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What Me Worry? (Ch.7)

One of the things you’re told to do before going in for chemotherapy, is to get your shit together and make the two medical appointments you dread: the dentist and the gynaecologist. During chemo, your immune system may be weakened, and an infection from a cavity could throw a wrench in the works. As well, chemo can sometimes throw off the results of a pap smear, so it’s best to get one BEFORE beginning chemo. Yee. Haw. Suzy Creamcheese gets a cavity search.

Luckily, the little dental clinic in this town is nothing like the medical clinic. The receptionist is crazily friendly, grabbing my book out of my hands and exclaiming that she LOVES this author and she knows I will love it too, and do I like mysteries? And what good ones have I read lately? And as I listed the names of my favorite authors, she actually wrote them down. So cute. Then the dental hygienist, who looks exactly like my friend Mandy Jackson, brought me to a comfortable chair in an office with giant picture windows looking out to the mountains. She gently took my x-rays (truthfully the most uncomfortable part of a dentist checkup – I shouldn’t complain), and introduced me to my dentist. Of course, I promptly forgot his name (thank you, Hashimoto’s), but he was very friendly and informative. When he understood I was heading into chemo next month, he focused right away on the molar in the very back of my mouth, on the left side. 3 years ago, I got a root canal and apparently the filling part wasn’t done well, and there was a teeny tiny hole in it. The x-ray showed a shadow at the end of the root of the tooth, and the dentist suspected it was slightly infected. However, to confirm it, he would have to send me to a specialist, which could take a month before anything could be done. Then he paused. I blurted out, “Do I really need that tooth? It looks like it’s mostly crown anyway, with just a little bit of roots – would you consider just pulling it out?” His eyes widened, and he said, “Well, I wasn’t sure if you would be able to see it that way…if there is any tooth that needs to be pulled, I would say that would be it, unless you had the luxury of seeing the specialist and taking the time for more elaborate dental work. I think you have more pressing matters coming up, and with your positive attitude, we can get this pulled on Monday and have at least 5 days to monitor if anything goes wrong – are you up for it?”

Am I up for it? Yank away, my dear dentist, yank away. There is no way on this earth, that a pulled tooth could hurt any worse than my surgical adventures thus far. And it’s not like it’s my front tooth. I would not be keen on looking like Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, no sir. So May 12th is Molar Monday. Hello, Jello! And maybe if the Tooth Fairy is feeling very generous, he could leave a little blue box under my pillow, instead of a quarter?

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What Not to Wear (Ch.5)

Tomorrow is Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday. And I thought having babies required planning and organization…ha. So far, I have 3 surgeons, 1 anesthesiologist, countless residents and nurses, and one hovering furry man on my Away Team, here in Edmonton. On the Home Team in Jasper, we have our 21 year old daughter Emily as Captain, and Hanna and Simon on Defense. They’re holding down the fort, feeding the dogs, going to school, doing their chores, and trying not to fight with each other while they wait for us to come home next week. And for Home Team support, we have Coach Aunty Lori and Uncle Rob driving 4 hours from Banff to bring Easter and home cooking to our kids this weekend. My freezer is stocked with labeled tupperware full of food I cooked for the Home Team, my hospital suitcase is packed, my furry man has a stocked mini-fridge in the hotel room, and all we had was a pre-admission clinic and a pre-op consultation to attend today. I thought I had prepared myself for everything. Little did I know that fashion actually matters in such a situation. There is such a thing as what not to wear to the plastic surgeon’s office on the day before your planned surgery. Consider this a learning moment for you.

The 4 hour drive from Jasper was the usual scream. This time, though, we broke up the trip with a stop at Tim Horton’s in Edson (for those of you planning on exploring beautiful Alberta, Edson can be skipped. Unless you need to pee or need some coffee at Timmy’s. Seriously). I splurged on a honey-glazed donut. Best 15 minutes of the entire trip. I figured, if there is any time to indulge in my life, this is it. I am going to lose 15lbs worth of boobs tomorrow – one glazed donut is nuthin’!

Back at the Mac (the elegant Fairmont Hotel MacDonald) we got our usual room 538 with a river view and the extra mini-fridge that Markus had requested. He’ll be living here while I am luxuriating in the fabulous Misericordia Hospital all week. Visiting hours are 9am – 9pm and he’ll be coming back to his room for delicious bowls of cereal on many an occasion. We went to bed, but I tossed and turned all night long, thoughts just piling up in my head. I had go to my bedside table and make notes in my phone just to empty out some of those thoughts. I really wanted to sit up and write everything down in full form, but didn’t want the scolding from the furry man. I forced myself to keep my eyes closed, and waited for the sun to rise.

This morning we had an appointment for a pre-admission clinic at 8:30, so we drove to the hospital. I thought this would be a quick meet and greet with my little Dr. Ing from my sentinel node surgery. Nope. A gangly man in full scrubs shuffled into the room, mumbled that he was Dr. Xanadu, and plopped a giant binder on the table. The giant binder was me. Every little detail from every doctor and nurse, leading up to this moment, was in that binder. We spent some time talking about meds, but most of what he was saying kind of went in one ear and out the other…Dr. Xanadu?!!! There was no way I was that lucky. He left the room, and I whispered to Markus, “REALLY?!” Markus was like, “I KNOW! Is that a real name?!” I replied, “I fully expect him to enter the operating room on roller skates, singing like Olivia Newton John tomorrow!” Then another nurse entered and shattered our fantasies when she asked, “Did Dr. Nadu take all your meds?” Damn. You know I’ll be humming Xanadu when they wheel me in tomorrow…

OH, learn to read upside-down, ladies! While the nurse (Peggy) was going over my binder and prepping me for admission, I happened to read a letter from my internist, Dr. Hossein, to my general surgeon. He remarked that the cancer is in my left breast, and that my sentinel node surgery would consequently be in my left breast. STOP! I have breast cancer in my RIGHT breast and had sentinel node surgery in my RIGHT armpit. MORON. I remember during that particular doctor visit (to discuss whether my current meds would cause trouble during surgery), wondering why he wouldn’t make eye contact and why he was such a pig. His desk looked like the messy room of my teenage daughter. The only thing missing was old cheese and oranges tucked into his underwear drawer…I mentioned this to the nurse, wondering if his untidiness was an indication of his carelessness in noting important medical details on my record. She replied that she had heard similar things about him and just shook her head. So be your own best advocate and know your diagnosis inside and out, ladies. And maybe don’t go see Dr. Hossein, if you can help it.

During the pre-admission clinic, Nurse Peggy went into my hospital visit in great detail. We got to meet the little Jackson Pratt drain that I will have hanging from my breasts, my armpits, and my abdomen. She taught us how we will be draining them and measuring and logging the (gag) fluids that will collect in them. The drains look like the plastic tubing that you use to aerate your fish tanks at home. At the end of the tubing (the other end is stitched into your body) is a soft clear rubber bulb, where the fluid will collect. It’s about the size of the bulb they use to pump up a blood pressure cuff. There is a loop on the bulb, and it gets pinned to the hospital gown. Fancy hospital jewelry.

Following that appointment, my honey and I had a romantic lunch in the West Edmonton Mall. Hey, not everything has to be roses and candlelight. When a mall lunch is followed by a restful nap in a Fairmont bed, snuggled against a warm chest, wrapped in loving arms, I challenge anyone to claim that wasn’t romantic.

