A Comedy of Errors

MRI

A normal, pre-scheduled breast MRI goes from bad to worse…

There are times in your life when things just don’t seem to go the way you want. The past few weeks have been one of those seasons for me. October is normally when I have my 6-month mammogram and surgeon check, as well as my 6-month oncology check and my 12-month breast MRI. The actual appointments with the doctors ended up being the first week of November. Not really “late,” just throwing my mental schedule off-kilter slightly, but nothing I can’t rebound from. Except life just kept piling on the minor annoyances and irritations and confusions until this check-up became the most stressful one I have endured since my diagnosis. A true comedy of errors, except I was having some major difficulty finding the humor in it all.

Comedy One: Normally, the mammogram, MRI and surgeon’s visit are all on one day. Makes for a long day, but because my doctor’s office is almost an hour away in normal traffic, it’s definitely worth the lengthy visit to not have to mess with traffic more than once. This time, however, for reasons I never fully understood, they scheduled me for the mammogram on a Monday, and the breast MRI for the following Monday, to be immediately followed by the visit to the surgeon. Two trips in two weeks. By the way, for those of you uninitiated to the world of post-breast cancer checkups, the surgeon is the one who is your designated Breast Check Specialist. Yes, your gynecologist will do one during your yearly physical, and more than likely your oncologist will, as well. And if you’re “blessed” with follow-ups with a radiation oncologist, you will have another breast check there, too. But the surgeon is in charge.

Okay, so back to my schedule. Back in April, I was notified that my insurance company and my surgeon’s group was having a contract tiff. Which meant that I was no longer covered to see MY surgeon. Now, this is TOTALLY unacceptable to me. For those of you who have read my book, or kept up with my blog during treatment, you KNOW that my surgeon is my ultimate hero. No, she didn’t find the cancer, she did something MUCH better–she REMOVED the cancer! Yes, my entire team of care providers played a major role in my treatment, but it was my surgeon’s skillful hands that removed that demon mass from my body and left me with a quite remarkably lovely scar that is totally hidden by clothing–quite a feat when the tumors were in quite visible places. So, anyway, like I said before, I discovered that the doctors and the insurance were squabbling and I might not be able to see my doctor again…ugh.

Dr. Pearson and I

Comedy Two: I checked with the insurance and the doctor’s office every month or so to assess the progress, and finally discovered in September that I would actually be able to see her AND have the insurance cover it. Except my regularly scheduled visit in October would have to be moved to November as that was the beginning of their new contract. So that appointment was duly moved from October 29 to November 2. This now meant that I would be traveling that rather lengthy commute three times in three weeks…ugh.

Comedy Three: Now, switch gears slightly and focus on monthly self-checks. Back in August–after my 3-month oncology check AND my 12-month radiation oncology check–I noticed a difference in the chest wall near the old tumor scar area. It just didn’t feel the same as I had noticed it feeling and it was obviously different from the other side. So, like a good girl, I tried to ignore it for two weeks and then checked again (this is doctor’s advice when you find a mass–as sometimes they are fluid cysts that spontaneously disappear; also if you check more often than every two weeks you could cause bruising which will swell and concern you even more). It was still there. Well, if you remember, I can’t see my surgeon until November, and I’m totally aware of the fact that any other doctor I see regarding this suspicious mass will immediately send me to the surgeon–except I can’t see MY surgeon, and I will NOT see another one. So…I waited. Checking every couple of weeks to see if it would miraculously disappear–it didn’t. So now, I’m sweating bullets from August until my mammogram in late October, literally counting the days until someone can look at this thing–which more than likely is the reason that all other events surrounding this checkup were so incredibly stressful…ugh.

Comedy Four: Then comes the mammogram. I mention the mass and get set up for a diagnostic mammogram; which simply means I am on track to have further testing–such as ultrasound–right on the spot, if needed. Which, of course, it’s needed; this stupid sucker is up half way between the breast and the neck–just a little bit higher than the original tumor. So after major contortions and much pain, they decide to send me to the ultrasound tech–who “sees nothing.” Seriously?! Even the mammogram tech could feel it–how on earth can you not SEE it?!…ugh.

