Tuesday, February 26, 2008

My Boob's Hot - Not

What a great experience this past week has been. There was no doom or gloom. Radiation treatments were fascinating, a friendly frying off any possible cancer that might want to sneak back in my left breast, and the doctors and the radiation staff were stars in my day. Of course I went home each day with two tubes folded up in my bra, which I had to step in to. I was confined from severe exercise and I couldn’t take a shower or sleep on my left side. That’s all tolerable. Nothing hurt. Nothing drained. Nothing was traumatic. The MammoSite 5

Two months ago it was Christmas and I awaited a biopsy of a small treasure in my left breast. Last Saturday my alma mater University of Memphis’ Number One basketball ranking was robbed by University of Tennessee. Yesterday was the third Sunday in Lent, a time of reflection and reevaluating one’s faith. Today was my liberation and celebration.. I’ve been living with a hot boob, Literally, hot because of a radioactive bead blowing around in a balloon in my precious breast twice a day. It warms up the place. I’ve carried this erstwhile balloon implanted in my boob for almost two weeks and wondered if it had begun to create a new organ in my body. (I.e. would they be able to pull it out when it was over?) In theological school, I studied grief counseling and remember being told when people lose weight or body parts (like a gall bladder or a uterus or 20 pounds) they can go through a period of grief. I wondered how I’d feel about my balloon and twin tubes hanging out the left side of my breast. They would be removed today. Would I miss having to care for them, having to fold them up in a bra which I had to live in 24-7, having to feel the puff of the radiation seed twice a day as it whirled like a dervish trying to kill any remnant of cancer in my breast? Doubtful. But today was the day.

Getting to the radiation clinic this morning was harrowing - a major traffic jam on the freeway at 7 a.m. No Starbucks for me. I try to be an half hour early to each of the 10 sessions so the staff can get started with preparations for the X-rays and get that done with. But today, I was late for the first session. (I was an hour early for the final one.) Much of the staff also had to wrangle with the same traffic backup and were delayed too. In the X-ray room, after putting on the hospital robe, a series of numbers were flashed on my breast and read on a TV screen as the bed and camera were lined up so the red beam hit the right area. A "fake bead" was placed in the balloon on the end of a long plastic covered wire just for the photograph. Arm over my head, I began praying my prayer beads. It helps time pass and get me centered.

That done, it was across the hall to the radiation room with signs of Danger on the door. I asked Dr. Fong if everyone gets the same radiation bead or if we each have our own. He answered that each patient has his/her own bead and it is used each day for the ten treatments. The new fresher versions that were due last Friday were not delivered because of the weather clog up in the East and airplanes being cancelled. But my seed was still good, just needed a longer residency in the balloon each session.
After the final moment of radiation, after Dr. Fong (photo left) came in with his radiation wand to make sure nothing radioactive was floating round the room, Dr. Lee entered to drain my balloon of liquid within ( I saw huge syringes laid out and wondered why) . A certain amount of liquid was expected to fill the syringe. It did. Then with a powerful twist in Dr. Lee’s green-rubber gloved hands, the balloon plopped out. OUCH. It stung. It really stung for a minute or so. (photo right) The nurse pressed the exit hole hard, and there was no drainage or blood to note. That was a good sign. She taped me up and said, I could shower tomorrow. And keep an eye on the hole that it doesn’t get infected. Hold off on tennis a week. Blood pressure, pulse, and temperature were great. I was a go for departure.

When I put on my bra and T shirt after the last session, on one side of the nipple area, it looked as if someone had sucked too hard on a drinking straw - it had caved in. When I commented, the nurse said, you do have a hole in your breast. Yeah. It’ll take a few days to re-form. I wonder what it is going to re-form with. A small area over the nipple was faint red - and that’s the result of the radiation. And my teeth ached.

But I’ve been blessed with a week of prayer and favorites - each day for the five hours between treatments, I spent time with friends who’d have me: discussing flower arrangements and her incredible orchid greenhouse with friend Bonnie, buying the best cookies anywhere at Cookies by Design for my granddaughter’s 16th birthday and rehashing our work at Juvenile Court and CASA with Mary, admiring unique designs using wool, yarn and a felting process with my crochet-knitting arts mentor Peggy, who made homemade corn chowder for me and my favorite tomato aspic, and Thursday lunching on a delicious veggie plate (turnip greens, cheese grits, grilled asparagus) with my daughter-in-law at Grove Grill, a favorite restaurant, where I ate again the next day with my precious friend Wendi. Then today, the last day, taking a two miles walk on the farm where I grew up and visiting with my mother while drinking her spiced iced tea.

But there was more - it really was a miraculous week of favorites - Circus de Soliel came to town with Saltinbanca, (by far the best entertainment in America is the Circus de Soliel productions), and the next night I went to the Center for Southern Folklore to hear my all time favorite singer Kate Campbell sing with a folk group called New Agrarians, and the third night to FedEx Forum with my grandchildren to watch the Grizzlies lose again. That’s not fun, but I love the NBA Grizzlies like a wayward son that won’t shape up. We all do. I also went to the Professional Bull Riders night to watch forty brave , limber cowboys in helmets attempt to ride the worst of bulls. I was able to take a Pilates class (working mostly the lower body), walk the river with two dear young friends including running up 83 stairs to get to the top of the bluffs, and finally reading my favorite Bible story about Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the well to the homeless addicts who patronize our Sunday morning breakfast. John’s story is such an inspiring example about how unbiased Jesus was and wants us to be. No prejudice stopped him from talking to and touching outcasts and forbiddens. Then I spent the afternoon reading the NY Times , finishing the rewrite of 45 poems for a manuscript I hope to get published, and watching movies up for the Academy Awards, which I couldn’t hang in for. Too much red carpet. I prefer Sixty Minutes any time.

