Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Few Things They Don't Teach You in "Breast Cancer School"

Every time I think I have written all that is possible on this blog, I'll be walking along, minding my own business, and another post will come to mind. This morning, I was walking the dog and slapping my right armpit (more on that later), and I realized that there were a number of things about cancer, cancer recovery, cancer side items, etc., that no one ever mentioned to me. Worthy of a blog post? What the heck.

First of all, the armpit slapping. Since I had lymph nodes removed under my right arm...9 of them...I have scarring and major numbness under that arm. In the year since surgery the feeling has been returning to that area gradually, but the accompanying feeling is like an interior itch that I cannot reach to scratch. I never have had a broken bone, but I imagine that this itch/burn/zinging sensation is a bit like the itch that you cannot scratch inside the cast. The itch isn't constant, thank the Lord, but seems to come in spurts which last anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days. I am in the middle of one right now that started last evening at bedtime, continued through the night, and is still going pretty strong. Slapping the area seems to ease the sensation better than actual scratching. Maybe the slap does something to deaden the nerve endings. Who knows?

Second thing I didn't know was that brassieres could be considered "medical necessities." I had a pleasant surprise when I visited what I call "the fake bosom store" last week to purchase a new bra to remedy the "wardrobe malfunction" which I mention in an earlier post. Come to find out that Blue Cross Blue Shield of NC will buy 6 bras per year for me, and new "fake bosoms" every other year. In my whole life I have never purchased 6 bras in one year, but now my insurance company will pay for them. Also, some other clothing items, like camisoles designed to hold the breast prostheses, are also considered "bras" for insurance purposes. Interesting?

The third thing I have learned about is the decidedly job-like nature of "not having cancer." Having surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation were simple, scheduled, straightforward, and finite options for saving my life. They did not require much thought or investment on my part; I just had to show up physically and tolerate the protocol. Now that I am living in a post medical intervention period, I find that I must invest a tremendous amount of time, thought, and effort in the work of staying cancer-free. (I know some people just do the "medical thing" and then live their lives as if the cancer never happened, but that is just NOT ME.) So almost every day I spend time thinking about what will be beneficial to eat; how I am sleeping; whether I am taking time to relax, pray, meditate; how I am improving/cleaning up my environment; whether I am getting enough exercise; and so on. I realize how fortunate I am to have the time and the financial resources to focus on my health in this way, and I pray that in some future world, the care for cancer patients will include some clearly delineated path for post-treatment self-care, such as what I have designed for myself. No one told me to do it this way, so maybe my experience is rare. But for now, I wake up each morning feeling that I have a job to do, and it sure takes a lot of time. But BEING ALIVE and HAVING TIME are good things.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My Friend Kent

My friend Kent Doty Wolfe died this week.

Kent died as a result of having breast cancer which metastasized to her liver and bones. I mentioned her in a post this winter, right after she had gotten the word about the spread of the cancer, in the same week that Elizabeth Edwards died. It was NOT a good week. And this one has been even harder. I am not particularly more scared for myself, but I just cannot wrap my head around Kent's being dead, and so quickly.

Kent was not just a friend with whom I had bonded over our shared breast cancer diagnosis; she was a friend from my childhood - a year older than I, but part of "the High Street Gang," which included lots of children who were around the same age as my brother and I. Her parents were friends of my parents, and she lived an easy walk from my house. The smartest dog in town and my personal trusty sidekick, "Flirt," was the offspring of Kent's dog "Flip" and the disreputable "Whitey" (usually greenish-brown, from rolling in fresh cow manure, NOT white) who belonged to the Ravenels, another component of the gang. My memories of Kent include the iconic early teenage scene of sneaking cigarettes and smoking in her room, as well as the more bucolic picture of our camping with our mutual friend Margaret, at about ages 9 and 10, burning up in the July pine woods of South Carolina and resorting to stripping down to our underwear for the hottest part of the day.

Kent possessed a great wit, and a joking response to every situation seemed to be her stock in trade. Every time I spoke with her about our common diagnosis, she was very off-hand in her approach. Whereas I was looking for a damned answer, she was just rolling with the punches and telling funny stories. She claimed to be unable to even remember the staging of her cancer; I can give you chapter and verse about mine. Now I am wondering if that position wasn't just her way of handling the experience, rather than being evidence of a lack of concern.

The shocking part of Kent's death was how quickly she went from being "on the mend" to being deathly ill. She was very tired from this second go-'round of chemo and radiation, but I had not gotten the vaguest sense that she was close to death. She entered the hospital rather unexpectedly on Sunday with severe nausea, and she died on Wednesday morning.

What more can I say? I had hoped that Kent and I would be able to look back together at years of living from scan to scan. We would compare notes about our hair loss, our underwear challenges, our terrific husbands. Even though her cancer had moved to her bone and liver, I fully expected that she would live some Stage 4 folks do....and that we would have many more good laughs together.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Wardrobe Malfunction

Buying underwear has never been high on my list of favorite pastimes. And I would never darken the door at Victoria's Secret even when I HAVE to shop for unmentionables. In fact, my underclothes are so boring that they ARE mentionable. Say "cotton," "plain," "opaque, not see-through." In fact, I'll go ahead and say it: "Hanes Her Way" cotton underpants along with the least expensive bra I can find which will make my clothes fit.

Since my mastectomy, I have had to purchase my topside underclothes at a specialty shop for women in my condition. The store offers quite a wide array of styles, but I have been muddling along with a few "plain Jane" bras for my oh-so-lovely silicone inserts. I have not bothered myself with any special designs; just the basics is all I have thought about.

Picture my surprise and chagrin a few weeks ago, as I rushed to get ready for a fancy dress evening, when I discovered that the dress I was planning to wear....and the only thing I own that was really appropriate (I also do not shop for dressy clothes until backed up against a wall of necessity)....would not work, so to speak, with my meagre selection of undergarments. The bodice of this dress features a square cut neckline, and the bras I own did not accommodate this cut. Not a good look...a couple of plain white bra straps sloping across my upper chest, under a very chic black cocktail dress.

My brain flew into overdrive, and I decided that I could just pull an old trick from early teenage years, and stuff one of my old "leftover" bras with some tissues. But when I frantically began to scramble through my lingerie drawer (I use that term loosely), I remembered that I had donated all my old bras to Goodwill last year. What to do?

I wish I could report a wonderful MacGyveresque story (remember the TV show?) about my improvising an appropriate bra out of a couple of belts and a castoff tennis shoe. Wish I could, but, no; I just made a very dull choice and wore a "Sunday-go-to-meeting" dress which could sort of pass as a cocktail dress.

The moral of this story is "just because you don't have anything to put in them, doesn't mean that you shouldn't own a wide array of brassieres." Live and Learn.