Archive | July, 2010

Only a mother…

29 Jul

Prior to this week, I had been in touch with Emily on a near-daily basis – and yes, sometimes hourly!  While phone calls, emails, and voice mails are great, there is nothing like actually being here.  I flew in from Minneapolis Sunday morning, and within two hours I was cooking for a crew of nine!  Never have I made three dozen scrambled eggs, three pounds of bacon, and four pounds of hash browns!

Aside from being the “chief cook and bottle washer” for a week, I have also gone with Emily to her numerous doctor appointments.  What amazed me the most was her chemo appointment on Monday.  With the continuous drip-drip of the IV it all seemed so uneventful, but in reality it was three hours of the poisonous chemo flowing through her veins.  The treat of the day was learning that she could skip her radiation treatments for a few days.    I can think of many treats, but I guess a person’s life and priorities change when you learn you have cancer.

The circle of treatments and side effects was an eye-opener for me as well.  While chemo can cause certain side effects, the treatment for those side effects can cause other side effects….and of course, there is a treatment for that side effect!

Emily has been such a trooper through all of this; I admire her courage, her attitude, and her stamina.  Only a mother can feel so helpless; I only wish I could take it all from her.  She knows though, never to underestimate the power of a mother’s prayer.

I love you so very much, Emily.   Love, Mom.

And she’s back!

26 Jul

I’ve been a bit absent in my updates lately, and I can tell you it’s not because I’ve been too busy sipping mai-tais and working on my tan.  In fact, I would be remiss if I made this entire cancer experience seem like a walk in the park.  It’s not.  Rather, this past week I’ve truly come to learn why the words ‘battle’ and ‘cancer’ are so often paired together.  A week ago Monday I spiked a fever in the middle of the night.  It became so intolerable that at 4 a.m. I finally made Nick call my oncologist for some advice.  (Sidenote: earlier that day I met with the financial counselor at my cancer center and she politely informed me of my current bill – $33,000 for the oncologist visits and six chemotherapy sessions.  After seeing this figure I had no qualms about making a late night call to the doctor!)

My fever finally broke on Tuesday morning, however now I was facing a long day ahead with no sleep.  I trudged through and finally was able to enjoy a decent night’s sleep.  But Wednesday would bring more unpleasantries, those in which all my doctors had been warning me were coming – the increasing effects of radiation.  Come to find out, each daily radiation treatment builds on top of the previous ones, and continues ‘working’ for the next two weeks or so.  Now that I’ve reached the two-week mark for radiation treatments, little did I realize an exponential amount of radiation beams have been accumulating on my insides, along with all the exterior body parts they had to travel through to get there.  Result: a burning bum!  That’s right. I could not consider this a truly educational blog if I insisted I felt nothing at all.  As my luck would have it, I have a type of cancer that interferes with a daily bodily function, thus any side effects from treatment are heightened by this part of the body’s regular function.  It’s now that I start wondering if the grass is greener on the other side.  Does someone with breast cancer experience this much pain and potential complications?  What else do you use your breasts for (assuming you aren’t breast feeding)?  On top of all this, everyone has a pretty pink ‘Breast Cancer Survivor’ magnet on their car.  Does anyone even know the official color of the colo-rectal cancer ribbon?  (it’s dark blue).  While the ‘Save the Ta-tas’ campaign is getting all the attention, rectal cancer is kicking my ass!

Okay, so perhaps I’m being a bit over-dramatic, or perhaps it’s the pain killers talking.  After battling it through the weekend and laying low, I finally made it to Monday…and chemo appointment #4.  Each week prior to starting chemo I get my blood and urine tested to check the white blood-count levels (these are the ones that, when at their proper levels, help us fight off infections and other bacteria we come into contact with on a daily basis).  Today was the first time that they registered a bit too low, and the docs reduced my chemo dosage in half.  Additionally I got a hall pass to miss the next few days of radiation to let the behind heal a little more.  Despite all this, my spirits are once again on the rise.  This also may be in part to having Mom out here.  Mom arrived in town yesterday and is here for the week.  For some reason, everything just feels better when Mom is around to help.  It’s also kind of nice when the laundry gets done, dinner gets made and clothes finally get ironed!