Did I get tired, never. Did I get depressed, not on your life. Did I feel any pain? None of that. I only felt energetic. I joked with Dr. Fong and Dr. Lee maybe what I needed to keep up this incredible energy was an occasional radiation. Had I gained a golden aura yet? They didn’t quite know how to take my exuberance. But, this is how to go thru Mammo-Site 5. It’s a privilege to be able to have the short version. So, keep busy. Be with friends and family you love, do things you love to do, don’t’ feel sorry for yourself, in fact, hug yourself and know it’s going to end and you’ll be a better person for having done it with a smile, then tackle washing your hair in the kitchen sink. You’ll eventually get your boob back, for better or for worse. (Photo: Asian medical dolls)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

And the Bead Goes On

The day is crisp as a good croissant, the river wider and deep enough to drown the skyline, the barges moving faster and with larger loads, the full moon yellow on early morning’s dark canvas, friends and children holding up my spirits with their love and prayers; I’ve passed through two days of this radical radiation therapy, hope comes by mail and I feel great.

As I lie on the metal beds for the twice a day Xrays (low grade ones not dangerous) looking up at the cherry blossom ceiling, I finger the unique Episcopal prayer beads Susan Henley gifted me. She put them together from South African picture jaspers and tiger’s eyes, antique Ethiopian banded prayer beads, hand carved Chinese bone, hand-carved cylindrical horn, and an Islamic telsum protective prayer amulet; Tibetan Buddhist bone mala prayer beads, an ancient Hebraic Hebron bead of Dead Sea Salt; and a replica of a 3rd century Ethiopian Coptic cross. I pray all sorts of traditional prayers on these irregular beads, chosen to represent the imperfection of our lives. I pray some funky prayers, many Hail Marys, some chants and always sing Jesus Loves Me while the Xray technicians are trying to get my left boob in focus or while the radiation bead roams around the balloon in me for eight minutes per session. I am impressed how kind the technicians and nurses are. I do have a physicist who works with Dr. Lee the radiology oncologist. The physicist is from Hong Kong. I told him I was delighted to have my own physicist - I had never met one. Then I asked if he was like Stephen Hawkins. He humbly apologized that his work wasn’t as complicated as Hawkins. I told him it was complicated to me and I rely on him to get me cancer free. I want to be a survivor.

Here’s the routine: after removing my top wear, crawling out of my bra, and donning the hospital robe, I go first to Xray. The girls focus the huge lens on me at an angle and move the camera by remote in every direction possible - as well as the bed (It’s like one of those Disney rides where the seats move to give you certain impressions.) They stick long thin plastic wires into the tubes hanging out of my boob to get an accurate measurement of where the balloon resides. After this, I sit in the inside holding area and knit or read or work on my poems. When Dr. Lee and his physicist are both in the same place at the same time, they call me into the radiation room. Once again, there is a cherry blossom ceiling. Once again, I hold my left arm up over my head. Once again I take a few deep breaths, and finger my prayer beads. When I’m hooked to a robot like machine (which is locked in a closet until the physicist lets it out), everyone leaves me laying there alone. A huge door slowly, pedantically, grudgingly closes - reminds me of those old horror movies when radiation runs rampant in a Frankenstein monster type. The inner sanctum is shut.

Well, it’s not bad. The lights are on and if I want, there’s a radio. Once the machine is working, you feel sort of a gush of air into the balloon and I know something is going on in my left boob. But it doesn’t hurt and it really does feel like anything other than what the imagination donates to the moment. Immediately, I grab the large cross on the beads and start with the Lord’s Prayer. At intervals, an assistant says treatment is starting over a microphone and how many minutes remain of the treatment. There are two cameras looking at me to make sure I’m OK. Since the radiation beads lose their potency over a period of two or three months, the sessions at the end of that time are longer than when they first arrive new. So this is why my sessions are eight minutes. It’s okay. It’s a great time for meditation and prayer. It’s a time to focus on people in my life whom I adore, and trying to find solutions for relationships with people I don’t adore so much, although those are rare. It’s only 16 minutes a day but it works. It blesses you. And, amazing, I feel great.

When the machine stops it loud beeps, the session has ended. The vault-size door creeps open and the physicist enters first holding something like a microphone. I think it’s a wand to test radiation - Has anything slipped out? Am I radioactive? No. The seed goes back into the robot and leaves me as I am. I wonder if I will earn a glow in the end.

Finally, my hair dresser came to town, and my hair was shampooed then he cut the tar out of it. Whew. But still, I’m licensed only to take sponge baths for another week. That’s the hardest part. And my boob wounds/scars are beginning to itch. That’s a good sign. It’s healing fast, although we are still working hard on the left side of the left breast. I’m still trying to find a safe and comfortable deal to offer the car seat belt. It sits poorly. I’ve added Essiac to my daily pill take, since it is an herbal antidote that may influence cancerous tumors (a Canadian drug many have suggested to me.) I asked Dr. Lee if I might take the Liu Wei Di huang nine flavor tea the acupuncturist in California suggested. He said, Fine. Herbal assistant doesn’t hurt anything, apparently. And I am taking for the duration of the tubes and balloon in my boob, two antibiotics per day. But what I swear by - and have taken for 10 years - is CQ-10, that builds up the immune system. It keeps away common head colds and viruses, for some reason. I’ve also had the flu shot, the pneumonia vaccine, and the hepatitis vaccine. So I hope I’m fortified.
I miss my exercise, however, and when the wind isn’t too bold, I’ll take some river walks, and hope to get back to Pilates next week. Once the tubes are gone, I’m free to do whatever I feel I can do. Of course, then I’ll be assigned a oncologist from West Clinic to follow up on me. I guess once you have stepped into this pool of the cancer phenomenon, you spend the rest of your life "checking in", which usually means long waits and wasted days.

