A bump or two in the road

IMG_5453First, a quick lesson on what radiation therapy looks like. Apparently it has changed over the last decade. Whereas conventional radiation machines deliver a wide beam at only a few angles, TomoTherapy uses CT imaging and then delivers radiation from all angles. Instead of a single beam of radiation, it divides one beam into many smaller, narrow “beamlets” which can deliver different doses of radiation. In short, it minimizes radiation exposure and thus damage to healthy tissue while targeting specific areas. The CT scan means that my treatment is customized on a daily basis. All in all, it is a miraculous apparatus!

One complaint I harbor against the TomoTherapy machine is that in order to not overheat, it periodically flips on a fan, much like a laptop. That fan chills the heck out of me. I’m only laying there for about fifteen minutes, but when I’m chilled, it feels like so much longer! The rests for my arms (perhaps racks is a more descriptive noun) are not pre-heated nor are they restful!  It took me a week of being miserably chilled to come up with a solution. I cut the arms off of an old polartec pullover and wear those in the machine.

A blood test last month shows that I must be one of the oldest women ever to have not reached menopause. Embarrassing, but true. Chemo, however, forced me into a kind of false menopause. I finally understand what so many of my friends complained about in the past. Hot flashes. Now, I can empathize! Unlike many friends, I cannot find relief in hormones. Estrogen and progesterone fed my cancer. I’ve read that acupuncture is a help for some women. I may pursue that route if the daily hormone blocking medication intensifies my symptoms.

This post wouldn’t be complete without an update on my hair! I was pleased as punch to have held on to some brows and lashes when I finished chemotherapy on March 7. You know what they say about counting chickens before they hatch? March 6th I started snapping a monthly head shot to chronicle the return of my hair. In that photo, I still have eyelashes. A month later, I believe I was down to about fourteen. Today, I may have three. Who knows? Without mascara they hardly show and that particular cosmetic is not currently part of my beauty routine.

This week, I was down to my last eyebrow hair. It was one of those wild, unruly hairs that normally I would have plucked. But no! It was all I had; I didn’t have the heart. Over the course of my chemo, my brows thinned and I was left with no option but to fill in with eyeshadow and a pencil or look brow-less. Even with no stray hairs to guide me, I believe I’ve gotten pretty adept at creating believable brows. By the end of the day they are a bit faded, but often, so am I!

The hair on my scalp, continues to grow and thicken and I celebrate it every morning when I step out of the shower looking less and less like an alien. At the gym last week, a hot flash hit. I looked around, realized that outside of the girlfriend I was with, I didn’t know a soul…and never do. Off came my cap. I had the shortest hair there…including the men! It’s color is a far cry from what it was when it fell out last November. I’ve been told I am lucky to have a good-shaped head and ears that don’t wing out. What else can you say to a bald woman? More recently I was told that it’s silver-gray hue makes the blue of my eyes pop and that with big earrings, I can pull this look off. I’m still wrapping my head around the change. Neither my father nor his mother had much gray. I was prepared for a lifetime of mousy brown; it highlights well. Coloring is not in the cards for awhile as my current do has already been chemically treated from within! Anyway, I cannot imagine the hassle it would be to deal with roots. Wonder if it will be a permanent thing. God only knows….and I mean that literally! Though still not long enough for public display, I’m hoping that sometime this summer I can shed Harriet and hats and sport an edgy, short style, albeit a gray one.

The other nasty surprise was that after keeping my nails covered with copious applications of tea tree oil-multiple times a day, they went south. Again, after I had completed chemotherapy. Two toenails began to pull away from their nail beds and two have turned a lovely shade of purple. Nail polish will not be on the docket this summer! Looks like I’m stuck with tea tree oil for the duration. When wearing sandals, I will have to explain to curious bystanders that no, I did not slam my big toe with a hammer. My fingernails are faring better, but they too are doing some strange things that point to pulling away from their foundations a wee bit as well.

If I look at the established risk factors for getting hormone receptor positive breast cancer, it really isn’t a surprise that I fell victim.  I am a woman. I am beyond 55 years old. My sister had it. I didn’t hit menopause before my 55th birthday. I am a social drinker…zero to three drinks in a weeks time. Did you know that just three drinks a week increases your chance of breast cancer by 15%?! I have dense breast tissue which made me six times more likely to develop cancer while also making it difficult to detect on mammograms. I am somewhere between mystified and incensed that in spite of regular self-exams, mammograms and breast MRI’s, my cancer wasn’t detected until it had compromised five lymph nodes…making it stage three. Sheesh, they tell me it started up to ten years ago! (For more information on risk factors go to: http://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors).

I did a few things right…I maintained a healthy weight, had my first child before I was thirty, breastfed both kids a little over a year, never used hormone replacement therapy, exercise regularly, and I don’t smoke. It appears that the only thing I can change is to become a tee-totaler. As for my diet, I strive to eat more rabbit food…but I am a foodie. I will never give up the adventure of eating and cooking/baking wonderful, delectable bites!

Nineteen radiations down. Only eleven more to go. My skin is hanging in, though I am developing an itchy rash on the bony part of my chest. My esophagus only gets zapped six more times. The last five treatments will be on the tumor site only. From there, I meet back with my oncologist and prepare to start ten years of a daily medication that will block estrogen and starve any lingering cancer cells. Though the end is in sight, it seems the repercussions of treatment will be with me for quite some time. Something only fellow cancer survivors truly grasp. That and the shadow of a possible recurrence.

‘Tis wonderful to be on the upswing, feeling better every day. I am humbled at the incredible support provided by God, friends, and family. Humbled and blessed.