Cartwheeling Down the Hall

Although I don’t do so often, I can still knock out a proper cartwheel.

Since it’s a “wheel”, you only need a lot of space moving forward, not width-wise, so presumably, it should be possible to cartwheel down a hallway. After all, gymnasts manage this on a balance bean only a few inches wide.

But that’s not what happens to me. Even when there’s physically an ample amount of space for gymnastic endeavors, psychologically there is a perceived narrowness.

That lack of space exists only inside my head, but it’s powerful enough to hinder even an attempt at a cartwheel in our apartment.

I imagine limbs thwacking against walls coupled with lots of pain and regret.

This post, of course, is not about cartwheels. It’s that I often approach life events in a similar way. There is a narrowness of view and fear of pain, and these limitations take up real estate inside my head. While in reality, there’s enough space for emotions to express themselves and enough time to work out any arisen problems, those imagined walls confine my actions.

Yeah, there are moves that I will *not* be able to manage no matter what.

Were I to close my eyes and trust my abilities, cartwheeling through the little hallway from my galley kitchen to our dining area would be no big deal.

But faith in myself has been eroded away and my sight is influenced by not only things that came before but also the discomfort of what may come in the future.

Breaking through these barriers takes work, and while I’m up for it, it is a process. The trick, of course, is to generate enough confidence to cartwheel down that hallway while I still remember how.

Cancer’s No Big Deal…Except That It Is

You’d think that by now, over a year since finishing most of my breast cancer treatment, I would drop the subject and get on with things. But, no, cancer isn’t like that — and apparently, neither am I. Just when I think I’ve moved on, something else comes up. So here goes:

Breast cancer has had me see-sawing between two states of mind.

On the one hand, when I was going through treatment, I didn’t want people to feel uneasy talking to me (because they do!). I downplayed the cancer diagnosis and tried to be as matter-of-fact as possible, all with a pleasant smile and carefree shrug. Yeah, surgery-chemo-radiation, no biggie. My focus was on mitigating their uncomfortable reactions — in my mind, they were the ones needing the comforting and support.

That’s because telling someone I had cancer often made them squirm. They didn’t know the “right” thing to say, afraid of hurting or upsetting me, even though the reality was that what was inside my head was far worse than anything they could have said. So I always tried to crack a joke about my bald scalp or discolored nails as if to tell them I’m cool with it.

This extended into post-treatment life. Since I feel a little distance between the disease and me, I don’t always remember that I can catch people off guard when I talk about cancer. People still blush and stumble on words, looking like they want to change the subject. I always try to make it no big deal.

But on the other hand, the reality is that cancer is serious. Treatment can be all sorts of horrible and there are no guarantees about anything. Everyone who’s had breast cancer has to live with the uncertainty of its return. And with the large number of women who have experienced or are still wading through different stages of treatment, there’s a lot of suffering going on.

I know, I know, I know. Things will be fine.

Except when they’re not.

And so, I struggle with people telling me not to focus on the past. Obviously, that would be helpful. But it’s not easy, because even when treatment is over, the fear remains. Cancer strode in like an arrogant rake, dragged me around the block a few times and left an indelible mark on my psyche. My health is back and I’ve regained a lot of physical strength, but there’s that niggling fear that cancer will return and take it all again, and the emotional pain associated with that potentiality stifles any celebration. It was easier to focus on getting through chemo and radiation than to wander into the Wild West of the future.

So I fight with myself. Sometimes I need to talk about how miserable it was and how angry it made me (one side of the seesaw), all the while not wanting to make people uncomfortable about it (the other side). That, of course, is not a successful combination. Ultimately, I put on a brave face, take a deep breath and quietly hurt inside.

But don’t worry, after I write about it, I can shake off these feelings and I’m okay.

Except when I’m not.

Invisible Effects: Anxiety

This is tough to write.

One of the reasons this blog is currently anonymous is that there are topics I want to cover without the fear of being judged. As many strides as have been made in dealing with mental health issues, there still remains a stigma associated with things going on in your headspace.

If there’s one thing that cancer did, for better or for worse, is force me to face the fact that I have a problem with anxiety. I’ve often wondered how different my cancer experience would have been, had I been able to go through all of this without the uncontrollable fear. I expect that I would have been less angry, less nauseated, less desperate. I’m sure that other people experience anxiety with their diagnosis too; mine devoured me.

