On Monday I sent the following email to family and friends:
This morning I met with my oncologist and got the absolute best early Christmas gift one could ask for . . . a clear scan!! Which means, there are no signs of cancer left in my body!!!!!! Even that pesky spot on my sternum which has been in the back of everyone's mind (at least mine, my family and my doctors) has vanished. Completely.
This news does not mean I get to skip anything else. I will still be on hormone therapy for five years (not a fan of hot flashes) and I will still have to go through radiation starting in January but all of that is just to keep it from coming back. I can now say I HAD cancer - past tense! Which means, with all of your love and prayers and support and thoughts and whatever - I have kicked cancer's ass and can go celebrate in Patagonia! I leave next week :)
And now I'm off for my tattoo . . . don't worry, it is part of my radiation simulation.
Have an amazing Monday!!
Today, I sent the following update:
First of all, let me tell you straight away that no, I have not yet recovered from Monday's amazing news. I feel a significant burden has been lifted. A burden I would have denied was there a week ago and yet its absence has left me floating.
Yes, I was anxious waiting for the results of my last PET scan but part of me was resigned to there being one more step left. I assumed that spot on my sternum that first showed up on a PET scan in May would pop up again and there would be decisions to be made about how to treat it. I just didn't expect to be set free so soon. As usual, I still asked my oncologist a number of questions and she had me make an appointment in two months and reassured me that I can always call with questions before that time if I need to.
Of course the first call I made as I left the hospital was to my mother as I tried to figure out where to go. My next appointment was still a couple of hours away and I hadn't planned on going to the office but it didn't seem right to go home so I went to my office where I could see real, live people and relay the news. I also sent out the email announcement and posted it on Facebook. I wanted everyone to know that I no longer have cancer. I collected some hugs in the office and then told a crowded elevator that I was cancer free after someone innocently asked how I was feeling. I think people cheered. I was hugged. Most of the people in the elevator work at my firm - a couple do not. I was beaming. In the lobby I didn't just nod and say hello to co-workers walking into the building, I shared my news and then floated out the door. In the subway on my way to my next appointment I couldn't stop smiling.
I think I was worried at some point about the radiation simulation because I remember Googling it and reading about possibly getting fitted for a mask to keep my head in place if radiation to the brain is necessary. I was also told I would be tattooed and I wasn't really clear on the details of that process despite the fact that this is the part I have been telling people about. But when I walked into the reception room I felt absolutely carefree. I was introduced to a music therapist who explained a study they were conducting that sounded similar to the one in which I participated during chemo. But this time, unfortunately, I was told I was chosen for the control group and would not get any music during my simulation. But I still had to complete some surveys and talk about my anxiety level. I told the guy right off that I wasn't even thinking about the simulation because I got such good news that morning and he congratulated me and then had me answer some "I feel vulnerable," "I feel strong," "I feel anxious," "I feel silly" questions on some scale and then I had to color any pain or tension or anxiety I was feeling on the outline of a person. I did this same coloring activity during chemo and never understood it. What is the significance of me randomly choosing red, blue, orange or green to color in the tension I always carry in my shoulders? The therapist gave me a short little lecture on how some people cope with new things by acting strong and confident, I agreed with him but said this time my strength and confidence is real.
I was then passed off to a radiation tech who showed me a little movie about the simulation in the freezing cold room with the giant donut shaped MRI machine that looks just like the fancy ones in that GE commercial where the cancer patients meet the employees who made the "machines that saved their lives" or something like that. And sure enough, this machine was made by GE. After the movie I was directed to a changing room and told to remove all my clothing from the waist up and to put the gown on with the opening at the back. I was also advised to empty my bladder. When I returned to the dressing room I pulled a blue hospital gown off the stuck on top of the locker (where I was instructed NOT to leave my belongings) and struggled to decide what to do. When I was told to put it on with the opening in the back I had envisioned a certain type of hospital gown that is basically reversible in terms of having the closure in the front or back. But this one . . . it was the wrap style type that seemed incomprehensibly ridiculous if it was put on backwards. I had also seen a couple of women in the hall with this same type of gown on and they were not wearing theirs in reverse. So I put it on the normal way.
I left a beanie on my head for some warmth and returned to the chilly room. The tech took my picture and I asked if I needed to remove my glasses and she said I could decide. I took them off and waited. My doctor came in beaming and gave me a big hug after she said how happy she was to see the results of my scan. This is only my third meeting with this doctor and that enthusiastic reaction was more than enough resassurance that I had indeed selected the right doctor to oversee the last of my treatment. She told me she would be reviewing all the MRI pictures in the next room and wished me luck before she left me with two techs I will endearingly refer to as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. I don't mean to disparage them in any way, but the situation was comical.
