Two years cancer free!

I’ll keep this one short and sweet…my recent scan came back clean and today is a day to celebrate as I am now officially in remission for two years! This is a big, big milestone as the likelihood of recurrence drops down to less than 10%. I have lived in fear of recurrence, and now I know that statistics are on my side for once!

I still think about the fact that I was diagnosed with cancer every single day. Whether it’s the scars on my chest from the biopsies and port or even my short hair that I’ve chosen to keep post-chemo…there are constant reminders that my life was permanently up ended by this disease. There are also days when I cannot believe that I actually had cancer. I still wonder if it all actually happened…was I really in the hospital for over a week because the mass was too big/too critical to let me go home? did I really not work for all that time? did I really lose my hair? did I really go through the aches, pains, vomiting, and unbelievable fatigue? It seems so surreal sometimes that I have to convince myself that it really did happen.

But, I made it through the whole ordeal to live a very happy life on the other side. It’s certainly a day to celebrate, but also a day to remember that I am very lucky in that I had a highly treatable form and it was responsive to treatment. Not a day goes by that I don’t give thanks for that. I also continue to be inspired by the people whose ordeal with cancer has been more difficult than mine but who continue to have a positive outlook on their lives, like my friend Jessica who just wrote this beautiful post on maintaining a positive attitude in the face of grueling treatments or the woman who calls herself the Bald Ballerina. Her life was put on hold after a stage 4 breast cancer diagnosis but she continues to dance as much as she can.

They’re my inspiration to live the best life possible. They’ve both done nothing less in the face of more trying ordeals and situations and navigated through it all as gracefully as possible – surely, I can do the same. Like them, I know how quickly I can be in a position where my life is turned upside down by cancer, but I’m putting that thought out of my mind so I can celebrate being two years cancer free!

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A quick update and change in the post-cancer care plan: Look Mom, no CT scans!

I had an appointment with my oncologist a couple weeks ago, and my blood work looked great. Everything is positively normal. On July 18th, I will officially be in remissions for 2 years, which means the likelihood of recurrence drops dramatically, less than 10% or so. While I’m not entirely out of the woods, I’m in the shrubby under story for sure.

Perhaps more exciting is that my oncologist and I took a big step in adjusting my care for the next three years. In the US, standard remission protocol for diffuse large B cell NHL patients is to have 4 check ups per year (every 3 months) with CT scans twice per year, with a transition to a CT scan once per year and check ups every 6 months for the following three years. However, recent research on patients who have had recurrences shows that only 2% of relapses are detected through CT scans while the remaining 98% are initially detected via patients reporting recurring symptoms to their oncologists. Basically, the scans every 6 months are unlikely to catch this aggressive form before a patient feels it themselves.

I really, really don’t like the CT scans. I feel like I’ve done a million of them – an overstatement, but it’s been a lot more than I’d like. The procedure itself doesn’t bother me at all, even though I get injected with contrast that burns my chest a little bit and makes me feel like I have to pee. It’s relatively quick and painless as cancer procedures go.

It’s just that I get really anxious before and after to the point where I often end up developing psychosomatic symptoms. The only relief I get from “scanxiety” is hearing that the results were negative and that’s only relief for my OCD riddled brain.  I don’t have any anxiety any more about cancer coming back when I don’t have a CT scan coming up, but it’s the process of the appointment itself and the little teeny, tiny voice in the deep recesses of my mind saying, “What if you’re in that 2%? What if it’s back and this scan will show it?” that really bothers me.

I actually would be quite fine with eliminating the CT scans from my life all together. The routine blood work I get at every check up tells me just as much. They analyze my tumor markers each time and the numbers are produced quite quickly. Since I have online access to my records now, I can usually see the counts myself in a day or so. It’s quite reassuring and much less of a stressful process to go through.