Cool, calm, collected…and so not me.

This deserves a description: if asked to describe myself as a dog breed, I would like to say that I’m a Great Dane or a Mastiff (hopefully less drooly), watching the world coolly, not getting too excited about anything. But that’s not who I am. I’m a Chihuahua — but not a nasty, bitey, snarly guy with a Napoleon complex. I’m one of those pathetic little dogs that just sits there and trembles with a paw raised. I get anxious, and how. But in the past, the bouts of anxiety always passed rather quickly, perhaps in a matter of hours or, at worst, a day or two. My mind would work through it, and that would ease the tension. That’s why I’ve always been able to handle it.

But going through cancer blew that to pieces. When I experience anxiety now, it hits me like a freight train. The effects are immediate: a cold punch to my gut followed by nausea and weakness. When I focus on being mindful and present, I can slow my breathing and heartrate but I cannot get rid of the nausea, so I can’t shed the overall feeling.

This sensation is horrible. Meditation works wonders, but I cannot yet make enough space for my anxiety to be able to step back and observe it. It’s in my face, and that’s terrifying, but not necessarily apparent to those around me. It’s a dirty little secret that has affected my quality of life.

That can be harder to deal with than cancer. And I can’t believe that I let myself write that. But apparently, I’m not the only one who feels that way. Dr. Stephen Ilardi, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas with a private practice in Clinical Psychology, teaches a Calm Master Class called “Rethinking Depression” (Calm.com) in which he describes the experience of a former cancer patient who battled Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While undergoing particularly difficult cancer treatment, the patient was visibly ill and suffering but received an enormous amount of support from those around him, and that helped him through the disease.

Several years after he recovered from his cancer, the young man experienced a bout of serious clinical depression, but he didn’t “look sick” the way he had from the lymphoma. As a result few people around him understood the level of psychological pain he endured, and he received little support.

After his depression finally lifted, the patient declared that if he had to chose between once again going through the cancer or experiencing depression, he would take the cancer even though its treatment was pure physical torment. 

That speaks volumes regarding not only the agony of psychological distress but also how critically important it is to take it seriously. Mental health issues deserve more attention, and even though we’ve come a long way in understanding their impact, we need to do better. In the context of cancer, I feel it’s imperative to address the psychological repercussions of the disease, in addition to the life-threatening physical ones.

Which is why I’m writing. I can’t help but think how much worse this would be if I wasn’t actively engaged in coping techniques.

Cancer Patient vs. Cancer Survivor

This was the situation: I finished chemo, finished radiation. I had gotten to bang the “Whoopie! I’m done!” gong in the radiation oncology patient waiting area — very satisfying. I had my “exit interview” with the cancer staff. The worst was over.

Every cancer patient looks forward to the end of treatment and a clean bill of health. As a matter of fact, I’d been so focused on finishing that even when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I really couldn’t see past that point. Chemo was the monster that consumed me. I had dreamed about the end of treatment for weeks and weeks, trying to hold on mentally until that final infusion, and after that, the last radiation appointment. Finally, that day had come.

However, I still parked in the familiar “cancer patient” spots in the parking garage that allowed me quicker access to the hospital buildings, a necessity on busy days when I needed to get to my appointments promptly. My chemo port was still in because I would be receiving Herceptin (monoclonal antibody) infusions for about six more months, and even though Herceptin doesn’t have noticeable side effects, it had the potential to affect my heart. 

So was I well? Was I sick? The tumor was gone, the treatment was over, my scans had come back clear, but the questions remained. My sense of self had experienced a powerful upheaval during treatment and I felt lost. As much as I hated it, I’d become comfortable with the idea of being a cancer patient. That was the known. The unknown was what came after that. 

Okay, where to now?

The unknown is scary and the uncertainty doesn’t simply go away. When you’re a patient, your medical team works out a plan based on your specific situation, and that’s your roadmap for the length of your treatment. When you pass into survivorship, you travel off the edge of the map. The remission rate for breast cancer is remarkably good, but it’s not guaranteed. 

At some point, I left the map. I have the rest of my life to get comfortable navigating through what comes next.

