Saturday, October 5, 2013

What I Did On My Summer Vacation, and What's Next

It occurs to me that if you're going to write a blog about your cancer, you should probably update it periodically so that people don't think you died.

I haven't died.

The good news is that I've mostly been busy with good stuff. Lots of work, and traveling with my family from one end of the state to the other this summer. We spent an evening in Asheville with one of my fellow "one-eyed jacks" from my hospital stay and his wife. I won't say that having cancer was worth it just to have met them, but they are pretty awesome. I'd say they're easily worth a torn ACL or a bad kidney stone.

I also spent a day in July with Dr. M., during which he proclaimed the shrinkage of my tumor "Fabulous--on a scale of one to ten, it's nine-plus." The best part was how pleased with himself he looked,  like a little leaguer who always thought he could hit a home run, but just found out for sure.

I've got another appointment in three weeks. I'm a little worried, because the eye's been a little funky. Not terribly so, not enough to try to get the appointment moved up. But enough to e-mail the doctor and say, "You know what would be really helpful in the week leading up to this appointment? Anti-anxiety meds." By the time I realized that would be helpful last time, I was already IN the appointment, waiting to see the doctor, and his staff kept helpfully saying, "No, I'm sorry, I can't get you anything, you'll have to wait to see the doctor." It was almost as if they didn't realize that the interminable wait to see the doctor was the reason my fingernails were firmly embedded in the acoustic ceiling tiles in the first place.

This is going to be my first solo eye appointment since my diagnosis. My poor husband's got to work sometime. And while he could theoretically take a vacation day to accompany me, he's taking one six days later for my CT scan. I don't want him to have to tell the kids we can't go away for spring break because Daddy spent all his vacation days in Cancerville.

Nobody likes to spend all their vacation days in Cancerville. There's not even a pool bar. 

So, here's hoping I can be a brave buckaroo and that Dr. M. is willing to write me a week's worth of chemical serenity. If not, I'll just have to write out my anxieties. Which means you'll probably be seeing a lot more of me.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

After Forty, Everybody Wakes Up Broken

A few years ago, a friend of mine, listening to me bemoan some ache or pain, said one of the truest things I've ever heard: After forty, everybody wakes up broken.

Not completely broken, of course, and not necessarily physically. And as too many of my friends know, some of the brokenness shows up well before forty. But if you are lucky enough to see your fifth decade dawn, you have got some dents and dings. If you're really lucky, they're all on the outside.

Mine, of course, is the gimpy eye. A couple of months after my surgery I started to notice that in pictures, it doesn't as open as wide as the other one. I started to look more closely in the mirror. Sure enough, it doesn't. If both of my eyes looked that way, I might look sultry. As it is, I look a little drunk. Sometimes I try to make the eyes match by squinting the one or opening the other as wide as I can, but then I just look either deeply suspicious or highly alarmed. So I just let it be. The price of this year, and the next, and what I hope are decades to come, is a gimpy eye. I'll take it.

My husband woke up the day before his forty-fourth birthday in the middle of the night and promptly passed out. Turns out he has a great heart with a lousy electrical system. I still think the cardiologist who saw him moonlights as a mechanic at his brother-in-law's garage. He didn't look like a cardiologist. He looked like someone's mechanic brother-in-law who walked into the hospital and borrowed a white coat on a dare. But he correctly diagnosed that my husband needed a pacemaker, which he now has. My husband is going to write a book about the experience someday, presumably in much the same way I am going to clean the house someday.

And so, here we are. Gimpy eye, funky heart. All we need is Toto and a couple of flying monkeys and it's practically the Wizard of Oz around here.

We joke that we're stuck with each other, because who the hell else would want us? But really, we'd want each other anyway, busted or not. And the beautiful thing my friend didn't tell me, or else didn't know: if your luck is really good, you find someone whose broken places fit with yours like two puzzle pieces. Straight edges look nice. But it's the bumps and dents that help you stick together.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Secret Reason We Got the Dog

There is a story to tell here, and I will give you the short and long versions:

The Short Version: I went to Durham yesterday for my semi-annual CT scan, and it was clean--no spread of cancer--and I don't have to have another one until right before Halloween. Although I have to get a steroid shot in my EYE in July, and won't that make a jolly blog post!

