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!

I’ve Got MacGyver, Paul Bunyon, and The Suepremes – Barnard Hasn’t Got a Chance (Ch.2)

Today, March 12th, my breasts and I met my surgeon in Edmonton. All I knew about the doctor in advance, was that the name was Dr. D.W. Olson. Images of characters from children’s television shows floated through my mind. I pictured Arthur the aardvark’s little sister D.W. (old PBS animated series), married to Nellie Oleson’s little brother Willie (from Little House on the Prairie), sporting a white coat and chopping off boobs. That, plus the warning from my Nurse Navigator (more on that later), had me a little bit nervous to meet the Knife. “Sue, I want you to brace yourself and not put too much store in the surgeon’s manner. Surgeons can sometimes come across as clinical and lacking empathy. But those characteristics are also the very same characteristics that make an excellent surgeon; they spend most of their time with you when you are unconscious, not chatting with you. If your questions are answered and you feel confident in the surgeon’s experience and explanation of all of your options, don’t let the bedside manner dictate whether or not you choose this one to be your doctor.” Needless to say, I was a fretting bundle of Useless during the drive.

It takes 4 hours to drive from Jasper to Edmonton, so Markus and I kissed the children goodbye and shivered into the car at 6 o’clock this morning. During the boring and seemingly endless drive, we had plenty of time to discuss what we hoped to achieve with this visit, and what questions to ask the doctor while we were in his office. Being in the early stages of my breast cancer journey, I have to be honest that Markus and I are also struggling a bit with our new roles. The furry man wants to be my best cheerleader, and take everything onto his own shoulders. I am much more practical, and I know that even superheroes can burn out unless they take a break or ask for help. These are early days – I want him to mellow out and save his energy for the hard days of clearing drain lines dangling out of my chest, and cooking and cleaning if I need to spend time as a chemo zombie. He thinks I should let go and let him take charge. I think he should reach out and ask a few people to bake some lasagnes when I go in for surgery down the line. Hess Tough vs. Treppenhauer Stubborn…much head butting and growling ensued. Markus is reading a very good book titled: Breast Cancer Husband; How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment, and Beyond. It has taught him invaluable things, like how to read pathology reports, how to write down everything the doctors say to me, and how to stay calm in the face of a frightened PMS-ing wife who seems to be losing her mind. Normally my furry man is the light in my life, keeping me smiling and laughing. This morning, his own worries plus my hen-pecking transformed him into Serious Markus. I hate Serious Markus because then we are BOTH grumpy. In the parking lot of the doctor’s office, I told him I don’t like Serious Markus; that I want my funny man back. He pointed a finger at me (I won’t say which one) and said, “Then stop BOSSING me, woman! Hess Tough sucks when it’s me that gets it. Trust me. I’m going to take care of you. I got this.” Message received; Hess Tough Torpedo Guns have been aimed elsewhere.

Enough soap opera; back to the Journey! A Nurse Navigator is the main angel in a special program that we have up here in Paradise (aka Canada). The Alberta Comprehensive Breast Care Program takes patients that are at high risk for cancer; patients like me that have discovered a lump, or had abnormal mammogram results. We are pulled out of the sometimes confusing mainstream of our national healthcare system, and fast-tracked toward the appropriate doctors, procedures, and cancer centres that we need, cutting to the front of the line of any waiting lists. If further tests come back negative, those patients are bid farewell are sent back to real world. The rest of us keep marching forward. When admitted into the program, we are each assigned a Nurse Navigator; our medical guardian angel/advocate. My personal angel’s name is Diana. She is a nurse, packed with ages of experience in the field of breast cancer treatment. She handles most of my appointments, calling me to tell me when and where, and how to get there. She spent what seemed like hours on the phone with me, as soon as I got home from hearing the worst 3 words I’ve heard in my life, last week, “You have cancer.” My family doctor is a moron and actually could NOT explain most of my pathology report, and “didn’t want to go out on a limb” to explain anything further to me, for fear he would be held liable if I misunderstood, blah blah blah, welcome to Jasper. So I had asked for a printout of my pathology report, took it home, and looked up every single word I didn’t understand, and then I called Diana. She confirmed what I had concluded, and in a very gentle voice, began to tell me about the road I would need to travel to reach wellness. She spoke for so long, reassuring me, sharing what resources this wonderful program had to offer, told me that she would be mailing me a big packet of information for me to read through, including a book to help my children cope with my new illness. She told me that I would be overwhelmed with information, and to write everything down. She told me to be careful about choosing websites to read about breast cancer, and she gave me a list of good sites to explore. On the spot, she booked me in to see a surgeon, and told me that she was there on the other end of the phone if I ever felt confused. And if she was ever away from her desk, she told me that her office was full of professionals ready to help; that there were therapists and social workers on-call if anyone in the family ever needed to talk to someone about how they are feeling throughout this time. How IS it that this beautiful country can create such a brilliant program to take special care of frightened, vulnerable women, without having to worry them about how they would manage to pay for everything? My Nurse Navigator told me, “Mental Health is just as important as Physical Health. Just treating the cancer with medicine would be pointless if, in the end, if you are an emotional and financial wreck. We treat the whole person.” Reason #437 to love Canada.