Addendum to So.Many.Pills

My last post (I Didn’t Expect THAT: So.Many.Pills) was about the overwhelming number of medications associated with cancer treatment, particularly for someone not used to taking pills. But this topic deserves a closer look…

If I had to choose one of the most frightening aspects of cancer treatment, it would be side effects. This is not like popping an aspirin for a headache. These are medications that can take a heavy toll. One of my greatest sources of anxiety was deciding whether to take a pill or try to “tough it out”.

After surgery, I was given a generic form of something approximating Norco. Some people jokingly commented that this was a “perk” of treatment, but I had read the insert that came with the medication and wanted nothing to do with it. The only reason that I took it (a single half dose) was that by the evening I had a horrible headache, more painful than anything at the surgery site and probably due to a combination of the anesthesia and not being able to drink coffee that morning.

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Just…no.

It was a miserable night, since the half dose didn’t do much and I tossed in bed, googling interactions between my pill and ibuprofin, which is what I really wanted to take but hadn’t due to potential bleeding issues. At about 5am, satisfied that enough time had passed from my half dose of pain reliever, I took the ibuprofin and finally got some sleep. Wish I’d taken it first instead of the “oooo-you’re-so-lucky” Norco.

Nausea from chemo was another terrifying thought. The nurses had warned me not to risk it; if I started to feel queasy, take anti-nausea meds. Once vomiting sets in, I was told, it was hard to stop. Of course, the side effects associated with the meds were rather extensive and just reading the label made me anxious. There were two different meds and the idea was this: take the first one (ondonsetron) and then if I need a booster in four hours, take the second one (prochlorperazine). And then alternate like that every four hours, if necessary.

Sounds reasonable, except that a couple of nights after my first infusion I mixed up the pills and ended up taking prochlorperazine first. Prochlorperazine is an anti-psychotic (I guess, with anti-nausea properties?) and it was responsible for one of the roughest nights of my life. It was that night that I swore I’d pierced the veil between this world and the next and decided that death was a fair alternative to what I was feeling.

Somehow, I survived those first nights, but I wasn’t keen to go through that again.

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Not a perfect solution, but better than the alternatives.

I live in a state that has legalized cannabis, and was sent a shipment of CBD cookies by one of my brothers who had used them to control nausea from migraines. I was encouraged to try them since I was told CBD didn’t have side effects. Of course, as I mentioned in the previous post, it also didn’t have clear dosing guidelines. I mean, this was a crumbly cookie – how do you dose that? My brother said something like, “I take a couple when I get a migraine.” My brother is also 6’3″. I figured I’d start with one.

Shortly after that, I fell into a weird sleep from which, an hour later, I woke with a gasp because I thought I’d stopped breathing. Mmmm, probably not the right dose for me. Four hours after I’d consumed the cookie I needed to pick up my son from school. I wasn’t high, of course, but I wasn’t feeling normal either. I made it there and back alive. It was at that point that I realized having to play mom while going through cancer treatment just plain sucked, but I digress…

Eventually I worked out a dose, about 1/5 to 1/4 of a cookie, which was 20-25 mg of CBD. This was a game-changer for me and I gratefully relied on CBD for the remainder of my treatment. Yes, I truly disliked the taste, and with the lining of my GI tract gone, eating a cookie was not first on my list but being able to calm my nausea without side effects was well worth it. It probably helped my anxiety too.

What it would have been like to go through treatment without being so fearful of what the medications were doing to me? Anxiety always got the best of me. As noted in my last post, getting to the point where I could limit the number of medications I took was key in helping me get through this experience.

While the physical effects were rough, the psychological effects were what magnified the discomfort, and that had to do with feeling so far out of my element. None of this was close to normal. Of course, my normal is not needing medications. That wasn’t happening with cancer, but once I figured out what was what and how much I could handle, treatment became more manageable.

I Didn’t Expect THAT: Breast Changes

Or more accurately “Breast Changes, Lack Thereof.”

This one threw me for a loop. Prior to my lumpectomy, I scoured the internet for ideas of what partial breast removal looked like. In a word, disfigurement. Certainly, having half a breast was preferable to having no breast or dying from breast cancer, but I wondered how I would deal with losing a secondary sex characteristic that society uses as an indication of female-ness. My breasts had nursed two bouncing babies into toddlerhood and cancer was going to take one of them (breasts, not babies!). That kept me up at night.