So I reward myself every day with something - today it was a cheese pretzel, one of those large ones that looks like an intestine wrap. I’m sure it’ll join other rewards around my waistline which is enjoying this time off from ab exercises.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Day of Decision

I almost cried "Uncle" yesterday. And I never had an uncle, or aunt for that matter.

It was a rough few hours, but no pain as tape was removed, balloons were changed, and the right side of my body began to shake sort of like the jaw does when dentist have been working in the mouth a while. I was tense, anticipating what, I had no idea. Mostly, this was my D-Day, the day of decision which would govern the rest of my life and give me the OK or No Go for the trek to Mt. Everest base camp in April/May. So much depended on the radiologist judgement if I could do the MammoSite-5 radiation treatment.

After surgery Tuesday, the only extreme activity I did was acupuncture. The aim was to bolster my immune system and keep energy flowing through my muscles. Sleeping with a chest taped up like a football player and cuts healing wasn’t easy. It was on the back buffered by lots of small pillows, (stomach sleepers would suffer) which was fine since I sleep on my back mostly and with bent knees at a right or left angle. Should be a good stretch. My bra which I wear all night as well during this experience had become a part of my skin. I recommend the Sassybax brand which are soft, comfortable and flexible. No wires or metal. About two sizes larger than you would normally wear.

I was early as usual to my surgeon’s office, parking my car at quite a distance closer to the radiation building. A brisk walk early in the morning helped raise my spirits. A prayer moment. My surgeon agreed I was OK and I was surprised he wasn’t going to deaden my boob. But he said, I wouldn’t need it, and I didn’t. He took out the temporary cavity filler balloon and installed the new fancy one which was inflated with some liquid to keep it in place. He took a few photographs vis a vis ultrasound and I became the deliverer of one to the radiologist. When I commented that I read lumpectomy was just as effective as a mastectomy, he patted me and said I was very lucky (blessed) that such progress has been made. A dozen years ago and I’d have had the entire breast removed. I thanked him and God for that. He also said after the radiology, he would recommend me to one of the oncologists at West Clinic.

I hiked across the parking lots to the radiation center. There I was attended to promptly. My nerves were bucking like a horse speared with spurs in his withers. Would he, wouldn’t he - what would the answer be? After undressing to the waist, and putting on the proverbial hospital robe, I waited by a large lady in a wheelchair wearing sky blue crocs. She looked extremely saddened by all this rigamarole. We were now in the same club and always would be but didn’t know each other’s names.

I was led to the MRI room. Well, it’s a version off. A large round cream colored cavity awaited me like a headboard on a bed. I laid on the strip provided and as I looked up had to laugh because the ceiling, normally dull panels of sound proofing material, was bright with a scene of azaleas, dogwood, and trees dripping with moss. I focused on the beauty of nature and tried to get my mind off the fact of what was happening and the final answer from the radiologist. The equipment was generously open so I wouldn’t get claustrophobic. Of course everyone leaves the room and you realize you are being zapped with all sorts of dangerous rays. But all in the name of cancer. After the cameras did a fast whirl around my chest area, it stopped. And I lay there waiting for the end of the world. I felt like Godot. I was waiting for something but didn’t know when it was going to get to me. It felt like a decade.

Finally the nurse came in and I asked her what was happening - she said there was some fluid in the balloon (of course, the surgeon and put fluid in to inflate the balloon, as is proper.) But I didn’t know that and I panicked. Then she quickly came back in and said the technician (I thought she said physicist, but I’m sure that’s wrong) said it was OK and all they needed was Dr. Lee’s OK, and he usually agreed with the technician. He stepped in and with no smile said OK. So whew. My instinct was to hug God, and remember all the people praying for me at this time.

They lifted me up (without my exercise, I’m getting stiff) and led me to the X-Ray room. More photos by an interesting contraption that rolls around while you lay on the table, once again looking up at lighted panels of azaleas. (I wondered if they change flowers each season.) Why they can’t let mammograms use this method? I know that I’ll see this X-Ray room twice a day for five days during treatment. It keeps track of what’s going on in the balloon in my breast. I could not help but think with all these X-rays, if I didn’t already have cancer, I’d surely get it. Hopefully they aren’t dangerous as they once were.

When I had to deal with re-dressing, I realized I had a complex of tubes hanging out under my arm. This is where the action of radiation will take place. I fold them up into my bra, pressing them against my left underarm, and I’m ready. I was a bit shaky as I walked to the car carrying my rather heavy purse on the opposite side. I had to pick up a prescription for a 100 dollar antibiotic to take twice a day while I have the balloon in me with the tubes hanging out. The prescription wasn’t ready - so I found a smoothie place since the idea of a cold fruit smoothie made of yellow fruits sounded comforting.

And finally I drove home accompanying Kate Campbell on the CD player with my own version of harmony. Rachael Ray was cooking with Kate Hudson on the TV. Valentine flowers needed watering. But the first thing I did was email my trek guide that we were a GO.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Every Kind of Thing Will Be Well

As I rustled through old papers and memories (an organization surge prior to going back in to out-patient surgery to remove precancerous cells that were left and to install a balloon for radiation coming up), I found a printout of the sermon Rev Peter Hawes now of Charleston, S.C., delivered at my ordination as deacon in the Anglican Diocese of Uruguay June 29 1995. It had been a rainy, frozen night,(I said that proverbial Cold Day in Hell before something breaks the barriers to happen), unique for Uruguay and I was to be the first woman in the Southern Cone of South America to enter Holy Orders. Because the sermon had to be translated into Spanish on the spot in the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, it seemed to go on forever.

