Friday, March 25, 2011

This is not your fault

I know I often put on a brave face here on this blog, but I'm going to be honest for a moment. This Xeloda and Tykerb drug combo is no joke, my friends. I am struggling these days with feeling old - much older than my 27 years. My Xeloda- Tykerb combo is doing some serious damage to my feet. There is nothing quite like literally hobbling around the house to make one feel like a 90 year-old.

Every girl will agree, a great pair of pumps can make even the most tired girl stand taller, look thinner, and feel beautiful. Sadly, I can't even get my aching, throbbing, red, peeling feet into a pair of flats let alone a pair of pumps! I've taken to watching E! news obsessively for hours. I stare enviously at the beautiful starlets in Christian Louboutins on the red carpet. You never see Angelina Jolie hobbling, or wincing in pain, or even stumbling in her heels. I want to throw my slippers at the tv when the latest hot young thing from Hollywood says "Oh yes, I'm wearing Dior and Jimmy Choo!" You know what? I'm wearing Target Fuzzy Socks, thank you very much.

I think I might buy myself a pair of fabulous pumps as motivation for getting better. How much is too much to spend on shoes? Anyone have a pair of Jimmy Choos they want to lend me? I promise I won't actually wear them, I can't actually wear them, but I will put them in front of my bathroom mirror for a daily dose of motivation. I want to get my old acne-free, pump-wearing self back. Like an alcoholic going to sit in a bar on a Friday night, or a woman on a diet heading to the ice cream store, my nightly dates with E! news are not healthy. Looking at The Beautiful People only makes me feel older. Even though the weather is getting more springlike, I'm still a slave to my very unfashionable UGGs; the sheepskin interior is heaven for my peeling feet. Oh, the joys of breast cancer! Thank you, breast cancer, for making me feel like a slob.

The drug insert that comes with my chemo pills mentions this side effect. They gave it a medical name to make it sound more tame and manageable. They call it "hand/foot syndrome." I haven't yet hit the "hand" part of the syndrome, thank god, but the fire in my feet is making me feel "elderly".

For six years of this battle, I have managed to keep my self-esteem up. I always felt like a young lady. I always felt my age and rarely had self-esteem issues. Even after losing both my breasts and my hair, I always had my spunk, but these past two months have been hard. Between the acne-rash on my face and these burning feet, I fear I am losing my sense of self. Remember that I am a walker. I walk the Susan G. Komen 3-Day for the Cure every year. I also coach other 3-Day walkers and help motivate them to walk 60 miles. I walked 120 miles in back-to-back events, just three days after getting out of the chemo chair. I may not be able to run around the block, but walking was something I was always able to do. It gave me hope. It empowered me in the midst of my treatment. I love walking. What will I do if I can not walk?

From a practical perspective, we live in the city and I walk everywhere: to the library, to church, to the coffee shop, to the grocery store, to the theater, out to dinner. You don't want to move your car in downtown Boston if you can help it! Now, I can't walk from my bed to the kitchen without pain.

This venting of my Xeloda frustrations was going to serve as a very selfish blog post, but last night, as I was folding laundry and Big Man was grading his students' essays, the old husband gave me another topic to discuss. I tried to stand on my tip toes to reach the fabric softener that is stored in a cute little basket on top of our machines. This is an action I have taken millions of times before without even noting it or thinking of it. This time though, the fire in my feet wouldn't let me accomplish my task. Cancer intervened. I couldn't reach. My toes screamed in pain every time they touched the ground.

I asked the Big Man for help and he did what husbands do everyday...he criticized. He expressed an opinion. An unkind, unsolicited opinion. The very worst kind of opinion: a husband's opinion.

The Big Man asked me in a frustrated voice, "Bridget, have you even been USING that Burt's Bees foot cream?"

Yes, as a matter of fact, I have been, thankyouverymuch. I cover my feet and I put them in socks every morning and every night before bed. The smell of the" healing" coconut oil follows me everywhere I go.

I told him as much and Big Jerk replied, "Well, have you been re-applying? I mean, clearly, you haven't been putting it on often enough. You know, you can't just put it on once and expect it to make a difference."

