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Sometimes I Cannot Breathe

This week – October 27th 2009:
Sleepless at five in the morning, I read. In her collection, Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri tells a story from the point of view of young girl who is embarrassed to observe the large nipples of a grown woman, a friend of the family, as they try on bras together. Later this woman dies of breast cancer. There are other hints of her illness. Her husband indulges her every whim, buys first class tickets from India to the U.S., looks for a palatial house to buy, brings her a sweater when it is inconveniently upstairs, far away. This is great writing: to nudge the reader so gently toward tragedy, that its denouement is a shock. This is how cancer appears, first secretly, and then with terrible consequences.

Yesterday in the obituaries, there were four pronounced deaths from cancer, today two. Some families choose not to reveal the cause of death. One of the cancer victims has windswept hair. She is middle aged but looks young, vibrant, athletic. A scarf sweeps over her left shoulder. Though all we see is her face and shoulders, it seems like she is standing on a promontory after hiking to a high elevation. She is smiling with that look of accomplishment one has after physical exertion. Sometimes I think of cancer not as a the executioner, but as something necessary that culls the population because there are too many of us, as something as natural as breath. Other times I am filled with terror of its sudden greed.

Sometimes I Cannot Breathe

Woozy and Uncomfortable

The surgeon comes to see me after the surgery. An intern accompanies him. She is tall and willowy and has a faint accent that renders her exotic and appealing. They are both smiling. “The surgery went well ,” he says. Now we wait for the pathology report. That will take one to two weeks, and will let us know whether the cancer has spread. We’re going to keep you here for a few days until your bowel wakes up. Intestines are weird. They don’t like to be disturbed and go to sleep after surgeries like this.“

“Could you see the cancer? Did it spread? Was it in my lymph nodes?” He is patient with me. “I don’t know. The way it works is that as I remove tissue, a runner takes it to the pathology lab and they examine it. I removed everything I told you I would remove. You may or may not have a reaction to the lymph node removal – some times this can cause a swelling in your legs that may be permanent, may be temporary – or may not happen at all.” He checks my wound. “Looks good!”

To me it looks ragged, messy, crude, as though he had used a serrated knife to slice through my abdomen. There are no external stitches or staples, just a long row of butterfly bandages sealing the wound. Under each one is a smear of dried blood. I prefer not to look at it.

My stomach muscles have been severed; my intestines and bowel are asleep. On the second day after the surgery I am so dizzy I cannot even turn my head without feeling waves of nausea. Maybe it is the Dilaudid. Maybe it is just the overwhelming trauma my system has just borne. By the third day I am starving and eat with relish when the aid brings my first real meal. My guts are not ready for the onslaught.

Intestines Sleep

Close Up of Sleeping Intestines:

Intestines Sleep Close-Up

In the mean time my room is festooned with flowers. Friends and family visit and bring books and get well cards. One friend brings a multicolored striped ski cap for the anticipated hair loss. I am touched by this.

Waking From Oblivion

Just before the surgery, I decide I must see my Chinese Acupuncturist. I have not seen him for a few years. He looks at my face and says “You have had a lot of stress. I can treat you for this. We can save your uterus.”  “For what ?” I ask. Startled, he looks into my eyes. He sees my fear and confusion, sees that I am determined to extract the cells gone haywire. He takes my hand, feels my pulse. “Never mind I said that. You go ahead with the surgery. You will survive this. Don’t you worry. I will give you a treatment today to make you strong. You come back again after the surgery. Don’t worry.”

The day of the surgery arrives. I dress in the requisite backward facing gown and lie waiting on a gurney. The surgeon comes to make sure I understand the imminent procedure. “As I remove the uterus, ovaries, omentum, cervix, lymph nodes, the pathologist will check them for cancer cells.” “How many lymph nodes will you take out?” “As many as I feel necessary.” I wonder how many I have, how many I can afford to lose. These worry me more than any other body part. In my private book of cancer, contaminated lymph nodes mean metastasis and metastasis means death.

The nurse inserts an IV that starts me on powerful antibiotics. The anesthesiologist patiently explains everything she will administer. The conversation is long and drawn out. The plunge into oblivion is immediate. I am vaguely aware of being rolled away. Suddenly I am being transferred from one surface to another and feel agonizing pain in my gut. “Ih huhrs! Ih huhrs!” I cry out, aware momentarily of the frustration stroke victims must feel when they cannot articulate. Then, more oblivion until I awaken in recovery.
At first I am high on all the pain medication and sedatives and am quite the chatterbox. The next day I can barely speak I am so nauseated by the slightest effort to move. But I have to hobble to the bathroom and notice that I have the first bikini shave of my lifetime!

bikini450

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Cancer Frog Blog by Judith Ogus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cancerfrogblog.randomarts.biz

Honoring Those Who Have Succumbed

It is time for the surgery. I feel that I am in good hands. I trust my surgeon. I am surrounded by love, friends, family. This love makes me want to honor those in my too limited experience who have succumbed.

