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How Blessed to Have an Uneventful Day Together

Don’t give me fancy flowers. If I never have another rose, I won’t be sad. Don’t give me chocolates or romantic dinners in gourmet restaurants. For the rest of my life, if I never eat another chocolate or attend a gala dinner, I could still be happy. All I want is his warm hand holding mine as we walk down our path together. All I want is for him to take my face into his hands and pour all his love from his eyes into mine. I like to think that he was molded up in Heaven while I was a lonely little girl, staring up at the stars at night, wishing to find a family that would love me the way I love them. But he was already running around in his lederhosen by then, growing up all the way across the world, in the mountains.

I used to take our time for granted. Weekends sometimes felt a little boring, sleeping in, reading quietly, making dinner together, working in the garden. I used to think maybe my life was too quiet, too uneventful. Then we got a little shake up with that cancer thing last year, and we found ourselves wishing for boring, wishing for a worry-free life. Last year’s wedding anniversary was a “I’m alive! We made it! Yay!” anniversary, where we just clung to each other, grateful for the chance. Today, we have had a whole year of enjoying every day, a whole year of savouring just sitting on the back porch together, in the sunshine, listening to the quiet breezes drift through the forest. We learned how to fish, we went camping, we took long wandering walks in the woods. This has been a year of deep content. I am truly thankful.

But I want more. With your favourite food, you crave it until you overindulge and then can’t even stand the smell of it. With your favourite music, you play it until you get sick of it. Everything in my life to this moment has been that way. Except this love. This love has made us work hard for 19 years, but the joy and passion we create is ambrosia. Through tears, through frustrations, through misunderstandings, we learned how to be good people, to be kind to each other. And as each year passed, our roots went deeper, intertwining. Our union has produced 3 of the most beautiful precious beings we could ever give to the world. And our struggles, from petty things like snoring, to having serious talks about how one parent might have to go on without the other…raising children alone…those struggles have shown our children that love is everything. Love isn’t just flowers or romantic dinners once a year. Love is every day. Love is putting in earplugs if the snoring is too bad. Love is taking out the garbage. Love is taking turns being the soft parent when the other has to be the hard parent. Love is admitting when we are wrong and apologizing. Love is in the cold washcloth gently wiping away the sweat and tears of pain. Love is never forgetting to tell each other how we are treasured…every day.

So I have it, this love. I am fully aware of how rare it is, how most people may never find just the right person, or just the right way to dance with that person. I know we earned this happiness; it didn’t just fall into our laps. We earn it every day. And just like from a well-tended garden, our love is wonderful produce. There is no more taking for granted. Each minute slows so we can savour it. I take photographs so I can look back and remember that sunny day better, the smiles in the photo bringing me to to that very moment. Having this love comes with insecurity, worry over the future. I see the silver coming into his hair, I hold my breath before my 6month wellness checkups; I have daily reminders that it won’t last forever. Then, my blood tests come back clean and we celebrate. Or he earns a promotion and we celebrate. Or it’s just Friday and we celebrate.

Today is a special day. 19 years ago, on a pristine beach in Carmel, flanked by baby Emily on one side, and the most handsome groom I could ever imagine on my other side, I didn’t think I could ever have a happier moment for the rest of my life. Never have I ever been so glad to be wrong. Time has softened us, has greyed and wrinkled us. But that man I married has transformed into a man that glows from within. He is so beautiful my heart hurts. Sometimes I feel his eyes on me, and I look up to find the love shining from him, so palpable I feel I could reach out and hold it in my hands.

On Sunday, Markus flies away to Seattle to begin his new job. The kids and I are staying behind while they finish school. I struggle with the pride I feel for the rewards he has earned from his hard work, while I am already missing him so much my heart hurts. We are each other’s touchstone. When the outside world is too harsh, we turn to each other and there is comfort. When there are times to celebrate, we turn to each other for the big hugs and the jumping up and down. No matter what the situation, we turn to each other. For 22 days, we are going to have to settle for some virtual hugs and love through Facetime and emails. Between now and Sunday, I will be giving him kisses for him to keep in storage. Today won’t have fireworks or chocolates or flowers, it will be even better than that. Today will be pure love; just cherishing the quiet reading, holding hands, walking the dog, and whatever else a perfectly uneventful day will bring. Happy Anniversary to my Love. May we always be hungry for more.10849840_10152580707443131_566979218348613696_n

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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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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.

Snowhuddled and Dreaming of Another Place

3pm in Jasper, Alberta, and the snow has been pounding down since dawn.  It brings to mind the beginning of a lovely memory of my 15th wedding anniversary.  I’m going to let you read my diary…just this once. But remember that this is my diary and if you object to controversial subjects such as the Godlike quality of foie gras and sex in hotel rooms, may I suggest searching for a blog to read in the gardening section?