Comedy Five: So now I have to wait for the MRI, which was a REALLY fun event! I know a lot of people don’t care for MRIs, but I actually prefer them to the mammograms. There’s no squeezing, bruising or acrobatics involved, and while the clunkity-clunk of the machine is annoying to a migraine sufferer (or anyone with ears!) I really don’t mind the entire process–usually. First off, they called me the Friday before the scheduled test, and said that the pre-certification from the insurance company had not yet arrived, could we please move the MRI back? How far back, I say? The end of the week, they say. Wait a minute, my doctor’s visit is on Friday, I say. Oh, well, we’ll do the MRI on Thursday afternoon, if that’s okay. Sure, I say. As long as you put a STAT on the results so that my doctor gets them before the exam (of course, that’s not really needed as she IS the director of the hospital’s breast program, so I’m certain she can get those results if she wants them!) So now, I get to wait until the end of another week for the MRI…ugh.

Comedy Six: On the day of the MRI, I left early to run a few errands on my way…one of which was swinging by Whole Foods, which is right down by the clinic. I love that store, but don’t make it down there often since it is so far from home, so I thought I’d just run by and grab a few things. It was a very cool day (or supposed to have been!) and I have my insulated bags, and since I wasn’t seeing the doctor afterward I would only be there for a little over an hour…NOT!

After sitting in the waiting room for twenty minutes or so, the technician came out and explained to me that they had two emergency patients that both needed MRI, and there was another patient scheduled ahead of me. So I would have to wait another two hours before I even went back there! But at that time of day, I didn’t have enough time to run all the way home and deliver the groceries AND get back by the exam time. So I was stuck with a car full of groceries and nothing to do but wait, and wait, and wait…ugh.

Comedy Seven: After waiting for two full hours, they finally came and got me. They asked me to change into the gown and then they would put in the IV. The technician was convinced she could put it into my hand–the right one, as they can no longer do anything to my left arm/hand for fear of causing lymphadema. I tried to explain to her that my right hand is quite contrary when it comes to needles, but she was certain she could make it work. I was right. She was wrong. After a lovely stick with the needle, and her gradually inching it around to poke through the very tough vein, the entire vein burst and I instantly had a HUGE, ugly, black, swollen bruise and we g0t to try again somewhere else…ugh. Thankfully, the wrist worked quite well, as usual; although I did later end up with another nasty bruise there–nothing really unusual in that, though.

Comedy Eight: The lab tech (not an MRI tech) was the only woman in the room, so the men left and allowed her to get me on the table–except she wasn’t all that familiar with the process and when I asked whether or not I removed the gown before laying face-down on the table, she said it didn’t matter. I vaguely remember it mattering, but she’s the expert, right? Apparently not.

After laying still and stifling a rather odd and not-so-transient coughing attack for 35 minutes, the MRI tech came in to put the contrast dye in the IV. Except when he came in he realized that the gown was not removed. He said, “Oh, wow! That explains it. We couldn’t quite figure out what had happened to your nipples, but didn’t have the guts to ask”–SERIOUSLY?! You’re medical professionals, and I’m a breast cancer survivor; I’ve had more strange questions than that fired at me, and surely you aren’t THAT modest? In any case, it meant that the first 35 minutes of the test had to be redone before administering the contrast and finishing up the last 10 minutes…ugh.

All in all, that was the first time I have ever had to redo an MRI, so I guess that’s a blessing. But all I could think of were my groceries sitting in the “warmer than it’s supposed to be outside” car–which by the way, those insulated bags are really a dream, everything was fine!

Comedy Nine: Next came the surgeon’s check. When she walked into the exam room, she barely said “hi” and then instantly went to “Ok, so what are you feeling?” Wow, let’s get down to business, shall we? I guess that’s why I love her! She did the exam, and agreed that it felt differently, even though there was nothing on any of the tests to indicate a problem. But she took me to the ultrasound room anyway, looked it over and set me up for a needle core biopsy. Her opinion–we could wait and watch it for another six months, or we could jab a few holes in me and make good and sure now there was nothing for me to worry about. Quite frankly, I liked her way of thinking! Although, somewhere around 7pm that evening I wasn’t so fond of that philosophy, anymore! That was one painful biopsy. Because the mass is against the chest wall (which, by the way, is a great big muscle that runs the length of your chest and into the arm) when she took tissue from this muscle (even though it was a TINY piece) it caused the entire muscle to be tender and sore. Imagine running a marathon using only one arm to run on and you have some idea of how sore that entire muscle felt–for two days…ugh.

Comedy Ten: She said she’d call with the results on Monday. My oncology appointment was set for Monday afternoon, so if anything should be wrong, I’d be able to share the news with her immediately. Except, the call didn’t come…ugh.

She finally called mid-morning Tuesday with the results–praise God, everything was fine! She struck it up to changes due to aging and weight fluctuation, as well as the residue of scarring from the original lumpectomy. Nothing like saying you’re getting old! But I guess I’ll take “old” to “cancerous” any day!