I sat on a chair and snapped a couple of photos of the room while they retreated to a corner where they commenced a fairly complicated art project. As it turns out, the tattoo is the least artistic portion of the simulation. Since it is vitally important that the radiation is repeated in exactly the same spot, with the body in precisely the same position each time, they were making a mold of my body. Not my whole body, just the upper half so each time I go to get treatment I will have to contort myself into the same position in this specially crafted mold. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum had the type of familiar repartee that only comes after working in close proximity for a long time . . . or from being family. They half-bickered, half-joked and mostly teased each other as they layed a large piece of bright blue plastic on the floor, halved it and taped it up envelope style with masking tape leaving one open end. While one person held the plastic that was thicker than a garbage bag but still flexible up, the other shook up the contents of a plastic jug which I presumed contained some sort of plaster mold material. She then dumped it into the taped up plastic thing.
I was then instructed to lay on the table and was promptly harrassed about not trusting them by putting the gown on the correct way. I pled confusion and allowed them to put a bolster under my knees as they raised my arms over my head. When they went back to their craft project in the corner I switched the gown the proper way since they were just going to be pulling it almost off me anyway and all sense of modesty about these things left me long ago. You really can't have breast cancer and be shy about anyone actually seeing your breasts.
I returned to my place lying on my back on the table that slides into the donut hole of the MRI machine and waited. While I waited I stared up at the lighted "window" on the ceiling that wasn't actually a window since we were in the basement of a building at Union Square. It had six panes like a window and gave the illusion of looking up at a brilliant blue sky with a couple of puffy white clouds with tree branches arching slightly against the "glass." Two of the trees had bright pink cherry blossoms and the other unidentifiable to me yellow blossoms. It was pretty and comforting. More comforting than the red laser beams I could see on the wall to my right. I was covered with a white sheet which I noted was not heated despite an earlier promise of blankets being warmed for me and Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum had me take my arms out of the hospital gown and guided me to slowly lean back into the blue plastic project they situated under my head and shoulders. It was warm to the point of almost being hot and felt really good after the chillyness of the room.
And then it was like I wasn't even in the room as they went to work completing their art project and critiqueing each other's taping styles. My arms were placed folded over my head and I had to turn my head clear to the right with my chin a certain way. It wasn't necessarily uncomfortable or awkward but I hated that I couldn't see anything they were doing. I had one on each side of me taping the plastic to me so the mold could conform to my body. I tried to make a comment once or twice and they either didn't hear me (hard to imagine when they were hovering over top of me) or just chose to ignore me. I was warned when they taped up my surgical scars with something I never got to see that had a wire in it so the scars would be visible on the MRI image. I was getting molded and positioned to their satisfaction and then I was left alone taped into place in the warmth of the mold. Once everyone had exited the room the machine whirled to life. I read the warning on the inside to not stare directly into the lasers and closed my eyes and wondered why the other MRI-like scanning machines didn't have a similar warning because I remember being a little bit mesmerized by the spinning thing inside the machine during past scans.
I believe it took about twenty to thirty minutes for them to get all the pictures they needed but it is hard to gauge time when you have to sit completely still as part of a strange sciency-art project. My left arm was definitely asleep and had reached the tingley stage where I really wanted to just shake it out but I wasn't sure I could move it if I had tried with all the masking tape strapping me in. But even after the whirling airplane noise of the MRI machine was shut down and the techs were allowed to enter the room again, I still had to keep still with my head turned away from all the action. The penultimate step in the art project was the drawing of magic marker X's in three spots around my left breast. I was marked for my upcoming tattoo.
Finally, all the tape was pulled off of me and the mold was pulled out from under me and I tried to shake my tingling arm back into feeling. But before I could leave I had to get my tattoos. I was told it would pinch. It felt like three small shots. Two were barely noticable and one stung a little bit and bled a little. If you didn't know where to look, you would miss them altogether. I actually have freckles that are bigger. And yet, I can now say I have a mysterious tatoo!
After I got dressed again I had to answer some more anxiety-seeking questions with an intern of the music therapist before I was free to go.
I tried to do a little Christmas shopping but I was distracted by my good news. I wanted to stop strangers on the street and inform them how significant December 12, 2011 is to me. I wanted to explain that this is the date that will stand in sharp contrast to April 28, 2011 when I was told "it's cancer" because now it is over. Everything I have to do from this day forward is to prevent the return rather than attacking what is already there.
I went to the outdoor Christmas market at Columbus Circle that pops up there every year in search of a favorite item I will not repeat here because the recipient should be surprised. As I wandered I picked out gifts for my niece and nephew and stopped at a couple of jewelry stands with the idea of giving in my head. But the necklaces I was inspecting cried out with a different purpose. They were lockets with images and messages from old postcards and one read "Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life." The quote snatched something deep inside me and I knew I needed to commerate this day in a tangible way so I purchased it and informed the vendor that I was doing so to commerate my first day of being cancer free. Strangers congratulated me and I fought back more tears of happiness as I put it around my neck. My plan is to put the date and "Cancer Free" on the inside as soon as I find someone with better handwriting than mine to complete the task.
I have since learned the quote is an excerpt of a poem by Omar Khayyam, a Persian poet and mathematician. It is a simple, almost trite statement that can feel almost hollow with too much repetition similar to "seize the day" but without even looking I found a talisman to symbolize the end of a nearly nine month journey through illness which has changed me in ways I cannot yet comprehend. But one thing I can comprehend right now is that this is a moment I am truly happy with because it marks the beginning of a new life of health.