After the showdown in the parking lot, Markus and I entered the Meadowlark Health Centre in Edmonton. We were immediately greeted by a bevy of sweetly smiling receptionists. Markus and I looked at each other, our faces saying, “We’re not in Jasper, anymore, Toto.” We were 45 minutes early and thought we were in for an enormous wait (one is never seen earlier than 30 minutes past their scheduled appointment time in the Jasper clinic). I didn’t even have time to put down my purse, when a lovely lady came to collect me for a breast exam. I followed her down a long corridor to a private room, where I donned my lavender gown and waited for my aardvark surgeon. A knock on the door, and a perky young blonde with a ponytail entered, with a pimply teenager in tow. She introduced herself as Dr. Olson’s (I found out the spelling was different from Little House on the Prairie, bummer) Chief Resident. Her name is Dr. MacGyver. I kid you not. I’ve got MACGYVER on my team! And she introduced her skinny little sidekick as Mark, a medical student at University of Alberta. Yay, I get to flash my boobs to a crowd! After extensive questioning, MacGyver proceeded to palpate my breasts very carefully to confirm location of the tumour, etc. Then, she invited sidekick to join her from the edge of the room, where he was nervously nodding his head, and asked him to palpate my right breast to see if he could find the tumour on his own. I had to keep a straight face as he timidly reached out and poked at my boob like it was a bowl full of bad jello. Poor boy. Anything I can do to bring added education to the world, I am happy to do. Perhaps it was the first breast he had ever met, because as soon as he thought he’d found it, he jumped back to his wallflower position.

After the breast exam, MacGyver asked me if I had any questions from my pathology report, and I said that I am an American, so please forgive me, but I didn’t understand why my tumour was measured in millimetres, yet all literature about breast cancer discusses tumours in centimetres. She and Mark smiled at the ignorant American, and kindly explained that it was because my tumour was smaller than a centimetre. Well, duh. That shows you just how flustered I am these days. Then MacGyver started talking about hormone receptors, and I was like, “WAIT. Your pathology report doesn’t match my pathology report!” As if it could be possible to have an even lower opinion of my Jasper doctor, it turns out he only gave me HALF of my biopsy results. When I had asked about hormone receptive or not, or HER2 and triple negative, he flapped his hands at me and told me they would tell me that after my surgery, when they had removed the tumour and examined it further. One more medical lesson learned: DON’T BE A SHEEP!  So MacGyver told me that my tumour is estrogen receptive, which is well-treated with hormone suppressant chemo. Hello, Menopause. Then, MacGyver and Pimple Boy left to find the doctor.

After a few minutes alone, I heard a booming voice coming down the hall, “WHERE IS THE AMERICAN!” and a bearded lumberjack in glasses swept into the room, replete with plaid flannel shirt. He reached out his hand and said, “You must be the American! I’m Dr. Olson. So pleased to meet you! What on earth brought you to Northern Alberta?!” I explained about the furry German man and Fairmont, but that actually I’m only American on paper, having grown up all over the world. And he laughed, “AAAHH, a nomadic type – so I can’t even ask you where you’re from, eh? There goes my next conversation starter.” He blew my worries about cold, clinical, aardvark-Nellie-Olsen-sibling-surgeon right out of my mind. Tension melted out of my shoulders almost immediately.