Now that I read it again, I realize how Father Peter had prophecied my faith and future. He knew me well as it was. He saw and understood what God had set for me to be and do, even when I was still among the trees, not aware of the whole forest of ministry. Father Peter compared my life and calling to Julian of Norwich, a woman of great heart and suffering who said amazing things for a woman in the 14th century. What calmed my soul this morning prior to entering a new road on the cancer map with another surgery and the initiation of radiation coming up, was this quote which amazed me with its truth and how it holds my own feelings about falling into God’s Hands: (taken from her "Showings")

And so our Good Lord answered all
the questions and doubts which I could raise,
saying most comfortingly:
I may make all things well,
and I can make all things well,
and I shall make all things well,
and I will make all things well;
and you will see yourself that every kind of thing will be well.

Wellness. Spirit muscle. Heart health. Fresh Air. Fresh Life. All things come through God in my life. So yesterday’s roll through surgical procedure was a breeze. My son, who picked me up in the downpour, looked as if he stepped off the cover of GQ magazine (He makes his mother proud) while I looked more like a fashion reject in an oversized black sweater down to the knees, black sweat pants, wimpy no support bra and ancient black Prada plogs (like clogs but flat). My hiding out clothes. It was still raining as I shuffled into the surgery center. Have you noticed every Tuesday in Memphis it rains? My rendevous with Dr. Patterson are always on Tuesday. So far, they’ve all be in the rain. I trust the rain. But this time icy bridges were folding up in with a cold front.

The surgical process was much easier this go-round, although I still had to sign papers, remember names of medicines I take daily, give the secretary the Medicare card and driver’s license to copy, and get the inevitable medical paper bracelet. Again I was asked probably a dozen times as I moved along the surgery treadmill why was I there, who was my doctor, which breast was the victim, had I eaten or drank anything since midnight, and my name. Believe it or not there was another Gonzalez in one of the four beds in the prep room, so there was an alert on a chartreuse green stick-it on my files. Luckily the other Gonzalez was male so I didn’t worry about a mix-up.

As soon as the nurse secured the needle in my vein, Dr. Patterson popped his head in, my daughter gave me a hug of love, and we were off. This time I was even less trepedarious. I knew the routine. The only change, the anesthesiologist said, was that I wasn’t going to be given general anesthesia like last time, but rather something milder, like a twilight sleep where I wouldn’t remember a thing - which I don’t - but would be less taxing on the brain and soul. Don’t worry, you won’t feel a thing, he added. They did not have to ram a tube down my throat this time, and that’s worth it. I had a few days of sore throat after the last one.

I woke up fairly quickly - if I ever went to sleep at all, I’ll never know - in the re-coup room jabbering away to the nurses as if I was on Comedy Central, deep breathing (which I always try to do), sucking up that ginger ale through the straw (the only horrid part about these experiences is not being able to eat or drink for twelve hours - I’m a water hound. It hurts.) and wondering what in the world was the cast-like thing embracing my left boob. All tape. Don’t mess with the tape. No water on it. No showers (sigh). I knew this time I’d have to reduce my activities. This was major.

And it still rained. As we returned home and tackled the climb to the third floor, I could see the Mississippi was reaching flood levels. This is a blessing after so many drought crises of late. God was taking care of everything. But the gate and the mailbox have frozen with the rock bottom temperatures settling in like white doves on a wedding cake. My sweet middle daughter who cares for me so well gave up her busy life today for me - so we watched Dr. Phil, Oprah, some of the home fix-er-up programs, Wheel of Fortune and of course American Idol. We both faded then. I had a restless night, however, not able to figure out how the pile of additional dressings on my boob should be shifted to offer maximum comfort. Yes, I have at least a dozen pillows of all sizes on my bed to pad my way to bliss. But it was like having a stranger living on my breast. I’m curious about the balloon, but don’t count on me to look.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Kicking High Pre-Op

How can I feel so energized and fit when my body has been jogging with cancer in my breast?
It’s like having my home invaded, ransacked and robbed when I was reading a novel. At first I tiptoed around not wanting to jiggle or jostle my boob. I didn‘t want to exacerbate the invasive creature be it a mouse or an elephant. How did it get in there? I also didn’t want to question God. There’s nothing to question. I’m on earth like everybody else, not more special than anyone else, not any less deserving of disease than anybody else.

I have lived life not always cautiously. I’ve off balanced my diet with jellybeans, frozen yoghurt, chocolate brownies. Im a sucker for soft ice cream at the basketball games. Now they say sugar is a major cause of cancer. I began taking estrogen after menopause hoping not to get dumpy and matronly and didn’t stop when the scare came. I may have done extreme things for a girl, from playing polo to hiking by bears in trees as I summited a Teton, from traveling throughout Africa alone at age 22 in 1961 and surviving malaria in Nigeria and hepatitis picked up in Tanganyika on a fishing experience, or could it have been shrimp at the Plaza? No one knew.

Those were physical extremes but there’s been spiritual extremes as well - prison ministry meant not considering criminals as criminals but as people, I never asked what crime earned them prison terms. I wanted to know the person from the inside out and go from there, as I knew Jesus had done. Everyone has some value. My duty was to dig out the good and show love. It was the same with transvestites, prostitutes, and Macumbre priests dying in the AIDS hospital in Montevideo. Whatever their lifestyle, they needed a touch and a prayer. They needed someone to see the disease in them, but also the spirit that had made them what they had become. Was it too late? Can you pray for me? They would ask as I held their hands and kissed their foreheads. I see a similar hopelessness in homeless men and women who cannot get off the treadmill of addiction, whose families turn their tired backs on them, who can’t find a job, a home, a mate, a reason to continue standing on the street smoking dope, but they do. There are all kinds of cancers. Not just tumors.