At 2:30pm, I called the surgery appointment desk to find out my surgery time for tomorrow. I was asked, “Who is your doctor?” I replied, “I have multiple doctors: Olson, Schembri, and Mehling.” She exclaimed, “OOOHHHHH, you must be Sue!” My cousin Gaby always teases me when I’m at home when I visit the hotel for something and I try to blend into anonymity, not wanting to use Markus’ job for asking favours. She puffs up and puts on a royal voice, “Don’t they know who you ARE?! You need to say, ‘Don’t you know who I AM???!!’” and then we all dissolve into silly giggles. Well, it seems Gaby called ahead to the Misericordia Hospital… The nurse said, “Sue Treppenhauer? You’re going to be our first patient and the big one all day. Come on in at 5:45, honey.” At least there won’t be any rush-hour traffic…

The last appointment of the day was for a visit to my plastic surgeon, Dr. Schembri (remember Dr. Scampi?). This was the first time my furry man was meeting him, and it didn’t occur to me how very awkward it would feel. First of all, I was handed a gown and a pair of very teeny tiny panties to change into, gown open in front. Then Dr. Schembri (the furry little boy who looked like he just graduated from university) came in wielding a blue Sharpie, and started drawing lines all over my breasts and abdomen. Then he started showing us (by tucking in my nipples and squeezing the breasts) how the lines would guide him in reforming my reconstructed breasts. A light went off in my head, and I was like, “HONEY, did you ever see Mad Magazine when you were a kid?” My German furry man looked at my quizzically. I had to explain how the back cover of the magazine had a picture that you had to fold a certain way, and if you did it just right, you ended up with a totally different picture. By the time I was done explaining, Dr. Schembri was laughing hard and nodding his head, “Yup! That’s exactly what I’m doing!” Then he had me lying down so he could draw more on my abdomen and do the whole grabbing-giant-handfuls-of-fat thing again. I can’t even imagine what my husband was thinking. After that, I had to stand up in just my teensy panties and subject myself to a photo shoot. Dr. Schembri swore he wouldn’t share them with anyone. Markus didn’t make the same promise, however. yikes. When I was allowed to wrap my dignity in my front-opening gown, we sat down for a talk. He explained to us that he would see me around 7am right before surgery, and my lumberjack would be there too. While Paul Bunyon was removing my breasts, Dr. Schembri and Dr. Mehling would be working on my abdomen, removing the tissue and blood vessels needed to reconnect to my chest. Once Dr. Olson had one breast removed, Dr. Schembri and Mehling would move up and begin connecting the blood vessels and working on that side of me. Then he stopped and looked at Markus and said, “Okay. I have to tell you. About halfway through all this, we will be taking a break to have lunch. It’s going to be a long day, and we will need some food. I’m only telling you this because I neglected to say it with another patient years ago, and I bumped into the husband while I was in the cafeteria. He looked at me in a panic and was like, ‘Wait. Who is working on my WIFE!!!’ If you see me in the cafeteria, Markus, I promise Sue will be ok. I just need to get some nourishment. She will be being taken care of, I promise.” You never really think about that stuff, do you? Finally, Dr. Schembri handed a blue Sharpie to my furry man, and asked him if he wouldn’t mind going over the lines after I take a shower in the morning, in case I washed anything off. He has no idea what a stupid move that was. It took everything in me to convince my furry man not to draw on me last night, before going into the office today. He wanted to draw smiley goodbye faces on my breasts. Now that he’s had to sit through watching a furry teenager-looking-man squeezing bits of me that are Reserved for Treppenhauer Use Only, I wonder if I’m going to have No Trespassing written all over my boobs in the morning…

So here is where my fashion advice kicks in. For this last day before Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday, I had chosen to wear a v-neck blouse that showed my cleavage in all its glory. I figured my girls deserved one last day in the sun before going to Heaven tomorrow. That’s all very well and good, but if you expect to be covered in blue magic marker, you might not make a similar fashion choice. As soon as I put my shirt back on, Markus burst out laughing. I had what looked like a blue tree growing up on the skin of my chest, blooming out of my cleavage, just above the v in my v-neck shirt. There was no covering it up. We headed out to the parking lot, passing turning heads (“hmmm, interesting tattoo on that lady…”). We had planned on a quickie splurge on junk food for my Last Supper, so we walked into McDonald’s. Now, with all the freaking weirdos of the world eating at fast food joints, with tattooed and pierced faces, screaming babies, etc, you would think I would blend right it. Not. And they didn’t even stare inconspicuously. It was straight on ogling. I was so embarrassed, I sat in the only booth facing a wall, waiting for Markus to bring our deliciously salty french fries and my chocolate shake. With his crinkly eyes and laughing face in front of me, I could momentarily forget my appearance. On the way back to the car, I saw a few more heads turn, and pulled my sweater off and held it up against my chest. Markus opened the car door for me, then went around to sit in the driver’s seat. Driving back to the hotel, I held my sweater to my chest to cover up the blue markings, totally embarrassed by the funny looks people had given me, dreading walking through the hotel lobby. Markus turned to me with a fierce look on his face and said, “FUCK them. They don’t know how lucky they are to NOT have a reason to have the blue markings on their chests. Fuck. Them. Let them stare. I am proud of you.” Then he turned back to the steering wheel and drove me back to the comfort of our hotel room. In the elevator, he took one picture of me, after teasing me about my blue tattoo, telling me that I was going to want to remember the funny things. And a v-neck shirt for today was certainly funny, if not well-planned.

In the hotel room, I sat down to write this last entry for my blog, before I meet fabulously new drugs tomorrow. You might not hear from me for days, even though I know Markus will update my friends and family on Facebook. The hospital nurse told me that the powerful anesthetic would alter my senses and my judgement for days. She cautioned me against making any important decisions on legal matters, and I’m guessing writing my blog might fall under that warning. While I was plugged into my writing music and I was swimming in my words, seated in our hotel room easy chair, I saw a movement at the edge of my field of vision. I looked up to find my furry man with a shy smile on his face, standing there shirtless, with my identical blue Sharpie markings all over his chest. Solidarity at its finest. What is love? Love is coaxing someone to laugh through the fear of becoming Frankenstein. Love is being there to relieve pain. Love is furry. And right now, while my heart is brimming over with it, I will bid you goodnight. It’s time to cup my breasts and to say thank you for a wonderful 30+ years of life-giving nourishment, of sex appeal, of giving comfort, and Love. Tomorrow is Bodacious Ta-Ta Tuesday. And ByeBye Barnard; don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.

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Farewell, Brave Sentinel (Ch.4)

This was not going to be the Big Day. This was going to be a little bit of a big day, but not THE big day; that day (April 15th) I was going to call Bye Bye Boobies Day. On this day, April 3rd, I was only scheduled to have my sentinel node removed for biopsy from my right side. If there is cancer in the sentinel node, that would indicate that Barnard is in a travelling mood and on his way out of my breast and into the rest of my body. If that is the case, then I would need radiation treatment and I would not be able to get my breasts reconstructed for a period of time; I would only be able to have a double mastectomy on April 15th. Forget Flat Stanley, Flat Suzy Creamcheese would be the new star. For the procedure on April 3rd, they would first inject a radioactive contrast dye behind my right nipple and then they would go in with a baby geiger counter and see which lymph node got the most clicks out of the sensor. The loudest clicks signal the first lymph node that cancer would encounter on its journey out of my right breast, so that node is removed and biopsied to see if there are any cancer cells lurking. That first node is aptly named the Sentinel Node. Your sentinel nodes are the heroes in your body. They are the front line in your body’s fight against germs and other enemies of your health. Your lymph nodes do their best to fight the invaders and, at the very least, they send out signals to you that there is trouble about; they swell up. When your doctor feels under your ears, by your jaw, around the back of your neck…he’s checking if your lymph nodes are swollen. You can feel them yourself when you have a cold. Sometimes, the ones in your arm pits can be felt too. Your body is filled with them; an army on your side. So everyone on Team Suzy Creamcheese voted NO on Proposition Sentinel Node (cousin Gaby said this) and my furry man had been walking around for weeks, chanting, “Sentinel NO Sentinel NO!” No cancer in the lymph nodes means yes for reconstructive surgery. We want boobs in this house.

On April 2nd, we packed the car full of children on Spring Break (“WooHOO, let’s go to the hospital for Spring Break!”) and made the 4 hour drive to Edmonton. We tortured the kids with an audiobook – Under the Dome by Stephen King. It was narrated by this dreamy guy named Raúl Esparza. I fell in love with a new expression, “Well, I’ll be dipped in shit!” You have to say it with a drawl, in a shocked voice. I have a feeling I will be saying it a lot in the near future… I had to call between 2:30-8pm to get my surgery time for the next day. The booking desk is a well-oiled machine. When I called, they asked for my name and my doctor’s name, then they brightly told me, “First thing in the morning! Go get your contrast dye injection at Meadowlark Health Center, then head straight over to Misericordia Hospital Day Ward at 8:30!” The happy ending to my day was room service dinner at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald in downtown Edmonton. No dishes give me sweet sweet dreams.