After another breast exam, Dr. Olson (aka Paul Bunyon) went out to get my husband. I could hear them in the waiting room, Paul Bunyon calling out, “I’m looking for MARKUS! And upon meeting him, declaring, “So you’re a FAIRMONT man! Yes, your wife and I have been talking about you. She told me everything. Come this way!” He arranged us in the small exam room, “Sue, you’re the Queen,” (how did he KNOW?!)  “so you get the throne. Markus, you sit next to her. MacGyver, you sit in this chair. And Mark, you’re going to have to pretend to be the patient for the day and hop up on this exam table; UP you go.” Then he sat down on his stool, faced me, and said, “Ok. Now let’s get serious. We have much to discuss, and you have some decisions to make.” In the blink of an eye, Paul Bunyon turned into a doctor. He explained that there were many choices for an average woman in my shoes. Breast cancer starts in the milk ducts; most breast cancer stays in the ducts, just growing bigger. Mine is invasive, and has escaped from the duct it was born in, and has microscopically begun to get around in there. With a relatively small tumour, likely no cancer in the lymph nodes, many women just need a lumpectomy and radiation, and they may never have a recurrence of breast cancer for the rest of their lives. He explained that radiation is typically 5 minutes of focused X-rays, 5 days a week, for 5 weeks. There may be skin changes, there may be slight burning, there might be some fatigue, but it would be nothing like my mom’s radiation 30 years ago (she used to laugh about how one of her nai-nai’s had a very nice tan from the radiation). Then he said my situation was slightly different, with the family history of breast cancer. He said, “yours could have been a hereditary thing, or it might not be. You can take a genetic test, like Angelina Jolie did, but you also need to understand that currently, who ever takes it and gets positive results, will be refused life insurance applications forever, and their children will also never be able to qualify for life insurance. It will be permanently on the records. Those rules might change in the future, but that’s how it is for now.” Whoah. He followed that with other possible options for me. I could have a skin-preserving mastectomy on one side, with reconstruction to include an implant to match my “generous” other side. I asked about a bilateral mastectomy for my peace of mind. He said it could be done, but that would have to be my request. He said he could do that and preserve the nipples, and I asked “what about the odds of recurrence of cancer in the nipple, I heard it was a considerable risk?” He replied, “Well, true. The nipple is the front door; all the milk ducts and glands lead to that – it goes to reason that cancer might appear there in the future.” I said, “I could always get nipple tattoos…” (Look at me, wild woman thinking about tattoos!) and he pointed his fingers at me and said, “YES, you can. And there is nipple reconstruction too. You have LOTS of choices.” My mind spun as he offered even more on the breast treatment buffet table, the whole time my furry man scribbled furiously in our Journey Journal (we knew that we would forget 1/2 of what we were being told). Regarding reconstruction, there are fillers made of man-made materials (saline/silicone implants), and fillers made with Suzy Creamcheese-made materials (my own skin, muscle, and fat, from back, abdomen, butt, or inner thighs). During this discussion, he mentioned, “You have ptosis.” We looked blankly at him. He said very tactfully, “Well, when women have, er, generous breasts, over time, they tend to lose volume and they are not as perky as they used to be…” I was like, “OH! Yeah, after 3 kids, they are not at all what they used to be. That’s okay, they fed 3 children; they did their job.” And now I have a proper word to use when referring to my gravity-stricken breasts. “National Geographic boobs” is too much of a mouthful. I have ptosis. Sounds more mysterious.

Toward the end of our appointment, having weighed all the possibilities, I decided that I would opt for a bilateral mastectomy, with immediate reconstruction. Bracing myself for my doctor’s disapproval of what even my own sister has deemed an irrational decision, I was so grateful to hear him respond, “This is your choice. It is your body, it is your fight, and only you can decide this. There is something to be said about the breast cancer phobia that someone with extensive family history like yours might be feeling. It weighs heavily, and if this brings you peace of mind, that must be taken into account and respected. So skin-saving bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction it IS!” He turned to Markus, pointed a finger, and said, “Write this down, Scribe. ‘Dr. Blair Mehling.’ I will set you up to meet him after you have a sentinel node biopsy.” If Dr. Olson is my lumberjack Paul Bunyon, then I suppose his plastic surgeon friend, Dr. Mehling, must be Babe the Big Blue Ox! Can’t wait to meet him…wonder if he will have horns…

