Joy Along the Detour

Yesterday sweet Jerry drove me to Kaiser in Ontario for what is proving to be my last visit at the radiation department there. Dr. Ro examined me thoroughly, then declared I am doing well, and unless some unexpected event develops I do not have to return there. Yes! I do have scarring under my arm from the severe burns, but it does not bother me at all.

So life, precious life continues.

My life consists of much more than my cancer detour. A few days ago Jerry received this in the mail.

DSC_4243How blessed of God I am to be allowed to share in the ministry of my dedicated, godly husband. For more than 60 years he has carried the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite his exceptional accomplishments, including assuming the pastorate of two churches, and establishing another one, things have not  always been easy for him. His mother died when he was four, his dad when he was twelve. He was moved from place to place during the remainder of his childhood, living with older siblings, then living with a couple who had a dairy farm where he earned his keep by rising well before dawn to milk cows. Before he went to school each day, he delivered the milk to various places in the tiny town of Starks, LA. When he was a high school senior he went to live with his brother Bill who encouraged him to go to college after he finished high school. He followed that excellent advice, and four years later he graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in the education field.

In 1994, he was struck by a drunk driver and was dead in the street. A lady revived him and he was taken to a hospital where he spent five months. He had almost unimaginable injuries including a broken neck, bleeding into his brain stem, broken hip, multiple other breaks, ruptured urinary bladder, bruised heart, kidneys…Doctors gave him little hope of living, then of walking, but if you saw him today you would never suspect he endured such a calamity. (The first book I wrote is an account of this event, entitled A Thousand Pieces. Available several places including Amazon. You may also order the book from me and I’ll ship you one.)

. . .and still he ministers. How blessed we are.

So despite the little cancer detour life continues, glorious life.

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Only Eight to Go!

My 17th radiation treatment this morning followed the pattern of the previous 16–no negative reactions at all! In the afternoon I had a follow-up appointment with Dr. Chan, whom you may recall, is my primary oncologist. My blood pressure was 128/67, my heart and lungs were clear, and my oxygen saturation was 99%.  He grinned when I told him how wonderful I am feeling.

We visited for a while, discussed a few things, then he stood, extended his hand, and said, “I won’t need to see you again until 6 months have passed. You have been a trooper!”

It was late afternoon when Jerry and I arrived home. He lighted the smoker on the back deck to grill the salmon we would be having for dinner. I seasoned the fish, then he placed it on a cedar plank and cooked it to perfection.

Fresh blackberries that needed to be eaten were in my fridge, so I engaged in a major indulgence and whipped up a blackberry cobbler.

DSC_3614DSC_3619It is said that cancer feeds on sugar, so I have made the commitment to drastically reduce my intake of the luscious white stuff. Notice I said, reduce, not delete!

So, because a bowl of warm blackberry cobbler is not quite complete without a scoop of vanilla ice cream, I indulged in a major splurge and tackled this . . .

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Only 8 to go, friends.  (Radiation treatments that is, not bowls of blackberry cobbler oozing with melting vanilla ice cream!)

Doctors and Number 15

Yesterday as I was leaving the room where the big machine is that blasts me with rays designed to kill any sneaky cancer cells that might be lurking in my body, Zack said to me, “Tomorrow is your 15th treatment and that calls for a visit with the radiation oncology doctor.” Sure enough, after today’s treatment I was directed down the hall, and eventually taken to an exam room where a PA came in, introduced himself, and examined the skin on my chest wall where I had the mastectomy, and under my right arm where cancerous lymph nodes were removed.

“Your skin is perfect,” he said after a quick look. “What are you using?”

“100% Aloe Vera cream,” I told him.

“Well, I see absolutely no problems. We’ll check your radiation site again after your last treatment.”

Yes!

I was happy for this great report, although not surprised, for it is evident that my skin is holding up very well against these powerful rays.

In the afternoon, I had a follow-up visit with my surgeon, Dr. Victor. When Marge, the very sweet nurse in that unit, checked my blood pressure, it measured 130/70. She turned and looked squarely in my face. “You look so good. You are doing exceptionally well.” When Dr. Victor came in, checked my site, and my other breast, he said, “Everything looks wonderful.”

