What Color is Your Therapy?

Where have all the hummingbirds gone?  Haven’t seen any for several days, and I even put out fresh food. Maybe they’re seduced by this warm weather we have (thumbing my nose at those of you buried under snow!) and believe spring has come.  Perhaps it has. My crocuses and spring cyclamen are blooming.  Not just up, but tricked out in their bright colors. A few really optimistic people have been riding around with their car tops down.

The Zap Count:  13 down, 20 to go.
Oooh, I like these numbers.  Almost half way, and they decrease much more rapidly than did the ones for chemotherapy.

No side effects yet that I can see, though some effects of chemotherapy seem to be hanging around.  I’ve lost all my eyelashes and most of my eyebrows, though, as you’ll see in the photos, my hair is coming back in.  That’s the conundrum: what’s the difference between eyebrow hair and head hair that one should fall out early and the other come back late?

The radiation routine continues as before — drive in, drive out (some day maybe they’ll have drive thru).  I keep trying to distinguish the technicians, but in their white lab coats and flat-ironed hair (some dark, some light), they look alike to me, and they don’t exhibit much personality in the short time I’m on the table.  Polite, yes, and certainly efficient.  But not a lot to hang a conversation on.  The most I’ve learned from them is that I don’t get to take my custom-molded back rest home with me when it’s all over.  Who’d have thought it — a radiation center that‘s ecologically conscious. They *recycle* the rests, deflating them when one patient leaves and reinflating them to suit the new, uh, customers.  So maybe in this realm, there are the 4 Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle for radiation.

On Thursday, I finally made connections with a few other patients.  There was a short backlog in the Fish room, since it’s the day a number of us see the doctor.  There was the woman about my age who comes and goes silently in her hat or headscarf.  We’re aware of each other passing through the rooms but have yet to speak.  The two older gentlemen were also there — the short one well-groomed and fully dressed, the tall scruffy one not at all bothered by the fluttering of the open back of his gown.

But on Thursday, there were two older women sitting in the chairs, looking eager for conversation, so I joined them.  The woman to my right was happy because this was her last week of treatment, and she was planning to celebrate that and her upcoming 80th birthday with a dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory.  She did not appear to be 80, but was a vibrant, energetic woman with many things left to accomplish in her life.  The woman to my left, however, looked every one of her 70-some years, and described how she drives herself 45 minutes each way every day because her husband had a stroke and can’t accompany her.  She complained that the radiation was upsetting her stomach, but was glad she was halfway through.  We all seem to be interested in the numbers.

This week I again saw Dr. R, who took a cursory look to see if there were any skin changes, and then fell into conversation with me. My husband had told me that he speaks Japanese, so I asked about that. Like my children, he is “hafu” (the term the Japanese use for mixed-race people).  His American father, like many soldiers, was stationed in Japan and brought home a Japanese wife. He asked to see photos of my children, out of that fascination we all have about identity and appearance, especially when searching for others like ourselves. Dr. R seems to be straddling a number of cultures.  Before he became a radiation oncologist, he was an engineer working for Exxon.

We talked briefly about the series of articles a couple weeks ago in the New York Times about the problems with radiation therapy.  The impact of the articles has led the American Society of Radiation Oncologists (ASRO) to look into the claims and work to reform practices and eliminate errors. Their current fact sheet helps put the issues into perspective and counteract the fears the Times has raised:  http://www.astro.org/PressRoom/NewsReleases/2010NewsReleases/documents/FactSheet.pdf

I’ve been going back to my earlier interest in the idea of healing vs. cure. A friend loaned me a book about healing with crystals, which also covers the use of color and “chakra energies” for maintaining health (Healing with Crystals and Chakra Energies, by Sue and Simon Lilly). These techniques are categorized in that area known as energy work, along with acupuncture, Reiki, and other approaches.  But as with Western medicine, understanding the dynamics of these modes involves a great deal of complexity.

In the pages of the book, I was hoping to find the magic crystal that would cure all my worries. Among them, there’s black tourmaline for grounding, protection, and to dispel negativity; obsidian for transformation; rose quartz to supply restful sleep; pink kunzite to remove emotional debris; yellow citrine to release fear and clear your thoughts; gold to repair damaged tissue (and maybe damaged bank accounts too?); verdelite to realign body structures; and turquoise to purify, bring joy, and boost the immune system. If I were to get all the stones with the potential to help, I’d need a pickup truck to haul them around.  When in doubt, though, amethyst seems to be the general, all-purpose crystal to rely on.  Rather like taking Tylenol for whatever ails you.

