Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Day 13

Fuck Cancer

On December 1st, I sat nervously on a custom sofa in a quintessential, vintage Seattle apartment atop the historic Diller Hotel. I’m not the kind of girl who twirls her hair and bites her nails whilst waiting by the phone, but on that day I could not help myself.

Two friends/confidants/fellow-sojourners scurried to my side as I reached for my phone and answered uncharicteristically (even answering my phone is uncharacteristic), “Hello, this is Jessica.”

Candace caught my gaze and I nodded.

The person on the other end was my trusted OB/GYN Surgeon. She and I have been trying to schedule a hysterectomy since June. We postponed initially due to the failing health of my dear friend, Kelly Clark, who had just decided to stop the chemo after a 7 year tangle with breast and eventually bone cancer when the clinical trials were causing more strain than their ability to decrease her markers could merit. She heard from her doctors, as many facing cancer do, “I just don’t know what we can do.” It was not a good time to be on my back for 6 weeks recovering from surgery.

Kelly died on Bastille Day, July 14, 2017. The time I spent with her in the weeks leading up to her last fitful breath are beyond precious to me.

It was mid-November when I decided to reschedule my hysterectomy. Also, I had recently found  a strange lump in my breast. Any of you who have met me or seen my breasts will understand when. I .tell you that feeling my breasts is a regular practice of mine. I am the kind of man who would fondle himself were he to have beautiful breasts. Only I was born with a vagina. And great tits. So I totally do.

I knew instantly. This lump didn’t belong. So, I asked my OB to check it out and she agreed to order the mammogram. I needed her to order it for me because I’m only 39. The deep pockets of Big Pharma have decided in all their wisdom that preventative exams for breast cancer screenings should only be covered in woman 40 and over. A recent increase from 35.

This was particularly stinging for me having known so intimately Kelly’s journey once diagnosed at 30 and to be waiting for results in the sexy apartment of the indomitable Tousignant who received her phone call at a mere 28.

Still, I had the imaging. 10 brutal days later, I had 4 biopsies. 3 days later when the phone played the ringtone I designated for the Seattle Polyclinic as an extra precaution to ensure I would answer, I was relieved to hear my OB’s voice.

I knew from “Hi.” I knew while I was suspended in the air like a Chevy with my left breast hanging down through a hole in the table so they could smash it with mammography panels as they punctured a gaged hole just to the left of my nipple. I knew when the ultrasound tech moved the wand to my left breast and all the air left the room. I knew when I finally worked up the courage to tell my husband and when he touched the mass, his hand recoiled as he exclaimed unbidden, “Fuck!” In some ways, I’ve always known.

But, when my doctor asked if I was sitting down, she removed all doubt.

“It’s cancer.”

The magnificent women either side of me clutched to my body with awareness as numb tears fell. The staccato breath and tight grip of shock triggered as my spirit spun upward in a vertigo inducing ascent toward the elevated sky lights like an anxious bridegroom climbing a spiral staircase toward a stranger’s bed. Words blurred like jazz. The phone rang again to set up the next of countless appointments. The phone rang a few minutes later and I answered one more in what has now become my MO:

“Hello, this is Jessica.”

This time it was the Breast Surgeon. How are you doing? Can you come in right away? Can we draw your blood for genetic testing? Can we talk?

It all happened so fast. The pace of cancer is intimidating. Test after test. Learning a new language. HER2 Negative. Tamoxifen. Chest wall.

In fact, today (as you’ll gather if you scroll to the bottom of the page to check out my appointment calendar) I have 3 appointments. The last, I hope, before my double mastectomy on December 28. Once healed, I begin 8 infusions of chemo over 16 weeks. Then 5 weeks of daily radiation.

I’ve unearthed this blog as a way to utilize a commucation tool that was invaluable when my mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer almost 6 years ago. If you’d like to embark on this journey with me, I will share my triumphs and tragedies as vulnerably as I dare upon this long and winding road.

Currently, I plan to work throughout treatment though I cannot yet be certain that I am able. For those who have asked for a means to offer support, thank you. You may do so as feels best to you, beit financial, domestic, literary, or prayerful. In fact, I can always use a dirty joke.

Well, here we go... deep breaths. One day at time. I will dance to the music that is playing. This for me is not a fight with cancer. It is but another dance in a story I have always been telling. I will heal. And even if I do not, I will dance.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Day 299

Having a birthday without the woman who gave birth to you, is a confounding experience.

It's like a chill that creeps up your spine and raises your hairs on end. One of those emotions that does not shy from physical expression. A feeling that penetrates the body's very reflex engine. A multitude of tiny lightening bolts through your nerve endings that leaves your fingers cold and stiff. 