We brought our kids because they were on Spring Break and they would otherwise be home unsupervised. We wanted to give them a day of fun in the city while I was in hospital, but we also wanted to make sure the house would not burn down. Going to the city for doctors’ appointments on my own versus bringing the family is a shock to my system. Hanna packed all of the contents of her vanity table – about 20lbs of makeup. We actually argued with her about the makeup buffet that she had spread out over the hotel room floor and on the desk. She woke up at 6am to start getting ready, and by the time we were pushing to get out the door at 7:15, she was squealing about her hair not being “done.” Between her squealing, my husband’s scolding of the kids, and my son’s beatboxing (he wakes up making noise every day), I had no room to think about my day. It wasn’t until we were in the car on the way to the imaging office, that I thought about getting injected with radioactive contrast dye in my nipple; in my N.I.P.P.L.E.

No matter how I imagined it going down, I could not picture a scenario where the needle in the nipple would NOT hurt. Nobody I know had shared this experience with me, so I had no idea how to prepare. My furry man tried to keep it light and said he’d always fantasized about Rebecca Romijn as Mystique (the blue lady) in X-Men…and now he would get to sleep with his very own Mystique with glow-in-the-dark boobs…rowr. That silliness, and having the 2 kids there to put on brave smiles for, helped me to get through the waiting room time. Soon, they called my name and I was in the radiology room with a big blowsy blonde nurse, who gave me a regretful smile and said, “Honey, I’m not gonna lie. This is gonna hurt.” I was like, WHAAA? What happened to all the people soothing me and telling me happy things? Nope. Blondie was a realist, and it turns out I like it like that. I nervously asked, “But…don’t they give me a numbing shot first? Before the dye is injected?” She said, “Well, yeah, Dr. will freeze it first, but he shoots in the dye immediately after – sometimes the anesthetic just doesn’t have time to kick in…we’ll try to make it quick to get it over with.” I sighed and said, “Well, I guess I gave birth to 3 kids. I can do this.” She smacked me on the back and said, “THATTA GIRL.” And when the doctor walked into the room, she said, “HEY, Sue says she gave birth to 3 kids, so she can DO this. Let’s do this!” The doctor, a dark little gentleman with a hint of a moustache, who reminded me of my friend Sunil in high school (who has since shaved the little hint of a moustache and grown into a handsome bigger man with a spectacularly bald head…I love bald men…I digress…), smiled at me and said, “I will make this hurt as little as possible.” Blondie rolled her eyes at me and grabbed my hand and squeezed it. I asked if I could let go of her hand so I could pinch my left leg when the needle went in. It’s my stupid way of faking out my brain when I get anything involving a needle. I count to 3, and when the needle goes in, I pinch my leg as hard as I can. My brain yells, “OW” at my leg, and sometimes doesn’t really mind the needle. Blondie giggled, and said, “Of course! And hey, look at me for a minute.” I did, and while the doctor was doing his needlework and I hissed through the first injection, she gasped, “OH MY!!” I was like, “WHAT?!” And she gushed, “You have the whitest teeth I have ever seen! I wish my teeth were as white. My mom is a dental hygienist and tells me it’s all in the enamel, and some people are just blessed. Oh how I wish I was so blessed…” And on and on, she had me laughing, and before I knew it, she winked at me and said, “Guess what, you’re done.” What? What happened to the needle with the dye? “Oh honey, he did that a while back. What a great talk we had, eh?” Blondie was a sly thing. After I got dressed, she stopped me at the door and said, “I just want to give you a big hug and wish you all the luck on your procedure today. You have the right attitude and you are going to beat this.” Then she enveloped me in a huge soft hug and made me feel completely safe and confident. Ladies, if you can have such a perfectly orchestrated radioactive contrast dye injection, by equally-sly medical staff, it will be a piece of cake for you too.

After my nipple injection, I was told to head straight to the hospital Day Ward. A Sentinel Node biopsy is a relatively short operation. The actual cutting and removing of the node takes less than an hour. There are a couple of hours of recovery time (wakey wakey, cookie cakey) and they send you home with big bandaids and strict instructions. At the Day Ward, they told me the surgery had been changed to 12:30 and to come back in 2 hours. We were all starving for breakfast, but since I couldn’t eat and I wanted the kids to have some fun for the day, I decided to suit up and stay until surgery time. There was ample opportunity for Markus to take embarrassing pictures of me in my hospital gown and for the kids to be hugged and kissed and reassured. While the family waited in the waiting room for a few minutes, I was escorted across acres of cement floor to a large room with about 30 hospital beds separated by curtains. I was the first to arrive, so I got the nurse all to myself. I asked her name twice, but I still can only remember that it started with an M and was one of those names that parents thought they were being creative by adding letters to established names. Malexa? Malicia? I’ll just call her Nurse M. She gave me a thin cotton hospital gown, told me to remove all my clothes, put on the gown, and leave it open in the back Remove all my clothes? This was supposed to be a quickie day surgery on my armpit. Remove all my clothes? Yup. And for those of you who worry about being on your period, they sweetly give you a pair of disposable undies and a retro maxi pad from your mom’s stash in 1971; the kind that needs a belt…only they don’t provide a belt. To complement the lovely gown, they offer a hospital robe in similar shades of blue, and a fabulous pair of booties made of the same material as their surgery shower caps. Fully outfitted, I was ready for the runway. Big kisses and hugs goodbye to the worrying family, then the nurse sat down to explain the whole procedure and how I should expect to feel after the surgery. Basically, I was told I would probably feel like crap, and they would do everything in their power to reduce the level of crap for me before we drove home to Jasper. Not only would I feel nauseated with a sharp pain in my armpit, I would likely have a wicked sore throat because of the breathing tube that would be inserted. Oh, and did I have any loose teeth or dentures that might be knocked loose by the insertion of the breathing tube?

Waiting in Bed #17, I could eavesdrop on my fellow patients. My surgery was scheduled for 12:30 and it was 8:30 in the morning. I had some time to kill. The magazines were from 2005, and were Christmas issues. I flipped through them pretty quickly, ran down the battery on my phone from posting selfies of me in my glamorous hospital gown and slippers. This area was the staging area for surgery prep, and surgery recovery. By listening in, I could figure out who was in for what surgery. Men and women, mostly elderly, most of them had the same questions I had. By the time it was my time to be wheeled upstairs, I had the answers I needed. I never met a single one of my curtained neighbours, but I felt strangely connected. It was calming.

Here is where I confess my biggest fear of all. I had never had surgery before. My mother always had difficulty with general anesthesia, telling us (regarding her 2 caesarians, her lung cancer surgery, and her breast cancer surgery) “Oh it was terrible – the nurses couldn’t wake me up. I almost died. Every time it gets worse.” And when I went to stay with my father for his heart surgery a few years ago, I waited for hours as they transferred him into the ICU post-surgery, because they had so much trouble bringing him out of the anesthesia. Ever since I found out I had breast cancer, I have secretly been dreading an operation that required general anesthesia. What if I don’t wake up? What if I go under for a simple procedure, and I never had the chance to say goodbye properly to everyone that I love, never had the chance to tell my children that I am so proud of them and wish all their dreams will come true, never had the chance to tell my husband that I could thank him forever and it would never be enough, for our beautiful children and for our happy life? A couple of weeks ago, I was getting ready for bed, and it just overwhelmed me. Should I write letters? Should I say something now so I could tell my loved ones all the things I might never have a chance to say? If I did, wouldn’t it freak out my kids and make them worry needlessly? I was sure I was being foolish and needed to just shut my mouth and breathe through the anxiety. I came to bed, and my furry man immediately saw the worried look on my face and said, “What’s wrong? Tell me, honey.” I just blurted it out. All of it. And I bowed my head in shame for being so stupid and worrying about such a crazy thing. He grabbed me and hugged me so hard that I couldn’t breathe. He murmured into my ear, “I never knew you worried so much. You’re not being silly. But for all your brains and your ability to research and find information faster than anyone I know, why have you never looked this up? You have looked up everything there is to know about cancer but you’ve never checked this? I am sure medicine has improved since your mom had surgery 30 years ago, and your dad had alcohol the night before his surgery – I am sure there were good reasons for their problems. Let’s look it up right now. Let’s find out everything we can about this, ok? Information will make you feel stronger. And if you still feel worried about it after we research, you go ahead and write those letters. Just seal them and give them to me to give to the kids if necessary. If the worst happens, I promise you I will give your letters to the kids. If you wake up and everything is fine, we will just throw those letters away.” What a wise man my furry man is. We spent the next hour looking up everything we could find about general anesthesia and advances in the field to improve safety in the past few decades. It quelled the worst of my fears, but there was still an echo deep down in my heart of what if?…

