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Exactly one year ago I went in for a colonoscopy. That morning I had heard the news about Farrah Fawcett’s death from anal cancer. I’d been having some bleeding episodes, which was one of the reasons I was having a colonoscopy. While being prepped for the procedure, I nervously mentioned Farrah Fawcett to the doctor. He briefly told me that anal cancer was something quite different from colon cancer – that it was more like a skin cancer. He smiled and assured me I didn’t have it.

Next, I was in a small, curtained cubicle, still drowsy and recovering from the procedure when the doctor came in – no longer smiling. He told me they’d discovered a “villous adenoma” tumor in my rectum. He said he didn’t know if it was cancerous, but he believed if it wasn’t already malignant it would be soon. I was advised to see a surgeon…

Fast-forward to yesterday. I took my mother to the same Endoscopy Center for her colonoscopy. As they prepped her for the procedure, I looked around and realized I was in the exact same room where a year ago I’d been given the news about my tumor. It was rather surreal to stand there as they were taking Mom’s vital signs and inserting an I.V., all the while my mind was going back over all that has taken place since I was there last.

As they wheeled Mom away, I felt a little dizzy. I went back out to the waiting room and tried to read. Forty-five minutes later they called me back to the recovery area where Mom was just waking up. The doctor came to tell her that everything looked good, she’d had only a few tiny polyps, they didn’t expect anything other than a good report from pathology…Of course I sat there listening and was grateful for her results, yet I couldn’t help but also entertain a vivid memory of a very different discussion a year ago. Being in that little curtained cubicle again brought up a lot of unexpected emotions for me.

I got Mom home and settled. We had a small meal together and, when I felt sure she’d be okay alone, I left to drive home. It was raining. We’ve been waiting weeks for it to rain here, so it might have been a joyful moment. But I found myself feeling strangely sad.

Over the next few weeks I’ll have a series of “anniversaries” (the biopsy, being diagnosed, starting chemo and radiation…). I’m so truly grateful to be in good health again – really I am – and yet I’m wondering how best to navigate this season of “a year ago this” and “a year ago that.” I want to acknowledge and honor what I’ve been through, but I don’t need to wallow in it either. I think my experience yesterday at the Endoscopy Center was a small reminder: although I’m very happy to be alive and well, there’s still some emotional terrain ahead.

ArtfulShe Booth at the Artisan's Market

So you won’t think I’m spending all my time wallowing in the past, here are some pics of my recent exploits at the local arts and crafts markets. My booth was sure busy on Sunday at the Artisan’s Market.

It's all happenin' at ArtfulShe!

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Mammogram Update

Wonderful news! Both Mom and I have gotten the results of our mammograms back and – drum roll please! – we’re both NORMAL!

Really, that’s the exact terminology – normal! I know there are those of you who might dispute the term “normal” being applied to me, so here’s proof:

Look, Mom, I'm NORMAL!

All joking aside, I’m completely grateful to receive yet another affirmation that I’m in good health. My “one year anniversary” of being diagnosed with cancer is just a couple weeks away – and what a year it’s been! Thankfully, I’m feeling better and better each day, and I have every intention of keeping it up!

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June 11 was Grammy’s birthday (my mom’s mother). She would have been 103.

Mom and I “celebrated” Grammy’s birthday by going for our mammograms together. It’s been 13 years since Mom was treated for breast cancer.  Thankfully, she’s been cancer-free since then! She’s also been very good about going annually for her mammograms and follow-up visits.

I had my last mammogram about five years ago when I still lived in the Keys. Now that I’m on the “other side” of my colon cancer treatment, my oncologist, Dr. Fekrazad, has given me a plan for follow-up care that includes having a mammogram, a colonoscopy and a CT scan this summer. So, on Friday, I knocked off the easiest one on the list!

It seems mammogram technology has changed pretty dramatically since my last one. They’re almost all done digitally now. The technician at Santa Fe Imaging, where Mom and I went, told me they would be comparing these digital images with my previous film images and, more likely than not, they would be able to see much more than the film mammograms did. She cautioned me not to get jumpy if they should call me to come back in after they compare the new images to the old ones. She said if that happens it’s probably just because they’re able to see more “stuff” that they can’t compare to the old films. And, since I now have a history of cancer, they’re going to be extra cautious about anything they see.

The beautiful pink rosebush in my garden popped out its first blooms of the year just a week ago!

So, I’ll be sure to provide an update once Mom and I get our results back. I’m confident we’re both going to get good reports.