Photo: Tom Lee Memorial in Tom Lee Park

When I saw my surgeon a week ago, (and a week after the tumor was removed) I felt so good I was ready to take up bull riding. My legs were twitching to kick and dance. As I looked into his eyes and asked WHEN can I do something? He looked at me and said "You can do anything you feel like doing. After all, it’s only a boob." And we laughed. "That’s what I thought. The lower half is working fine. And I play tennis with the right hand." So sure enough, last week I returned to Pilates and to the tennis court. Wow. It’s so invigorating. I’m trying to stay in some level of "shape", as we call it, to brace for these next two weeks of operations and radiation which could pop my cork and leave me bubble-less. The radiologists put a bridle on my activities for these new two weeks. I have to be careful when I wear this balloon in my boob. I can walk. Yes, I can walk. But only if I "feel" like it. Am I not going to "feel" like it?

It’s amazing the connections you make through friends when you have cancer. My close friend Novella told an friend out of my theatrical past named Josie about my cancer, and it just so happened she has gone through the very same process only a couple of months before me. She called and gave me the low down on what to expect - primarily that all her fears of pain and misery had been short-listed and there was none. She says "fatigue" (that’s the quality word I’m learning) sets in after the radiation was over. I can’t afford "fatigue" since in March I need to be back on the exercise wheel getting in shape for April’s big trip. I refuse to go from being a sound horse to being a broken one. Can the mind beat matter? Faith can.

It’s embarrassing to ask people to pray for me again as I walk through the shadows of death again tomorrow as pre-cancerous cells are mopped up and removed. Anaesthesia is always risky. I felt the prayer surrounding me these past weeks like a new cashmere coat. It felt good. And I cushoned myself in it when I was under those cold lights in the operating room. But yesterday, I asked the homeless crowd while doing their short Sunday service before homemade biscuits, grits and eggs to please pray for me on Tuesday. I know many of them will. And so will the church and my friends, and once again a great cape of care will keep out any darkness and let God’s angels brush me with their wings.

Tomorrow I will also know what this dang balloon is going to feel like, and will have to deal with living with it, not sleeping on the left side, not being able to shower, alas; and what kind of soft bra is most reliable that I can sleep in each night. Most of mine are workout bras. I’m mentally charged for this experience because it’s going to cut my "invalid" time shorter than would six weeks of radiation. And I hope I get the A-OK from Dr. Lee, the radiologist, on Friday after he sees the layout on a MRI. My boob is going to be photographed more than Paris Hilton for a couple of weeks. My boob, the star. At least for now.

Photo: Sunset on the Mississippi River

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Wrinkles in Time

Venus of Wellindorf is not beautiful. She is a rock. She’s been around a long time. She is an iconic figure that launched women in art 30,000 years ago as the symbol of fertility Her form seems outrageous, exaggerated.. In modern terms she is fat, obese, and her boobs hang like an overdose of Mardi Gras beads. She had obviously stuffed herself on bison meat for strength. (Bison appeared on cave walls from that era. Must have been part of their diet.) And some beautician must have fixed her corn rows hairdo. She has the body of an older woman, one who is familiar with motherhood, maybe a pregnant one, one who had probably nursed her children, let herself go and not worn uplifting bras.

I looked like that when I put on sixty pounds birthing my first child. After that, I kept trim. But I lived in Tanganyika during my first pregnancy and putting on weight to have a healthy child was the thing to do. A full figured wife was worth more dowry than a skinny one with no breasts. I must say I cringe today at the rules and restrictions placed on modern mothers in order to have healthy babies. We weren’t limited in food, drink, activities, weight gain, and after cravings for peanut butter and mayo sandwiches, my three slid out without a bump and are healthy specimens today.

If there is any one figure in the history of art and fable, Venus of Wellindorf has been my favorite because she represents real woman. Worshiped woman. Well being woman. Wise woman. A productive woman. She is a survivor. She has fat elbows of a washer woman. Like bears and seals whose blubber and fat keep them warm and healthy during long periods of no food and intolerable weather, like the Bushmen women who stored enormous amount of food and water in their exaggerated butts, like women in Polynesia where fat is more attractive than thin in both sexes, Venus of Wellindorf symbolizes the soul of femininity. Abundant and fertile. Vigorous and maternal. Historians speculate that this tiny hand-sized figurine of limestone was mocking a goddess. She may have had the ideal figure for the Upper Paleolithic age, but today she’d be stretched flat on a Gurney waiting for a breast reduction or a tummy tuck or a rubber band around her gastric track. Can you believe we’ve become so vain? We want to look like other people, not ourselves, and will do anything to stave off old age.

Hanging out time with my daughters, as they and I try to work through this unauthorized terrorism called cancer in my body, charged me more than anything. My oldest daughter, only forty-four, and I talked about getting old. Now that’s a topic. How unfair living hard, good, long can be. Look at TV newsmen who never change jobs and have the best of makeup attention - they start out with helmet hair, perfect strands in line, strong dark colors. They age to white that really does look like a pile of snow or applesauce. Even Sean Connery, a favorite, is a bit of a shock. How dare he age! But odd-ball Diane Keaton, whose odd ball approach to life I admire, looks great.

