Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Magic of Kindness

For the last week, I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell a story- a true one- about kindness, compassion, generosity, confidence, and how important they are in making each of us successful human beings.  Sometimes the success comes in the form of money.  Sometimes, you’re rewarded with a full heart.  If you’re lucky, you get both.
Last week, I got a text from my friend Liz saying, “I have a crazy story to tell you.  Call me when you can.”  
 
“You won’t believe this,”   Liz said.   “Today, a man walks into CASA (where Liz works) and says, “I’d like to make a small donation to your organization.”  He handed her a check for $25,000.   Tears welled in her eyes as she said, “Oh my gosh! This is the single biggest donation that CASA has ever received from one person!  You can’t imagine how much this will help the children!”  When she asked him what inspired him to make such a generous donation, he proceeded to tell her that they had a common denominator:  me. 

Years ago, thirty-three to be exact, this shy young man was eighteen.  He was with a couple of friends in a small town near Lexington. One of his buddies said, “Let’s find some hot, rich, Lexington chicks!”  The clever friends were looking in the Lexington phone book for “children’s” phone numbers.  That meant they were “rich” (J).  We were hardly rich. Mom sold real estate part-time and she certainly didn’t need two teenage daughters tying up her phone line.  While crank-calling random numbers, there was a 50/50 chance a girl would answer.  The first friend said, “I’ll go first.”  He dialed a number. No answer.  The second one dialed a number.  Busy. The shy one dialed a number and it was me.  He hung up.  Later that night, he called me when he was home alone.

“Hello? Who is this?” I said.  Finally a voice on the other end said, “Eddie”.   He never told me at the time how he came to find me or my number. I just thought it was a misdial.  At some point, I asked him his last name.  He searched his room for ideas and saw the name on something he can’t recall.  “Murphy.”  I laughed. “Yeah, right.  Eddie Murphy.”   It wasn’t until I said his pseudonym out loud that he realized what he’d done.  He made a comment about his parents naming him before Eddie Murphy became famous.  I believed him.

We talked for hours every night.  We talked about music, his troubled life at home with an alcoholic father, my abusive ex-boyfriend, hopes, dreams, and goals.  Without the benefit of the internet or text messages, there was no way to know what we looked like.  We didn’t care.  We were each other’s confidante. 

I finally pressed him to meet. 

When the doorbell rang, I remember a shy blondish-brown haired blue-eyed boy standing on the porch.   He later said he thought he was in way over his head.  
“Eddie” and I went to a movie, he met my parents, taught me how to drive a stick shift in his Dodge Charger, exchanged Christmas presents, and I gave him a birthday card that played music when he opened it.  It blew his mind.  Inside I enclosed the following photo- my senior picture.  In 1983, that musical card was cutting edge technology!  He said I had “game”.   He said he was chopsticks and I was Moonlight Sonata. 
 

After months of intimate conversations on the phone and time together, “Eddie” was overwrought with guilt and finally told the truth.  While in his car in my driveway, he handed me his driver’s license.  He wasn’t Eddie Murphy and he didn’t live in Lexington.  “I can’t believe you did this to me,” I said while slamming the car door.
A couple of days later, I drove to his small hometown and asked the first person I saw if he knew him.   He did and I followed him to his house.  “Eddie” sweated bullets while I made small talk with his mom.  He later told me he was terrified that I would tell his mother what he did.  “I know why you did what you did and I forgive you.”  He couldn’t believe I forgave him.
In the end, I told him I knew that our relationship wouldn’t last. I had plans to become a flight attendant and travel the world.   I don’t ever remember an official goodbye, although there might have been.
Two years later, he opened his own business that eventually grew into a company with more than 500 franchises worldwide.  He eventually sold half of them for multi-million dollars! 
In 2006, the shy boy-turned- millionaire attended a workshop in Fiji in which the facilitator asked the group to write the name of two women who have inspired them in their lives.   First he wrote his mother and #2 was Ann Ritchey, a young girl he hadn’t seen or heard from in over 23 years, at the time.  He doesn’t use social media, however, he likes to read inspirational blogs and stories online.   He clicked on www.takeleaps.com-  a site which belongs to my friend Greg Forbes Siegman, an author and philanthropist whom I met at a KY Lottery sales conference years ago.  Last year, Greg asked me to send a photo of myself with a couple sentences about how I’m taking leaps of faith.  So I did.
One night in late January 2016, the man searched the internet for an inspiring story after his alcoholic father passed away.  He clicked on takeleaps.com and scrolled down the page reading inspirational stories.  He saw this photo.


Ann, Ky: "In 2013, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I took a Leap by starting a blog -- www.KeepingYouAbreast.net -- to share my feelings, while hopefully inspiring others who might be experiencing a health crisis."


He thought I looked familiar but thought that I might be involved with the Susan B. Komen foundation, an organization his company supported.  He clicked on the attached link www.keepingyouabreast.net and read the most recent entry about our trip to the Amalfi Coast.  He had been there and enjoyed reading the story.  He wanted to read more, so he started at the beginning.   When he read the entry which had a photo of Jeff and me at Jacobson Park in 1984 (a year after “Eddie” had called me the first time), he knew it was me. 
 
