Friday, July 29, 2011

Pain pain go away...

There are many different types of pain. Cancer has this amazing way of affecting the lives of those who are diagnosed. However, it also impacts upon the families of the survivors, fellow coworkers, neighbors... it’s like an equal opportunity provider. Cancer will touch one’s mental/emotional state; it will impact the financial well being of the person and his/her family. It will touch lives in ways that, in some cases, will never be the same again. 
It was now July 1, 2002 and I was living in horrific pain. My oncologist, Dr. Nikita Shah, MD, referred to me a pain management specialist. Dr. Shah prescribed a heavy-duty pain killer; hopefully, that would provide some relief until I met with the other physician later in the month.  Go to:
Meanwhile, she also suggested I go for physical therapy and I was sent back to visit my radiation oncologist, Dr. Daniel Buchholz, MD.  Dr. Shah wasn’t sure if I needed any type of radiation treatments following the mets of my breast cancer to the lungs. Fortunately, he did not believe that any follow up radiation treatments were necessary. 
But, the pain was real. Nothing I took nor nothing I did helped provide any relief. I hurt 24/7.  It was living nightmare. I also dealt with an increasing level of fatigue. Additional labs were ordered to determine if I needed any medications to increase my stamina. I lived with physical pain and was dealing with emotional stress -- what a combo!
I had to keep reminding myself that I would get “better and stronger.”  I wanted to eventually publish a book and become an author.  Even at this early point in my post surgical state, I also knew that I would probably never return to my job at Disney’s Reservation Center. (DRC) (The idea of returning to work was a difficult one for me to deal with. There were times I wanted to go back to work at DRC; while there were other times that I knew I could not do the job any longer. This internal conflict would continue for months to come.) 
A gift basket (from my fellow cast members) arrived for me and inside, I found a lot of silly stuff... bubbles, a squirt gun, a 500 piece puzzle. I got to work immediately on the puzzle along with Ed and Adrienne. I also spent a peaceful evening with Adrienne on the balcony of our apartment blowing bubbles. It was therapeutic and relaxing. It was then that I realized I needed to relish in the joy of silly stuff - fun, childlike stuff. It was a wonderful way to unwind and be stress free for a moment. (Highly recommend this for anyone dealing with stress from an illness.) 
While physical pain was tormenting me, we (my family) were dealing with another crisis. A financial one. As I would discover, cancer affects a family’s bottom line - big time! During the month of July, we received much needed help from Jewish Family Services.  Go to:        A check we received from the agency allowed us to help pay our rent and they also provided us with three bags of groceries. Although I was tired and in pain every moment of the day (and night), I did begin to think that despite all this, I would have to consider returning to work at some point. Adrienne was unable to find a summer job; Brian also had challenges finding work. (Both served as caregivers and for that, I was most grateful.) The entire budget of the household was now Ed’s responsibility. And he was drowning! 
Getting outside was also an important part of my overall recovery.  My Mom and brother, Gary, came by one afternoon to take me on a ride to a local store. Instead of using a wheelchair, I chose to walk the long aisles of the store using the shopping chart to help hold me up. It was great exercise, very much needed -- mentally and physically. 
Dealing with all the aspects of my recovery had become overwhelming. The mental/emotional aspects were a much bigger issue this time around. (My first fight with cancer in Dec. 2000 and throughout 2001 were basically uneventful. Except for the treatments I had to undergo and the medication I took, I felt great most of the time. After my 2002 lung surgery, life turned upside down.) I knew I had to address these issues, especially since they influenced many other aspects of my life. Getting out of this “rut” would take time -- and at this point in my life, I was living minute to minute in excruciating pain! 

