Monday, January 16, 2012

New Year, New Me

Okay, so it's been 6 long months since I last typed anything here.  What can I say?  Life gets busy, I have less cancer-related news to report (that a very good thing, in case you were wondering), and I may have discovered Angry Birds.  Also, I've been typing away at other projects in my life.  This summer and fall I taught courses at the Art Institute of Atlanta, which meant I had to write a whole mess of lectures.  And I have returned to working on my never-ending dissertation.  So you see, at the end of the day writing a blog doesn't quite carry the same appeal that it once did.
Let me catch you up.  October 4 was my one year "cancerversary" (anniversary of the day I was diagnosed).  I decided that I wanted to spend the day in a happy place, so naturally I headed to the zoo :)  Aaron was kind enough to take the day off to spend it with me and the lions, tigers, pandas and meerkats.
The fall was filled with a whole bunch of checkup appointments with my team of doctors.  Each time I heard "all clear" was a blessing and a relief.  The summer and fall was also spent meeting with my plastic surgeon every 2 weeks, when he would inject saline into my breast tissue expanders in preparation for reconstruction.  As you may remember from my previous posts, the tissue expanders are basically temporary implants.  So I spent the summer and fall watching my cup size change a tiny bit at a time, until my skin and my chest were just too tight to accept any more saline.  The well-meaning plastic surgeon asked "are you sure those are big enough?"  You know what, they are.  I've had small boobs my whole life, and I will continue having a small chest.  And I'm just fine with that.
Along with the holidays came the annual Aaron and Joyce holiday letter and photo.  If you weren't lucky enough to receive one of these prized papers in the mail, never fear!  You can read it right here:

Hello Friends & Family!
Another year has passed, and what a doozy it’s been!  2011 was jam-packed with travels (including trips to five weddings) and lots of visitors.  We can’t include everything in this letter, but we had a great time visiting with everyone.  When we wrote last year, Joyce was in the middle of treatment for breast cancer and Aaron was busy teaching and researching as an Assistant Professor at Georgia State University.
Winter brought with it some memorable events.  In January, Atlanta was greeted with an ice storm and a few inches of snow, which shut down the city for five days.  Aaron’s mom, Becky, flew into town the night it started snowing, and we spent the week baking, building fires and generally having fun, though Aaron went a little stir crazy.  Who wouldn’t want to be trapped in a house for a week with his mother and wife?!   Aaron, apparently.
February 1st marked Joyce’s final chemotherapy treatment.  Words can’t express how wonderful it felt to say goodbye to the infusion center for the last time. In mid-March, Joyce had a bilateral mastectomy with partial reconstruction.  The surgery successfully removed the cancerous tumor and affected lymph nodes.  Family (Aaron’s mom and Joyce’s parents) and a good friend (Jenny from MN) took turns staying with us for a total of three weeks to help out with the surgery and distract Joyce from pain and worry.  This was our first spring in Atlanta, and it is a fantastic time of year in the South.  It was wonderful to witness growth and renewal as Joyce was healing the same time everything in Atlanta was blooming.  Joyce’s hair also started to grow back around this time, and she was happy to say goodbye to the wig that she wore throughout chemo.  Joyce then underwent radiation therapy for six weeks (May-June), which was the final piece of her cancer treatment.  So long, cancer!
This summer we were fortunate to have a housemate in our guest bedroom.  Scott, a friend from TX, was in Atlanta for the summer while completing a legal internship.  It was wonderful to have an entertaining guest at the dinner table every night, and to have someone make sure the cat and garden survived while we were away.  Or was it the cat that kept Scott fed and watered?  All we know is everyone was fine every time we got back from the airport.
In June we traveled to Iceland to see Minnesota friends, Jon & Henriet, get married.  It was a wonderful week of swimming in hot springs, catching up with friends, and taking in the natural beauty of the land of Vikings and trolls.  If you ever get the chance to go to Iceland, you should take it!
Aaron had a very busy summer, as he traveled to a teaching workshop (“nerd camp”) in Vermont, and made research visits to the LBJ library in Austin and the FDR library in Hyde Park, NY. 
In July, Joyce returned to teaching at the Art Institute of Atlanta.  She was very happy to rejoin the working world and to have someone to lecture to other than her cat.
The fall was a whirlwind, as both of us were teaching and we traveled to three weddings in Colorado, Minnesota, and Arizona.  We are headed to visit Joyce’s family in Texas for Christmas.  Joyce is also getting ready for another surgery (the remainder of her reconstruction) on January 4.  We would like to thank all of you who have been so generous with your thoughts, prayers, gift baskets, and visits to Atlanta.  This year has shown us how wonderful people truly are.   We feel loved!
Happy Holidays, and Happy 2012!
-Joyce and Aaron 