He has a photographic memory and remembers the smallest details of our months together.   He remembered family names, my birthday, what we got each other for Christmas, and what I was wearing when we first met.  When he read my blog, most of the names were familiar to him but he didn’t recall Liz.  That’s because I met Liz in 1992.   He thought that maybe she was a friend from high school that he had forgotten.  Since he doesn’t forget much, he had to do what we all do when we need an answer to anything:  Google.   He found out that Liz was a Clinical Psychologist, got her PH.D at Stanford, and works at CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates- for children).  He then Googled CASA and felt compelled to give to an organization that advocated for children.   He also wanted to thank the woman who worked tirelessly to make me comfortable, drive me to dr. appointments, dry my tears, cry some tears with me, clean my house, stock her fridge with my favorite foods, and say all the right things when so many tried and failed.  He knew that CASA was close to Liz’s heart, so he wanted to thank her for taking such good care of me.  
Of course, the shy boy is still very much an introvert and a private man.  He respectfully asked me to use a pseudonym (perhaps Richard Pryor, he suggested) and wants his donation to be anonymous.

I have spent the last week walking on air.  I feel like the Grinch whose heart grew three sizes that day in Whoville.    If you’ve read my blog, you know that I don’t believe in coincidences.  A Greater Power was busy at work on this one, perhaps for years.     Those months together were meant for me to teach him confidence and realize that he was worthy of love.  For me, it was a lesson in forgiveness and compassion.  It was a true “coming of age” story for both of us.  As Oprah would say, a “full circle moment”:

The blue-eyed boy became confident and founded a multi-million dollar business.  He “miraculously” found the young girl who was kind to him years ago and realized she had been fighting another battle.  Her friend helped her survive the battle.  He rewarded the friend with a generous donation to a cause close to her heart. 
 
I now know that the cancer was worth it all. Yes.  I’m including the eggplant colored honeydew sized boob following surgery, the hematoma, the drain, the chemo, the 18 months of baldness, the Neulasta side effects, and the fear….were all worth it.  If I hadn’t had cancer, I wouldn’t have posted that photo on Greg’s website and Liz wouldn’t have had to spend a year helping to care for me.  If she hadn’t cared for me, there would be no gigantic donation which will help feed and clothe so many children.   I certainly wouldn’t feel this sense of relief, that I, an insecure young girl at the time myself, did something worthwhile and changed the trajectory of a young man’s life.  What’s more, his donation will do the same for many children.  Imagine, if you will, that each child paid it forward someday, or even one child did, and the cycle continued for another 33 years.  It sure would make those two painful years of my life a short blip in the movie that continues to be my beautiful life.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Good Girl

Yesterday was the day of my follow-up appointment with my oncologist.  I was at the stage in my treatment where I only have to see her every four months.  Of course, there’s still the radiation oncologist and the surgeon if I plan to have reconstructive surgery, but THIS one is always stressful for me.  
Jeff had a deposition in Lexington and we rode together.  He knows how anxious I get when I have these visits so he offered to drive me.  His presence serves as a buffer between Dr. Moss and me.    I can be argumentative with her and it’s sometimes very tense in that tiny room.     Now that I’ve made it this far (28 months since diagnosis), I’ve had a little more confidence in her and have tried to keep my thoughts about natural healing, vitamins, acupuncture, etc.  to myself.   It’s easier that way.  “Honey, go to the bookstore instead of this appointment with me.  I’ll be fine.”   He gladly obliged.

Here’s the routine:  The nurse always draws several vials of blood and takes my blood pressure.  It’s ALWAYS sky-high when I’m there and below normal any other time. She weighs me.  Unlike at most doctor visits, this is NO problem because the scale measures in kilograms.   I am seriously emaciated if you look at the number and think in terms of pounds.   I don’t even have to take off my boots, socks, sweater, watch, earrings, bracelet, and hair barrettes before weighing.  This is brilliant. Why don’t ALL doctors do this?

Dr. Moss asks me a list of questions: “Any headaches?  Bone pain? Coughing? Fatigue? How’s your appetite?”  These questions are to determine if the cancer has spread and metastasized in another organ.  Normally I would look at my watch and say without thinking, “I’m fine.”  Now it’s important I think about each question carefully.   “Headaches? Definitely. But we just got back from Italy a couple of weeks ago and I’ve had jet lag and stress from catching up at work.  Also, I’m ashamed to say that after over four years without a Diet Coke, I caved a few months ago and I now have that monkey on my back again.”  She said that one or two a day wouldn’t hurt me.  I know better. 

The hot flashes continue as my ovaries “sputter” and this might go on for years.  No problem.  Jeff is used to the house feeling like a meat locker.   Same with Miranda in the office.  Dr. Moss said, “Well, I’ll see you in six months when you come back for your mammogram.  Sweeter words have never been spoken.