Why are we so afraid to accept the next stage of life? Nothing is permanent, nothing promised except we aren’t going to be the buxom, blithering waifs we were as teenagers. Red heads and brunettes have more staying power than bottle blondes but then they get that itch to pull out those gray hairs, or dye them. Sure, there was that time when we were young with smooth skin, solid silky breasts, hair that shined like Christmas glitter, eyes not pinched by crow’s feet, plucked brows now permanently in a frown, lips full and limber for laughter and kisses. But just like all experiences, what works well today, may not be working tomorrow. We are destined to become the physical creature that goes with the next step in our life. Not many of us opt to be couch potatoes. Some give up and get fat. Some hike, bike, run, play tennis and climb rock walls. We lift weights, swim against currents, attempt triathalons, try to get fit, in gyms, on tennis courts, with deep tissue massages, on horseback, running every morning, or walking. We are active verbs. Mostly we deep breathe, get that oxygen in our gut. And blame bumps on our cheeks on chocolate.

I exercise with gusto not because it makes me look good (the figures we work with are figures of habit, inheritance and gravity) but because I feel fantastic after a good sweat knowing I’ve burned extra calories that day so maybe butter and biscuits won’t settle in the saddlebags. I’m not necessarily trying to set standards of figure, beauty or allure with all the abs and swings. I’m not trying to pick up a mate in the gym. I cringe when my dear trainer Kareem (photo left) says, "you are the most fit lady for your age I’ve ever worked with." It’s that "your age" that kills me, but I remember, every decade of life has a different decadence, so to speak. Something is going to go down the drain. Make the best of what still works.

My daughter is concerned about wrinkles. They are as inevitable as taxes and death. Of course, wrinkles are money making enterprises for beauty corporations. Their anti-aging creams that tout they can soften the wrinkles, stop them from appearing, make you look young again, fail to add that if you’re over 40, nothing is going to work short of surgery if you haven’t eaten right, stayed out of the sun, and creamed up since you were ten. But there’s always another out - wrinkles can be lifted by various mechanical and chemical such as Botox, which is killing some folks. Now when you, at 60 suddenly look 40 don’t you know the public speculates, does she or doesn’t she? Please no rearranging and pinching skin. Wrinkles provide character and show what kinds of roads you’ve engaged during your life.

The good thing about getting old is your eyes fade a bit and so when you walk by the mirror, faces don’t look so drastic because you can’t see the details. For truth’s sake, don’t look in the cosmetic magnifying glass. You can’t find your skin for the wrinkles and their tributaries. My reality check comes standing at the gas tank, my hand on the nozzle pumping the stuff into my car, then I see my reflection in the window of my SUV. There, for some reason, I seem a hundred years old. I’ve never seen all those wrinkles before. They only seem so dramatic in the sunlight. This is why we are encouraged to date in soft dark light of fancy restaurants (who can see the fancy food in such dim glow?) And stay out of daylight. Daylight tells the truth. So if your personality isn’t worth an asparagas and you’re banking on your alluring beauty to get you a man, stay indoors. No soccer matches or sailing days for you. Makeup won’t hide those kinds of wrinkles, nor does Ester Lauder’s miracle rejuvenating restoration dehydrating caviar pearls face cream.
Photo right: Salvador Dali's Birth of Venus

But when you get the Big C, who cares about wrinkles, scares, red lines on your boob, kinks in your armor? What’s most important is the smile that marks your spirit. If you have deep smile lines, you obviously can laugh at good and bad jokes. (You've also taken care of your teeth.)You’ve made others smile, too. When the surgeon or radiologists says, well there’s going to be this kind of scar or these kinds of lines on your breast, I say, "Who’s looking? It’s too late to hook another man because of my boobs or body, please. I’ve never been a bikini mama." I like who I am but not because of my looks. Really, no matter how hard you work, pamper, primp and cream in your life, something is going to come along that is going to splay all you did like a Michael Jackson.

It’s life, folks. There’s give and get. One thing is lost, another is gained. All those axioms. Does it matter whether we have rhino skin or lamb skin? We should be less vain. If we hide in the house jelling our face with creams, preventing a drop of sun to touch it, we can resemble a porcelain doll. If we get outside, work in the garden, kayak, jog, play tennis, hike to the mountaintop, we’re going to get wrinkles and shine longer. It’s like the sun or the moon. We rarely can have both at the same time. The late Ester Lauder told me in an interview, when I was fashion editor at the Press-Scimitar, that her soft and wrinkle-free skin was the result of eating a pad of butter a day. Go for what gives you a thrill.

A friend sent this wonderful quote. "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - Chardonnay in one hand - chocolate in the other - body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming, ‘WOO HOO, What a Ride!’"

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mother Nature Mothers

Super Tuesday eve lit up with tomentous storms - clouds of every shade of gray, every tempting depth passing each other like freeway traffic forming fat genies to slip down to earth and destroy. Weather wreaks havoc and claim more deaths than some diseases. No wonder weathermen are making money on Mother Nature with their bright red, yellow, green, pinks and white lightening boards. These aren't her subtle colors. Heated air, turbulent and nasty in mid winter, out of sync with nature, where does it come from? When icy air tries to reclaim its bed, then wars of the heavens begin and Thor and thunder and black tornados and line winds and torrential rains get our attention and breaks lives off in white twigs. But the muddy Mississippi begins to spill over its borders to enrich the bogs of Arkansas and Tennessee. And spirits spin out of control.

It’s odd how something can enter your body and in a snap completely rearrange your life, scratch off your goals, make flour of your routine. I guess being shot or having an injurious car wreck would be similar. Cancer is like a small terrorist entering your body and trying to blow it up on every corner. This is happening to me. A winter of my discontent.