According to my oncologist, several facilities have transitioned to post-care plans than don’t involve regular CT scans but more frequent routine check ups and blood work in light of this new research, but my cancer care center hasn’t made the switch yet. Every time I’ve had a check up recently, he and I have discussed this change and how he could see it easily becoming the standard procedure nation wide in the next few years but he wasn’t ready to make the change yet.

That is…until my last appointment. We discussed this situation again and I expressed to him that, unlike most patients who like getting scans for reassurance, I actually don’t find them any more reassuring than the blood work and if anything, the scans cause more anxiety for me. I told him I actually would be fine without getting them for the next three years.

To my surprise, he said, “Okay…let’s try it. If you’d like to make this change, I don’t see a reason why we can’t try it.” He basically set out a plan where I would get one final CT scan to mark the two year post-remission point but for the next three years, I will not get CT scans once per year with six month check ups. Instead, I will continue to see him every three months for regular blood work and check ups and not do CT scans at all.

I will be his first patient to make this transition in post-cancer care, and he did reserve the option to go back to the CT scans in the future, but for now, we will try this out.

He expressed that there are the reasons why this works for me, keeping in mind that it may not be best for everyone:

1. I made it through the first two years post-remission with no issues. The likelihood that diffuse large B cell NHL will return now is very low, 10% or even less.

2. I am completely and totally diligent about attending my check ups and getting blood work done regularly. I monitor my symptoms between appointments. I keep a notebook that I fill with questions before my appointments and when I was symptomatic, I kept a basic log of everything to share with him during appointments. (It’s like I’m a science nerd or something. Oh, wait…) Ultimately, he trusts that I would tell him if I was experiencing symptoms and we don’t need to rely on the scans.

3. I’m relatively young for an adult cancer patient, and since I’ve already been exposed to radiation treatments and hopefully have a lot more life to live, he would like to lessen the exposure to further radiation, if at all possible. This is especially true given that the mass I had was located between my lungs and on top of my heart. My whole chest, including breast tissue, has taken enough of a beating from radiation. No need to put it through anything more than necessary.

4. And, since I’m a young adult woman who had radiation to the chest, I’m at an increased risk of getting breast cancer, so I will need to start getting breast MRIs done every year starting at age 35, oh joy of joys! This is something he and I have discussed in the past. I basically begged him to give me a couple years off from scans on a regular basis. Just a few years of freedom from banging, clanging, talking machines and contrast dyes, please.

Overall, I’m super pleased with this development. I don’t mind going in for more frequent check ups one bit, and I know we can always go back to regular scans if I so choose (which I probably won’t).

So, tomorrow’s CT scan will hopefully be the last for a long, long time.

Holy fatigue, Batman!

Since my last post a few weeks ago, I have returned to work full time and I began teaching again last week. I am grateful to be up and about and back at work, although it’s been quite busy. Seeing my colleagues and being welcomed back with collective open arms has been amazing and it is energizing to be around my students again. Most of my students are highly motivated and energetic, which is certainly contagious to an extent. It’s also just good for me to get back into a routine. As much as I enjoyed being a lay about after I went into remission, it is time to become a functional member of society once again.

I’d be lying, though, if I said that the transition has been 100% smooth, and this largely has to do with the fact that I’m tired in a way that I didn’t even think was possible now that I’m recovering and working at the same time.

For those that don’t know, Jeff works an hour south of where we live while I work an hour to the north. We quite often leave the house at 8am (or earlier) and return around 8pm, assuming he doesn’t have an event at work in the evening. Under normal conditions, this leaves a couple of hours for us at night to cook, eat and clean up dinner, do some work/answer emails, and get ourselves ready for the next day before we go to sleep just to get up and do it all over again.