I get dressed and walk back to the waiting room. It’s filled with yellow-faced patients with oxygen machines, masks covering their noses and mouths, IV poles, and terrified loved ones sitting by their sides.   The receptionist offers me a sucker out of a basket on the counter.  I wondered…did Dr. Moss tell her I didn’t pick a fight today?  

I thanked her and smiled with the Dum Dums sucker stick between my teeth.  I turn around to leave and look at the patients sitting there in a daze.   Was that me two years ago?   I wanted to say. “Hang in there.  It’s going to be ok.”  But I knew better: Sometimes it’s not.   My guilt was overwhelming. How did I make it through this in one piece and so many other don’t?  My mom always said, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”  
I walked out to Jeff’s car and he saw the sucker in my mouth.  “Well. Well. It looks like someone was a good girl today at the doctor’s office!!”
Indeed.

Click here to see some of my husband Jeff's photos from our trip to southern Italy and Sicily: 


Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dream Comes True

Forgive me, friends.  It’s been over five months since my last blog post.  Until now, I really haven’t had much to say.  Jeff and I have been working long hours to get ready for our long-awaited trip to southern Italy and my follow up doctor appointments are now 4-6 months apart (Yay!)
Because of your support and prayers, a few doctors, and God who decided I had some unfinished business to tend to, I'm here to tell you about a dream of mine that recently came true.  

* If you go to the blog archive on the right side of the page, find August 2013 and click on "Bucket List", you'll see a blog entry with my bucket list.  I tried to create a hyperlink so you can click on it, but Blogger.com isn't cooperating.

Five years ago, after reading Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes, I searched online for trips to Italy.  There were websites inviting boring geriatrics to hop aboard a huge bus and see all of the ruins.  Not for us, I thought, but could Jeff and I actually find our way around the country alone to see all of the fabulous sites?   Would we actually be able to navigate the Amalfi Coast Drive, which is a Unesco World Wonder in itself?!
The answer came in the next click.  A photo of Stephanie Chance, an exotic beauty, was sitting atop a Vespa with shopping bags in tow. Above it said, “Hop aboard with us and see Italy-two tours a year!”   The more I clicked, the more I knew that this was the perfect tour for us.  I showed Jeff photos of her small tour group having dinner with an Italian family!!  I immediately e-mailed Stephanie asking for more information. She mailed me a brochure and I opened it often, dreaming of a day we could go.  “Maybe when Jordan is out of college,” Jeff said.   At that time, he had just graduated from high school. 
Stephanie and I became friends on Facebook and I relished looking at her photos from her twice a year excursions.  Days turned into weeks. Weeks turned into months. Months became three years.   Then came D-Day, the day I was diagnosed with stage IIB Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.   Soon after, I began this blog where Stephanie kept up with my treatment, my family,  the undeniable hell of surgery, chemo, and radiation, and my gratitude I tried to find in it all.  
About a year after my last radiation treatment and I started feeling human again, I said to Jeff, “Let’s do it. Let’s go on Stephanie’s trip to southern Italy!  Like having children, if we wait until we can afford it, we’ll never go!”   What I thought but don’t think I said was, “What if the cancer comes back and I’m too sick to go?” 

For decades, Jeff and I have dreamed of going to Italy, specifically the Amalfi Coast and Venice.    Although we didn't see Venice this time (that will be our NEXT trip!), the Amalfi Coast was our last stop on a 12 day adventure this month!   
For almost two years, I've stared at a painting of Amalfi, Italy hanging in my office and dreamed of the day we would stand on that coast and have our photo taken in that exact location.  Well, here it is: 
The painting in my office

                                   Can you find us?
The Amalfi Coast Drive- Mamma Mia!

                                                  Jeff and me on the beautiful Amalfi Coast
Positano-my new favorite place on earth!



Thursday, April 30, 2015

Life Returns

I know the exact day it happened.  It was April 11, 2015 when I finally felt a little like myself again.   My friend (and breast cancer survivor) Jo Ann said it happened for her a year after her last radiation treatment.  For me, it was exactly 14 months and 14 days after mine. It could have been the beautiful crisp sunny day, the green that finally began to sprout from the trees, or maybe it was my first trip to Lowe’s this spring to buy some Gerbera daisies. On second thought….no. It was my ponytail, or a semblance of one.  It was about an inch long and I had to sweat a little to cram it in the elastic band, but it was a joyous occasion.  I ran into the living room and squealed, “Look honey (queue the twirl)!  A ponytail!!!”   He smiled, kissed me and said, “I’m so happy for you.  I know how long you’ve waited for this moment.”  It sounds silly, but when you spend 18 months either bald or having some kind of hair crisis, it’s such a relief to finally have a little hair on your head.






My ponytail stub.  :)






  Lauren and Jordan help me through one of the most difficult moments of cancer treatment.