Cancer hazard #72: Self imposed side-effects

19 Jul

As you can imagine, there are a number of different ways one can internalize the news of learning they have cancer.  Sadness, fear, and determination are just a few emotions that someone might experience, and to varying degrees – depending on the person.  As time goes on, the news sets in and treatments will begin. Hopefully during this time the sentiment of determination will be steering the ship, as opposed to sadness or fear.  It is amazing to me, however, how much some people force themselves to undergo unnecessary side effects (knowingly or unknowingly).  Let me give you an example.

I have my radiation treatments each day at 4:45 p.m., the last appointment of the day.  I purposely scheduled them at this time so I could fit in an entire day of work, thus allowing me to lead as normal of a life as possible during treatment.  Because I arrive at these appointments straight from work, I am typically dressed in office attire (read: dress slacks or skirt, blouse, and heels).  One day last week, I was sitting in the waiting room of the radiation oncology department waiting for treatment.  I was dressed in a haute hospital gown covered in light blue snowflakes that draped over me like a circus tent, despite the fact it was an extra-small.  The office asks that patients keep their shoes on for hygienic purposes and so no one is walking around barefoot, therefore I was also sporting a nice pair of 3″ Bally pumps with my circus tent.  Although this makes for quite the ensemble, I don’t foresee it hitting runways anytime soon!  As I’m waiting for my name to be called, another woman who was waiting for her appointment starts to make conversation.

Sidenote: up until now, the few waiting room conversations I’ve had at the oncology center have been a bit awkward.  Some people are just socially inept to know what and what not to ask.  I once had another patient ask me what I was there for.  Hmmm, well, with some elementary process of elimination tactics I hoped he could deduce I had cancer…now does this creepy-looking stranger really want to hear about the details about the tumor that is currently in my rectum?  I decided to spare him the details and instead told him I had heard that the radiation beams they have here are able to give you a great tan, and since mine was lacking for the summer I decided I’d stop by and give it a whirl.

Back to the point I was trying to get at.  This woman who was sitting in the waiting room with me last week began to make conversation with me and started marveling at how I was able to wear high heels!?  Apparently this was the second day she had seen me in heels and couldn’t fathom the idea of wearing heels while going through cancer treatment.  While I was struggling to find a correlation between having cancer and wearing pumps, she went on to say that she will only get dressed if she has to, only leaves the house for treatments and other necessities, and has put her entire life on hold until she gets through this process.  Now, I will be the first to admit I don’t know the details of her diagnosis (I didn’t ask her ‘Why are you here?’ like some people I’ve encountered) and acknowledge that she may have severe limitations that prevent her from doing any of the aforementioned activities.  However, her overall mentality of putting everything on hold is the exact antithesis of what I believe is helping me through my personal fight.  I continue to maintain that a life of ‘normalcy’, if possible/achievable, is far healthier than succumbing to this ugly enemy.  If there is ever a time to wear high heels, while your battling cancer is the most appropriate time to do it.  In fact, it may even be an opportune time to get an even higher pair!

I try and do something everyday to prove this point to myself.  Even though fatigue has been an issue, and it would be far easier to just nap the day away, I try not to (and have been 98% successful)!  This past weekend, instead of staying in and dwelling on being a cancer patient, I swept that little notion right under the bed and joined some girlfriends for lunch.  Jane, Carrie, Jaime, her handsome son Benjamin, and I met up for lunch on Saturday.  It allowed for some much needed girl talk and bachelorette party-planning!  (Umm, of course there will still be a bachelorette party.  Normalcy, remember?)

Em, Jaime and Benjamin (one of the happiest babies I've ever met!)

The low-residue diet in full effect!