A sentinel node is the very first lymph node that the nasty little cancer cells would bump into on their way out of the breasts, as they try to sneak into the rest of you. If there are cancer cells in that first lymph node (the sentinel…the lymph node on guard duty, get it?) then it shows the cancer is on the move; more lymph nodes need to be biopsied, and your adjuvant treatment (follow-up treatment to surgery; radiation, chemotherapy, etc) is adjusted to be more aggressive. The more information the doctors can glean from the sentinel node biopsy, or from any tissue with cancer for that matter, the better armed they will be in the fight. Before the operation, they will (brace yourself) inject a radioactive dye into my right nipple. Guys, hearing or reading that for a woman, brings a similar feeling to you reading about injecting radioactive dye into the little buddy in your pants. OW. Then, they will put me under general anaesthesia and use a Geiger-counter like a metal detector to probe into my armpit. The first lymph node to light up is the sentinel node. This good soldier node will be cut out and sent to a lab for analysis. If there is cancer, we will regroup. If there is no cancer, rejoice and full-steam ahead with our booby going-away party!

When I was first diagnosed, my friends and family quickly rose to my defence, with the collective battle cry, “You will kick cancer’s ass!” On my Facebook page, one day, my sweet furry man was commenting about that bastard cancer, and autocorrect oh-so-helpfully inserted “Barnard” instead. My cousin Gaby took it one step further and envisioned cancer as the stinky Parisienne pickpocket who tried to steal my iPhone while we were visiting the Eiffel Tower last year (a whole other story). Barnard the Parisienne has developed into a full-blown effigy who is after more than my iPhone. He wears a dirty beret and dangles a perpetually smoking cigarette between his decaying yellow teeth. My Facebook page now has a middle finger salute to Barnard, a toast to kicking Barnard’s ass, etc. Occasionally, someone who hasn’t been paying attention will comment, “Who the heck is Barnard?” Now y’all know. Barnard is goin’ DOWN.

So now the initial shock of discovery is over and it seems this journey is turning out to be more a race of endurance, rather than one of speed. I need to take my own advice that I gave to Markus this morning: calm down a little. I need to save my strength by not using it to panic. Be the turtle, not the hare. I would hate to run out of energy close to the finish line. Now I wait for April 3rd, to have my sentinel node removed. Between now and then, there should be less worry, and more living. There will be a thousand moments of joy; a thousand chances to smile or laugh. And I must be fully present to grab those moments and savour them. This journey is turning out to be adventurous, indeed, with colourful characters to meet all along the way. Diana the Nurse Navigator angel, MacGyver and sidekick Pimple Boy, Paul Bunyon, possibly Babe the Big Blue Ox Plastic Surgeon, and my parade of angels: my CIBC Run for the Cure team; 30+ strong women and men, coming together from Alberta and all over the world, to raise money for the Canadian Breast Cancer Society. I’m Suzy Creamcheese and they are The Suepremes. Say it, SAY IT: I’m a Chinese Diana Ross, baby! Our team would love to raise $9000 by October 5th, when we will come together and walk and run side by side. By that time, I hope to be healthy and well. Here’s the link if you’d like to help us collectively kick Barnard’s ASS: http://www.runforthecure.com/site/TR/RunfortheCureFY15/PrairiesNWT?px=3564263&pg=personal&fr_id=1851

I hope you enjoyed Chapter 2 of Follow the Breast Cancer Road. I expect many of you read, “BLAH BLAH BLAH MacGyver BLAH BLAH BLAH lumberjack BLAH BLAH BLAH National Geographic Boobs” and left this blog with your head spinning. Don’t worry. You and I, we have much in common. I am going through my days in a similar state. “Blah blah blah malignant blah blah blah absolute outcome blah blah blah wait 2 more weeks.” I want more “blah blah blah Mom I can burp the abc’s blah blah blah honey give me a kiss.” And flying monkeys; I want flying monkeys. If I have to be on this road, send out the flying monkeys…I already gave birth to the lollipop kids years ago.