So, while waiting nervously in Bed #17, all by myself, my silly mind took me to dark places. All the Facebooking in the world couldn’t distract me. As I thought about composing a quick email to Markus with letters to the kids, I got a text from my bright friend Kathy. Kathy is bright in all senses of the word. She is a tiny bundle of sunshine and fire; full of energy to run through life while juggling job, kids, friends, husband, and any challenge that comes her way. Her first response to my breast cancer announcement last month, was to say, “What can I do?” And feeling helpless in a town 4 hours away from me, she decided within a few minutes of hanging up the phone that day, that she would form a team for the CIBC Run For the Cure event in October of this year. By that evening, she had emailed and Facebooked everyone we knew, and we had a team of over 30 people signed up, from all over the world, to raise money for cancer research; all in my name. So a text from Kathy shone a little light into my dark mood. All she wrote was, “Why r u still on FB? Have you not gone in yet?” Immediately I thought, this is someone who can do what needs doing. I wrote back, “Hey, this is crazy, but if I don’t wake up, I love you. And please tell Markus and my kids that, a LOT, if I can’t. I think I’ve said it 100 times to them already. But I didn’t want the kids to worry so I just sent them to breakfast.” She replied, “I love you too!! You are going to be fine!!! It’s sentinel NO day!!! Positive energy!!! I can’t even imagine how you feel, but you are a strong woman and can conquer anything! You are determined!! You’re in a hospital 30 years later. You’ll be fine!” She talked me down from the ledge, and my sanity was restored (temporarily).

At 11am, Nurse M popped her head into my curtains and brightly announced, “Dr. Olson is ahead of schedule! You’re up!” No more time for fretting, I sent a quick text to Markus that I was going in, and he replied that he would be there when I came out. I put my phone and my glasses into my little bedside locker, and hopped onto Bed #17. I was given a pretty blue bonnet to tuck my hair into, told to lay back, and went for a wild and crazy ride as Bed #17 was pushed by my new friend Lola, to the operating rooms on the 2nd floor. Lola was a short, round asian woman, with rosy cheeks and a big smile; and every time I looked at her, I wanted to sing, “Oh my Lola, L-O-L-A!” but I didn’t know if she’d get it, so I bit my tongue. She was the first person to ask the Questions. Each new person I met had to ask me: “What is your procedure today, and on what side are we operating?” Sentinel Node Biopsy, Sir! Right breast, sir! They also asked me to spell my last name and to state my birthdate. I tried to keep track of how many people asked those questions, but when they got into the double digits, I stopped. A dozen recitations of T-r-e-p-p-e-n-h-a-u-e-r had me longing for my short little maiden name…

Barnard has pick-pocketed one more thing. I was supposed to have Lasik on my eyes for my birthday, so I would no longer be legally blind. It was going to be the highlight of my year. Imagine waking up in the morning and being able to see the expression on my husband’s face without having to reach for my glasses! Imagine swimming with my eyes open and actually seeing the line at the bottom of the pool! Then Barnard came along and I was told that since they would be taping my eyelids shut during my surgeries, they might accidentally put pressure on my eyes which could damage my repaired eyeballs. So here I am, blind as a bat, as usual. And the first thing they tell you to take off pre-surgery is your glasses. Most of my story happened in a blur. Literally.

Up on the 2nd floor, my Lola wheeled me into another large holding area where various other bedridden patients were waiting for their turns in the operating suites. I was beginning to notice that, other than the hospital personnel, I seemed to be the youngest patient around. Suzy Creamcheese; Spring Chicken. Before Lola left me to shuttle more patients, she told me to expect to wait about 20 minutes for the anesthesiologist and Dr. Olson to find me. 20 minutes of watching fuzzy green blobs rush around and attend skinny wrinkled blobs on beds. Very confusing. Suddenly, a few yards in front of my, one of the fuzzy green blobs crouches, shoots both of his index fingers at me, and booms, “HEEEYYYYYY, it’s my favourite American girl!” I figured it was safe to assume it was my own personal lumberjack Paul Bunyon/ Dr. Olson. Sure enough, he ran up to me, pumped my right hand and plopped a great big kiss on my forehead. “Doing ok? Great to see ya! One incision Sue, one incision. Sentinel node comes OUT and you wake up. We’ll have you up and running in no time. I’m going to hand you off to a great guy – Dr. Ing – he’ll be your anesthesiologist- give you the good stuff. I’m going to go scrub up – SEE YOU IN THERE!” And he was gone in a puff of smoke. All surgeons need to get this guy’s bedside manner. All of them.

Dr. Ing did, in fact, give me the good stuff. First, however, he had to inspect my teeth (what is it with their worries about my teeth? And more admiring comments about their whiteness – good promotional material for Crest Whitestrips: use Crest Whitestrips and have medical personnel oohing and ahhhing over your gleaming pearly whites pre-surgery!). Also, as he was inspecting my throat and inserting the IV and saline drip in my hand, I wondered: “are all anesthesiologists asian? and it’s a good thing I inherited the big ugly veins in my hands from both my mom and dad – they pop out just right for the needle. and how does someone want to grow up and become an anesthesiologist? and how do you say anesthesiologist without your tongue ending up in a knot?” That could have been the oxycodone doing the wondering…he really did give me the good stuff. They wheeled me through strawberry fields and down the hall, past a big clock that read 11:50am, to the operating room, where they had me tumble onto the operating table with my head kind of hanging over backwards, pulled out some boards for my arms, and had a good laugh when they asked me the Big Questions for the final time. Spelling my last name while incredibly high is very difficult; you try it some time. I panicked at the very last moment, when the guy by my left ear told me that what he was injecting into the IV was going to sting a little, while the guy by my right ear pressed a mask on my face, saying, “I need to press this hard for just a minute so you can take some deep breaths of oxygen. Don’t struggle, just breathe deeply.” I tried, but got no air, and at that moment, my left arm was lit on fire. Eyes bugged open, in great pain, I struggled, and realized I had forgotten to say my star wish.

Here is another one of my weird things: every time I see the first star in the night sky, I make a wish. I’ve been doing this since I was a little girl. I have only made 3 wishes in my lifetime, and they have all come true; I just wish the one wish on every first star I see until it comes true. The first was when I was a pre-teen living in Shanghai, incredibly unhappy, with parents that seemed to hate me, big sister in boarding school, little sister in her own world, with only one friend who had moved away with the only family that had ever been kind to me…and my wish every single night when I walked my mom’s precious dog GiGi, was, “Please please give me a family that will love me as much as I love them.” Boom. 1992 I get Emily. 1994 I get my furry man. 1998 I get Hanna. 2000 I get Simon. Family complete. Boy, do I love them and boy, do they love me back. The second wish was during a horrible time while living in Hawaii; after 10 years of marriage, my furry man thought maybe it was time to separate. My wish was pretty primitive and desperate back then, “Please please make him love me again. Please please make him love me so our family can stay whole.” I’m pretty sure I have less to thank the Universe for that one, and have more owed to the hard work we put into couples therapy and re-inventing ourselves and our marriage. Universe or not, that wish came true. My third wish for the past 9 years has been, “Please Please watch over our family and keep us safe and happy and healthy and in love and faithful and successful and having fun.” I don’t ask for much.

So there I was on the operating table, feeling myself losing consciousness, trying desperately to finish the wish! “Please please watch over our family…and…please please…love…” and I sank into slumber.

After closing my eyes and floating away, it felt like in my very next breath I heard a bright voice telling me, “Time to wake up, it’s all done now!” Directly above my head was a monitor on which, if I squinted through the sunshine coming in the window, I could see lots of numbers, and a set of them that read, “1:48.” My throat was so sore I could barely swallow. I croaked, “Is that the time? 1:48? Is that the time?” And the person, who was behind me so I couldn’t see her, answered, “Yes, that is the time. I’ll be with you for a little while. Just relax. I’m not leaving your side.” And I heard her turn and start turning pages and writing on something. The time changed to 1:50. I blinked and realized that the sun was shining, it was 1:50pm, and I had woken up. I was alive! Incredible relief washed over me and tears rolled down my face. Worst fear conquered.