But the day wasn’t over yet.  Just after lunch, Jaime got a phone call from her husband Matt indicating he had just secured us tickets to the Rihanna concert later that night at Mandalay Bay…sweet!  We then parted ways to head home, freshen up, and practice our chic dance moves and reconvened in a few hours to take in a great show!

Rihanna's rocks Mandalay Bay

Em and Jane at the Rihanna concert

All in all, it was a great weekend and I can honestly say I successfully did not cave into cancer hazard #72: the self-imposed side-effects…the journey continues!

Radiation factoids

17 Jul

Yesterday was radiation appointment #7 – I am officially one quarter through with these beams!  My radiation technicians, Stacey, Jan and Ethan are great; each day they have to situate me in just the right position so the treatment hits all the right places and none of the wrong places.  Instead of just letting them do their jobs, I find myself asking them a ton of questions each day – almost as if to keep them on their toes.  Although they could find this annoying, they are great sports about it and in turn have given me quite the radiation education.

Me, pleading: “If I’m already feeling these radiation beams as of day #1, does that mean we can reduce the treatment time?”

Stacey, humored: “Oh no honey, you’re in this for the full dose”

Me: “What exactly is my full dose?”

Stacey: “5,400 centigray across all 28 of your treatments. Centigray (cGy) is the unit of measurement we use for radiation.”

Me, quickly: “What is the most amount of centigray someone can tolerate?

Stacey, even quicker: “7,000”

Me, curious: “How do you know what just the right dose is?”

Stacey, patiently: “It depends on what part of the body we are radiating.  Different parts can take different amounts of radiation. We know this based on the testing that has been done on millions of people.”

Me: “So millions of people potentially received the wrong dosage of radiation in order to find out the right amounts that are administered today?”

Stacey: “Well, much of the radiation testing that has been conducted was on the Japanese immediately following the drop of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  They monitored the bomb victims that survived and continued testing to see their response and tolerance levels.  The government even continued some radiation testing in the 1970s on patients without them even knowing.”

Me, perpexed: “Crazy…so I have President Truman to thank for receiving an accurate dosage of radiation levels I’m receiving today?”

Stacey, intrigued: “Hmmm, I guess you could say that.”

We said our goodbyes and my weekend had officially begun.  I wonder if Stacey is ready for another round of questions come Monday?!

The end of an era

15 Jul

The last bite

The Summer of 2010 Ice Cream Eating Era that is.  This may sound a tad bit dramatic, however when you live in Las Vegas and it’s the dead of summer (my car thermometer read 121 degrees today), then ice cream is regarded as a necessity.  It happened just as they predicted…one of the chemo side effects finally kicked in after my chemo appointment on Monday – intolerance to all things cold, including my Golden Spoon cake batter frozen yogurt with Heath crumbles on top.  It was the strangest sensation ever, and made for some good laughs.  My tongue actually became paralyzed and I instantly developed a speech impediment that would last for the next hour.  At one point, it actually got caught on the exterior side of my teeth/bite and I had to manually put it back in its place.  While I did not see the humor in this, Nick managed to find enough for the both of us.  I never thought I was ‘above’ the forewarned side effects, but I had secretly been hoping I would escape this one.

Some other side effects are starting to kick in as well.  The fatigue is definitely present – I slept 14 hours yesterday.  This has been difficult to adjust to, as the word ‘nap’ hasn’t been in my vocabulary since studying abroad in Spain and siestas were a daily occurrence.  Jane, however, has helped me find comfort in and adjust to naps.  She is the queen of naps and won’t sacrifice her sacred sleep regimen for anyone or anything!

I’ve also noticed a pattern in which on the second day following chemo treatment I become very nauseous.  It only lasts for the day and then passes.  The docs have since prescribed some anti-nausea medicine that I’ll start taking to hopefully combat this in coming weeks.  All things considered, I can’t complain.  I’m one-third through with chemo appointments and have completed one-fourth of my radiation treatments.  Oh, and as for the radiation, that is getting better as well.  While I know the initial pain was real (I swear I wasn’t imagining it), I decided it was a matter of mind over body and since then have been blocking out any sense of discomfort…we’ll see how long this will last.