The Long Version: So, we got this dog. Her name is Juno and she's a beautiful black Lab mix. We don't know what the Lab is mixed with, but it was obviously smaller than a Lab. Our girl is a dainty 60 pounds.

We started looking for a dog with the kids last March in Georgia. We were about a week away from getting one when Greg lost his job. All non-essential spending went out the window, including pets (and we had no idea then how expensive a pet could be). We decided to hold off until Greg got a new job.

In October we moved here to North Carolina, and barely had time to revive our doggie dreams before I was diagnosed with choroidal ocular melanoma less than three weeks after we moved into our house. Obviously I was going to have to go through my five-day radiation treatment in the hospital, and then recovery from surgery, before we could think about a dog. And, of course, then it was the holidays, and things were just too hectic to introduce a dog into the household then.

So it was that on January 6, we found ourselves at the local shelter. We'd looked at the online dating profiles of some of the dogs and had a few in mind, but just as in actual dating, the profiles didn't tell the whole story, and none of our prospects were right for us. But as we had walked up, we'd seen a volunteer walking a black dog she'd proclaimed to be a "real snuggler." We'd smiled politely, intent on meeting the dogs we'd identified online, but now we decided to give the snuggler a second look, and we fell in love.

We'd wanted a dog for a lot of reasons. Walking a dog in a new neighborhood is a great way to make friends, for grownups and kids, not to mention good exercise. We were big believers in "pet therapy," and felt a dog would be good company and spur my recovery. Dogs are fun and cute and lovable. And we knew that if we adopted a shelter dog, we'd be saving it from a bad fate, and making room for one more dog in the shelter so that dog could find a home.

And then there was the reason I didn't tell anybody. My cancer reason.

I figured, if anything happened to me, the dog would comfort Greg and the kids. And also maybe help Greg find somebody new, because women stop to talk to guys with dogs. He's a handsome fella, he doesn't really need a dog as a wingman, but it's a litmus test: a woman who is drawn to a black Lab is not the same as a woman who is drawn to a little fluffy dog. And my husband doesn't need a little-fluffy-dog type.

There was another cancer reason, too.

About twenty years ago, my aunt and uncle's faithful dog died suddenly. Three days later, my uncle also died suddenly. There was conjecture that the dog knew somehow, and wanted to be ready at the door to greet him. A few years later, the same thing happened with the grandmother of a friend. I started to hear of other stories.

So, I thought to myself: I really don't want to go, but if I had to, it would be nice to have a dog there waiting. And I picked a young dog, because, hey, I'm not in any hurry.

(The thing with this cancer: it's not like other cancers. It's not like if you get to five years post treatment, you're considered cured. It apparently decides to spread whenever the hell it feels like it. Three years, five years, twelve, whatever. That's why the scans every six months. There's a roughly 80% chance that it won't come back by five years. The stats after that are a little fuzzy. I'm probably going to be okay, but maybe not. And if it comes back, it's pretty much incurable. Maybe that will change with more research, but right now--not good.)

So, as I said, I picked a young dog. I'd like to stick around.

And then I discovered the angry red-and-white growth on her toe.

Ordinarily, I would not have been too alarmed, but I know that black Labs are prone to tumors, especially on their feet. I immediately pictured us together in a pet-friendly hospice, with matching morphine drips. (You may have noticed I am a little prone to jumping to disastrous conclusions.) I thought, well, maybe I picked the right dog after all. Maybe she knew something was wrong with me, and developed a tumor in sympathy. In my head, I began referring to the two of us as "Tumors R Us."

But it turned out her growth wasn't a tumor at all; it was a rather unpleasant abscess caused by something she stepped on, probably a sliver of wood. It felt like a good sign, even if she did have to wear the Cone of Shame for a week while it started to heal. And then I had my scan, and the doctor, who probably remembers my meltdown of a few months back, was barely in the door before she said, "Your scans look great."

Nobody knows what the future brings, of course. I'll have what my friend Chris calls "scanxiety" in the weeks leading up to every scan for the rest of my life. But for right now, I've got an extension for another six months, and I'll take it.

