March 4, 2010

A Very Personal Cancer Journal




The disease that we all pray does not happen to us, does unfortunately happen to some of us. Hazel is the subject of this narrative. We will follow her journey from discovery to the eventual eradication of all offending cancerous cells. If from time to time I seem to feel her pain, I do. We've been together for fifty six plus years , looking forward to at least ten more years together. The word 'cure' we have found thus far is a word that surgeons, oncologist's, scientists, and others in the field seem reluctant or indeed forbidden to use. It is a fact that there is no cure, so they use percentages to gauge your prognosis. i.e. I believe you will be 95% cancer free when all is done. That is as good as it can get. For the record, Hazel has been diagnosed as having breast cancer, stage one. The journey begins.

The letter came from breast imaging and they had the block checked which stated, "Please schedule another mammogram". This one was inconclusive and probably would be fine on the retake. They saw a shadow they said. Nothing to get too worried about.

The second one concluded there definitely was something and perhaps an ultrasound is called for. Finally, after a total of eleven assorted types of mammogram's and one ultrasound and one needle biopsy, after which the radiologist inserted a marker at the site. She then met with the doctor who would become her oncologist. She and I sat in a tiny examination room out of words, fear and apprehension of the immediate future, and what he would say encompassed us completely, absolutely unable to keep our fear inside ourselves as the doctor entered the room. Small talk at this time was ludicrous so we sat there looking at each other, when the door opened and he stationed himself more or less between us in a room that seemed smaller than my closet at home. We tried reading his face and demeanor. If lack of smiles was any indicator we were in trouble. He didn't waste time or words but found a way to not use the word. He told us that he had found a small malignancy, and the next immediate words became lost in emotions desperately loose in this little room.

Immediately thereafter because speed was of the essence, or they wanted to keep her so busy she would forget her misery, they sent Hazel to the hospital to undergo many tests to provide the surgeon information that would be needed before the operation took place. All the procedures that took place were, according to my wife Hazel by which she will be known for the rest of this narrative, painless, except one. For this she had to report to the nuclear department. This alone should have sent spasms of fear through anyone, but who knew?

The purpose of the visit was to inject radio active dye into Hazel's breast for tracking purposes of the disease. Now a little history is required here, Hazel when facing an operation or some procedure at the dentist can gather herself to weather what is to come as stolidly as necessary, but not this time. The technician was apologetic even before he administered four (4) injections into her nipple. She reports that this was the absolute worst pain ever administered by a health professional. I can't help but repeat the oft used phrase by anyone having to undergo the nightmare that won't go away, why her?

The day of the surgery dawned cold with snow showers. Hazel was scheduled early at the imaging center for the purpose of having a 'wire' inserted into her breast to mark the spot for the surgeon. The results of her many mammogram's had determined that she had an 5mm x 8mm tumor. For the medically disadvantaged that is a very small tumor. The doctor elected to do a lumpectomy, and Hazel agreed. Local anesthetic was not an option, and a general was given. The surgery was over in an hour and a half.

The wait started as Hazel recuperated and we all waited for the doctor to appear with his findings. My sister-in-law had come to sit with me in the reception area, and offer encouragement and a shoulder if need be. We waited.

I thought the plan was for the doctor to come to the reception area and present us with the results of this operation. We waited some more. Finally word was given to me by one of the receptionists to please meet with the doctor in the 'family conference' room. OMG, my heart fell to the floor. What the hell is this? This can't be good. I've seen many too many movies with 'family conference rooms' in them to be lulled into thinking this is nothing but bad news. The sister-in-law and I asked for directions and I, mumbling under my breath, at least I think it was under my breath, but really I could have cared less if the whole place was offended by what I may have said. My whole world was predicated upon a mere doctor. I think I needed a God of some kind to bring this situation to a good conclusion.

We found the room and seated ourselves, waiting again. In just a few minutes the doctor arrived and pronounced without a dramatic moment that he had news and all of it was good. I breathed.

The good news was that he removed all of the tumor and he also removed three lymph nodes so he could have them tested further to make sure the cancer was contained. His tests at operation time were that they were negative. What a beautiful word, negative.

Now a period of recuperation was started. It turned out to be about four weeks. One other good piece of news we received was that the lymph nodes that were sent away for further evaluation came back negative also. Our cup runneth over.

The recuperation time was over. Now began radiation therapy. One treatment of approximately fifteen minutes once a day, five days a week, to total about thirty-five to thirty- six treatments.

Side effects and damage to the skin after approximately seven weeks of radiation being blasted at, in, and around her will be what she must endure. Trying to accept what has happened to her will be a large task. She has only now taken one small step in that direction. Week one is complete and the only side effect thus far is fatigue, itching, and redness at the treatment site.


The next two months of your life is going to center around your radiation treatment. Hazel's visits there will be the centerpiece of each of her mornings for the next seven weeks; Five treatments, five days a week for seven weeks.

We have no other experience of other radiation centers so this will be the only one we can comment on. It is a new, so they say it is a state of the art facility. It is clean, and large. When we enter the facility Hazel goes through another set of doors into the treatment area and I, make myself comfortable in the outer room with other patients waiting, or relaxing after the treatment. It is a help yourself environment with coffee, tea, hot chocolate, soda pops and/or whatever a vending machine can offer. In a windowed alcove they always have a couple jigsaw puzzles in progress. Magazines scattered here and there and large wall sized windows letting in lots of light, environmentally and mentally uplifting, with an asterisk on the mentally uplifting.

