Friday, December 27, 2013

Hot Flashes and Teenage Boys

On Fridays, after my 10:00 radiation treatment, I head back to the hills of Appalachia to spend the weekend with my guys.  Both are always happy to see me and one licks my bald head.  I won’t tell you which one.

On the drive home, I called Liz to find out how her son (my Godson) Grant was enjoying his new car he got for Christmas.  We had been on the phone for at least fifteen minutes when I noticed a Morgan county school bus in front of me.  I said to Liz, “Isn’t school out everywhere?  Why would there be a busload of high school aged kids on Dec. 27th?  A field trip?” 
Liz said, “It’s probably a group of basketball players headed to a tournament.” 

“Ahhhh.  I didn’t think about that.”  Of course not.  I lucked out.  Lauren’s extracurricular activities were guitar and piano. Jordan played guitar and ran cross-country on the track team.  None of those involved traveling during Christmas break, thank God. 

Liz and I continued to chat while I drove down the Mountain Parkway headed towards Prestonsburg.  As I stopped at a stoplight in Salyersville, I noticed the teenage boys sitting in the back of the bus.  They casually looked out the bus’s back window at me as I held my cell phone to my ear.

Then it hit me.  A hot flash.  Not in a good way.  It felt more like I might spontaneously combust.  For those of you who don't know (like me before D-day), chemotherapy launches peri-menopausal women (women usually in their 40’s and sometimes in their thirties) into early menopause. 
I was wearing my longest, hottest, thickest wig which is comfortable when it’s below 65 degrees or when I’m NOT having a hot flash.
I cranked the A/C to MAX and adjusted the vents so they would blow on my face. My head felt ready for egg-frying, while my brain was ready to boil out my ears.  The wig was going.  Maybe out the window.  Nope, I thought. I better not do that. I promised my friend Carol that once my hair grew back, I’d offer up my highlighted wig in trade for her KY Derby miniskirt.  It’s a white skirt with appliqu├ęs of horses with jockeys on board wearing colorful silks.  The best part---the front of the skirt shows the horses running toward you.  The back shows the horses’ back ends.  I’ve wanted that skirt since I laid eyes on it almost 25 years ago, when I could confidently wear a mini skirt.  Now that I’m nearing fifty, what would Stacy London of What Not to Wear say?  Eh. I don’t care.   If I can squeeze myself into that skirt, this menopausal lady will walk her pasty white legs through Churchhill Downs donning the biggest hat I can find.

Then I did it.  I grabbed my wig at the forehead and yanked it off.  We were still at the stoplight.  The four boys in the back seats looked like they’d seen a ghost.  Then…laughter and pointing…and later, as I drove away, one of the boys gave me a thumbs up.   

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Radiation and Other Fun Stuff

I know. These days I seem to wait longer between each blog post.  There’s a reason.  I am deliriously tired.  Many ask, “Why? Aren’t you finished with chemo?”  Yes. My last chemo infusion was Nov. 14 and I was expecting to have some energy afterwards. 
“Radiation is a cake walk compared to chemotherapy!”  Huh? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that comment from fellow cancer fighters.  On the misery spectrum, it’s hard to top days 2-5 after a chemo infusion, but after that it’s not so least for the regimen Dr. Moss gave me.  I was no longer sick to my stomach, felt tired, but could perform normal tasks, as long as it didn’t tax my chemo brain. 
Radiation has been much more difficult for me.  It might be because of the fact that I’m two hours from home and miss my guys (although I'm ever-so-grateful for the hospitality of Lauren & Jesse and Liz & Barry!).  Also, the pain in my shoulder seems to get worse with each treatment. I’ll explain the shoulder pain a little later.