Monday, July 25, 2011

Life-Saving Chemo Treatments Begin

(To my readers: This entry is about an event that took place in 2002. I am currently cancer free per my latest PET Scan. My blog entries chronicle my cancer journey that started in 2000.)
Chemotherapy began on June 21, 2002.  I spent an anxious evening prior to my first session wondering what it would be like.  (Go to
I arrived at an outpatient building, part of MD Anderson Cancer Center Orlando,  (MDACCO) on the campus of Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC) for my chemo treatment. Everyone having chemotherapy was in the same room, seated in lounge-like chairs. Rows and rows of chairs lined the room along the window side of the building, while in a smaller section of the room, chairs were placed across from one another. Having been offered a seat, the nurse began what would become a routine in the weeks to follow.  She checked my blood pressure and temperature. She then inserted the needle into my port and drew some blood for labs. Afterwards, she prepared me for the actual treatment. 
She asked if I had had lunch, and following my response, brought me a boxed meal. I enjoyed a turkey sandwich on whole wheat, fruit cup, a bag of popcorn, cookies and a soda. Since some chemo treatments can cause fluctuations in body temperatures, she brought over a warm blanket. Later, she would bring me additional blankets as I grew colder. I was also given a pillow. 
For me, the most exciting part of the day was bumping into a coworker. Terry, who had left DRC for another area of Disney, was undergoing chemo treatments. I knew she had been diagnosed with lung cancer, but did not realize she was having treatments. Our session times, we would discover, overlapped. So, in the weeks to come, I would see her on a regular basis. As a “new-by” to chemo, Terry’s presence made me feel so much better. She was able to give me lots of pointers and basically, made me so much more comfortable in the hours that were my first day. 
It was wonderful having someone I knew to talk with especially since I was so anxious. My initial blood pressure was real high, per the nurse. So, after chatting with Terry for a while, my BP came down. I was there from 1:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.. for my session. Since it was my first one, the protocol called for the nursing staff to be much more vigilant in order to ensure that I did not have any type of negative reaction to the chemo. The staff proved to be amazing. I remained under the watchful eyes of my nurse for the entire time I was there. 
Chemo would take place on a weekly basis after this first session. Knowing that Terry would be there each week helped me tremendously. My anxiety level dropped thanks to her presence. At my second session, she brought me a gift. I had told her I was having difficulties sleeping at night. I could no longer sleep flat on a bed, but needed to sleep in a seated position. So, she brought me a pillow I could use in bed. It was perfect since it allowed me to sit up and yet still feel supported. From my second session onward, my actual time line for treatment was about an hour shorter than my first visit. Each subsequent visit got easier, too.  I realized now, why the port was a great device. Rather than having a nurse access an IV line into my arm each time, they simply went directly through my port. They used several agents to numb the area as well, so actual needle insertion was relatively painless. I became an advocate for the port. 
I could now add chemotherapy to my official list of cancer treatments ... the others being surgery and radiation. I had heard, like so many others, all these terrible stories about chemo and its awful side effects.  Go to:           As the months continued, I would find myself amongst the lucky ones. I never experienced any nausea. (I did take medication the first couple of times as prescribed, however, I never did get sick even without the meds.) I never went bald. (My hair thinned out a lot, and if I had undergone chemo for a longer period of time, I would have eventually needed a wig or head cover. I did have some very thinned out spots on my head but I still had hair. I was covered in hair everyday when I woke up and my bed sheets had lots of hair as did my shower floor.) I did have some problems with my fingernails, a pretty common side effect. They were turning yellowish, became quite brittle and developed ridges. I also experienced fatigue, an all too familiar side effect from my radiation days. 
Many of the side effects were not immediate. In fact, a number of the side effects I developed were not even present while undergoing treatment. They started weeks or even months after I was already done. Thus, the realization that chemotherapy attacked much more than just the cancer cells themselves. Chemo affected the entire body and its cells. Long lasting problems --- suffice it is to say I discovered that some chemo-related problems would last a lifetime.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Riding an Emotional Roller Coaster