Ganbaru 頑張る! (Ch.1)

(Facebook post from March 2014)

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 the 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 (Markus, my husband) 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’re a Hess and 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, here in Alberta. I went in for a mammogram/ultrasound (normally 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’ waiting time) 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 the 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 samples 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 sisters 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 cousins, 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, marveling, “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.

Ancient Chinese Seeclet…I Just Don’t Get It

There is a very mature adult, deep inside my head, who insists on keeping my mouth out of trouble.  Some might consider it my Conscience, some might consider it the Voice of God, but I just see it just as a very little person.  Sometimes this little person has a big voice and sometimes a gentle whisper is all I need to close my mouth and smile.  Today, my little inner person screamed herself hoarse, stopping me from outright ridiculing a nice friend of mine.  Unfortunately, now that the little person has laryngitis, there’s a party going on in my head, and my mouth wants to dance on the speakers.  What I am about to write will surely offend many, but I just cannot help myself.

 

I was enjoying coffee with a visiting friend, this morning (we shall call her Betty), when her carpool partner joined us.  He is also a friend, and a co-worker of my husband.  Very nice man, about as whitebread as I can imagine a Canadian, with Scandinavian roots.  These roots are so strong, he named one of his sons Eric the Red (okay, it isn’t Eric the Red in real life, but a name so close, he might as well have named him Viking Boy).  I shall call this Scanadian Man Bob, to protect the innocent.  We all started discussing their visit to Jasper; my husband had rolled out the red carpet for them, catering all their meetings and hosting feasts at night.  Our Food and Beverage Team went above and beyond, creating drool-worthy meals.  Bob and Betty recalled the yummy food with closed eyes and dreamy voices.  But then, Bob said, “It was all so heavenly, but with my food sensitivities, you know, I really paid for it last night and today.”  I raised my eyebrows in concern and asked, “Food sensitivities?” And he said, “OH, nono, nothing like Celiac or allergies.  But you know mixing the hot foods and the cold foods, and you know, the hot kinds of foods just set me off, and I couldn’t sleep…”

 

This whole time, my eyebrows are still raised, and my jaw is slowly dropping open, as I realize that this tall white Canadian man is describing ancient Chinese food personalities.  I discretely brought my hand up to my chin to shut it quietly, as Bob proceeded to launch into his special relationship with his food.  He was very quick to point out that Chef had created such amazing delicacies, that he couldn’t resist eating it all.  But the discomfort he described afterwards, made it sound like there was a battle of the food divas in his tummy.  Eventually, we changed the subject, and started talking about little Eric the Red, and my daughter the Assassin – they are growing nicely and are poised to take over the world.

 

Long after Betty and Bob headed home, I puzzled over Bob’s latest diet trend. I pondered over this obsession people have with creating meaning from the unknown and manipulating things they just don’t understand.  Dying of the Black Plague and the monarchy has left you starving?  God will save you and punish the rich; you just have to pray pray pray, and give all your money to those less fortunate than yourself.  Don’t want to catch a cold?  Make sure you wear your cozy slippers so you don’t catch cold through the soles of your feet. Oh, and God Forbid you go outside with wet hair – you will catch pneumonia!  Well, if you do, we’ll just throw some leeches on you – the bloodletting will balance your humors…  

 

Granted, Asians are an old enough race that there are some tried and true remedies that even science has accepted.  But if I mention powdered bear gall bladders as a remedy for male impotence, all of you should roll your eyeballs along with me.  Some things are completely ridiculous.  

 

Asians aren’t the only ones with a corner on the Crazy Market.  My husband’s family is quite earthy-crunchy when it comes to medicines.  Rather than head to the doctor when coughing up green phlegm, they will try 42 different herbs and potions, all distilled into small vials of alcohol.  My sister-in-law came to visit us when we lived in California, and I wondered why her giant purse clinked when she moved.  It turns out she took a minimum of 6 different potions every hour – several drops of each.  And she said she was very nervous being in America so she also guzzled Burt’s Rescue Remedy too.  I mentally calculated the amount of alcohol in all her potions by the end of the day, and realized that it all seemed to work for her because it was the equivalent of several stiff drinks.  Well, DUH, I could have given you that prescription.  And years ago, I knew a man who went through a very painful cleanse just because his meditating yogi wife told him he would lose 30 lbs in intestinal blockage alone.  After a week of lemon juice and hot pepper water, I’m thinking he was not a fan of hot foods.  

