Independence Day: New Blog Title Debut!

At the party with friends Cheryl and Brigitte

Yesterday was Independence Day in the US, typically celebrated with cookouts, parades, and fireworks. Steve and I have an annual tradition of attending a pool party thrown each year by a hiking friend, Jeff, and his wife. They grill hotdogs and hamburgers, everyone brings a dish to share, and we sit outside in camp chairs (or inside if it rains) and occasionally take a dip in the pool. Jeff always takes lots of fun pictures, and it’s a great afternoon spent with friends.

At last year’s July 4th party, Steve and I were still trying to get our heads around my recent diagnosis; it was so recent, in fact, that we’d told a few of our friends, but not yet all. I had an appointment on July 7th to get my port surgically implanted, and my first chemo was set to begin on July 8th. I remember feeling strangely calm—I managed to talk with some of the friends who knew what was happening about my illness without ever crying. But it was hard to feel genuinely celebratory, anticipating a year whose few certainties included pain, grief, and loss. It didn’t feel much like freedom, of any kind.

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Rose bouquet

This year felt much different. Two weeks out of my last major reconstructive surgery, I’m doing well and feeling stronger each day. This year’s Independence Day was marked by a return to a sense of personal independence, of healing, hope, and looking forward to regaining health and strength. My friend Cheryl surprised me with some beautiful roses, a happy acknowledgment of a day that had more significance than even she may have realized. There’s still a long road of recovery yet to travel, but I’m so grateful that this holiday, my struggle was trying to get my head around just how much can and has transpired in a year. I am once again free from cancer. It feels like a whole new world.

So, in honor of Independence Day, I’m making the name change of the blog official: Still Life, Beyond Cancer. As some wise friends have pointed out, I may wish to make still another change in the future, as I continue to heal and my world shifts and changes further. For now, I think the word “beyond” acknowledges both my cancer-free state (hooray!) and the fact that the physical and emotional effects of this past year still affect me daily. I hope that continuing to tell my story helps others who are themselves survivors or who know and love survivors.

Cheers!

Survivor: sur– referring to beyond, in addition to; -vivor as in vive, life. There’s life beyond cancer, something I’m thankful for each day.

Over the next week or so I’ll be updating some of the images on the site, too, to reflect the change visually. Now that my last major surgery is complete, I hope to resume a weekly posting schedule in the near future as well.

As always, thank you for reading, and stay tuned!

And—better late than never—cheers to freedoms of all kinds, to (re)gaining independence, and to those fighting for both.

 

 

Treatment Countdown 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!

ONE and DONE!

Go on now, go. Walk out the door. Just turn around now, ’cause you’re not welcome anymore! Weren’t you the one who tried to break me– WELL, GOOD-BYE! Did you think I’d crumble? Did you think I’d lay down and die? Oh no, not I! I will survive! Oh, as long as I know how to love I know I’ll stay alive. I’ve got all my life to live. I’ve got all my love to give. And I’ll survive, I will survive!

I couldn’t help adopting Gloria Gaynor’s anthem (lyrics above, with one important edit, in red!) to accompany my exit from my LAST radiation treatment.

After I danced down the hall, I cried, tears of relief and joy.

It’s been almost nine full months since I was diagnosed with breast cancer on June 10th. (Interesting side note—that’s about how long Steve and I had been married prior to my diagnosis, as well, nine months). After 16 weeks of neo-adjuvant chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, and 5 weeks of radiation, I’m now done with treatment for cancer. Though I was officially declared cancer-free post-surgery, I finally feel I can say “Bye-bye cancer!” with feeling.

And it feels gooooood.

My skin (ouch) still has to recover from radiation, and then there will be a couple of follow-up reconstructive surgeries. But as I noted when I started this countdown, today feels like a significant milestone. Back when I was first told I would need chemo, surgery, and radiation, the prospect of all of it seemed so overwhelming. It was hard to imagine this day. Now it’s done, and I can move forward and focus fully on healing.

Feeling good and healing better. And to top it off, my celebratory iced latte, fortuitously, matched the card Steve gave me–and both are the color of shamrocks and four-leafed clovers.

Yay! I couldn’t have said it better myself.

 

Treatment Countdown 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2…

2 kind technicians…

Technicians

Every day that I receive treatment, two kind radiation therapists help settle me onto the table comfortably. A third supervises and collaborates with them to make sure I’m lined up just right. Often one of them is a student of the medical school. Then they all leave the room to watch the computer monitors, administer my doses, and come back in and help me sit up (not an easy task, balanced on a surface not much more than 12 inches wide and several feet off the ground). Together we reassemble my cape, and they help me get my feet back on the floor.