As soon as I wiped my tears, I felt a deep aching in my right armpit…the kind of aching you feel when a muscle is really sore. I lifted my right arm and started to stretch and rotate it, all while my eyes were too heavy to keep open; I just wanted to work out that ache. All of a sudden, I heard, “OH HONEY honey HONEY, STOP!! You’re making it BLEED and you’re going to pull out your stitches!” And some very gentle hands pushed my arm back down on the bed. I mumbled, “It bugs me.” I guess that translates to “please give me morphine” because I got a very sweet injection into my IV line, and I totally stopped minding the armpit…what armpit? A while later (time flies when you are stoned), I was wheeled back into Bed #17’s original spot in the recovery room. I think my Lola was driving, because by the time we whipped around corners and skidded in and out of the elevator, I was so carsick I could barely keep it together. I kept my eyes closed and pretended I was in the first trimester of pregnancy, making gentle huffs and puffs to keep the nausea at bay. After a few minutes of huffing, my new nurse asked me if I was feeling nauseated? Oh, just a wee bit…so I got a big dose of Gravol (one of the best inventions in the whole wide world for an upset tummy), and I heard somebody far far away calling my husband on the telephone. The next time I woke up, it was to kisses all over my face by my furry man. Still heavily medicated, all I could manage to whisper at him was, “I woke up, honey, I woke up.” With tears in his eyes, he continued kissing me, replying, “yes. yes, you did.” The next time I opened my eyes, my two younger children were there to hug me. Then I closed my eyes again. Drifting in and out of consciousness, I could hear my neighbours leaving one by one, and eventually, the janitors coming in to clean the ward. I opened my eyes, put on my glasses, and saw that it was 4:30pm. Why the heck was I still there?! I announced to Markus that I would like to leave please, and sat up. Alarmed, he tried to stop me, saying we didn’t need to leave so soon, he could drive home to Jasper in the dark. It turns out the nurse was waiting for ME to ask to go home. Sheesh. They needed to see that I could pee (and after 3-4 bags of IV-dripped saline, boy could I), then gave me post-op instructions. During one of my cat naps, Markus had magically gone to pick up my pain meds at the pharmacy. He also brought ginger ale that he force-fed to me (“You need sugar! Drink!”) Blech. The nurse was being very serious about wound care and stretching exercises, then she mentioned that the breast could be stained at the injection site with the radioactive contrast dye for up to 6 months. She was completely un-prepared for, and shocked by, my furry man’s flippant answer, “Well, that stain will be gone by April 15th no matter what.” (Double mastectomy scheduled on the 15th) and my out-of-control drunken guffaws. C’mon, you gotta laugh. If you don’t laugh, you will cry, people. Finally free, my furry man wheeled me in a chair out to the car on the curb, and we began our long drive home.

Once home, I actually can’t remember much, thanks to my new friends T3 and Gravol. I slept a lot a lot. After 24 hours, I felt disgusting and demanded to clean myself. My furry man, ever helpful, hovered. I had to tell him, “Honey, I know you want to help, but I can do this sponge bath. After the mastectomy, you can sponge away all you like. And I would love your help with this bandage change after I am done washing.” He reluctantly settled for that, but babied me all weekend long. It was heavenly, actually. Meeting the incision for the first time kind of turned my stomach. My whole armpit was swollen, and the incision was an angry smile of stitches along the natural lines of my skin. I sent up a silent little thank-you prayer to my brave sentinel node who sacrificed himself for me. Markus cleaned it, gently re-bandaged, and tucked me into bed with a drug refill.

Monday morning, my furry man had to head back to work, and Real Life hit me. The kids are on Spring Break and wanted sleepover marathons and playdates with friends; for the previous 3 days, Markus had been the chauffeur – it was my turn. Ever since my breast cancer diagnosis, I have been determined to be a nicer mom and to make sure that my kids have a really good childhood; I’d been getting kind of lazy in their pre-teen years, and had been letting the teen attitudes drive me crazy. New leaf, new Mom, more effort. I had to change out of pyjamas, comb hair, and put on makeup. The sun was very bright. I had to stop my drug habit so I could legally drive, so was a bit grumpy with just wimpy regular Tylenol. Not only this, but I had been walking around on pins an needles for days, nagging thoughts jangling in my head, “Sentinel Yes or Sentinel No??? When will they tell me? Will they know before my mastectomy? Will they have to postpone surgery if the results don’t come back in time??? Will I be okay if the results are positive for cancer in the lymph nodes and I have to walk around with no boobs for a year or so? How would it be to live in Edmonton by myself for 5 weeks while I have to have radiation therapy?” ‘Round and ‘round my head, these thoughts flew, like bats in a cave. Markus called me and texted me often, telling me, “Sentinel NO!!” My cousin and sister texted from Australia, “Sentinel NO!” Friends from all over the world sent prayers and lit candles, and posted selfies of themselves on my Facebook page, holding up their middle fingers, “Eff You, Barnard! Sentinel NO!” I told myself I could hold my breath until Friday; they had to have the results by Friday. I let my kids have all their friends over for slumber parties just to distract me. Holy Hell, that was an exciting time full of all-nighters, boys farting into water bottles, girls scaring themselves shitless on Walking Dead marathons, and more dirty dishes than I thought we even owned. I tried to carve quiet time for myself by taking long showers, looking at that new smiley face in my armpit, temporarily letting myself get irritated by silly things like not being able to shave that armpit. I dallied with wild ideas, like maybe doing some Movember fundraising of my own this November; I’ll grow a mustachio for my little armpit smiley face, and raise funds for prostate cancer! During all the chaos, I missed a call from Paul Bunyon’s office, yesterday. They left a message for me to call them back, but I didn’t get the message until after they’d closed. ARGH!

This morning, Markus told me, “I’m going to call them. I can’t be home to be with you for the news and I know I can take it on my own. I’m going to make the call.” I think I turned blue for 20 minutes with my breath held. At 9:20, he called me back and said in a very serious voice, “Check Facebook.” Whhaaa? Logging in, I read his post, “Thank you all for saying prayers, lighting candles, going to temples, making faces, cursing or even swearing. The sentinel in fact is NOOOOOOO.” Both Markus and I just let the tears fall in pure relief. Suzy Creamcheese 1: Barnard 0.

And on to the Big Day on April 15th. Bye-Bye Boobies Day is a GO, and thanks to Sentinel NO, I will have immediate reconstruction and will be coming home feeling whole and in control. I think this calls for a glass of champagne. Lift your glasses: here is to my sentinel node. A braver sentinel there never was.

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An Ode to Breastesses (Ch.3)

Your brain can adjust to any situation, no matter how awful. Just because someone is in a grave place, when thoughts of death lurk in the shadows of her brain, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t snap at her kids for arguing at the dinner table, or that she doesn’t look in the mirror and curse the grey hairs creeping into her brow line. Cancer doesn’t turn you into a noble person; it just makes you feel incredibly guilty for having petty thoughts. I’ll share mine with you, since I love to barf my personal feelings at your feet.

I met my plastic surgeon on Monday. Dr. Mehling (the potential Babe the Big Blue Ox to my lumberjack Dr. Olson) had me meet with his partner, Dr. Schembri. The name is pronounced “Scam-bree” which, to my addled brain, sounds too much like “scampi” for me to ever remember to refer to him as Dr. Schembri ever again. So until I get to know him better, I can only remember his name as either Dr. Shrimpy or Dr. Scampi. He looks like a younger, smaller version of my Paul Bunyon. He even wore a plaid shirt. He introduced himself to me by apologizing for Dr. Mehling’s absence, saying that all 3 men will be operating on me at the same time in the operating room, and the only difference between himself and Dr. Mehling is that he is a taller, hairier version of Dr. Mehling. Later, I got a glimpse of Dr. Mehling, and the description is dead-on. Dr. Mehling looks about 4 feet tall, is super skinny, and has a shiny head as bald as a cue ball. I’m glad I got to meet the furry one; furry men please me. Anyway, Scampi explained all the different options for breast reconstruction to me. Dr. Olson had referred me to them because that is mostly all they do; they primarily work to help women rebuild their breasts after they have been damaged by something awful like a cigarette-smoking, beret-wearing, stinking Parisienne pickpocket named Barnard.