Since I’ll probably have to start going for annual mammograms like Mom does, don’t you think it would be a nice tradition for us to go for them together on Grammy’s birthday each year?

And, it sure isn’t lost on me what a beautiful thing it is that Mom and I are both here, and able to refer to our future in terms of “years.”  I’m so truly grateful for this wonderful gift we’ve both been given!

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Prolapsed Stoma

Just when I thought I’d experienced pretty much everything I was going to with this cancer stuff.  Then, without warning, my guts are hanging out. Literally. (Yuck.  Even the name – “prolapsed stoma” – sounds disgusting!)

I’ve been doing really well lately, feeling better, gaining weight, keeping busy. Then, last Thursday I noticed my stoma seemed to be “sticking out” a bit more than usual. It was about time to change the ostomy bag anyway, so I went into the bathroom, removed the bag and – gasp! – there was about an inch of, well, intestine protruding out of my stoma. Let me just say this is not something you want to see (don’t worry, there are no photos for this post!).

It wasn’t painful, other than emotionally. I will admit I pretty much freaked out. I did have the presence of mind, though, to immediately phone my surgeon’s office. I got Dr. Brown’s nurse, Blanca. Usually she’s very helpful and sweet. Perhaps I caught her on a bad day. Between sobs, I described what was happening, and her rather un-sympathetic response was, “Well, that happens sometimes. If it gets worse, you should go to the hospital.”

I was choking back tears of panic. She asked me to hold a moment. When she returned, she said she’d been able to speak to Dr. Brown between patients and he suggested I lie on my back to see if the intestine would go back in on its own. She said he wasn’t too concerned if it was only protruding about an inch. If it got to be four or five inches, then I’d need to have it looked at.

I hung up in disbelief. My guts were literally hanging out and my surgeon wasn’t too concerned? However, I did as he suggested and laid flat on my back in bed for a while. It wasn’t long before the intestine began to sink back in (where it belongs, thank you!). While I laid there watching and waiting, I couldn’t help but think there has to be something symbolic about having one’s guts hanging out. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t come up with what it was.

When I finally felt like it was safe for me to get up, I went right to the computer and Googled “stoma prolapse.”

Not a good idea! I saw all sorts of gross photos of intestines popping out of stomas several inches and more. I tried to just read the text and not look at the pics, but it was impossible not to notice them. Besides, there wasn’t much explanation in the text that seemed helpful either.

Fortunately, my three-month check-up with Dr. Brown happened to be scheduled for today. I went to his office hoping to get some answers to my burning questions:

• What causes this to happen?

• What can I do to prevent it?

• Will I need surgery?

His answers were (in this order):

• Don’t know.

• Nothing.

• Hope not.

Okay, I may have paraphrased a little. Basically he said they don’t know why stoma’s prolapse, although he believes it’s often related to a stomal hernia. He felt around my stoma as I was reclining and then lifting up as in a crunch, and said he thought I might have a small stomal hernia forming. (Oh, joy…)

He said there was really nothing I could do to prevent another incidence of prolapse. And there wasn’t much I could do to prevent the hernia from increasing. He said, “You could lie on you back all the time and never use your stomach muscles, but I don’t think you want to do that…” And, as for surgery, he said he did not like to operate on stomal hernias unless it was absolutely necessary. Ditto for prolapsed stomas. If I had a persistent prolapse of many inches, he said we would consider surgery then.

Well, thank God for small favors! I am so disinclined to have more surgery (unless it concerns life or death), I was at least comforted by this last bit of info.

So, for now, I guess I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. And keep trusting that it was a one-time incident…or at least that if it should happen again it won’t be any worse.

I left Dr. Brown’s office and had a chocolate milk shake – to reward my inner cry-baby for not making more of this than need be.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Okay, I can’t stand not including a photo. So here’s one I took tonight of my new neighbor. His name is Billy.

My new neighbor, Billy. Isn't he adorable?

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About a month ago, I had my very first acupuncture treatment (ever!). For years now I’ve heard and read about how helpful acupuncture can be, especially for symptoms that don’t always respond well to traditional Western medicine. But I was so put off by the whole idea of getting stuck with a bunch of needles, I never tried it. Besides, before this dance with cancer I was really darned healthy and never felt a real need for acupuncture.

When my discomfort from the “hand and foot syndrome” (a nasty side effect of Xeloda) was enough to keep me from doing things I enjoyed, a fellow yoga student, who also happens to be a well respected acupuncturist, offered to treat me in hopes of relieving some of the chemo side effects. I was reluctant, but my pain was great enough to get me to go. Now, five treatments later, I’m so glad I kept that first appointment!