This schedule was beginning to wear on me before I got sick, and in a sick/twisted way of looking at things, cancer gave me a break from that hellish commute and schedule. Now that I’m back at work, talking to colleagues/students all day and teaching three 3.5 hour lab sections a week wherein I’m often on my feet/talking for a majority of the time, I’m pretty much the walking dead right now. I might look okay on the outside, but I feel like this:

walking dead zombie

The fatigue I feel at this point is essentially a combination of the types of fatigue I felt while in treatment. When I was undergoing chemotherapy, I felt like I had weights attached to my arms and legs all the time and it took a tremendous amount of effort to move from place to place. In fact, the thought of even getting up and out of the recliner was overwhelming at times. During my radiation treatments, that feeling was replaced by being so sleepy. Now, I have an amalgam of those two things going on – it takes an extreme amount of effort to move, and then the second I stop moving again, I want to sleep. That’s Newtonian physics for you – a body in motion stays in motion and a body at rest stays at rest.

I’m finding that I can get through about 2/3rds of my lab classes before my body begins to scream at me to sit down and chill out for a second, and I certainly don’t recover by the next morning as I did before I got sick. I’m learning now that I need to rest somehow more throughout the labs, although I find that if I sit down, my legs begin to throb and I have a tough time getting going again. I almost feel like I’m better off just staying “in motion” throughout the entire lab, letting adrenaline carry me through, and then crashing at the end of the class in my office. To that end, I’ve covered up some of the windows and got a comfy chair that enables quick cat naps when I need them. During my last class, I also tried to lean on counters and things a bit more as opposed to fully sitting down.

If I had a dollar for every time someone has told me not to push myself too hard, I wouldn’t need to work anymore. The problem is that It is very difficult to figure out what my body can handle until I try and then moderately succeed, crash and burn, or something in between. I’ve been relatively sedentary for so long now that it is difficult to figure out what “pushing myself too hard” is until it’s almost too late to pull back. At least I can get a sense of what works for me/what doesn’t and adjust from there. There are a few things I’ve learned so far, though:

1) Put a smile on your face and try to look pulled together even if you don’t feel like putting in the effort. Having cancer has taught me many things. One of the most important is the idea that you can’t control what happens to you but you can control how you react by having an overall positive attitude. Being positive generally makes me feel better physically and mentally and feeling good about how I look only boosts my resolve to have a positive attitude throughout my day. On top of that, I find that people react more positively to me and my ideas if I have a smile on my face even when I feel like crud on the inside. That said, keeping all of this up takes a lot of energy sometimes so it can be a bit of a double edged sword.

2) More practically, get rest whenever you can. I’ve learned over the past few weeks to take quiet moments for myself when I can. This could mean that I close my office door, turn out the lights, sit in my cushy chair and try to catch a few winks for 15-20 minutes. It could also be as simple as leaning up against the wall for a few floors during a solo ride on the elevator. If you’re feeling out of breath after you climb a flight of stairs and don’t want anyone to think you’re struggling a bit, read some flyers on the cork board in the stairwell. Why feel like I need to hide that I’m hobbling along? My co-workers have been beyond supportive and really have, in some cases, become like a family away from home. I don’t want anyone to worry that I’m not doing well (I’m really fine – this is all part of the recovery process and is common for most patients) and I really would like to feel “normal” again, as much as that is possible. I also don’t want people feeling like they need to help me more than they already have, and that was more than generous.

3) As a colleague recently reminded me, I don’t need to do things the same way I did before I got sick to have a successful return to work and the rest of my life as I knew it. For example, work emails should, of course, be answered in a timely manner but I should not feel the need to answer student questions at midnight or even the instant they hit my inbox. Essentially, I shouldn’t feel pressure to return to life as I knew it before cancer until I’m ready, if ever, and life will go on without a hitch for everyone else.