So this brings us to the surgery I had on January 4.  The procedure was reconstructive and was the exact same procedure I had on my non-cancer side immediately after my bilateral mastectomy in March.  This procedure (latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction) involves taking tissue from my back and swinging it around to my chest to create a new boob.  One of my favorite bloggers, Chemobabe, recently had the same procedure done and is much better than me at describing exactly what it entails.  You can read her description here:

As far as my surgery is concerned, everything went fine.  The procedure took about an hour longer than predicted due to the amount of scar tissue that had developed as a result of radiation.  This wasn't a huge complication and really wasn't that surprising, but made things a little stressful for my dear husband in the waiting area.  I came out of the surgery fine, and my first memory is thinking "Wow!  I'm in significantly LESS pain than I was after the last surgery!  Hooray!"  I spent 2 days/nights in the hospital and was home by the afternoon on January 6th.  The next day, my lovely mom-in-law came into town to make sure I was well-fed and entertained, and that my house was clean.  She stayed for an entire week, and we had a great time as we always do.

I am now well on my way to being healed.  I still have one surgical drain in place, which quite literally feels like a thorn in my side, and my back and left side of my torso are quite sore, but I can feel that I'm getting stronger and have a bit more energy every day.  Most of all, I am terribly excited to be completely FINISHED with all of this cancer business.  It has been a long road, now complete, and not a moment too soon!

In case you were wondering, my hair continues to grow in thick and curly.  Below are photos from my 31st birthday.  Blowing out candles feels extra nice now :)


Thanks to everyone out there for your thoughts, prayers, love and support throughout my "cancer time."  You have truly made a huge difference in my life.
Unfortunately, two of my good friends were diagnosed with breast cancer this year.  So if you have a moment to spare, please say a little prayer for them.  They are both going to beat this maddening disease, just as I did.  Connie and Kristin, you got this thing licked.  I just know it.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Summer Fun!

Somehow another month has gone by!  And it's been a big month.  I am happy to say that I've successfully completed radiation (and all of my cancer treatment, for the matter).  I am also pleased with the way my skin and body has healed.  By the end of radiation I was exhausted and my skin was really breaking down.  Much to my surprise, aloe vera did the trick, and my skin healed very quickly and is now almost back to normal.  The only thing left as far as health management is a couple of surgeries (I am still waiting to have my cancer side reconstructed), drugs for 5 years (Tamoxifen) and careful monitoring by my awesome team of doctors.  I'm overjoyed to be on the other side.  Looking back, it hasn't been easy, but I truly believe the old adage "Whatever doesn't kill you will only make your stronger!"  Also, it really helps to have an amazing support network of friends, family, and kind strangers.  Huge thanks to everyone who has helped make this journey more bearable through your kindness.

In other news, Aaron and I got back last week from an epic vacation in Iceland!  Our friends, Henriet and Jon, decided to get married on a lava field there, and we decided that it sounded like a pretty sweet vacation, so we tagged along.  Also, we felt we deserved an epic vacation after making it through this year in tact.  Iceland is one of the most naturally beautiful places imaginable and it never gets dark in the summer, so you can look at the natural beauty 24 hours a day!  If you ever have the opportunity to visit, you should take it.

You can see all of our pictures by clicking of the following links:

 Right now we are in Minnesota visiting family and friends.  I love this place in the summer, and all of the great people here seem to be in wonderful spirits, as if they're just happy it's not snowing at the moment.  We had a great time at the Twins game last night, despite watching the home team give up a 7-0 lead and lose the game.  Wah-wah.

On Tuesday, Aaron and I will celebrate our 2nd wedding anniversary.  Especially this year, he has passed every "for better or for worse" test with flying colors.  I couldn't ask for a better husband and best friend!

Monday, June 6, 2011

The End is Near


Sorry it's been so long!  We've been staying busy here in Hotlanta, and it is TRULY hot.  We're struggling to keep our yard beautiful through the stifling heat.  It seems so unfair that some places have been barraged with rain while other areas can't get a single drop to fall!  