Breast reconstruction has moved light years beyond slapping a ziplock baggie full of silicone into your chest cavity and sewing it up. For you newbies out there, those are called Implants. Babe the Big Blue Ox and his partner Scampi specialize in Autologous tissue breast reconstruction. This means that they use your own body parts to repair your breasts. It’s a beautiful thing. They can take tissue, fat, and muscle from your back, your bum, or your abdomen, and re-connect the blood supply in your chest. If all goes well, you are all you, in the end. Don’t get me wrong, nobody will walk out looking like a Playboy bunny. There are really vicious scars that will make a permanent smiley face across your entire abdomen or your back, and you will not have nipples unless you choose to have them reconstructed in a separate surgery down the line, and get them tattooed to look “normal.” But the goal isn’t to get pretty boobs. The goal is for you to feel whole, for you to feel good in your bra, for you to feel your usual silhouette in your clothes. It’s done so you can tell yourself, “Okay, Barnard took part of me, but I am whole, still.” Yes, there are women out there who choose not to have reconstruction after their mastectomies, but I am fine admitting that my breasts are part of my identity. They may have outlived their function as baby-feeding machines, but I still need them to be me. Without them, I would feel less of a person.

Back to the making of bionic boobies. Scampi and I both agreed that a DIEP flap reconstruction would be right for my body. Free Deep Inferior Epigastric Perforator (DIEP) Flap reconstruction is where they will take my abdomen with a small piece of muscle, remove it and and rebuild my breasts. They will reconnect the blood supply in my chest and the tissue will eventually heal and become my breasts. After a short discussion, Scampi asked me to hop up on the examining table and lie down, then proceeded to grab huge handfuls of my tummy as he eyed my breasts. Essentially, he was trying to gauge how much breast he could make to match my current cup size. I had to laugh, expecting him to start grabbing the boobs to compare to the handfuls of tummy. He told me that during surgery, Dr. Olson would be working removing my breasts, while the Babe the Big Blue Ox team would be working on my abdomen, then they would move up to my chest for microsurgery that would take up to 10 hours. As he was pinching and calculating, I stared up at the ceiling and started trying to count how many times I’ve had to flash my boobs to strangers in just the last month. I counted 10 people. That’s more than 3 times the number of people who ever got to play with my boobies for recreation in my entire LIFE. And it turns out that those might be the last times I will ever feel anyone playing with my boobies in the future. The new ones will not have the nerve endings to make playing fun on my end – they will just feel like my arm getting squeezed. Part of the package. The Six Million Dollar Man Steve Austin had both legs, his right arm, and his eyeball replaced. I bet he never felt his girlfriend playing footsie with him under the table, but he appreciated the thought, and it never stopped him from playing the rest of the game. Yeah, I’m comparing myself to a fictional person because I have yet to meet a person in real life who would talk about this with me. I’m going to be the first person in YOUR life who will be frank. I’ll keep you posted.

After all of that detail, talking about recovery, about the ickiness of excess fluid coming out of my breasts and my abdomen, of draining tubes into plastic pouches, of possible infection, of fat necrosis, I thought, “hey, there can’t be anything worse this guy can tell me.” Then he drops the bomb: if my sentinel node surgery comes back positive for cancer, they will have to treat my lymph nodes with radiation, so I would have to delay my reconstruction. That means walking around flat-chested until after radiation therapy (about 5 weeks typically) and until I can be scheduled for reconstruction surgery after that. The current delay for plastic surgery is 1-2 years. This is because after a mastectomy or lumpectomy, you are technically considered “cancer-free.” You then get lumped into the rest of the regular plastic surgery patients waiting for new boobs (i.e. the women who just aren’t happy with their little boobies and want big jugs so they can fall out of their bikinis in Vegas). And all those women get bumped on a daily basis for women exactly like ME who have active cancer and want immediate reconstruction; meaning they may wait forever! I knew this in advance (from my research online), which is why I had insisted on mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. By law, they have to perform immediate reconstruction upon request during a lumpectomy/mastectomy because the cancer bumps the woman to the top of the list. And now I find my evil plan could be thwarted by my own sentinel node. Traitor.

Since first discovering the lump in my breast, I have been able to move forward by focussing only on short-term goals. First, it was “just get to the mammogram/ultrasound; it could be nothing.” Then, “oops, it’s something. Ok. Just get to the needle biopsy. The tumour could be benign.” Then, “Oops, it’s malignant. Ok. Just get to the surgeon. It could just get cut out, you could get rebuilt, and you could be normal by summer.” Now, “Oops, it could be in your lymph nodes so you might not get your breasts back for a looooong time.” OK. New Goal: Just get to the sentinel node surgery on April 3rd and wait for a week for the results. They could be negative for cancer. They could be clean and beautiful and cancer-free. Or, as my husbands’s new battle cry puts it: “Sentinal NO!!!!”

So here is my petty thought. I really love my breasts. I love the way they make my furry man’s eyes light up, then narrow with purpose. I loved the tug my nursing babies gave them. I loved the rush of milk letting down to nourish my sweet infants after the initially painful suckling. I love the gentle swell of my cleavage when I am in a beautiful dress and ready to dance the night away. They were works of art in my youth, only second to my legs as my favourite parts of my body. As I have aged, they have headed for my knees, making me a perfect cover girl for National Geographic. But ptosis or not, they are soft, they are lovely. They are where I hug a crying child. They are where I cross my arms or clasp my hands when I am heartbroken or worried sick. They cushion my heart. They still have purpose. Without them, nothing comes between my heart and the outside world, to insulate me. Without them, I feel vulnerable. If I could have reconstructive surgery, I wouldn’t have my original breasts anymore, but I would have acceptable substitutes. I don’t want to not have breasts. So there you have it. I expect you now have the same stunned expression that my husband gave me when I confessed this to him a couple of days ago. He slowly said, “But. You. Will. LIVE.” You see why these thoughts are such shameful secrets? How can my mind betray me by getting so used to the idea of possibly dying from cancer, that it lets itself get bothered by THIS?! I know I should let all the little things in life just roll off my back, considering there are much bigger things to worry about. I can’t help it. Remember, cancer hasn’t turned me into a noble person; I’m as silly as I ever was. And if you know me, you know that’s what I am, a bundle of everything all jumbled up inside. I have serious thoughts, but this little one is in my face right now, and I can’t shake it. Help me out. On the count of three, please join me in chanting my new mantra. 1…2…3… SENTINAL NO!

Ganbaru 頑張る! (Ch.1)

I learned a few new words today. The first words were Infiltrating Duct Adenocarcinoma. In layman’s terms, it means breast cancer. Words that I have dreaded for 30 years, since my mom was diagnosed while I was in high school. Statistics told me that the chances of it striking me if my 2nd degree relatives (grandmother, Aunt Barby) had it, are higher than average. Statistics told me that chances of it striking me when a first degree relative (Mom) had it, are even higher. I think my sisters and I held our breaths for years, waiting for one of us to come forward with the awful news, because when you have our family history and you add a sister with breast cancer on top of that? It’s like really bad compound interest on a maxed out credit card; you’re probably going to get a call from that creditor for payment … So a few days before Valentine’s Day, I felt the lump, and the first thought was, “Oh no, JoJo and Annie…”

As I was out of town enjoying the best Valentine’s Day I’ve ever had, I ignored that lump like it was a whining child in the backseat of the car. I would deal with it when I got back home. As soon as I came home, I saw our family doctor and he sent me straight to Edmonton for a mammogram/ultrasound. My furry man and I kept telling each other, “This could be nothing. Let’s not freak out until someone officially tells us to freak out.” I called my Aunt Barby, since she has been a survivor for 14 years, and she briskly told me, “Now, don’t you go hanging crepe, Sue. Even if the worst is confirmed, so much has advanced in breast cancer treatment in the last 14 years. You can do this. You hang tough and you don’t forget to look out for your furry man. After all, you are Hess Tough. He has a slight disadvantage.”