Fatigue isn’t the only issue I’m dealing with – chemo brain is becoming more and more of a problem since I’ve returned to work. I’m thinking it may be more apparent now that I need to use my brain on a regular basis. I’ve always had trouble remembering students’ names. That is next to impossible now. I’ve also been forgetting seemingly basic and simple words. There are also times where I have trouble focusing or forming coherent thoughts when writing emails to students or talking to them in class. In probably the most scary and unexpected event so far, I recently forgot how to hold a fork and knife in order to cut my food. I couldn’t remember how I held them – is it fork in the left hand and knife in the right or vice versa? Do I cut in back or in front of the fork? I honestly couldn’t remember this at all, as if it was my first time cutting up my own food. My muscle memory had momentarily escaped me. I ended up having to put the utensils down (probably best for the safety of all around me) and allow my brain to reset itself. Fortunately, everything came back and I enjoyed my chicken Caesar salad. Still, it was a terrifying feeling and I’m definitely going to talk with my hematology oncologist about it during my next visit as I think it might be something that needs to be addressed in more detail.

I also can’t help but get anxious about every sudden muscle twinge in my shoulders or when I  break out into a sweat or have sudden feelings of exhaustion. (This last point means I’m always in a minor state of anxiety.) With every instance of any one of those things, I can’t help but immediately think, “Oh my God, IT is back. The cancer is recurring.” I know, in my rational mind, that while my symptoms were similar to those, they were much more extreme and I felt absolutely awful but my irrational mind can’t help but catastrophize everything. It is a difficult place to be mentally and I don’t know how much I can expect it to change.

Despite all of this, though, I’m very happy to be back at work and thinking about all of these things as cancer patient in remission. There are certainly worse problems to have and I know it will all get better over time.

Transitioning to Life After Cancer

So far, making the transition from cancer patient to cancer “survivor” (I’m not a huge fan of that term yet for some reason) has been more difficult than I anticipated. From last November through the middle of July, my identity was largely wrapped up in being a cancer patient, going to doctor’s appointments and getting treatments. My focus was on getting well, taking good care of myself, and staying positive and that was about it. In the matter of 24 hours, I went from that to being a cancer “survivor”, which means I have the freedom of not being tethered to cancer treatment anymore. That is obviously liberating and exciting (and God, am I grateful) but it is actually scary at the same time.

Sure, I still have a ton of doctor’s appointments and scans coming down the pipeline but recently, I’ve been faced more so with what my life will look like after cancer. I don’t know entirely what this will mean yet. I DO know that this stage of my life means acknowledging that not EVERY medical issue that arises is related to cancer anymore and that I will have to go back to work and become a functional member of society again. (This, in turn, means I will have to wear actual clothes every day – not just my yoga pants, t shirts and flip flops. I considered going back to work in my cancer attire but I don’t think that would be “professional”.) It’s a pretty jarring thing actually and getting used to the post-cancer life isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

I’ve already encountered my first minor medical issue (although pretty much all medical issues seem minor compared to cancer) post cancer and the realization that anything that now happens to my body may not be not due, or related, to cancer is pretty surprising. I’ve been so used to a whole myriad of odd and unexpected side effects due to cancer that the idea that something isn’t due to cancer really threw me off.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, many women go into early menopause during chemotherapy or radiation treatments. This can have long terms effects on their ability to conceive after they go into remission. I was very fortunate in that my period remained regular throughout all of my treatments. In fact, my cycle has been consistent throughout my entire life, for better or worse.

So, you can imagine that alarms went off when my first period after finishing up radiation came two weeks earlier than I expected, followed by another period two weeks after that. This has never happened to me – surely, I thought, it must be due to the radiation in my chest/neck. It seemed quite obvious to me that the treatment affected my thyroid and the hormones it secretes into the blood stream, which then threw off my cycle. I mean, I haven’t gone to medical school, done an internship, residency and fellowship, or practiced medicine for a number of years or anything, but quite clearly, cancer was to blame. For the past 10 months, cancer has been to blame for everything so why would this be different?

Imagine my shock and surprise when my radiation oncologist, who I had my first follow up with not long after this anomaly, turned this possibility down out of hand.

“Well, we didn’t radiate your abdomen and I would only expect those sorts of issues if we did so” was his response. 