(To my readers: This entry is about an event that took place in 2002. It is not happening now. I am currently cancer free per my latest PET Scan. My blog entries chronicle my cancer journey that started in 2000. I appreciate the emails, calls and notes I’ve received supporting my journal and also praying for my good health. Thanks so much for your kind words of encouragement.) 
Surviving cancer is more than getting through surgery. It’s a lot more than dealing with radiation treatments. Or, as I would soon discover, much more than regular chemotherapy treatments. I needed to keep reminding myself to take control of my emotions. I was alive and still healthy. I was going to get better real soon. 
I was having a tough time right after my lung surgery and by mid-June 2002, I was still on that emotional roller coaster ride. I was unable to sit down and write my feelings into a journal I was given. When I did write, all I could express was that “I was very depressed. I am still in pain. I am so scared.” 
On June 18, 2002 I had a CT scan of my chest and abdomen. Go to:  Like so many nights since the surgery, I had not slept well. I was unable to get through the night without getting up constantly to use the bathroom or just deal with the ongoing pain. I cried constantly, sometimes for apparently no reason at all. Tears just formed and fell down my cheeks. I wrote: “I want to wake up from this nightmare. I want to stop being sick and feel great again.”  Prior to the surgery, I was getting my life back to some sense of normal. Being a cancer survivor before the surgery was basically easy. Now, I felt like I was “back at square one” and having to “take baby steps” again. 
I questioned God. I asked “Why?” Call it the billion dollar question with no answer. Being on this mental quest for answers furthered my depression. I would discover that it would get much worse before ever getting better.
I sat and watched lots of videos and DVDs. I had told Brian and Adrienne, prior to the surgery, to get plenty of funny movies and TV shows for me to watch. I knew that humor had healing powers. Despite the horrific pain I felt 24/7, I forced myself to watch some of the funniest films ever made. I laughed and cried simultaneously. Holding my “heart pillow” over my chest, I tried desperately to deal with the pain while laughing. Trust me, it was not easy but in retrospect I would recommend it. Laughter does provide a positive way to deal with pain and laughing itself is healthy for the body. So, as I sat in my recliner watching film after film, I held my pillow tightly -- screamed at times in pain -- but still never diverted my eyes from the screen and the funny images before me. I would survive this experience and maintaining a sense of humor was essential. Go to: 
I must add a small detail here. A neighbor of mine, at the time, stopped over to visit. She kindly offered me a pedicure. For a brief moment, I felt relaxed and happy. Pampering is a good thing. It’s therapeutic, just like laughter. 
A couple of days prior to my first chemo treatment, I went out to lunch with friends I knew from the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. Lillian and Carol Ann took me to Red Lobster for a delightful meal and conversation. They were both cancer survivors, so they understood the emotions I was experiencing. 
Carol Ann had also sent me a gift via mail and inside the package was a mug, button and T-shirt. At lunch, she made me promise I would wear the T-shirt at my first chemo session. The hot pink T-shirt proclaimed in bold white letters - “Cancer Sucks!”  All I could think as I unwrapped the package and took a better look - while also laughing -- was “How true!”  Cancer does suck!