Let me first explain a few facts about radiation found in my booklet named “Radiation and You”, another piece of reading material given to me recently. 
“…More than half (about 60%) of people with cancer get radiation therapy…Given in high doses, radiation kills or slows the growth of cancer cells….Radiation therapy does not kill the cancer cells right away.  It takes days or weeks of treatment before cancer cells start to die.  Then, cancer cells keep dying for weeks or months after radiation therapy ends….radiation not only kills or slows the growth of cancer cells, it can also affect nearby healthy cells.  The healthy cells almost always recover after treatment is over.  But sometimes people may have side effects that do not get better or are severe.”
Let’s rewind back to December 2.  That was the day I had my “radiation simulation”.   After changing into a purple-ish colored gown (from the waist up), the sweet-voiced radiation technician removed the gown and had me lie flat on my back.  I was told to grasp the handle bar over my head (OW! Intense shoulder pain!).   She placed a moldable pillow under my head and asked me to turn my head to the right.  She then removed the pillow, told me to relax my arms (whew!), sprayed the pillow with something and wrote my name on it.  “This will keep you from moving your head during treatment.  Now it’s time to get you set up in the computer.  “Put your arms over your head again and grasp the bar.”  If you’re an avid Keeping You Abreast “fan”, you’ve read the blog post titled “The Incident” posted in August.  It’s the story of our 25th anniversary weekend gone awry.  A would-be romantic candlelit bubble bath in a Jacuzzi turned into a fiasco when I slipped on the tiled tub and landed on my elbow.  Two years later, a chiropractor held up my x-ray to the light showing a partially dislocated shoulder.   Yes. That’s how I roll.  I wait until I can no longer function before opening Pandora’s box of scary diagnoses. 

Back to the radiation simulation….Holding my left arm over my head for five minutes is excruciating.   On that day, I had to do it for over an hour.  I was distracted from the pain when the technician drew little dots and lines all over my left breast, cleavage, and upper chest.  I made a joke about my bikini exposing the marks at the beach that weekend.  She laughed like she didn’t hear that every day.  How kind. 
Then the sweet radiation technician with the baby voice said,
“Now I need to put wire tape over your incisions.  She quickly saw the one in my armpit from my lymph node dissection and guided the tape over it.  She searched all over looking for the scar from the tumor removal.  She turned the lights brighter in the room and looked closer for it, her face only inches from my breast.  After I watched her search for a couple of minutes (I get my entertainment wherever I can these days), I pointed to my areola.  That’s the 2nd time I’ve ever typed that word.
She gasped.  “OMG!!  Who’s your surgeon?”  I was happy to know that I had the most invisible scar she’d ever seen but perplexed by the fact that she didn’t seem to notice the purple golf ball a few inches below it.   “Dr. A.J.,” I said.
“He’s a great surgeon…and easy on the eyes,” she said. We both laughed.  “That, he is.”
Finally it was time for my tats.  I was a little worried about the pain but then remembered that horrible drain in my armpit and the swelling eggplant I had a couple of months ago.  I’ve got this.  She said, “First the ink…then the needle…”  She repeated that procedure four times.  I barely felt one of them.  The other four…nothing!  Whew.  Yes, I now have five tattoos.  They are small blue dots-all five of them-and they’re the size of a freckle.  I have lots of freckles on my chest so, although my tattoos are blue, they blend in with the rest of them.   So that every radiation treatment isn’t a Where’s Waldo game, they covered the tattoos with clear tape and drew a big black dot over the freckle with a Sharpie pen.  I contemplated the logic in that procedure, but I kept quiet.  The answer might have meant one more minute of shoulder torture.  I’m not supposed to remove the tape until radiation treatment is over the end of January.  All I can say is…I’m…. too sexy for my shirrrrrt.

She spent over an hour aligning me (the dots on my chest) with the laser that would soon be pointed at various locations on my chest and armpit. It’s very important to lie completely still during every treatment.   A cough could mean accidental radiation of my heart or lungs.

My first of 33 daily (Mon-Fri) visits was a week later.   I was ready to get this ball rolling and get back to normal. Ok. A new normal.  My shoulder was still throbbing and burning from the simulation and I was dreading one more minute of the bar above my head.  I talked to Dr. Matar, my radiation oncologist, about my shoulder and she recommended physical therapy.  I had already left a message for a PT at Baptist Health, but no response.  I’m beginning to see unreturned calls and bad vibes as a sign from above that it simply wasn’t meant to be.  What used to be frustration now makes me smile.  Dr. Matar called Stephanie, a P.T. with St. Joseph and scheduled an appointment for that week. 
I’ve heard people talk about physical therapy and how rigorous and painful it can be.   My PT Stephanie calmed my fears immediately.  “You’re considered to be a STAR patient,” she said.  I don’t recall if that’s an acronym for something like Shoulder Torture for Ann Ritchey. (Ritchey is my maiden name.  It would have been funnier had I been considered a STAD patient).  Well, it turns out that I get an “easy pass”, all because I checked yes to the cancer box.
After Stephanie’s long list of questions and balance tests, she tested my mobility of my right arm.  She asked me to bend my right arm and touch my elbow to my ear. No problem.  180 degree mobility. “Try doing the same with your left arm and stop when you feel pain.”  90 degree mobility. 
“How long has it been like this?” she asked.  The shock on her face when I told her two years confirmed what I already knew:  I had put myself last on the list. Actually, I thought it would get better.  I knew my trips to the chiropractor helped but I always used work as my excuse for not going regularly.  As for physical therapy, I was just afraid of the pain.
Stephanie gave me a series of easy exercises to do while at home.  I’ve done them, although not faithfully this past week.
I’ve had a persistent cough and was told in the beginning that it’s a common symptom of radiation to the chest area.  Lauren played nurse last night bringing me various medicines in bed because I was too weak to get out of bed. 