I’ve never been 100% enamored with my radiation oncologist. He is a specialist of specialists, who I have found are typically singularly focused on one very specific area and don’t care much to hear about everything else. But when he said this to me, it took a lot to hold myself back from reminding him that a) I’m not an idiot and b) I was the one of the radiation table so I think I would realize that the giant machine wasn’t rotating around my abdomen.

I was so distrustful of his response that I called my hematology oncologist’s office. I spoke with his nurse who said she also doubted that this whole thing was due to treatment but she said she would check with him. A little while later, I had to finally come to the realization that not every medical issue from here on out will be due to cancer when he also confirmed what my radiation oncologist had said.

Ultimately, I ended up going to see my primary physician, who ran a full battery of blood work and did an exam. Everything came back normal, so we’re just chalking all of this up to extreme stress finally catching up with me. (This is a topic for another day, by the way.)

Honestly, I felt like I got dumped by my oncologists. I was no longer their priority. I felt like I got pushed off onto my primary physician (who I love) like a cast off. I know I should be so happy that I’m not on their radar right now, but the relationship you develop with your oncologists, as the people who are very much responsible for not just taking care of you but saving your life, becomes tight knit pretty quickly. Just like that, with one clean PET scan, they’re over it and moving on. Moreover, I had to now come to grips with the idea that not every medical issue that pops up for the rest of my life will be due to cancer or related to cancer, and especially, is not a sign that cancer has returned. I think it will take quite awhile before that feeling goes away.

As I write this, I am also thinking a lot about my return to work tomorrow. I teach at a liberal arts college, and academics typically dictate their own schedule when it comes to returning for the upcoming year so long as we’re there and prepared for the start of classes. We all typically set our own return dates, and I’ve decided to go in tomorrow.

This is a bit early for me in a typical year, but I have a few reasons for wanting to go back so soon. I need to bring in my letter stating that I can return to work to HR and I need to get a parking sticker for my new car. Truthfully, I could do these things later in the week or next week when most faculty will come back, but I really wanted to have a quiet day when very few people would be around so I can settle in and get a few things done. It sounds cowardly, but I’m planning to go in through a back door and hopefully see as few people as possible so I have a day to just re-acclimate. And air out my office…I’m really hoping I didn’t leave a lunch bag in there. I left the Friday before Thanksgiving thinking I’d be back the following week and obviously that didn’t happen.

I’m quite nervous about going back for a lot of reasons. I don’t want to feel overwhelmed when I see my co-workers again after 10 months of being on leave. They have been so supportive but I also know I’m going to have to answer questions and go through the explanation of everything many times over, which any cancer patient/survivor will tell you is exhausting. This will happen again when students return, and I really don’t want to be known as that “Professor who had cancer”.

Speaking of exhaustion, I am legitimately concerned about my ability to actually get through the day. Once classes begin, my lab sections will run for 3.5 hours three times per week. As a dry run, I helped my husband in his office last week and was mainly doing office work. I only made it through 2 days before I felt extreme exhaustion and physical fatigue. I’m truly concerned about my ability to physically get through a lab where I am lecturing, talking with students and walking around to observe what they’re doing. I can try to pace myself during class, but there’s no getting around the fact that it will be difficult. I also don’t know how I’m going to manage teaching, prepping for classes, meetings with faculty and students and keeping up with all of my grading while still maintaining everything at home. The thought of it all is overwhelming.

I love my job, and I’m very fortunate to have it and I know this. However, I’d be lying if I said I’m 100% enthusiastic about going back to work for practical reasons. It has been really nice to be at home, recover, relax and have a life while still getting paid full time. I never had to worry about a doctor’s appointment conflicting with my work schedule. I could run errands whenever I’d like, take a nap in the middle of the day, watch TV, read a book, sit in a coffee shop and read the paper, or really anything I’d like. The freedom to relax, especially since I’ve finished radiation, has been really nice and I must say that I’m not looking forward to the stress of 1+ hour commutes each way, coordinating my schedule with Jeff’s to make sure I can pick him up on time, grocery shopping and meal planning on the weekends with all of the other crazies, cramming appointments into nights and weekends and feeling like there’s never enough time to do anything. I’m just not looking forward to returning to that kind of lifestyle, although I know that my employer will not continue to pay me while I recover at home forever.