I'm not trying to throw Big Man under the bus here. Well OK, maybe I am, but more than that, I'm trying to make a universal point by sharing this story. The implication that I might be doing something wrong, that I was doing something to cause this pain in my feet, that this side effect was somehow under my control. Well, that implication made me want to throw the fabric softener bottle, open, right into Big Man's handsome, smug face.

Nothing I can do will make this hand-foot syndrome better. The creams I am putting on will help me to cope, but only going off the drug will heal me completely, and going off these drugs is not an option for me right now. Nothing I did caused the hand and foot syndrome. The drugs caused this. I have learned throughout this cancer journey that I will do my very best, anything less is unacceptable, but I will not beat myself up or feel like a failure for being unable to walk to the kitchen. I'm feeling so sick these days that I'm going to be generous and gentle with myself.

My point is: Remember, people, guilt will get you nowhere. None of this is your fault. Let that thought go. Fight that.

That has been the hardest thought to get out of my head since the moment I was diagnosed. My very first thought was, and still is, "What did I do to deserve this? How could I have prevented this? What do I need to do to fix this?"

I put my UGG boots on earlier this week and hobbled my way to the Boston Public Library to pick up the book The Emperor of Maladies. It talks about why cancer is so darn difficult to cure. Cancer is truly the Emperor, the King, of all illnesses. Did you know breast cancer was first mentioned in ancient Egyptian times? And do you know what they did in ancient Egypt to "cure" breast cancer? Well, they cut off the breast and they treated with a potion of herbs.

We've come a long way, baby! That doesn't sound anything at all like what I'm doing!

My point is, cancer is insanely complicated. We need to respect that and to give ourselves a well-deserved break. After decades of research, we are still unable to find the cause, the smoking gun. Instead of a smoking gun situation, cancer develops in a Murphy's Law type of environment. You may have had a genetic predisposition for developing cancer, but that alone is not a cause. You had something in your body that made you prone to it and then Murphy's Law kicked in. You were exposed to something in your environment, or your immune system was compromised, and your body lost its ability to keep the Stage 0 cancer at bay. Somehow, somewhere, something happened that turned those benign, pre-cancerous things into cancer, but that alone was not a cause. It was an unlucky coincidence, a tragic confluence of events. If you had always exercised and followed a vegan diet, you might have decreased your chances of developing cancer, you might have minimized your risk, but the cancer might have developed anyway.

There is no single moment in time that we can point to and say, "That right there, that did it."

So let that question go. Let the guilt go.

You did not cause your cancer.

The side effects of the drugs you are taking are not your fault.
Don't apologize as you lay across the toilet for the inconvenience that you are causing your family.

Don't play into the Big Man's blame game. He is only expressing his own frustration and sadness.

By all means, do your best in this fight. Bring your A Game. Do all that you can, but stop beating yourself up about this. Eat well, not because you want to cure your cancer or because you think that eating well is going to keep you safe from all the scary things that life throws at you. Eat well because eating well makes you feel better. Exercise because it makes you feel good. Slow down and stop stressing because that is a good thing to do.

When I was first diagnosed, I started eating tons of fish. I stopped drinking. I cut out caffeine. I drove my poor father crazy. He turned to my mother after one particularly fish and veggie laden meal and said, "Enough with the salmon with mango salsa and broccoli rabe. Can't I just get a steak and some potatoes?"

It worked for a time. I never felt better and the scans showed that the cancer kept shrinking, and shrinking, and shrinking. Then one day, about 10 months after I started treatment, the scan showed growth. I didn't stop eating well. I cook from scratch at home six nights a week and we eat as much broccoli and spinach and sweet potatoes and anti-oxident rich foods as I can find recipes, but I continued eating well because I felt better when I choose well, not because I thought it would cure me.

The same is true with yoga. About four years ago I was in the best shape of my life. I discovered yoga and I loved it - still do. I was training for two 3-Day events, and when I wasn't walking I was at yoga class. I felt strong and I felt for sure I would beat this disease because I was "in the best shape of my life." And then one day, I got a phone call. They saw a new spot.