Also, I won't be letting my husband walk the dog by himself. I don't need some neighborhood hussy moving in on my man. Or my pet. I'm still here, and planning to stay.

Friday, April 26, 2013


Wow, it's been almost three months since I've posted on this blog.

Two very good things have been keeping me busy since my last post: my lovely dog, Juno, and a new job. To make a long story short, the guy whose company did my law firm website needed a writer, and he happened to notice my LinkedIn profile mentioning that I'm writing instead of lawyering now. He asked if I would like to write and edit copy for his clients and I said that I would, and it keeps me busy most days, in between jaunts to the neighborhood pond to chase geese. Sometimes I even take Juno along.

I love my job. My boss and my clients are generally very pleased with my writing, which gives me an ego boost. It's also nice to be able to contribute to the household purse by doing something that I love, something that also gives me the flexibility to take my kids to the amusement park, or myself to the doctor.

I've been so busy, mostly with work, that I never wrote about my visit to see Dr. M. in March. Leading up to the visit, I was too nervous to write. I was convinced that the tumor in my eye had not shrunk, and that the next step was going to be the removal of the eye. After the visit, during which the doctor said the tumor "showed significant regression," and that "he couldn't be more pleased," I was so relieved that the impulse to write evaporated. And then I buried my nose in work, which felt so wonderful and normal and un-cancery. I love that feeling. If you yourself don't have cancer, take a moment to revel in the sheer un-canceriness of it all. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Okay. But now it's time to go back to Dr. S., the general oncologist again. It's time, on Monday, for my semi-annual CT scan, which hopefully will indicate no evidence that the cancer has spread. I tend to review such a report in the light of a six-month renewal on the lease of this body. That's what I'm hoping for: renewal, doled out in six month doses, ideally for decades. The alternative is the equivalent of an eviction notice, because the place is being torn down. Condemned, if you will.

Renewal = good. Condemnation = bad. I realize that, spiritually speaking, there's another way to look at this all, but for now I'm rooting for a renewal of, as Anne Lamott calls it, this old flesh suit. I'll let you know how it goes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This past weekend my daughter's friend cancelled two playdates in a row. I suspect she made the dates in the first place without consulting her mother about the family's plans, but still. The end result was that my daughter was crushed. She would not allow herself to be consoled by the prospect of making brownies, or playing a board game, or any of the other things dorky moms try to do to cheer up their glum children. Her weekend was ruined. Her LIFE was ruined. She had no friends, and obviously would not ever have friends. There was clearly little point in going on.

I tried to walk her back by reminding her that we only knew one thing: that Malia was not able to come over to play. Everything else was a spindly castle of doom she had constructed on that one small point of fact.  The castle of doom was the story she had chosen to tell herself. I argued that she was free to tell herself many other stories, all equally true--such as that Malia wasn't coming over because she impulsively made plans without checking with her mom first, that she really wanted to come over, and would come over at the first opportunity. I told my kid that the longer we sit inside the stories we tell ourselves, the more true they become for us, until we're no longer able to see the truth of other possible stories, and we are trapped.

My wisdom would be a lot more impressive if I listened to it myself. Yesterday I went to Duke Cancer Center to meet my oncologist. Not my ocular oncologist, but my regular oncologist, the one I will work with on an ongoing basis, because I am a Person With Cancer. I hadn't been thinking about that too much because I was too busy packing lunches and walking dogs and leaving the laundry in the dryer to wrinkle folding laundry, but there, in the Duke Cancer Center waiting area, it was indisputable: I was a Person With Cancer. Furthermore, so were most of the other people sitting there, and there were a lot of them. It was a perfectly attractive waiting room, with nicely upholstered chairs and couches, and tables with magazines. Apparently, I alone could see the slimy dripping stalactites and the bubbling pools of tar that indicated that we were in the anteroom to Hades, that we were citizens of the Valley of the Damned. Everyone else sat around nicely, chatting with their companions and eating the complimentary snacks.

I held it together until a nurse ushered me into an exam room, but when she shut the door I lost it, I absolutely LOST it, because I was sitting in a cancer center, and I was obviously there to die painfully and alone while horrible people like Wayne LaPierre and certain of my ex-boyfriends were bounding about out in the sunshine, perfectly healthy and probably immortal. I wept bitterly.