A Hypocrite’s Path to Joy

Feeling a bit hypocritical today. I spend my time writing about the everyday joys in the everyday ups and downs of life. I spend my time “preaching” this concept to my kids, and anyone else who will listen. After spending a year of my life fighting cancer, seeking out moments of joy is paramount to my existence; necessary for my mental–and physical–survival. I desperately want to live each moment to the fullest extent, and revel in all of the experiences I am given along the way. But these past few weeks I have done anything but revel. I am not enjoying the downs one little bit, and the ups seem to be getting further apart and feel a lot less up, if you know what I mean.

As I’ve mentioned in a recent post, I have been experiencing some concerns in my general health, which always affect a person’s mental outlook. I understand this, but am not at all happy with the way I’m handling these issues. Take yesterday, for instance.

A pressing need to see me...
A pressing need to see me… (Photo credit: windsordi)

I had my regular, every-six-month mammogram scheduled for yesterday morning, bright and early. So I headed off to the imaging center to get it done. While there, I wanted to mention a couple of areas that had been concerning me for a month or two. Both of them are very high up, and very deep on my chest; the left one actually is against the breast bone and feels almost like it’s part of the bone. If it didn’t feel so entirely different in shape from the other side I would have blown it off completely. But it feels different. Very different. And it’s somewhat tender when I press on it. Call me paranoid if you must, but I wanted it checked. I knew the mammogram wouldn’t be able to “see” it, but in order to get any other test that would, I had to mention it at the mammo check.

After manipulating me into a dozen different, excruciatingly painful positions–each more painful than the last–and trying quite unsuccessfully to catch a glimpse of either spot, they sent me for an ultrasound…thank heavens! I’m not sure I could have taken much more pretzel-twisting acrobatics. But after a very cursory ultrasound (I am very spoiled by my surgeon’s much more thorough scans, I guess) they determined there was nothing visible on either area and they happily sent me home. Except, I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t even moderately entertained. Not even remotely amused. I was, quite frankly, miserable. The “suspicious” spot on my breast bone ached and burned horribly (quite odd for a spot that doesn’t exist, right?) and my mood was atrocious. I cried all the way home. I felt like a hypochondriac, a complainer, and a great big baby for being so wrong about both “suspicious” spots. How could I be so unfamiliar with my own body? Could I really be that wrong about what I’m feeling?

After hours and hours of feeling sorry for myself, I finally went to bed early, just to have the day over with sooner–and the spot still burned. Which only made me feel worse emotionally. And this morning I woke up to a continuation of the burning tenderness and have thus convinced myself that I must be a hypochondriac and I’m now feeling way too sorry for myself to even function. Yeah, man, I’m glimpsing the joy, huh?

And this is where my “philosophy of life” hits a brick wall. Can one really “glimpse joy” in the everyday ups–and downs–of life? Is it truly possible to feel abundant joy despite the everyday awful things that happen? Not necessarily the earth-shattering events, like death and cancer and divorce and betrayal, but in the everyday, mundane, miseries and upsets of everyday, normal life? Yes, I think you can–hypocrite that I am. Despite the fact that I am failing miserably at it these days, I do believe that it is possible–and that it is also quite necessary.

I’m not always great at following my own advice–obviously. And sometimes (more often than I’d like to admit) I have great difficulty in even remembering how to find the joy, much less feel it and enjoy it. But I do believe it is there and I do believe strongly that it can be and should be looked for, enjoyed and clung to. It’s like looking up in the sky on a really, incredibly storm-cloudy day and catching that tiny glimpse of blinding sun as it breaks through one of the clouds, painting a brilliant silver-white glow around the edge of that charcoal gray cloud. That’s joy in the midst of the downs of life. Without the clouds, it would simply have been a sunny sky. Nice but nothing truly extraordinary. It’s the darkness of the clouds that create such beautiful contrast to the blinding light shining through.

I believe that life is very much like that. The more “sunny” days you have, the harder it can sometimes be to enjoy the brightness of the light shining around you. And when the storm clouds come, all you seem to be able to focus on is the darkness they bring. But if you choose to look up, directly into the clouds–instead of focusing on the moment, instead of focusing on the ground you’re walking on, instead of  just muddling through the dirt–you just might catch a tiny glimpse of blinding sun, intensely burning joy. I’ve been focusing too much on the ground I’m traveling on, instead of looking up at the clouds, at the sky. Instead of looking for the tiny rays of sunshine, I’ve been focused on my feet, focused on the grayness of the clouds and next step I have to take.