Scars
Top scar: sentinel lymph node dissection; bottom scar: lumpectomy. Teeny!

After dying a thousand deaths, I found that my reality was not nearly as frightening. My lump was small and sitting at about 2 o’clock on my left breast. That put it dangerously close to my axillary (armpit) lymph nodes, which could enable the cancer to spread faster, but also in a place where tissue removal would be less noticeable. Three sentinel lymph nodes were removed from my armpit — they were found to be unaffected. My surgeon was able to get “clear margins” (no cancer cells were seen on the edge of the tissue that was removed) on the cancerous lump, and if not for the scars, there was little indication that I’d had surgery.

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View of my lumpectomy scar, arm down.

That blew my mind. With small breasts, I didn’t think I could spare the tissue. I was contemplating a prosthesis, and concerned that the size of the excision might tempt me to go with reconstructive surgery…but none of that was necessary. Even my surgeon was surprised. I told her it was because she was an excellent surgeon, but she wouldn’t accept the compliment. According to her, I was just very lucky.

After radiation treatment, that breast tightened up and even gained a bit of size. All at no extra cost.

So, whenever I do a gratitude meditation and count my blessings, I reflect upon this. There are so many things that could have been worse, and I had gotten lost in the terror of it all. But in the end, it was okay.

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Note: I wanted to show how similar both breasts looked, but then there’s all this potential for getting flagged as inappropriate, so you’ll need to be content with “side boob” photos and just take my word for it.

A Year With Tamoxifen

One of the most distressing parts of going through cancer treatment was that I thought it would “ruin everything”, even if it saved my life. Physically, I was really enjoying my 50s and hadn’t noticed much of a drop in endurance and strength, and certainly wasn’t experiencing menopausal symptoms. But with my diagnosis came the news that, because I had an estrogen receptor positive tumor, I’d need to be taking estrogen-blocking Tamoxifen (or an aromatase inhibitor) for a decade.

A decade is a long time! Chemo was only six courses over about four months and radiation lasted only six weeks — all time-limited and psychologically doable. But Tamoxifen would be with me for ten years, and presumably, so would the troublesome side effects, according to just about every woman who was taking it. They spoke about how difficult it was to stick to the daily regimen, knowing that it was responsible for horrible hot flashes and night sweats — one woman even said that she couldn’t exercise due to the severity of her symptoms.

Not exercise?!?! My version of hell: a sedentary existence.

At this point, I was busy dying a thousand deaths. I started to question whether death by cancer was a preferable alternative to a decade of misery. Mind you, I hadn’t even begun taking Tamoxifen yet; all of this was fear-driven. I feared having no control over my own existence and the things that really mattered to me. Basically, this was an end to life as I knew it.

So, fast forward to today. I have been on Tamoxifen for a year. I’m still waiting for the misery. Please note, I do not, for a second, doubt that women struggle with Tamoxifen’s side effects and I have the utmost sympathy for them. I also realize that I’ve been very fortunate so far to not have those types of symptoms. Sometimes I feel a little warm and have to roll up my sleeves or take off a sweater. Being in stuffy rooms can feel uncomfortable. But these don’t constitute what has been described to me as a hot flash, and I cannot recall whether I had those same sensations prior to treatment. Before my diagnosis, I’d had some sweaty nights from stress; I haven’t had a single night like that since starting Tamoxifen.

I do have some memory issues, particularly distractibility and loss of focus. Sticking to one thing at a time is an absolute necessity or else I’ll get sidetracked. My libido took a hit too. But is that Tamoxifen, effects of chemo…or just the onset of menopause?

The bottom line is, I had beaten myself up over potential effects of a medication way before I’d experienced it. I’d ignored the number one rule of cancer: everyone’s experience is different. Oddly enough, that had been the mantra I repeated to everyone else, but I’m the one who needed the reminder. For me, Tamoxifen has not turned out to be the torture that I’d expected.

If there’s a take-home message from this, it’s that cancer is a complex disease and its treatment is equally complex. Just as there is personalized medicine, there are individual reactions to that medicine. I, for one, have convinced myself that I need to stay off the Internet, take a deep breath and have my own experience.