So, I’ve found myself in the unlikely role of telling everyone I meet how great acupuncture is. Seems like time to post a blog entry about this whole acupuncture thing.

Look closely - there are needles in my back!

First: It makes a difference who you go to.  I really like Leah Fineberg. She’s compassionate and nurturing at the same time as being funny and direct. We talk and laugh throughout the appointment, sometimes comparing notes about our families (who’s driving us crazy and why), sometimes dissecting the last yoga class (“were there an awful lot of deep twists, or what?”), and sometimes she just listens while I complain about the lingering side effects of chemo. But the thing that really matters to me is that I like how I feel after my interactions with Leah. That hasn’t always been my experience with “healers.”

SecondIt’s not about the needles.  At my very first appointment Leah told me, “I don’t have to use needles on you.” She took my pulse at several points on my wrists and throat. She applied pressure with her hands to my shoulders, back and hips. And then, when I was comfortable and she decided she’d like to try the needles, it was really no big deal at all. I was nervous enough before she inserted the first one to jump a little when her hand touched my back (before the needle even came close…). But then I didn’t even notice when the needle itself went in. Since that first time, if I feel anything at all, it’s as if a finger thumps me lightly. Usually it’s not even that much. Once in while (infrequently) I’ll feel a tiny poke or pinch that happens briefly and then it’s over. It’s not nearly as bad as having blood drawn – not even close.

ThirdIt’s so soothing you won’t believe it.  I tend to feel cold more often than not (except when I’m having a hot flash – which is a new phenomenon for me – but afterward I go right back to feeling cold). So when she heated up needles on either side of my spine I was in heaven. For the first time in ages my spine felt warm and supple, not stiff and achy like is has while I’ve been in treatment for cancer. She uses something called “moxa” (an herb that’s applied externally and burned like incense). Apparently, using the moxa together with the needles allows you to relax even more. Now, I look forward to this part of the session more than any other single thing she does. The overall experience of acupuncture has turned out to be very comforting, but the heated needles are the bomb!

Heated needles ... mmmmmm!

FourthThe healing effects are almost immediate.  I usually leave Leah’s office feeling light and peaceful – even if we’ve talked during the entire session. Something about the treatment calms me immediately. And Leah has said my “pulses” have gotten better with each visit (I’ll just have to trust her on that one). I feel certain I’m getting benefit from having these acupuncture treatments, but – in answer to those who ask if it’s “effective” or not? – it’s something I experience as being very healing, and that counts as “effective” in my book!

Acupuncture is also a very individual experience. It may not be for everyone. I’m normally kind of reluctant about things I don’t understand. But, in this case, I can say without any hesitation that acupuncture has helped me better deal with the side effects and stresses of cancer treatment. And for that I can only be grateful!

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Time to tie it all together! (I stamped words on the ribbons to remind me how far I've come)

Over the weekend, I attended a wellness workshop for cancer survivors hosted by the St. Vincent Cancer Center. Marla, the center’s social worker, had invited me ages ago, even before I thought to call myself  “a survivor.” But as the workshop date approached, I found I was a little reluctant to go. I couldn’t really explain why. But I had told Marla I would be there, so I went. Then, sitting in a circle with twenty-five or so others, I heard another participant articulate beautifully her own reluctance to attend. She said she’d already put “having cancer” behind her and she really wasn’t interested in dredging up all those difficult emotions again. I immediately understood exactly what she meant. And yet, by the end of the day, we both agreed the workshop was a truly valuable experience and had helped us renew our commitment to making the most of this gift of life we’d been given!

The front cover of my little "collage" book made during the Wellness Workshop

(This will seem a bit odd, but way back when I was diagnosed I remember telling my therapist that I didn’t look forward to having the label “cancer survivor” attached to me. Of course I wanted to survive – I just didn’t want to live with such a narrow label of who I was…But here I am today talking enthusiastically about attending a “cancer survivor’s” workshop!)

The program was held at the Hotel Santa Fe and funded entirely by the Heidi Paoli Fund of the New York Community Trust. Of all the women in the room, only two had not had cancer: Cynthia (my nurse practitioner, who I was delighted to see there), and a woman named Joyce, who was introduced to us as the person behind the Heidi Paoli Fund that made the workshop possible (both her husband and his daughter, Heidi, had died from cancer). Nearly all of the others there had lived through breast cancer, but there were a few of us with other types: Nanci had lung cancer, Sarah had throat cancer, and me with colorectal cancer.