And so, I’m packing my work bag (the one whose contents show what was going on in my life 10 months ago – exams and papers that were never graded, meeting notes that I didn’t have a chance to follow up on, and books I wanted to read that I never touched again) and making my lunch to re-enter society tomorrow. Life as a cancer survivor now begins.

 

Waiting for the next PET scan…yet, life goes on

I haven’t been too active on here lately, partially because there really hasn’t been any cancer related news to report and partially because life has been busy with non-cancer related events.

I have my next PET scan scheduled for Monday morning at 8:45am. This is the biggie…the one that will tell me whether the radiation treatments knocked cancer into remission. I won’t get the results until Thursday when I have an appointment with my hematology oncologist so that’s going to be a tough wait. He is very thorough when it comes to the radiology reports, so realistically, he won’t be ready to tell me the official news until Thursday anyway. Typically, the radiologist who reads my scan will call him with a verbal summary and then the radiologist will type up a report based on the films. This usually takes at least 24 hours. My oncologist looks at the films when he receives them and interprets them without looking at the report and then he will compare what he sees with the written report from the radiologist to make sure everything matches up and that there aren’t any discrepancies between what he sees and what the radiologist reports.

I must say that I’m cautiously optimistic about the results this time around. I no longer have persistent pain in my shoulders or trouble swallowing. I have occasional roving pains inside of my rib cage, acid reflux and, of course, fatigue but my symptoms following radiation seem to be reduced. Fingers crossed for good results!

I also know that I’m feeling better mentally and emotionally, because I’m not so focused on just getting through my treatment, but thinking about the future. To that end, Jeff and I have done some things in recent weeks that will impact us in the long term. Jeff would say that these were impulse purchases, but I’ve been thinking about them for awhile and now have the confidence to pull the trigger.

First up, we bought a new car!! I had a 2007 Hyundai Tucson with 160,000 miles on it that I absolutely loved. I just finished paying it off, but my 90 mile round trip commute is now looming. My gas mileage in it was good for a small SUV but not great budget wise for us, considering gas prices lately. It was also due for about $2000 of maintenance work and the car was only worth about $2700. It just didn’t make sense to put that money into an older car that probably wasn’t going to last me another winter. So, when the business manager from the dealer where I bought that car emailed with some good deals on pre-owned Sonatas, I jumped at the chance.

After hours and hours of negotiation by Jeff, I ended up buying a 2012 Hyundai Sonata in Indigo blue. It looks like this one:

ImageI absolutely love it! It has all of the bells and whistles that I wanted and it’s really fun to drive. When we were talking about monthly payments, I must admit that I hesitated and wondered if I should be really be buying a car right now without knowing whether I would be returning to work in the fall. However, I pushed that thought out of my mind, because I know I will be going back and the cancer will be gone eventually and just enjoyed the new purchase!

The other big addition to our lives is this little guy:

ImageMeet Sterling, our 13 week old kitten! Jeff and I adopted him last weekend from a great rescue called East Providence Volunteer Services for Animals. I’ve so badly wanted to have a pet again after many years of living in places that didn’t allow them and since we can’t have dogs here, we decided on a kitten. He is absolutely adorable – active, playful, and cuddly. He has brought me nothing but joy. We love him so much in fact that we’re adopting a little girl to be his playmate next weekend. Her name will be Bergie (after Patrice Bergeron). She definitely chose Jeff when we met them a few weeks ago.

So for the moment, life is proceeding on as normal. Keep your fingers crossed for me next week and I’ll be sure to post again as soon as I get some news!

Last Dance (with Radiation)

Yes, friends, tomorrow is my last dance with radiation. Treatment number 22 of 22. It’s been a long month with all these treatments, and by noon tomorrow, they will be all done for now. Advance the video below to about 1:24 and this is what will be playing in my head as I boogie out of the radiation oncology department tomorrow afternoon.

