden” by Oleg Gavrilov (Bits & Pieces, 500 pcs, Amazon.com): I love peacock blue, the architecture smacked of Tuscanny and the flowers (yes, pink ones) completed the scene. This remains my favorite puzzle to date.

Peacock_Puzzle

“Autumn Oasis II” by Alan Giana (Bits & Pieces, 500 pcs, Amazon.com): Autumn means that Halloween/Thanksgiving/Christmas are coming up soon, and after such a miserable year of fear and cancer treatments, I was so looking forward to a joyous holiday season.

Autumn_Puzzle

“Florence” by Eric Dowdle (Dowdle Puzzles, 500 pcs, dowdlefolkart.com but purchased at Costco): I missed visiting Florence during a European trip due to scheduling conflicts, but it remains one of my most-wanted cities to tour. Seeing Michelangelo’s David in person is on my bucket list! I particularly liked that this puzzle came with a little poster of the image that made putting it together a serene pleasure. The last thing you want is to get headache trying to match up teeny windows!

Florence_Puzzle

This Is Your Arm On Drugs, Part II

While my previous post had focused on appearance, how I looked was a relatively small part of getting back to where I’d been physically. Much more important was the hit my strength and endurance levels took, and those don’t really show up in the photos I posted. While there’s not a huge change in muscle size, my strength did decrease significantly, not surprising given that I was going through cancer treatment. At the “height” of each chemo infusion, I had trouble walking, sometimes even lifting my head from the pillow. Movements required a lot of effort.

All that rest time affected my physical ability. I’d been told not to row (Concept2 erg) for four weeks after the lumpectomy on my left breast. That was tough because rowing is a form of meditation for me, the quintessential mindful movement — it was stress management that I desperately needed. I wanted to follow the rules so I stayed off the erg, but incorporated light weights into my “weenie” workouts. That helped, but I felt frustrated and weak.

Then, after those four weeks were almost over, I had my chemo port implanted on the right side of my chest wall, and again was told not to row for 3-4 weeks. Well, a week after port placement, I had my first infusion. ARGH! Sooooo, I wasn’t able to get back to rowing until I’d recovered from my first chemo.

My strength continued to increase after each of the first three infusions, which was gratifying. I’d gotten to about 2/3 of my pre-surgery strength training weight load. But after the 4th infusion, the fatigue started to catch up with me and I had to slow down. I was tired! To make matters worse, my bloodwork before the 5th infusion revealed an increase in the levels of two liver enzymes, ALT and AST. Chemo is hard on the liver, which works overtime to clear out the drugs from your system. If those numbers continued to go up, my 6th infusion would be delayed.

Now, you might think: what’s the big deal, waiting a week or two longer for the last infusion? Psychologically that would have been devastating. For me, getting through chemo was more than enduring its physical effects; the mental component was huge because of the stark contrast between my level of fitness previously compared to where cancer had knocked me down to. The dates of each infusion were seared into my mind, and I really needed chemo to be over.

My solution was to implement every means imaginable for decreasing liver enzyme levels. That included foregoing heavy lifting, according to my research. Anything, to finish on time. For the weeks before my last chemo, I was a green-tea-guzzling, dark-leafy-green-devouring, turmeric-supplement-popping, hyper-hydrated couch potato. Thankfully, my numbers went down and I finished chemo as scheduled.

The final infusion required the longest recovery. Once I got over the worst of the side effects, I could still only row 500 meters at a time at a harder pace, and my weight load and repetitions had dropped dramatically when strength training. While I was done with the hard chemo, I still had Herceptin infusions (and still had the port implanted, which got in the way) and those affected my heart, so I got tired more quickly. Not chemo-tired, but tired enough. I focused first on improving muscle endurance (lighter weights, higher reps) and then gradually increased the weight and dropped the reps to build muscle back.

There was a fire under my butt to get back to my version of “normal”. Ultimately, regaining strength was the easy part. The hard part was getting back to where I had been mentally, and even now I’m not sure I’m there yet. But who knows if I was in as good a state pre-diagnosis as I think I was?

My focus now is to train as hard as I can, stay as active as possible and not succumb to the weight gain that seems to afflict the average middle-ager. I guess I’m trying to find a “recipe” that will keep the cancer from coming back. It probably doesn’t exist, but seeking it is one way for me to maintain a semblance of control over something that is ultimately uncontrollable.

This Is Your Arm On Drugs, Part I

Chemo drugs, that is.

Say “chemo patient” and people think of a hairless, skeletal person who could be blown down by a gentle breeze. But is that really what happens?