Here's a recap of our latest activities:
On May 21, Aaron and I went on a zipline canopy tour in South Carolina.  This means we were zipping from tree to tree (under the watchful eyes of safety guides, of course).  The tour was by the Chattooga River (part of the Chattahoochee National Forest, I think).  This was our first road trip since we moved to Atlanta, and we were really excited to actually get out of the city and explore a bit.  We feel lucky to live in such a beautiful region!  You can view our photos by clicking on the link below:
For those of you who are worried about me overusing my arm, don't fret!  When you zipline, your body is completely supported by a harness, and I can honestly say that vacuuming my house is more physically intense than riding a zipline.  The only thing required of you is the ability to jump off a platform, and luckily heights have never been a cause of fear for me (I went sky diving when I was 19!).  

On the 29th, Will, one of my best friends from my hometown, visited for a few days.  I had an awesome time showing him my new city and catching up!

Hanging with Will

One last bit of fun news:  We have a summer roommate!  Our friend, Scott, is a student at NYU Law School and is in Atlanta for his summer internship.  He needed a place to stay, and we needed a house/cat sitter, as we'll be traveling quite a bit this summer (more on that in a later post), so it's really quite the perfect setup.  Also, it's fun to have a roommate for a while -- makes us feel young again :)

Other than that, my life has consisted of going to radiation every day.  I am so very ready to be done with radiation and to be able to say "I'm no longer in treatment!"  I have been very lucky to not experience too many negative side effects -- just the radiation burn and some general tiredness, but nothing I can't handle.  After today I only have 8 treatments left.  The end is near, in the best way possible!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Radiation and Other Spring Activities

I completed week 1 of radiation on Friday with very little drama (the server was down at the hospital on Thursday, so I had to come back later in the day, but I'm still on schedule!).  For those of you who don't know much about radiation (I suspect this is most of you), I'll describe it the best I can.  I told you in the last post that there are little black marks all over my chest, covered by little pieces of tape.  The first day of radiation lasts an extra long time because I have to have x-rays taken.  Basically, I change into a hospital gown and lay down on a table.  Then a green grid appears on my chest (kind of a laser light show) and 2-3 lab techs (who are all wonderful, lovely people) pull and tug on my gown until the green grid lines up perfectly with the marks on my chest.  This photo shows what the machine basically looks like.  The bed I lay on remains still (but my arms are back, behind my head, holding onto a handle bar), and the machine rotates around me, doing it's thing.  I imagine it's shooting little lasers at me -- it honestly all seems so sci fi when I'm laying there. 

 The normal routine lasts about 5 - 10 minutes from the time I lay down to when I'm allowed to relax my arms and get up off the bed. The most important thing to note is that I do not feel anything when the radiation is happening.  It's only a couple hours after treatment that I start to notice tightness and redness.  To remedy this, I simply do my physical therapy stretches and cover my chest in aloe.  The most annoying thing is the radiation burn (basically like a sunburn).  I have always prided myself on keeping my skin protected from sunburns, so to look down at my chest and see old-looking, leathery skin is no fun.  This is when I have to remind myself that it's so much better than breast cancer!  As of today, I have 22 treatments to go (4 1/2 weeks).
I've continued to get a positive response to my hair, along with requests for more pictures (sorry for the delay).  Here is the latest, taken last night:
In other news, our yard is looking fantastic these days, thanks to a little hard work and a lot of help from mom-in-law, who was here for Mother's day, and Jenny, who was here after my surgery.  I managed to plant a flower bed and was sore for a week afterward.  My body just isn't used to doing much of anything anymore.  But I'm building back up my strength and endurance, slowly but surely.
Flower bed in front of house -- vinca and impatiens

Foxglove on side of house

The most unusual-looking plant, leatherleaf mahonia, on side of house
Jenny, who visited at the end of March, with the self-watering container she constructed and tomato plant

Left:  tomato plant Jenny put in self-watering container.  Right:  same type of tomato plant that I neglected for way too long.  Guess which is healthier?

Herbs and other plants on back patio, now with fun green stands, thanks to mom-in-law

Gorgeous blue hydrangea bushes in the back yard

Front porch adirondack chairs painted and assembled by Aaron.  I picked out the paint color :)    

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hair Diaries and Boring Cancer News