My annual mammogram was April 20.  It’s always a day of dread for me. April 20, that is.  That’s the day my dad died.  A few days later would have been my mom’s birthday and I just felt really sad those few days.  Why in the world would I schedule a mammogram that week?  I’m on edge a few days before, imagining myself walking into that same office where just 22 months ago, they dropped a nuclear bomb on my little world.  
I walked into the waiting room and counted the women sitting there.  There were eight of us.  I thought, “One in eight women is diagnosed with breast cancer.”   I said a silent prayer that I had been the only one in THOSE eight women who was diagnosed with breast cancer and that none of us would get called into that dreadful little consultation room today. 
The technician was very kind and respectful.  I’m sure she’s seen it all.  She placed wire tape over my scars so that the radiologist could easily determine where the tumors were removed.   The technicians, the way they pick up and contort your breasts and manipulate them into the perfect place between the two sheets of plexiglass, resemble a baker with a slab of dough squeezing it into a pie pan.  “How are you doing…emotionally, I mean?”   I felt my throat tighten up and swore I wasn’t going to cry today.  “I’m terrified.  With every headache I think it has spread to my brain.  If I’m aching, I’m sure it’s in my bones. What is this organ? My liver?  I feel twinges sometimes….”  She nodded like she understood.  “I was diagnosed with melanoma a few years ago.  I’ve had several surgeries since then, but I’m here.  And you are too…and we have to live each day to the fullest and put it in God’s hands. Hold your breath…(the machine whirs)……..You can breathe now.  All done.  Have a seat in this room and I’ll come back and get you if we need more pictures.”      I waited for about 20 minutes. The sweet technician with the big brown eyes said, “Everything looks great. You don’t need to come back for a year.” 
“You mean the radiologist already read it?”  She nodded, hugged me, and said she would pray for me.   I wanted to say that I would do the same for her but my throat was burning and I felt the tears coming and I really didn’t want to cry.  So, I nodded and mouthed, “Thank you.” 


I have an appointment soon with a plastic surgeon.  If he can spackle this hole in my breast, or better yet- transfer some fat from my belly into that hole- I’ll be a happy camper.  If he can do it outpatient so I can get back to work in a day or two, even better.  I’m just now beginning to have a little energy and can’t imagine wanting to start from square one with an extensive reconstruction surgery. My body has been through enough these past two years.

When Jeff was two years old, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She was a very religious woman and prayed that God would let her live long enough to see Jeff graduate from college.  He graduated in May 1984 and she died two months later.


My dad always told everyone that he’s always somehow known that he wouldn’t live to see 53.   He was in his 20’s when I first heard him say it.   I was 7 or 8 and didn’t worry about it much because 50 seemed really old to me.  He was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer at 52 years and 7 months old and died four months later.   Does our brain have that much power over our bodies?   Just in case, I’m telling myself and everyone else that I’m living to be 100!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gratitude

It was a perfect weekend.  Jeff and I spent the day outside. He closed the pool and I pruned rose bushes.  Since it was a beautiful day and the side effects (hot flashes) of Tamoxifen are still doing a number on me, I didn't wear long sleeves. 

A rose bush and I had a fight and it won.  I came inside with a bloody arm, took a shower and forgot all about it. 

The next day, when I made it up the steep stairs at the building where I work, I had to sit down at the top of the steps.  That's when I knew I was in for a long day.  Did I overdo it at (rotator cuff) physical therapy on Friday?  Surely I didn't work THAT hard in the yard.  After a couple of hours, everything was aching and my left breast was on fire.  That's when I began to cry and shake.  The cancer is back.  I called Jeff and he left work to take me home.  I was too weak to drive for seven minutes!

 I called my oncologist and my surgeon but they were both booked solid.  My Radiation Oncologist, Dr. Mater, was out of town, so her partner Dr. Matter wanted me to come in immediately the next day.   A four hour drive to and from Lexington for a 20 minute visit?  Yes. We will be there.  That night, my fever spiked at 102.  God bless those people who get 104 degree fevers because they must be miserable!  That night, I slept, if you want to call it that, in Lauren's bed.  I cried most of the night.  80% from misery. 20% from fear. From past experience,  I was way too scared to tell many people about the swollen red breast.  I can hear it now..."That happened to my mom/aunt/sister/granny and the cancer got her that time.  That's what they call it in the country..."the cancer".

Dr. Matter is not only handsome, but he's very kind with an excellent bedside manner.  If a doctor ever says, "bless your heart", "you poor woman", or "It'll be ok.", well...I'm sold.  You know how I love a good shot of empathy and validation.  Jeff who is in the room with me, looks at me with wonder as I make conversation with Dr. Matter. Just minutes ago I was telling him I was more miserable than I was on chemo!  

The redness in my breast and my side and back were likely caused from an infection from the tear in my skin from the rose bush thorn!!  Because my body hasn't recovered yet from the chemo and radiation, any infection is likely to settle at the weakest areas with scar tissue. That explains why my neck and shoulder were hurting too.  He prescribed  an antibiotic and said, "If this doesn't work, we're going to have to admit you in the hospital."  