Quote of the day: “You still look so beautiful; how come you haven’t turned green yet?” – Nick


13 Jul

It may sounds weird, however despite a diagnosis like this, I cannot help to feel blessed.  Let me count the ways…

I am blessed to be surrounded by such amazing family and friends.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I cannot believe the overwhelming support that has come from people that I am surrounded by on a daily basis, as well as those whom I have not been in contact with for ages.  It is an incredible feeling to be in so many people’s thoughts and prayers, and for that I am forever grateful.  I can’t help but imagine going through something like this under different circumstances, for example with no family or support, or as a single parent working several jobs to support a family, or without health insurance.  The fact that I do not fall into any of these categories while attempting this fight let’s me know I am extremely blessed.

This past weekend was the first weekend after starting chemo and radiation so I took it easy and enjoyed the absence of radiation beams aimed at my rear end!  On Saturday, Jane and I spent the afternoon shopping (something I often refer to as self-medicating).  On Sunday I met up with Carrie and Chase for a morning walk and we even got rained on a bit, which was a rare occurrence!  On Sunday evening, Nick and I enjoyed dinner at Ryan and Fabiana’s.  But this was no ordinary dinner…Ryan prepared a dish specifically in accordance to my prescribed low-residue diet.  Being it was a hot summer evening, he whipped up a pot of Williams-Sonoma Chilled Cucumber Soup.  How’s that for amazing friends?!

Chef Ryan

And lastly, I could not recap the weekend without sharing a photo of the kids.  It’s fascinating how intuitive dogs can be, and I can surely tell that they know something is going on – they have been so attentive and compassionate lately.  You may have heard of dogs being used for healing and/or companion purposes.  The cancer center I go to for my treatments believes in the power of this type of therapy and every Tuesday brings in a dog to visit all the patients receiving chemo – love it!  Denali and Naya are actually registered service animals (long story, and if you have to ask, get my version, not Nick’s!) and it is my goal to have them accompany me to one of my appointments before I am done…stay tuned!

Radiation: nothing radiant about it

8 Jul

After breezing through chemotherapy yesterday, I woke up with a ton of energy and took Denali and a brisk 3-mile run to start the day off.  It was my way of proving to myself that chemo treatment was no match for my will power.  The day was off to a great start.

It’s interesting.  Up until this point, everyone has had varying opinions on which part of treatment would be the most difficult. My oncologist and his nurse have told me that radiation treatment would be more difficult to tolerate than the chemotherapy they would be administering.  Conversely, my radiation oncologist and his team have downplayed the effects of their radiation treatments in comparison to chemo.  Well after having experienced both now, I will be the judge of this…radiation sucks.

Today was my very first radiation appointment and I had no idea what to expect.  I was escorted into the room where prior to beginning, the radiation technicians finished taking a few more measurements and scans, a continuation from yesterday.   Part of this process included using markers to draw guidelines all over my back side.  At one point I found myself wondering if this cancer clinic didn’t double as a plastic surgeon’s office that specialized in the newest  Brazilian butt-lift procedures.

Before I knew it, both the measurements and the first dosage of radiation were complete.  Similar to an x-ray, I didn’t feel a thing.  Minutes later we were standing in the front office waiting to schedule the rest of my upcoming appointments when I began to feel different tweaks and twinges.  This is when it becomes difficult deciphering between what is real, and what tricks your mind might be playing on you.  I chalked up these initial sensations to a wandering mind.  But, it only worsened from there.  An hour later, I had been reassured that my mind was not making things up.  I could actually feel the radiated area and it wasn’t pleasant.  It immediately became very sensitive – not on the outside skin, but from the inside out…in a way that is very difficult to describe.  It’s not a piercing pain, rather a persistent aching sensation.  I can’t decide what’s more uncomfortable – the way I feel right now, or the thought of having this done 27 more times.  I keep telling myself that if I can feel the effects of radiation as intensely as I am, that must mean it’s working, right?  Despite my self-brainwashing attempts, I’ve decided I would much rather have chemo every day and this radiation just once a week instead of the other way around.  Something tells me that my behind may not make it through all the beams of radiation that are on the horizon.  I just don’t get it, how can something be so painless when administered, and then create such an uncomfortable feeling afterward?  Ugh.