All of which is to say: I had worked myself into a bit of a state.

The lovely physician's assistant discovered me in this condition, patted my hand and told me what I was feeling was totally normal and quite okay, but also that there was an overwhelming likelihood that I would walk out of the office under my own steam that day. She promised to send the clinic's wonderful
counselor to say hello if he wasn't too busy. He was, but he stopped by anyway and acted as if I was the only person in the clinic that day, and also as if he didn't believe that I belonged in either the morgue or the state hospital.

The person who really snapped me out of my carefully-crafted castle of doom was the doctor, who very calmly looked at pitiful, soggy me, and said, "You know, there's about an 80% chance that you will never need any more treatment for this cancer."


I still hate being a Person With Cancer, I hate that I have to think about it at all, ever. I hate that there are other people who have to think about it a lot more, a lot more often. But I think the story I have to tell myself is that 80%. I think I just have to forget about cancer as much as it will let me, which mercifully is most of the time. I have to focus on other stories.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Dog Ate My Blog is that "writing every day" thing working out for you?

The truth is, I have not written anything longer than a status update since January 3. Part of it has been the mistake of thinking that inspiration needs to precede action. Part of it has been the unwillingness to be bossed around, even by myself. Probably the biggest part has been that I've just been very depressed.

And then there's the dog.

On January 6, we adopted the lovely Juno Xenia from our local shelter. She's a black lab mix, lean and elegant and glossy, something like a canine Audrey Hepburn. If Audrey Hepburn wanted constant belly rubs, had massive separation anxiety, and was afraid to pee in the yard (thank you, electric fence).

I knew having a dog was going to be a lot of work. We'd been thinking about it for a year. We read, talked, and studied about it beforehand (although apparently not enough). I had a rosy vision--we would whisk our raggedy pup away from the gloom of the dog version of a Dickensian orphanage. She would be our pet therapy, entree into society (everybody stops to talk to you when you're walking a dog) and beloved baby. I had ulterior motives: I figured if something happened to me, she would either stick around to comfort the family, or race through the Pearly Gates first to greet me on the other side. That happens more often than you think.

But it's been more of an adjustment than any of us anticipated, and by "any of us," I mean, "me." Her separation anxiety makes it hard to leave her. She won't go into a crate, at least not willingly, and she will not stay there. She has her comfy bed, her food bowls, and a full length mirror in our master bath, so that is where we imprison leave her when we do go out. But it's an increasing pain in the ass to get her in there, because she now knows what it means.

Then there's the whole pee in the yard thing. She got zapped by the electric fence and now she will barely go in the yard, much less do her business there. I suppose if I got a shock when I sat down on the can, I'd be a little reluctant to go there, too. Fortunately, she knows that when we go through the garage, get into the car, and pull out on the street, she has made it safely across the barrier and can pee and poop with abandon. So every time I want to get her to go, or even just to exercise her, it's like smuggling the damn Von Trapp family across the border into Switzerland. If the Von Trapps had muddy paws and liked shitting on their neighbor's lawn. Which, if their neighbors were Nazis, I couldn't blame them for. But I digress.

So it has been a little bit of an adjustment here. Juno is 90% delightful, but the other 10% is kicking my ass. I am trying to remember when my son was three weeks old, and I was trying to nurse him. He chomped down on his food source, which happened to be attached to me, from the corner of his mouth. Picture Popeye with his pipe. Then he swung his head back and forth. Picture a dog trying to rip open the corner of a garbage bag. It hurt. I looked down at that tiny, precious being, and hissed, "Why do you hate me?"

Of course, he didn't. And things got better--he now eats much more tidily and efficiently, although I literally no longer have skin in the game. I can only hope things will get better with Juno, too.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Eye Survived 2012!

Happy New Year, everyone! Did you enjoy all the brilliant, witty, incisive posts I wrote over the holidays? No? That is because I wrote them all in my head, and only the people who live in there got to see them, but they would like to assure you that they were fabulous. Oh, and also to ask you to send a care package of Xanax.