We had a quick lunch with Jordan and Oriana at Local Taco.  It was a blur.  I was in agony, but I insisted on seeing them..and I'm glad we did.  
Jordan and Oriana 



I've certainly been a bit demanding with God this past year.   I've begged for my health back (getting there), the knowledge and strength to be the best I can be in my new position (getting there), and most of all ....praying my heart out for Lauren. She moved to O'Fallon, MO near St. Louis, in March.  She's been unable to find a position as a sign language interpreter. Someone once told me that as a parent, you're only as happy as your unhappiest child.  How true. After six months, she finally got an interview last week. She just called me today to tell me she was offered the job!

I made sure I said my prayer of gratitude 'cause I read somewhere that if the only prayer you ever say is "thanks", it's enough. It was Maya Angelou, Eckhart Tolle or Oprah or someone spiritual and inspiring like that.   I'm too tired to Google right now.  Anyway,  here goes...

 Thank you, God, for allowing the people interviewing Lauren to see how gifted and special she is.  Thank you that this wasn't a cancer recurrence.  Thank you for Alexander Fleming, the inventor of penicillin.  Thank you for my husband who has taken such good care of me these past two days and always. Thank you for my co-workers who have worried about me these past few days and give me the daily encouragement to keep going.  Thank you for my son, who calls me regularly on his walks between classes just to check on me.  Thank you for the friends and family who are just now learning about my near death experience.  Slight exaggeration, God.  Only slight.  And God, I still love my rose bushes and am thankful for them. I'll just be more careful next time.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

A Year of Change

“This year is going to suck,” said Dr. Brown, the radiologist at St. Joseph Breast Center in Lexington.  That was one year and 21 days ago.  386 days.  Lauren and Jeff, who were both in the room, heard her say it too.  Her words, abrasive like sandpaper, I'm sure sounded differently in HER mind. She was trying to prepare me for the next 12 months.  In some ways it seems like yesterday, but actually, some days were longer than others.  As Navin Johnson said to Bernadette Peter’s character in the movie “The Jerk”: “The first day seemed like a week and the second day seemed like five days. And the third day seemed like a week again and the fourth day seemed like eight days…..   Yes.  That about sums it up.

Prior to that day, I would have thought they were crazy if anyone had told me that in the next 55 weeks, I’d be diagnosed with stage IIB breast cancer, have a lumpectomy, another surgery to remove a hematoma, four rounds of chemo, 33 radiation treatments, watch my Mini Cooper burn to a crisp on the shoulder of Mountain Parkway, lose my former boss and co-worker, get a promotion, watch helplessly as Lauren and Jesse pack and move to St. Louis, lose my beloved dog Buddy, and a former co-worker who took his own life this month. 

It turns out that my Mini Cooper fiasco is the biggest topic of conversation surrounding my blog posts.  I still have no idea what caused it.  I paid off what I owed on the car and bought a 2005 Volvo (borrring) that has some issues, which of course didn’t arise until I had the car a couple of months.  Sometimes, when I press the brake, the horn honks.  It’s really embarrassing at stoplights.  Many have asked if I sued the manufacturer.  I'd be a terrible plaintiff. "Were you injured in the incident?" the defense attorney for Mini Cooper would ask. "No. I'm fine," I'd say with a smile.  This is what my Jeff, the lawyer, envisions. He's probably right.  And quite honestly, I agree.

I still can’t talk about Buddy without crying.  I’ve had many pets in my lifetime, most of them for ten years or more. Buddy was only in my life for four short years, but never have I loved a pet so much.  His tired, old body just gave out. Buddy’s vets Dr.’s Mark and Melanie Greene were kind enough to come to our house to put Buddy to sleep, one of the few benefits of small town life.  We all four cried while saying goodbye to one of the sweetest dogs ever.   He died on July 1, the hottest day of the year.  Jeff stabbed at the parched clay dirt for thirty minutes before I joined him by the grave.  Sweat was pouring off of him as we viewed the progress, only about 1/6 the size of Buddy’s “casket”, Walmart’s biggest Rubbermaid container lined with pillows and his favorite ball.   I said, “I have an idea.  Why don’t we have him cremated?”  Jeff looked at me and said, “You think of this NOW?”  While he was outside digging, I called my sister Gail, who always has 25-30 cats (no exaggeration at all!), along with a big Great Pyrenees dog.  She suggested Bluegrass Pet Crematorium in Lexington.  We brought Buddy to Gail and she and my brother-in-law Shane were kind enough to take him for us. We just couldn’t do it.  Bluegrass Pet Crematorium returned him in a beautiful carved wooden box with an imprint of his paw pressed in clay.  I still haven’t decided if we’ll bury it.














Now, for hopefully the last two big events of the year:  rotator cuff surgery was July 3 ....

                                                  
 The view of the top of my shoulder.  The exposed bone (left) is in the middle. The photo on the right was taken post surgery.


and ….gulp…my boss Bob Little, V.P. of Sales, is retiring August 30. 
I feel so blessed and honored to know this man- a true leader, motivator, and a friend to everyone who crosses his path.  At each meeting, he leads the troops in prayer, thanking God for our safety in our travels, blessing our meals, and praying for guidance.  The man has charisma and some humongous shoes to fill.  I’ve learned so much from him these last 19 years, all of it taught by example.  I’m so happy for him and sad for the KY Lottery.