Monday was my re-assessment with my surgeon. I was waiting half hour before the door opened, as usual. An African American lady with a cane was waiting too so we talked about our children and showing up, getting there, getting normal as well. My gentle surgeon laid it out on the Gurney, showed me pictures, explained how the breast works and why there was more to come. (You’d think we’d know this, but unless you have this kind of experience, you are a piker.) He would have to re-enter the breast to clean out pre-cancerous cells collected in the ducts where the tumor once hibernated. These cells need to be removed prior to radiology. Ok. Let’s do that. It’s a kind of cleaning up of what wasn’t removed in the first place because the tumor had to be tested before these things show up. He’s go through the same cut used the first time.
Then there was good news, hopefully.

Dr. Patterson explained I was a candidate for a different type of radiation therapy that cannot be offered in all situations. Depends on the location of the cancer cavity and the size of the breast. It’s called Mammo-Site-5. It involves the injection of a small balloon (inflatable) in the cavity where the cancer and its friends had been partying, and over a period of five days, twice a day (six hours a part), radiation beads or seeds or particles are inserted into the balloon for about five minutes at a time. (that is determined by how long the radioactive materials have been stored - the newer takes less time than those that are a bit older. I guess it’s like milk and barbecue ribs and other perishables. Read the expiration date.). These radiate out and kill all the cancers in that zone. The more common radiation therapy which takes six weeks of five days a week treatments covers most of the breast and can do damage to other organs in some cases. The Mammo-Site 5 is an alternative for busy women with fires to burn, I guess. I thank God for making me a contender. But the final word comes from the radiologist.

Actually I was living on pins and needles for 24 hours waiting to meet the radiologists, who is Korean, and to see if he would agree that I could try this method. It sounded like my kinda challenge, and the best part is it takes, to be serious, about 10 days (some of that is waiting period) and then it’s over. Only five days of going to the radiation center twice a day. I can do anything for a week. And then I’d be free to get back in shape and prepare for my trip to Nepal-Tibet. Whoopie. I had to want this terribly, imagine it, release it and let the energy move out to do the work to let it happen. Sigh.

Well, I’m going for the MammoSite-5. It was weird yesterday, waiting, storms whipping up a licorice meringue outside the picture windows of the radiology waiting room. I had to wait and wait and fill out more papers and sign documents that it would have taken me days to read. I just have to trust the system. I was twitchy - the frapaccino I had just purchased. No one in their right mind drinks coffee in the afternoon. Everyone was pleasant, casual, not at all premonitionary. People, many crippled and in pain, came in and out of the room, sat in furniture upholstered in brown maroon and gold stripes, squigglies, checked and patterns. Ugh. In the inner sanctum the nurse gave me the n’th degree interrogation: like did I have the chicken pox? (Who remembers that? Or wants to dwell on illnesses?) And do I sleep well (No, never have and especially now I had to stop the hormones. Grr. Now I’ll be concerned that I’m not sleeping well when it had become something I put up with.) She also asked if I had any thoughts of harming my self or suicide? What? I think I was shocked at that questions. Did I sound suicidal? My Gosh. I’ve been so positive about this whole experience and being able to share it through the blog and through emails with others, why would I want to do myself harm? I believe in God, in my doctors, and in myself. I’m actually enjoying my own energy and umph. I feel useful, and that’s all I asked for. Maybe if I had suicidal thoughts I’d be a better poet. I think about death a lot but because its something to consider, handle, and write about. Not because I want to rush it nor try to outrun it.

Finally I met Dr. Lee. He is Korean. (I thought it deja vu, a sign that my late brother was named Lee, and so was my father, my grandfather, etc. A family name.) For a moment I felt I was being out-sourced, like calling Bell South or Western Union. But he was a serious man with serious intentions and for seven years he’s been the chief radiologist at this major hospital. I knew I was in good hands, if only because my surgeon named him for me. Dr. Lee had to tell me all the bad things that could happen, although he had never had them happen to his patients. They are in the literature, he apologized, and he has to tell me about them - like if the balloon is too near the ribs, I could get a broken rib somewhere down the road (I guess it would weaken the rib) or if it was too close to my lungs, I could get a strange kind of pneumonia. I said I had the pneumonic vaccination, but that doesn’t cover this. But these are rare and strange occurrences.

He also explained that when the balloon is inserted on the Friday following my surgery on a Tuesday, there would be an MRI. And this would make the decision, the final answer, if he could continue with the treatment. He says very few of his patients who have been candidates for this radical radiation have been denied it. So I’m thinking positive, tossing out that desired energy into the pool around this situation. I have big boobs, after all, with lots of room. That must count for something, no? If I’m not operable, then all the balloons come out and I start the more common six weeks of radiation on the following Monday. Horrors. That can warp a spirit and a body.

Then the nurse arrived with a box of booklets and a demo of the balloon and how it deflates and inflates and depending on how deep it is placed, where they would cut it off, and then tap it off for the time in between treatments. The radiation particles are sent in and out of the balloon by a guide and supposedly sits in the balloon (which won’t break, I’m promised) about five minutes. Each treatment is preceded by an Xray to see where everything is. Only the radiologist and his staff of assistants will do the work. I will have to live with this balloon about 11 days since the radiologist must go out of town on what would be the fifth and final day of treatment. So I live with it three days over the weekend (the tennis tournament starts that weekend), and Monday the 25th will be the final day. Finally, a shower. (I’ll have to use the bath tub in the guest bathroom down on the first floor. Odd.) The radiologist will pop the balloon out of my boob and I’ll be done. Hallelujah. That’s an anticipatory Hallelujah.

I don’t think my surgeon would put me through all this misery of balloon inserting if he wasn’t sure I’d work. The radiologist pointed out that the surgeon sees with his eyes and guestimates, so to speak. The MRI is exact and reveals truth. Oh well, I’m sure everyone has to be covered just in case. I left exhausted to face a night of tornados and water innundation.