No matter who is on duty on a given day—Bridgit, Raye Lee, Lynn, Amber, Aaron, Lauren, or one of several others—they’ve been unfailingly kind, professional, and upbeat. And they have been very tolerant of my requests to take photos. 🙂 I owe them a great thanks.

Knowing the penultimate treatment is in the books (and in my body) gives me peace. Thumbs up to two days off, and just one more turn under the rays!

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Treatment Countdown: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3…

3 fields of radiation…

So, I thought it would be fun to visit three sunny fields and snap a photo in each for this post. But frankly I’m too tired, so I’m just going to take a nap right here and let you imagine two other fields of your choice. 🙂

“She’s got three fields,” the lead technician says to the others each day as they are positioning me on the table. “Three fields” refers to the fact that I receive three different doses, 1.8 Gray each, at every treatment. Each is directed at a specific part of my anatomy and comes from a different angle as the arms of the machine rotate around my body, and they are delivered sequentially. The first dose comes in from above and to the right, the second from below and on the left, and the last from directly above, targeting a lymph node basin in the super-clavicle area.

ExitDose

You can see how precise the boundaries of each field are by looking at how clearly defined my “exit dose” is, above, a result of the super-clavicle radiation passing through and out my back.

Three fields, but only two more treatments. Hooray!

And now I am really am gonna go take that nap…

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Treatment Countdown: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4…

4 oils and lotions…

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One of the biggest issues with receiving radiation treatments, especially on sensitive areas like the chest and neck, is radiation dermatitis. To that end, it’s really important to take care of your skin as best you can through the process, and apply oils, creams, or lotions that soothe the skin and ease the burn.

I have what is perhaps a complicated routine. Based in large part on advice offered on MarnieClark.com, as well as some additional research I conducted, I start with a layer of calendula oil (from the marigold plant), followed by aloe vera, then apply organic hemp oil with a few drops of lavender essentail oil mixed in, and end with cortisone cream. I also have some lotion called Radiaguard, made especially for radiation patients, that contains lidocaine for when I get really uncomfortable.

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I’ve been lucky not to need too much lidocaine, but just yesterday I hit a point where the red areas on my skin had become so defined that you can tell exactly where the radiation is being administered. Since I’m getting one dose in the super-clavicle area, I also have an “exit dose” going out my back, so there’s a well-defined red square there I have to treat, too.

Four oils and lotions, sometimes five, every day, three times a day. I could have used something like Aquaphor, but even my non-radiated skin doesn’t respond well to petroleum-based products. At my appointment last week my doc said my skin looked better than a lot of women’s did at that point, so I think natural oils and cortisone were a good choice for me.

I did have to buy a couple cheap underlayers to absorb excess oil and keep it off my clothes, but if I can avoid any serious blistering and keep my skin in shape for the next steps of reconstructive surgery, those couple of throw-away t-shirts will be worth it.

Down to three, and counting…!

Treatment Countdown 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…

5 Computer Screens…img_1620

Okay, so I look a little tipsy and my tag is sticking up (I told you they made us wear the capes backwards). Maybe I’m just drunk with happiness to be drawing ever closer to the end of this process.

That’s my spine on the screen there. In addition to my radiation treatments, I also have what’s called “on board imaging” each day, The technicians take two x-rays to be sure my body is precisely positioned to receive those 6 million photons in exactly the right place. Once a week they take an additional set of x-rays as another check. I wasn’t kidding either when I said I feel like I ought to be glowing by now.

The whole process is incredibly high-tech. There are physicists on staff who use preliminary CAT scans to “map” each patient’s dose at the beginning. The delivery is controlled in part by my breathing—I have to watch a screen inside the treatment room and breathe in until I hit a defined target area; only then is the radiation is delivered.

fivescreens

The five screens above are located outside the actual treatment room, and they are used by the technicians to administer my treatments remotely and monitor the machine and me during the process. The first time I saw the bank of them I was reminded of the control room of a spaceship in a sci-fi flick—until I noticed my name at the top of every monitor. It’s not how I would have preferred to make my screen debut.

Done with #5, and only four left to go!

 

 

Treatment Countdown 10, 9, 8, 7, 6…

6 Million Photons…

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According to my radiation oncologist, my radiation dose consists of 6 million photons.

I think this is a daily dose (as opposed to an overall total), and in fact, since I receive treatments from three angles, I may be receiving 3 x 6 million photons each day.

Guess clarifying that’ll be one more of those one-last-questions I’ll need to ask at my final consult with him. 🙂

Danger, High Radiation: I just might be glowing in anticipation of my treatments nearing an end.

And, yes, those ARE little lightning bolts all over my shirt.

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Just five more: Beam on!