Monday, July 18, 2011

To Surgery & Beyond

(To my readers: This entry is about an event that took place in 2002. It is not happening now. I am currently cancer free per my latest PET Scan. My blog entries chronicle my cancer journey that started in 2000. I appreciate the emails, calls and notes I have received supporting my journal and also praying for my good health. Thanks so much for your kind words of encouragement.) 
A date I will never forget -- May 9, 2002. I walked into Florida Hospital Orlando (Go to:   that morning with Edward and Brian. Before the end of the day, I had surgery. Dr. Nayer Khouzam, M.D. removed the upper lobe of my left lung. By late afternoon, I was in the Intensive Care Unit. 
Fortunately, I have no idea what actually occurred during surgery. I was sound asleep. But, my surgeon would later tell me he had to do this radical procedure. Turns out, during surgery, the results of my biopsy  (Go to:        were inconclusive. The pathologist could not determine exactly what type of cancer I had. Although the tumor specimen was malignant, the physician could not differentiate the cells to determine if I had lung or breast cancer. Since the protocol for lung cancer is to remove as much of the tumor as possible, Dr. Khouzam had to go with this potential scenario. Just my luck... or lack of luck. Five days later, a conclusive final biopsy report would show that I had metastasized breast cancer. 
Meanwhile, I was now in Intensive Care Unit (ICU) and under the skilled care of an amazing team of nurses. I still cannot get over the fact that they were able to do so much for me -- like give me a bath in bed and even change my linens -- all while I was still in the bed and not at all ambulatory. 
I also had visitors. And, they kept telling me about the beautiful view outside my window. What window? What view? They told me I had a lovely view of a lake. What lake? All I could see from my vantage point was sliding glass doors. I would later learn that the entrance to my room was via a sliding glass door. That’s all I could see and all I can remember of the room itself. The doors opened; the doors closed. I never saw the lake.
When I left ICU, I was placed into the Cardio Progressive Care Unit. (CPC) At the time, I was the only lung patient in the cardio unit. I had constant reminders that I was in a cardio unit -- tiny little hearts placed throughout the hallway and the heart monitor I was required to wear at all times. (Except when I was finally able to take a shower.) Here too, I had excellent nursing care. Dr. Khouzam continued to do daily checks plus I now had a pulmonary specialist and a cardiologist. Wow! My list of specialists was increasing. (Not exactly my game plan.) 
During my stay in CPC, I continued to grow “stronger and better” with each passing day. I must admit, the process was slow ... turtle like slow. I was attached to so many machines that every where I looked there were tubes and wires coming out of me. I had a catheter. I was hooked up to a spinal block. (This I did not know until the very end, and it’s the reason I did not feel any pain .. thank goodness.) I had two tubes coming out from my waist area -- these were taking fluids from my lungs. Plus, of course, I had an IV line. If I did get out of bed, it took a great deal of time to move me and my encourage of machinery from place to place. Just getting out of bed and to the sink to brush my teeth was a project. Getting me out of bed and to the recliner to spend the day, another major event. And, when the physical therapist came to visit for my daily walk, it took the PT plus a nurse to move me and all my “stuff” out of the room and into the hallway and back again. By the time this was all accomplished, I was physically and mentally exhausted.  I’m sure you get the picture. 
Due to the spinal, my visitors had no idea why I appeared so happy and pain-free. This, of course, was a good thing. I could laugh at everyone’s jokes and have a good time when my coworkers or friends stopped by to say hello. However, once the spinal block was removed (the day before I left) I learned the meaning of “chronic pain.”   (Go to:     While in the hospital, the surgeon had skillfully arranged for me to heal with a minimum of discomfort. I would soon realize why he had told me that this procedure was even more painful than open heart surgery. 
Before leaving the hospital, I also had to have a port inserted in order for me to begin chemotherapy. Dr. Khouzam did that surgery exactly one week following my lung procedure. By the time I left, I was just beginning to understand the meaning of “pain” and my life, as I knew it, had changed forever. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tumors Growing in my Lungs ... Has the Cancer Spread?