Em vs. Chemo: Day 1

7 Jul

Today I had my first of five weekly chemotherapy appointments.  After meeting with my oncologist one final time to review my upcoming regiment and go over any last minute questions, Nick and I were led into the chemo room.  This room had three bays each filled with approximately six La-Z-Boy style recliners.  Upon entering the room there was one thing that became very evident: If there was ever a time I did not want to fit in with a group of people…this was it.  The room was filled with ill-looking, emaciated patients with no zest or energy.  I felt extremely out of place, which in my opinion was a good thing.  I was then told my the nurse that my IV drip was going to last five hours…ugh!  I had four different IVs that needed to run their course:

Em’s Chemo Cocktail –

  • One part anti-nausea medication
  • One part vitamin/electrolyte supplement
  • Chemotherapy drug Oxaliplatin
  • Chemotherapy drug Avastin

(I’m also taking a third chemo drug orally, Xeloda.  Additionally, the Avastin wasn’t part of the original regiment but was added once it was discovered that there were cancerous lesions in the liver.)

Well despite the fact there were a lot of drugs that needed to run their course, five hours was a bit too long.  I explained to the nurse that I was a born multi-tasker and suggested we look at running some of these medications simultaneously.  Although she wouldn’t agree to that, I did convince them to speed up the flow of the IV drip and we were able to knock the process out in just three hours!  Once this was underway, I fired up the laptop so I could do some work, turned on the World Cup game (go Spain!), and ordered in some food.

Em's first chemo cocktail (first of five)

So, how did it feel? Well, I hope I’m not reporting too prematurely, however thus far I feel great!  In fact, it doesn’t even seem like I had chemo at all today.  The only side effect I experienced was a numb, tingling feeling in my hand half way through the process.  The doctors noted this may not even be an effect from the actual chemo drugs, rather a result of having an IV in my hand for an extended period of time.  Basically it feels like the tingling sensation you get when your arm or leg falls asleep, times ten.  Regardless, I’ll take this over some of the other potential effects one can experience.

After chemotherapy, I had an appointment with the radiation oncologist and they proceeded to run some CT scans in order to accurately map out my upcoming treatment plan.  I didn’t begin radiation treatments today, but will start tomorrow afternoon.  There was one part of this process I wasn’t prepared for.  Up until now, I’ve maintained a clean canvas of virgin skin – sans tattoos.  That changed today when I received four of them.  Albeit small (size of a ball-point pen head), they are now something I will have with me forever.  These tattoos will help serve as a guide for each of the 28 upcoming radiation appointments I will have.  One is located on my lower back, one in the middle of my back, and one on each side of my upper thigh.  They will make certain my body is accurately positioned every time so the radiation beams are targeting the appropriate area.  Once I begin radiation tomorrow, I will continue it daily, Monday-Friday, for 5.5 weeks.  It is estimated that each appointment should take no more than fifteen minutes.  More on this experience tomorrow.

As for the final conclusion of today’s bout with Chemo, the decision is unanimous – this round victoriously goes to me!  Fingers crossed I remain as triumphant over the course of the next four rounds…and now off to the sidelines for a break…

The teacher becomes the student

6 Jul

I was blessed with the opportunity of being offered two teaching jobs that I began as a part-time endeavor last Fall.  I started teaching Business 101 at the College of Southern Nevada and I teach courses within the Fashion and Retail Management program at the Art Institute of Las Vegas.  Although time consuming, the experience thus far has been more rewarding than I ever imagined.  Since last Fall I’ve taught five classes over two semesters with a total of over 150 students.  You hear it often said, but I can say for a fact that I have learned far more from my students than I could have possibly taught them.