Anyhow. I'm back. I have two New Year's resolutions. The first is to live, in both the strict literal sense, but also the more enthusiastic sense. To go out when I could have stayed in. To take the call instead of screening it, or make the call instead of putting it off. To reach out more, even when I'm not sure of a good reception. To stand out when it would be safer to blend in. I will not be attempting to skydive or ride a rodeo bull. Or ski. I will, however, eat potato chips more, and with french onion dip, the real kind, not the kind made with organic dried minced onions and Greek yogurt. I will not pass up dessert.

The other resolution is to write every single day. Even Sundays, even vacations, even when I have a streaming cold. Even if it's just a paragraph, even if it's just a blog post.

Aren't you all lucky.

One of the blog posts I wrote in my head was the other day while I was out doing some post-Christmas shopping. I'm not a big shopper, because I'm not good at fashion and also because I have almost everything I need. But I was shopping, because my husband had done some of his Christmas shopping at a store that offers "Cash" as a bonus for making purchases. His annual shopping done, my husband handed over his store cash to me, and I noticed it had to be spent between Christmas and New Year's. So off I went.

It was my intention to buy either black pants or black shoes. With the exception of jeans and underwear, almost everything I wear below the waist is black. Because it matches everything, and because they don't make Garanimals for adults. Like I said: I'm not good at fashion.

I learned a few things. First, even if a pair of pants looks like black jeans, if the tag describes them as leggings, you should believe the tag. The second is that Jennifer Lopez does not have my picture pinned to the bulletin board above her desk as inspiration when she is designing clothes.

So, I did not find pants. I meandered over to the shoe section, which, like much of the store, was teeming with shoppers and looked like zombies had torn through it on their way to an apocalypse party. The clearance section was curiously untouched, and I am cheap a frugal shopper, so I headed over there.

I was in the market for some semi-dressy shoes that I could wear with pants or skirts. My (black) pumps gave up the ghost over a year ago, and I've been making do with wearing pants and flats. But I have several (black) skirts that I would like to wear to church, and the church I attend has long services that involve a lot of standing. I don't mind this, but I'm reasonably confident that I would mind it much more in stiletto heels. Jesus did not wear stiletto heels and I don't think he expects me to. So: semi-dressy, not quite flat, but not towering. Not boring, but not overly embellished. This was a challenge: in the clearance section, the cute shoes are all in a size 5, and the shoes that might actually fit you look like they were designed for burly cross-dressers who idolize Liberace.

Yet there, like a beacon shining from the next-to-bottom row, was a pair of Dana Buchman shoes in a size 9. Black patent leather, low wedge heel, criss-cross straps across a peep-toe. Cute. Perfect. And on clearance for just two dollars more than the amount of store-cash I had. I tried them on. They looked darling. They fit. But they weren't totally...comfortable. They fit okay. But not like a dream.

This was when I wrote the blog post in my head. It was about life being too short to wear uncomfortable shoes. No matter how cute, or how low the price. I walked virtuously away from the shoes, ignoring their pitiful, squeaky patent-leather voices crying out to me. I walked around the store some more, looking for something else to blow my bonus cash on. A percolator. A gravy separator. A tabletop foosball game. Anything.

But there was nothing I wanted. I wanted the shoes. The heart wants what it wants, people, even if it's not what the feet want. And even the feet kind of wanted them. I ambled slowly back to the shoe clearance rack. What if they weren't there? What if someone else snatched up what I had failed to appreciate? But as I approached, I saw the zebra striped box sitting demurely, unnoticed, on its low shelf. I grabbed it and sped to the checkout as if my shoes and I were on the lam.

So, what's the lesson in all this? There's supposed to be a lesson. "Life is too short for uncomfortable shoes" is a good lesson, but it no longer applies here, since I bought the shoes. Maybe the lesson is, "Answer the things that call you." Or, "Embrace the things you love, even if they're not perfect." Maybe the lesson is to extract your own lesson, or that reading this post consumed five minutes of your life you'll never get back, and what, exactly, are you going to do about that? I don't know. I hope there is some meaning in this post, and I hope you find it, and then walk away thinking about it. Preferably in adorable shoes that fit you just right--or at least well enough to keep you moving forward.