Thursday, January 30, 2014

Out of the Woods

I walk up the stairs to the familiar offices on the second floor. I visit this building twice a year on good years, more often in those years when I've felt a lump or a bump or had a scan come back slightly awry. It's not the same building I started this journey in; that was a tiny office down the road whose clientele quickly outgrew the space. Cancer, it seems, is big business these days.

No matter how many years have passed, I still get nervous before each checkup. It doesn't make sense, when seated in a room full of women wearing head scarves or wigs and men so weak they need wheelchairs or walkers, that I would be the lucky one. The survivor. The one who beats it. It comes with a guilt to sit among these faces and hear my name called and know that my emotions when I leave this place are going to be so very different from these others in my tribe. I have a lot in common with the other men and women in this waiting room. But the one difference, the big difference, is a hard pill to swallow.

I've been cancer-free for ten years and will survive. Too many do not.

The faces at the front desk and at the nurses' station where I get my blood drawn and my blood pressure checked and my weight measured have all changed. I don't know if the faces back in the chemo suite have changed; I haven't been back there since my initiation all those years ago. Is Fran, the nurse with the big laugh, the one who cried with me when my veins had hardened and made the IV preparation a Herculean task, still there? I want to know, and yet I don't. This is a hard job, and no one seems to do it for very long. I'd like to think Fran is still charming both those with hope and those without. But I'd also like to think she took a well-deserved permanent vacation to a tropical beach home with plentiful rum. Chemo nurses have earned such luxury.

The one face that hasn't changed is my doctor. He doesn't so much enter a room as charge through it. He is aggressive in every sense of the word; he speaks loudly, he doesn't tolerate bullshit, and he doesn't play nice with his prescribed treatment plan. He wants to kill your cancer. That simple. He's not there to comfort and coddle. It was off-putting at first, because I was young and my cancer diagnosis was tragic and I just didn't get how he couldn't see how very sad this all was. But he grew on me.

Much like, well... a cancer.

I eventually learned that he has a sense of humor. An exceedingly dry one. After all, this was the person I ran into at the frozen margarita booth at a church festival several summers ago.

"I hear those things give you cancer," said a voice behind me.

Not everyone gets to have a cocktail with their oncologist. But I highly recommend it.

As always in our appointments, the "How have you been?" questions are followed by a long silence. He is a thinker and a studier who pores over his notes from last year and my tests from this year for a full five minutes before speaking. I've learned not to interrupt. I won't know what his conclusions are until the end of the physical exam, which has become like a choreographed dance: I raise my shoulders so he can check the nodes above my collarbone, I swallow hard as he checks my thyroid, I raise my elbows slightly and relax my shoulder muscles as he checks under each arm. I inhale and exhale. I lost my modesty many years ago when it comes to medical personnel, so I barely bat an eye as my entire body is scrutinized looking for unusual growths. I remind myself to breathe those times that he spends a little longer in one area of nodes, or checks the same area twice. I tell myself that he's just being thorough and try not to sweat and feel slightly ill.

Sometimes it works better than others.

Today, after the chit-chat and the exam, he goes back to my chart. This is unusual. He hasn't spoken in several minutes, and I prepare myself for news. Good or bad, I'm not certain. But I feel as if something has changed.

"Would it break your heart if I said I think this is the last time I need to see you?"

Oh. Oh. It has been ten years, and I know this means I'm cured. But I'm not ready to let go yet. I will always, always be afraid. There was a monster under my bed once, and even though we've slayed it, it's still there. I've seen enough horror movies to know that sometimes the monsters come back. And they bring friends.

I have no idea what to say. I've become co-dependent. I need to hear every year that I'm okay. I need to watch the instant CBC machine analyze my blood and get the results placed in my hands. I need that appointment card on my fridge, giving me a date I can hang something concrete on. My immune system has seemed a little weak this year, but I see the doctor in January, so I can ask about it then. I've felt a little pain in my upper right side that I'm worried might be my liver; the doctor can check it for me in a few weeks. I sometimes think I feel a lymph node in my neck; good thing I see the doctor this summer. These appointments are my touchstones. It's like tagging home plate. I can't let go.

But it's time. And I know I must.

"It might break my heart. But I think I'll live."

He smiles. I smile. I get a quick reassurance that the door is always open if something comes up, and that I will still be seeing the radiation oncologist once a year to deal with the side effects and risks from that part of my treatment. But the radiation oncologist has only known me from the point my cancer was already in remission and I just needed some rogue cells mopped up. That's not the person who saved my life and made me whole. This guy is. But I know it's time to say goodbye.

"Yes," he says. "I think you'll live, too."

I gather my things and walk out of the room. The doctor turns immediately into another exam room; his work is far from over today. The receptionist smiles when she sees that I do not need to make a follow-up appointment. I walk down the stairs and into the cold winter sunlight.

I'll live.

Friday, January 17, 2014

You never really understand a person until you fall down a few steps in her shoes.

Another paper to file away in the "Why can't I just be like other women?" folder.

This one says, "Suspected proximal bicep tear (partial)" and is my receipt for a little trip I took this week to an orthopedist after another little trip I took down five of our living room stairs.

After last week's fun-filled basement water extraction adventures, I felt the need to make a grand return to form at work on Monday and don a pair of my mother's high heels. Any time I want to feel professional and semi-attractive, I turn to one of two pairs of her shoes that actually fit me. And wonder, after just an hour of wear, how in the hell that woman trounced around in elevated shoes every single day of her adult life.