I'm not saying that this is hopeless. I most certainly am not asking you to stop exercising or eating right, but I am asking you all to change your perspective and your focus. In this very modern society in which we live, we believe that everything is within our grasp. Everything is under our control. It is very scary to think that maybe, perhaps, we have less control over our lives than we would like to think.

I saw a news report this morning that said going to church increases your risk for cardiovascular disease. How ridiculous a news report! Enough! Enough! Enough! Who was paid to investigate that? Why are we spending money on this wasteful research? Our news reports are so full of mixed messages! Instead of focusing on the cause, can we please focus on the cure?

I'm doing my best. I can do better. But I did not cause this. Can you make that your mantra?

Yes, I should have boozed less in college, but I can't turn back time. Agonizing over every decision I made will only waste precious time. Instead, I'm looking toward the future. I'm looking toward next Tuesday, which is the day I finish this Xeloda regimen and get a glorious week off from the painful drugs. That week I can't wait to head to yoga, take a long walk, and maybe wear a pair of pumps.
I beg all of you to do the same: stop feeling guilty, stop beating yourself up. Learn to give it up to God, and focus on doing your very best.

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;

That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
--Reinhold Niebuhr

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An Ode to My Mother

I have been MIA for the past few weeks, recovering. I had my swap surgery February 9th and started my Xeloda pills last week. My new "Girls" are looking pretty good, but it's hard to get excited about them when they are black and blue. Luckily, the new Victoria's Secret catalog came in the mail the very same day as my surgery. I treated myself to three new bikinis as motivation for falling in love with this new body.

On the chemo front of things, the Xeloda treatment is going well. I'm pleasantly surprised. I haven't had to call my doctor in a panic or get rushed to the hospital. So far so good, although I guess my previous medical dramas have set the bar kind of low!

I am definitely fatigued, but I can learn to fit fatigue into my lifestyle. There's nothing wrong with an 8pm bedtime; I've got nothing to prove. I also need to learn to live with a constant stomach flu. Most women my age have to remember to bring a change of shoes in their purse (heels for the office or the bar, flats or flip flops for getting around town) or they have a purse stuffed with technology: a work blackberry, a personal cell phone, a digital camera, an IPod, or the young mom carries a diaper bag stuffed with toys, snacks, pacifiers, wipes, and, of course, diapers. Not me. I can't leave home without making sure my Immodium is in my purse. I root through my purse at dinner to pull out, not lipstick or a mint, but those Xeloda pills that must be taken with a meal. I am not turning into my mother, like some women my age. I skipped that stage completely. I'm turning into my grandmother!

That said, my face may be suffering from the Xeloda even more than my tummy. The hives have retreated  everywhere but from my face. I have the face of a 14 year old now. This is not my face. I turned to the Big Man the other day as we were brushing our teeth and pointed in the mirror saying, "Who the Hell is that woman in the mirror? That is not the woman you married!" He, of course, told me I was beautiful, but later that evening he advised me against ordering dessert because the chocolate might aggravate my "rash." Don't be fooled, blog friends, the Big Man is not perfect!

I suppose this is typical of my cancer journey. I check off one item on the "Cancer To- Do List" and another To Do pops right up. Just when I  had finally gotten over the major self-esteem issue that was learning to love my post-mastectomy chest, I now have to learn to love my chemo-induced acne and nausea.

Like the Victoria's Secret shopping spree, I am now pondering a trip to a make-up artist. Do any of you Boston-area readers have a recommendation for where to go? I get nervous about the stands in the mall. I'm not looking to get "hot" for a night out at da club. I just want to look fresh faced for a trip to, I dunno, the grocery store.

So, I apologize for my absence, but I've been a little under the weather and also I haven't been too full of self-confidence. Blogging requires a bit of chutzpah. I'm letting it all hang out here on this website. I have to be in the right frame of mind to blog. I might wake up ready to take on the world, but when I look in the mirror these days, that attitude quickly disappears as my cancer-acne stares back at me.

Which brings me to my topic for today. I want to take this opportunity to praise my Mommy. She is truly the only person in the world who can help me at a low self-esteem moment like this one. My swap surgery was surgery number 8. In 6 years, I've had 8 surgeries. Mom has dropped everything and run to my aide for every one. After spending the last 3 weeks together, I've realized that I always proclaim my love for the Big Man and I really have barely mentioned the other major player in my life.