Inside, with pieces that can be removed and replaced as I wish!

Each of the two facilitators had survived breast cancer – both more than once! Marla, who compiled a huge notebook for each of us with tons of resources and information, had been through it twice. The other presenter, Pasha Hogan, a wonderful inspirational speaker as well as yoga instructor, was a three-time breast cancer survivor! She impressed me even more with her passionate way of leading us through some stress reduction techniques, including guided meditation and yoga.

And, we had a nice lunch under a portal in the Hotel’s courtyard. (I could overhear the other tables exchanging cancer war stories with each other, but thankfully our table talked mostly about gardening!)

The outside of my collage book...

By far my favorite part of the day was the “creative arts” project we worked on in the afternoon. We created these sweet little collaged accordion books. Of course I launched into mine with gusto! We were asked to set aside our “inner critic” and just cut and paste without questioning what or why we chose the images we did. Afterward, we were asked to share a little bit about our collage. I couldn’t help but notice that my perfectionist self hadn’t fully stepped aside while we were creating. So, I decided to honor that bit of me by including an image of a book with the title “Perfection.”

I know that I’ve been dramatically changed by my experience with cancer, but I discovered during this workshop that I like the fact that there are still some aspects of me I haven’t lost. I admit that I’m actually glad to find my “perfectionist” has survived along with the rest of me!

So, here are some photos of the artsy little “cut and paste” project I came away with. I can also say that I am very grateful now to be called a cancer survivor. Let’s hope the label sticks with me for a long, long time!

The back cover...

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Spent the early part of the day with my mom to celebrate Mother’s Day together – something we’ve only been able to do since she moved to Santa Fe a few years ago. Before that, we mostly had to settle for a card and a phone call (okay, sometimes I’d send a small gift). I recall writing on so many of those cards “Wish we could spend the day together.” And, now we can!

This morning we went to Mom’s church, the Christ Church Santa Fe, which is in a beautiful contemporary building, has two great pastors (both very different!), and a congregation that has been especially warm and supportive to Mom (and who’ve said many, many prayers for me). She’s really found a wonderful community to be a part of, and for that I’m truly grateful.

Dadou - the French accordion player at Café Paris

After the service, we went down to the Plaza area for a late breakfast/lunch at Café Paris. It’s located on a little pedestrian street called Burro Alley (where, in the old days, locals sold their firewood off the backs of burros). It has the most charming French country atmosphere. Sitting outside under the market umbrellas, looking at the old windows with their Provence curtains blowing in the breeze, listening to the distinctly French music of the accordion player – you really feel you could be in some little out-of-the-way village in France.

I was delighted to find that their menu had several items on it that Mom would be willing to try. That’s usually not the case when we go out for a meal. She’s possibly the most picky eater I’ve ever known (which does make one wonder how I became so willing to eat just about anything!).  So, I’ve made a mental note to take her back there again when I run out of other ideas for restaurants she’ll eat at! (In this town known for its phenomenal southwestern style food, Mom absolutely won’t eat what she calls “Mexican”).

So, she had her Strawberry Pancakes and fresh squeezed orange juice, and I had my Eggs Benedict with homemade Hollandaise sauce and a Café Latte served the proper French way – in a big wide cup! We so enjoyed the warm day, the colorful and diverse crowd, and the music provided by the accordion player, Dadou. The owner of Café Paris, a full-figured dark-haired beauty with a thick French accent and a frangipani blossom tucked behind one ear, occasionally stopped to sing with Dadou, adding a tambourine to the mix when she wasn’t scurrying around delivering dishes to customers. It was just wonderful!

Mom at Café Paris on Mother's Day

Afterward, we walked in the direction of the Plaza but got sidetracked by a dress shop called Maya. I tried on every hat they had that didn’t have an enormous brim (and I mean enormous!), but none were quite right for me. I’ve been losing big clumps of hair as a side effect of the chemo and my hair’s so thin now my scalp is mostly visible, so I wear hats as often as I can – but, of course, once must have the right hat for each outfit!! None of this just-shove-any-old-hat-on sort of thing for me!

So, as you can see, we had a nice outing for Mother’s Day. I’m very thankful to be alive and well enough to spend it with Mom.

And a very Happy Mother’s Day to all the women who’ve been there to nurture me over the years! Merci beaucoup!

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