It is now early May 2002 and my life is quickly changing by the minute. Forget days. Even hours. I suddenly find myself thinking in terms of seconds. 
Each test I’ve had -- Bone scan, MRI, PET and CT scans -- all are factored into the seconds. As an individual who is math illiterate, I cannot begin to comprehend all the numbers I’ve been dealing with over the past couple of weeks. Blood work. More tests. Now, it’s time to meet the surgeon.
I’m not scared of doctors, but having to meet with a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon is quite intimidating. Dr. Nayer Khouzam, M.D., (Go to:    is fortunately not only a top-notch surgeon in his field but has a pleasant personality along with the ability to demonstrate empathy. Both Edward and I would come to appreciate this later trait.
When we first met Dr. Khouzam, he carefully reviewed my records and examined the scans he had before him. I hand carried all my information with me, per Dr. Shah. This expedited the process and for that, I was most grateful. Dr. Khouzam thoroughly reviewed the scans -- and although he spoke to me, most of his conversation was directed at Edward. I must admit, I was not totally there. Physically I sat in the room with both of these men, but mentally, I was somewhere else. As the saying goes: “I was out to lunch.” I was in complete denial and Ed was now my caregiver and the person I needed to help me through this experience. I was having a difficult time just making it through the moment. There were decisions to make and I had to have someone available to listen for options, hear all the alternatives, and then guide me through the process of making the right decision based on all the information and facts. Ed had his work cut out for him and trust me, he rose to the occasion. I am forever grateful to him for being with me during this time. 
Dr. Khouzam was telling Ed that “if it was his wife, he would be begging the doctor not to do the surgery.” He told “us” that it would be extremely painful and the surgery would be very invasive. Major lung surgery. My tumors, he explained, were deep within the lungs and close to the aorta, a section of the heart. I would be in the hospital for at least a week, depending upon the actual procedure. Again, was the surgery necessary?
Dr. Shah, my oncologist, had told us that “yes” the surgery was necessary. There wasn’t any other alternative. She needed certain information and it could only be found during a biopsy. Unfortunately, this wasn’t just a simple biopsy -- outpatient and easy. I had to have major surgery to find out what type of cancer I had. That was the real question being asked. Did I have lung cancer? Or, was this metastasized breast cancer? Or, was there another cancer that had spread to the lungs? Without the right facts, Dr. Shah could not select the right follow up treatment. If I needed chemotherapy, what drugs would she pick? That decision could only be made after a biopsy. 
Dr. Khouzam reiterated the challenges of the surgery and the post-operative pain. He left out nothing, explaining in great detail what he would do. Edward and the doctor were busy reviewing the scans and actually drawing pictures of what the surgery would entail. 
Me - -  I was in la la land. I saw them drawing and looking at the scans. I heard them speaking, but comprehended very little of what was being said. I knew this .. on May 9, 2002, I would undergo lung surgery at Florida Hospital Orlando. My last day of work at the reservation center would be May 8. I also had some pre-admission testing that still needed to be done. And, I would head off to Disney’s EPCOT Center (Go to:      a few days prior to surgery to see Davy Jones, former member of the Monkee’s, (Go to:     a popular “boy band” group from my early teen years. I needed a diversion from all this medical stuff and watching this fast-paced musical performance was just what the “doctor ordered.” Before this major life changing surgery, I relished in a moment of nostalgia. I laughed. I sang along. I even had the amazing opportunity to “dance” with Davy Jones, who took me by the hand and whirled me around a few times while singing a tune. (I don’t even recall what he was singing.) 