Yes!

We were all smiling. Jerry was with me, and for quite a time Dr. Victor lingered, talked of his family and the vacation they are planning to Newfoundland in the near future, of our common interest in photography, of the joys of family . . .

“I’ll be following you for 5 years,” he told me. “See you next in 3 or 4 months.”

What a good day this has been. Number 16 tomorrow.

 

No Chemo Curl

“You will lose your hair,” Dr. Victor said to me early on as we discussed side effects of chemotherapy. “But it will grow back,” he said with that kind, infectious smile of his.

Hair that grows back after chemo is sometimes a different color than before, and a formerly straight-haired girl may be blessed with what is called chemo curl. That curly hair that sprouts from her balded head usually doesn’t stay curly, I’m told, but eventually reverts to its former texture. Well, since I would be going through this little hair transition, I thought I would just order up a beautiful configuration for my head.

My paternal grandmother had glowing red hair. My dad had black curly hair. My husband has beautiful, curly wavy hair that looks better uncombed than mine does when I’ve just arranged it. You see, I have straight, stringy hair . . .well, that’s what I used to have . . .so I put in my order for red, curly hair. Sounds like a good choice, wouldn’t you say!DSC_2899I’ve mentioned before that most of my hair came out two weeks after my first chemo treatment, with a few hardy little bits hanging on these many weeks later. A few days ago, they all surrendered, and after a shampoo job, I no longer had any long hair. But already, my head is covered with new hair. Alas, I see no curls, nor any red sections. I have patches of white and what looks to be black. Guess I’ll resemble a skunk when it all arranges itself.

But check this out: Doesn’t that look like a little wave coming off in the back there!

Radiation Treatments

I was able to report during my follow-up visit with Dr. Chan a few weeks after my last chemo treatment that I was feeling well, very well, in fact. I had regained all my strength. My energy level was high, and my spirits were soaring. Dr. Chan smiled, and I could tell that my words pleased him.

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He spoke again of my needing to be on a five-year regimen of hormone blockers, and as he spoke, he typed an order into the computer. On our way out I stopped at the pharmacy and picked up the first of what will be many bottles over such a long time. More on this segment of my treatment later.

Dr. Chan surprised me during this visit by saying he wanted to refer me to a radiation oncologist. Although he explained that his reasoning for this reference was that he wanted me to have access to every possible treatment, I gathered he might be leaning toward thinking I would not need to have radiation. So, on the day that Jerry and I drove to the Ontario Kaiser facility where such treatments are done in this area, I was feeling well and rather carefree, for I did not expect to hear what I did.

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His name is Dr. Ro, the radiation oncologist, to whom I was assigned. Kind and generous with his information, he spoke to us at length about this line of cancer treatment, and of my particular case. Should I have such radiation? The decision was mine, of course, but when Jerry pressed Dr. Ro, he offered his opinion that I should. And so I will.

There will be 25 of them, daily five days a week, for five weeks. Last Tuesday I had my first visit in the unit, where multiple pictures and X-rays were taken. My chest area is covered widely with red marks that will be used to guide the technician. On Monday, I go there again for further studies, permanent markings, and a full schedule of my treatments.

I’m not happy about this development, and at one point last week had the thought that I would call and cancel, but I quickly discarded that idea, for my thinking is that I want to do all I can to cure and/or prevent the return of this hateful disease. I’m feeling extremely well, and honestly don’t anticipate another round of weakness and other side effects. (Dr. Ro said the fatigue that comes with radiation treatments is not as severe as that I suffered from chemo.)

Anyway, I am up to it. Have God’s mighty hand holding my feeble one. Can do it. Am strong.. .besides that I’ve been working in my gardens, and they are beautiful. I’m sharing with you. Hope they bless your day.

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Last Chemo Day!

When Dr. Chan walked into the room where Jerry and I sat last Monday he said, “Congratulations!” Time for my last chemo treatment! He discussed my lab work, noting that everything was perfect, did a cursory check of my heart and lungs, and cleared me for my final treatment that was waiting just down the hall.