Not that it's an entirely negative experience, though we certainly associate it that way. "Someone just stepped over my grave," many recite at such a moment. Facing mortality is also facing eternity. All of that to say, I've had those chills all day. 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Day 293

It occurs to me that's it's been almost a year since Mom was first diagnosed. And though our count nears 300, it doesn't feel as though I've ticked those days away. It seems the wisest lesson on time comes to us through the immortal genius of Steve Martin as The Jerk:

The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days and the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days and the fifth day you went to see your mother and that seemed just like a day and then you came back and later on the sixth day, in then evening, when we saw each other, that started seeming like two days, so in the evening it seemed like two days spilling over into the next day and that started seeming like four days, so at the end of the sixth day on into the seventh day, it seemed like a total of five days. And the sixth day seemed like a week and a half. I have it written down, but I can show it to you tomorrow if you want to see it.

Mom & I loved that bit. In fact, that movie played a significant role in our upbringing, as did Arthur & Young Frankenstein.  We laughed our way through hard times. We learned those movies word for word. One of Mom's favorites was: 

Not everyone who drinks is a poet. Some of us drink because we're not poets.  

So, when I think back on coming home from the hospital with an NG tube in Mom's nose, which would not come out until the very end, a clunky pump, a lot more morphine and a slew of family and friends who knew the time was near, I'm searching for humor. I'm sure we buoyed each other up somehow. 

Instead, all I remember is my Aunt Terri who showed up one day and didn't leave. She took her vacation time and camped out at the Green Ranch. Home-made tortillas, juevos & chorizo found their way to the table, floorboards were cleaned, the backyard was hosed down, and most importantly, Mom was well tended. She sat with her in silence for hours on end. A post that became increasingly more difficult for me. We bought baby monitors to set about the house in order to keep tabs on mom when we were not in the room. 

Hospice immediately sent over a bed and oh yes, now I remember. We decorated her room in a Hawaiian theme. The guest room became a tropical explosion of orange fish & pink hibiscus blossoms with decorative Tiki lights accenting our picture wall. What must have been a hundred pictures of friends and family made a spiritually reviving wall of support and prayer. The only solemn additions to the room were that damn hospital bed and an oxygen tank. We didn't need it, not yet. Mom was still sleeping with the love of her life in her own bed in her own room and breathing on her own.  So, the hospice supplies simply stood sentinel awaiting her immanent diminishing.

Days, he said. Weeks maybe, not months. 

Joshua flew home from Vegas. 

Still we didn't talk of death. We only knew that the tube in mom's nose was keeping her with us and simultaneously depriving her of any and all nutrition. Food and drink became mere palliative companions. Like the skeleton in the dungeons of King Haggard's castle guarding the gate of the Red Bull and all the while lusting for an empty carafe of what he imagined was fine wine, she gulped down a ghostly promise of nourishment only to watch it sucked back out of her nose. 

More than any other time through this process, she looked less and less like herself. She could still move about with help, though she fought us off at every turn. Independent to the last. In fact, it should be noted if it has not yet, that not once did I witness an expression of resignation upon her face. She fought for her life. Though the battle was unjust, the odds impossible and the respite obsolete, yet she never gave up. 

I think it was then I started to crawl deeper inside of myself. Grief drew me into its womb and I nestled in the dark with thanks. I mined my youth for memories of her skirts spinning, the way she layered her lasagna, or how she flipped her hair when she knew she was right... which was always.

The first time the tube fell out, we did as we were told and went to the ER to get it put back in. If the tube pulls out of the stomach and can no longer do its job, we were told that only an RN could put it back. Like all ER visits, Aunt Terri, Mom & I sat about for hours waiting for an unnecessary x-ray and a replacement tube. We decided that the next time it fell out, we would just handle it ourselves. It turns out that the next time was right as we pulled in the driveway on the way home from the ER. 

So, I took hold of the tube and gently fed it into her nose as she swallowed. We got it back in, taped it up and tested it with the pump. Success. It was so successful in fact that I was designated to adjust the tube for all of its shifting. Each new adjustment didn't get easier. Quite the opposite. It became a painful reminder of my mother's lifeline. A reminder that she was starving. I hated that tube. Disdain. Vengeful disgust. 

We swabbed around her nose and tried to keep it lubed, but as we were repeatedly told by doctor's and hospice nurses, an NG tube has never been used over a long period of time for someone in this situation. As a result, her nose began to erode, which only added fuel to my spite. How could any righteous destiny decide to cover that resplendent face with bile tubing? 

I remember the last time I saw my mother in Seattle thinking even then that she would die looking nothing like herself. Forever my memory of her would be cluttered with her much altered appearance toward the end. This foresight is all the more potent these days. For what I didn't expect was what it would feel like to look in the mirror after she was gone. It is her face I see. Her expressions. Her aching furrowed brown when she cries, taking long deep gasps as she swallows her fear and exhales her courage. Her knowing smile.that puckers her soft lips as her right eyebrow slides up confidently. I am a whirling dervish swallowed in the cyclone of a greedy pursuit for her every expression and then plummeted into sorrow with the reality that it is me smiling back, not her. And then I see her crying. And around I go.

Perhaps someday her likeness will soothe my longing for her. But, today it only serves as a sharp reminder of what is lost.