Sorry for the delayed post.  I really am determined to document my hair growth in a timely manner!  This week I turned the corner from being fuzzy-headed to actually looking like I have an intentional hair style.  I can comb my hair.  The other night at dinner Aaron remarked "you're hair is sticking out on the side."  I had taken a nap earlier and it had gotten messed up.  I HAD BED HEAD!   After months of no hair, I have to retrain myself to check things over in the mirror before leaving the house.  I have not done anything to style my hair, but now when I'm out in public instead of the stares and "oh, I wonder if she has cancer" looks, I'm getting compliments.  "I love your hair."  "I love your hair color."  I get a kick out of saying "Thanks!  It's natural!"  People have no idea I'm excited to have hair of any color.  See for yourself:
It's still coming in very blond and surprisingly straight.  I mentioned in a previous post that most people's hair grows back curly after chemo, at least at first.  I hadn't given a thought to the texture of my hair until a cancer friend (the unflattering term I give to wonderful people whom I never would have met were it not for cancer)  recently commented how straight it's coming in.  No Taylor Swift locks in the immediate future, but that's okay.
In boring cancer news, I had my CT "planning" session with the nice radiation people, and we are all set for a start date of May 9.  The planning session consisted of me laying in a CT machine, arms behind my head (This made the nurse comment "You have good arm movement!"  Those physical therapy sessions are paying off!), while my body is scanned for ten minutes or so.  The scan produces a 3D image that doc studies, and then the lab people come in to put black X's all over my chest with a Sharpie and cover the marks with clear tape to mark where I'll have radiation.  The tape is supposed to stay put for 7 weeks.  For real.  The marks show exactly where I need radiation, so the nurses reminded me about 10 times that the tape needs to stay on.  (In the past, they tattooed these marks to ensure they stayed on the body for the duration of radiation.  I guess now they just have faith in their patients to not mess with the tape.)
At the end of the appointment they handed me an "education booklet" with lots of contradictory information about how to care for irradiated skin:  "A lukewarm bath is very soothing after radiation."  "Avoid soaking irradiated area of the skin."  Regarding the marks and tape:  "Avoid direct water contact."  Call me crazy, but I shower every day.  That's a whole lot of direct water contact.  Luckily, the tape is holding up really well so far.  Thanks, "Beekley Pointguards!"  Yes, the company name is printed on each piece of the tape, along with the company's 1-800 number.  Seriously.  I wish I were joking.  My chest is covered in tiny advertisements.
On a brighter note, Mom-in-law and Dad-in-law will be here this weekend to celebrate Mother's Day.  I hope all the moms out there celebrate the best way they know how:  by sending the guys off to the golf course while the ladies drink bloody marys on the porch.  :)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Just in time for Easter: I'm a fuzzy chick (More Hair Diaries)

We have been taking the pictures every Friday, but they usually haven't been making their appearance on the blog until Mondays, mainly because I'm easily distracted and more than a little lazy.  Maybe if I put them in sequence it will be easier to see the fuzz growth?  Can you tell I'm really REALLY proud of my fuzz?



The lighting is a little odd in the last picture, making my hair look darker than it appears in real life.  But Aaron was grading papers when I asked him to take my weekly fuzz head shot, and I didn't want to be too annoying, so I just let him stay where he was comfortably sitting.

Speaking of Aaron, the other night he started calling me "Tin Tin."   I had absolutely no idea where he got this, but he told me it was a favorite comics from childhood.  Apparently my current hairstyle reminds Aaron of this.  Here is the cartoon in question with his faithful sidekick, Snowy:

Of course, Mr. Tin Tin has a bit more up top than I do, and when I get that much hair, I hope to more closely resemble the model in this Nieman Marcus ad:

I won't magically shrink down to a size 0, but we're not all meant to be that skinny, right?!

In other, slightly less-fun news, I started physical therapy this week.  I am basically back to my pre-surgery self, but I still don't have full range of motion in my left (cancer side) arm.  I am also experiencing "cording" (axillary web syndrome for you medical types) which basically means that it feels like a tight cord is attached from my armpit (where they removed lymph nodes) down to my elbow.  This, as you can imagine, is part of the flexibility problem.  I have to be able to hold the "movie star pose" (hand behind head, arm bent at elbow, laying flat on table) for 10 minutes at a time for each radiation treatment, so I'm trying to regain my flexibility through a serious of stretches.  It's painful, but I can already tell a difference!

Also, I've started wearing a compression sleeve because I have a moderate-to-high risk of developing lymphedema (swelling due to a blockage of the lymph passages).  I am doing my best to wear it each day, but as it gets warmer and warmer outside, the last thing I want to do is put on a tight-fitting, hideous sleeve!  But if I can avoid my arm swelling up, it will well be worth it.  I'm lop-sided enough as it is, these days! :)

Happy Easter to all!!!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Hair Diaries

I'm attempting to take weekly pictures of my hair to document the growth which seems to be happening at lightning speed.  At some point I can print out all of my hair diary pictures to create a flip book.  I haven't worn my wig in a week and a half now, and I have no intention of doing so in the future.  The hair is still very soft and very blond, and it will be interesting to watch how the texture/color changes as it grows in!

Who's fuzzier?
I'll check in next week with another update and more hair on my fuzzy head!