For, when it comes to stylish but painful footwear, I am not my mother's daughter. I have neither the ankles nor the will for it.

In this case, I really should have just stuck with my cowboy boots.

Midway down the steps leading from our bedrooms, a heel caught in the hem of my dress pants. I knew I was going down. My brain had just enough time to form one thought-- "Oh, SH*****T!"--before my body succumbed to the stubborn forces of gravity. I do have a fighter's instinct, though, and I vaguely remember bracing myself and hanging on to walls and banisters and carpet for dear life in an attempt to, much like Sandra Bullock's character in a recent motion picture, pull off a win against earth's sucking.

I admitted defeat when I found myself curled on my back in our entryway, nearly fetal, hoping my padded ass broke most of my fall.

It initially seemed that it did. Except for a left arm that felt weak, as though I had just performed a bicep curl with a refrigerator, I felt none the worse for wear. Jason helped me up off the floor, as he so often does, and I completed a day of work. IN HEELS. Though I think it goes without saying that this will be the end of that.

24 hours after the fall, the bruises and the pain began to appear. By lunch on Tuesday, my left shoulder and bicep muscle spasmed and burned. A call to my doctor's office for advice led to a referral to a local injury clinic where I was told that I may, indeed, have a bit of a problem and that in some point in my tumbling down the stairs, I must have fallen onto an outstretched left arm.

I don't remember that happening, but the pain and weakness I felt during the shoulder exam tells a different story with not as happy an ending.

Fortunately (or un-, depending on your personal view on Vicodin) I do not have enough pain to need the bad (good?) drugs. I don't even need a sling. Unless the MRI I'm supposed to have but am thinking of cancelling BECAUSE DEAR LORD THEY HAVE TO INJECT DIE INTO MY SHOULDER JOINT shows a more serious injury. But I doubt it will, because it truly feels like the tear is starting to heal. In fact, the only things that still aggravate the pain and make my left hand go all tingly are typing, texting, and driving.

All three of which I'm doing right now because I'm Catholic and like to suffer. Kidding! I'm not really Catholic anymore. (Kidding again. But barely. And I am still typing.)

Everything will heal eventually except  for my pride, which may be permanently damaged at least as it pertains to my ability to wear nice shoes. I couldn't even navigate stairs in them; my mother, at my age, worked 8-hour days in a beauty salon wearing them. The woman will never cease to amaze me, even now that she's gone.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an appointment with some Alleve. And perhaps an MRI machine.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Standing on the edge, contemplating the view

I almost wrote a post last Tuesday night about The Ledge.

The Ledge isn't a physical place. But I go there from time to time, just the same. It's the brink I reach in my mind sometimes, when life circumstances or chemical inbalance or the sad slant of the winter sun colors everything in my world in blue.

After the coldest day in 20 years here in Kentucky, and after a delayed start back to school and to a normal routine following our holiday break, and after a Christmas that for some reason I just couldn't get behind and enjoy, I found myself once again on The Ledge. I stood there, looking down into the chasm, knowing that I was only one step away from the darkness, but also knowing that stepping into it was a choice I was not making. I would pull myself out. Winter would become spring, routine would save me, and I would soon be able to step far, far away.

But then on Wednesday a frozen pipe burst in my home while I was at work, and my finished basement flooded, and mother nature and bad insulation came up behind me and gave me a forceful push. And suddenly The Ledge didn't seem like such a light-hearted little view on depression.

Sh*t got real.

If you're keeping score at home, this was the second basement flood in six months. But the first one, in the bright glow of hindsight, was not bad. We called an emergency restoration crew, they worked to dry us out, and 72 hours later we were able to move furniture back into place.

72 hours from this flood, and we are nowhere close to moving furniture back into place. I don't know how many more hours we're looking at, but my guess is...many. A lot.

I'm forcing myself to look away from the darkness and into the bright side, which contains these things:

--We didn't lose anything that can't be replaced, like pictures or family heirlooms or my lightsaber.

--The damage is covered by our homeowner's policy.

--We got further proof that our neighbors are good people who come through in times of crisis and offer tequila afterward.

--I learned that my kid is rather unflappable, like her father, and therefore a calming presence in the face of her mother's general tendency to flip the freak out.

I'm able to look at the bright side for about five minutes at a time, or until I have to enter my basement laundry room to start or finish a load of laundry, and then the hyperventilation at the mess left behind and the noise of industrial fans and dehumidifiers becomes cloying again and I have to breathe into a paper bag that once held a bottle of (you guessed it) tequila. What I think I'm saying here is that it all comes back to Patron in the end.

The damage has felt like a loss. Like one more thing in the past couple of years I've been forced to grieve. I've been through all those stages before and recognized the white-hot anger I felt when I learned that the previous owners finished the basement so beautifully but didn't insulate one outside corner. I recognized the denial I felt when my eyes told me there was water pouring into the basement but my hands wouldn't believe it until I forced their contact with the water-logged carpet. I recognized the bargaining, the sadness.

And when I finally got to acceptance, roughly 48 hours after the initial incident, I recognized that, too, the way one recognizes an old friend.

Things will eventually be fine, as things so often are. For that's all the basement is: a thing. It could have been so much worse.

As for The Ledge...well, I'm still standing there. I started to fall in, but there were many hands offered, and strong people to lift me out.

It's up to me now to will my feet in place and begin to back away. The first step is always the hardest.