Although there are many critics of some of the wait times in a national healthcare system, it is almost a magical thing to see how quickly people can move in such a system, when things are urgent. I went in for a mammogram/ultrasound (normally a several weeks – months wait), and after a closer look, they asked me to overnight in the city and come in first thing in the morning for a core needle biopsy (normally a few weeks wait) on the lump and a surprise lymph node that looked “suspicious.” I turned to the radiologist and asked in a shaky voice, “May I see what you see on the ultrasound? Why do you think it’s suspicious looking?” She obliged, showing me the lump, which looked icky and alien, and the lymph node, which turned out to look EXACTLY like the Death Star. I kid you not, complete with narrow alley that Luke Skywalker had to fly through to blow up the place. I thanked her and held it together until I reached the parking lot and melted into a blubbering mess behind my steering wheel while on speaker phone with Markus. After soothing me and letting me cry for a while, he waited until I calmed down a bit and said one very true thing, “Honey, we have been waiting for this for years, haven’t we? We always knew that this might come up, with your genes. Now that the moment is possibly here, I know we can do this together. Our family can do anything.” So I went back to the hotel room and for the first time in my life, raided the Honour Bar in the room. I binged on Pringles and chocolate, and ordered cheese from Room Service. Then I went to bed at 5pm to try to sleep away the time until my morning appointment with the giant needles. Had the craziest dreams from the chips, cheese, and chocolate, and woke up completely unrefreshed.

The needles were super big AND they had a spring-loaded trigger that reached out a mini-claw to snip off core samples of the lump and lymph node. I swear the trigger snapped exactly like my automatic cookie press at home. Each “SNAP” made me jump, and when the radiologist, Dr. Ling, muttered, “darn it” I knew she would have to try again. She apologized and said, “I’m so sorry. I need 4 core sample from each site, and these tumours and lymph nodes don’t just sit there nicely. They’re slippery little suckers…like..like…” and I blurted out, “Like bubble tea taro bubbles?” She burst out laughing and said, “YES, EXACTLY! I have never thought of that comparison, but they are JUST like bubble tea…now I don’t know if I ever will drink bubble tea again…” So laughing together and with me doing my lamaze breathing to stop panicking, I got through that procedure. We taped up the two little tunnels in my breast and armpit, and I drove 4 hours home into the arms of my loving family.

At first I thought I would wait to tell the kids anything, only sharing if the news was bad. But I made it back home in time to pick them up from school, and Hanna and Simon immediately started to cry, and asked me, “Mama, are you going to die?” I guess not knowing CAN be much worse than knowing. And they jumped to the worst case scenario when they found out I had to stay overnight in the city for more testing. So I decided to tell them absolutely everything. Of course, I had to give them the all the possibilities, which did include possible death, but considering I’ve been having annual mammograms since I was 30, the tumour could only be, at most, a year old. And I caught that sucker all by myself in a self-exam. And I reminded them, I am Hess Tough. We had a big cry, and a big hug, and luckily, they went back to being normal children.

The last week has been miserable, waiting and wondering. I used the time to read up on anything I could find about all the possible outcomes, all the types of breast cancer, all the potential treatments. I tried in vain to find cases of a negative biopsy on both a tumour and a lymph node. The very worst part of all was not telling anyone. I didn’t want to worry my dad if it turned out to be benign, I didn’t want to put my sister into a panic, I didn’t want to burden friends, and even though I am the first to share everything with friends and family on Facebook, I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.

Normally I give up Facebook for Lent. Yesterday, I realized with a start, “TOMORROW IS ASH WEDNESDAY.” How was I supposed to go through this ordeal in this Godforsaken place, with most of my friends and family so far away, without my touchstone? With Facebook, I log in, and see that you’ve had your morning coffee, that you share my teenager problems, that you laugh at the jokes I love, and that you care about me. I have conversations and I give sympathy or lend a helpful shoulder for anyone to cry on. It could be 3am here in Canada, but my friends in Taiwan, my cousin, friends, and sister in Australia, my old friend in Turkey, and my other loved ones around the world, might be awake to have a chat. For the first time, I realize that this would be the wrong Lent to take a Facebook hiatus. This would be the time I would need my friends the most. I bargained with myself, “If the news is good, I’ll give up my FB connections for Lent. If the news is bad, I’m going to ask my friends and family to lend me their shoulders.”

So here I am, on Ash Wednesday, letting you know that you won’t be getting a Lenten break from Suzy Creamcheese this year. One of my closest friends, Laurie, called me from Arizona tonight, marvelling, “Sue, what timing you have. Here we are on Ash Wednesday, getting ready to begin a spiritual Lenten Journey, and you have ahead of you the biggest journey of all. Don’t forget that you are not alone, that you can glean strength from all those who love you, and from your faith.” And then I started reading some more and I learned the best new word of all: Ganbaru (頑張る). It’s a Japanese word which some say means “to do one’s best.” But to the Japanese people, it means more than that. It means to do more than survive; it means to “commit oneself fully to a task and to bring that task to an end.” And I hope my furry man, my sweet precious children, my family and my friends, will Ganbaru by my side. I’m going to do my usual oversharing. I understand that some of you don’t know me as intimately as most, so this might gross you out. Don’t worry if you need to bow out and block my feed for a few months. I will see you on the other side. And I am determined to do that – to get to the healthy side of summer. With you to keep me company on this journey, and Ganbaru and Hess Toughness…this shitty little disease hasn’t got a chance.

A Grown Up Moment

Most of the time, I feel the same Sue in my head; the teen that refuses to grow up all the way, who wants to argue with everyone in the world about the craziness that surrounds her. I hate it when my kids force me to be a grown-up and boss them around about their homework or their chores. I really hate it when my furry man reminds me oh-so-gently-and-carefully, of my grown up responsibilities (I have a small iTunes addiction, and eBay occasionally wants to party with our bank account). But there are moments that flash in front of my eyes that make me feel my age. Unfortunately, they aren’t always moments of wisdom or great meaning.

Tonight, for example, I was filing off the ends of my fingernails that I had been too lazy to trim for weeks, down to my preferred length of nothing ( I hate it when fingernails tap on the keyboard – I like the thump of the pads of my fingertips; very satisfying when I’m mad-typing). I had a sudden memory of being in 2nd grade or 3rd grade, in our apartment in Moscow, staring in fascination at the 4-inch nails of a friend of the family, Aunt Linda. I had never seen anything so beautiful in my entire life. They were blood red, oh-so-shiny, and matched Aunt Linda’s lipstick perfectly; she put Joan Crawford to shame. I wanted my nails to be just like Aunt Linda’s nails so badly, my teeth hurt. My mom was very much against make-up of all kinds, and wouldn’t even let us play dress-up with make-up. Of course, I took every opportunity to paint my nails with magic markers at school, only to come home and have my mom scrub my hands raw with a Brillo pad and her trusty can of Comet (“Comet, it makes your teeth turn green. Comet, it tastes like gasoline. Comet, it makes you vomit. So buy some Comet, and vomit, today!”). But that didn’t stop the yearning. For decades, my nail ideal was always the image of Aunt Linda’s glamorous scarlet nails.

Standing in my bathroom, at 9pm tonight, after an exhausting day of detangling hundreds of ornaments and a dozen strings of lights from my dry-as-tinder beyond-dead Christmas tree (that viciously stabbed my hands full of teeny-tiny pine-needle holes), I had to chuckle out loud at the thought of Aunt Linda’s fingernails trying to live my life. Raising 3 kids —who am I kidding, let’s lump the dogs and the husband and round it up to 6 kids— who really has the luxury of 4-inch nails? And now that I have access to the best salons and am able to treat myself to any colour manicure on the planet, do you know what colours I find myself getting? Clear. The aestheticians sigh and shake their heads when I walk in…here comes the boring lady, just thankful to have her cuticles trimmed and a chance at adult conversation…

So there is my daily reminder that I am getting older. This was a little one. I am still severely disturbed by the biggie I had earlier, when I couldn’t read some small print and realized I might be heading to Reading Glasses Land. I’ll write about that one on another day; my newly filed fingers will thump quite satisfactorily on the keyboard for that story, because just thinking about it blows my mind. I might just slip into a post-mid-life crisis moment and have to run to the salon to get myself some 4-inch red lacquered nails…