 

So let’s get back to this hot foods cold foods thing (or the Yin and the Yang foods, as some put it).  According to Wikipedia (my main source for Asian information, as my Chinese mother is currently rolling over in her grave, filled with shame for her half-breed ignorant daughter), “Chinese food or Nutrition therapy, is a modality of traditional Chinese medicine. Central to this belief system is the idea that certain foods have a “hot” or heat-inducing quality while others have a “cold” or chilling effect on the body and its organs and fluids. An imbalance of this “heat” and “cold” is said to increase susceptibility to sickness or to directly cause disease itself. Such an imbalance is not necessarily related to the subjective feeling of being hot (tending toward sweating) or cold (tending toward shivering).

As an example, if one had a cold, or felt he was about to get a cold, he would not want to eat any “cold” foods such as a lemon, melon or cucumber. If one had a so-called “hot” disease, like Eczema, then he would not want to eat “hot” foods such as garlic, onions, or chocolate lest the “hot” disease is worsened. Indeed, it is thought by some that these “hot” or “cold” properties of foods are so intense that merely the eating of too many of one or another can actually cause diseases. For example, the eating of too many “hot” foods like chili peppers or lobster could cause a rash, or the eating of too many “cold” foods such as watermelon, or seaweed could cause one to develop stomach pain or diarrhea. In this way, this health system is in direct opposition to evidence-based medicine and the germ theory of disease (where microbes are described as the cause of many disease states).”  The article goes on to list different foods in a temperature table, showing the supposed side effects of consuming too much…for instance, my over-consumption of foie gras and other duck/goose related products, should give me hemorrhoids.  Well well well, my bottom is as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom. I am a walking miracle, then eh?   And how convenient for them that beer is listed as a Yin food, to counteract the dry fire effects of the Yang foods like chili peppers.  Who makes up this shit? Could it be that instead of the explanation for diarrhea after eating too much watermelon is NOT because it too much of a “cold” or Yin food, but because you are a PIG and too much fruit will give you the runs?  It’s all sugar and water, people!

So there you have it.  I am in turmoil.  The Chinese half of me is horrified that I have betrayed my roots and shamed my ancestors.  I actually flinch when I see movement in the corner of my eye, thinking it’s my mom reaching out from the grave to smack me upside my head.  When I do, the American half of me shakes her head and laughs.  SCIENCE.  We have SCIENCE to prove or disprove most of this. I will tell you what we do know.  Yes, there are chemicals in many herbal tinctures that are very helpful.  Yes, too much watermelon will give you the runs.  Yes, I take herbal supplements to help me with PMS, Hashimoto’s, and my immune system.  These herbal supplements have scientifically proven chemicals and properties that do more good than harm if taken in moderation.  But damned if I know whether or not my Evening Primrose Oil is a Yin or a Yang food.  Once again, I demonstrate that I am the Worst Chinese Person Ever, and that my inner white chick has the tiniest brain ever.  I just can’t open it up to let in this “food therapy.”  My idea of food therapy is a pan-seared slice of foie gras, with a few figs and a baguette.  Put that Yin my tummy, and Yang I’m happy! 

Flummoxed

Happy Valentine’s Day.  For those of you who don’t have a Valentine sweetheart to give you lovin’ today, I have plenty to share.  Something crazy happened this year, and I am completely flummoxed.  Flummoxed, you say?  Yes, flummoxed.  I need a new F-word, and today it will be flummoxed.