Bob Little, Leader Extraordinaire

It’s just been a rough year.  I’m trying so hard to stay positive, but the curve balls keep coming.  My first of several dozen physical therapy sessions (for the rotator cuff) at Highlands Regional Hospital was this week and I’m already drained. It’s not the physical therapy that drains me, but their attitudes. No one seems to want to be there.  Normally, when I meet people like this, I’m constantly wondering, “Why are they so unhappy? What can I do to change their mood?  Are they always like this? Is there anything I can do or say to make them smile?”  Seeing them laugh becomes my mission.   But that requires a lot of energy, which I need to conserve right now.

Several years ago, at a KY Lottery Sales Conference, we had a key note speaker who talked about the impact of positive/negative thoughts on others.  As a demonstration, one sales rep was asked to leave the room for a few minutes.    The speaker asked us to think negative thoughts about that sales rep.  As difficult as it was to imagine this guy being anything but fun-loving and energetic, a room of maybe 75 people collectively were told to concentrate on this guy’s laziness (what a joke!) and how much we disliked him.  A few minutes later, he was called back into the room and asked by the speaker to extend his arm and hold it out straight in front of him. She said she would try to force his arm down, but he was supposed to keep it rigid in front of him.  The room chuckled as we tried to imagine this older woman forcing a thirty-something year old man’s arm to his side.  She actually did it with very little effort.  The volunteer said, “What? Do that again!”  And she did…several times.  The volunteer was asked to leave the room again. This time we were told to think positive thoughts-how handsome and charismatic the guy is, what a hard worker he was, and how much we admired him.  He re-entered the room and was again asked to extend his arm and resist her force.  This time, the speaker’s arm was quivering as she tried to force it down.  I was sitting close enough to see the veins in his arm bulge as he tried to resist the woman’s force. She tried using two hands.  That arm wasn’t moving.  Afterward, our skeptical group was asked to perform the same experiment on the person beside us.  The group at my table laughed incredulously, amazed that our thoughts had so much power.  Years later, I met Nadina, my naturopath.  She’s performed this test on me many times over the years to assess my nutritional needs and my body’s weaknesses.  Some see it as hocus pocus.  I find it fascinating.

In the midst of typing this blog, I magically, not coincidentally (don't believe in those) received a card in the mail from my friend Sylvia. How could I not smile?




That being said, I know that a positive…and negative attitude are contagious, so I decided to switch physical therapists now.   I need to recover as quickly as possible from this surgery.

Many say everything happens for a reason and that we’re all here to learn lessons from life experiences.  It’s too soon to list those lessons now because I’m still learning and living them.  My longest hair, which despite the fact that I just had it relaxed, is a curly mop.  Before I had it, um, "straightened", I looked like Androgynous Pat from Saturday Night Live. 

Androgynous Pat


 Now it's a whopping 2 ½ inches long and full of cowlicks.  After Lauren and the folks at Cha Cha's spent over an hour trying to force the cowlicks to lay in the right direction, I was given a 'do that I could go to the store wearing without a stranger saying, "Are you through with chemo? Or even worse, flash a pity smile. I decided I didn't have that kind of time, nor mobility in my arm.  I'll just have to continue "wigging" it for awhile. 


 To add insult to injury,  I’ve gained almost ten pounds after starting the Tamoxifen (an estrogen receptor blocker) and the hot flashes from it are driving me insane.   I have to stay on it 10 years, says Dr. Moss.  At this rate, in 10 years I will weigh exactly 372 pounds.  But I’m here.  Dr. Moss said that that likely wouldn’t have been be the case in a few years if I hadn’t had that mammogram when I did.  Sure, I’m a little vain, but every time I look in the mirror, I’m reminded of the last year.  I just want to move on with my life.  I have a trip to Italy with Jeff to make someday, future grandchildren to spoil, Jordan's college graduation, and a challenging new position at the KY Lottery.  I don’t have time for cancer, shoulder pain, or bad attitudes. 

What I do know for sure is that I’m really blessed to have had so many people support me with kind words and prayer these last 56 weeks.  I’ve learned who truly cares about me and who has my back.  Although I’ve cried a river this year, I think I’ve laughed a little more too.  I’ve made some new friends.  Several of them are like me, at the mercy of God and their oncologists.   I pray they’re as blessed as I have been.    
Many have asked. “Is it over?” Lord, I hope so.  Once I recover from the  shoulder surgery,  the fatigue from radiation (which they say starts to subside a year after the last radiation treatment), and totally forget about my complications from my surgery last August, I might have reconstructive surgery to fill in the hole I now have in my left breast.   Spackle would work nicely. 
For now, I’m taking one day at a time, nurturing my tired body and my positive attitude.  