Artwork by the late Ted Faires, an old friend and teacher.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Walking in Space

Now I know why they tell you not to drive for a few days after a breast cancer operation.
The dang seat belt crosses right over the left boob where the action took place. I found out this morning, the fifth day after my operation as I drove to church before the church bells were even ringing. It’s my weekly boost of spirit - giving a brief prayer and gospel service for the homeless during our community breakfast for about 150 (some days), and then reading the gospel in church at the nine o clock. I keep saying, well the bottom half is A-OK so there are no excuses. If the spine holds me up and I can walk, I do anything. It’s only one half of the upper half that is messing up this picture and I keep it under wraps in an easy bra. Actually when I started walking the river three days ago I forgot to put on a more supporting bra and so had to hold my breast against me during the walk. Why not? That’s the only bra that stops the jig.

This is the tough time, now. I call it walking in space. Or Float the Fog. Space boxes out time. Space has no definition. I was in the Ragni-Rado play Hair back in 1970. I had scouted singers for them and brought the first amateur production to Memphis for Keith Kennedy at Memphis State. One of the show songs was a slow motion dance called Walking in Space. Not getting anywhere fast. Lapse time. That time when you’ve jumped off the trapeze and are waiting for your legs to swing. When the three-pointer has been shot before the buzzer and you wait to see if it falls in the basket. A tense space. Here's how the song goes:" My body is walking in space, My soul is in orbit with God face to face."

Since Tuesday, all the friendly support calls and check-ins from the Women’s Center have ceased. I guess I’ve moved over into the hands of the surgeon. I don’t know what I really can do physically - why can’t I be treading the mill at the gym or working on the abs at Pilates - or even, a jaunty rally on the tennis court - if I don’t run for anything, which I’m slow to do anyway. Why not? I feel okay - and I’m eating too much watching all these super things - super bowls, super Tuesday, superstar hopefuls on American Idol.

I’ve got to be honest with you, the surgeon called Friday as I was laughing with my oldest daughter who had driven down from Nashville for a night. The doctor said the lymph node he removed showed no cancer. But, and here is the But that turns things around - he found pre-cancer cells around the tumor he removed. Now what does this mean? I couldn’t get a proper question to type out of my brain. Can’t radiation take care of that? Well, we don’t know. When can I see you - remember I’ve working toward this trip to Everest in April. He was encouraging and I’ll see him tomorrow (Monday) and hopefully the radiologists early this week and someone somewhere is going to say if we are going to go back in and cut the pre-cancer cells out, or if the radiation will cover the shed and get rid of the "beechos." Once again, the waiting game. I know I’m in the hands of the best surgeon in these parts, so I trust his judgement, and am thankful for his vigilance.
Photo: Masks at Bread and Puppet Theater Museum in Glover, Vt.

One of my best friends who went through all this a few years ago without telling anyone has given me some hope and comfort. She said that the same thing happened to her. Her lymph nodes were clean - therefore you have the same life expectancy. They found pre-cancerous cells around her tumor. She said there are three types - Most never turn into cancer, some do sometimes, and 3 per cent always do. Lately I have been doing worse than the NBA Grizzlies on percentages. (Now that is a depressing subject for us Memphis fans.) I was told only 5 per cent out of 150 biopsies are positive. Mine was. So I may not want to play with this 3 per cent, which means, cut it out and then get on with the six weeks of radiation. (Mon thru Fri each week.)

With or without breasts, I just want to get on with my life. I’m working on getting in the one hundred things I want to do before I die. (I’ve already done about 900 of the one thousand things touted in books) I get to get on with it as I deal with the body falling a part. I’ve had to stop hormones, which I kept taking because I felt good on them. But without them, I twitch and hack and blink my eyes because everything dries up and upgrades nerves. And then there’s vision. I finally adapted to gradual glasses rather than having to switch pairs for reading or distance or computer. And there’s tinitus in the ear like a constant hearing horizon, and the hands closing up problem which has a long name and is augmented by arthritic thumbs so I drop a lot of things. See? And neuropathy in the balls of my feet so you feel like you have socks on when you don’t. You wonder if your body is going to keep up with your will. At least I still have my knees, hips, teeth, heart, and more fat than I bargained for which I’m working to turn into muscle. Or at least was. Aging is not a hobby but a hassle. And miracle, expensive wrinkle creams don’t do diddlysquat after you have the wrinkles. Get real.

So I look at my boob in the mirror (careful not to get too close to see my wrinkled face) and it droops like a wounded flamingo and I say "what in the hell are you doing behind the scenes when I have given you good times on all fronts?" I wonder if this is payback because many times when I swing a forehand I hit my boob (the problem is more boob than chin, which I’ve also hit) with the handle of my tennis racket. Many times I’ve committed this atrocity. Is this the boob getting back?
Photo: Kate Campbell in concert at Center for Southern Folklore

Ok. I need to get positive. Don’t get me started on the quality of my kids and grandkids who make me proud every day, every minute. Don’t get me started on our amazing number one-ers the University of Memphis basketball team, don’t get me started on Memphis azaleas and daffodils which will start budding while I’m being nuked, or sitting on the back of a horse or in the footprints of Antarctica penguins, or the experience of a Kate Campbell concert or a Robert Hass poem or being in every kind of museum filled with great art - (the Rothko Chapel in Houston where his black paintings hang floor to ceiling in a octagonal cube being at the top of my list) and don’t get me started on the incredible privileges, friends, loves and one faith I’ve had all my 68 years. I have a million dreams and I’ve been on many mountain tops (considered holy by every religion because mountain tops are closest to God.). And I have always gone with God in my heart and I’ll continue to do that to the end. It’s all about the next adventure. "Walking in space we find the purpose of peace, the beauty of life, you can no longer hide."