Monday, July 11, 2011

It’s Back! Realizing the Worse Case Scenario

I love springtime. Living in Florida, there is not much of a “change in seasons” -- at least, nothing like when I lived in PA where spring meant the blooming of tulips. I could look outside my window or walk through my garden and see the changes taking place -- the grass was coming back to its rich green color and I loved the tiny blooms on our trees. Now, living in Florida, seasonal changes are vastly different.
However, I was still enjoying the beginnings of spring. April had arrived and I was busy working. By all indications, my health was good. I was long over my radiation treatments and was now working my full-time schedule. My routine was just that -- an everyday routine that went day by day and week by week. No real changes. 
The year 2002 was a significant in many ways. My daughter, Adrienne, was graduating high school in late May. In August, I would celebrate my 50th birthday. So far, the year was off to a fantastic start. Adrienne was excelling in school. She received numerous honors throughout the year, culminating in several major achievements. Adrienne was awarded the prestigious Disney Dreamer & Doer award at Lake Howell High School. Not only was she invited to an exciting ceremony at Disney, but the two of us were given passes to a fun day at the Disney parks. (It also meant an excused day off from school.) To top things off, Adrienne also received a full-paid scholarship to Seminole Community College. (Her first choice and now officially Seminole State College.)  
I was “high” on happiness. When I went off for what I supposed to be a routine chest X-ray, I had no reason to panic or be concerned. I felt terrific. The call I received a day later took my breath away. I was working my shift when handed a note and told I had an urgent call from my doctor. It was Dr. Shah’s office calling with my apparent test results. The nurse’s voice said it all -- I could tell things were wrong but had great difficulty understanding precisely what she was talking about. She kept saying something about my lungs. “There were tumors in my lungs.” I felt lightheaded and numb. I grabbed a nearby chair and continued to talk on the phone in the break room. I was slightly shaking at this point, feeling dizzy and not totally hearing all she had to say. It was like listening to a voice through a tunnel. I heard words -- but not complete sentences. I sat there for quite some time before hanging up (even after the call was over) and as I walked back to my office, I felt a wave of nausea. 
My lungs? What in the world was she talking about? I never smoked a day in my life. Was she saying I had lung cancer? Impossible! I don’t remember hearing much else that day. Not able to function well after that call, I left early using FMLA. I was trying to hold back tears and was attempting to feel strong as well as invincible. In my head, I kept hearing the word “lungs” over and over again. I was a breast cancer survivor. What did my lungs have to do with this? I had a difficult time comprehending it all, and when I made a quick stop at the supermarket to pick up a few items, I noticed my hands were shaking. What in the world was happening to me? 
I had to pick up Adrienne that afternoon from school. She was involved in theater and had a late day. I did not say anything to her right away. I was still “digesting” the thought of my lungs being involved somehow and I was still searching deep within for the words to say to my family and to myself. Nothing seemed logical. I felt so good -- no pain, no apparent sign of any problems. It made no sense at all.
I was scheduled for a CT scan (Go to: the next day. Trying to remain in control and forcing myself to find humor in all this, I asked the technician if I needed a specific type of cat. (CT scans are commonly referred to as CAT scans.) We laughed and then the test began. There were also many questions. Did I smoke? Did I drink? Take illegal drugs? Was I in any pain? Any coughing? No to all. The CT scan was followed shortly after with  a bone scan, a PET scan (I asked if I needed to bring a dog or cat? And what kind?) and a MRI. The last remaining detail on the list ... to visit a surgeon. Dr. Shah referred me to a cardiothorasic surgeon. Just hearing this, made my heart skip several beats. 
You are probably wondering how I handled this? Quite honestly, I was still unsure how my lungs were involved. I believe (from all my psychology classes) that I was in denial. I could not or would not believe there was a serious problem with my lungs. It was incomprehensible. I kept saying: “I don’t have lung cancer.” That’s all I could think. 
I was in total denial of the situation all around me. For the first time in my cancer journey, I began to experience a tinge of "genuine fear."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Working as a Cancer Survivor -- Talk About Stress

Returning to work on a full time basis was tough, especially after my radiation treatments were done in the spring of 2001. I continued to deal with fatigue for quite some time. It also took time for my burns to heal, so I had to find creative ways to dress myself for work since I could not put on a bra. (It was still too painful.) 
I was working full time at the Disney Reservation Center  (or 407-W-DISNEY) in its Guest Service department. Fortunately, I had a terrific manager and I worked with a great team. My fellow cast members (Disney’s preferred term for employees) were the best. I continued working throughout my treatments, although I did take advantage of Family Medical Leave (a federal program) that allowed me to take a medical absence whenever necessary. I had good days and bad days as I slowly healed. There were certainly days when I could not get up early enough to get to the office by the 6:50 a.m. start time. My body just did not want to function in a normal way. If I did not get enough sleep on a particular night, then I had to take the next day off. Or, if I began working and my body simply shut down -- I had to call my brother, Gary, and ask him to pick me up. (They would find me napping in the quiet room.) Eventually, I also took advantage of shift bidding and took a later shift .. thus, I could sleep later and still get to work at a decent time. 
My role as a Guest Service rep was, at times, stressful. My job included dealing with callers from around the world who, for various reasons, needed “extra” help with their vacation planning or had issues with their vacation. Most callers were pleasant and I enjoyed talking with numerous people on a daily basis. In fact, it was usually fun. However, there were those moments when we did handle callers who were less than happy to be at the “happiest place on earth.” My fellow cast members and I dealt with irate guests on a daily basis -- fortunately, I was usually able to help my “less than happy guests” so that my calls ended on a good note. But, stress was all around me -- and it was a daily struggle for survival since stress is not good for cancer survivors. (Quite frankly, it’s not good for anyone.) 
I began to wonder if stress was a factor in my cancer. Did my job have anything to do with my getting breast cancer? I’m not a scientist and I’m not familiar with studies being done on stress and disease, but that thought did occur to me. And, it terrified me to even think that having a job could make me sick. In my ever positive way, I tried to think “happy thoughts.” I told myself that I was “getting better and stronger everyday in every way.” Despite my ups and downs -- both physically and mentally -- I kept moving forward.
Like many others, I needed to work. Having a job was essential for my family’s financial well being. Plus, I did enjoy working. I had friends at the office and I felt that it made me a more interesting individual. Being at Disney gave me plenty to talk about and let’s face it -- besides the paycheck and the basic benefits, Disney does offer many perks. As a reservation cast member, we got to stay at the new resorts before they opened to the public. Once opened, we received generous discounts on our stays at the resorts and of course, had our Main Gates passes that gave us entry to all the theme parks. There were plenty of discounts and offers provided to us as both cast members and DRC agents. Ask any WDW “employee” why they work for the company and they will probably say “Admission to the parks and all the other fantastic benefits.”  
So, although I was exhausted and even with all the stress-filled moments, I was prepared to remain a WDW cast member. My position in Guest Services was secure, even though I thought about moving to a different area of the company.  I had no idea, however, that my life was about to change in ways I could never imagine. 
Fast forward to the spring of 2002. 