“We’ve had a few bumps in the road,” Dr. Chan recalled, “but we worked through them. You’re doing great.”

Shirley last chemo

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What an exceptional, dear friend is Holly. She calls, visits, brings flowers and other gifts–even once sent a cleaning crew to our home. She joined us in the waiting room, bearing gifts which she revealed once I was settled in my final chemo chair. She set a tiara on my head. In my hand she placed a significant, wonderful placard festooned with curly, streaming ribbons. Other patients smiled; a couple of them spoke congratulatory words to me.

Jerry Last Chemo day

My dear honey. Faithful, giving, and loving. How much harder this detour would be without his support and caring ways.

Three last chemo

Although an innumerable group has supported me through these weeks with prayers, gifts, visits, food, phone calls, cards, flowers, monetary gifts, and internet communication, it is these three whose faces I have seen at my chemo sessions. My only daughter, Rebecca, has spent weeks at our home, she calls every day, brings food, cooks meals, and attended every chemo session.

Nurses last chemo

Two of the four nurses who tended me during my sessions are pictured here. They helped me through some extremely tense, potentially dangerous, moments. Wonderful, dedicated people. During my hours at that last session, suddenly one of the nurses said, “Let’s do the final chemo dance,” and both of them circled about our area for a few minutes of celebration dance. Holly was quick enough to get a short video of it, but I can’t seem to load it here.                                     .Last chemo jerry, shirley, bekRebecca brought balloons to the party!

Jerry Last Chemo dayWe celebrated  with a meal at Cocos in Rialto. Believe it or not, I wore my tiara  and carried in my balloons and chemo sign. We clapped and laughed and planned more celebrations.

(Because I promised honesty paragraph: We had said our good-byes, each of us had taken to our cars, and as Jerry and I drove off the restaurant parking lot, I became violently ill. Had to circle back, park again at Cocos while I rushed to the bathroom. At home, I collapsed onto the couch.)

But here I am seven days later, though very weak, feeling much better. The tiara is on our dresser in my bedroom. Occasionally, I run my hand over its sparkly surface.

 

 

 

 

Emerging from Dark Days

There likely is not a mature adult alive who has not in one way or another been knocked to the ground–be it physically, spiritually, or emotionally–likely more times than once. Those people will understand how wonderful it is during these times that loving ones tend to you. They pat your face, send flowers, bring meals, send notes, make phone calls, tell you they’re praying . . .or just sit in silence while you recover.

I am one of those, having over the past few weeks been knocked about by the results of chemotherapy, to the extent that I surely am the poster-kid for side effects. Hey, but I’m still here, and today feeling well enough to communicate in this way!

A known, but rare, allergic response to the chemo drug called Taxotere is serious enough that before the drug is administered other meds, most notably in the steroid family, are prescribed, some orally, others by IV. During my second infusion, I suffered such an allergic response, becoming short of breath, with severe face flushing, and a fierce pain in my back. Immediately the nurses stopped the infusion and gave me oxygen. When the pain had subsided, and my breathing had returned to normal, they again started the infusion–very slowly. I tolerated the drug then, and was able to finish the prescribed amount. Barely into my third infusion of Taxotere, I reacted violently. My doctor had already left the building, but another oncologist was called who observed me for awhile, and subsequently ordered the medication, for the time, discontinued.

My oncologist, Dr. Chan, called me twice the next day and we discussed ways to go forward with my treatment. There were additional pre-medications that could be used, whose function is to prevent the allergic reaction. I returned to the chemo department two days later. My nurses, as always, were sweet and friendly, but were on high-alert, and since early morning had been in contact with Dr. Chan who was in his office down the hall. One of the nurses told me it would be very rare to have another such allergic reaction.