Saturday, April 5, 2014

Follow-Up

Monday was my follow-up appointment at the oncologist and I was a wreck.  Jeff knew it so he took the day off work to drive me there.  The only medication I’ve been taking is Effexor (an anti-depressant) and I have been weaning myself off of it slowly. I was down to a low dose every other day.  One of the side effects of Effexor happens to be that it cuts back on the number and intensity of hot flashes.  If I didn’t have the knowledge and fear of drugs that I do, I’d be gobbling those happy pills like Cookie Monster.   Within the last month I’ve had more crazy dreams than I care to tell you about in detail. Most of them involved bad news from my upcoming doctor visit:  the cancer has spread, my recent promotion to manager was rescinded, and walking through tulips in Lexington Cemetery shopping for my cemetery plot.  I woke up every morning exhausted from the nightmares.
Jeff and I arrived at Dr. Moss’s office loaded with a stack of resumes to read over and his massive stack of billing for his firm.  The appointment was in the afternoon and we knew we’d be waiting for a while.  After about thirty minutes they took me back to draw my blood and directed me to the exam room.  Thirty minutes later, Dr. Moss walked in.  Her hair looked liked it had grown three or four inches since I last saw her.  I wondered why mine hadn’t.  We talked about my recent diagnosis, which I haven’t had time to even blog about lately.  An MRI revealed that I have a torn rotator cuff and have to have surgery as soon as possible.  The orthopedic surgeon said I have two tears and one is considered to be a full one.  The longer I wait, the worse it will get.
Yep. That 25th wedding anniversary gift is the one that keeps giving.  Of course, I’m referring to my Jacuzzi fall 2 ½ years ago. Dr. Moss asked if I had scheduled my surgery.  Not yet, I said.  I’m so busy that I not only don’t have time for the surgery and recovery, I don’t have the time to pick up the phone and schedule it.
 
I had gained seven pounds since I started back to work.  Before then, I had been diligent about eating healthy.  Right now, it’s all about what is the quickest and easiest.  Sigh…I know so much better.  

I, like many other patients, want a post-treatment scan that will tell us we're cancer free. There is no such test.  Pet scans will only detect tumors that are one cm and bigger. Even if my cancer had returned, it wouldn't be that big yet. The best you can ever hope for is "No evidence of disease."

Dr. Moss talked about Tamoxifen, the estrogen-receptor blocker that will keep estrogen from feeding any breast cancer cells that might be lingering.  She wrote a prescription for it and another for full strength Effexor.  The most recent protocol says BC patients take Tamoxifen for ten years.  “I would take the full strength of Effexor—for the mood swings and the hot flashes.  You will need it.  If you don’t, you’re setting yourself for failure.  You’ll stop taking the Tamoxifen and jeopardize your breast cancer treatment.”

“What are the side effects?”  Although I’d read up on them, I wanted to see what she’d say.  “Double the risk of endometrial cancer, nausea, vomiting, bleeding, cataracts, blood clots, fatigue, depression.....”  There's even more.
She then checked my left breast, which isn’t very pretty.  The purple golf ball I used to have looks as if it has sunken in and disappeared, leaving behind a crater that’s as hard as a rock.  “How long has it looked and felt like this?” (Since not long after I completed radiation). “Well, it could be just scar tissue but I want to make sure.  Let’s schedule an ultrasound as soon as possible.”    I started shaking, but only my insides.  I could feel my heart beating faster and all my insides quivering, but carried out my stack of work to the receptionist desk as if nothing was wrong.  I remember my first visit there.   My nose was red and eyes were swollen from crying.  I was mad as hell that I was there and wasn’t shy about showing it.
Now, with each visit to the oncologist it’s as if I’m appearing in front of a judge.   The first time, I met her with fear, anger, and defensiveness.  After a few appearances in “court”, I’m still a scared victim but try not to let it show.  Now I’m making friends with the bailiffs.

“Did you ever get a new car?” says Amy, the receptionist.  “Not yet.  But we’re looking.”   I’ve been looking for a new (used) car to replace my burnt up Mini Cooper.  “How’s your hair under the wig?  Has it grown much?”  I had to laugh.  “It’s pretty hideous. It’s half black/half white and one big cow lick.”  I’m thinking about getting hair extensions, but that requires a day off.  With spring coming, the wigs are already becoming intolerably hot..  I keep the office so chilly that even the big men who walk in wearing jackets are teeth-chattering cold.
They “worked me in” for an ultrasound three days later.  They were implying urgency while on the phone to the Breast Center.  Of course, this added to my terror.  I cried all the way home. 
Three days later, Jeff and I made the two hour drive up Mountain Parkway.  Each time I pass the Stanton exit, I see the black spot that scarred the asphalt on the shoulder of the road where my little Mini Cooper, clothes, cake, and wig burned up in January.
We arrived on time at the Breast Center on Thursday, carrying more work to keep us busy.  They brought me back to a room to undress from the waist up. “We’re going to do another mammogram. You’re due for one in June,” says Kaye, the mammographer.  Whatever.  I’m so tired I just follow her to wherever, strip and have her place my boob and arm (I can’t lift my left one by myself) wherever she wants it.   She places a boob, one at a time on a piece of 12” x 12” plexiglass.  You hear a whir and see another sheet of plexiglass compress the breast like a pancake.  I wince in discomfort.  I look down and am amazed that my dense breast has flattened to fill out all but about one or two inches around the perimeter of the glass.  I imagined Jeff having to have this done to his, well…never mind.  Kaye tells me she was off THREE MONTHS for rotator cuff surgery. Shit.  Really? My orthopedic surgeon said two weeks!