I’ve been married for 17 years this May 1st, and for most of those years I’d dream about big romantic days with my husband, only to get a Hallmark card, and during one rocky patch-nothing.  I tried the bitch approach (hey, that’s not a swear word – it’s not directed at you…) and would whine out loud about the lack of romance in my life.  If I started bitching a week before a big event, I might get flowers delivered out of guilt.  Guilt flowers don’t give as much pleasure as I’d thought.  Then we hit the rocky patch.  I was pretty desperate to save 10 years of marriage, so I researched how to make someone love you.  Yes, I actually googled that.  I also googled how to save a marriage, how to be a nicer person, and how to not lose your mind when your husband decides to leave you.  Don’t judge.  I lived on an island with limited resources.  The Internet actually gave some very good advice.  One of the most important things I learned, that I still use today, is this:  Be the person you want your loved one to be.  In other words, if you want a hug, give hugs.  If you want romance, be romantic.  If you want kindness, be kind.  Be an example (without preaching about it) by living it.  It doesn’t work magic overnight, and it does need to go hand in hand with good conversations where you both talk about hopes and dreams and likes and dislikes (focus on likes). It also involved me deciding to end my high expectations.  Actually, I decided to end all expectations.  So there were some birthdays, Christmases, and Valentine’s Days where I would send HIM flowers and love letters.  And I might not get anything.  But each day we would talk and each week we had a date, and all along we agreed to keep trying.  Anyway, the marriage went from rock bottom to a hesitant work-in-progress, to daring to be happy now, 6 years later.  Which brings me to my flummoxing news.

I woke up this morning to an alarm clock ringing at 5:30.  My husband whispered, “go back to sleep – I’m going for a run with the dogs.”  Before the sentence was finished I was snoring.  Next thing I know, I’m being kissed awake by a furry man holding a breakfast tray with the aroma of truffles floating from it.  A school day morning breakfast in bed – scrambled eggs with black truffles, a latte in a love cup (we collect mugs with hearts on them-yeah yeah call me corny), and a LOVE LETTER.  Not just any love letter.  He had taken the time to scrabble around in the kids’ art supplies to find colored construction paper, and had cut out little paper hearts that he glued to the letter.  I stopped saying, “I’ll love you forever” when the rocky time happened, even though he is adament that this time around is for good, but he humors me by telling me that he’ll love me until next week.  And I guarantee that I love him right now with all my heart.  And the love letter told me that he will love me with all his heart until next Valentine’s Day.  Now that is something. 

So I floated through the making of school lunches and sent everyone on their way, feeling very loved and special.  At 9, I sat down in my pajamas to do a bit of writing, and I got a text from the furry man.  He told me to brush my teeth.  How rude!  But laughing, I walked to my bathroom to get it over with.  On my mirror was a small homemade poster covered with colorful little folded paper hearts.  “7am,” 12pm,” “1pm,” “3pm”, “5pm”, “6:30pm”, “7pm”, 8:30pm”, “10pm.”  Inside each heart was written (in the same order) “Breakfast in Bed,” Manicure,” Lunch with Me?”, “Pick up Stinkers,” “Get Pretty,” Dinner,” “Want some foie gras?”, “Some cheese for dessert?” and finally, “?”

So now I am flummoxed.  Completely flummoxed.  In one fell swoop, my husband has given several years worth of valentines surprises to me.  And all I have to give him is a lousy coffee cup with a heart on it.  And the woman who normally has so much to say that her father once told her she has diarrhea of the mouth is at a loss for words.  I can’t even pen a poetic love letter to bring tears to his eyes.  I stumbled through a pathetic attempt and it fell dreadfullly short.  I think it might be time for me to play the naked card.  And maybe I can glue little cutout construction paper hearts all over my body…Flummox Me! 

Create Your Own Joy

I wrote this in 2006, one year after my mom died:

The year passed so quickly. Since Mom died last year, our lives have all gone on as busy as before, if not busier. The kids were all in school, Markus worked more hours than he spent at home, finding himself drawing closer to someone else that was not me. No friends, no family, what do I do for me? I can’t remember when I stopped smiling. But I had. I hadn’t even realized the year had passed to the day, until Annie reminded me that Monday was the day Mom had died. How odd it crept up on me, when I had been thinking about Mom so much in the past few weeks. Those weeks had been filled with my feeling nervous, trying to be brave and beginning something new among strangers. I had joined the Waikoloa Canoe Club, hoping to find something that could make me feel happier, fulfilled. To cope with the possibility of being left alone by my husband, everyone’s advice always seemed to be, “don’t hope for someone else to make you happy – make yourself happy.”