Monday, July 4, 2011

Why I Relay

Two days after I completed radiation treatments, my Mom took me to my first Relay for Life. This is the largest fundraising event of its kind sponsored by the American Cancer Society. The event I attended was at the University of Central Florida’s track and field. 

My Mom (Henrietta Wattman  1928-2006) and my brother, Gary Wattman, invited me to join them for RFL since I was now officially a cancer survivor. We would enjoy a dinner with other survivors and caregivers, and then, walk the track as part of the first lap or survivor’s lap. I had no idea what I was getting into -- I figured it was dinner and a walk. I was clueless.
I was also extremely exhausted. Remember the fatigue I mentioned previously. Even with treatments now over, I was tired. As far as I was concerned, this evening meant I did not have to cook dinner. We did have a wonderful meal and there was plenty of activity inside the UCF facility where the dinner was held. We were given gift bags full of goodies and chance drawings were held -- great prices were handed out to lucky winners. After eating, we were asked to gather our belongings and make our way out to the field. First, we all posed for a group shot-- more than 100 survivors plus caregivers all gathered together for this photograph. I was amazed by the realization that I was not alone when it came to this whole “cancer thing.” I was surrounded by other men, women and children all of whom were survivors. This whole Relay “thing” was quite a surprise!
Afterwards, came the biggest shock or reality check. I was walking the survivor lap. Suddenly, I was making my way around the large track and field -- but I was not alone. On the sidelines --- cheering us on -- teams of people, shouting out words of encourgement. Telling us how great we were. Reminding us to keep on going. Signs held up with words of support - “We love you survivors!” “Don’t ever give up!” And the one that became my favorite: “Cancer Sucks!” 
I know someone gently pushed around the track -- one small step after another. But I kept hearing those words of support, the shouts of joy and happiness were everywhere. These people were celebrating! And that’s what hooked me. I had to become a part of Relay for Life. 
Just a few days after this experience, I was on the phone with ACS asking about RFL and how I could get involved. The following year, 2002, Gary and I were on the Survivor Committee helping plan the dinner.  Not only did it allow me to be a part of this incredible event, I was finally able to support an organization that did make a difference in my life. The American Cancer Society dedicates itself to helping cancer survivors and caregivers in a multitude of ways. By going to its website or callings its toll free number 1-800-ACS (227) - 2345 you can find help 24 hours a day seven days a week. 
Being on the committee gave me an opportunity to feel useful again. I could use my talents and skills to help a cause I supported. Another bonus, I made new friends. When you work a committee, the men and women working with you become a family. I needed this network of friends -- many of whom were survivors themselves. I could talk to others who understood what I was going through. I could relate to them. This was definitely a highlight of my cancer journey. 
Suggestion ... If you are a newly diagnosed cancer survivor please seek help through ACS or join a support group  through your hospital. You may not realize it now, but you did need this support. (I certainly didn’t know it, but it made a difference.)