Those Who Have Succumbed

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Cancer Frog Blog by Judith Ogus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cancerfrogblog.randomarts.biz

This Week – September 19, 2009

At the 9-11 memorial this year, 2009, in New York, another name is added to those who have fallen from the horrors of that day, Leon Heyward. He died last October after developing lymphoma from the tumbledown of toxic debris. This, after he pulled one injured person after another to safety. And this week:

adhoc_1a

The word “cancer” starts to jump out at me from random sources: I read a collection of short stories.  In “Good Country People,” Flannery O’Connor writes of her protagonist: “As a child she had sometimes been subject to feelings of shame, but education had removed the last traces of that as a good surgeon scrapes for cancer . . .”  On the radio, a reporter asks the mayor of Kandahar, Afghanistan, why he has chosen this precarious role. Isn’t he afraid for his life? “Somewhere else you die of cancer or heart attack. Here you are shot or blown up by a bomb. What’s the difference?”

Death and fear coax me out of acceptance. My imagination runs wild. Instead of staying in the present, I project myself forward to post surgical treatment – to the radiation that awaits me:

radiation450

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Cancer Frog Blog by Judith Ogus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cancerfrogblog.randomarts.biz

Nirvana

As we leave the surgeon’s office, he promises to get 5 other opinions from colleagues and he hands me a folder containing Kaiser’s prepared flyers about cancer.

I am home alone when two of the opinions arrive via the Kaiser web mail program:

1. Don’t mess around with papillary serous . . . .
2. Yes, I agree with the protocol you have selected.

The other 3 opinions are missing. This seems ominous to me. Are they so dire that my surgeon decided not to forward them on to me? I have another irrational bout of weeping.

Irrational Weeping

When I calm down, I open the Kaiser Cancer handout.

Patients respond differently when they discover they have cancer . . . Many feel the need to cry. It is natural and healthy to cry.

I imagine other people who find themselves home alone, or driving across a bridge, or changing a diaper, or trading hi-yield bonds, or humming Yellow Submarine, or eating a spoonful of chocolate ice cream; suddenly it hits them, “I have cancer.” We cannot help ourselves. We cry.

Preparation for surgery requires an EKG, a chest X-Ray, a CT-scan, blood work. Almost everyday I go in for another test, fasting for one and drinking some horrible white concoction for another. This is supposed to taste like banana, but tastes cloyingly sweet like liquid bubble gum.

EKG450

I am lying down on a palette, about to go through the doughnut hole of the CT scanner. I have an IV in my arm and the nurse is administering some dye into my veins. “You will have a sensation of going to the bathroom – don’t worry, you won’t be.”

“Going to the bathroom.” What does she mean? Urinating? Making a bowel movement? I do not feel the fluid entering my veins. The scanner whirs and beeps and its internal ring spins. It directs me as the palette moves forward, “Hold your breath . . . . . Breathe,” as it retreats. Everything slows down. I feel immersed in peace and acceptance. I relinquish myself to my cancer, to this test, to the EKG, the chest X-ray, the imminent surgery. By directing my breath, the scanner has induced Shavasana, the corpse pose, the pose of stilling the body, the senses, the mind, the spirit. For the first time since the diagnosis, my chi settles. The need to turn myself inside out, to get rid of the errant cells no longer propels me. I have a sense that I may even be ready to die, that until that moment, I will heighten my awareness of every experience whether it is having needles inserted into veins, shaving my head to anticipate hair loss from chemotherapy or eating a favorite food. I am sure that I am approaching Nirvana when a sensation that is both moist and dry, warm and tingling spreads through my pelvis.

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Cancer Frog Blog by Judith Ogus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cancerfrogblog.randomarts.biz

Beware the Saber Tooth Tiger

I have brought a long list of questions to the consultation with the surgeon  “Will I have to have Chemo?” “Yes.” “Will I have to have radiation?” “Yes.” “Will all my hair fall out?” “Yes.” “What’s an omentum?” “It’s a layer of fat the covers your abdomen. It might have been useful back in the day when you might have been clawed by a saber tooth tiger. The omentum would move to the point of the puncture wound and seal it up.” Later I read that sometimes when people have an appendicitis, the omentum will wrap itself around the inflammation.