They placed me in the chemo chair closest to their stations. and carefully explained the game plan. All medications would be administered slowly, the on-site pharmacist had prepared a tiny bag of Taxotere, and if I tolerated that, the full infusion would be given. The lead nurse sat down and stared at me as the infusion began. Before a mere 5 ml had entered my body, I reacted. She noted the severe flushing of my face, jumped up and turned off the Taxotere, and began a stout infusion of Benadryl. Another nurse came over and started the oxygen. My lungs were burning, my chest tight, and I was short of breath. I was disoriented. Dr. Chan quickly came and stood by me.

I stayed in the chemo unit for probably a couple of hours, until the staff was sure I was stable, and not in immediate danger of further reaction. So. The end of my treatment with Taxotere. I agreed with Dr. Chan that we had done all we could to assist my body in tolerating that particular drug, but it just did not work out for me. On next Monday I return to the unit for my final chemo treatment, which will  consist only of the Cytoxen, which my body tolerates with only known and expected side-effects. The worst is the extreme fatigue which has plagued me over these months.

Let me add something very important here: My having cancer, my suffering through chemotherapy with dreadful side effects and a rare allergic attack have in no way changed my basic outlook on life. I’m happy to be here. God remains powerful, triumphant, faithful, and in charge–of my life, and of yours. Period. I rest sweetly in that understanding.

Please accept my thanks to you who have ministered to me during these trying weeks and months. I have responded to some of you; others I have not. Every note on paper, every card, every floral arrangement, every comment on any of my internet sites, every prayer, every meal provided,  every personal visit, every phone call . . . all of them mean so very much to me, and from the bottom of my heart, I thank you.

 

 

 

 

Truthfully, a Bit of Ugliness


 

aShirley and red hat Striving always toward the basic tenet of my writings which is truth, I certainly included that thought when I set up this blog, knowing, however,  that at times this would prove difficult, for sometimes the truth is ugly. Now I do understand I am not required to post about the unpleasant, the undesirable, the ugly, and for the most part I adhere to that thinking in all my pieces. By nature I am enthusiastic and upward looking, for it comes natural for me to see the encouraging attributes of most any situation. But this blog is about cancer and sometimes its truth is ugly. It definitely would be unfair of me to skirt these issues.

My reaction to my first chemo session was severe. I suffered intense nausea so that I could hardly eat. However, I was distinctly thankful for the two drugs I had been given to help alleviate the situation. I was instructed to take Zofran at the first inkling of a problem; if I had no relief within an hour, or if the relief lasted less than six hours, I was to take Compazine. Although I continued to have significant nausea for about two weeks, I did not vomit at all. What a blessing that was.

Four other problems hounded me:

1. I developed a severe rash, for which I had to visit a doctor. (Dr. Chan was on vacation so each time I developed a problem I had to see a different doctor, which couldn’t be helped.) Dr. Anderson prescribed an anti-bacterial cream, which worked rapidly and effectively.

2. Deep bone pain is a known affect  of chemo, and of the drug Nupogen. Within the first week I began suffering severely from this situation, and had to drive down the hill where I visited Dr. Baker, who prescribed Norco. Although one was prescribed every six hours, I had to take two of them to get relief. (When I visited Dr. Chan yesterday, he gave me a prescription for the same med, except that it is 10 mg instead of 5 mg.)

3. Extreme weakness is well-known to follow a chemo treatment, and I believe mine was complicated by my blood pressure running very low. During one of the doctor visits, it was suggested we buy a home blood pressure machine. We did that, and because of the continued low readings, I discontinued blood pressure medications, except for Atenolol which keeps my pulse rate down (without which it gets up to 100 or 110 for some reason.) I cut that dose in half. I discussed this with Dr. Chan yesterday, who agreed with my decision. The weakness is such that I would have to sit down to even brush my teeth.

4. Exactly two weeks after my chemo, I lost what is probably 3/4 of my hair. Daily I lose more, so one day last week Rebecca and I went wig and hat shopping. That was a fun day, for I tried on wigs that made me look hilarious . . . and totally unlike me. I’ll post later about the group that supplies wigs free to cancer patients.

In a few hours, I will begin my second chemo session–which means I will be half-way through the treatments. What a great thought!  I truly appreciate all your prayers and good wishes. They mean so much to me.