I was particularly interested in the information about color and its use for health.  I like pink, but have always begrudged it being the color assigned to girls from their moment of birth (*my* favorite color is blue!). Appending it to breast cancer only increased my dismay. It seemed that all women and their breasts were to be forever cast in pink.  But as my friend pointed out and the book confirmed, pink turns out to have been a wise choice since it’s a calming color that neutralizes negativity or destructive tendencies, and is a healing color, reducing the effects of disease and the fear it causes.  Deeper shades of pink  have apparently been used in prison cells and police stations to diminish chaos and violence.  So think pink — it’s not just for women anymore.

Other colors have other meanings and uses.  For instance, the book says brown is the color of disguise, to hide the true nature of a person, while grey reflects the desire to project emotional stability and detachment (notice it’s the desire to project them, not the actual qualities themselves).  The book notes that grey is the color favored by managers, businessmen and politicians.  Hm.

The power of color can also be used  for health and development. Color overlays on a book page are used for certain types of dyslexia, and wearing colored lenses can reduce migraines.  Perhaps there’s more than one reason to don rose-colored lenses if you suffer headaches.  Yellow can help students concentrate while studying. These powers of color transfer into food too, so that red foods are eaten for vitality (chocolate is considered a red food), orange foods release stress and promote creativity (eat more carrots!), and blue foods enhance communication. Got a presentation to give?  Eat a handful of blueberries beforehand.

The attached photos show where I am appearance-wise now.  You’ll notice a bit of those thematic colors of pink and grey.

I went through chemo and what I got was this lovely T-shirt.

Hair!

Spike.

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Too Many Drugs and Mysteries

Started off in a low mood today. It’s grey November. I’ve grown tired of the intrusion of this illness into my life and that sense of just not feeling right.  Nothing wrong on a big scale, but not feeling right either.  The ongoing discomfort under the left arm and the time spent in physical therapy. The dry ticklish cough that comes on at odd times and then mysteriously disappears. The slight ache in my neck and shoulders that comes and goes as well. The continuing anemia that forces the body to slow the pace the mind sets. The oozing blood that clots my nose, and then stops.  As Paul Simon sang it in my ear during infusion:  “I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.” (That was after Phil Collins, from his Genesis days, singing “I Can’t Dance” and Bette Midler crooning “Am I Blue.”)

And then there’s the burden of all the ancillary drugs to counteract the side effects of the Taxol. For the one cancer drug infusion, there are 4 “pre-emptive” drugs beforehand: Zofran to prevent nausea, Zantac for the tummy, Claritin to prevent allergic reactions, and of course the happy steroids, which I have come to both anticipate, for the lift they provide, and dread, for the later crash.  Then there are the 10 supplements and 2 drugs at home during the week, including Vit. D, fish oil, CoQ10 for energy and the heart, a probiotic supplement for digestion, the glutamine to prevent neuropathy (along with the ice-water finger soaks, it seems to be working), the Neupogen, and the Ativan at night.

When I counted it all out for the naturopath last week, commenting on the supplement-to-Taxol ratio, he grinned widely and said, “That’s the way I like it!”  They may be natural substances, but they can be prescribed just as quickly and heavily as synthetics from the Western practitioners.

This better all be temporary.

My white cell count is a robust 8.7 (normal range, 4-11), but it’s now time to keep an eye on those red cells.  The normal range is 3.8 to 5.2.  My total has been hovering just above 2 (2.25 this week, 2.17 last week).  The key subset  of this count is the hemoglobin, with a normal range of 11.6-18.5.  Today’s number is 8.4, eight being the threshold for a decision to bolster the red cells.  If the hemoglobin drops below 8, they usually recommend supplementing the cells. Used to be they’d use an injection called ProCrit, but a few recent reports have shown a possible connection to recurrence in patients with colon and breast cancer. The alternate method to bolster the cells is with a transfusion.  So I’m trying to race time a bit here.  With 5 more Taxol infusions to go, I’m hoping the red cells hold steady and I can avoid doing anything invasive to support them.  The naturopath has loaded on a few more supplements (Vit. B6, B12, folic acid, and protein powder, rounding out that total of 10) to try to stop the downfall. It might be working.  Last week’s hemoglobin count was 8.2.

BUT, I can still walk at a pace that my children have trouble keeping up with, so, as Tony Bennet and k.d. lang sang in my ear from my iPod:  “I ain’t down yet.” And even though I’m having to supplement my eyebrows with some pencil lines now, I still look (ha!)  MAHvellous. (Especially in my blue fuzzy hat, which gives my head the shape of a gumdrop.  My daughter likes to come pet my head when I wear it.  I can’t understand why dogs like to be pet on the head.)