I am so shocked by the dire news, by all the organs I will lose, that I forget the list with more questions in my right hand, ready as a reference. I feel like I am falling off of a high cliff – into the chasm of my own fate and I can no longer speak. “Is there any thing else you want to tell me about yourself, anything else I should know about you?” I can’t imagine what else he needs or wants to know. I want to run away, to escape. I am no longer rational. “I guess I’ll be okay, unless I run into a saber tooth tiger.”

Saber Tooth Tiger

Everyone laughs, though we are mostly miserable.

“Fine then, your surgery is next Tuesday.” It is Thursday. I’m glad. I want it as soon as possible. Yet I hesitate. “What if I change my mind at the last minute?” “Then you will deprive someone else of that surgery slot, and you don’t want to do that.” As isolated and terrified as I feel, I must acknowledge the scope of the cancer community. There are so many of us who want to get rid of the disease. Any act of selfishness is unthinkable.

The American Cancer Society estimates that 42,160 new cases of cancer of the uterine corpus (body of the uterus) will be diagnosed in the US during 2009, but more than 95% of these will be endometrial cancers. An estimated 7,780 women in the US will die from cancer of the uterine corpus during 2009 (ACS Cancer Facts & Figures, 2009)

And of course there are so many kinds of cancer . . .

As we are leaving, my best friend says to the surgeon, “Take good care of her. We want to keep her around.”

“That’s my job,” he answers, smiling, reassuring. And suddenly I feel myself shift into a state of hope and trust. I decide he is my white knight. He will rescue me as long as I keep a cheerful attitude.

My friends suggest that I seek alternative therapies. One medical professional suggests that I envision what my cancer cells look like and what it will take to rid my body of them. Some people see them as something to conquer. Others see them as something to send on vacation. “Do what ever feels right to you,” she says.

I see them as miserable creatures with feet but no hands, colored crazily and frowning. They aren’t happy and together make an ominous foe. I imagine my white knight, a member of the Kaiser Clan, attacking them on a mighty steed, with airborne help.

whitenight450

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Cancer Frog Blog by Judith Ogus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cancerfrogblog.randomarts.biz

Confrontation with Reality

Does it matter, where the DNA came from? Wise people recommend attending to the present, not dwelling on the past.

Buddha Frog

There is no more time to think. The day of the consultation with the surgeon arrives. He examines my nether parts, then calls in all my friends and loved ones who have come along to give moral support. He is kind and makes sure we all have something to sit on. “I am going to be blunt with you,” he starts. I am ready for this no-beating-around-the-bush attitude. “The patholgy report shows that you have a particularly aggressive cancer called papillary serous. You will have a complete hysterectomy.”

The Surgeon Lectures

I have worn a shirt with brightly colored squares, orange green yellow red purple, to show that I am a happy positive person, but my face goes pale. My mother told me that when she had her hysterectomy, they left in a little bit of ovary to keep her hormones in balance. “This kind of cancer likes ovaries,” says the surgeon. “We cannot do that here. Besides you are already in menopause, so it doesn’t matter.” Somehow, it matters.

Listening to the Lecture

Am I not, after all, a robot with enduring robust and sparkly parts?

Sparkly Parts

Am I really filled with an organic gooey fragile mess, a mortal, like those relatives who went under the knife for the sake of science?

Gooey Mess

YES!!

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Cancer Frog Blog by Judith Ogus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cancerfrogblog.randomarts.biz

Where does it come from?

I cannot wait to hear from the surgeon’s office – I call them myself. “I’m sorry, I cannot make an appointment for you right now. I have to wait until the surgeon’s schedule clears up.”
I am inclined to panic. Suddenly I want all the afflicted organs out NOW. This is not an available alternative. Instead I do research. Who gets cancer? Why? What about the genetic component?

The Genetic Component

Who passed it on?

The Vaudevillian

Who left my mother’s mother, bereft?

The Pharmacist

Who died too young, so my mother’s mother’s mother had to fend for herself; when her hot dog failed, she suffered the humiliation of being on welfare.

sexygrandma

Who, swooped up by the romance of the stage, fell for the Vaudevillian, gave birth to my mother, divorced the vaudevillian and died young.

The River Merchant

My father’s mother’s father, a pious Jew relegated to the Pale on the Dnieper’s Right Bank. He found freedom on the river, but kept his daughter under lock and key.

The Handy Grandma

Who fled to America to escape the river merchant’s prison. She survived colon cancer and lived well into her 80’s.

The Socialist

Who married the Ukrainian escapee, gave her two sons, then died at 21 during the Spanish flu epidemic.

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Cancer Frog Blog by Judith Ogus is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at cancerfrogblog.randomarts.biz