What do I know about paddling? Nothing. I didn’t even have the proper equipment or clothing, just a scruffy t-shirt and some shorts. Hunting through my closet before my first practice, I found a pair of red beach shoes – the kind you wear to protect your feet from sharp coral. The tops had been cut to enlarge the opening. Eyes widening, I realized that they were Mom’s – she had worn them towards the end of her life, when her feet were too swollen from her chemotherapy and steroid treatments to fit into her other shoes. I immediately slipped them on and went to my first paddling practice. The club members promptly put me into a canoe, handed me a paddle, the Steersman yelled, “Paddles Up! Hooki!” and we were off, headed for the most blazing sunrise. No time to think, only to imitate the paddler in front of me, remembering to breathe while pulling the paddle through the water, tasting the splash of saltwater on my face. We stopped in what felt like the middle of the ocean, and I looked around for the first time – we were surrounded by crystal clear water – you could see straight to the bottom. And the canoe rocked gently, and nobody spoke to break the silence; we all just breathed. Then, we turned the canoe around and paddled back to shore.

Once on the shore, the spell was broken, and everyone else began chatting with each other, all close friends. Feeling very awkward and out of place, I could only look down at my shoes. My shoes. Mom’s shoes. I smiled, thinking how ironic it was that I had worn her shoes out to the ocean. Mom couldn’t even swim. She hated being out on a boat. My only memory of being on a boat with her was when I was a little girl. I think we were on a cruise and I had just chewed a piece of chocolate flavored gum, and went to kiss her goodnight, and she promptly ran away to vomit. I remember thinking she threw up because of my kiss – Mom and I were infamous for not getting along. Now that I am a mother of a teenager, I know Mom loved me the best way she could. I looked up, smiling with those thoughts, and found myself smiling directly at a very nice teacher from my children’s school. Eyes lighting in recognition, she pulled me into her circle of friends and introduced me to more people than I could possible remember the names of. They were all so warm and welcoming, happy that someone new could enjoy their sport.

The head coach gave some brief instructions, and we were off again, “Paddles up! Hooki!” This time, I had room in my head for thought. I thought about what Mom would have done if she had been given more time to live, if she had been given those 15 years to live life with good health instead of fighting her cancer. I thought, maybe she would have been brave and tried new things. Maybe she would have learned how to swim; gotten her driver’s license, even! Maybe she would have traveled to Hawaii and played in the ocean with her grandchildren. She spent so many years waiting to get better, and the next thing we knew, she didn’t get better. I could hear her, then, in my mind. She was whispering to me, “Don’t let your life pass you by. Try this new thing. Meet these new people. So you’re scared…when has that ever stopped a Hess? Did our dragging you all over this planet to countless new places not teach you anything, girl? Do you know how many strangers I have had to meet in my life? Don’t you remember how many scary things I have had to face? Do this. I’m with you. Look at your brave red shoes. Feel the air breathe into your two healthy lungs, be thankful. Feel your strong back and arms pull on that paddle, be thankful. Raise your face to the sky and feel the sun on your skin, be thankful.”

Those red shoes have been on my feet as I learned how to paddle, as I learned how to “Huli” (flip over, flip back, bail out, and keep going), and as I learned how to be brave on my own. One day, I heard, “Go, Mama, Go!” and looked up to see Markus and Simon cheering from the shore – my whole team laughed and I was so happy. One day I got into the canoe without any horrible bruising. One day my paddle finally entered the water without a splash. One day we were sitting in our canoes on a sea of glass, and a pod of whales swam by, spouting and breaching. And during every night practice, we would paddle into the sunset, and I would ask Mom silently, “What do you think of THAT? Can’t beat the Hawaiian sunset, eh?” All the while, I smiled.

That was three weeks ago. I have paddling practice 3 days a week. I can smile and chat with more than a few people on the team, and I feel strong and confident about this new skill. Sometimes Markus and the kids cheer from the shore, and sometimes I go alone – but I am not lonely when I go alone. I have purchased brand new clothing designed for being in a canoe and a wooden paddle of my very own. But my shoes remain the same. I still wear Mom’s old red beach shoes that are cut open on the top. They don’t match anything I wear to practice, but they are Mom, and she needs to come with me while I paddle out to sea. We have our first 10-mile race on May 13th. Go Mama, Go!

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