 

“April 14, 2011

Banff, Alberta

Started out at 4:30 this morning.  The furry German  arranged a friend to stay with the children, instructed me to pack a bag, and announced, “Happy Early Anniversary!” as he hustled me into the car.  Drove 2 treacherous hours through slush and blinding snow, and arrived at the airport with just enough time to whisk through the baggage tagging and boarded the plane.  Needn’t have rushed, because my BadWeatherShit Magnet kicked into overdrive.  The snow storm shut down the main runway at the airport in Calgary, forcing us to wait in the plane for an hour.  It was stuffy and hot, and all I could think of was that we didn’t give out medical powers-of-attorney or make our will in case we died on this trip.  Then the furry guy announces, “We are spending a romantic weekend in Montreal, and we will dine in your dream restaurant.”  All worries and thoughts of piddly things like Death and children are instantly replaced with fantasies of Au Pied de Cochon. 

Landed in Montreal at 2pm and messed up the first step of our romantic adventure.  I wanted to be welcomed to Montreal with a French kiss (get it?) but Markus forgot our agreement, and gave me a quick peck when I asked for a kiss.  Hmph!  The rest of the trip HAS to be better!

Hopped on the Express Bus 747 and rode through the city to Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth.  This is the hotel where John Lennon had his “Give Peace a Chance” Love-In.  Rode the elevator to the 19th floor and checked into Fairmont Gold.  On the elevator door, there is a sign that reads “Fairmont” and under it “Or.”  I asked my husband, “Or what?” and he replied, “Or is the French word for Gold.”  Well, duh. 

The room is beeyootiful, and we decided that after we put away our clothes, we would need to christen all the furniture.  Never finished putting away the clothes…then it was time to get ready for our 6pm dinner reservation at Au Pied de Cochon.  How does one dress for an orgy of the palate? 

At 5:15 we called the kids to bid them adieu – after all, we were heading for Heaven on a 6pm reservation, right?  10 minute taxi ride, and we arrived at the temple…a place so renowned it doesn’t even need to advertise the name of the restaurant on the door.  And we entered the pearly gates…

The bustling atmosphere was exactly as we imagined.  Every server and helper smiled, “Bonsoir!” We were seated at a table across from the open kitchen – perfect view of the frenzy.  First up, we sipped a Riesling – not too sweet; perfect for the incoming fois gras…L’amuse bouche was a dice-sized breaded cube of deep fried, liquid fois gras.  Liquid “Or”  hahaha.  Then we moved on to codfish fritters dipped in homemade mayonnaise.  They were just teasers…the entrance of the fois gras appetizers deserved a standing ovation.  I had the fois gras poutine.  Mein Mann had the terrine.  Better than sex.  Well, almost…husband has some stepping up to do…

Anything after that was just overkill.  I had the Duck in a Can – the flavors were divine.  Marinaded duck breast, fois gras, savory cabbage, pressure-cooked in a sealed can, served on a bed of celeriac puree on croutons.  If I could have borne parting with the fois gras already consumed, I would have tickled my throat with a feather as the Romans did, just to be able to finish my entrée, sigh.  As it stood, I had to leave some on my plate.  A sin.  The furry man’s eyes were rolling back into his head while savoring his beef tartar.  It was so perfectly seasoned, he only needed some bread to crunch with it, and he was set for the evening.  We both filled to bursting.  Best money ever spent on dinner.  EVER.

After dinner, we desperately needed some fresh air and a walk.  It was important to shake that food down to our toes, or it might come back up, we were so full.  So we consulted our map, and set out to walk back to the hotel.  The evening was clear and cool, with a brisk breeze blowing all the clouds away from the shining moon.  A lovely romantic way to end an evening.  But after a dozen blocks, we thought maybe we would try the subway – after all, that was an adventure we hadn’t yet tried.  After a couple of turnarounds in neighborhoods that were positively picture-book, we found an entrance to the Metro.  The underground was busy with people rushing to and fro.  We wandered about, consulted maps, and asked the ticket clerk for some direction.  He set us back on track, and two trains later, we were in the underground tunnel that led straight to the elevators that took us to the Fairmont Or Floor.  Or or Bust!  We poured ourselves some much needed Bailey’s in the Or Floor Lounge, my Lovie filled a small plate with sweets, and we locked ourselves in our little room. 

And so, Day 1 is ended, and we go to sleep with shivery memories of bites of heaven, and we will snuggle and be romantic and…ok I’ll be honest – he is watching a San Jose Sharks hockey game.  It wouldn’t be fair to let him treat me to the most romantic anniversary gift ever, without giving a little bit of joy in return, right?  Bonne Nuit!”

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! 

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