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Crispy Burned Breast

Forget for a moment that the radiation machine is simply terrifying to look at. Once treatments begin, the body part being radiated will never be the same. At least, that’s my experience.
My right breast is the part of me being burned on a daily basis. Monday through Friday I go for these treatments. I slowly go down onto the machine -- get myself into position (thanks to the mold made earlier this is not so difficult) and begin the adjustment period. This is where the techs do all the necessary lining up. Getting me and my breast into just the right position -- absolute precison each and everytime. 
I usually have three techs working with me. In my case, there is one male. Okay. Now try to imagine that this young (rather good looking) guy is not only moving my breast into various positions, but is drawing on it. Yes, he has a black marker and he’s making Xs and other marks all over my right breast and the area nearby. It’s enough to make one laugh. At least, I kept my sense of humor. He realizes why I’m laughing and (professionally) joins in. The other two techs also begin laughing. Please, understand I’m not saying that radiation treatments are funny. Far from it. However, when you have this adorable young man (for that matter anyone marking up your breast) it has to make you laugh. Right? Maybe I’m weird?  (Keep in mind, I would never even think of letting my own husband - who is an artist - draw on my breast, so this is obviously a big deal. Come to think of it, Edward would have enjoyed drawing on my breast!) 
I keep laughing and they keep doing their jobs. I can’t believe this is really happening. I try to “third party” myself out of this moment. Maybe it’s someone else going through this... it isn’t me? Oy! I try to relax and stay calm. Fear is quickly taking hold of me. I realize that I am about to be “burned” by this machine. All those years of sunbathing -- forget it - this is super hard core. One area -- being charbroiled! 
Finally, they are done drawing and have finished all the configerations. They get to leave the room. I am there -- looking up to the ceiling and I can hear their voices from the room beyond. The intercom keeps us connected. They can also see me on a closed circuit screen. Great! Anyone walking by can now see me on a TV monitor -- my right breast about to be radiated. I close my eyes and it’s over! 
Radiation treatments are relatively fast. The longest part of the entire process is the set up. Ensuring that my right breast (and other pre-determined areas) is exposed to the radiation, is the most critical aspect of the treatment. The actual time spent being “radiated” is short in compassion. It takes me longer to get to the center for treatment than the whole process itself. 
Initially, I feel great. I can’t even tell that I’m having treatments. I go each day; I go home; I go to work; I go to bed: I live my life. As the weeks continue, however, things change. I begin to feel tired. No, I’m not tired. I begin to experience fatigue, which is beyond description in my book. I no longer can function as a human being. I go to work and find myself falling asleep as soon as I sit down. I stop driving myself to work, because I keep falling asleep. I don’t walk quickly any longer; I do a slow shuffle from place to place. I am exhausted -- again, unlike anything I’ve ever felt before. 
And my skin is turning pink. Then red. Then bright red. And it’s burned. Remember the worst sunburn you ever had in your life and multiple that a hundred times. My breast is crispy fried ... it’s charbroiled. And I can’t stop the pain! It’s horrific. On that magical pain scale of one to 10, it’s way beyond 10. The nurse offers me an oitment I can use on my breast. (I am not allowed to really wash myself in that area -- and only certain prescribed products can be used.) I receive a script for pain medication, too. 
The big day arrives. I run from my desk to the women’s room. I get into the stall and all I can think about “is getting my damn bra off”! It is cutting into me. In fact, any material touching my skin is painful. I remove the bra. It’s all black and dirty from all the markers being used. I toss it aside and feel somewhat relieved. I am now going to be a “child of the 70s” and go braless! Relief. That’s all I want. 
My right breast and the surrounding area is a bright, bright -- crispy burned red. For the moment, I can’t see beyond “now.” The pain is so intense. The burn is -- so real. 
This is radiation and when I’m done, this will be a chapter in my life. I will get through it and my breast will heal. But, for the time being, I can’t see anything other than the horrific image in the mirror. I can’t feel anything else but the pain. And, I also know that any remaining cancer cells are being “killed off” one by one!