Well now the tables have turned; it was time for me to head back to school. As part of the process for gearing up to start chemo, my cancer center required me to take Chemo Class – a seminar that is mandatory for new patients and also open to their friends and family members that will be enduring the process with them.  Nick and I attended the class where we learned and were forewarned about potential side effects of chemotherapy including but not limited to:

  • Nausea/vomiting – I will be receiving an anti-nausea medication in conjunction with the chemo meds to prevent this.
  • Diarrhea – a welcomed change from the lack of movements I’ve been experiencing!
  • Hand-foot symdrome (aka palmar-plantar erythrodysesthesia or PPE) – this is a tingling, burning, numbing sensation in the hands and feet that can result in red, flaking or peeling skin along with swelling and small blisters.  My doctor indicated actions such as reaching inside a refrigerator/freezer or handling cold beverages may be very irritating.  Nick, looks like you’re on cooking duty…
  • Mouth sores – eww.
  • Hair loss – my doctor insisted I would not experience this, as it occurs very very rarely with my dosage of chemo.  I made him swear on the lives of his five grandchildren that this would not happen because I have an aisle to walk down in September and I WILL have hair.
  • Nerve damage – this can result in loss of balance, problems walking, and clumsiness…Nick would tell you that I’ve been experiencing this particular side effect for a long time already!

In addition to the side effects, I was guided through the proper chemo diet: very little greens and roughage, no raw vegetables, limited fruits, no whole grains rather bland foods consisting of white flour-based starches.  Umm…this isn’t exactly the ‘Ultimate Wedding Dress Diet’ I read about in my Modern Bride magazine.  Substitute pasta for salads and buttery toast instead of the fruit plate? Fun, but not ideal…looks like we’re going to need to go grocery shopping.

Aside from being presented these side effects, no one has been able to tell me what my chemo and radiation appointments – which begin tomorrow – will actually feel like.  I take that back. When picking up my oral chemo pills, the Walgreen’s pharmacist made the comment ‘Wow, this one is no walk in the park.’ Asshole. Well for anyone wondering out there, I will be more than happy to candidly describe the experience and refute or confirm the myths out there.  Take it from me…not your local Walgreen’s intern. Stay tuned, details to follow tomorrow…

Just what the doctor ordered

5 Jul

This past Fourth of July weekend marked the last weekend before my chemo and radiation treatment begins on Wednesday.  Originally Nick and I had plans to attend my college friend’s wedding in Santa Barbara (Congrats Brynn & Dan!), however this trip was canceled when the C-bomb was dropped and treatment was initially slated to start last week.  Anyways, I was super excited when I received news that my cousin Jessie and her boyfriend Dante were coming to visit for the weekend!

For those who don’t know Jessie, we were born just two days apart and grew up spending a few weeks each summer together when she would visit from California with her parents, Carol and Norb. Our nicknames were Rough and Ready!  We share countless childhood memories together and I managed to rustle up an old photo that depicts this quite well.

Jessie and Emily discover the joy of shaving cream!

Jess and I have remained very close throughout the years and she is now an anesthesiologist in Chicago. With the abundance of doctors visits I’ve had lately, she has been an incredible resource to confide in an get a layman’s explanation when things get a bit technical.

The weekend flew by and we had a blast shopping, dining, spending time poolside and taking in some fireworks out at Lake Las Vegas.  Overall, it was the perfect prescription to conclude a stressful week; not to mention I felt uber safe being in the constant company of not one but two doctors (Dante is also an anesthesiologist).  Thanks Jess and Dante for an amazing weekend – we enjoyed having you!

Jane, D.J., Em, Nick, Dante and Jessie

On a final note, I just wanted to wish my mom a happy birthday.  She, like others around me, has been an amazing pillar of strength throughout this entire process and I am incredibly thankful for that!  Love you Mom…