Cheers! Onward!

 

First Chemo Treatment–Part 1

Dr. Chan prescribed Dexamethasone that I was to take the day before chemo, the day of, and the day after, so on Monday before my first treatment on Tuesday, I swallowed two tiny pills twice–with breakfast and with an early dinner around 3:30. Lots of water. Rather severe heartburn may ensue if not taken appropriately, a nurse told me. Dexamethasone was prescribed to help alleviate/or prevent possible allergic reactions to the medications that would be used in my chemotherapy. One of its side affects is sleeplessness.

Nightly, in our bed, Jerry and I read before we go to sleep, and by the time I’ve grown drowsy enough to quit reading, Jerry is usually asleep. At 11:00 I was wide awake, but knowing I needed to get up at 5:00, I put down my book, and turned off the light. I did not sleep all night; finally got up at 3:30.

At 6:30 Jerry and I left from our home and drove to Rebecca’s to pick her up and to drop off Winston who would visit with his dog cousin Buddy throughout the day.

By 7:45 we had parked and checked in at Fontana Kaiser where Holly, one of my dearest friends, joined us. I had an 8:00 appointment with Dr. Saeed (covering for Dr. Chan). He listened to my heart and lungs, felt of my lymph glands, and said I could proceed with the treatment. My recent blood work had shown my potassium level a bit low, so he would add that to my meds for the day. I told him of my sleeping problem and he suggested an over the counter product with a very long name I’m too lazy to type! I believe the main active ingredient in Benadryl is this medication.

From approximately 9:30 to 10:30 all four of us met with a very nice nurse named Lia who extensively explained the medications I would be given, and precautions I should take to help insure my complete recovery. Lots of material to add to my growing stack at home. Very helpful. She smiled, rose from her chair, and said,  “Follow me. The chemo room is this way.”

There she introduced us to Barbara the nurse who had been assigned to me for the day, who smiled, and proceeded to show us around the area, fashioned with small sections that could be closed off by curtains. In each curtained area a large recliner set, along with much apparatus. Lots of activity was in progress in this large room that was cluttered with machines and various equipment. “Choose any open area you want,” Barbara said.

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Jerry, Holly and Rebecca pulled up chairs and the process began. I felt calm.

 

 

Choosing Chemotherapy

On my first appointment with Dr. Victor after my mastectomy, he checked me thoroughly, said I was doing well, then reported the lab’s analyzation of my breast tissue and of the nine lymph nodes he had removed. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the cancer had metastasized not only to the one lymph node which was discovered by the ultrasound, but to one other. Lots of good news, though. The margins were wide; my prognosis was good.

“Dr. Victor, do you have any influence as to the oncologist I will see?”

“Yes,” he told me.

“I want someone who is ‘good,’ and who is friendly.”

He hesitated saying all the doctors in the oncology department were excellent, but I pressed a little, and finally he recommended Dr. Chan.

Dr. Chan's longivity chart

My husband, Rebecca, and Holly were with me at the first meeting with Dr. Chan. So kind, upbeat, and patient; answering all our questions. I suspect he spent an hour with us, going over my charts, then at the end showing me this one. May be a little difficult for you to read. The chart shows that by using all three approaches; mastectomy, chemotherapy, and hormone therapy, as compared with other combinations, or exclusions, a small rise in my life expectancy is obtained. I judge the rigors of chemotherapy worth the extension of my life.

(I’ve read widely. Friends have emailed me with information. Some of them advise me not to have chemotherapy or traditional treatments at all. Others support traditional medicine. I’ve listened, and will continue to do so. I’m in full agreement that a healthy body is greatly desirable, and it only makes sense that a healthy well-nourished person will be more successful in fighting a disease, so I have made the decision to eat in even healthier ways than I have in the past–in particular curtailing my intake of sugar. I will continue exercising–no doubt ramping it up a bit.)

The choice of treatment was mine, and I made it quickly. After doing so, Dr. Chan, my family, and my friend agreed that I had made the right choice.

I begin chemo tomorrow, January 26, 2016.