Like yesterday. I was focused on the mammo, on the ultrasound, on the “suspicious” spot–the routine, the path, the questions, the rain cloud. Had I looked up through the clouds and the fears, I would have seen: the mammo tech smiling her encouraging smile as she sent me off to the ultrasound room, telling me she was praying for good things for me. Her courage could have been my own beacon through the darkness. My surgeon’s nurse-advocate who “dropped in” while I was there, just to say hi and let me know they were going to make sure I got the tests I needed, offering me a ray of courage and hope, a little sunshine through the fear-clouds. The extra hugs my second born son gave me all afternoon, just because he knew I needed them, even though he didn’t know why–little pieces of bright heavenly love. The peace and quiet I found as I curled up under the covers of my very comfy bed, seeking solace in the warmth and the darkness, wrapping me in a blanket of seclusion, desperately needed. The incredibly exquisite sunrise that greeted me this morning as I took my youngest to school, lighting up the sky with brilliant pinks, yellows and bright baby blues–painted like a psychedelic nursery splashed full of neon-pastel colors and light. These were tiny–almost microscopic–rays of light, of life, of joy, shining rather shyly through the clouds of my day.

I must remember to stop focusing on the grayness of the clouds, the darkness of the ground I am traveling, and look up high into the sky, seeking out the tiny rays of light as they peek through the clouds of life. Hypocrite that I may be, I still believe this is possible; and hopefully, I will remember to look up, if only for today.

Healthy Habits for Life

I have been asked to write an article for the Atlanta Cancer Care Foundation’s newsletter, regarding Breast Cancer Awareness Month, discussing any topics I feel important to share with women about breast health. So I thought that I’d share what I wrote with all of you!

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October is here and it’s time to remind you of the importance of breast health. Time to establish healthy habits for life. For starters, it’s time to establish (or reestablish) the habit of regular breast self-checks. By the way, it’s a very good idea to get your adolescent daughters in on this healthy habit. Triple negative breast cancer is an aggressive form of cancer that often affects younger women–often women in their early twenties, and sometimes even younger. To illustrate the importance of establishing these habits early, many years ago–we won’t think about exactly how many–I lost a friend to breast cancer; she was a senior in high school and had just celebrated her eighteenth birthday. My point is, it’s never too early to begin healthy, proactive habits of any kind, and self-checks are both healthy and proactive.

Another healthy habit we should establish once we reach our 40s, is that of having regular mammograms. I know, they are uncomfortable, and they take time, and…and…and… You can give me all the excuses, but I am living proof that mammograms do save lives. Three years ago my cancer was discovered through a mammogram, because the primary tumor was so small and deep that it could not be felt; and the second, larger tumor was actually in a lymph node in my armpit…not an area that anyone ever told me to check. So I’m telling you–check your armpits! After surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, I am now cancer-free and loving life. Had it not been for my doctor’s nagging reminders, I would not be cancer-free or loving life–in fact, I might not even be living life.

Yes, walking counts…but you might want to step it up a bit, these guys are slow

Another habit that can help keep breast cancer at arm’s length–and for overall good health–is exercise. I know, I know, it’s boring, ya-da, ya-da; but it doesn’t have to be. Before my diagnosis, I was the “couch potato-extraordinaire,” and thoroughly enjoyed my sedentary activities–watching TV, reading, computer work, scrapbooking. I still enjoy these things, but now I balance them with at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five days a week. To motivate myself, I got a workout buddy. We hold each other accountable and have a blast “sweatin’ to the oldies,” as they say. We walk, we do Pilates, we blast the fat with a kettle-bell workout. We change it up and keep it exciting and fresh–and I’ve managed to lose 40 pounds in the bargain! Choose any activity that you enjoy, whatever works for you. Just get moving! Beware, this habit is quite addicting, and you may actually enjoy yourself!

Even animals know the importance of a healthy meal!

While I’m hammering you about habits, let’s not forget diet. No, I don’t mean crash dieting. This is about healthy habits, not fads. Simply add lots of fresh veggies and fruits to a lower-fat, higher whole grain diet, while limiting your portion-sizes; and not only will you have more energy to start that new exercise routine, but you’ll possibly scare aware cancer cells, too.

Enjoy the journey of each new day!

One more healthy habit I learned through my cancer battle, that I would like to share with you–this one is possibly the most important. Enjoy yourself; enjoy your life. We are only given one lifetime; enjoy the journey. Every moment of every day is yours to be savored, treasured, enjoyed to its fullest extent…the good, the bad, the extraordinary and the mundane. Enjoy them all. This is your life…this is your one life…ENJOY!