My cough has become so deep and painful this past week that I nearly threw up several times after a coughing fit.  After listening to my chest, Dr. Matar gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and worried about me driving myself home.  I could hardly catch my breath from a 40 pace walk.  After I assured her I was fine, she wished me a Merry Christmas.   I know it will be because I get two days of reprieve during my treatment: Christmas Day and New Years Day.    Lauren, Jesse, Jordan, Oriana, Gail, Shane, Jeff and I celebrated Christmas on Sunday.   I get to be home for 43 hours total and spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with Jeff and Buddy.   

On my way out of town, I saw a runner on Man-O-War and cried.  I've never wished for good health for myself as a Christmas gift.  In the past, I envied those who took weeks off and traveled the world at a whim, had their children's tuition saved or paid before they started school, and all those lucky souls who live in San Francisco.  Now all I want is to be healthy.   

As I look at the clock, I realize that I’m down to 35 hours.  It’s time to close my laptop and make it count.  Merry Christmas to all of you! I’ll try not to wait so long before my next post.

God bless all of the caring and friendly staff at St Joseph Radiation Oncology, who also only get a two day reprieve!


Monday, December 9, 2013

My Army

I’m so lucky.  Sure, I have a purple golf ball on my boob, black fingernails from chemo, and a big shiny bald head, but I know I am so blessed.  Friday was our office Christmas party and I was looking forward to seeing my second family-my Kentucky Lottery co-workers at Prestonsburg’s newest restaurant McGuire’s Brick House.  My isolation has made me stir crazy and I couldn’t wait to experience, albeit temporary, a sense of normalcy in my day. 
It was pouring the soon-to-be-freezing rain and I was worried the party would be postponed.  I kept checking my e-mail half expecting it to be canceled.  I arrived at the hostess desk and told her I was with the Kentucky Lottery party.  She directed me to the party room in the back.
When I walked in, I first noticed that everyone was dressed alike and thought I missed an e-mail or memo about the party attire.   “Ann!!!!!!!!” they all cheered in unison.  Their big smiles and warm hugs assured me that they missed me too. I was so happy to see Jo Ann, a retired KLC Sales Rep (and breast cancer survivor!) and Bob, our V.P. of Sales, who drove from Louisville for the occasion.

When I looked at their pink and grey camouflage shirts, I noticed they all said “Ann’s Army”.   I was speechless.  My boss had the shirts made for everyone and they (especially the guys) looked adorable in their pink camo.  I couldn’t help but cry…and laugh.  What a site for sore eyes!

After lunch, we had our annual Chinese gift exchange (the draw numbers and steal each other’s gifts game), which is always a blast.  Then…they presented me with a big beautiful basket filled with a thoughtful gift from each of my co-workers.  Wow.  How lucky am I? 

 As if that wasn’t enough, I was given a gigantic card signed by all of my retailers!  This one really got to me.   Sandy and Dwayne, two sales reps in our region, have been covering my territory while I’ve been on medical leave.  God bless them.  I imagined Dwayne and Sandy carrying that 3 ft. card into every store and updating everyone on my condition.   There were so many sweet messages, some with little “inside jokes” meant for only me.  I was blubbering now. 

I was instantly reminded of one of my favorite books Be the Miracle by Regina Brett.  The book is a handbook filled with 50 important lessons in making the impossible possible.  Call me an eternal optimist but I believe that most people are inherently good and want to make a positive impact on the world.  We all become so overwhelmed with our schedules, finances, families, and our need to please everyone that we don’t realize that it’s sometimes enough to make one person happy (Lesson 14 of 50 in Brett’s book).   

Rest assured co-workers.  Mission accomplished.