Oh, Mommy, How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

Mommy and Bridge on my wedding day
Don't we look alike?
1) Mom is my biggest cheerleader. When I am feeling unattractive, she knows just the right thing to say. When I lift my shirt up above my head in the living room and say, "Mom, does the left one look slightly bigger than the right?" She takes my self-doubt seriously. She never tells me I'm being silly. She takes it seriously and she tells the truth! Mommy looks, critically, at both new breasts. She might even get out a measuring tape to take a closer, more scientific look. She asks me to turn to my left and turn to my right. Then she kisses me on the head and says, "They're perfect! I love them!"

2) She talks
and talks
and talks
and talks

When your life is a living soap opera, the best medicine is to forget about all the really huge life-changing stuff that's going on. People and US Weekly come in handy, but really the best medicine is a good, long conversation with mom. My mother will talk about anything. We talk about interior decorating and real estate, politics, and, of course, gossip.   My mother is like an elephant, she never forgets a face, a name, an occupation and marital status, or a child's name, occupation, and marital status. My mom loves to read the high school sports section of her local paper religiously. Why? She hasn't had a child in high school in at least 10 years. She reads the sports page because her friends and her neighbors have kids in high school. She likes to be able to personally congratulate them on their child's accomplishments when she runs into them in the grocery store.

You get the picture. Next to going out to dinner with the Big Man, talking to my mother is my favorite activity.

3) Last, but certainly not least, she does whatever needs to be done, no questions asked and with no expectation of repayment. Five years ago, I was bald as a baby's butt and just one week post-radiation. I wanted to move back to Boston to be closer to my boyfriend of one year. My mother not only allowed me to move, she moved me. I couldn't lift a thing. I was just a few months post-surgery. She drove furniture cross-country and then moved it all in for me. No questions asked.

Since that move, she has come up to Boston every three months to sit with me and hold my hand as I received my three-month scan results. She books flights. She books hotels. She takes me out to dinner. She takes me shopping and out for manicures to take my mind off my impending doom. She goes grocery shopping and cooks dinners that are frozen and ready to use after she leaves. All in all, she keeps my life running.

When I had my double mastectomy, Mommy moved to Boston for more than a month. She uprooted her life. She left bills and friends and the comfort of her own home. She found a long-term apartment down the street from my house and was at my disposal before I woke each morning until I fell asleep at night. She found a lovely B&B owned by an Irish couple that is three doors from my home that has become her second home. (if you ever want to visit Boston, I highly recommend it!  I owe my very life and all of my cancer fighting success so far to my mother's constant help. I couldn't have faced all that I have faced without her help.

Two Hot Girls on a Hot Summer Night
My mother is the ultimate portrait of a lady: graceful, selfless, smart, funny. She knows how to handle every situtation in exactly the right way, from talking to doctors to making career choices, from gardening to cooking & cleaning, from buying a house to renovating and decorating it. Mom has never steered me wrong and she is such a source of help, support and advice for me and for my three brothers. In fact, now that I mention it, how in the hell did she manage to raise four kids who were all a year and a half apart in age? Many women are exhausted by two, imagine raising four kids all under the age of five!

When I was growing up, my mother and I could barely speak without arguing; I believe it's because we were so much alike. We knew how to push each other's buttons and we couldn't help ourselves! I hate cancer, but I will forever be, on some level, very thankful for this nasty turn my life has taken. Cancer brought Mommy and me closer than we ever would have been otherwise. My mother is the port in this storm. This life would be unbearable and the situation would be untenable without her constant assistance. I can sleep soundly at night knowing that Mommy's got my back.

 Mommy can never be repaid. Saying "thank you" will never be thanks enough. Helping her move, taking her to dinner, remembering her birthday or Mother's Day, nothing I do could ever be enough repayment. This blog entry isn't enough. This ode could be a book.

The only thing I could possible do is take this opportunity to reassure her, to promise her, publicly: Mom, I promise never to put you into a retirement home. In fact, I think I owe you and all your best friends a very comfortable old age!

I'll close with my favorite version of a "Thanks, Mom" courtesy of Poet Laureate Billy Collins