I was anxious about how much chemo was going to ravage me, so I decided to document everything. That way when treatment was over, I would know how much work I had to do to rebuild myself. The simplest way for me to do this was to photograph my right biceps. The cancer was on my left side and I had not been using that arm as much, so the right arm would provide a more accurate view of what chemo treatment was doing to lean mass.

I hope you’ll forgive the following photos. It was never my intention to actually post these (or else I would have chosen a better background!). The cropping is a bit off and I’ve only now realized that even my biceps curl isn’t consistent throughout all the photos. In my defense, I was focused on getting through treatment, and worrying about getting the angles and lighting right was the last thing on my mind. All these pics were taken on the mornings of my infusion days.

Infusion 1 – 4/27/2017:

CHEMO1_20170427_cropped

Infusion 2 – 5/18/2017:

CHEMO2_20170518_cropped

Infusion 3 – 6/8/2017:

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Infusion 4 – 6/29/2017:

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Infusion 5 – 7/20/2017:

CHEMO5_20170720_cropped

Infusion 6 – 8/10/2017:

CHEMO6_20170810_cropped

Is there a difference? I think there is, even with the relatively crappy and inconsistent photos. I also think that hanging towels over the door makes the bathroom look messy. And, YEOW, I am mole-y!

Six courses of chemo (Taxotere and Carboplatin), one every three weeks, won’t destroy you, although the drugs do smack you around a lot. It would take about a week or so to recover following each infusion, at which point I could work out again. As the infusions went on, the recovery time increased.

So, no, my chemo regimen didn’t turn me into a skeleton, although my weight did take a hit; there were times that I was literally too tired to eat or my GI tract hadn’t fully recovered, making it tough to get food down. Because my infusions were spread out, I got a pretty hefty dose. But women whose cancer dictates weekly infusions, while possibly receiving smaller doses, don’t get the same amount of time to recover and the treatment effects build up. In that sense, I was very fortunate, and that made it possible to maintain my strength.

Once again, my worst fears weren’t realized. It took time to get back to feeling normal and training hard again, but I got there.

 

The Problem With Pink

The breast cancer awareness movement has done a good job of bringing cancer awareness to the forefront. Especially in October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, it’s hard to see pink without thinking of breast cancer. This is particularly true for someone who has gone through cancer treatment, but I expect that many who haven’t strongly equate the color with the cancer too.

Certainly, it doesn’t hurt to distribute pink “Save the Boobies”-esque stickers, t-shirts and wrist bands. It’s acceptable to say “boobies” in polite company, to broach the subject of women’s health, and this push to pink-out everything has resulted in more funding for cancer research. People probably think it’s cooler to have “boobies” on your wrist band than something like “Save the Pancreas”, the cancer of which has a much higher mortality rate. But a pancreas doesn’t look as good in a bikini top.

There is a darker side to this, and it has nothing to do with the usual arguments against pinking everything out, which tend to be about companies making profits at the expense of women. This is about what it feels like to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

At some point, awareness hits a saturation point. I’m willing to bet that many women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer dislike the color pink on some level. The diagnosis is life-disrupting if not traumatic, and the constant reminder from all the pink ribbons and other paraphernalia can get nauseating. And I do mean that in a physical sense. For me, diagnosis = anxiety; anxiety = nausea; pink = breast cancer…well, math was never my strong suit, but this all adds up to pink = nausea.

As I sat alone waiting for my surgery, feeling very nauseated, my Nurse Navigator paid me a visit. Incidentally, these nurses are the greatest thing since sliced bread (probably even better!), as they are a knowledgeable liaison between the patient and everything medical. In any case, my nurse brought me a goodie bag. Yes, it was pink and it contained various useful items relevant to my surgery and future treatments. And yes, most of these items were pink too. I guess these days it’s hard to justify using any other color if you’re talking breast.

But there was one thing that was not pink, and it’s because it wasn’t pink that I realized right then and there what sort of a visceral response I’d been having to all the pink stuff. It was a soft and springy heart-shaped pillow to be placed in the armpit to comfortably support the affected arm after surgery, and it was purple. Okay, with pink accents, but close enough. It was PURPLE!

PurpleHeart

This is a good place to mention that I make strong associations between emotions and my environment. This is a form of contextual conditioning. I’m sure I’ll write more about that in the future, but for now, I can tell you that having something not-pink that I used daily until my incisions healed, and having it be completely relevant to breast cancer treatment…but again, not-pink…actually took the edge off my anxiety. I was more likely to reach for it because at a time when I needed to relax and recover, the color didn’t remind me of my cancer.

That may sound unbelievable, but contextual conditioning is like that. I love that pillow and I love that it’s purple. And it’s really pretty amazing how my brain perceives that squishy little purple pillow as being so nice to have around. Don’t think I would have had the same response had it been pink.