Clown Appreciation Day

 

sigh. It seems I have underestimated the clown crew. I know. The world has stopped spinning on its axis. Normally, you mention the guys at our hotel who come to the house to fix the plumbing or anything else, and I will keel over laughing. They travel in herds, piling into and tumbling out of their miniature pickup trucks (the clown cars), and stand around scratching their heads and banging on things with monkey wrenches. Today, I tried walking a mile in their clown shoes. For weeks, we have been dealing with a front screen door that flies off the handle. Actually, the handle flies off the door. The whole assembly came kind of loose, the handle fell off, and the simple solution of duct tape wouldn’t work because it needs to rotate. So, the Treppenhauer solution was to pick it up off the floor, stick it in the hole, and yell at the kids for slamming the door. The furry man hates to ask for help from staff that is overloaded with work in the hotel rooms, and is the first to admit that he is very good some things, but fixing door handles is not one of them; so the door handle stayed broken. At least he changes light bulbs, washes dishes, and assembles book cases and bicycles. I have a very distinct memory, when I was a child, of glaring at my dad while my mom changed the lightbulbs in the kitchen. I said, “Normal dads help their wives with changing lightbulbs and other things around the house.” His first sentence was always the same response when I complained about our weird family, “First of all, Sue-Sue, we have never been normal and we never will be; get used to it.” But THEN he said, “Your mother and I have an agreement. I work outside the house and bring home the pay check; she handles everything inside the house. Light bulb changing falls within the house.” This was after we spent an entire year of living off of the income from my mom’s art gallery and painting lessons, while he was on sabbatical earning his Master’s degree (so the “agreement” worked when it was convenient for him). One of my earliest resolutions in life was to NEVER make that kind of agreement with anybody. Oh, also to never marry a rude person who doesn’t love me enough to lend a helping hand without my asking.

But I digress; back to my Clown Appreciation story! This morning was the last straw. I was shivering out by the the car, waiting to drive the kids to school on a freezing wet fall morning. The kids were yelling at each other about something as they were leaving the house, and Hanna slammed the screen door. Clunk, the inside handle fell off, and the outside handle stopped functioning. Of course, the actual front door is wide open, blowing in ice-cold air to the house that we can no longer enter. Both kids turn to me, mouths open, eyes bugging out. They glance at each other with, “Mom’s going to kill us” expressions, and immediately launch into each other, bickering about whose fault it was. Ever the practical pioneer woman, I smack the backs of their heads, shoo them into the car, wrestle with the guilt of overworking the furnace in the house while we drove to school, and accept that I will have to punch in the screen of the screen door and crawl into the house very awkwardly, upon my return.

Kids kicked to the school curb, I returned home with great resolve. Today will be the day that I stop relying on others. Today will be the day I am completely self-sufficient. WE don’t need no steenking clowns! I will take that door apart and I will put it back together as good as new. When I was in 1st grade, my big sister had a calculator. My memory is a bit rusty, but I may have been playing with it and I mayyyyy have broken it. There was much yelling, I think I got a spanking, and the calculator was discarded. I snuck to the garbage can, pulled out the calculator, and proceeded to completely take it apart. Then, curiosity satisfied, I put it all back together again. Much to my surprise, the calculator powered on and functioned perfectly. I ran to my sister and crowed, “LOOK LOOK! I fixed it! You threw it away, so now it’s MINE!” Of course, that’s not how things work in the Hess house. She sat on me, wrestled it away, and repo’d the calculator. I think that event may have been my initiation into the decades-long policy I had in childhood, of “Lie First, Be Sneaky, and Try Not to Get Caught.” This also gave me false confidence in myself, and I spent my entire life telling myself that I was good at fixing things. This confidence has led to many repairs, but who is to know whether those things were truly broken, or just needed screws to be tightened or batteries to be changed…

First obstacle: entry into the cottage through a screen door whose handle is no longer functioning. My life is full of good things to be grateful for. Let me take this moment to be thankful for living in the middle of nowhere with no neighbours to observe the total humiliation of me lifting my leg into the screen that I punched out (thinking that I could step into the door in a dignified way), realizing when I’m on my tippy-toes and in much crotch pain that dignity doesn’t exist in my world, then hopping the extra inches needed for the rest of my obese self to tip over and fall sideways into my house, onto my 2 happy golden retrievers. This all took place with the soundtrack of me yelling, “AAAAAAHHHHHHHOWWWWAAAAHHH!” Lying on my back, dogs licking my face, I wondered, “Would this ever happen to a hotel engineer?” Somehow, I thought not. They probably have special clown tools to make the handle-less door open without undue humiliation. sniff. The dogs agreed. They had never seen a hotel engineer fall through the front door, before. Mama, on the other hand, seemed to be a very fun klutz, indeed.

Later, after a game of Candy Crush to make myself feel like even more of a failure, I looked at the door and thought, “This can’t be harder than taking apart a calculator.” Second obstacle: tools. Apparently, we have 8 screwdrivers in our home, and not a one is a Phillips head screwdriver. 30 minutes later, frustrated from digging through the garage, fuelled only by an espresso consumed hours prior, I resorted to breaking into my son’s treasure box and stealing his jackknife. He’s a mini-survivalist, and his jackknife has all the tools to go hunting, including a saw to cut down trees to build a campfire after his prey has been gutted and skinned. Sure enough, there was a gadgety thing that had a tip like a Phillips head, so I unscrewed the door handle. Victory! Expecting the assembly to open up for me like a picture book, it was a very unhappy surprise to have a jumble of metal bits fall into my hand. It was like having a handful of puzzle pieces, and no box to show me the picture of what the puzzle was about. There was much swearing. Much swearing and slamming of the door with the flappy screen and a hole where the handle used to be.

5 more games of Candy Crush failure (what the Hell, Level 134, why you hate me so bad?) and my resolve returned. After all, a door handle has a finite number of parts, they can only fit into each other a certain number of ways, and like a multiple choice test, I KNOW the answer is right there in front of me. I can fix it and make the handle work, right?Another half hour of my life on the toilet, and I managed to reassemble the parts and figured out how to insert them into the door to make the little thingy on the side of the door squish in and out. Highly technical terms, I know. Also, my legs fell asleep; “on the toilet” was not a figure of speech. 5 minutes of hopping up and down to get out the pins and needles, while explaining the handle mechanics to the dogs (they are a very appreciative audience; the Mama Show is their #1 form of entertainment), and I was ready for my door-handle home run.

Word of advice to all DIYers: take pictures; lots of pictures. This way, when you go to, say, put a door handle back on a door, you don’t tighten the screws and discover that you’ve put it on backwards and can no longer shut the door all the way. All puffed up and full of myself, I swung the screen door shut, expecting a satisfying, “click” as the latch closed. “THUD.” The handle stuck out so far it banged into the door frame. Aha. Thank God I have dogs, not parrots. By now, they’d have learned enough new vocabulary words to be cursing like pirates.

The whole time I was struggling with the door, it was wide open, inviting the dogs to forage in the front yard, gathering as much mud as their coats and paws could carry. They then snuck all of that into the house behind my back, while I was cursing and threatening the spring mechanism inside the door handle. As I screwed the handle on backwards, then kicked the door a few times, my furry fiends were quietly doing doggy finger-painting on my white kitchen floor. Let me stop right here and ask the former tenants of this cottage: what kind of a bozo installs white tiled floors in a mud room and a kitchen? Perhaps they were the same dumbasses who thought rhubarb would be a lovely ornamental plant to have growing all around the flower garden. My dad used to play the guitar when I was little. One of my favourite songs was called The Cat Came Back. It was about this poor old thing whose owner went to drown it in the river, and it just kept coming back and following him around. Zombie cat. Rhubarb is that cat. I dug it all up from my flower garden; roots like orange baby parts – tendrils shaped like arms and legs. But no matter how thorough I thought I was, I kept having rhubarb shoots sprout up in the flower beds, all summer long. Zombie Rhubarb.

Obviously, I haven’t had the coffee necessary to stay on task, and it is possible I am not-so-quietly losing my mind out here in the big woods. Let me pull your attention away from the Zombie Rhubarb and my mud-covered floors, and direct it to my newly repaired screen door handle. As good as new. It only took me 2 hours and 10 Candy Crush lives. There might be a few new dents in the door, but I see them as badges of courage. Oh, and my little boy’s jackknife also had a very nice doohickey that helped me re-insert the screen into the door. I have officially completed a job that I would normally have called the clown brigade to do. I guess that means I am an honorary clown? You know, I don’t have clown shoes…I think I need to go shoe shopping…Shoe shopping would be an awesome way to avoid dealing with the doggy finger-painting masterpieces on my very smart white tiled mudroom and kitchen floors…or maybe I’ll bake some rhubarb pie…

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