And I kid you not – I will for sure do a little dance on my way out. I have really not enjoyed radiation, not that anyone really enjoys it but I found it to be a more difficult process in a lot of ways than chemotherapy.  My radiation oncologist commented to me today that I made it through treatment surprisingly well – no skin burning (hooray!) and no advancement of my trouble breathing and swallowing and pain around my shoulders since last week (whoopie!). In the next breath, he told me that since I’m “so young”, I will need to have regular appointments with him for the next 10 years (yahoo!!!!). It looks like my oncologists and I will have a hard time getting rid of each other over the next decade.

Many people have asked me what I’m doing tomorrow to celebrate the completion of active, scheduled treatment. I really didn’t have anything planned, because in my mind, there isn’t much to celebrate until I get a clean PET scan in the middle of August (hopefully this is when it will be scheduled, maybe even a bit earlier). I’m not going to tempt fate in the least, even though both of my oncologists are certain radiation will get rid of the remaining active cells. I feel pretty much exactly as I did before treatment, so I’m not certain of anything until they can show me a PET scan without any “hot” spots.

In the meantime, celebration will mean not having to go to the cancer center every single weekday for the foreseeable future. Celebration will also mean getting to stay home and truly recover (my nurse has told me to treat myself as if I’m still in treatment for another month as this is how long it will take) until I go back to work in the fall.

But don’t take me for a complete party pooper. One of my radiation therapists suggested that I at least get an ice cream cone tomorrow afternoon to have a tiny celebration. I am very easily convinced to partake in ice cream. I will not protest it in the least. Jeff’s going to take me after he’s done with work tomorrow, because I should not have to pay for my own celebratory ice cream cone, damn it. Feel free to join me from wherever you are tomorrow afternoon with a little treat of your own. To no more radiation!!

 

Catching up…it’s been a busy week!

I have a few topics that I’m planning to write about in a bit more in depth but in the meantime, I’d like to catch everyone up on what has been going on with my treatments and with me. Beware, for this post is a hodge podge of sorts…

I’m now on radiation treatment 15 of 22. My scheduled treatments will be completely done on June 13th! I got a nice surprise today when I overheard my radiation therapist giving my daily appointment at 11:15am to another patient beginning on the 14th. While I felt horribly for this new patient as she looked quite overwhelmed by the process (I’ve been there, that’s for sure), it was amazing to hear that my radiation time won’t be mine anymore!

I’ve been seeing my radiation oncologist each week and I’m sure I will see him at least 1-2 more times after I complete my treatment, just to follow up on side effects. Speaking of, I’m not feeling too much in terms of side effects other than fatigue and some difficulty swallowing along with occasional shortness of breath. These side effects are all normal for radiation in the chest area so everything is going along as expected so far. My skin is holding up fairly well and I’ve been really diligent about using Eucerin (as suggested by my radiation oncology nurse) after each treatment. I’m sure this has helped, although it’s likely just a matter of time before it begins to burn. Radiation is really more of a mental grind than a physical one, but I’m having an easier time with it now that I’m more than halfway done with the process.

In other news, I was given the go ahead to dye my hair by the hematology oncologist. This sounds awfully vain but my hair (what little I have) was coming in white and grayish-brown. Given that we just went through what a meteorologist calls a heat wave (and I call a period when I go outside and feel like I’m swimming in soup), I knew I wasn’t long for wearing a hat, else I die of heat stroke (wouldn’t that be a kicker?). At the same time, I wasn’t ready to go without a hat in public with my hair looking like it did so when I got the go ahead to dye it, I immediately went to the store to pick up a box of semi-permanent color.