On one of Hazel's visits we were amused and amazed by a visit from a lady and her Bichon Frise dog. They were there to help take some of the patients minds off of their reason for being there and just to let them pet the animal, and talk baby talk or dog talk to it. The dog I think received as much love as he gave to the people. The little dog was as cute as the one's they use in commercials with a coat of white and big round black eyes. They also visit the hospital, and senior citizen facilities. God I am sure has special regards for people who are as caring and as giving as they are.

I have become aware that people want to talk about their problem, but will not initiate a conversation until I do. I find that trying to be fairly cheerful and greeting them with a good morning is better than not. After all there is a chance that we might see each other daily for a good portion of Hazel's seven weeks. I am also taken with the good humor of some, even though their stories and prognosis are not always the best. Some are going through an additional series of treatments for one reason or another, but certainly not because things are great. But they keep as cheerful an outlook as possible under the circumstances.

Being that the patient is scheduled for the same time everyday for varying amount of weeks it is run as informally as possible. Hazel leaves me each morning after arriving and goes into the adjoining treatment room where she disrobes. In Hazel's case it is only her top, and she puts on one of those beautiful, and you know you agree, hospital tops. Hazel's time on the behemoth, as she calls it is short. It usually takes a total of fifteen minutes, with ten minutes of that time being taken up by placement so she is in exactly the same spot each and every time. This is vital so accuracy not speed is the watchword. Hazel will be at the half way mark tomorrow and so far, so good. The discomforts she is, and has suffered, are itching skin in the breast and occasional pains. The skin is feeling raw and a feeling like a burn which is relieved somewhat with ointment applied in copious amounts. The burning although not painless is understandable from the radiation being absorbed. An extra amount of optimism and understanding that the cure, although somewhat painful, is routing out the demons that have trespassed uninvited. Making light of a very serious and sometimes tragic turn of events is hard to do when you really want to fly off into a tangent spouting every curse word you've ever learned, but you cope.

Part III

The ordeal of radiation therapy is coming to an end for Hazel. Monday will be her 36th and final treatment. She tells me that the whole experience for her was much less traumatic than what she thought it would be. The God who is in charge of the dreaded side effects department dealt kindly with her she believes. Yes she has radiation burn. Yes, she has occasional flashes of pain. But it has not completely sapped her energy nor effected her ability to carry out her daily activities. The amount of actual time spent at the radiation center is minimal, and the flexibility of the scheduling should accommodate most people so they can continue their daily schedules as close to normal as possible.

On a personal note, I must say she has been very brave and has throughout the whole ordeal kept as the Brits say, a stiff upper lip. I, on the other hand, am damn glad it's over. At least this portion is over. Now she will have to start a pill regimen that is scheduled to last five years with dozens and dozens of side effects. Each person of course is different and what side effects will effect the individual is of course different.


Melissa said...

Go Hazel! I've been thinking of you two.

Bill Crider said...

Glad to hear this good news.

Hazel's Feelings

February 22 was my first radiation treatment appointment. I've never been so scared in all my life. I wanted to bolt out the door, run home, get into my chair, cover up, and never leave the house again. Obviously I did not run away. As my radiation oncologist had promised, the treatments were painless---I survived.

Monday April 12 was my 36th and final treatment. My support person, AKA my loving husband Jim and I had been going there for seven weeks and one day, so I entered with a happy heart knowing that it would finally be over.

Imagine my surprise when the final treatment was over, 'the stiff upper lip' collapsed and upon leaving the building-I burst into tears! Instead of being elated I was depressed the rest of the day and part of Tuesday. Fortunately those 'blues' have gone and 'happy' has returned.

I think it was the stress of coping with a nightmare from Christmas Eve until April 12 was finally set free.



Bill Crider said...

My thoughts are with you. Judy has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, which is incurable. Short-term remission is about the best we can hope for. Yesterday she started chemo for the 4th time. This is a clinical trail that not very many people are involved in, so we don't really know what might happen. Naturally we're hoping for a great result, and for you and Hazel, too.

Anonymous said...

I understand the situation and I wish I could be there with you all the way. CANCER is the nastiest word there is. It puts fear in everyone. It is difficult to put in remission and the treatments to do so are degrading, painful and change your life. I worked in an Oncology office for years, and I saw the bravest and strongest come through the doors and fight like hell to get the demon out of their bodies. I made too many trips to the funeral homes to offer condolences to families who were unbelieving. I went to the bank one day only to have a beautiful young teller come running out to my car and grabbing my neck and crying as they had found another lump. She was terrified.

Then there is my son who at 42 was found to have colorectal cancer and who lost his rectum and will wear a colostomy for the rest of his life. "Why not me God?" I am the old one here. What a terrible thing to do to a beautiful strong young man. The pain has eased somewhat as he is now 5 years out and no sign of metastatic disease. "Praise God".

Be strong my dear cousin. This too will be overcome. I am here always for anything you may need.



Melissa said...

Please keep writing and updating. Not only, I imagine, is it cathartic for you, but it is informative and useful to others. I have not been through this with my spouse but I have, twice, with my mother. Both my 15 year old daughter and my 10 year old son have classmates who are currently undergoing chemo, one for his second go round. None of these instances have been easy. All of them gave rise to the question, "Why them?"

I hope you'll understand when I say that I enjoyed what you have written. And please tell Hazel that I am looking forward to her next recipe being posted. The garlic chicken and sun dried tomato pasta salad is now a staple at our house.

All my best,