Dr. Marta Kinney is the radiologist who performed my ultrasound afterward.  She’s blond, Polish, attractive, and thin with high pronounced cheekbones like my friend Liz’s.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstructive surgery.  How’s that for irony?  A woman who detects breast cancer gets the dreaded diagnosis herself.  Jeff comes back to the room with me.  I’m trying very hard to focus on what she’s saying but she sounds just like the actress on SNL when she impersonates Arianna Huffington.  Focus, Ann, focus!  This is important stuff, I tell myself, but yet I’m thinking….Arianna is Greek.  Why would a Polish woman’s accent sound like hers?  Focus!  I heard her say, “This appeared to be scar tissue. “  Nicole the nurse walks in.  “How beeg vas your tu-more,” asked Dr. Kinney.  “BIG, almost 3 cm,” Nicole interrupts.  I did a double take because I remembered her telling me nine months ago that it was 2 ½ cm which wasn’t quite an inch.  She’s seen much bigger, she said back then.
“Are you on Tamoxifen,” Dr. Kinney asked. I just got the prescription this week. I haven’t started it yet.  She rolled her eyes and said, “Tamoxifen really increases your appetite.  When I was diagnosed, I weighed 103 lbs.  I’m now 132.”   I was finding it difficult to sympathize with her on that one. I haven’t weighed 132 since my junior year in high school.  “Although nothing about this breast is normal, I see no evidence of cancer at this time.”   Hallelujah!  Although I knew “this time” meant regular visits and scares, for today, I was happy with the news.  I have a reprieve from worry for a few months.

Before heading home, Jeff and I stopped by Arkon’s house. Arkon is the name of a middle-eastern mechanic/entrepreneur who likes to “flip” cars that have been wrecked (but not the engine).  We bought Jordan’s Camry from him in December and when he heard about my Mini Cooper mishap, he offered to help me find a good deal elsewhere since he didn’t have any of the models I was looking for at the time.  When Jordan broke the car door handle off during an ice storm, Arkon replaced it for free.   
Arkon had the perfect car for me, he said…a 2004 Volvo S40.   It’s a very safe car, but definitely not a mid-life crisis car.   He had just put some new tires on it and it only had 95,000 miles.  I’ll only be driving it to work nine miles a day and to doctor appointments in Lexington.  I really wanted a Fiat but Jeff says they’re unsafe.  Guess it seems silly to take Tamoxifen as a cancer precaution and then buy a dangerous car.  Kind of like eating French fries and washing them down with a high vitamin smoothie. Wait…I sometimes DO that!
I drove home in my Volvo, took a bath and went straight to bed.  I slept through a massive thunderstorm and Buddy’s panting and whines over the aforementioned.  That hasn’t happened in years!
So….today..April 5, 2014…marks the 30th anniversary of the day that I met Jeff.  It was a Thursday and Selectrocution night at 2001 V.I.P, a nightclub in Lexington.  My friend Pam called me up and said, “Tonight we’re going to Selectrocution.  I’m picking you up in 30 minutes.  Be ready.”  I was in my pajamas with a mud mask on my face.  “Pam. I’m in my pajamas..”
“Thirty minutes.  Be ready.”    So I was. 
The idea of Selectrocution makes me cringe today. But in 1984, it was state of the art EHarmony.com, only based completely on appearances.  But when you’re 19 with a fake ID, you’re pretty shallow.  When you walk in, they ask your initials and pin a card with two three inch letters to your lapel or dress.  They also give you a card with your initials at the top with five blanks on them.  You write down the initials of five men or women you are attracted to and turn them in at the computer.  At the end of the night, you get a print-out of who picked you (an asterisk beside the initials if they picked you too) and how you rated out of all of the women.  Ugh.  Can you believe that?   I saw Jeff and his friend Calvin walk in and I wrote down their initials in 2 of the 5 blanks.  I told Pam, ”I’m going to walk by those guys.  Tell me if the tall one looks.”  I walk by with my drink in one hand and my pinkie finger on the other twisting as I walked by.  I came back to the table and Pam said, “Not only did he look, he wrote down your initials on his card!”  I was seriously wearing a blue dress that buttoned all the way up the neck.   Jeff later called it my “nun” dress.   Then the D.J. played Super Freak, my favorite dance song at the time.  I asked him to dance, he asked for my phone number, and the rest is history.  The club later became a strip club named Pure Gold, so Jeff tells people, “There’s where I met Ann.” 
I’m just praying for another 30 years with my Selectrocution dude!
May 1984, a month after we met.
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