OK, OK, I know you’re all looking for it.

The Popsicle Report: I needed comfort food today.  Blueberry-lemon.

The grand tree outside the infusion center window has surrendered its leaves, and shows only its blanket of moss on the grey bark against the grey sky.  As I waited for the blood counts to come back, I noticed the woman across from me, getting ready to have her chest port accessed for her blood draw.  She took the characteristic pose, hands pulling down her shirt to expose the spot on her chest where the port is implanted.  On me, the port protrudes like an odd rock embedded beneath the skin.  On people, uh, better endowed, like this woman, the patient has to point out for the nurse where the port is located. This woman’s posture brought to mind those church paintings of Christ pointing to his sacred heart that I remember from my childhood. (And the way this port sometimes irritates my chest wall makes me think it’s bound in thorns.)

Then I noticed the tall distinguished man poised over the table where the puzzles are, working the pieces into place. Next to him stood his personal IV machine, which he had wheeled over from his assigned Barcalounger in another pod.  Meanwhile, the nurse worked her way around my pod, bringing her tray of cocktails, those little plastic cups with the pre-emptive meds. I wished mine contained shots of vodka instead of the steroids and Claritin, but then I figured the vodka probably wouldn’t taste right. Not even chocolate tastes right now.

As I sat observing my surroundings, I twirled the end of my pen against my temple, rather like Dumbledore and Snape in the Harry Potter books, when they wanted to remove certain thoughts and memories from their brains to be set aside in the pensieve for later viewing.  Wouldn’t that be a great trick — removing the swirling thoughts that clutter up our brains, to be kept for later or thrown out altogether.  (If you’re a fan of puppets, Harry Potter, rhythmic chant, or just general silliness, take a look at one of the Potter Pal videos on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tx1XIm6q4r4.)

I turned up the volume on the iPod today to drown out the the snarls, moans and beeps of the numerous IV machines.  ‘Twas much more pleasant to listen to The Crusaders, some Brahms liebeslieder waltzes, the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It to the Streets,” Norah Jones, David Byrne (Rei Momo, his Brazilian-inflected album), Angelique Kidjo (African folk singer) backed by Carlos Santana, Nina Simone’s “Four Women”, and — had to get there eventually — the Beatles’ “My Life.”  If you haven’t seen it yet, Chris Bliss does a MAHvelous juggling routine to a Beatles tune: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8f8drk5Urw

In my continuing search for meaning in this whole experience, I’ve been wondering if there’s a difference between cure and healing.  We hear lots about walking, running, racing for “the cure.” Since there are about half a dozen different types of breast cancer, it seems foolish to think there’s only one cure. My docs says we’re aiming to cure my cancer, though I don’t know how you can really be sure you’re cured except in hindsight many years later.

Dictionaries pretty much equate the terms “cure” and “healing” but the self-help literature seems to distinguish the two, with cure referring specifically to the scientific, medical process, and healing to the psychological realm.  Several of the books I’ve encountered take up the mind-body connection and speak of healing as ridding yourself of the mental burdens that led to your illness. In other words, they imply that we are responsible for developing whatever ails us.  Bernie Siegel went so far as to define a “cancer personality” — someone likely to develop cancer because of their inward characteristics and history. Caroline Myss, a “medical intuitive” and healer who wrote the once-bestselling “Anatomy of the Spirit,” goes so far as to say that people develop cancer because of unresolved issues from their lives, and specifically that women develop breast cancer for lack of nurturing themselves. There are a surprising number of people who subscribe to these ways of thinking.  (I believe it’s called “blame the victim.”)

Like those lists of risk factors for breast cancer, these descriptions don’t fit me very well either.  I don’t have psychological baggage left from childhood (unless you count having to eat liver and onions), and have not suffered great traumatic experiences that have crippled me (yes, I am indeed lucky).  If you follow Myss’ logic and look at the numbers of women who develop breast cancer (that popular 1 in 8), it would seem that a whole lot of us women need to be doing a whole lot more to nurture ourselves, and in Asian countries, where women are expected to give up themselves for their families, the rates of breast cancer should be higher than here, when indeed they are lower.

As it turns out, Bernie Siegel later retracted his definition of the cancer personality, and Caroline Myss, who now bills herself a mystic, wrote another book in which she admits that, indeed, no matter what some people try, they don’t heal (and some actually choose not to), and things like genetics and environmental influences do play a role. Her current stance on the matter seems to be — pray.

Nothing terribly mystical about that.