I did do some online research to see what other women experienced when they dyed their hair for the first time post-chemotherapy. Chemo affects all fast growing cells and even if your hair is growing back, as mine is, it could still contain some of the medication in the hair follicle and this can react with hair dye. Some women posted on various message boards that their hair ended up a horrid shade of orange when they dyed it at home for the first time. This scared me a little bit because I have been known to turn my hair orange with home hair dye (accidentally) before chemotherapy (shivers go down my spine as I’m reminded of the home highlight job of 2003 that made me look like I was wearing a brown and orange zebra pelt on my head). Other women reported that some of their hair fell out again after they dyed their hair. I’ve been growing this hair for the past three months. I don’t have a ton and I would have been devastated if it all fell out after I dyed it.

I asked my oncologist if I should use or avoid any particular products and he said any kind should be fine. I opted for Clairol Natural Instincts in a medium brown as this is close to my natural color and it’s a semi-permanent dye. It washes out in 28 shampoos and is ammonia free. With a good deal of trepidation, I locked myself in the bathroom to do the deed and to my surprise, it came out perfectly and none of my hair fell out. I am finding that it’s fading a little faster than normal but otherwise, it looks good if I do say so myself.

I’m sure many of you are wondering why I didn’t go to a salon to get it professionally colored. To that I say that I have about 2″ of hair – I’m not going to pay upwards of $50-60 to get that little amount of hair dyed by a professional. I made the pact with myself that if I was going to do this on my own, I had to be prepared for the possibility that it could end up a disaster and I might have to shave my head to start from scratch. I was willing to take the risk and it turned out really nicely.

Since my color looked good, I decided to go without any kind of head covering last Friday for the first time since December and it felt pretty good. It’s still a little short for comfort but I love how low maintenance short hair is and I might just keep it for awhile once it grows in a little more.

One other note regarding makeup that has helped me mask some side effects – Since I started chemotherapy, I’ve developed some pretty serious dark circles under my eyes and they can be really tricky to cover up. I’ve found that Physicians Formula concealers work really well to cover up these under eye circles as does the ELF brand concealers found at Target on the cheap. It’s the little things that make me happy these days.

Jeff and I had a really busy weekend as we attended a good friend’s wedding in NJ on Saturday. We knew the bride in college and many of our very good friends from college were in attendance. It was amazing to see just about everyone, especially those I haven’t seen since my diagnosis. Of course, everyone asked how I was feeling but once we had that initial exchange, that was all we spoke of cancer for the whole weekend. For the first time in awhile, I felt somewhat normal and my friends allowed me to have a good time and not focus on the fact that I’m still sick. It was a wonderful break and I’m so grateful to them for making me laugh and letting me focus on something else for a few hours.

Throughout this process, I’ve found that writing my blog has led to me reading the blogs of others, either fellow cancer patients or those who maybe are going through a major change in their lives. I’ve recently taken to reading two blogs that I’ve been finding really helpful and I thought I’d share some info about them.

My friend from high school, Vanessa, has recently taken a huge step in her life and has decided to leave her job in the big city to embark on a journey of self-discovery through healthful eating and exercise. She is writing a really great blog called, “Thick and Thiin” (http://thickandthiin.blogspot.com) about her workouts, diet and everything in between. It’s a great read if you’re looking to get back on the exercise and healthy diet horse after months of chemo and radiation or even if you’re already fit and are looking to spice things up.

I’m always on the lookout for blogs written by other cancer patients who seem to have a similar outlook as me, and I’ve definitely found it in Jenn’s Cancer Blog (http://jennscancerblog.wordpress.com/). Jenn has a form of breast cancer, IDC triple negative, and was diagnosed a few months before me. Her path has been different than mine in many regards but I think her outlook is quite similar and it’s a great read for any cancer patient, but especially for newly diagnosed patients. She describes her journey in detail that is easy to understand and her radiation posts have been really helpful to me recently. We have to stand together on the cancer front and Jenn’s blog has been a big help.

In any event, that’s all for now. More radiation this week and next for me and then I’m done! I’ll be sure to write about any super powers that I pick up along the way.